Compiled in 13th-century Iceland, it provides a glimpse into the intricate details – though not always historically accurate – of the life, lore, and legends of Scandinavia's early medieval period. 

Make Vikings Great Again? 

With the United States of America poised for another divisive presidential election, you have to feel for the poor American people. This once mighty hyperpower, which not only dominated the world economy but also international politics, seems hell-bent on tearing itself apart. 

Donald Trump won once on a promise of making America "great again," a throwback to the high-water mark of America when its factories and finance dominated the globe. 

Yet, this is not the first society to look back to an (imagined) glorious past. Almost a millennium before the world was blessed with Sleepy Joe or the Orange Man, people in a vastly different society gazed deep into their once glorious past. 

The inhabitants of 13th-century Iceland were the descendants of people from Viking societies who had bravely sailed across the North Sea from the late 9th century onwards to settle this volcanic isle

One of the most famous of these medieval Icelanders was the poet, politician, and man of letters, Snorri Sturluson

He reminded his contemporaries of the glorious deeds of their ancestors by chronicling and compiling several sagas that mixed Norse mythology with historical events and characters. 

The most celebrated of these glorious tales of yesteryear is the Heimskringla – the circle of the world – a seminal collection of early medieval rulers and monarchs from across the Viking world. 

Whilst we do not know for sure that Sturluson's hands were behind this collection, historians tend to agree that they were. By delving into the rich Viking past, Sturluson aimed to elevate his contemporary Icelandic society and help revive the greatness of the Viking world. 

In 13th-century Iceland, sagas such as Heimskringla were written to chronicle the Viking past and revive a sense of national pride among the descendants of Viking settlers. Photo: Yevhenii Chulovskyi / Shutterstock

Circle of the world 

Written in Old Norse in Iceland during the 13th century, the title Heimskringla was a relatively recent invention. 

During the 17th century, centuries after Sturluson died and long after the last Viking ship sailed, historians began to refer to this collection of more than 16 sagas by the first two words in the manuscript, Kringla heimsins, which in English translates as "the circle of the world." 

This title is no mistake. The collection of sagas details not only the history and formation of the Kingdom of Norway and all its rulers up to the late 12th century but also the interactions between Norwegian and Swedish monarchs. 

It also covers the broader geopolitical context of the early medieval period throughout the Viking world. 

The Heimskringla is essentially divided into three parts. Although the stories originate from a time when Christianity was relatively new to the Viking world, 13th-century Iceland was very much a Christian nation. 

The division of the Heimskringla into three parts was a nod to the Holy Trinity in Christian doctrine. 

The first part primarily deals with the semi-legendary origins of the Norwegian and Swedish royal dynasties, the Ynglings. Subsequent sagas recount the origins of these kingdoms and provide a list of individual (mostly Norwegian) monarchs. 

Preserved at the National and University Library of Iceland in Reykjavík, the Kringla leaf (Kringlublaðið) is the only surviving page of the c. 1260 Kringla manuscript that contained the Heimskringla. Photo: National and University Library of Iceland

What does it tell us about medieval Sweden? 

For those with a love of Swedish history (as we all do at The Viking Herald), the Heimskringla is a literal gold mine for an entertaining account of fact and fiction. 

It is the account of the rise of the Yngling dynasty that provides fascinating insights into both the early and later medieval periods. 

According to Sverre Bagge in his 1991 book, Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, the Heimskringla portrays the Ynglings as royal descendants from the pantheon of Norse gods, particularly Odin

Tracing the royal lineage of these kings through their history provides us with fascinating insights into how Viking societies perceived their rulers and how later Nordic societies – including those in the 13th century – were very much proponents of a monarch's divine right to rule. 

More broadly, the Heimskringla also provides many details on the familial and political relationships between the Scandinavian (but mostly Norwegian and Swedish) monarchs. 

It describes alliances, marriages, and conflicts that shaped the political landscape of Scandinavia during the early medieval period. 

Narrowing it down to a personal level, the Heimskringla also details the lives and exploits of some of the very first Swedish monarchs, including Erik the Victorious, Olof Skötkonung, and Anund Jacob. 

It provides a colorful and entertaining, though not entirely historically accurate, account of these Viking warriors and rulers who helped to create the medieval Swedish kingdom. 

The Royal Palace in Stockholm connects the past with the present, housing the modern Swedish monarchy that traces its roots to the kings of Heimskringla. Photo: Arild Vågen (CC BY-SA 4.0)

How historically accurate is it? 

Like most medieval works, the Heimskringla should be treated with historical caution. It is true that many of the monarchs described were historical figures whose lives and reigns can be verified from other contemporary sources. 

Zooming out, it also helps give a detailed picture of broader trends and forces in Viking society, especially the causes of Viking expansion from the 8th century onwards. 

It also gives a sense of what it must have been like for those brave settlers who sailed from Scandinavia to establish a new world in Iceland. However, viewing it through a strictly historically accurate lens would be simply wrong. 

Whilst modern historians suggest that the author(s) (who may have included Snorri Sturluson) had access to much earlier historical records and sources, this should not be treated as a historically verifiable and accurate account of Viking societies throughout the early medieval period. 

In his 1990 book Medieval Iceland: Society, Saga, and Power (Available to purchase on Amazon here), Jesse Byock writes that these sagas contain a heavy dose of both old and new religious overtones, blending Norse mythology with more modern Christian notions of the divine right of kings. 

It should also be noted that this was likely propaganda intended for a political and ruling elite who wanted to reconnect with their glorious Viking past. 

Regardless of its historical accuracy, the Heimskringla is one of the most colorful accounts of the early medieval period. It contains more than a shred of historical detail about the glorious history of Viking societies... but just don't call it a comeback! 

If learning more about the origins of Swedish history from the Heimskringla has interested you, consider the STOEX Viking History Extended tour.

This tour includes a visit to Sigtuna, founded by King Eric the Victorious in 980. Explore Sweden’s oldest churches, ancient ruins, and learn about its significance as an early Christian center and a vibrant Viking trading hub

The Iceland Review has an update on more medieval manuscripts, including recent discoveries and analyses, which you can read about here.

This branded article was produced in collaboration with STOEX, a partner of The Viking Herald. You can find out more about their Viking and history tours - and book one - here.

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