Háa-Þóra and Þorgerður Hölgabrúður

  • Haukur Þorgeirsson


The Icelandic game of Háa-Þóra (Tall Þóra) is alluded to in a late seventeenth-century source, and a reasonably detailed description of it survives in the eighteenth-century Niðurraðan. A man is dressed up to represent an immensely tall woman, carrying a pole with a woman’s headdress and scarf. This “Tall Þóra” is referred to as a goð in Niðurraðan, a word which refers to pagan gods and idols of pagan gods. Þóra joins the party of revellers as quietly as possible, but once she is in position, a great ruckus ensues as Þóra attacks the guests and in particular the lead singer. Eventually Þóra retreats from the party with her clothes in disarray.
Medieval Icelandic sources record a goddess or ogress with similarities to HáaÞóra, namely Þorgerðr Hǫlgabrúðr. (a) She is noted for her tallness in the First Grammatical Treatise and in Njáls saga. (b) In the Gesta Danorum she is seemingly referred to as Thora. (c) Njáls saga mentions an idol of Þorgerðr having a headdress. (d) The Great Saga of Óláfr Tryggvason tells of a female troll who surreptitiously enters a game played by the king’s men. She behaves violently until she is eventually defeated and forced to retreat by an unnamed man, presumably the king himself. This female troll introduces herself as a friend of Hákon jarl and a recipient of his gifts – she is presumably Þorgerðr Hǫlgabrúðr. The game of Háa-Þóra might be based on an idea similar to this scene in the saga, as a re-enactment of the defeat of a pagan spirit.
A poem in Eddic metre, Þóruljóð, was recorded from oral tradition in the seventeenth century. The Þóra of the poem seems to be the same character as the Háa-Þóra of the game. In the poem, Þóra is a tall and frightening woman who arrives at a Yule feast at the farm of a chieftain, Þorkell. Þorkell welcomes Þóra to his high seat and provides her with a headdress and a cloak. Eventually, Þóra gives Þorkell a sail that she has created and tells him that it will bring him good fortune (“hamingja”) as he sails into battle. This story is reminiscent of the relationship between Hákon jarl and Þorgerðr Hǫlgabrúðr as described in Jómsvíkinga saga. Hákon gives Þorgerðr gifts, including a human sacrifice, and Þorgerðr rewards him by intervening in his favour during a sea battle where she controls the wind.
The similarities between Háa-Þóra, Þóra of Þóruljóð and Þorgerðr Hǫlgabrúðr are enough to suggest that the three figures have a common origin.