If you have ever read the Norse sagas, then you should know that they are some of the greatest written works in the history of human civilization. Moreover, Norse sagas are the most authentic records of ancient Nordic culture and tradition.
These oral (mostly prose) stories were passed down from generation to generation for several hundred years before they were written during the Middle Ages. In some cases sagas would be narrated in the form of complex narrative poems, although the prose was far more frequent.
Keep in mind that even though some scholars doubt that sagas are historically accurate, it's a generally accepted idea that sagas directly influenced many of today's known Norse myths and legends. Additionally, it's clear that all these epic tales had a deep impact on the people of that time and that they leave an equally great impression on us who read them today.
One of the most common themes in all Nordic tales concerns the concept of destiny. However, before I tell you more about the most famous sagas from the Viking age, let's see how and where the first sagas originated.
What Are the Norse Sagas and Where Did the First Ones Originate From?
The word saga comes from the Old Norse language and means "story." The sagas mainly refer to epic prose stories. The largest number originated in Iceland between the 12th and 15th centuries AD.
These stories describe the culture, tradition and legendary history of the Scandinavian people. Although Latin was common for writing both laws and fairy tales during the Middle Ages, the Norse sagas were written in the vernacular (the language of medieval Iceland).
In addition to Iceland, Norse sagas were also written in Norway and in other Scandinavian countries. Perhaps without even realizing it, the writers who wrote these stories created one of medieval Europe's most significant literary genres.
Although sagas began to be written in the 12th century, their origins take us to a far more distant past, to the Viking Age, and beyond. The sagas focused on the everyday life of the old Norse people, describing the problems faced by rich farmers, kings, warriors, but also other strata of society.
Depending on the topic described in them, Norse tales can be divided into several genres:
- Legendary sagas (Fornaldarsögur),
- The saga of the Knights (Riddarasögur),
- Royal Sagas (Konungasögur),
- Icelandic sagas of family sagas (Íslendingasögur),
- Contemporary sagas (Samtíðarsögur).
Although the characters from these sagas were real, the elements from their lives often do not match the archaeological evidence and historical facts. However, Norse tales are still the best source to learn more about the ancient Nordics' mentality, social structure, everyday habits, and customs.
5 Subgenres of Norse Sagas
Аs you have previously read, sagas from the Nordic Аge were divided into five subgenres. Below we will briefly describe each of them.
1. Legendary Sagas
These sagas are also known as "Sagas of ancient time" and "Mythical-heroic sagas." As the name suggests, the legendary tales describe Scandinavian heroes and prominent personalities, even before Iceland was inhabited.
These sagas generally begin by describing the protagonist's childhood. Furthermore, the hero's heroic deeds, adventures, and superiority over cruel and often supernatural opponents are described in detail. Legendary sagas abound in dragons, werewolves, and other mythical creatures that make heroes' lives more dramatic.
Also, a characteristic part of these sagas is the travels of Scandinavian heroes. According to the sagas from this subgenre, the main characters mostly met their brides on their travels. It was believed that these fateful encounters were actually fulfilled prophecies.
So, as we have already understood, the element of destiny was very important in these sagas. Some of the most famous legendary sagas are “The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok” and “The Saga of the Volsungs.”
2. The Sagas of The Knights
These sagas describe brave Scandinavian knights and mainly refer to the reign of the legendary King Arthur. Just like in the previously described genre, the Sagas of the Knights also talks about heroic growing up, adventures, fights with monsters, and often about the heroic death of the main character.
Travel was also an important part of the Knights Sagas. Examples of these sagas include "The Saga of Charlemagne" and "The Saga of Tristan and Iseult."
3. King's Sagas
Through these tales, the life of Norwegian and Danish kings was immortalized to a lesser extent. Writers of the Kings sagas focused on the key moments in the lives of the kings they wrote about. Thus, the Kings sagas described events such as the takeover of the throne, the king's conflicts with other nations, as well as their tragic deaths (mainly in battle).
The most famous tales of this type are "Circle of the World," which contains biographies of the kings of Norway, and "The Saga of King Olaf Tryggvason."
4. Sagas About Icelanders (Norse Icelandic Sagas)
These tales are also known as "Family sagas," which is why it is quite clear what they are talking about. The lives of Icelandic families, that is, their establishment of agricultural holdings during the settlement of medieval Iceland and the everyday problems that accompanied them, were the subject of the Icelandic saga subgenre.
Conflicts and the defense of honor were a very important part of the life of the Icelandic people, so it is not surprising that stories have been written about it. Thanks to these epic tales, we can learn more about the relations between the Icelandic people and the struggle for survival in harsh living conditions.
We will single out "The Saga of Njáll" and "Erik the Red's Saga," among the most famous tales from this subgenre.
5. Contemporary Sagas
The events described in these sagas are primarily set in Iceland between the 12th and 13th centuries AD. Modern tales are focused on the most powerful families who lived in Iceland at that time. Quarrels were an important element in these sagas as they described conflicts, successes, and other important events in the lives of wealthy Nordic families.
Examples of modern sagas are "The Saga of the Icelanders" and "The Saga of Sturla."
Speaking of these subgenres of the Norse sagas, we have mentioned some of the most famous sagas ever written. Now, we will describe the two most famous tales belonging to the legendary Norse tales subgenre.
Most Famous Viking Sagas
The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok
We begin the saga's retelling with the story of one of the most famous Vikings, Ragnar Lothbrok. Since not much is known about the life of this brave Viking, this saga is the complete record of his life, family, adventures, exciting travels, and dangerous battles.
The saga of Ragnar Lothbrook belongs to the subgenre of legendary sagas. Thus, it intertwines fights with mythical creatures, and, as in many Norse tales, this saga ends with Ragnar's cruel death.
The saga begins with the story of Aslaug's childhood, who will become Ragnar's second wife. According to this saga, Aslaug was the daughter of Sigurd (the famous dragon slayer) and Brunhilde (a Valkyrie from Germanic mythology). When Aslaug was three years old, her parents died, and a poor Norwegian family took care of her. Aslaug also got a new name in her new home - Kraka, so that her origin would be hidden.
Meanwhile, Ragnar grows into a handsome and brave warrior. According to the saga, Ragnar's first adventurous endeavor was to help Herrauðr (Earl of Götaland) to solve his problem with dragons. After killing a dragon, Ragnar gets the hand of Herrauðr's daughter Thora as a reward.
Thora and Ragnar had two sons, Eirek and Agnar. After Thora falls ill and dies, Ragnar meets Aslaug and remarries, not knowing anything about her origins. With her, Ragnar had four sons.
After a while, Aslaug tells Ragnar the truth about who she really is. To prove that she is telling the truth, Aslaug predicts that their next son will be born with a snake in his eyes. As a result of this prophecy, Sigurd-Snake-in-the-Eye is born.
The saga ends with Ragnar attacking England with only two ships, and is captured by Ælla, king of Northumbria. Ælla throws Ragnar into a pit of snakes, and Ragnar dies in great torment, as is typical of legendary tales.
The Saga of The Völsungs (Volsunga Saga)
The story of the Volsungs originated in the late 13th century, describing the fall of the Volsung clan. On this occasion, we will describe only the part of the saga that talks about Volsung's birth and life and includes events that describe the revenge of Volsung's eldest son, Sigmund, due to the death of his father and brothers.
Sigi and Rerir
The saga begins by describing the life of a man named Sigi, who is believed to have been Odin's son.
One day, Sigi went hunting with a slave named Bradi. When Sigi saw that Bradi's prey was bigger than his, he got terribly angry, killed him, and buried his body in the snow.
As a result of this brutal act, Sigi was convicted and declared an outlaw. However, according to the saga, Odin helped Sigi and took him to a place where warships and military troops were waiting for him. With the obtained army, Sigi became a successful conqueror and a powerful king who ruled Hunland.
Sigi had one son named Rerir, who, in time, became an even more powerful king than his father. As Rerir could not have children for a long time, he and his wife prayed to the gods to give them children. Their prayers were heard by Frigg (Odin's wife) and transmitted to Odin.
Odin then gave the apple to one of his wish-maiden and told her to hand it over to Rerir. The girl transformed into a crow, flew to Rerir, and dropped an apple in his lap. Rerir immediately understood the purpose of the apple, so he ate a bite and went to the queen.
Shortly afterward, the queen learns that she is pregnant. However, King Rerir dies. Instead of the usual nine months, it is written in the saga that the queen's pregnancy lasted as long as six years. Realizing that she would not live long, the queen ordered the child to be taken out of her.
When they took out the boy, he was already an adult, he kissed his mother, and she died. The son was named Volsung and became the new king of Hunland.
Together with his wife Hljod, Volsung had ten sons, the eldest of whom, Sigmund, had a twin sister named Signy.
Further, according to the saga, King Volsung built a beautiful palace from whose main hall grew a large tree with branches passing through the palace's roof. The tree is called "Bernstock."
Sword in a Tree
One day, King Siggeir (ruler of Gautland, in Scotland) came to Volsung to seek the hand of his daughter Signy. Despite Signy's opposition to marriage, her father agreed to the proposal.
One evening, a tall, unknown, one-eyed man who was believed to be Odin, entered the palace's main hall. The man approached the "Bernstock" tree and drove the sword blade into the tree all the way to the handle. He said he gives the sword to anyone who can pull it out of the tree. After that, he left.
Of all those present, only Sigmund managed to draw the sword out of the tree. Siggeir offered gold three times heavier than the sword in exchange for the sword, but Sigmund did not agree to the exchange. He said the sword should not have belonged to Siggeir as he could not draw it.
Sigeir decided to take revenge on Sigmund for these words one day.
The following day Siggeir and Signy left the palace, inviting King Volsung and his sons to visit him in Gatland.
Death of King Volsung
At the agreed time, Volsung and his sons came to King Siggeir's palace. However, immediately upon arrival, Signy warns them that Siggeir is preparing a trap for them and begs them to go home and return with a large army.
Volsung did not want to heed her warning. The next morning, Siggeir attacked them, and Volsung and all his men were killed. Only Volsung's sons survived.
Signy suggested to her husband that he capture her brothers instead of killing them immediately, hoping to find a way to save them later.
Siggeir agrees to Signy's proposal and makes a prison in the woods where he imprisons Volsung's sons. Every night the brothers were attacked by a she-wolf who killed them one by one. The killings took place for nine nights until only Volsung's eldest son, Sigmund, survived.
When Signy heard of her brother's fate, she ordered a servant to smear honey on Sigmund's face and put some honey in his mouth. When the wolf came to kill Sigmund, he started licking honey from his face.
The moment the wolf tried to lick the honey from Sigmund's mouth as well, according to the saga, Sigmund bit him so hard that the wolf jerked in pain and broke the trap in half. Sigmund then fled.
After Sigmund escaped with the help of his sister, he built an underground hiding place where he lived freely. The two of them forged a plan of revenge, and Signy decided to use the two sons she had given birth to for that purpose.
Together with her brother, Signy tested the courage of her sons. As the boys were not brave enough, Signy ordered them to kill themselves.
The saga then says that Signy asked a powerful sorceress to change shapes. And so, the sorceress spent three consecutive nights in bed with Siggeir in Signa's body while Signy slept with her brother Sigmund.
After three nights, Signy returned to her body, and after a while, she gave birth to a son whom she named Sinfjotli. The boy's father was her brother Sigmund, but he did not know that.
Signy wanted to avenge the death of her father and brothers with the help of her son, and she also gave him tests of courage. Unlike his brothers, Sinfjotli proved his extraordinary courage, thanks to which he remained alive.
Magical Wolf Skin
Sigmund wanted the boy to become cruel, so he took him with him to commit robberies through the forest, where they killed many people. One day they came across two men sleeping and hanging wolf skins over them. Sigmund and Sinfjotli took the wolf's skin and put it on. However, when they wanted to take it off, they did not succeed. The wolf skins were magical. They began to howl like wolves, wandered through the woods, and continued to kill people.
When they finally managed to get rid of these magical skins, they threw them into the fire and burned them. After Sigmund was convinced that Sinfjotli was mature enough, he took him to King Siggeir's estate to take revenge.
The first act of revenge was the murder of two small children who Signy and Siggeir got in the meantime. When Siggeir heard that Sinfjotli had killed his children, a fierce fight ensued. Sigmund and Sinfjotli were captured, and Siggeir ordered that they be buried alive in a stone tomb. Before the tomb closed, Signi threw a bundle of straw inside in which Sigmund's sword was hidden.
Thanks to the sword, Sigmund found a way out of the mound. After their escape, Sigmund and Sinfjotli set King Siggeir on fire. While the king was burning, the two of them told him that he must know that the Volsungs were not dead. Signi went into flames and died along with Siggeir.
Sigmund returned to his homeland together with Sinfjotli and regained Volsung's kingdom.
What Can We Say at The End About the old Norse Sagas?
As we said at the beginning, many experts reject the possibility that sagas can be considered a reliable historical source, and therefore these tales are considered "historical fiction." However, the details described in these tales greatly help us to understand the past of the old Norse people. In fact, we can say that sagas are experiences that were remembered and passed down from generation to generation until they began to be written down.
Therefore, Norse sagas are the best source that brings us closer to people's lives during the Viking Age.
Until our next meeting,