Hadvor: Buried Alive with a Hungry Corpse

As promised, I’m returning to the tales I introduced in my last post, starting with the story of Hermod and Hadvor.

With this story, my main interest is in the cultural practices (fostering, inheritance, capital punishment) and mythological creatures (witches, giants, trolls, norns) it portrays. Of course I fell into a huge research hole, and realized that I’ll have to pick just a couple topics and/or break it up to avoid monster, rambling posts.

So I thought I’d start my climb out of this research hole, fittingly, with the topic of live burial, which Hadvor was subjected to for murdering her husband-to-be, an evil giant in disguise.

But first, a brief history lesson. (Really brief. Four sentences.)

Iceland was first settled in the 9th century by Vikings, who were a Scandinavian seafaring people originating from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Most settlers, who arrived in a period between 870-930, were from Norway.

In 930, the settlers’ chieftains created the Althing, one of the world’s oldest parliaments. However, from 1262-1944, Iceland was ruled first by Norway, then Denmark, before becoming the Republic of Iceland.

Why am I telling you this? Mainly because I knew nothing about Iceland’s history before researching the tale of Hermod and Hadvor, and I thought I’d share a little of the background with you. I was originally looking for earlier versions of the tale or other appearances of similar motifs/characters/creatures, so it’s useful to know that Icelandic oral traditions were influenced/drawn from Norwegian, Danish, and other cultures.

Female Criminals and Live Burial

Of course, I wondered why the heck Hadvor’s father would have her buried alive, even believing she had murdered her husband. Executing a murderer is one thing. But live burial seemed a bit much.

I had to ask: Was this based on actual events?

Why, yes, it was.

As it turns out, live burial (aka premature burial or vivisepulture) has a rich, multicultural history as an execution method for female criminals. For example, during the reign of Queen Margaret I (who ruled Denmark and, by extension, Iceland at the time), adulterous women were punished with live burial. It was also used, at various times and in various places, as a punishment for thievery, murder (infanticide, murder of an employer, etc.), breaking of chastity vows, and heresy.

Christine Ekholst, in her book A Punishment for Each Criminal: Gender and Crime in Swedish Medieval Law, touches on the forms of punishment in various Scandinavian countries, and how they varied depending on the gender of the criminal. When the death penalty was required, she says, men were broken on the wheel or hanged (or, if they were lucky, beheaded), while women were buried alive, stoned, or burned at the stake.

Ekholst discusses a few theories for this division of penalties. She first proposes that it was related to medieval ideas of “female honour,” a concept attached the the female body and decency. By this reasoning, it was seen as more indecent to kill a woman by hanging, which was itself considered a more shameful death than live burial. The hanged bodies of men, on the other hand, were deliberately left on the gallows after their death as a warning to others.

But Ekholst also cites a counterpoint from Esther Cohen, who argues that at the time concerns about “decency” and the female body weren’t the problem, so much as the fear of the evil contained in the corpse of female criminal. Cohen’s view is that, because women at the time were thought of as naturally “impure and dangerous,” a female criminal was even more so, and her corpse was destroyed so it couldn’t come back to terrorize the living.

Neither reason is flattering to women, exactly, but the second one is pretty metal.

Even though I found historical precedent for live burial as punishment,  I couldn’t find a specific instance, real or fictional, where a murderess is interred alive with her victim’s corpse. I did, however, find this tale of a man who comes away an ear and a cheek short after sitting watch in the tomb of his dead(ish) friend. Hadvor herself barely escapes the grave, even after sacrificing one of her hands to the reanimated corpse of her would-be husband.

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