Almost a thousand years after stories of the Germanic Burgundians were first told, an unknown Icelandic scribe wrote down an accurate description of the events and personages of the 5th century CE, based only on the legends of his people. This incredible feat of oral history was powerful — and to understand its implications, we have to get inside the heads of the Christian Icelanders who looked to their pagan past for a proud literary tradition. Here, we shall attempt to do just that, examining just how accurate the Viking sagas really are.
What Are the Viking Sagas?
At their simplest, the Viking sagas are a body of literature that was mostly written by Icelanders in the 13th century CE. Saga is an Old Norse word meaning “a thing that is said” — it’s roughly analogous to the ancient Greek muthon (“things that are said”, from where we get our word myth), as opposed to ergon (“things that are done”). Thus, we can broadly conceive of the sagas as oral tales about a central figure or figures that recount the deeds of characters from Viking mythology and history. As we shall see, debate still rages as to whether the Norse themselves made a meaningful distinction between these two modern categories — myth and history.
The Sagas take the form of long prose tales that frequently use devices that one might expect to have a particular impact in oral performances, such as long passages of alliteration. They are unusual for Medieval literature, in that they do not use Latin, the ecclesiastical language of religion and the state in the Middle Ages, but were instead written in Old Norse, the vernacular language of the Scandinavians.
Types of Viking Sagas
Broadly, scholars have grouped the surviving Viking sagas into four categories: kings’ sagas, legendary sagas, the sagas of the Icelanders, and translated works. The “kings’ sagas”, originate from the 12th century with Sæmundr Sigfússon’s now-lost Latin history of the Kings of Norway, and they appear to make a decent attempt to reconstruct the “real” history of the Scandinavian monarchs. The most famous kings’ saga, by legendary Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson, is the Heimskringla, in which Sturluson reconstructs the lineage of the Kingdom of Norway from legendary antiquity through to his own time, using source material that likely stretched back to the 9th century CE. This category can be conceived of as a type of epic historical fiction, since these sagas are often more focused on drawing vivid character portraits than explaining political history.
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The “legendary sagas” are those which take either the fictional realms of Viking mythology or the distant Scandinavian past, as their setting. They frequently feature tropes of a heroic struggle, and they appear to have been heavily influenced by French romantic literature. Some of the most famous of these stories include the tragic Volsunga saga, and the Hrólfs saga kraka, which may give us some of the oldest examples of historical truth within the sagas.
The sagas of the Icelanders in particular demonstrate a fascinating attempt by Icelandic writers to fictionalize the early history of their island, using well-known historical figures and characters whose social status and lives would have been familiar to their audience. The final category is a fascinating series of “transliterated” works from other literary traditions, which Icelandic writers translated, and then molded to fit the structure of their epic sagas.
Norse Understandings of History
To get to grips with the historical content of the Viking sagas, we are faced with reconstructing how a pagan Norse oral tradition was understood through the lens of a fragmentary Christian literary tradition that was based on it. The search for what we today consider historical truth within the sagas (verifiable through archaeology, and independent written sources) is an exercise in teasing apart the influences that were acting upon the saga writers in High Medieval Christian Iceland — opening the oyster of literary composition to get at the pearl of oral culture within.
The Viking Sagas as Christian Historical Fiction
There exists a great irony at the heart of this sweeping pagan mythology. Although its themes, characters, and subject matter were developed by the Norse people between the end of the Roman Empire and the gradual Christianization of Scandinavia from the 11th-century — these stories would be completely lost to us were it not for Christianity. Previously, scholars considered the Viking sagas to be simple transcriptions of the Old Norse oral culture by men who had become literate with the spread of Christianity. Many modern scholars however have a more nuanced understanding of them.
Doubtless, the Icelanders were proud of their inherited pagan mythology — and they clearly handled it with enormous skill and respect — but they definitely understood it as fictional. The deities and their mythological stories were not part of their religion at this time; rather than a “true history”, these tales constituted a literary tradition to be drawn upon when creating works of fiction. For example, Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla understands Norse mythology through the lens of euhemerism: he strips the Norse gods of their supernatural nature and places them into the real world as powerful Scandinavian rulers descended from the Thracian Greeks.
The True Histories of the Pagan Norse
John Lindow (Clover & Lindow, 2005) reminds us that the Christian lens of the sagas is unsurprising, given that they considered their cosmology to be the correct and true one. However, he says, modern scholarship has discovered that, of course, the same was also true for the pagan Norse. Above, we broke the sagas down into the categories “historical” and “legendary”, but that may well be a distinction that the Norse themselves did not apply.
Without the modern materialist standards of “proof”, historical “truth” had a different set of requirements. While nowadays we could use archaeological and historical methods to establish to our satisfaction whether a specific battle took place on a specific site, Norse oral culture might well have understood the stories that formed the basis for the Viking sagas as true in themselves: not immutable, and always open to reinterpretation, but essentially sacred and real. So, rather than conceiving of tests for whether the Viking sagas are “true” (they were clearly just as real to the Norse as the truths by which we make our decisions in the modern world), we should instead look for overlap between the archaeological and historical evidence, and the stories contained within the Viking sagas.
Overlapping Truths: The Völsunga Saga and Viking Epic History
The Volsunga saga (“the saga of the Volsung clan”) is widely agreed to contain some of the earliest information that we have yet discovered in the Viking sagas that also overlaps with other forms of historical inquiry, such as archaeology and other textual sources. We have but a single surviving text of the Volsunga saga, written by an unknown scribe around the turn of the 15th century — but the literary tradition it echoes is far, far older. It is the core text of what is known as the Volsung Cycle, a collection of around twenty poems and sagas that deal with various parts of the story of the Volsung clan.
The Ramsund Carving (pictured above) is the earliest known representation of this tradition. It is carved into a rock in south-eastern Sweden, and it depicts key scenes from the tale: the slaying of the dragon Fafnir, Sigurd tasting the dragon’s blood and understanding the birds’ song, and the reforging of the mythic sword Gram. It dates to around 1000 CE.
Traces of the Kingdom of Burgundy
Modern scholars acknowledge that the basic structure of the Volsunga saga (as well as the related Germanic Nibelungleid) are broadly faithful depictions of the Germanic Burgundians, who lived during the Hunnic invasions in the murky post-Roman Migration Period. In this era, roughly encompassing the 4th-7th centuries CE, several waves of Northern European Germanic tribes moved southward into the former Western Roman Empire as its authority crumbled. They founded a number of successor kingdoms, eventually settling in Iberia, Italy, and even North Africa. One of these kingdoms, the Kingdom of the Burgundians, was founded along the Rhine in the first quarter of the 5th century, first as a Roman client kingdom, and then later, as the Roman state withdrew, as a buffer state between the Frankish and Ostrogothic successor states.
The Volsunga saga reproduces, with a surprising degree of accuracy, the basic events and relationships surrounding the invasion of the Huns. Even though it is drenched in supernatural imagery, with Odin intervening directly in the events of the story more than once, historians such as Gudmund Schütte (1921) recognized in the early 20th century, that even the individual characters of the Volsunga saga, and associated High Medieval Germanic myths, closely matched historical figures from the 5th century.
In one part of the Volsunga saga, King Atli is betrothed to Gudrun, the daughter of King Gjuki, in an arranged marriage. This marriage, foretold by a golden hawk, ends in disaster when Gudrun kills King Atli and his sons as vengeance for the killing of her kinsmen.
From contemporary historical sources, we know that Attila the Hun (Atli) was betrothed to a Germanic princess called Ildico (Gudrun) — although we know little about her, her name conforms to known Burgundian naming conventions, and the Burgundians and the Huns had just concluded a peace at this time. It seems possible that King Gibica (Gjuki) of the Burgundians could have married off his daughter to Attila to seal the peace. In 453 CE, Attila died of a hemorrhage whilst celebrating his marriage, after which the Huns immediately suspected Ildico of murdering him by poison — and they killed her on the spot. This event, which is told in the Volsunga saga, and only transcribed almost a thousand years later, has been preserved with astonishing accuracy.
The Icelander Sagas: Home Truths
There is a more domestic tradition of Viking sagas — the “sagas of the Icelanders” or the “family sagas”. These do not often contain the soaring mythological quality of the legendary sagas, but rather they focus on the settlement of Iceland and the very real struggles of medieval Scandinavians. They are set during the “Saga Age”, between the first settlement of Iceland in 876 CE, until roughly the time of Iceland’s Christianization in the late 11th century.
Whilst it seems that frequently the fine details of the family sagas more closely reflect the 12th and 13th centuries than the time when they were composed (e.g. the clothing styles referenced are frequently a little anachronistic), they are an invaluable source for Iceland’s early history. They include the Gísla saga Súrssonar (“the saga of Gísli the Outlaw”), in which the eponymous tragic hero is forced by fate to kill his brother-in-law, and the famous Egils saga, whose central character Egil Skallagrimsson is an early example of a literary anti-hero.
Although many of these stories are our sole source of information on historically unrecorded individuals, some have more concrete histories. Egil Skallagrimsson’s father, Grímr Kveldúlfsson, is mentioned in the Egils saga as a smith who settled at Rauðanes in north-east Iceland. Skalla-Grimr could not find a good anvil stone, and so dove down to the seabed in the bay, surfacing with one to his liking. Skalla-Grimr’s stone, chipped with hammer marks from use, can still be seen by the ruins of a 10th-century smithy.
The Historical Power of the Viking Sagas
There is no doubt that the Viking sagas were powerful tools for packaging, passing on, and interpreting not only truths but verifiable historical facts. It is unsurprising that the specifics of those facts faded, and became sprinkled with mythological and religious significance — especially as they survived primarily because of their entertainment value. Comparing the family sagas and the legendary sagas, one might see two sets of histories that are at different stages of evolution: the latter is at an advanced stage of decomposition, and has turned from historical fact into myth, having been captured in writing after almost a thousand years of telling and retelling. The former is more closely related to reality after only a couple of generations of retelling.
It seems likely that the historical facts hidden within the Volsunga saga would have been as recognizable and accurate as those within the family saga if their carrier peoples had become literate at a similar distance from the events. But nevertheless, the recognizability of the Burgundians in the Volsunga saga is a magnificent testament to the power of the oral tradition, and to the enduring accuracy of the Viking sagas as a whole.
Clover, C. J. & Lindow, J. (eds). Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide. (2005). United Kingdom: University of Toronto Press.
Schütte, G. The Nibelungen Legend and Its Historical Basis. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Jul., 1921, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Jul., 1921), pp. 291-327
Steblin-Kamenskiĭ, M. I. (1973). The Saga Mind. United States: Odense Universitetsforlag.