Eddas and the Sagas

The myths and legends of the ancient Scandinavians survived better than those of any other Germanic people thanks to the most extensive vernacular literature of any medieval society, which was written in Iceland. The literary treasure is unique in many ways but mainly because many forms of literature and studies that survived in Iceland have no contemporary equals in European culture. Some of the literature that was only documented in Iceland, shed light on Nordic and Germanic cultural history which otherwise would have been cloaked in darkness.

During the first centuries of settlement in Iceland, before literacy, the only literature in a formal sense was in verse transmitted from generation to generation. Only a little of those verses were ever recorded. The first book in Icelandic is The Book of Icelanders (I. Íslendingabók) written by Ari the Wise (I. Ari fróði) in the early 12th century. At that time Latin was the learned language which means that with Ari the course of writing in the mother tongue was set. The Book of Icelanders is a historical work dealing with early Icelandic history; in addition to describing the story of the settlement, it includes a discussion of the conversion to Christianity, the development of the Althing, and lists all the law speakers until that time. Although in modern times the veracity of the history is in doubt it still is an invaluable source of knowledge about the development of Icelandic society in the first centuries of settlement.

The best known specimens of Icelandic literature are the Eddas and the Sagas:

The Eddasare a collection of Old Norse poems, songs, and some prose, containing stories about the Norse gods and legendary heroes most likely written in the 12th and 13th century. It is known for a fact that Snorri Sturluson (1179 –1241), the most famous writer ever born in Iceland, was the author of the Prose Edda, a narrative Norse mythology, the Skáldskaparmál, a book of poetic language, Háttatal, a list of verse forms and Heimskringla, a history of the Norwegian kings.

The Sagasare prose histories mostly describing events that took place in Iceland in the 10th and early 11th centuries, during the so-called Saga Age, in all likelihood written on either side of the year 1200, and the last ones around 1350. Most of them are written during the 13th century though. Jónas Kristjánsson, one of Iceland’s most outstanding manuscript scholars writes about the remarkable development in the beginning of the 13th century that took place when:

“Icelanders began to write Sagas; rich and expansive descriptions and accounts of people and events from different places and different times, ranging from the contemporary world to the remotest past, from the author’s own valley to far-off foreign lands. The chief sources of these written Sagas were the oral traditions that were zealously cultivated, especially by those who had no book-learning. The first Sagas have typical twelfth-century features: dry information of the kind earliest historians provide, or incredible and didactic elements of the kind typical of hagiography. But gradually these two streams merge into one: sober fact and exaggerated fancy, the real and the imagined come together in a seemly coherence which is the hallmark of the classical Íslendingasögur, ‘Sagas of Icelanders’”.

The Sagas are the most popular of Icelandic medieval literature. There are forty of them, and together they form one of seven categories of the old Icelandic tales[1]. Their subjects are the people living in the country from the settlement era until the earlier part of the 11th century. Usually they are about chieftains, but not as a rule as common people are also featured.

Njál’s Sagais the best known of The Sagas. It is the only one that takes place in the southern part of Iceland. Other well known Sagas are Egil’s Saga, Laxdæla Saga, Gunnlaug’s Saga and Eyrbyggja Saga, they all take place in the Western part of Iceland. The Settlement Centre reveals The Egil´s Sagas as well as The Book of Icelanders in its exhibitions and shows.  For stylistic reasons it is thought that Snorri Sturluson wrote Egil´s Saga but the authors of the Sagas are not known. Egill as well as Snorri lived in the farm Borg but his main literary achievements Snorri wrote in Reykholt, which has for a long time been a tourist attraction because of its history. In recent years the Culture and Research Centre Snorrastofa (www.snorrastofa) has been built been built in Reykholt.  The nation of Norway has especially shown great interest and support to the destination development of Reykholt, due to the fondness that Snorri Sturluson had for writing about the history and heritage of Norway.

The reliability of the literary legacy

There are various problems connected with telling the history of Iceland in a tourist friendly manner. The uncertainty about the age of settlement itself and longstanding disputes over the reliability of the literary legacy poses for example challenges.

The year 874 AD has long been carved in the Icelandic mind as the year when Ingólfur Arnarsson first set foot in Reykjavík as the first settler to reside permanently. The 1100 years anniversary of the settlement in Iceland was celebrated with great aplomb in year 1974, and on the occasion two of the ancient Icelandic manuscripts were returned home, by the Danes who had safeguarded them. Many scholars, not least the archaeologists, question nevertheless that date, and in recent years the theory based on archaeological excavations in The Westman Islands with new dating technology has shown that the history of Icelandic settlement can be stretched a 150 years further back. Therefore Icelanders might have to set the year 720 AD in stone.

There the accountability of the Icelandic literary legacy comes into question. It is not known what Icelanders of earlier centuries thought about the origins of the Sagas but we may be confident that most people accepted them as a valid history – as they continued to do to in our own time (Kristjánsson, 2007). In the 19th century a theory was launched that these Sagas were created and fully formed as oral narratives, which were subsequently recorded unaltered just as they were told. The theory has been called Theory of free-prose (I. Sagnfestukenningin) and includes an element of wishful thinking of the Sagas being reliable as historical sources. According to another theory, the so-called Theory of book-prose (I. Bókfestukenningin)  the Sagas were composed by “creative writers on the bases of all sorts of material; old poetry, oral traditions, written sources, literary model and even contemporary events which the author transmuted to the credit or discredit of Saga-age men and women”.

Today no one would expect to find much history in the Sagas written in the later stages of the genre’s evolution. But Sagas written in the early stage have customarily been regarded as reliable historical sources, almost to the present day. It is in fact evident that they are written as history – according to the standards of the time. Historians have now put them aside and for the most part ignore them as historical sources. The rejection creates a vacuum for Icelandic history in the 10th and 11th century”, which archaeologists are busy filling with their teaspoons, toothbrushes and tephrachronology.

Are you interested
in Icelandic Sagas?

If you are interested in Icelandic literary heritage or want to get acquinted with it please contact us at info@icelandicsagas.is

Our aim is to present the medieval literature heritage of Iceland to other nations. It really speaks to other Germanc nations, as therein may be found the roots of germanic culture as well as being entertaining and dramatic literature.