At konstruere fortiden: Om mundtlig tradition og kollektiv erindring i de islandske sagaer

Michael Riber Jørgensen

Publikation: Bog/antologi/afhandling/rapportBogForskningpeer review


The Icelandic sagas constitute a richly varied body of texts and have been read and interpreted in many different ways. The present study examines the collective aspect of the sagas. By looking beyond the idea of sagas as literary masterpieces (without dismissing their literary qualities) and instead reading them as the written expressions of a centuries-old oral tradition it is possible to get a glimpse into the society that wrote them down – Medieval Iceland – and the function of the sagas in that society.

Part one examines the origin of the sagas in oral tradition, especially the distinctly oral features that are still preserved in the written texts. By adopting Albert Lord’s terms formulas and themes from his studies in oral poetry and applying them to the sagas of Gísli Súrsson and Hrólf kraki, we see that these phenomena also occur in early prose texts like the sagas. In the transition from an oral to a written culture it is natural for writers to use the tools they already know when composing a text.

Another strong indication of the sagas being deeply rooted in the oral tradition is the way the stories are intertwined. The same characters, places, and events are included in different stories, a fact which has usually been dismissed as literary loans from one author to the other. Intertextuality, however, isn’t a strictly literary phenomenon. If we consider all the stories and all their content as part of a bigger corpus, an immanent whole, each manuscript becomes merely one of many unique performances of that particular material, just as every oral performance of a story is unique. Again using Hrólfs saga kraka as an example, we see how the material included in that particular story existed in the collective memory of the society long before and remained there long after the story we know was committed to the vellum.

Part two further explores the idea of the sagas as the written expressions of a collective memory, examining the use of the sagas in constructing a common past and a common identity in 13th century Iceland.

One expression of this is in the phenomenon that Pierre Nora dubbed lieux de mémoire, ‘realms of memory’: places that help connect the past to the present. These ‘realms’ can be physical locations. By examining the numerous place names and popular etymologies in the sagas of Icelanders, we see how the entire landscape becomes charged with memory.

‘Realms of memory’ can also be people, events, etc. that play a central part in the memory of a group. In the contemporary sagas, semi-historical figures like Egill Skallagrimsson or even mythical kings like Hrólfr kraki are used to comment on more recent events, presumably because these names rang a bell with a contemporary audience. Similarly, one of the most famous events in all the sagas, the fire at Bergþórshvol in Njáls saga, can be seen as a ‘role model’ for later descriptions of fires.

Another expression of the way the sagas construct the past is in their function. In the 13th century Iceland was still a fairly young society with no mythical past, having been founded in the late 9th century by Norwegian emigrants. Thus the sagas of Icelanders, taking place in the first couple of centuries of Icelandic history, fulfilled two functions: a foundational and a legitimising one. The descriptions of the settlement served as myths of origin – or ‘key myths’ – explaining to the Icelanders the origins of their society and defining that society as something distinct. Laxdæla saga and Eyrbyggja saga are prime examples of this.

At the same time, the sagas also served as moral and legal exempla for the medieval Icelanders. In the descriptions of feuds – illustrated here by Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða – we see what happens to those who follow the rules and behave correctly in the public sphere, and what happens to those who don’t. In the 13th century, a time of excessive violence, civil war, and breakdown of the social order, the Icelanders thus used the saga heroes as role models – the past became a role model for the present.

Thus, by reading the sagas as literary expressions of an oral tradition and a collective and cultural memory, and by including methods and theories from literary, sociological, and anthropological studies, we as historians are able to use them as sources to the mental and cultural history of medieval Iceland in a much more fruitful way. A comparative and interdisciplinary approach is the way to go.
ForlagAarhus Universitet
Antal sider100
StatusUdgivet - 2007
Udgivet eksterntJa


  • Historie
  • Island
  • Erindring