Sacred Texts  Legends and Sagas  Iceland  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book on Kindle

The Norse Discovery of America, by A.M Reeves, N.L. Beamish and R.B. Anderson, [1906], at

p. 162


WE have thus seen how the desire to tell of old times arose and was propagated amongst the inhabitants of the new colony. But the remembrance and relation of individual exploits, and the transmission of these records from one generation to the other, would perhaps have never led to the Icelanders becoming historians had not such habits been united with a strong feeling for poetry, a desire for fame, and that peculiar state of society which had been formed amongst them.

The Island had been colonized in peace; each enterprising navigator as he touched its shore took possession of a tract of land without impediment, and became the independent proprietor of his small estate; but now these settlements approached each other; interests began to clash; individual demeanour to become developed. The social bonds had been too loosely attached to keep within due limits the wild self will of so many impetuous Northmen. True, their ancient Norwegian customs had been spontaneously resumed on their arrival, and fifty years later (A. D. 928), the laws of Ulfliot had given a form and consistency to the moral code; but these checks had little weight when individual power or interest were enabled to oppose them. Personal strength was necessary for personal safety; and the many narratives which have been preserved, detailing the untimely fate of the most respectable families in the course of the first two centuries, exhibit a long list of feuds and deeds of violence unchecked by the laws or the judicial authority of the land.

p. 163

These civil broils were not, however, in general, of a very sanguinary character, and often consisted of individual encounters, where courage and presence of mind were equally exhibited on both sides, and the contest was obstinate: in a more general fray the loss was looked upon as considerable if ten men fell.

The time of feud was also a time of re-union: the object of the individual was spread abroad; discussion was created, sympathy was awakened; the relative merits of the contending parties became the theme of conversation, and the Skalds were stimulated to the composition of new specimens of their inspiring art. On particular occasions they improvised. Hate as well as love formed the theme of these effusions, and the same means were employed to give a graceful form to satire, in which style of composition these ancient poets were remarkably successful: in fact, so cutting were these sallies, and of so much weight among a people peculiarly under the influence of public opinion, that they often became the causes of bloodshed, and were looked upon as a ground of complaint before the Courts. 1 For the most part, however, the songs were of an historical character; sometimes the Skald sang of his own exploits, sometimes of those of his friends, who upon such occasions were accustomed to present him with costly gifts: After the Norwegian Skald, Eyvind Skialdespilder, had sung a Drapa or ode in praise of the Icelanders, every peasant in the island contributed three pieces of silver, which were applied to the purchase of a clasp or ornament for a mantel

p. 164

that weighed 50 marks and this they sent to the bard, as an acknowledgment of his poetic powers.

The climate and mode of living contributed to keep alive this taste for poetry, which the Icelanders had inherited from their Norwegian ancestors. Agriculture was almost entirely confined to the care of pasture and meadow land; fishing could only be carried on at certain seasons, and the feeding of cattle required little attention. Their hostile proceedings were also soon concluded; but was a reprisal apprehended, it became necessary for the chief to retain his followers at the farm until a reconciliation was brought about, and these assemblages in the common room, during the long winter evenings, contributed to increase the social union and reciprocal communication of past events. Public amusements also brought the people frequently together: besides the great feasts, which lasted from eight to fourteen days, sports and games, such as bowls or wrestling, were carried on in the several districts for many weeks in succession; and still more attractive was the Heste-thing, where stallions were made to fight against each other, to the great amusement of both old and young. To these reunions must be added those caused by attendance at the different courts, and particularly at the Althing 1 or general Assizes, where all the first men of the island met annually, with great pomp and parade. It was looked upon as a disgrace to be absent from this meeting, which was held in the open air on the banks of the Thingvalla Vatn, the largest lake in Iceland, a natural hill or mount forming the court.

To figure here with a display and retinue that drew upon him the eyes of all beholders, was the great ambition of the

p. 165

[paragraph continues] Chief, whose power and influence depended much upon the number of friends and followers he could produce on such occasions. These were again determined by the degree of support and assistance which they could calculate on obtaining from him in the hour of need; and hence the anxiety on the part of the Icelandic yeoman to be fully acquainted with the character and circumstances of his chief, to which cause may be more immediately attributed the interest which he took in all new Sagas or narratives of remarkable individuals.

In the Laxdæla Saga 1 it is related that, after a brave Icelander, named Bolle Bolleson, had gallantly defeated an assailant, by whom he had been attacked in the course of a journey through the island, his exploit became the subject of a new Saga, which quickly spread over the district and added considerably to his reputation. In Gisle Sursens Saga, a stranger is introduced, saying to his neighbours at the court--"Shew me the men of great deeds, those from whom the Sagas proceed."

The greater number of the remaining Sagas bear what may be called a political stamp; they contain a detail of the most important disputes between individual families, or districts, painted in the most minute manner, and followed by a general description of the most important personages in the narrative. How much weight was attached to these personal descriptions is shewn by the nature of the Icelandic language, which is richer than any other European tongue in words that express those various qualities and shades of character which are of the most importance in society. The exterior of the chief person in the Saga is

p. 166

also painted with equal accuracy, especially his features, in which the richness of the language is also observable; and even the particulars of the dress are not omitted. This was of importance in a country where it was not always easy to determine whether the stranger who made his appearance was friend or foe, and a remarkable instance is mentioned in the Laxdæla Saga of a chief named Helge Hardbeinsen identifying some stranger knights, whom he had never seen, solely from the accurate description of their personal appearance, which was brought to him by the messenger who communicated the intelligence of their approach.

The same characteristics are imprinted on the Sagas. The peculiarities of the narrator never appear; it is as if one only heard the simple echo of an old tradition; no introductory remarks are made, but the history begins at once abruptly with:--"There was a man called so and so, son of so and so," etc.: no judgment is pronounced upon the transaction, but it is merely added that this deed increased the hero's reputation, or that was considered bad. In most Sagas the dialogistic form prevails, particularly in those of more ancient date, for this form was natural to the people, who insensibly threw their narratives into dialogue, and thus they acquired a more poetical colouring; for not only were the conversations related which had actually taken place, but also those which from the nature of the subject it might have been concluded had been held; and the general mode of expression being simple and nearly uniform, and the character being best developed in this definite form, those imaginary conversations were, for the most part, not inconsistent with truth.

The talent for narrating was naturally generated by the desire of hearing these narratives. Those Skalds who remembered

p. 167

the old Sagas, and whose imagination was lively, were best enabled to adopt the dramatic form, and now, independent of their local or political interest, the narratives became interesting on their own account. Scarce a century after the colonization of the country we find that the people took great pleasure in this amusement. "Is no one come," asks Thorvard, at a meeting of the people mentioned in Viga Glums Saga, "who can amuse us with a new story?" They answered him: "There is always sport and amusement when thou are present." He replied: "I can think of nothing better than Glum's songs," upon which he sang one of those which he had learned. In the Sturlunga Saga a certain priest, named Ingemund, is mentioned as a man rich in knowledge, who told good stories, afforded much amusement, and indited good songs for which he obtained payment abroad. Such a narrator was called a Sagaman.

Thus did oral tradition, beginning with the mythic, proceed thence to the historical and end with the fabulous. We have now come to the period when books were written and collected in the island; but in order to trace the cause of that peculiar fondness for their own history, which led the Icelanders not only to become the historians of Iceland but of the whole North, it is necessary to go back to the earlier condition of the country and the people.

It may at first sight appear that the local position of this remote island would be alone sufficient to prevent the inhabitants from taking any interest in the affairs of other countries; but the communication with Norway continued; the migration from thence lasted for many generations, even after the island was colonized, and many merchant ships passed annually between Iceland and the parent state. They brought with them meal, building-timber, leather, fine

p. 168

cloth and tapestry, taking in exchange silver, skins, coarse cloth (Wadmel), and other kinds of wollens, as well as dried fish.

As soon as it was known that a merchant had brought a cargo to the Icelandic coast the chief of the temple, and in later times the governor of the province, rode down immediately to the ship and asked for news; he then fixed the price at which the various goods were to be sold to the people of the district, chose what he wanted for himself, and invited the captain of the vessel to stop at his house for the winter. The visitor was now looked upon as one of the family, he entered into their amusements, and disputes, entertained them at Yule with his stories, and presented his host at parting with a piece of English tapestry, or some other costly gift, in return for the hospitality which he had received. Piratical expeditions had at this time given place to trading voyages, and the merchant or ship's captain was often a person of good family sometimes attached to the Norwegian Court, and hence well acquainted with ail that was passing there. How much this intercourse tended to the increase of historical material is shown by an old MS. of St. Olafs Saga, wherein is stated that:--"In the time of Harald Haarfager there was much sailing from Norway to Iceland; every summer was news communicated between the two countries, and this was afterwards remembered, and became the subject of narratives."

The Icelanders not only received intelligence from Norway, but brought it away themselves. They were led to undertake these voyages as well from the desire to see their relations, and claim inheritances, as for the purpose of procuring more valuable building-timber than the merchant could bring them. The chief considered that his reputation


Click to enlarge



p. 169

depended much upon the number of persons he could entertain, and for this purpose a spacious hall was required. This formed a separate building, in the midst of which the cheerful wood fire blazed upwards to an aperture in the roof, unchecked by ceilings or partition walls:--

The drinking hall, a separate house, was built
Of heart of fir; not twice three hundred men
Could fill that hall, when gather'd there at Yule.

    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

The cheerful faggot on the straw-strewn floor
Unceasing blazed, gladdening its stony hearth,
While downwards through the dense smoke shot the stars,
Those heavenly friends, upon the guests below.

The adventurous stripling, on the other hand, sailed to Norway for the purpose of there engaging in a sea-roving expedition, or seeking advancement amongst his influential kinsmen; and thus many earned renown at the courts of the Norwegian kings, or entered into mercantile pursuits in order to obtain wealth, or experience and consideration. For the old Northern maxim of "a fool is the home-bred child," also held good in Iceland, and therefore do we find Bolle Bollesen saying to his father-in-law Snorre Gode, who wished to dissuade him from going abroad: "Little do I think he knows who knows no more than Iceland." Trading was often undertaken by young men solely as the means of acquiring knowledge, which being accomplished, the pursuit was given up.

After the lapse of a few centuries this passion for travelling was increased by a new cause which had more immediate influence upon the collection of historical materials.

p. 170

The Skalds passed over to England, the Orkneys, and the Norwegian courts, seeking rewards and reputation. They neither required the aid of friends nor money for such expeditions, but boldly entering the drinking hall of the kings craved permission to sing a drapa in praise of the monarch, which was always granted, and the bard received handsome presents, such as weapons, clothes, gold rings, together with an honourable reception at the court, in return for his exertions.

The Icelandic Skalds, favoured by the independent position of their country, and a superior knowledge of the Scandinavian mythology, acquired a marked pre-eminence over their competitors in other parts of the North. The praises of a stranger bard, from a free country, were more flattering to a king or chieftain than the more servile adulation of his own laureate; and it was but reasonable, as well as politic, to reward him well who had come from so great a distance, and who, travelling from land to land, could sound the king's praise and tell of the royal bounty. The odes thus sung were all of an historical character; and it was therefore necessary for the Skald to be well acquainted with the deeds of the monarch and his ancestors. It was also required of him that he should be able to repeat the national ballads; and the extraordinary power of the Skalds in this particular is shown in the saga of the blind Skald Stuf, who one evening sang sixty songs before Harald Haardraade, and could repeat four times as many longer poems!

But if a knowledge of history was of importance to the Skald, it was absolutely indispensable to the Sagaman. A remarkable anecdote of one of these narrators is contained in the Saga of Thorstein Frode, preserved in the Arne-Magnæan


Click to enlarge



p. 171

collection of Icelandic MSS.; 1 a certain Sagaman, called Thorstein, repaired to King Harald of Norway. The Brig asked him "whether he knew anything that would amuse." He replied that he knew a few sagas. "I will receive thee," said the king, "and thou shalt entertain whoever requires it of thee." Thorstein became favoured by the courtiers, and obtained clothes from them; the king also gave him a good sword.

Towards Yule 2 he became sorrowful; the king guessed the cause, namely, that his Sagas were at an end, and that he had nothing for Yule. He answered that so it was; he had one remaining, and that he durst not tell, for it was about the king's journeys. The king said that he should begin with that the first day of Yule, and he (the king) would take care

p. 172

that it should last to the end of the festival. The thirteenth day Thorstein's Saga came to an end, and now he looked anxiously for the judgment of the king who said smiling: "It is not the worse told because thou hast a talent therefor, but where didst thou get it?" Thorstein answered: "It is my custom to repair every summer to the Althing in our land, and there I learn the sagas which Haldor Snorreson relates." The king said: "Then it is no wonder thou knowest them so well," and upon this, gave him a good ship load; and now Thorstein passed often between Norway and Iceland.

To comprehend how such a narrative could have lasted thirteen days, we must presume that the dialogistic form was freely used, and that the story was interrupted and decorated with verses and poetical allusions to a considerable extent. The anecdote also shows that while Sagamen were of later origin than Skalds, they also stood in lower estimation; the Skald was enrolled amongst the courtiers; the Sagaman was only looked upon as an amusing visitor.

In the 11th century, the Icelanders ceased to engage in piratical expeditions; the chiefs, whose power and riches had increased, looked with contempt on trading voyages; but on the other hand it was often a result of their feuds, that one of the parties was obliged to leave the country for a few years. Sometimes also they engaged in a voluntary pilgrimage to Rome. Such an expedition went first to Denmark, where it was always well received by the Danish kings, and more particularly in the 13th century we find the Icelandic chiefs drawing forth expressions of respect and esteem at the court of Valdemar II.

All these travellers were sure to return home after a few years and establish themselves in Iceland, nor could the

p. 173

most flattering reception at foreign courts abate their inherent love of country. Thus King Harald Gormson could not prevail upon Gunnar of Hlidarende to remain at his court, although he held out the temptations of a wife and fortune; and hence says Hakon to Finboge Ramme, "That is just the way with you Icelanders! the moment you are valued and favoured by princes, you want to get away." When the travelled man came home he was received with the greatest attention; he was instantly sought out at the Althing, and now he must make a public statement of his travels and adventures. The curiosity of Icelanders is proverbial, and seems to be in proportion to their distance from the continent. If a ship arrived, the people instantly ran down to the shore to ask for news, unless the chief of the district (Herredsforstanderen) had ruled that he should be the first. Thorstein Ingemundson, a hospitable man, who lived in the 10th century, looked upon it as the duty of every stranger to visit him first; and he was once highly exasperated with some strangers who neglected this courtesy. When Kiartan, mentioned in the history of Olaf Tryggveson, had returned from Norway, and was grieving over the infidelity of his betrothed, his father was most distressed at the people thus losing the benefit of his stories; and when he was afterwards married, and a splendid wedding took place on the island, nothing amused the guests more than the bridegroom's narratives of his services under the great King Olaf Tryggveson. However desirous the new comer might be to learn what had happened during his absence from home, be was always first obliged to tell his countrymen the news from abroad. A remarkable illustration of this is given in the life of Bishop Magnus, who returned from Saxony by Norway (A. D. 1135), just as the

p. 174

people were assembled at the Althing, and were loudly contending upon a matter respecting which no unanimity could be obtained. A messenger suddenly appears among the crowd, and states that the Bishop is riding up. Upon this they all become so pleased that they instantly leave the court, and the Bishop is obliged to parade on a height near the church, and tell all the people what had happened in Norway whilst he was abroad!

Such a narrative, told by a person of veracity, went from mouth to mouth, under the name of the first narrator, which was looked upon as a security for the truth of the Saga.


163:1 "As an instance of the effect produced by these satirical songs, it is related that Harold Blaatand, King of Denmark, was so incensed at some severe lines which the Icelanders had made upon him for seizing one of their ships, that he sent a fleet to ravage the island, which occurrence led them to make a law subjecting any one to capital punishment who should indulge in satire against the Sovereigns of Norway, Sweden and Denmark!"

164:1 Ting or Thing signifies in the old Scandinavian tongue to speak, and hence a popular assembly, or court of justice. The national assembly of Norway still retains the name of Stor-thing, or great meeting, and is divided into two chambers called the Lag-thing, and Odels-thing.

165:1 The annals of a particular family, as the Eyrbiggia Saga is of a particular district in Iceland. The former has been translated into Latin by Mr. Repp, and Sir Waiter Scott has given a brief account of the other.

169:1 Frithiof's Saga.

171:1 Arne Magnussen, a learned Icelander and ardent patriot, devoted his time, talents, and fortune to the national literature of his country. Filling the situation of Professor of Northern Antiquaries at the University of Copenhagen, in the beginning of the 18th century, he amassed the largest collection of books and manuscripts that has, perhaps, ever been brought together by one individual. Amongst these are the rarest and most ancient vellum MSS. in the old northern tongue, relating to the history, laws, manners, and customs of the ancient Scandinavians. The great fire of Copenhagen, in 1728, robbed the devoted antiquary of many of these often dearly purchased treasures; but he recommenced his labours with undiminished zeal, and although then in his 65th year, was enabled to leave to his country, at his death (A. D. 1730), nearly 2000 Icelandic MSS., together with a fund of 10,000 rix dollars for their publication. Little progress was made towards carrying the testator's wishes into effect until a commission, called the Arne-Magnæan commission, was instituted by the King of Denmark, in 1772, soon after which the publication commenced, and all the most important MSS, have been given to the public by this society. The collection is called the Arne-Magnæan collection, and is preserved in the University Library of Copenhagen.

171:2 Yule was a pagan festival, celebrated in honor of Thor, at the beginning of February, when the Northmen's year commenced, and they offered sacrifices for peace and fruitful seasons to this deity, who presided over the air, launched the thunder, and guarded mankind from giants and genii; it lasted 14 days. Etymologists differ as to the derivation of the name, but the most probable seems to be the supposition that it was so called from Jolner, one of the many names for Odin, the father of Thor. After the introduction of Christianity, the anniversary of Yule was transferred to Christmas, which is still called by that name throughout Scandinavia. The word Yule is also used In many parts of Scotland to denote the same festive period, shewing the early connection of the Caledonians with their more northern neighbours, and tending to confirm the conjecture of Tacitus, as, well as the accounts of ancient English chroniclers, that the Picts were of northern descent, or as Moore expressively says, "from the same hive of northern adventurers, who were then pouring forth their predatory swarms over Europe."

Next: Third Period