Viking Age Iceland: Sagas’ Historical Roots

A picture of Leif Eirksson's statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

This is Part 12 of our ongoing series about Viking Age Iceland. For centuries, this island country, unique in Medieval Europe, operated with no king, no great lords, no foreign policy, and no defense forces but which developed legal and judicial systems to limit the violence of bloodfeud and protect the rights of freemen. Far out in the North Atlantic, Iceland was where the famous sagas developed. To explore Iceland’s place in the medieval world, we present selections from Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland that investigate the history, archaeology, culture, systems of feud, and sagas of this magical place.

Whereas other European peoples often understood their historical roots in highly mythic terms, involving gods and semi-divine heroes, the Icelanders developed their sagas, a quasi-historical, linear reckoning of the past. They recognized that the origins of their community were not timeless or even very distant, but encapsulated in the relatively recent, memorable events of the Viking Age settlement of Iceland and the century following it. Collectively the family sagas are the Icelandic foundation myth. They can be described as a series of stories about a migration of farmers that are decidedly more history and legend than stories of mythic origin. These stories evolved over a period of centuries, providing later generations with an adaptable vehicle of social memory.[1] The sagas helped an immigrant people form a coherent sense of who they were, explaining how the traditional freeman values, so important to the Icelanders’ self-image, came to the island. Tradition in medieval Iceland was not a block of historical fact. Nor was it a fixed text. Tradition was a living and growing heritage of quasi-factual social recollection that served as the thematic core of each saga story, uniting saga-teller and audience with life in the Icelandic environment, past and present.

The family and the Sturlunga sagas are invaluable sources for exploring the establishment and functioning of social order in early Iceland.[2] Together with the medieval laws and modern studies of the environment and archaeology, these written sources depict the workings of an island society that from the tenth to the thirteenth century was marked by strong continuity as well as by change. The sagas are a window into otherwise lost worlds of private life, social values and material culture. No other European society has such a detailed literature recounting its origin and development. The word saga is connected with the verb “to say” (segja), and means both history and story. Not folk tales, epics, romances or chronicles, the sagas are mostly realistic stories about everyday issues confronting Icelandic farmers and their chieftains. They centre on disputes and feuds over insults, land, chieftaincies, seductions, inheritance, love, bodily injuries and missing livestock. There are passages of ecological description as well as claims to chattels, accusations of witchcraft, hauntings, fights over beached whales, scurrilous or erotic verses, cheating and stealing, harbouring of outlaws, and struggles for local status.

Focusing on conflicts and crisis situations, the sagas tell of virtue and deceit as well as the banality and humor of everyday life. We see a chilling picture of the hardships experienced by small farmers living with limited resources. The literature describes in detail the machinations of those aspiring to power and the responses of their weaker prey, who were often unable to undertake lawsuits in their own defence or to protect their lands from encroachment. The issue of the sagas as sources is treated in detail in Chapter 8. Here it is sufficient to point out that continued adherence to the older view, stressing only the literary value of the family sagas, is self-defeating. Because the sagas have literary value does not mean that they are devoid of sociological information. Medieval Icelanders wrote the sagas about themselves and for themselves. By exploring saga literature in conjunction with the other sources, we come a step closer to unearthing the essence of Iceland’s functioning medieval society.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland


[1] Fentress and Wickham 1992: 134 and 163-72; Byock 1984-, 1998.

[2] I list modern translations of the sagas in the Biblography under their individual titles.

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