Old Norse literature

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The Norse literature includes altdänische , old Swedish , Old Norse and Old Icelandic literature. In Scandinavia there is also the term normal literature for it . Since the volume of Old Danish and Old Swedish literature is comparatively small, the term Old Norse literature is mostly used synonymously for Old West Norse literature , i.e. Old Norwegian and Old Icelandic literature, often only used for Old Icelandic literature . This literature occupies a special position in medieval European literature , as on the one hand it has best preserved certain Germanic genres (such as heroic sagas and heroic songs ), and on the other hand, with the genre of sagas or Icelandic sagas, it has passed on the only more extensive, vernacular narrative prose in Europe of high artistic quality . It is therefore one of the most valuable parts of Iceland's national cultural heritage . This is one of the reasons why culture in Iceland is always defined in terms of literature .

The beginnings

As in other cultures, Old Icelandic literature has its origins in the oral tradition of legends of gods and heroes. After the adoption of Christianity around the year 1000 by a resolution of the Althings , Icelanders began to write their first books - influenced by the scholarship cultivated in Christian monasteries. Ecclesiastical institutions, especially the episcopal seats in Skálholt and Hólar as well as the monastery schools , became centers of education, as in the rest of medieval Europe. Sæmundir hinn fróði (Sigfusson) is said to have written his history of the Norwegian kings, which has not survived , in Latin in the 12th century . But his successors increasingly wrote in the national language, an unusual innovation for the European standards of the time.

The translator Franz Seewald dates - taking into account the first writing activities of the Icelandic dioceses Skálholt and Hólar - the beginning of the Icelandic "writing time" to the year 1117, when the recording of land rights began on the farm Breiðabólstaður in northwest Iceland.

The collection of laws in Grágás , from 1118, is one of the oldest Icelandic written documents.

The most famous writer of this time was the historian Ari Þorgilsson (1067 to 1148). He wrote a history of the Icelanders , which reached from the first conquest to his time, the Íslendingabók (The Book of the Icelanders, isl. Bók femin.). His Landnámabók (The Book of the Settlement of Iceland) achieved particular fame . In three surviving versions from the 13th century, the history of the conquest and the relationships of over 400 people from the so-called conquest period are presented.

According to recent research, the impression that poetry is a specifically Icelandic phenomenon can be traced back to tradition. In reality it is likely to be a phenomenon that was widespread throughout the North Sea region. In Bergen, for example, a rune fragment was found dated to around 1200 with a verse in Eddic form. Also Saxo Grammaticus mentions in his prologue to the Gesta Danorum poems in Danish. If these are viewed as an Icelandic export, there is a circular argument: because only poetry of Icelandic origin is known, all other poems in other areas must be Icelandic exports.

The Eddic poetry

The term Edda is ambiguous, because on the one hand it refers to the so-called song Edda of the Codex Regius , a collection of sagas of gods and heroes. The actual Edda songs are summarized under the term "Eddic poetry" with some comparable hero songs and songs of the gods.

On the other hand, this name is also used to refer to the Snorra Edda (or Younger or Prose Edda) by Snorri Sturluson. This poetry textbook consists of three parts: an introduction ( prologue Snorra-Edda ) to the scholarly Icelandic prehistory , the Gylfaginning from the earliest Norse mythology and two poetological parts in which the poetry of the skalds is explained: Skáldskaparmál and Háttatal .

The saga literature

Icelandic saga (from segja , "to say, to tell"; Pl. Sögur ) means statement, communication and report, an event that is reported, and thus history (narration) in the broadest sense. Only written works, not orally transmitted, are considered sagas. The large narrative form of the saga was mainly genealogical or biographical and was probably created under the influence of continental Latin prose telling ( Vita or legend ).

Saga must not be confused with the etymologically related saga . Although the writers of the saga, like those of the saga, are anonymous, the saga is not folk poetry, but rather artistically sophisticated literature.

The term "saga" or "saga literature" describes a story with different characters and themes in the medieval prose of Iceland . The sagas are a forerunner of today's literary genre Roman , very different prose works, which can be very different in terms of origin, material, form, style and artistic quality. In general, the Icelandic saga can be divided into the following groups:

The late forms of saga literature, which enjoyed increasing popularity in the 14th and 15th centuries, include the Fornaldarsögur , Riddarasögur, Antikensagas and fairy tale sagas, whose labeling as lying sagas ( old Norse lygisögur ) appears to be justified by their fictional elements. This form of the saga was heavily influenced by the courtly epic of the European continent, often only inspired.

The historical literature (Konungasögur)

The Kings sagas mainly describe the life of the Norwegian kings. The most famous of these texts, the Heimskringla , comes from the outstanding author Snorri Sturluson (1178–1241), who wrote them at the beginning of the 13th century. The name is formed from the first words of the saga kringla heimsins ... (the world).

The oldest of the royal sagas, Ágrip af Nóregs konunga sögum (Outline of the History of the Kings of Norway), was written towards the end of the 12th century. A little later, from the 13th century, Fagrskinna (the beautiful parchment) and Morkinskinna (the rotten parchment) date . Both tell us, from different perspectives, of chronicles of Norwegian kings. While Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla with the old Uppsala kings begins near the time of the birth of Christ and ends at the Battle of Re (1177), the Morkinskinna does not begin until 1035. The dispute about the source value of these works is discussed to some extent in the article Sagakritik .

From 1130 a new quality of king sagas began. The saga written by Eiríkr Oddsson with the title Hryggjarstykki ( Calfskin ) is the first contemporary witness saga in Norwegian-Icelandic historiography. Erik, who had experienced the civil war in Norway from 1134 to 1139, wrote his lost work based on his own experience and with the help of reports from other contemporary witnesses, from which Snorri is said to have drawn. Since Eirík's work, all other royal sagas can be traced back to contemporary witnesses or draw from contemporary reports. They are therefore of particular source value.

The Icelandic Sagas (Íslendingasögur)

The Icelandic sagas (Íslendinga sögur) are narratives that were written anonymously between 1200 and 1350. In around 30 sagas, the educated writers tell of family traditions (mostly from the time when Iceland was settled), contemporary events, themes of legends and fairy tales as well as fictitious occurrences made up.

The focus of the Icelandic sagas are men and women from the wealthy upper class of the newly settled Iceland between 970 and 1030, mostly the descendants of the first settlers of the time of the conquest . The sagas' plots address conflicts with dramatic, often tragic, outcomes. They tell of land grabbing, disputes over land, breaches of law and legal arbitration, law and ideas of order, ostracism and banishment and feuds over land, family honor and women. Occasionally they focus on the biographies of important men and women and thus convey valuable details of the Old Norse-Germanic worldview and ethics . The style of the sagas is factual, almost naturalistic, psychologically differentiated in the presentation, and with a fine sense for personality, character and motivation of the protagonists , without fantastic elements. The highlights of the event are marked by dialogues.

The most extensive of these works is the Brennu Njáls saga about the clever Njáll and his friend Gunnar von Hlídarendi. In the Laxdaela saga , a woman, Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir , stands between two men, Kjartan and his friend Bolli. The Hrafnkels saga deals with topics of Christian ethics, personal pride and political justice, and the Grettis saga or the Gísla saga Súrssonar place famous Icelandic outlaws at the center of the saga, who ultimately prove to be morally superior to their opponents. The hero of the Egils saga , which may have been written by Snorri Sturluson , who tells about one of his ancestors here, is like this poet and power politician .

The image of society

Most of these sagas, according to Preben Meulengracht Sørensen, relate their tragic conflict from the absolutely predominant point of view of the man's personal honor. It is based on the sharp contrast between masculine and feminine, in which every crossing of boundaries leads to contempt, which means social death. Even milking a cow is not acceptable to the man. The crucial word in this context is Nið and "arg", which both contain dishonor. According to Sørensen, this is a militant sexual morality in which the slightest hint of the feminine forces a man to revenge in order to preserve his honor and to be able to remain at eye level with the other members of society. Hence, in the humiliating insults that provoke the conflict, the passive role in homosexuality is regularly asserted. Falling on your stomach in a fight is a serious humiliation, as the person in question offers his buttocks to the attacker. The humiliation of the inferior also often takes place on the sexual level, that is, castration or the "Klámhögg" (cutting off the buttocks of the inferior). The active role in homosexuality, on the other hand, is not dishonorable, unless the passive part is related or friendly to the active part. Then the Nið does not consist in the act itself, but in the abuse that is inflicted on his relative or friend. The woman's crossing of borders, on the other hand, is judged more leniently, as the example of the Valkyrie with her bellicose demeanor shows. The ambiguity of words with harmless meaning and sexual connotation means that even ostensibly harmless sentences can lead to Nið. That is why in the Grágás under the heading “This is where the manslaughter begins”, any form of poetry about a person is prohibited under penalty. Because such verses were easy to remember and quickly spread.

Examples of this are described under the keyword Neidingswerk .

The ancient sagas (Fornaldarsögur)

Fornaldarsögur (or "prehistoric sagas") are played mainly in the period before Iceland was settled. They mostly deal with heroic-mythical themes, the characters in the sagas cannot be historically proven, and the action takes place in a pseudo-historical framework.

The Fornaldarsögur are mostly divided into a) hero sagas, b) Viking sagas and c) adventure sagas.

The heroic sagas are mostly based on motifs from heroic sagas and, from the 13th and 14th centuries, are also fictitious stories. The plot is mostly serious, and the hero sagas usually end tragically.

The Viking sagas, on the other hand, are usually not tragic, but mainly deal with the Viking Age. Battles, raids, and clashes between Vikings are the main themes of these sagas. In contrast to the hero sagas, some of the contents of the Viking sagas are entirely verifiable, such as geographical information or some people.

The ancient sagas

The Antikensagas are relatively free transcriptions of Latin continental models into Icelandic from the end of the 12th to the middle of the 13th centuries, i.e. translation literature. These sagas include the Trójumanna saga (saga of the Trojans), which goes back to a model by Dares Phrygius ( De excidio Troiae ), the Breta sögur (sagas of the British), a translation by Geoffrey from Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae ins Old Icelandic and the Alexander saga (The Saga of Alexander) written by Brandr Jónsson , based on an epic by Galterus de Castellione (Walter von Chatillion) written in Latin hexameters . These antiquity sagas were used to entertain and teach about continental European education for an audience that did not speak Latin.

Religious and Scientific Writings

An important representative of the Catholic, religious Old Norse literature was the Skáld Eysteinn Ásgrímsson , who became known as the author of the poem Lilja .

See also


  • Preben Meulengracht Sørensen: Norrønt Nið . Odense 1980. ISBN 87-7492-321-8 . An exemplary study of the origins of conflict in Icelandic sagas.
  • Preben Meulengracht Sørensen: Om eddadigtees alder . (About the age of the Edda poetry) In: Nordisk hedendom. Et symposium. Odense 1991. ISBN 8774927736 .

Literary stories

  • Jónas Kristjánsson: Eddas and Sagas . Reykjavík 1988.
  • Kurt Schier: saga literature. (Metzler M 78 collection), Stuttgart 1970, ISBN 3-476-10078-2
  • Heiko Uecker: History of Old Norse Literature . Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-15-017647-6
  • Jan de Vries: Old Norse literary history . 3. Edition. Berlin / New York 1999, ISBN 3-11-016330-6

Introduction to language and literature



  • Felix Niedner, Gustav Neckel (Ed.): Thule Collection . Old Norse poetry and prose. 24 volumes. Düsseldorf 1963–1967 (1st edition 1911–1930).

Complete modern revision (the other volumes in preparation) of the Thule Collection due to excessive translation deficiencies as:

  • Kurt Schier (Ed.): Saga - Library of Old Norse Literature . 8 volumes. Diederichs, Munich 1996–1999:
    • Stefanie Würth: Icelandic sagas of antiquity . Vol. 1. Diederichs, Munich 1996, ISBN 3-424-01261-0 .
    • Ulrike Strerath-Bolz: Icelandic prehistoric sagas . Vol. 1. Diederichs, Munich 1997, ISBN 3-424-01375-7 .
    • Jürg Glauser: Icelandic fairy tale sagas . Vol. 1. Diederichs, Munich 1998, ISBN 3-424-01359-5 .
    • Kurt Schier: Egil's saga . The saga of Egil Skalla-Grimsson. Diederichs, Munich 1996, ISBN 3-424-01262-9 .
    • Heinrich Beck : Laxdoela Saga . The saga of the people from Laxardal. Diederichs, Munich 1997, ISBN 3-424-01264-5 .
    • Hubert Seelow: Gretti's saga . The saga of Grettir the Strong. Diederichs, Munich 1998, ISBN 3-424-01425-7 .
    • Klaus Böldl: The saga of the people on Eyr . Eyrbyggja saga. Diederichs, Munich 1999, ISBN 3-424-01480-X .
    • Dirk Huth: Sagas from East Iceland . Diederichs, Kreuzlingen / Munich 1999, ISBN 3-424-01502-4 .

Text output

  • Íslenzk fornrit . Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, Reykjavík 1933-. (still to be published)
  • Hans Kuhn, Gustav Neckel: Edda . The songs of the Codex Regius and related monuments. Vol. 1, text. 5th edition. Carl Winter, Heidelberg 1983, ISBN 3-8253-3081-8
  • Hans Kuhn (ed.): Edda . The songs of the Codex Regius and related monuments. Vol. 2, Annotative Glossary - Short Dictionary. Carl Winter, Heidelberg 1968. ISBN 3-8253-0560-0

Web links

Wikisource: Old Norse Saga Library  - Sources and Full Texts
Commons : Old Norse Literature  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Saga  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. ^ Franz Seewald: Skalden Sagas , Insel Verlag 1981, p. 23
  2. ^ Aslak Liestøl: Runer fra Bryggen . Bergen 1964.
  3. Kristjánsson: (1988) p. 30.
  4. Sørensen (1991) p. 226.
  5. Preben Sørensen Meulengracht: Norrønt Nid .