Thousands of years have gone by since the days where battles and wars were commonplace in our society. We still find those stories fascinating and mesmerizing. They used to be vicious and violent, and though I’m not really into the rough stuff, I am aware that those people were courageous and brave enough to protect their land or to colonize other places. That is why I like to read the Icelandic Sagas so much. If you are also into epic stories or love anything related to Vikings, then grab some popcorn and stick around.
Nowadays we have planes and cars to take us anywhere in a matter of just hours. Back then, it took months or even years to go from one foreign land to another. In the modern world, we also have well-thought-out legislation that prevents complicated situations like taking out your sword to stop your neighbors from crossing your backyard without express permission. Circumstances back then were difficult, and so were the people who lived in those times. We know all of this thanks to books that survived for centuries and narrated the stories of our people. That is the case of the Sagas.
The Icelandic Sagas – What is a Saga?
The word Saga derives directly from “saga” in Old Norse, which used to mean tell a story or to talk. In modern English, the equivalent would be “to say.” The Nordic word saga refers to “what is said, what is told”. We can therefore translate it as a “narration or story”. We apply this term to the narrative stories written in Iceland and Norway. However, the fundamental meaning of the word is used for a particular type of literary work that was born in Iceland between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
We always refer to how Icelanders love reading and writing stories. And It seems it was the same way back in the old times. Initially, all of these stories only existed as entertainment and were transmitted orally from generation to generation. What they were not aware of is that these stories also hold massive importance in terms of genealogy and history. Experts state that whoever wrote the Sagas only put down on paper the stories already heard from family and friends. The Icelandic Sagas are anonymous, but they show certain stylistic features typical of the spoken language. Also, there are significant style variations between the different Sagas that would demonstrate that their writing technique does not come from one author but rather from the way people told such stories.
Classification of the Icelandic Sagas
As we mentioned above, there isn’t just one type of Saga. There are several topics and kinds of Sagas. That is why historians usually divide them into different categories and groups. Historically speaking, some of the Sagas are very accurate. Authors specifically wrote them to reflect the way of life in their era. Most Sagas are a mix of reality and fantasy with an added hint of fiction to the story. They are generally classified into these groups: The Kings’ Sagas (Konungasögur), Short Tales of Icelanders (Íslendingaþættir), Contemporary Sagas (Samtíðarsögur or Samtímasögur), Legendary Sagas (Fornaldarsögur), Chivalric Sagas (Riddarasögur), Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur), Saints’ Sagas (Heilagra manna sögur) and Bishops’ sagas (Biskupa sögur). The most important one is the Saga of the Icelanders.
What are the Icelandic Sagas about?
When reading the Icelandic Sagas, you will notice there is a common thread, and that is families. The importance of families in the Nordic medieval era was immense, and therefore it ended up being captured in these writings. You can find stories about the most noteworthy family clans and their offspring. How they used to get into trouble, defended their honor and were thirsty for revenge.
In the texts, the main topics were the kings of Norway and their relationships, deals, and feuds. That is because people deeply respected the feudal kings of the past. Now, depending on the Saga, the central theme would vary. Often, the writer focused on different subjects and people. In the Bishop’s Saga, the principal issue is the life of the apostles and Bible related themes. These Sagas have a lot to do with the story of Christianization of Iceland. The Chivalric Sagas are all about knights and medieval cavalry stories. The main ones, The Sagas of the Icelanders, tell the stories of the historical origin of the Nordic nation, how settlers came directly from other Scandinavian nations and how Nordic kings used to rule the land.
If you are more into fantasy and mythology, I recommend you to read the Legendary Sagas. They are very entertaining, and the tales are full of dwarves, elves, and magic creatures mixed in with some Christian components. Though some of the stories are based on real characters, they are not considered accurate, historically speaking.
The Icelandic Sagas – From the Past to the Present
These tales and chronicles belong to a remote past quite distant from our modern days. The truth is, though most people can recognize several characters and stories easily, they are not aware they come from the Sagas. Almost everything we know today about the medieval history of Scandinavia is written in these ancient books. The Sagas narrate the way Vikings used to live, the way they used to prepare for their incursions and the way they formed their government.
Most of us know who such as Ragnar Lothbrok is, right? Thanks to the popular History Channel series Vikings, we are familiar with this character who is a real-life historical figure. Well, if you love the TV show, you can find his story in the manuscript of the Völsunga saga. The name of his chapter is The Tale of Ragnar Lothbrok.
If you’d like to know about the discovery of the Americas, it actually happened years before Christopher Colombus or Amerigo Vespucci set foot on the land. Get a copy of the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders. They contain several stories related to discoveries, trips through the seas and the colonization of unknown lands. One of these was “Vinland”, which was the coastal area of North America.
The Icelandic Sagas: History and Heroism
As you can see, the importance of these tales and writings are not limited to Iceland or the Scandinavian nations. They are indeed a treasure from antiquity that helps us understand how the world was in Scandinavia but also how other tribes, peoples, and lands were. Some huge historical facts that affect us all available in that text. You don’t need to be a Viking lover to read the Sagas. Anyone who loves some good, intense and epic stories will adore the Sagas.