SAGAS are long prose narratives in Old Norse written primarily in Iceland between approximately 1180 and 1500. They are generally categorized by their subject matter. The kinds of sagas important for the study of Norse paganism are the kings' sagas, which are biographies of Scandinavian kings (related sagas are about the Scandinavian earls of the Orkneys and the Faeroes); family sagas (or "sagas of the Icelanders"), which recount the histories of Iceland and Greenland from their settlement in the ninth and tenth centuries up to about 1030 (a related text is Landnámabók [Book of the Land-Takings], an account of the settling of Iceland, which began around 870); and mythical-heroic sagas, which describe adventures taking place in Scandinavia before the settlement of Iceland. All three groups of texts contain material relating to Scandinavian paganism, mythology, and other non-Christian beliefs and practices.
The kings' sagas about Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldsson describe their efforts to convert Norway and Iceland to Christianity in the period from 995 to 1030, including their encounters with pagan gods, temples, idols, and believers. The legendary history of the early kings presents the Swedish royal family as the descendants of Freyr and worshippers of Óðinn. It also includes myths not found elsewhere, some of which (such as the story that the giantess Skaði married Óðinn after she separated from Njörðr) may be medieval inventions. Family sagas contain characters who are pagan priests, seeresses, witches, and sorcerers, and they describe rituals such as fortune-telling, "baptism," funerals, sanctifications of land and temples, oath-taking, and sacrifices. Mythical-heroic sagas, some of which draw on pagan myth and legend, treat all of the above, although their setting in the legendary past and their cast of heroes, gods, and monsters make their accounts of paganism seem less realistic than those of the other kinds of sagas, which tend to a more factual-seeming style.
Although this material may possibly be accurate, somehow preserved by oral tradition, the saga authors are generally writing long after the fact and are interpreting (if not inventing) the tale for reasons of their own and according to their Christian worldview. For example, authors of the family sagas often wanted to show that the beliefs and social institutions of pagan Icelanders prefigured those of a fully Christian society. A later saga author could also borrow from an earlier saga, so the existence of some element of paganism in more than one saga is not necessarily proof of its origin in the shared pagan heritage. It is just as likely to derive from vague memories and popular tradition, deliberate antiquarian reconstruction, or the writer's own suppositions as to what the old religion was like. For instance, the account in the family saga Hrafnkels saga (Saga of Hrafnkell) of a sacred horse shared by the hero with the god Freyr, which he swore that no man should ride, on pain of death, is now generally recognized as a late and fictitious presentation of heathen beliefs and practices unlikely to have been part of pagan culture. Similarly, the description of a heathen temple in the family saga Eyrbyggja saga (Saga of the People who Lived at Eyr) is now considered a learned reconstruction. Nonetheless, traces of the old heathen religion and its rituals are preserved in the sagas, and increasingly reliable the lower the religious plane, as simple magical practices that surely continued to be performed into the Christian era.
The sagas attest to a belief in landvættir (land spirits), who can bring luck in farming and fishing, and they depict pagans devoting themselves to Þórr (a protector against bad weather at sea and the god who supports order in the community), Óðinn (a sower of strife but also the god who endows poets with the valuable power over words), and Freyr (the bringer of good harvests). Eyrbyggja saga chronicles the arrival from Norway of Þórólfr, a devout worshipper of Þórr who settles in western Iceland. He is shown choosing his land at the prompting of the god, setting up pillars brought from Þórr's shrine in Norway, marking his boundaries with fire, and building a new temple near his home. The association of Þórr with the land, with the choice of a sacred field for the Law Assembly, and the taking of oaths on a sacred ring appears authentic. The mythical-heroic saga Gautreks saga (Saga of Gautrek) describes Starkaðr the Old, a famous warrior renowned for the talents Óðinn bestowed on him. His mother dedicated him to the god before birth in return for help in a brewing contest, and when he grew to manhood, Óðinn was compelled by Þórr's curse to cause Starkaðr to commit terrible deeds, such as the sacrificial death (by hanging and stabbing with a spear) of the king he served. One version of the king's saga about Olaf Tryggvason includes a tale about a fugitive Icelander who joined the priestess of Freyr as she traveled from farm to farm in Sweden in a chariot with a statue of Freyr; this was believed to bring good harvests. The young man soon substituted himself for the statue, and when the priestess became pregnant the people took it as a sign of divine favor. Although this episode is probably intended to mock paganism, the practice it describes is confirmed from other sources, such as Tacitus's description of the procession of Nerthus.
Two priestesses are mentioned in Landnámabók ; these Icelandic women are also distinguished by being related to the local chieftains. One was the wife of Þorvaldr Koðránsson, and the story goes that, during the efforts to spread Christianity in Iceland, Þorvaldr was assisting in the preaching at the Assembly but his wife remained at home, offering a sacrifice at a temple. When considering such a report, it must be remembered that medieval Christianity associated the male with the spiritual and the female with the carnal, and the sagas therefore contain many episodes in which a woman promoting or defending paganism is defeated by a man's efforts to promote Christianity. In the family saga Njáls saga (Saga of Njál), it is a woman who forcefully defends the pagan faith and even attempts to convert King Olaf Tryggvason's missionary, the priest Þangbrandr. The king's saga about Olaf Haraldsson includes a tale in which a farm-wife has her household worshipping a preserved horse's penis; when King Olaf hears of this, he travels to their remote district and preaches Christianity to them in person. Another female-led ritual practice that occurred within the household was seiðr, a kind of divination that, according to myth, was taught by Freyja, the Vanir goddess of love. It could be used for black magic, but its purpose in several sagas is to predict the future and men's fates. A famous description of it is in the family saga Eiríks saga rauða (Erik the Red's Saga), where a famine in Greenland prompts one of the leaders of the community to invite a seeress to a feast. She wears special clothing and is fed special food. The next day she obtains the help of another woman who knows the right chant; this draws many spirits to the circle of women, and the seeress is able to forecast the end of the famine, predict famous progeny for the woman who sang, and answer questions put by various individuals.
In contrast to the mythic origin of this practice, Landnámabók and the king's saga about Harald Fairhair of Norway refer to seiðr and magic being learned from the Sámi or Lapps in northern Norway. (Not quite a saga is the Norwegian Historia Norwegiae [History of Norway], written circa 1178 to 1220, which gives a Latin account, purportedly based on the testimony of a Christian eyewitness, of two Sámi shamans who attempt to retrieve the missing life-soul of a woman struck unconscious by an unknown adversary.) Like the category of the female, the Sámi are generally deployed in the sagas as a "cultural other," that is, a group that is used to define Norse society by being the group that the Norse are not. Thus, both women's magic and Sámi shamanism can, from the perspective of the sagas, easily be interpreted as witchcraft and sorcery, although witchcraft, strictly speaking, is a phenomenon of Christian Europe. Eiríks saga 's account of the seeress's garb includes the detail of her cat-fur gloves, which is more reminiscent of European witchlore than Finno-Ugric shamanism. The saga authors probably saw little difference between the seiðr of the past and thirteenth-century notions of witches.
The biases just described, however, were not universal, and several Icelandic men of good reputation are depicted as involved in divination and manipulative magic. The king's saga about Olaf Tryggvason includes a tale about an Icelander who can see the future, including the imminent death of his best friend's son, soon to be killed by malevolent dísir, female spirits associated with his family, who are angry that the family will abandon them for a new faith. The family saga Egils saga Skallagrímssonar (Saga of Egill, Son of Bald Grímr) describes one incident in which Egill cures a woman who was sickened by the improper use of runes, which had been cut into a stick that was then put into her bed. Because the carver of the runes was incompetent, his runes made her ill instead of infatuated. Egill cuts away the runes, burns the shavings, and cuts new runes into the stave that restores the woman to health.
Another aspect of Germanic paganism that does not involve the gods is a belief that the dead were conscious inhabitants of their graves. A related belief, documented in Landnámabók as well as Eyrbyggja saga, held that the dead spent the afterlife with their ancestors in a nearby mountain. The latter says that the Þórr-worshipper Þórólfr brought the tradition with him from Norway, and he and his son Þorsteinn are said to retire after their death to a certain mountain, where they feast in the company of their ancestors. Helgafell ("Holy Mountain"), the familial mountain in western Iceland, is guarded from being defiled by bloodshed or excrement, and no one is allowed to look at it without being washed. (Interestingly, Helgafell became a thriving monastic center by the thirteenth century.) Landnámabók notes that the descendents of Auðr, a Christian settler of Iceland, reverted to Holy Mountain worship after her death.
Pagan Germanic cultures varied widely, from the warrior tribes known to the Romans through the kingdoms of Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England, with their well-developed towns and trade routes, to the unique North Atlantic society of Iceland, which for its first four hundred years was a commonwealth of farm-based chieftains, with neither king nor any urban center. The religion and rituals of these cultures also varied, as do the reflexes of them found in the sagas. In addition to the beliefs and practices that the sagas depict as beliefs and practices, there are also episodes that appear to derive from rituals, although the saga author seems to be unaware of their special nature. These are found in mythical-heroic sagas based on Migration Age legends, such as Völsunga saga (Saga of the Völsungs) and Hrólfs saga kraka (Saga of Hrólf Kraki). Primarily they involve initiation ceremonies used to mark (or make) the change of boys into young warriors.
A thousand years later, these tribal practices had faded from memory, but knowledge of the Old Norse mythic world was still a cultural resource of the Icelanders, and without it the sagas cannot be fully understood. It was not the only cognitive category they possessed—Christianity was another—but it was one means by which they could communicate a wide range of concepts and ideas that were integral to their culture. Nonetheless, the saga authors and audiences were Christians, and their use of paganism as a theme and the old myths as narrative patterns was, on the largest scale, subsumed within a Christian worldview in one of several ways—for example, by considering the age of paganism to be the Scandinavian equivalent of the "old dispensation" (the period before the old law of the Jews was replaced by the new law of Christ). Paganism and pagan associations, such as Odinic characters, are deployed according to the Christian author's view of the past or agenda for his history. Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241) emphasizes the Odinic allegiances of Earl Hákon, who is the opponent and pagan counterpart of King Olaf Tryggvason, the Christian who must assert political control over his new kingdom and begin its conversion. The family saga Víga-Glúms saga (Saga of Killer-Glúmr) describes an Icelandic intercult rivalry between Freyr and Óðinn. The author implies that such a proud and vengeful society can only escape its failings by accepting Christianity. Pagan behaviors are thus shown to be embodiments of Christian sin. Eyrbyggja saga 's Þórólfr establishes the authority of his temple through demanding tributes from neighboring farms, and similar characteristics are found in the figure of Hrafnkell, who is deeply affectionate towards the stallion he has dedicated to Freyr and is kind to his own supporters, though he forces others to become his supporters and does not treat them fairly. In these sagas, the oppression exercised by these priests probably signifies the spiritual burden and evil nature of paganism.
Many sagas are available in English translation from Penguin. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 5 vols., edited by Viðar Hreinsson (Reykjavík, 1997), contains all the family sagas and many related medieval tales. Stephen A. Mitchell provides a list of English translations of the mythical-heroic sagas on pages 188–190 of his Heroic Sagas and Ballads (Ithaca, N.Y., 1991). Lee M. Hollander translated Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway (Austin, Tex., 1964; reprint, 1991). For a survey of scholarship on the sagas, see Old Norse—Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide, edited by Carol Clover and John Lindow (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985). Further references are found in John Lindow's Scandinavian Mythology: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1988). Margaret Clunies Ross treats the Norse myths and their reception in medieval Iceland in the two volumes of Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Northern Society (Odense, Denmark, 1994 and 1998). Thomas A. DuBois's Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (Philadelphia, 1999) investigates the dynamic relationship between Christianity, Norse paganism, and the Balto-Finnish and Sámi religions. The use of saga information about pagan rituals is discussed by Jens Peter Schjødt and Margaret Clunies Ross in Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society, edited by Margaret Clunies Ross (Odense, Denmark, 2003), pp. 261–299.
Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (2005)