What are the Icelandic Sagas?
The Icelandic Sagas are a large body of literature written during the medieval period about the history of Iceland and the families who lived there in the 9th, 10th, and 11th century. This period is known in Iceland as the “Saga Age” as opposed to the more common “Viking Age”. What makes the Icelandic Sagas special is that they are considered to be the most genuine glimpse into Viking Age society available. They stand in contrast to other sources, such as the various Christian chronicles, which were predominantly written by outside observers with a specific point to make.
The historicity of the Icelandic Sagas
Unfortunately, it is well known that the sagas were written centuries after the events they portend to describe. This poses a veritable problem for historians seeking to assess their historicity. How the stories contained therein survived into the medieval period was no doubt a result of an enduring oral tradition in Iceland. These stories, therefore, would have been commonly known and told at the time they were translated into the written word. Yet, as we know from studying other ancient cultures and societies, oral tradition tends to change certain aspects of stories and include a variety of fabrications. The question therefore becomes: how much of the Icelandic Sagas is history, and how much is fabrication? Ultimately, there is no definitive answer.
Using the sagas to Approach Viking Society
Outside of the body of archeological evidence, we realistically know very little about the cultural customs of the Vikings. Since they left no written record, piecing together their society has been extremely difficult. When dealing with this time period, it is not uncommon for historians to not entirely discount certain sources just because they were written post-fact. For example, the Russian Primary Chronicle is often cited as a source for piecing together the early history of the Muscovy state, even though the author takes tremendous allegorical and metaphorical artistic license in his description of certain events.
In this same way, the Icelandic Sagas are a commonly cited source for reconstructing Viking Age Scandinavian and Icelandic society. What makes historians comfortable in pointing to the Icelandic Sagas is their structure. Most of the sagas, written in prose, recount events in a linear, matter-of-fact manner that is not particularly embellished or fantastical (though there are exceptions). We must be cautious, however, in using the sagas to describe Viking Age society as a whole. Scandinavians at the time, although culturally distinct from other peoples of Europe, were a fragmented population who, in all likelihood, had significant cultural variations from one region to another, especially toward the end of the Viking Age in the 11th century. Therefore, the Icelandic Sagas should be cited with caution when speaking about Vikings from other regions.
What do the Icelandic Sagas tell us?
First and foremost, the sagas focus heavily on genealogy and family history. In so doing, the authors offer us a glimpse into the more mundane aspects of the lives of Icelanders at the time. For example, we learn through the sagas that family units consisted of 10 to 20 people who lived together in one longhouse, often with multiple child-bearing couples living in the same space, and often with multiple generations (this has also been supported through archeology). We learn that children were expected to work and contribute to the farm, and that society, at least as far as the family unit was concerned, was fairly egalitarian. From some of the passages, we may even deduce the Viking Diet, although this is mostly conjecture.
What we also learn from the sagas are a variety of cultural norms, as well as problems, of the day. The sagas tell of the courtship process, marriage, and even stories of marital problems. One such passage is the story of Helga, in the Saga of Gunnlaug Ormstungu, who, upon learning that her husband had deceived her into marriage, forever denied him intimacy. The sagas further expound on issues as diverse as fostering children, adoption, blood-oaths, among many others.
Of course the Icelandic Sagas also focus on conflict, warfare, and some government, but many of these things are fairly well documented by other sources, such as the Landnámabók (the Book of Settlements), so the Icelandic Sagas are but one more addition to these sources.
Where can I read the Icelandic Sagas?
There is a website dedicated to the online publication of the Icelandic Sagas, and they have multiple translations of each text. It is a treasure-trove for those interested in the history of Iceland and the history of Vikings in general. Visit The Icelandic Saga Database today to start reading and exploring.