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 who lived their lives by herding, fishing, farming, and settling along the coastlines of Iceland starting 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.

Regardless of the debated authorship, the main goal of the sagas was to share, from generation to generation, the ancestral stories of the Norsemen based on historical events and major milestones achieved by them in regards to exploration, mapping, and colonisation (as well as other heroic deeds or even family feuds as it was the case of the Vikings in Iceland in e.g. Njáls saga). These stories were also largely based on real people and their deeds over a certain period of time.

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. These descendants were a Norse-Gaelic mixture actually which resulted from the admixture of Norwegian settlers from present-day south-western Norway and their Gaelic thralls (i.e. slaves) from Scotland and Ireland. However, there were not only thralls among the Gaelic settlers of Iceland. On the contrary, there were also noblemen, noblewomen, and their free men/women companions who joined them over the North Atlantic from the British Isles to Iceland.

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. At the same time though, it is important to mention that Icelandic also has a considerable amount of Gaelic words (not only limited to place names).

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

For 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:

Liked it? Take a second to support Victor Rouă on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

9 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.

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Indeed, very well pointed! Thank you so much for your great comments, readership, and time on The Dockyards! Your knowledge and shared information are very valuable to the Norse history section of this website and very appreciated by me! All the best! Tusen takk for din hjelp og kunnskap! Beste hilsener!

  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.

      • Victor Rouă says:

        Indeed, very well said. Aud the Deep-Minded (Ketilsdóttir) was very likely (if not certainly) perceived as a Norse settler, even if she was of mixed Hiberno-Norse descent. I also feel or have a personal theory (which can be supported by some genetic claims by deCode genetics) that there is a certain Inuit/Greenladic amount of DNA in the Icelanders, that is in the larger gene pool of the Icelandic people. This is very interesting and quite fascinating. For example, renowned Icelandic singer-songwriter and artist Björk (very talented, creative, and beautiful at the same time) seems to have a bit of a Greelandic gene as well. And this isn’t quite that far fetched as Icelandic Vikings traded with the other Vikings in Greenland and multicultural intermarriage between the Norse and other ethnicities was quite well established until that point in history.

        For example, as you pointed out very well, the Norse traded with the Asians as well back in mainland Europe on several Eurasian trade routes leading inwards throughout Norway and the entire Scandinavia peninsula for that matter and the Norwegians also intermixed with the Kvenns and the Sámi (the former being culturally assimilated by the Norwegians, as you know very well, though not entirely, of course) along the passing of time. The Kven people as well as the Sámi and Finns had a fearful reputation as powerful wizards back in the day. This can also be discovered through the literary works of Inkling members J. R. R. Tolkien and Roger Lancelyn Green (particularly in The Story of Kullervo and Myths of the Norsemen). All the best!

    • Victor Rouă says:

      British in a geographic sense, not in an ethnic one. Hence the confusion. All the best!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.