Fear, superstition and bargaining: A curse as a threat in old norse literature
The power of words is a special topic in the Old Norse-Icelandic
literature. The extant corpus, including prose and prosimetric sagas as well as
poetry, creates an impression of a culture in which language was both respected
and feared. Those who knew their way with words could exercise power over both
human and supernatural characters of myths, legends and sagas. Among the ways
to use words a prominent place is taken up by curses, especially the versified ones.
The variety of sources in which the curses are found – ranging from medieval
sagas to later folktales – and the diverse social roles of the speakers as well as the
addressees of the curses are briefly discussed in the introduction to this paper.
However, curses did not always have to be fulfilled in order to be effective. The
main question to be addressed in the present paper is, whether the very belief
in the power of words – and specifically of the versified curses – could give a
clever magician or witch a chance to bend someone to their will with a mere
threat of a curse. The rules of an effective curse-threat and the role of various
elements – such as supernatural creatures and runic inscriptions – are taken into
account in this discussion. The two specific cases explored here are Skírnismál,
a poem about gods and other supernatural creatures from the Elder Edda, and
Busluboen, a curse extant in Bósa saga ok Herrauðs – a legendary saga about
human kings and heroes.