An analysis of the man and dragon combat from the Sigurd legend in the North of England to the first carvings of St Michael and the Dragon
The development of the Sigurd iconography seems to have been derived, in stone carving, from the Manx stones. This group shows the greatest number of similarities. Motifs would include the stabbing of the centre of the dragon, and the roasting scene with the three flames, the spit, the rings of meat and the sucking of the thumb. This implies some standardised iconography, although due to the small size of the island copying is probable. The combination of the elements seems confident, as though the artist was dealing with motifs taken from well developed and familiar scenes. Some elements, such as the spit, flames, rings of meat and sucking of the thumb, also appear on the English carvings, but with different emphasis and with new motifs, such as the birds in the tree, or the various smithy tools. Is it feasible then, that the Manx examples provide the earliest, and most pagan images of the Sigurd story, whereas the other more condensed images, centred around York, are examples of the pagan/Christian overlap designed to emphasise pagan parallels of important Christian stories?
The Norse reached the Irish Sea by the late 8th century, with an attack near Dublin in 798. The occupation of the Isle of Man probably dates from the second half of the 9th century. The island was governed either from Ireland, the West of England, or the island itself, depending on circumstances. Although all areas claimed by the Norse were formally under the jurisdiction of the King of Norway, the Isle of Man was linked with the Scottish Isles, to become the kingdom of Man and the Isles. The first known king was King Orry (Godred Grovan), from 1079 to 1095. The Norse first settled in the fertile lowlands, where a few burial mounds remain. By the mid 10th century there is evidence from inscriptions of Celtic/Norse nixed marriages, and by this stage conversion to Christianity seems to be widespread. Christianity had existed in the Isle of Man prior to the Norse invasions, although exactly how long the island had been converted is uncertain. Some allege that in the 5th century the island was Christian, but this is only supported by some doubtful church dedications, and inscriptions on the Ogham stones which include Latin, Celtic and Gaelic letters. This implies knowledge of other British cultures, and hence Christianity, but does not necessarily suppose widespread belief. In the 6th and 7th centuries simple crosses begin to appear, along with letters from the Greek alphabet. The evidence from keills (early wattle and daub church huts), is doubtful, since there is nothing to point to their being pre 9th century.
Although there is no documentary evidence of Christianity in the Isle of Man until the 12th century Note 1, when the church had obviously been present on the island for some time, the 8th century is the first to show widespread and solid evidence of Manx Christianity. With this period comes a greater number of cross monuments, with a Latin inscription for a bishop, possibly translated as Irneit, or Irnetius, a Bishop from Iona. There is also artistic influence coming from Scotland in the Celtic wheel head. There are other Christian artefacts, such as the crucifixion plaque from the Calf of Man, which can be closely compared to a Cumbrian plaque of the same date. The church of St Maughold shows the most likely centre for Christianity around this time, with an extensive church and grounds sited on an Iron Age hill fort, implying an established site of importance. The holy aspect of the site is confirmed in the holy well, and the name, Kirk Maughold, is a Norse adaptation of an earlier Celtic church name. This earlier name is from no later than the 8th century, and possibly as early as the 5th century. Tenth century cross slabs are found in the walls of the stone keills on the site, but these keills may replace earlier ones. The general plan of the church is that of the Founder’s church. This common Celtic monastery plan includes a main church with smaller, separate, individually dedicated chapels in its grounds, and a rampart surrounding the site. By the 9th century the Viking invaders had settled, but not adopted the local faith since there is evidence of pagan burial mounds. Later, in the mid 10th century inscriptions on crosses can be in Norse runes, and ornamentation often includes images of both pagan gods and heroes, as well as Scandinavian influenced decorative interlaces. It is at this point that the cross slabs which include images of Sigurd appear.
One of the Sigurd crosses belong to the school of Gaut, the first known Norse sculptor on the island. Gaut is identified by his broad clear effect with no double outlines or pelleting (P1ate 12). His arrangement of ornamental bands involves a simple key pattern derived from Celtic art. Also the characteristic Manx ring chain appears first in Gaut’s work, an emblem influenced by Scandinavian art. His influence extends to an identifiable school of Gaut, with this dating from about 950 to shortly after 1000. (Gaut himself worked from 930 or earlier, to 950). Gaut’s school at first is very similar to his own work , but as it progresses, becomes livelier and more complicated. For example, Gaut’s twist and ring pattern develops into four twisted bands, and the younger school of Gaut also makes use of animal decoration, examples of which include the Sigurd stone from Jurby (P1ate 2, Figure 1). The dragon on this is markedly different from the rest of the ornamentation, being a plain and materialistic dragon, not matching the interlace on the cross shaft, as does for instance the dragon on the Andreas slab.
The younger school of Gaut may have been influenced by another trend in Manx sculpture, dating from immediately after 950, in terms of adopting animal ornamentation, which Gaut never used. This other school, possibly headed by a new master, of which no inscriptional evidence exists, specialised in Norse mythology, as well as incorporating some Christian imagery, exemplified by the crucifixion scene on a slab at Kirk Michael. Another characteristic, the Norse animal ornamentation, is influenced by the Scandinavian Jellinge style, seen in both the Andreas and Malew Sigurd stones (Plates 1 & 3). On the Malew stone, the central dragon is an excellent example of a Jellinge beast (Figure 2), which makes it strange that the dragon that Sigurd slays is a confused interlace, as though the artist has failed in his attempt to produce a realistic and less ornamental version for a specific story. The Andreas dragons, both those involved in the narrative and those on the main shaft are superb Jellinge beasts, producing a uniform whole. The final stone, that at Ramsey which shows the associated story of Loki and Otter, belongs to a later period. The carvings of this last type are characterised by broad compact plaits, and other patterns with possible direct Celtic influence, and animal ornamentation that has progressed from the Jellinge type to two animal forms. The first has developed organically from the Jellinge beast. This has a broad torso, a head with a “pony tail” and an oblong eye, whereas the other ribbon like animal has lost these, becoming a more complicated interlace beast. The Ramsey stone has examples of the latter type ( P1ate 4).
The above dating was put forward by Shetelig Note 2, on the basis of comparisons to Scandinavian styles with recognised dating. He consequently dates the Sigurd stones according to this. Malew and Andreas belong to the group of Jellinge influenced carvings, and are hence dated sometime after 950. The stone at Jurby belongs to the Gaut school, which dates from about 950 to shortly after 1000. Since the remains of the Jurby stone shows a more complicated interlace than the original Gaut stones, it is reasonable to suppose that the Jurby carving is from the younger school of Gaut, and hence closer to 1000 than 950. Finally the associated Ramsey stone is from a later date, a period after the Jellinge influence, yet before any Urnes type developments, consequently some date between 1000 and 1040. Shetelig’s system is based on stylistic evidence, offering Gaut as the first Norse sculptor. This is almost certainly true, since his ornamentation owes nothing to previous carvings, and the inscription, ” Gaut made this and all in Man,” implies that at that point he had made all the crosses in Man, at least those that had been produced since the Norse settlement. It has already been shown that there had been widespread conversion of the Norse by the mid 10th century when the first Norse crosses were produced. This opinion has been echoed by W. Collingwood in Scandinavian Britain Note 3.
However, Kermode Note 4, the author of the most extensive survey of the Manx crosses, argues that Christianity could not be present in the Isle of Man during the period that Shetelig places the Sigurd carvings in. Kermode prefers a later date for the Sigurd stones, assigning a period spanning from 1075 to 1153. He bases his system on linking the stones to Manx based Vikings with ancestral connections with Sigurd, assuming, possibly correctly, that the stones were raised as monuments to important men. Consequently, Kermode proposes either the families of Godred Sigtryggson or Godred Grovan as possibilities, since they could claim descent via Olaf the White of Dublin, who was related to Harold Harfagr, King of Norway. The similar pieces at Jurby and Malew are assigned to this period. The distinct Andreas piece, Kermode decides, is later, and hence belonging to an artist following King Magnus direct from Norway around 1098. Finally the Ramsey stone is placed in the reign of King Olave, hence being no later than the mid 12th century. Through these somewhat convoluted attempts to link suitably descended people to the examples, Kermode restricts himself to known history, although there may have been equally suitable Vikings during the early settlement period, of which little is known. Furthermore, if Christianity had been present since the mid 10th century, then presumably the mid 11th century (Kermode’s earliest date for a Sigurd carving), would be rather late for such a strong pagan motif.
However, even if Shetelig’s dating is preferred, this leaves a problem in the sequence of the carvings. It is commonly thought that the Malew stone is a poor imitation of the Jurby carving. Kermode’s sequence is compatible with this, but Shetelig places the Jurby example in the school of Gaut, hence being any date from 950 to 1000, whereas the Malew example is dated shortly after 950. Furthermore the Jurby carving seems to be part of the younger school, or a forerunner of this. Therefore it would seem that the Jurby stone comes after the Malew version. However, evidence from the rest of the interlaces on the three stones show close connections. Andreas’ accomplished Jellinge beasts place it in the Norse based school, and the similar beast on the reverse of the Malew stone would place it here also. Conflictingly, the other side shows close affinities with the Jurby stone. Both the Sigurd dragon slaying element is similar, as is the interlace down the cross shaft itself, if not as accomplished. The Malew stone however has a more comprehensive narrative, adding the rings of meat and the three flames, and possibly the horse, all seen on the Andreas stone.
It therefore seems possible that the new master who introduced the Norse mythology and the animal ornamentation, also influenced the contemporary school of Gaut, and hence produced a “cross breed” carving in the Malew example. The Malew stone would consequently have the Sigurd motifs and animal ornamentation from the Norse based school, and interlace derived from Gaut’s school. This would also explain why the Malew dragon is “confused.” It is better to say that it is more ornamental, being influenced by the new animal decorations, the artist being confused only in not making the dragon either wholly ornamental, (as in the Andreas example), or wholly narrative, (as with the Jurby version). According to this argument, it would seem feasible for the Malew example to come before the Jurby version (although this would have had to happen closer to 950 than 1000), with the Andreas example being either an accomplished original, or an example of the later evolution of this whole scene. It may also be asked where the ideas of the pit and the plain narrative dragon originated. Perhaps there was once a more extensive Manx illustration of the Sigurd story, or knowledge of this iconography came from overseas. Alternatively, these could be the first illustrations in any medium of the Sigurd story, and provide inspiration for later artists.
The purpose of these crosses was almost certainly as monuments to the dead, with the Sigurd story perhaps being included to emphasise the dead man’s fictitious ancestry. With the exception of Ramsey, the scenes are not on the cross itself, and apart from other dragons, there are no other narrative scenes. The only reference to Christianity is the cross itself, and consequently the pagan and Christian elements on the slab are rather divorced. It would appear that the strength of the Manx Church was rather limited. This would be logical, since the island was far from the strongholds of the faith, in places such as York, and surrounded by land governed, without resistance, by Norsemen. Consequently, the inclusion of purely pagan imagery on Christian monuments is facilitated by the limited power of the Church. Therefore these carvings may be an example of the Church’s compromises when placed in a dominant alien culture, the Sigurd motifs being regarded not necessarily as pagan, but secular. The killing of Fafnir, the roasting of the heart and the sucking of the thumb are all equally emphasised. The implication is that the full story is told for its own sake, as opposed to the contracted versions found in Yorkshire, where the sucking of the thumb becomes emphasised, reflecting the importance of this motif.
Therefore in the Isle of Man it seems that it is the story of a hero that is the focus, and since not all the monuments can be said to belong to a descendant of Sigurd, the scenes are perhaps included to reflect the heroic qualities of the dead. This may emphasise the secular nature of the man, but the Church could be equally justified in seeing the scenes as representing the Christian overcoming the attacks of the devil, manifested in the dragon. Another Manx carving does show this. Thorwald’s cross slab of the 10th century shows a man, holding a cross and book, trampling on a small serpent. This is placed in juxtaposition to the image of Odin being devoured by the Fenris wolf. However this image shows the downfall of the pagan world, since this wolf is then destroyed, along with everything else. Consequently this carving emphasises the rising of the Christian faith ever the pagan gore, something that is not reflected in the Sigurd carvings. Although the remains of the slabs make it impossible to be certain that there was no corresponding Christian image, the Sigurd scenes are shown with no apparent criticism, with a value independent from the central Christian element. It would therefore appear that the Manx carvings of Sigurd are, if not pagan, at least thoroughly secular, reflecting a culture that possibly retains many of the customs of the Norse culture, but still embracing the new Christian belief. Top of page
Note 1 – Jocelyn of Furness, The Life of St Patrick, c.1185.
Note 2 – W Shetelig, “Manx Crosses Relating to Great Britain and Norway”, Viking Club Saga Book, IX (2) 1915, p.253 274.
Note 3 – W G Collingwood, Scandinavian Britain, London, 1908, p.232.
Note 4 – P M C Kermode, Manx Crosses, London, 1907.