The end of Árna saga biskups and the cult of St Magnús of Orkney

Hagiography and ecclesiastical politics in early fourteenth-century Iceland

  • Haki Antonsson


This article begins by focusing on the final chapter of Árna saga biskups, specifically chapter 147 found in the saga’s modern edition. This chapter is only present in a single transcript of the saga, originating from a lost portion of Reykjafjarðarbók. It narrates the events leading to the death of Provost Þorvaldr Helgason in 1290. The account follows his journey to Norway, where he encountered demonic possession. He received temporary relief from this affliction in the Faroes Isles, thanks to the intervention of St Magnús of Orkney and the Virgin Mary, within a church dedicated to St Magnús. However, Þorvaldr’s condition worsened, leading to his demise in Norway. The saga implies a connection between Þorvaldr’s fate and his betrayal of Bishop Árni Þorláksson’s efforts for the Church’s interests during the Staðamál.
St Magnús of Orkney plays a significant role in this narrative. The article contends that his role aligns with the promotion of the Orkney martyr’s cult by the Skálholt bishopric, likely during the time when Árna saga biskups was composed – either in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. This promotion probably included the crafting of Magnúss saga lengri (‘The Longer Magnúss Saga’) within the same context. Further, the article argues that the interest in St Magnús is tied to his association with the Church and its freedoms. This connection can be traced back to a twelfth-century Latin Life of St Magnús, which was influenced by the biographies of Thomas Becket, especially his martyrdom in defence of the Church. The article also identifies echoes of the Becket corpus in Árna saga, which is unsurprising given the saga’s subject matter and the prominence of the Canterbury martyr within Icelandic clerical circles.
Previous research suggests that the original saga likely concluded in 1290, eight years prior to the central character’s death. However, the exact reasons for this ending remain uncertain. This article reveals how this seemingly insignificant concluding episode to Árna saga biskups combines significant religious and intellectual elements in a manner that the saga’s early audience would have understood. This case study underscores the adaptable and allusively fertile nature of the hagiographic tradition to address contemporary concerns.