The Viking Sagas (BBC The Viking Sagas Documentary)

During the High Middle Ages, in a relatively remote part of the world, some of the most renowned historical manuscripts of all time were written. As opposed to what contemporary authors wrote about in mainland Europe throughout the Middle Ages (stories about brave knights and princesses for instance), it was in Iceland that the first manuscripts involving the lives of common people were written by the Icelandic chroniclers.

Skogar museum in Iceland. Image source:

These stories of common people that lived their lives by herding, fishing and farming along the coastlines of Iceland commencing from the late part of the 9th century are documented in the old Norse sagas. The Norse sagas were written by medieval Icelandic authors, but their real identities remain a mystery to this day.

Only the identity of an author who is believed to have written ‘Egil’s saga’, namely Snorri Sturluson, is somehow credited, as he was the descendant of the saga’s heroic figure. Nonetheless, whether or not Sturluson wrote ‘Egil’s saga’ remains a debatable matter among many scholars.

The goal of the sagas was to share, from generation to generation, the stories of the Norsemen based on historical events and major milestones in regards of exploration, mapping and colonisation. These stories were also largely based on real people and their deeds.

The sagas were as such written for historical reasons, and relied significantly on genealogy as well as on the conflict and the struggle that arose in early medieval Iceland among the second and third generation Icelanders during the 10th and 11th centuries.

A page from Njáls saga, from a 14th century Icelandic chronicle entitled ‘Möðruvallabók’. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, this literary heritage is still present among Icelanders, as one tenth of Iceland’s population already published a book. The Icelandic language is descended from the Old West Norse dialect of the Old Norse language that the first Norwegian settlers brought with them in Iceland during the end of the 9th century when they started to colonise the coastal areas.

Furthermore, to date, given its geographic isolation from other idioms, the Icelandic language is one of the two North Germanic languages that are the most closest related to Old Norse, on par with Faroese. 

In the purpose of understanding the early Icelandic literature, below you can watch a documentary made by BBC Four on the Norse sagas, their main points of interest, and how they were conceived:

Documentation sources and external links:

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5 Responses to The Viking Sagas (BBC The Viking Sagas Documentary)

  1. Alice MacDonald Long says:

    Since learning through the Big Y DNA test at Family Tree DNA, we learned that our earliest Scottish MacDonald was Somerled who genetically was a match to the men in Norway. Since that time, I’ve been fascinated on the people who lived in Norway and explored as far west as the United States and Canada.

  2. […] un historiador del siglo XI. Su leyenda también se ha transmitido a través de las denominadas Sagas islandesas, un compendio de textos elaborados 200 años después de que los vikingos saquearan Europa y que, […]

  3. On Icelandic Sagas: The genealogies that these sagas usually start with, and which are a bit tedious to read for the uninitiated, are there to establish the readers / listeners relationship to the story, and to aquatint them to the story of their ancestors. Why was this important? We have to relate this to the time, and the reasons Iceland was settled. The leaders of the settlement groups were leaders in the areas they came from, which was not only from Norway as one might think from the text above, but also from the Norse settlements in the Irish sea and the British Isles. The descendants of these leaders would for some time after settling in Iceland, have nourished hope of being able to reclaim their possessions and even titles that their forbears had enjoyed. In order to do this, they had to know their history. This is perhaps the reason for the initial energy invested in remembering the stories. As time went on and the descendants gradually became descendants of the slaves as well as the leaders, the identity gradually became Icelandic, and the stories a communal heritage.

  4. Richard Varga says:

    “A BRITISH WOMAN SETTLED ICELAND” ? More likely she was considered Norse or Scottish Gaelic. No one was considered British for many generations to come. Ethnically/culturally they were a mixed bunch. Genetically they were Scots, Norse, Danes, Irish, Saxons, Angles as they still are today throughout the British Isles , Iceland, Greenland with a strain of Norman French as well. Read: A True-born Englishman.

    • Auður djupuðga (Aud, sometimes referred to as Unn the deep minded), had a Norwegian father and likely a Gaelic mother. She grew up in Dal-Riada, a west-Scottish kingdom, and settled in Hvammur Dala-sysla in west Iceland. You are correct, she would probably have been considered Norse, and again you are correct, Icelandic settlers were a mixed bunch of mostly west-Norwegian Gaelic stock, but mixed with every other ethnicity that was present in the British isles at the time.

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