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Detail of a miniature from a 13th-century Icelandic manuscript.

The Sagas of the Icelanders shed light on Golden Age

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The Sagas of the Icelanders have long been preserved as the most comprehensive specimen of the literary culture of the 13 th and 14 th centuries of Iceland.  In writing these sagas, many attributes of the 10 th and 11 th centuries were conserved, particularly individual biographies, the history of family feuds, and the overall evolution of the one of the greatest settlements of the Vikings. 

Unlike the mythical tales of the Greeks, the Icelandic sagas depict real men and women—real great families—struggling with and overcoming extraordinary circumstances and adventures to forge a new land.  Though the sagas' author is unknown, the writings have been considered the height of Icelandic literature throughout the centuries, and remain the written epitome of Viking ideals, values, and beliefs.

The sagas describe the years around the conversion of Iceland to Christianity, roughly from 930 to 1030 CE.  Iceland is thought to have been founded by the Vikings in the year 874 (there is new evidence that the settlement might have begun sooner than 874, due to the remains of a cabin found in Hafnir), though prior to their colonization, the island was inhabited by Irish monks.  If this date is correct, the land remained a pagan country for less than two hundred years before Christianity took over as the primary religion.

he saga museum contains figures like these which tell the history of early Iceland - the saga age.

The saga museum contains figures like these which tell the history of early Iceland - the saga age. Jeffery Simpson/ Flickr

The sagas depict what was and is known as the "Golden Age" of Iceland, the period of vast migration by the Vikings and the settlement of one of the most unique communities they ever founded.  Iceland was valued as a commonwealth, a unique concept at the time that had previously been unheard of in the home country.  It was comprised of numerous chieftains and no kings—unlike Norway, Sweden, and Denmark—and was wholly valued as free land. 

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The sagas encompass much of the range of the Viking world—that is, the farthest reaches traveled by the Vikings are often points and scenes of interest in the stories.  Greenland, Russia, Vinland, and Constantinople are just some examples of the regional stretch these stories incorporate, thereby also documenting much of the voyages of the Viking Age for further research.

Medieval Iceland was predominately made up of wealthy land-owners by the 13 th and 14 th centuries, thus these men could afford to commission the previously oral tales of their ancestors' deeds into great and detailed works of art. 

The sagas range in length from short narratives to longer stories, with some excerpts from much larger tomes.  The tales depicted describe the families who founded Iceland and their unique commonwealth government, and were respected in the 13 th and 14 th centuries as official documentation of the forefathers of Iceland, and the family feuds that helped shape the land and customs. 

Excerpt from Njáls saga in the Möðruvallabók (AM 132 folio 13r) circa 1350.

Excerpt from Njáls saga in the Möðruvallabók (AM 132 folio 13r) circa 1350. Public Domain

The stories are male-driven, as the honor-bound battles and ambitious journeys are at the heart of Viking adventures; Exploring basic human values and beliefs in relation to the prominent struggles and conflicts of the ninth to 11 th centuries.  Freedom, honor, love, and exile are only a few of the many themes discussed in the form of these literary treasures, interwoven with the religious dissonance and grand-scale exoduses of the day.

However, although male-centric, the sagas nonetheless explicitly implicate women as influencing factors in many situations.  Clever and beautiful women often are noted to have some impact on the state of affairs, whether convincing a man to go to war in her name or being the apple of two men's eyes who thereby decide to settle their disagreement in bloodshed.  Women instigate and end feuds as often as men in these sagas.  Furthermore, women are considered equally strong individuals of Viking culture in their own right, responsible for the house and farms when their men are away, and charged with properly marrying off their children in such absences.  Gender roles were clearly defined in Norse society, however women were valued highly in the Viking world, compared to other cultures of that era, and thereby influenced the sagas as much for the better as for the worst.

Grettir is ready to fight in this illustration from a 17th-century Icelandic manuscript.

Grettir is ready to fight in this illustration from a 17th-century Icelandic manuscript. Public Domain

The Sagas of the Icelanders are a monument to western literature and a study in the distinct artistic style of the 1200s and 1300s.  Though some historians do not consider them to be authentic historical works, they are valued as much for the view into medieval Icelandic customs as they are for the powerful characters and honorific themes they attempt to portray in their everyday lives. 

The sagas describe the actions and reactions of Icelandic men and women during their religious transition to Christianity, thereby providing scholars an insight into the true reactions of the day.  In ways such as this, the sagas provide relatively accurate historical data and are thus treasures not only to medieval literature, but also to modern Viking research and scholarship.

Featured image: Detail of a miniature from a 13th-century Icelandic manuscript. Public Domain

Bibliography

Jane Smiley. Sagas of the Icelanders (Penguin Publishing Group: NY, 2001.)

Gisli Surgurðsson and Vesteinn Olason. The Manuscripts of Iceland (Arni Magn˙sson Institute: ReykjavÌk, 2004.)

William R. Short. "The Sagas of Icelanders as a Historical Source." Hurstwic. 2005. Accessed February 17, 2015. http://www.hurstwic.org/library/arms_in_sagas/sagas_as_historical_source.pdf

"The Laxdæla Saga." Iskendur Sagna-Grunnur. Accessed February 13, 2015. http://sagadb.org/laxdaela_saga.en.

"About the Sagas." The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders. Accessed February 15, 2015. http://sagas.is/sogurnar.htm.

By Ryan Stone

Comments

Re: "The author"

Before anything else, you should try to understand what a saga is. A saga is not a written volume composed by an author. It is not a document. A saga is a living history that has been transmitted orally -- often throughout multiple generations -- until some point where they were recorded in writing, most often by Christians who were not very favourably inclined towards the original beliefs, or the original story for that matter.

So, a saga will almost never have a single author, and I add the word "almost" only to leave room for a single case or two if such a case should ever be found. There would be one, or a number of scribes that recorded the saga onto paper/vellum/whatever, but a scribe is not, and was not, the author.

Re: "Iceland was valued as a commonwealth, a unique concept at the time that had previously been unheard of in the home country."

This is directly wrong. The situation that you describe: chieftains and local government as opposed to a single king and central government... was _not_ unique. That, is the original Norse way; the way any of the three-four-many current Norse countries were organized previously. Indeed, that model was also common in many other areas of the world. That people escaped to Island was a consequence of the arrival of christianity and hence the battles among kings for power. The Old Norse culture itself was under heavy attack, you have to understand that.

Enough. I feel I've commented enough on articles from this site for now. The volume of misrepresentations and errors in the articles on Norse matters makes me seriously doubt if I can trust articles on any other subject from this site. Also, just to help some readers out I would probably have to read and comment every single Norse article here, which is a noble task but also a very large one, and it just does not have my interest. There's no benefit for me in doing so - I know my own culture. You may think about it whatever you like, including the Disney version. If you read modern media accounts of old Norse culture, worldview, and values you will be misled, misled, misled again. And that is not limited to the internet, there are countless TV-series and movies and whatnot, all full of it... There is very little truth out there, and man knows so little. I'm sorry.

"Unlike the mythical tales of the Greeks...."

Perhaps. Or perhaps very misunderstood, or transformed through time and space. I can assure you many of the "Greek" myths contain memories of a more ancient time, and many other locations "Greeks" migrated and settled in.

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