The Tale of Thorstein Shiver: Hell Confirmed for Pagans during Iceland Saga Age
Short and succinct, the tale of Thorstein Shiver is one of the more comedic sagas and can be interpreted in at least two different ways: as religious or cultural propaganda. The saga tells the brief story of Thorstein's encounter with a demon from Hell, amusing in its treatment of both the demon and two characters who have been damned. Though it is a very short saga, the tale of Thorstein Shiver promotes Christian ideology attempted to be implemented by Olaf Tryggvason by depicting him as a compassionate leader and using the character of the demon to confirm the Christian perception of Hell.
Museum in Reykjavik contains figures like these which tell the history of early Iceland - the saga age. Shadowgate/Flickr
The story opens with a description of the Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason and the highlighting of Thorstein Thorkelsson as an Icelandic man traveling with the king and his company. As Olaf was traveling in the region of Vik, Thorstein found himself staying on a farm in Reim for the night. Olaf commanded that all his men stay together if a need arose to go to the privy in the middle of the night. Travel in pairs, the king ordered, or else each transgressor would be found guilty of disobeying their king.
Illustration, King Olaf I of Norway. Public Domain
Thorstein, as one would expect, was the sole man to awaken in the middle of the night needing to relieve himself. Ignoring the king's orders, he went to the relief chamber alone and was almost immediately confronted by a demon. A very calm, relaxed discussion between the two began.
Thorstein asked who the demon was: a man called Thorkel the Thin, who supposedly died on the battlefield against a king named Harald War-Tooth. However, never in the text is he directly referred to as Thorkel the Thin except when he introduces himself.
Thorstein asked the demon a series of questions about the conditions of Hell and the people who are condemned there. The demon told Thorstein about two particular people in Hell: the one who suffers the most and the one who deals with suffering the worst.
The former award went to Sigurd Fafnirsson, the dragon slayer from the Volsunga Saga. He was named such for slaying the serpent Fafnir at the behest of his foster-father Regin, and later went on to love the Valkyrie Brunhild before losing his life at her hands when a potion forced him to forget her. Upon his death, he passed into Hell and became—according to the demon—both the kindle and kindling for the fire in a very large oven.
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The second person the demon discusses is a man called Starkad the Old, who committed as many good deeds as crimes. Starkad is also documented in Gautrek's Saga as having sacrificed King Vikar after a succession of lots decided that Vikar was requested by Odin as a sacrifice. Though Starkad initially was not going to sacrifice his king, Odin met with him in person and made the appeal, thus Starkad saw it through.
The demon tells that Starkad's punishment in Hell is to be immersed up to his ankles in fire, a fate not so awful until the demon admits to Thorstein that Starkad hangs upside down, his screams a torment to all other members of Hell. Thorstein requests to hear such a scream, the worst of Starkad's, and passes out from the sheer horror of it. The demon finally left Thorstein in peace when a church bell tolled, startling both himself and Thorstein.
The next morning, Thorstein confessed his ill-doing to the king, afraid of what would happen if he was found out without confessing. He also wanted to share his bizarre experience. Olaf forgave Thorstein's disobedience and informed him that Olaf already knew of the demon, and that it was Olaf himself who commanded the church bells rung, as he did not believe the demon would otherwise leave Thorstein alone.
Thorstein, however, claimed that the demon had not frightened him as Olaf believed. There had been no fear in Thorstein's heart, he told his leader, merely a small shiver up his spine at the screams the demon produced. It was then that Olaf dubbed Thorstein as Thorstein the Shiver, a comment on his bravery far surpassing those of the Norwegians, and the tale comes to a dénouement.
From the Grettis Saga: Grettir is ready to fight in this illustration from a 17th-century Icelandic manuscript. Public Domain
Closer examination of this tale, however, reveals the political and religious promotion earlier referenced. It is evident that the author was attempting to reveal the success of Olaf Tryggvason’s conversions, as the Icelander Thorstein did not argue Olaf’s comments about Hell, but rather agreed with it. The indication that there is suffering in Hell was a highly Christian idea; before the coming of this new faith, Hel was only one of the places where mankind went after death, and it was not always terrifying. Indeed, it was similar to the Greek idea that Hades was the place where all the dead went; the Elysian Fields was a small portion of the underworld where the good souls enjoyed their afterlife. Or, in the Norse cosmos, the fallen warriors went to Valhalla, to train and wait for the final battle known as Ragnarök.
In addition to this, the characters the author chose to discuss as dwelling in Hell were two pre-Christian heroes—Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer was beloved by a Valkyrie of Odin’s, and Starkad the Old was considered in various texts as being part giant. By describing these two people's experiences in Hell to Thorstein, the demon symbolically cements that all pre-Christian ideas were false.
Despite the conciseness of the tale of Thorstein Shiver, it was cleverly executed to confirm uncertain Christian ideas for the period the text discusses. The date of the manuscript encompasses an already Christian era, but the date that is depicted is considered the bridge between the Christian and pre-Christian faiths—as Olaf Tryggvason himself was one of the most successful converters despite his tactics. The conversation between Thorstein and demon seamlessly aligns to insinuate to medieval readers that their perception of Hell was accurate, thereby solidifying their newly adopted worldview as the true faith to follow.
Detail of a miniature from a 13th-century Icelandic manuscript. Public Domain
Featured image: Photo of Viking figures before a great fire. Would flames await Pagans in Hell? Pure Calamity/Flickr
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Thomas D. Hill. "Gestr's 'Prime Sign': Source and Signification in Norna-Gests þáttr." Arkiv for Nordisk Filologi 104 (1989): 103-22.
Neil Price, The Viking World (Routledge: London, 2008.)
Alexandra Sanmark. Power and conversion: a comparative study of Christianization in Scandinavia; Uppsala (Department of Archaeology and Ancient History: Uppsala University, 2002.)
Unknown. Seven Viking Romances. Trans. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards (London: Penguin, 1985.)
By Ryan Stone