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The Sagas of the Icelanders May Not be Myth After All

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Despite numerous so-called myths which existed in stories, sagas and texts of our ancient past being proven true, many still insist that all myths and legends are simply down the imagination and creativity of our ancestors.  However, one recent study has given validity to the Sagas of Icelanders – a unique corpus of medieval literature written a thousand years ago – and has found that the Vikings may have been more social than savage.

The word ‘Myth’ originates from the Greek word mythos, meaning ‘word’ or ‘tale’ or ‘true narrative’, referring not only to the means by which it was transmitted but also to its being rooted in truth. Mythos was also closely related to the word myo, meaning ‘to teach’, or ‘to initiate into the mysteries’. This is how the word was interpreted by Homer—who is generally identified to have lived in the 7th or 8th century B.C.E.—when composing his great works, including The Iliad, in which he meant to convey a truth.

As the age of science and philosophy began questioning truth itself, the meaning of the word began to evolve, and around 400 years later myths became limited to fictional tales of superstition or fantasy, symbolic stories. However, as technological advances in archaeology and research have been made, more and more myths of our past have been proven true – the once legendary city of Troy has now been found, and the sea monsters drawn on ancient maps have been verified as legitimate animal species, such as giant squid, walruses and dugongs. 

The Icelandic Sagas are no exception - a Viking Sunstone or ‘magical gem’ used to navigate the seas spoken of in the sagas is a real crystal made of a calcite substance which was discovered in a shipwreck, and  the recent discovery of Viking artefacts on an island of Denmark provides evidence that the legendary city of Lejre once existed.

The Sagas are stories about ancient Scandinavian and Germanic history, about early Viking voyages, the battles that took place during the voyages, about migration to Iceland and of feuds between Icelandic families. They were written in the Old Norse language, mainly in Iceland, between 1100 and 1300 AD and describe the life of certain characters before the year 1000 AD. The tales are usually realistic, with some exceptions, and are sometimes romanticised and fantastic, but always dealing with human beings one can understand.

A new study published in the European Physical Journal reports on a detailed analysis of the relationships described in the ancient Icelandic manuscripts, and the results have uncovered complex social networks, which challenge the stereotypical image of Vikings as unworldly, violent savages.

The researchers from the University of Coventry mapped out the interactions between over 1,500 characters that appear in 18 sagas including five particularly famous epic tales. Their analyses show that the overall network of saga society is consistent with real social networks.

Although the historicity of these tales is often questioned, this research supports the hypothesis that the Sagas are based on reality and contain fictionalised distortions of real societies.

By April Holloway

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