The Role of Dreams and Magic in a Developing Christian Society

Known as an outlaw, Gisli Sursson’s societal position in the eyes of the law influence the role of magic in his saga. His given outlaw status shifts the type of magic he practices from prophetic to nightly torment from the dream women. In using the reoccurring dream women as a conduit, Gisli Sursson’s dreams shift from being prophetic to depicting the ideals of a Christian afterlife based on his position in society. The dream women’s respective embodiments of the pagan and Christian religion serve to further illustrate the positive role of lawful contractual and unwilling magic while damning other instances of magic and their ties to paganism. Finally, this contractual definition of good magic mirrors Gisli’s position in society and influences his propensity towards paganism and the evil dream woman.

The self-described differentiation between the good dream woman and the evil dream woman asserts Christianity over paganism as the “good” religion. Christopher Crocker argues that the dream women develop this “spiritual conflict between good and evil” (Crocker 16), however, overstates that their overarching purpose is to develop a “readable map of [Gisli’s] psyche” (Crocker 19).  The evil dream woman’s desire to “smear [Gisli] with gore, bathe him in sacrificial blood and act in a foul manner” is referential to pagan rites (43). A pagan deal made in blood opened the saga when Thorgrim, Vestein, Thorkel, and Gisli “drew blood and let it drip down on to the soil beneath the turf strip and stirred it together” (11). They “called on all the gods as their witnesses” and in swearing to avenge each other, put in motion the pagan ritual which Gisli follows throughout the narrative and ultimately outlaws him (11). The evil dream woman’s emphasis on violence and blood develops her representation of paganism while the good dream woman’s promise of a paradise of “wealth and great happiness” in the afterlife (55) and advice to “stop following the old faith” (40) indicates Christianity. Although Crocker interpreted the dream women similarly, they play a vital role in understanding the tensions between paganism and the rise of Christianity, a complex issue more prevalent in the text than Crocker’s psychoanalytic interpretation.

The dream women do not appear in the text until after Gisli’ s named and outlaw and they proceed to fight for his sentiments. The earliest instance of magic Gisli is suspect to is the night of Vestein’s slaying. His dream was of a prophetic nature and he did not speak of it on the grounds that he “’didn’t want it to come true’”(23). The secret prophecies before his outlaw title juxtaposed with the open descriptions of his dreams after his crime develop in him an already contrasting personality. Lars Lönnroth established the idea of the “noble heathen” in Icelandic Sagas, it is a hero characterized by “their unwillingness to let themselves be rushed into violent action” (Lönnroth 3). In this regard, Gisli fits the mold exquisitely at the start of his saga. His unwillingness for his dream to come true is also perceived as an avoidance of violence on his part. Lönnroth goes on to complicate the “noble heathen” as one who is shepherding in the Christian faith yet retaining enough pagan values to emphasize the difference, but Gisli fails this definition because “the hero should never have been in close contact with the Christian faith” (Lönnroth 3). If it were not for the good dream woman consistently in his head, Gisli could be considered a noble heathen, but his unwilling subjugation to the invasive magic of the women disqualify him.

Conversely, Thorgrim Nef embodies the idea that active magic is evil, unless it has a contractual and just motive. He is introduced as “the worst kind of sorcerer imaginable”, a statement which in itself suggests the possibility of good magic (20). Despite the perversity of his “obscene and black art”, the curse he places on Gisli is born from a contract made with Bork to catch Vestein’s killer, a just end in the eyes of the law (30). The only repercussion Thorgrim Nef faces for this particular act of magic is Gisli stoning him to death, however, death at the hands of an angry outlaw does not equate the actions of the sorcerer to an act of pure evil. Richard Kieckhefer argues that magic was thought of as “neither rational nor irrational” in medieval society but rather a marriage of science and religion (Kieckhefer 814). Kieckhefer complicates the idea of evil magic in Gisli Sursson’s Saga in this instance by arguing the active role of Christianity aiding in defining magic. Despite the religious aspects of magic, the pair remains at odds in the text. The dream women create in Gisli a complex fight between paganism and Christianity, and Gisli having Thorgrim Nef “stoned to death” eliminates a major force of paganism in the saga (33). The death of “the worst sorcerer imaginable” is a small victory for Christianity despite its basis in murder.

Contractual obligations in Gisli’s society develop the dichotomy of good versus evil and relate directly to the appearance of the dream women. Gisli Sursson cultivated his own land and was “a skilled craftsman with many talents” (13), a description that is echoed through calling him a “superior craftsman” during his time with Ingjald (45); during both of these moments, Gisli is not plagued by the dream women. The dream women appear for the first time immediately after he is outlawed. Gisli describes to Aud “’the two women that I dream of’” (39) in the chapter immediately following Thorkel the Wealthy meeting “Gisli to tell him that he had been outlawed” (37). Once Gisli leaves mainland and flees to the islands, he finds aid in Ingjald and builds him “a boat and many other things”, consequently his dream women do not appear in his dreams for three years (45). Since Gisli entered a contract with Ingjald, he was able to hide with him and in return he offered his superior craftsmanship. Much like his time on his farm, Gisli’s contractual obligation to Ingjald developed a society in which he belonged, on the island he was no longer an outlaw. Although Nef’s magic is physically unable to reach Gisli on the island due to the specificity of the curse confining it to the “mainland”, the apparent relationship between dream women plaguing Gisli’s dreams and him belonging in a society is explicit (48). In this regard, all magic was unable to reach him once he was reintroduced to society.

The relationship between magic and Gisli’s position in society relies on Gisli upholding a contractual role in a willing society, which he loses and, as a result, he develops a propensity towards paganism and the evil dream woman. As Gisli’s dreams “grew more frequent” and troublesome, he took a stick “on which he scored runes” (64). Runes are a major pagan cultural practice which often yield magical results. In his time of need, Gisli turned back to the “old faith” the good dream woman warned him to turn away from (40).

Anders Andrén writes “rune-stones [create] a memorial web of thousands of persons in the late Viking Age” and the connection between Gisli physically carving runes into a stick and assuming a place in society are tied through Andrén’s claim (267). At the beginning of Gisli’s Saga, before he becomes an outlaw, Gisli “built a farm there at which they lived from that time on”, he literally established his place in the mainland’s society by building a home (6). Later on, Gisli creates a newfound place in society through building Ingjald “a boat and many other things”(45), and Gisli scoring runes into a stick is yet another instance of him using craftsmanship to participate in society. The magical implications of the sleep spell he cast with the rune-stick not only connect him to the pagan society who follow the same practices, but also serve to turn him away from the good dream women and consequently, Christianity. Gisli Sursson’s role in society derived from his skills as a “craftsman with many talents” (13), in instances where he was able to create a craft, such as a farm, a rune-stick, or a boat, he is able to find a place in society, despite his outlaw status. In carving into a rune-stick, he also physically creates a connection between him and the pagan society the good dream woman is trying to turn him away from. He is able to live peacefully with Ingjald on an island because he exchanges his goods for shelter and protection. Even as an outlaw, establishing this trade of goods and services allows Gisli to once again occupy a role in society.

The role of dreams and magic in Gisli Sursson’s Saga is to differentiate between good and evil. Gisli’s subjectivity to the invasive magic of the dream women create in him a battle between Christianity and paganism. His status as an outlaw forces him to be an outsider where he grows increasingly more susceptible to magic until he locates a new society to live in. On account of this, Gisli’s position in society is directly linked to the magic he experiences and his craftsmanship. His crafts enable him to participate in society since it is through building that Gisli finds or creates a public role. The shift from prophetic to dream women magic Gisli experiences serves to illustrate the battle between Christianity and paganism through one character, however with the conversion of his wife and friend at the end of the saga, it is easy to see that the dream women are analogous to a society also torn between the religions.


Works Cited

Andrén, Anders. “Places, Monuments, and Objects: The Past in Ancient Scandinavia.” Scandinavian Studies, vol. 85, no. 3, 2013, pp. 267–281. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Crocker, Christopher. “All I Do the Whole Night Through: On the Dreams of Gísli Súrsson.” Scandinavian Studies, vol. 84, no. 2, 2012, pp. 143–162. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Kieckhefer, Richard. “The Specific Rationality of Medieval Magic.” The American Historical Review, vol. 99, no. 3, 1994, pp. 813–836. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Lönnroth, Lars. “THE NOBLE HEATHEN: A THEME IN THE SAGAS.” Scandinavian Studies, vol. 41, no. 1, 1969, pp. 1–29. JSTOR, JSTOR,

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