Drawing of the Ramsund carving from c. 1030, illustrating the Völsunga saga on a rock in Sweden. Source: Wikipedia

Werewolves – a Key to understand the Old Norse World of Wilderness?

The Old Norse idea of wilderness, landscapes and human beings differed radically from that of Latin and Christian Europe. A new study of ten narratives about wolves in the Old Norse-Icelandic poems, sagas and other texts offers valuable insights into this half-forgotten and complex world

Werewolves in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature. Between the Monster and the Man
By Minjie Su
Brepols 2023


Cover were wolves Brepols 2023At the heart of any story of metamorphosis or shapeshifting lies the issue of identity, and the tales of the werewolf (lit. ‘man-wolf’) is just as much about the wolf as about the man. What are the constituents of the human in general? What symbolic significance do they hold? How do they differ for different types of human persons? How would it affect the individual if one or more of these elements were to be subtracted?

Focusing on a select group of Old Norse-Icelandic (were)wolf narratives – the Vǫlsunga saga, Gibbons saga, Sigrgarðs saga frækna, Sigrgarðs saga ok Valbrands, Ála Flekks saga, Úlfhams rímur, Tiodielis saga, Jóns saga leikara, and, on the Norwegian side, Bisclaretz ljóð and a short episode in Konungs skuggsjá this insightful book sets out to answer these questions by exploring how these texts understood and conceptualized what it meant to be human. At the heart of this investigation are five factors key to the werewolf existence or experience —skin, clothing, food, landscape, and purpose — and these are innovatively examined through a cross-disciplinary approach that carefully teases apart the interaction between two polarizations: the external and social, and the interior and psychological. 

Through this approach, the volume presents a comprehensive new look at the werewolf not only as a supernatural creature and a literary motif, but also as a metaphor that bears on the relationship between human and non-human, between Self and Other. Moreover, this approach makes it possible to situate the Old Norse texts into a broader intellectual discourse that extends beyond medieval Iceland and Norway.



    Werewolves in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature

    Werewolves in the Franco-Latin Tradition

    Texts in Focus

    Goals and Structure

Chapter 1: Þeir fóru í hamina 

The Werewolf’s Skin

    The Skin’s Position in Werewolf Literature

    The Skin’s Position in the Appearance-Essence Binary

    The Skin of the Old Norse-Icelandic Werewolves

    Ála flekks saga: A Case Study

    From lupus to leprosus

Chapter 2: Klæddr eða Nokkuiðr

The Werewolf’s Clothing and the She-Wolf

    The Clothes–Body Dynamics: The Man-Wolf

    The Clothes–Body Dynamics: The Metaphorical She-Wolf

    Dress: Definition, Classification, Function

    From Naked to Clothed: The Knight

    From Clothed to Naked: The Lady

Chapter 3: Et ek þeirra hold

The Werewolf’s Food and Food Taboo

    What and How Does a Wolf Eat?

    Food and Taboo: What Werewolf Does or Does not Eat

    Tabooed Food and Tabooed Sex: The She-Wolf’s Appetite

    The Scale of the Werewolf’s (Possible) Food: The Acceptable

    The Point of No Return: Human and Horse Flesh

Chapter 4: Á skóg með hryggðum

The Werewolf’s Landscape and Mindscape

    Theories and Tools: The Foundation

    Mapping the Werewolf’s Mindscape: An Overview

    Úlfhams rímur: A Tale of Generations

    Úlfhams rímur: Dark Land, Dark Mind

Chapter 5: From Monstratus to Monstrare

The Werewolf’s Purpose

    Classification of the Characters

    (Were)wolf as Learner: monstratus

    The Disguised Hero as Learner/monstratus, or the Werewolf’s Pupil

    Wolf as Teacher: monstrare

    The Konungs skuggsjá Werewolves: The Foundations

    The Konungs skuggsjá Werewolves: Teaching (of) the wolf


What Can We Learn from the Wolf?


Drawing of the Ramsund carving from c. 1030, illustrating the Völsunga saga on a rock in Sweden. Source: Wikipedia





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