From Oral to Written Folklore: The Evolution and Reception of the Icelandic Saga

The Icelandic Sagas are more than stories about a heroic age of kings, of trolls and witches, and magical phenomenon unseen by our modern eyes. They offer a complex resource of what early settlers of the island deemed important to their heritage. Since the thirteenth century, scholars have attempted to understand the departure from the oral tradition of storytelling to the more advanced written tradition, attempting in the main, to identify whether or not the sagas were altered with the corresponding advent of Christianity. By the time of the Renaissance, the sagas had become a focus for criticism from learned men of Scandinavia and Denmark. Skepticism towards the written sagas only increased by the end of the eighteenth century. Modern scholars are still stumped by the question of the sagas’ authenticity after the use of letters was introduced in the twelfth century. The question still remains today: how much of the sagas are preserved in their original preliterate wording and content, and can scholars rely on the sagas as historical records?

Before examining the history of the sagas’ narrative format, and the consequential critical historiography in the following centuries later, it is necessary to define the roots and the raison d’être of the Icelandic sagas. The sagas are essentially Viking stories depicting the lives of the early settlers who immigrated to Iceland from Norway sometime in the ninth century, most likely around the year AD874. At this time, Vikings were still enjoying their golden age of prosperity in Northern Europe whilst Christianity and Paganism were in the throes of war for religious supremacy. The island at this time consisted only of a few rural and widely spread out farmsteads with no towns or villages. By the year 1100, about 4,500 farmers lived in Iceland, the majority of the population. Dark, bitterly cold and dull conditions welcomed the early arrivals from Norway, leading W.A. Craigie to conclude that:

“It was a source of pride to recall and recount the names and exploits of the famous men to whom they were related; and an immense quantity of old lore, reaching back into early prehistoric times, was thus carried out to Iceland, and preserved there after it had been forgotten in the place of its origin.”

The sagas had other purposes as well. They provided medieval Icelanders an understand of the world of violence by offering tales about romantic heroes worthy of any Arthurian legend. Popular themes in the sagas included wealth and prestige (such as in the Bandamanna Saga); obligations to others; magical creatures including giants and trolls; the gods of old; genealogical history; societal and familial inter-feuding; tales of distant Norwegian kings and courageous heroes (such as Sigurd the Volsung); and epic travel tales to faraway places like Vinland, as told in the Grœnlendinga Saga. The sagas also provided a binding cultural experience for the few medieval settlers, while also serving as educational and moral guidelines in the new environment. Just as films offer an escape from the trials of our world today, the sagas provided joy and escapism for the listeners and were often recited at weddings, games, and celebratory feasts. Perhaps most significant, the people of the day considered them to be valid histories, therefore worthy of handing down orally from generation to generation. This would later become extremely important for scholars hoping to distinguish between factual history and cultural/personally embroidered fictitious elements.

Between the ninth and eleventh centuries, the sagas were composed orally (this is often referred to as the Saga Age). Poets would string together scenes to speak aloud to eager listeners, just as actors portray different scenes in a play. The word saga translates as ‘something said’, an indication in itself of the long standing oral tradition in Icelandic folklore. There is a personal voice in the narrations, evidenced by the storytellers’ subjective references to local people and regional events. Naming specific natural disasters, for example, created familiarity for listeners, associating them to well-known cultural episodes or to their own eyewitness experiences. As such, the sagas were a private social event within different communities in Iceland. They were a way of preserving a settlement’s own unique cultural past. Stephen P. Leonard views them as a way of ‘ensuring that an awareness of the intimate social cohesion required of a small society was effectively passed on to the next generation’.

However, due to the localised content of the sagas, they became somewhat biased, culturally specific, and highly personalised through collective social memory, which would only faintly remain intact in the written form several centuries later. The facts became less important than the interpretation of them. Although now considered possibly inaccurate as historical records, the sagas serve as an indication as to what sort of values were most important in the medieval Icelandic societies. As historian Barbara Allen recognised, the oral tradition was a selective characterisation of the past, rather than a generalised historical record: in oral epic poetry, the settings for the stories may be the clash of armies and the working out of national destinies, but the focus is always on the individual hero and his exploits.

The emphasis on the mythical and mysterious seemingly ancient past gave the sagas a certain archaic allure. It was as if the sagas were the last remaining relics of a dying age, cast down by generations of storytellers who dedicated themselves to memorising the tales of their forefathers. It was this fascination that kept the stories alive, until finally they were permanently preserved by a generation with ink and parchment. This, consequently, was the point at which the sagas became depersonalised and generalised. The use of letters was introduced to Iceland through the medieval monasteries at some point during the twelfth century. This was evident through the writings of western Icelanders including Snorri Sturluson (AD1179–1241), and Ari Thorgilsson (AD1067–1148). The latter was the author of the Íslendingabók, an account of the history of the island’s settlement. These men did not shun the sagas, but instead fully embraced them as a celebratory piece of heritage, and soon set to work writing them down.

However, these early scribes, as priests in the new ecclesiastical environment, would have understood writing in much the same way as monks scrawling Latin records for the church. They were instructed in the annalistic tradition, a highly impersonal and non-descriptive written format more attuned to historical chronicling. Thus, the sagas, once set down, lost their sense of personal narration and much of their pagan influence. An attempt was made to write them in such a way that they would be both objective and historical, rather than fictitious, dramatic or representative of individual societies. The essential difference was that the individual, the storyteller and the listener no longer mattered conceptually in this early written form.

The spoken versions of the sagas were officially lost once the vellum manuscripts took precedence as collective memory was no longer necessary to preserve the stories. Thus, the original details were often sacrificed in return. By the start of the 1300s, saga writing had come to a sudden end and for nearly two centuries they were left untouched, untold and unread. However, a new era was dawning. The advent and influence of Italian humanism and the growing antiquarian interest of the European Renaissance brought the sagas into the limelight once again. Accompanying the limelight was waves of criticism by new Scandinavian scholars who began questioning the validity of the written forms. The sagas became a major study in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, serving as references for written projects such as the Historia Norwegiæ (c. 1510). They resurfaced amid research to trace the genealogical studies of the Scandinavian and Gothic peoples with scholars finding the sagas particularly useful for mapping the general diasporic trends of the Vikings and their near-ancient predecessors. Sixteenth-century scholars in Denmark were especially intrigued by the sagas and, according to Theodore M. Andersson, considered Iceland an ‘untapped reservoir of Norse history which would serve to supplement Saxon history’. Thus, translation projects started centered in Copenhagen. They including studies by Thormodus Torfæus (AD16361719), whose work would be highly respected for its defense of the oral tradition in a pre-Christianised and pre-literate civilisation. In a world without letters, he believed, the memory had to suffice for retaining knowledge and the early Icelanders made themselves adept at remembering their ancestors through repeated recitation due to lack of a written substitute.

Swedish scholars of the Enlightenment also contributed further theories and studies of the sagas. Olof Rudbeck’s Atlantica (a controversial work spanning from AD1679 to1702) was the first to confidently propose that the sagas had originated in the oral tradition, going so far as to give a full defence of the validity of spoken history beginning with Herodotus – the father of historical practice. This was a groundbreaking contribution to the studies of Icelandic culture for it addressed an early medieval heritage which had little archaeological remains to otherwise speak for it. However, the idea of the spoken tradition in the history of the Icelandic saga began what would be an unrelenting debate for the next several centuries. The sagas themselves were no longer in question, but rather the medium of their genesis: were they verbally composed and then written, or did they come about after letters were introduced? Was there an oral tradition at all? The subsequent historiography became ever more critical in the eighteenth century. In 1755 the notorious Swiss critic Paul Henri Mallet famously wrote ‘Ces annales ne sont pas d’une grande antiquité’ arguing that the sagas came about well after the belief in Odin had ended. Mallet found numerous supporters later in the early Romantic period, including the German historian Christian Friedrich Rühs, who also believed the sagas were written in the late Middle Ages bearing no narrative evidence of a spoken past.

Historical accuracy in the stories is yet another topic for dispute. Some argue in favour of the oral tradition and collective public memory whilst others assert that historical facts could not survive for over 150 years by word of mouth. Many of the leading folklorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries considered the sagas a potential key to understanding the past, culturally if not historically, and that all myths have some shred of validity which spark the story. The Enlightenment advocated the skepticism towards the historical accuracy of the sagas. Some scholars, including Rühs, began reading the sagas as myths and fiction than as actual dependable records of the past. This later ignited the new interest in Icelandic stories during the era of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. This renewed interest in folklore, and the sagas as they were originally told in the days before ink and parchment, were focused on their literary and entertainment value rather than their historic.

As with all history, the further one gets from the source, the more difficult it is to be assured of verifiable fact. In the twenty first century, theories still differ between how much the sagas suggest an oral tradition steeped in historical accuracy against a written tradition filled with literary elements. Most likely the sagas consist of attributes from both narrative forms. The only evidence which all scholars agree upon is that the sagas were a common European creation of the Middle Ages used to showcase the cultural and social values of a civilization shrouded in a fantastic and perpetual mystery.

Image: Joanídea Sodret


Allen, Barbara, ‘The Personal Point of View in Orally Communicated History’, Western Folklore, 38, (1979), pp. 110-118.

Andersson, Theodore M., The Problem of Icelandic Saga Origins: A Historical Survey (New Haven, 1964).

Byock, Jesse L., ‘Saga Form, Oral Prehistory, and the Icelandic Social Context’, New Literary History, 16 (1984), pp. 153-173.

Chesnutt, Michael, ‘Orality in a NorseIcelandic Perspective’, Oral Tradition, 18 (2004), pp. 197-199.

Craigie, W. A., The Icelandic Sagas (Cambridge, 1913).

Dodsworth, J. B., ‘Review’, The Modern Language Review, 61 (1966), p. 351.

Edwards, Paul and Hermann, Palsson, Legendary Fiction in Medieval Iceland (Reykjavik, 1971).

Leonard, Stephen Pax., Faroese Skjaldur: An Endangered Oral Tradition of the North Atlantic, (Cambridge, 2010).

Myers, Ben, ‘The Icelandic Sagas: Europe’s Most Important Book?’, The Guardian, October 3, 2008, <>.

Niles, John. D., ‘Review’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 108 (2009), pp.378-380.

Orning, Hans Jacob, ‘The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180-1280)’, Scandinavian Journal of History, 34 (2009), pp. 93-97.

Saudi Arabia and the Destruction of Islamic Cultural Heritage

Whilst the West despairs over the destruction of the Arch of Palmyra, the walls of Nineveh, and the lamassus of Nimrud by Islamic State, a second wave of cultural heritage destruction is sweeping across the Middle East almost unnoticed. The international media has devoted extensive coverage to the obliteration of museums and archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria by Islamic State fighters, but for the most part has failed to report on the countless monuments and artefacts destroyed every day by Saudi Arabia, both in its own country and, lately, in the Yemen.

In January 2002 Saudi Arabia demolished a 200-year-old Ottoman castle in Mecca in order to build a five-star hotel, residential complex and parking lot. The original fortress was built in 1780 by Ottoman Turks in order to protect the Ka’aba and other Islamic shrines in Mecca from bandits, including invading Wahhabi radicals – ironically the ultra-orthodox branch of Sunni Islam that now makes up the dominant minority in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis defended their actions by citing the understandable need to provide accommodation for the almost three million Muslim pilgrims who journey to Mecca every year, but Turkey, who viewed the destruction of the Ottoman Ajyad Fortress as ‘cultural genocide’ demanded a UNESCO intervention. This was unsuccessful and the castle was bulldozed.

The Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who saw the castle in 1814, described it as
‘a very large and massy structure, surrounded by thick walls and solid towers… It contains a large cistern and a small mosque; and might accommodate a garrison of about one thousand men. To Arabs it is an impregnable fortress… even against Europeans, it might offer some resistance.’
‘Large and massy’ the Ajyad Fortress may have been, but the new Abraj al Bait Royal Makkah Clock Tower complex towers over the Ka’aba like Godzilla considering a peanut.

The Ajyad Fortress is far from the only architectural casualty in Saudi Arabia. Experts at the Washington-based Gulf Institute have estimated that over 90 per cent of the archaeological treasures of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina have been demolished in the last two decades alone. This is all the more remarkable when you take into account that the vast majority of these sites are neither secular, pagan, Christian, nor Ottoman – they are early Islamic holy sites. For example, the house of Khadijah, the Prophet’s first wife, has been bulldozed and replaced with public lavatories whilst the Prophet’s own birthplace is now a library, soon to be further damaged with the addition of underground parking. The human dangers of the extensive modernisation of Mecca were also made clear earlier this year when a construction crane collapsed into the Masjid al-Haram, killing an estimated 111 and injuring 394.

The destruction of early Islamic heritage by Saudi authorities is not even unique to sites popular with tourists and pilgrims, where the need for modern facilities could be argued to outweigh the preservation of historic buildings. For example, the Tomb of Eve, a debatable archaeological site in Jeddah, was sealed with concrete by religious authorities in 1975. Meanwhile, abject disregard for cultural heritage has spilled over intoYemen. Although Yemen was once part of the wealthy caravan kingdom of Sheba (home of the legendary queen), knowledge of Yemeni culture and history is sadly lacking around the world. Now it is in danger of being lost forever, as a coalition of Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia – and with logistical support from the USA – has been waging war against a Shia rebel group who now controls the country’s capital, Sana’a. A UNESCO list of Yemeni protected areas has done little to minimise the destruction, particularly in the World Heritage Site of Sana’a old town. Elsewhere, the Great Dam of Marib, a 2,800-year-old marvel of engineering almost twice as long as the Hoover Dam, has been struck four times by missiles, whilst some of the oldest surviving fragments of the Koran are constantly in danger of being bombed. Forces fighting along Yemen’s southern coast have reputedly destroyed the 700-year-old Sheikh Omar Ali al-Saqaff mosque in Lahf, whilst earlier this year a Saudi airstrike destroyed the Dhamar Regional Museum. The museum held more than 150 ancient South Arabian inscriptions, including the oldest-known texts from the Yemeni highlands, plus an important fourth-century wooden minbar.

The Saudi destruction of historic sites is closely linked to Wahhabism, the Sunni branch of Islam, which rejects the ideas of bid’ah (innovation/reformation) and shirk (idolatry). Wahhabism advocates a pure Islam, dedicated only to Allah, and also denounces the veneration of saints, the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, the use of ornamentation in mosques, prayer at tombs (including the tomb of the Prophet), and taking non-Muslims as friends. Wahhabism is part of the impetus behind Islamic State’s desire to erase all monuments, whether sacred or secular, from the map.

The West’s failure to raise any serious issue about the Saudi destruction of Islamic cultural heritage raises some serious questions. Do we only care about the ‘star’ attractions, big name archaeological sites that were popularised by western archaeologists from the time of the Enlightenment? Palmyra, Nimrud and Nineveh are known to most people with a smattering of classical education – or at least to those who have visited the British Museum. This attitude would explain why the western media has failed to headline the destruction of any of the Islamic historic sites and monuments mentioned above. Surely all these sites and their cultures are worthy of our recognition and safekeeping, or at least our outrage when they are wilfully destroyed or desecrated?  We are witnessing the obliteration of centuries of Islamic culture – a culture as deserving of our protection as any classical site endangered by Islamic State.

Image: Eric Vernier

A History of British Immigration Policy: Constructing the ‘Enemy Within’

‘I tried to get into a lifeboat, but, when it was launched, it was nearly empty, and soon the stream and waves pushed it far. The other lifeboats were already far away.  Many people had jumped into the sea and a good deal of them had already died. When I realised… that there was not much time left, I got down calmly into the sea, and swam away from the ship, which was quickly sinking.  She had turned on the right side, her bow was submerged, people were on the decks poured into the sea, and all of a sudden she sank with a terrible noise.  The sea was covered with oil… with wrecks, and pieces of wood.’

One would be forgiven for mistaking this as a contemporary news account of a tragic event in the Mediterranean Sea. Instead, these are the words of a passenger on the SS Arandora Star, sunk by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland in July 1940. There are strong parallels between this event and the growing list of contemporary disasters in the Mediterranean. One particularly interesting parallel is that the sinking of the Arandora Star resulted in a sudden about-face of British public opinion on government policy, comparable to the recent shift in public perception of refugees following the multiple disasters in the Mediterranean Sea. In the context of what seemed to be an imminent German invasion from the spring of 1940, widespread paranoia began to frame the approximately 20,000 German nationals residing in Britain as an infiltrating ‘fifth column’ undermining the British state. The government began a policy of interning the bulk of this population, sometimes resulting in deportation. However, pressured by the outcry following the Arandora Star’s sinking, the British government was forced to retract this policy and within a year most interned foreign nationals had been released. This could be partly attributed to the fact that the sense of crisis had diminished by 1941, due to Britain’s air superiority over the German Luftwaffe, but it is unlikely the government would have acted as swiftly without popular pressure forcing its hand.

This is an example of compassionate public opinion influencing government policy, but it remains a notable exception in a history of British immigration policy marked by extreme treatment of those labelled ‘outsiders’. Anti-outsider sentiment has been fuelled by political and media rhetoric characterising a specific group as ‘un-British’ or representing foreign values, which in turn has fuelled waves of ever-harsher policies towards them.

The targets have changed over time: whereas Irish and Lithuanian immigrants suffered most from this characterisation in the early nineteenth century, Britain’s Jews were turned on in the 1930s. Today it is Muslims who bear the brunt of most anti-migrant rhetoric. The government views immigration legislation as an effective scapegoat for the country’s problems, particularly during a period of economic crisis; it is no coincidence that anti-migrant sentiment flared up throughout the Long Depression of the 1870s, the Great Depression of the 1930s and the recent global financial crisis.

Only a skim over British legislation on immigration is needed to appreciate the relationship between public paranoia and government policy. The 1905 Aliens Act empowered immigration officers to exclude ‘undesirables’, such as the poor or the mentally ill; the 1914 Aliens Restriction Act allowed for the deportation of people fleeing religious persecution; the 1920 Aliens Order granted the Home Secretary power to deport anyone ‘not conducive to the public good’, and there was authorisation for widespread internment and deportation during both world wars. The post-war years of growth and prosperity are marked by their lack of mainstream anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, but this lasted exactly as long as the feeling of economic security. With the economic shocks of the late twentieth century came renewed anti-immigration sentiment: the 1971 British Nationality Act, restricting the right of Commonwealth citizens to reside in the UK; the 1988 Immigration Act ensuring fast-track deportations; the UK Borders Act 2007, giving immigration officers police-like powers; and so on. There is not space in this article to give a full list. Worth noting is the increasing rate of such legislation, with six major Acts during the last Labour government alone.

Detaining non-British nationals became accepted policy during the world wars. Similar detention during peacetime had been codified in law since 1920, but it was only following the 1971 Immigration Act that it became commonplace to temporarily detain immigrants and asylum seekers until their status was confirmed. By the 1990s this had become a key feature of the UK’s border policy, now including purpose-built internment facilities. Anti-terror legislation passed in the aftermath of 9/11 has furthered this trend, removing any detention time limit. Jean-Claude Paye has argued that this constitutes the end of habeas corpus, the right of a detained individual for their detention to be examined by a court of law. That such a long-established tradition has gradually been overturned over the last century with virtually no public outcry indicates the popular enthusiasm for controlling ‘the enemy within’ at any cost.

The history of British immigration policy is not uplifting reading, but exceptional instances of compassion, such as in the aftermath of Arandora Star or the recent shift in public perception of refugees, are positive signs that we can build on. This compassionate energy needs to create long-term change in immigration and asylum policy, but we cannot forget that there are people affected by our system right now, who need support. Take a look at the ‘Refugees Welcome in the UK’ Facebook page to see all the different ways you can help right now, whether by donating your time, money or old clothes, or by pressuring your MPs to do better.

Holland: The Glorious Days of ‘Tulip Mania’

Earlier this year, on a warm April morning, I boarded a bus heading out of Amsterdam to the small town of Lisse, south east of the city. Like thousands of tourists and locals alike, I had been drawn in by the promise of a true spectaclem – the annual flowering of the Tulip bulbs in the Keukenhof. This ornamental garden boasts 32 hectares of tulip displays, with a whopping seven million individual plants, having been opened in 1949 by the Mayor of Lisse, in order to both celebrate the beautiful bloom and assist the Dutch flower market. It was not hard to understand how the tulip has become almost synonymous with the country, and held a special place in its economy for hundreds of years. Holland is currently the world’s largest exporter of flowers and, indeed, flower markets can be seen dotted alongside the canals in every major Dutch city.

However, the idyllic image of these Dutch flower markets hides a fascinating history. The tulip, despite its associations with the Dutch capital, is not in fact native to the country or to Western Europe at all. It was first introduced to the region in the late sixteenth century. Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius is credited with the first flowerings in the Netherlands in the city of Leiden in 1594. The flowers were greeted with such enthusiasm that prices soared, in an event that became known as ‘Tulip Mania’. Nineteenth century British journalist Charles Mackay, in the seminal book on the event, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds claimed that at one point, twelve hectares of land, or the value of a year’s wages for a Dutch merchant, were offered for a single bulb.

In Golden Age Holland, newly independent from the rule of Spain in 1581 and buoyed by success in East Indies trade, the tulips became a symbol of status and identity; ornamental gardens became a display of the affluence for Dutch merchants. Demand existed in particular for rare tulips that showed streaked and multi-coloured petals, the result of a mosaic virus affecting the plant.  The tulip plant tends to take around a decade to flower from seed, and those affected by virus can take even longer. When the bubble crashed, almost overnight, in February 1637, most bulbs had not reached maturity, and traders lost fortunes never having laid eyes on the beautiful petals.

Thanks to Mackay’s account, ‘Tulip Mania’ has entered the lexicon to refer to any speculative boom based on market irrationality. However, modern economic historians have called Mackay’s account into question. In a 2007 study, Anne Goldgar examined contracts that had been drawn up in the tulip trade and suggested that the bubble had not in fact affected the entire Dutch economy, but was limited to a small number of already wealthy individuals, for whom the dip in prices did not result in complete ruination. The Dutch government was also about to introduce a law that stated that those who had bought the rights to buy investments, such as tulip bulbs, were not legally required to follow through with this purchase if the market did not remain favourable, meaning tulip investments were actually low risk.

Regardless of the reality of the event, or the debate that continues amongst historians, the story of ‘Tulip Mania’ survives. Even today, walking through the flower beds at the Keukenhof, catching a glimpse of the tulips in their sudden yet brief season, you can still feel the pull of these beautiful flowers, and feel yourself catching a little ‘Tulip Mania’.

Image: Luke Price