They offer insight into the social, political, and religious beliefs of these societies and provide to inspire, fascinate and entertain today.
Here are 10 of the best, in The Viking Herald's humble opinion:
1) Völsunga saga – The granddaddy of them all. This "heroic saga" deals with Germanic legend and was said to be written down mostly during the "Migration Period" (c.100 - 400 CE) of European history when huge waves of populations moved across the continent anticipating the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. It includes a prince rescuing a princess, a cursed ring, an evil dragon, and deadly family feuds, and it has inspired everyone from Richard Wagner's operas to J.R.R Tolkien's novels. Does not contain any hobbits, though.
2) Egils saga – one of the more unusual sagas in that it focuses on just one person, the eponymous Egil Skallagrimsson, a Viking warrior, poet, and adventurer. Focusing on the period 845 – 1000 CE, it winds back and forth through time, allowing us to meet Egil's grandfather and his offspring. Believed to have been written in Iceland in about 1240 CE.
3) Íslendingasögur (Saga of the Icelanders) - The Norse settlement of Iceland is believed to have taken place from about 870 CE. This was an era of brave men and women – referred to as the "Saga Age" in Icelandic history (c. 870 – 1056 CE, nearly coinciding with much of the Viking Age) who crossed the mighty North Atlantic Ocean to settle a remote volcanic island on the fringes of the world. This saga is a collection of stories – some based on true events, others work of complete fiction – that gives us a detailed look at Icelandic life and society during the first few generations of settlement, even if they were compiled centuries later.
4) Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar (The Saga of Grettir the Strong) - this saga deals with the life of legendary strongman and Icelandic hero Grettir. His adventures are often over the top and involve a heavily supernatural theme, with Grettir battling ghosts, ghouls, and trolls. Although it was one of the last sagas to be written down, in the early 15th century CE, it offers invaluable insight into perceptions of masculinity and heroism during the Viking era.
5) Grœnlendinga saga (The Saga of the Greenlanders) – one of the two sagas that deal with the Norse exploration and colonization of North America. Whilst it begins with Eirik the Red's expulsion from Norway, and subsequent discovery of Greenland, the saga then details a collection of stories about the everyday life of Norse settlers in the two main Greenland settlements. Whilst the events are said to have taken place between 1000 to 1050 CE, it was not written down until the late 14th century CE.
A group of Viking sailors on an exploration journey. Illustration: The Viking Herald
6) Laxdæla Saga (The Saga of the People of Laxárdalr) - One thing you'll find in common so far is the hyper-masculine nature of most of the sagas. Women are often bit part characters at best and have no agency, voice, or roles in much of the sagas. The Laxdale Saga, as this has been known, is a bit like an early medieval soap opera in that it deals with several interconnected families who have settled in Iceland. There is no blood or gore in this saga, just serious character development. A focus on strong women, epitomized by Gudrun and her love triangle, shows that sagas with less octane can be just as entertaining.
7) Eiríks saga rauða (The Saga of Eirik the Red) - it was only little more than half a century ago that the Norse settlement of North America was dismissed as mere wishful thinking, the sort of alternative historical history you'd expect to hear from Graham Hancock. However, with the discovery of a Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, ironically enough discovered by a Norwegian archaeological team, academics and experts have started to reassess, reanalyze and rethink the Norse sagas, which told of such events but were dismissed as works of fiction. The Saga of Eirik the Red tells the history of two Viking explorers: the man traditionally said to have "discovered" Greenland, Eirik the Red, and his son, Leif Erikson, who followed in his father's footsteps and "discovered" what the Vikings called "Vinland" (possibly modern-day Newfoundland, Canada).
8) Ragnars saga loðbrókar (The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok) - this legendary saga places Ragnar Lothbrok – a historically dubious but thoroughly entertaining character – at the center of the action. Lothbrok is said to have led decimating raids in the British Isles and against the Franks – sacking Paris in 844 CE - and this saga blends history and mythology, featuring dragons and giants. The Netflix show "Vikings" has drawn heavy inspiration from this saga.
9) Heimskringla – Compiled in c. 1230 CE by Icelandic politician, wordsmith, and man of letters Snorri Sturluson, this saga deals with the semi-legendary origins of the kings of Norway and Sweden, starting with the founding of the Yngling dynasty. From the early 8th century CE, the saga traces the origins of the royal dynasties right up until the high medieval period in 1177 CE. What it lacks in historical accuracy, it makes up in entertainment and excitement.
10) Jómsvíkinga saga (The Saga of the Jomsvikings) is a semi-legendary, semi-historical saga that tells the story of a legendary Viking brotherhood known as the Jomsvikings. They were an elite group of warriors and mercenaries who followed a strict code of honor and loyalty from their stronghold somewhere along the Baltic Coast of what is now Pomerania in Poland. Several important female warriors take pride of place in this saga, including a shieldmaiden Thornbjorg who was said to be a daughter of a king of Sweden.
For more on how Norse sagas have been a source of artistic inspiration down the ages, visit the BBC website here.
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