From Viking voyages to Iceland to the lives of Norse kings to legendary tales full of magic and giants, sagas were an important part of the cultural life during the Viking Age and a significant part of Nordic culture today.
What exactly is a saga?
Norse mythology, legends, and sagas have seen a recent resurgence lately, partly thanks to the Hollywood movies featuring Thor and the Vikings TV series franchise.
Yet many of these modern interpretations of Norse stories are based on the sagas – prose stories and histories which were often (though not exclusively) written in Iceland.
Sagas originated in the early medieval period during the so-called "Viking Age" (793 to 1066 CE) and were mainly formed through oral traditions. Yet it would take until the 12th century CE for these sagas to be written down.
Most of the sagas are written in prose form; however, some can be similar to epic forms of poetry. Whole stanzas or poems in alliterative verse can be included in the sagas adding further detail and depth.
The word "saga" is derived from the Old Norse word - sǫgur - meaning a structured narrative story about somebody.
The modern English word saga was introduced into the English language by Old Norse scholars to specifically refer to these Old Norse narrative poems and stories.
What are the commonalities between sagas?
Despite the hundreds of sagas that have been passed down through the ages, and their pantheon of characters, ranging from Scandinavian kings to Icelandic settlers to dragons and bishops, there are some common features of the sagas.
The sagas lie in that grey area between fact and fiction. Like all good and gripping stories and tales, the sagas never let the truth get in their way. One should remember that these sagas were compiled in the medieval period recounting events even further back, mostly in the 10th century CE.
The sagas, then, are a mix of fact and fiction, a blending of the real and the imaginary. The compilers of the sagas were – quite literally – given poetic license. Scholars can be confident that some of the more historical sagas - for example, the Íslendingasögur, which tell the events of the generations of Norse families that settled Iceland from the 870s CE onwards - are based on actual events and peoples.
The sagas can be a bit of a slow burn at first. Throughout many of the first chapters of the sagas, much attention is given to minute details and can seem all a bit of literary fluff and minutiae.
However, this early setup – often dealing with events decades before the actual story – is all part of a structure that helps set the stage for the more important events of the saga.
The Valpjofsstadur medieval wood church door from ca. 1200 CE, describing a tale of a knight slaying a dragon, stored at the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. Photo: Dan Shachar / Shutterstock
Remember, the Vikings lived in a time before Netflix, smartphones, and coffee shops – they needed long, detailed, and rich stories to pass away those long and cold Scandinavian winters.
Modern readers should not make a moral judgment of the events in the saga. The sagas are based on events, stories, and tales from the early medieval period – a time with starkly different morals, norms, and values. The defining concept of many Viking societies was honor.
Without any law enforcement or social security, the family structure was vitally important. If someone slighted your family, you were expected, by societal and familial pressure, to avenge them.
Despite the fact that many contemporary stories elsewhere in Europe were written in Latin, the sagas were proudly written in the vernacular Old Norse and, much later on, its linguistic descendant, medieval Icelandic.
The sagas allow contemporary audiences – whether scholars or school students – a fascinating insight into the language spoken by the Vikings as they spread Norse culture – often by force – throughout Europe during the early medieval period.
What are some of the best examples of sagas?
There are, according to modern scholars, approximately 100 sagas. These give us a fascinating window into the period of Northern Europe between the first Viking raids, in the late 8th century CE, up until the later Norman conquest of England, in the 10th century CE.
Furthermore, the fact that most were compiled later during the 12th and 13th centuries CE gives us further information about the society in which they were written – the biases, the values, what was deemed entertaining or truthful, and what was not.
The sagas are generally classified as follows:
Íslendingasögur (The sagas of Icelanders): Supposedly the stories of the real events of the Norse families that were involved in the settlement of Iceland from the 870s CE to the widespread adoption of Christianity by the turn of the 11th century CE.
These sagas possess a realistic style with a heavy emphasis on historicity.
Modern scholars have often held these up as the sagas with the highest quality of writing due to the realism and the fact that many sagas span familial generations.
Egils saga (Egil's saga) is perhaps the perfect example of what makes the Icelander's saga so great to read.
It follows the lives of the family of Icelandic farmer and Viking, Egill Skallagrímsson, from the middle of the 9th to the early 11th century CE.
Konungasögur (The King's sagas): These were compiled in the later medieval period, from the 12th to 14th centuries CE and deal with the lives and times of the various Scandinavian kings.
By the 12th century, the political insecurity and weak governance evident at the beginning of the "Viking Age" had given way to more centralized power and authority under monarchy. These sagas were often in skaldic verse and full of high praise.
Perhaps the best example is the Heimskringla, compiled around 1230 CE by Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson. It is a collection of sagas about the legendary kings of Sweden and Norway and includes the foundation of the Yngling dynasty in Sweden and the biography of Harald Fairhair in Norway.
The sagas of Icelanders contain prose narratives covering historical events that mainly occurred in Iceland between the 9th and the 11th century CE. Photo: Martin Balle / Unsplash
Fornaldarsögur (Story of the Ancient Era): These are set in the period before the settlement of Iceland, often in Northern Europe and Scandinavia during the very early medieval period. Aiming to offer entertainment and an exciting narrative, they often portray the history of pagan Norse societies.
The Völsunga saga is, without any doubt, the finest example of how later Norse societies thought about the origins of their societies during the Migration Period (100 – 500 CE). It follows the rise and fall of the Völsung clan, involving a huge family tree, a quest to save a princess from an evil king, a cursed king, and the killing of a dragon.
Characters include Sigurd and Brynhild. This saga would influence a wide range of later cultural figures, from J.R.R Tolkein to Richard Wagner and even Peter Jackson.
Heilagra Manna Sögu (Saints' sagas): By the 12th century CE, Norse societies had been transformed by the adoption of Christianity. Where once these remote societies were at the edges of Christian Europe, by the late medieval period, they had been connected, thanks to Christianity, to the broader Christian European set of nations, kingdoms, and political entities.
The Saints' sagas show the increased importance and influence of Christianity on Norse cultural life. Many are epic hagiographies set in Scandinavia and Iceland and include saints such as Magnus of Orkney, Edward the Confessor, and Pope Leo I.
Riddarasögur (Sagas of the Knights): Perhaps the final evolution of Norse literary sagas from the early medieval to the high medieval period. Starting in the 13th century CE, translations into Old Norse were made of the popular French chansons de geste, i.e., romance and chivalric stories.
Influenced by this continental literary trend, Icelandic authors began to compile their own sagas featuring knights and chivalric deeds and adventures from the 13th century onwards.
The best example left to us today of this type of saga is the Klári saga which features a bridal quest and a maiden king – prototypes of all good medieval romances.
Though the historicity of much in the sagas is hotly debated by academics, the sagas have left an enormous impact on Norse societies right through to the modern day.
The period of Icelandic history in which many of the sagas take place, from the middle of the 10th to the middle of the 11th century CE, has been called the Söguöld – literally, "The Age of Sagas."
From their roots describing the foundational myths and legends during the Migration Period to the later descriptions of medieval Scandinavian kings and saints, the sagas, like the societies in which they were written, evolved over time.
They have become part of the intrinsic cultural fabric of Iceland and would help link this remote island in the North Atlantic to a larger European medieval context.
For more on the history underpinning the Völsung saga, read a BBC History Extra article here.
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