The Wolf and the Outlaw in Medieval Iceland

“The wolf, as with other animals, is both an active agent and passive slate upon which humans scratch and erase meaning” –  Aleksander Pluskowski

References to wolves in saga literature are almost always constructed in reference or relation to human characters. In this way, the concept of the literary wolf is undoubtedly shaped in response to people. In return, the wolf seems to occupy liminal spaces that humans do not and indeed can even turn man ‘wolfish’.

What it means for saga characters to be in a state of “úlfshug” [wolfishness] is not a collection of ecological similarities – rather it is a construction of human traits that are considered ‘wild’ or dangerous and so must belong to the periphery.

One of the greatest punishments offered by medieval Icelandic law is skóggangr, or ‘full outlawry’, whereby an individual is expelled from society. Literally translated as ‘forest-going’, outlaws are banished to the periphery of society. This renders them incapable of further violence or hostility and impeding their potential to disrupt the ‘social’ core.

Beyond the metaphorical association between wolves and human ill-intent or criminal activity, wolves and criminals share linguistic space. Vargr is the Old Norse term for both ‘wolf’ and ‘outlaw’. Grágás, the Icelandic law-codes, states:

“hann skal sva vida vargr heita, sem vidast er verold byggd, ok vera hvarvetna raekr ok rekinn um allan heim”
he shall be known as a wolf, as widely as the world is inhabited, and be rejected everywhere and be driven away throughout all the world

This elision is understandable, perhaps, as both an outlaw and a wolf may steal or kill your livestock. Similarly, the forest is traditionally depicted as the home of the wolf and so the term skóggangr reinforces this association.

Kirsten Hastrup convincingly interprets medieval Icelandic outlaws being “absorbed into ‘the wild’, actually and conceptually”. She makes clear that

“In Iceland ‘the social’ was coterminous with ‘the law’…By logical inference, ‘the wild’ in medieval Iceland was coterminous with ‘non-law’, that is, everything outside social control.”

There is an obvious recognition of ‘non-society’ with the natural wild in a medieval Icelandic worldview, mapped onto the language of outlawry.

Much critical ink has been spilled interrogating the relationship between the Íslendingasǫgur and the medieval Icelandic landscape. Arguably, the modern critical impulse is to consider culture as inward, human and separate to nature. There has been much work done to try and break down this anthropocentric boundary.

Simply put, landscape and human life are more tightly bound in the Íslendingasǫgur. Land and law are undeniably intertwined in Old Norse culture, a relationship which manifests in the written culture of the Icelandic sagas. Understanding this connection can help us better understand the connection between humankind, wolves and the wilderness in these texts.

This relationship between wilderness, wolves and outlawry is perhaps most vividly demonstrated in Grettis saga. As Emily Lethbridge states, “There are probably more place-names around Iceland — rocks, caves, other landscape features — with [Grettir’s] name in them than any other character in the sagas. Many of these commemorate moments or episodes during his long period as an outlaw”.

The socio-legal transformation of the medieval criminal into a wolf is also evident in this saga. In reference to Grettir, the saga declares

“Sǫgðu þeir heraðsmǫnnum, hverr vargr kominn var í eyna”
They told the men of the district that a wolf was now on the island

This line comes at the point in the saga where Grettir, an established outlaw, takes refuge on Drangey. Grettir has literally become a wolf in the eyes of the law and the other Icelanders, stalking the landscape in a way that real medieval wolves did not.

Drangey-Grettir-saga-Lethbridge.jpg
The southern end of Drangey
Photo credit: Emily Lethbridge

Criminals in Old Norse literature have also been known to adopt animal names in an effort to avoid detection. Wolf names in particular were frequently adopted by assassins, as wolves were considered more dangerous animals.

One good example of this assumption a ‘wolfish’ appellations can be read in Egils saga:

“Ok er Egill var á brottu þá kallaði jarl til sín brœðr tvá er hvárrtveggi hét Úlfr.”  Once Egil had left, the earl called in two brothers, both of them named Ulf

The two men named Úlfr are employed by the earl in order to prevent Egill returning to the king and defaming the earl. This scene corroborates with Pluskowski’s belief that assassins adopted wolf names; it does not seem insignificant that both the brothers take on the same ‘wolfish’ name.

Interestingly, the assassins seem to take on more ‘wolfish’ traits than merely their names:

“fóru þeir á skóginn ok kunnu þeir þar hvern stíg fyrir; heldu þeir þá njósn um ferð Egils.”
They entered the forest, where they were familiar with every trail, and kept watch for Egill’s movements

This familiarity with the forest and the sense of tracking Egill’s movements resonates with the idea of the wolf as a predator, tracking their prey through the trees.

Both wolves and outlaws are absorbed by the same ‘wild’ periphery, sharing physical and conceptual space. They hold the same legal identity in medieval Iceland, and as such are subject to the same depersonalisation and marginalisation.

The perception of the wolf as a dangerous criminal is clearly not unique to our modern sensibilities. Interestingly, the bio-archaeological record confirms that no wolves have ever existed in Iceland. On the contrary, outlaws certainly existed; thus it is the human ‘wolf’ who poses the real threat as the symbolic wolf overshadows ecological reality.


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