The Chinese have the Great Wall, the Egyptians the Pyramids, the Germans have Beethoven, and the Italians Michaelangelo.
Icelanders have the Sagas. (In the Scandinavian languages, the word saga means story or history.)
Written in the Icelandic vernacular from about 1200 to 1350, when all self-respecting scholars in Europe were writing in Latin, the Sagas tell about events that happened a few hundred years earlier. In that way, it’s similar to the Bible and many other ancient texts.
One of the first sagas, The Book of Settlements, tells us about the first settlers in the country— where they put down roots on the uninhabited island, whom they married, and who their descendants were. It is a dry, and some would say boring, account of who’s who in Iceland in the 9th century. As a historical account, it is invaluable.
As time went by, various writers embellished the stories and turned them into what’s comparable to today´s historical novels. The heroes and heroines talk to us; they love, hate, and fight. When the hero, Gunnar in Niall´s saga, asked his wife for a lock of her hair to replace his broken bowstring during an attack on his home, she refused, reminding him of how he’d slapped her in the face during a quarrel. As a result, Gunnar was killed in that battle. Over time, the Sagas continued to evolve. The stories became increasingly fantastical, and the realistic historical novels gave way to tales of superheroes performing magical feats. The writing finally ceased during the Little Ice Age in the 14th century, when the country descended into poverty and misery. But itinerant storytellers told and retold the stories as they traveled from farm to farm to entertain the inhabitants.
During the 18th century, the Icelandic scholar Árni Magnússon collected all the Saga manuscripts that he and his associates could lay their hands on. Because Iceland was then a colony of Denmark, with Copenhagen as its capital, the manuscripts were archived in the library of the University of Copenhagen. During a disastrous fire in Copenhagen in 1728, which annihilated more than a quarter of the city, some of the collection was destroyed. Fortunately, most of it was rescued.
Since Iceland became independent in 1944, it has built a special institute in Reykjavik—The Árni Magnússon Institute—to house a significant part of the collection, including the aforementioned Book of Settlements. A sister institute in Copenhagen, the Arnamagnæan Institute, still retains the rest of the collection.
The authorship of the Sagas is not known, although there have been guesses. Chieftain Snorri Sturluson, who was slain in 1241, is believed to be one of the authors, and a museum in west Iceland is dedicated to him. The manuscripts were written on calf’s skins, also called vellum, and because of the cost of such a commodity, some of the writing was erased to allow the vellum to be reused for a different story. Modern x-ray techniques have restored a portion of the erased text. Much of the writing was in shorthand to save space, which makes it illegible to the casual reader.
At my home in the Washington DC area, you will find the entire 42 hardbound volumes of the sagas occupying some six feet of shelf space. In this version, the shorthand has been expanded into a legible form. I can read the prose without difficulty as the ancient language has changed very little during these hundreds of years. The convoluted poems, however, are a different story.
Every Icelandic child studies the sagas in elementary school and more in-depth in the higher grades. The most popular ones are akin to historical novels, such as Niall’s saga, which is considered among the best written. It’s a story of Niall and his sons, feisty, complex characters who became embroiled in feuds with their neighbors. Although Niall was a wise, peaceful man, he couldn’t escape the scourge of vengeance. The book presents a comprehensive picture of Icelandic life in the 13th century. This is a good one to start with for anyone interested in reading the sagas.
Two other sagas are of particular interest to North American readers because they tell the story of the Icelandic discovery of the American continent around 1000 AD, beating Christopher Columbus to it by some 500 years. These are the Saga of Eric the Red (founder of the Icelandic settlement in Greenland) and the Saga of the Greenlanders (about the Icelandic settlers in Greenland, some of whom are believed to have sailed to America). Both tell us about the accidental discovery of North America by Icelandic seafarers. Blown off course, they came upon an icy and barren land they called the Land of Flat Stones. Further south, they describe The Land of Forests, followed by Wondrous Beaches. But while the accounts differ in the details about who did what, they agree on the key character in this drama. He was Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red.
The archeological site at L’Anse aux Meadows, situated at the tip of the Canadian island of Newfoundland, proves the Vikings had set up camp there. There is also evidence from both the artifacts and saga accounts that they went much farther south. According to the sagas, the Vikings found wild grapes on their expeditions and thus named the place Vínland. Judging by the growing range of wild grapes, archeologists believe that these explorers may have visited the territory now known as the United States of America.
When I visited L’Anse aux Meadows in 2011, I was especially fascinated by a butternut (a kind of walnut) discovered at the archeological dig. These nuts are only found much further south than Newfoundland. I can imagine a member of Leif Erickson´s party picking one up, putting it in his pocket, and carrying it back to the camp.
These sagas also tell the fascinating tale of a woman named Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, who grew up in West Iceland. As a child, she’d heard stories about lands west of Greenland and vowed to marry the man who would take her there. Her father tried to change her mind, but she was a determined young lady. One day a suitor came to the farm and asked for her hand, promising to take her to the lands west of Greenland. She accepted, and shortly after that, he took her on a voyage to the west. While wintering in Greenland, he got sick and died. Guðríður went back to her father´s home and reiterated her vow to marry the man who would take her to the western lands. A second suitor married her, but history repeated itself. Once again, she got as far as Greenland and returned to Iceland a widow.
A third suitor married her and this time succeeded in taking her all the way to America. His name was Þorfinnur, nicknamed Karlsefni, or the Makings of a Man. The couple and their crew settled at L’Anse aux Meadows, where Guðríður gave birth to a son, Snorri Þorfinnsson, the first child of European ancestry born in America. The settlers stayed for about a dozen years before conflict with natives drove them to pull up stakes and return to Iceland. Guðríður lived to a ripe old age, ending her days as a nun in a convent.
Sverrir Sigurdsson is the author of Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir, available at http://getbook.at/VikingVoyager. The Icelandic translation of his book is Á Veraldarvegum, available at Penninn Eymundsson.