Sagnaþing í Washington

The Saga Literature and the Shaping
of Icelandic Culture
Library of Congress
Washington 24 May, 2000

When we talk about the Sagas and the shaping of Icelandic culture, we find ourselves asking the question: Why did Icelanders begin writing down these stories? What was it that led Nordic people in Iceland, but not in Scandinavia, to sit down and write their own history? Did they perhaps encounter an epic tradition on their way from Scandinavia to Iceland, which led to the Icelandic culture of writing being born?

I have no answers to these questions. In fact, no one has been able to provide a satisfactory explanation of what it was, in Icelandic society of about 800 years ago, that caused men to write books that now are regarded as an indispensable part of the common cultural heritage of mankind. It has also been pointed out, that at the time it wasn't merely remarkable that these books should have been written at all. What was even more unique, is that they were written in the Icelandic and not in Latin, the academic and ecclesiastical language of the time.

One scholar, Professor Helgi Guðmundsson of the University of Iceland, has given the following explanation:

"The profit from the Greenland trade probably supplied the financial basis, and thus the main reason, for the start of such large-scale saga-writing and book production in Iceland. We can in some ways compare this to the Italian city states of the Middle Ages. For example, Venice, an aristocratic democracy, ruled by the Doge, served for a long time as an intermediary in the trade with the Orient. At the time, the Orient lay beyond the horizon of most Europeans, just as Greenland did. The Venetian trade brought wealth, close contact with many countries, and a flowering of many cultural fields. Examples of similar conditions of trade, wealth and, at the same time, a flowering of culture, can be found in many other places, and at different times. We need only mention the trading cities along the Silk Road, which ran right across Asia. Saga-writing and book production in Iceland has sprung from similar circumstances. Iceland wasn't an end-station, but rather a hub. That was what mattered most.....

Icelandic books were mostly written in Icelandic rather than Latin. Therefore, they weren't specifically intended for the clergy. Sagas were written and copied for wealthy chieftains, and paid for by them. They had to be written in Icelandic for them and their people. A poor country would have possessed a few books in Latin for the priests and the monks."

I quote this text because I find this a fascinating explanation and the story was even taken further at a Smithsonian Symposium here in Washington few weeks ago, when a Canadian archeologist, Patricia Sutherland, presented what has been called "stunning new traces of the Norse on Northen Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic". Patricia Sutherland maintains that the Norse had frequent and prolonged contact with arctic hunter - gatheres known as the Dorset until the late 13th and early 14th centuries as the Norse were trying their hand at trading walrus ivory, which they sold for high prices in Europe. It was therefore not only Greenland trade but also North American which explains the beginning and development of writing in Iceland and makes us picture wealthy chieftains, who were not only interested in having their own story recorded, but also in the description of how the Earth was created and in the history of mankind from that time on. These were chieftains who had profited from trade, and thus needed peace and stability to pursue their affairs.

This picture is a far cry from the one usually shown of our Icelandic ancestors, the Vikings. Their memory is more often connected to acts of cruelty rather than Saga-writing. The peaceful image, however, is more in line with their depiction in the magnificent exhibition, "Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga", which now is on show at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. As we walk through the exhibition, or examine its splendid catalog, we Icelanders can certainly take pleasure in seeing how well the exhibition confirms the Sagas' function as records.

Although the Sagas are thus a record of the Norse discovery of North America, we can still argue about whether they are fiction or historical fact. On this there are different views, just as on most other things in connection with the Sagas. I did notice, however, that those who stack the bookshelves at Barnes & Noble in Georgetown seem to lean toward non-fiction, for this is where they've put the latest edition of the Sagas - published by Viking, of course.

Shall we let it go at that? Maybe, but whatever our views are in this matter, we all agree that the Sagas describe the evolution of a remarkable society, the "þjóðveldi". This Icelandic word can hardly be translated into other languages; although we commonly use terms such as "commonwealth", they do not cover the meaning this word conveys to speakers of Icelandic. In his book, Studies in History of Jurisprudence, published in 1901, James Bryce remarked of the Icelandic commonwealth:

"Nor ought it to be less interesting for the student of politics and laws as having produced a Constitution unlike any other whereof records remain, and a body of law so elaborate and complex, that it is hard to believe that it existed among men whose chief occupation was to kill one another."

And the commonwealth still serves as a field of research for those who study the origins and role of the State. One of them, Professor David Friedman, came to the following conclusion:

"Whatever the correct judgement on the Icelandic legal system, we do know one thing: it worked - sufficiently well to survive for over three hundred years. In order to work, it had to solve, within its own institutional structure, the problems implicit in a system of private enforcement. Those solutions may or may not still be applicable, but they are certainly still of interest."

We don't know the reasons why the commonwealth came to an end after three hundred years. And we still ask: What happened to make this unique system of government fall to pieces, leaving the idea, that a society can prosper, where the common man looks out for his rights without the interference of an executive power?

Ladies and Gentlemen!

I'll leave off recounting instances of matters in the Sagas, which are not fully explained and which will never yield to a single explanation.

This facet of the Sagas is not their least exciting attribute. I can see from the impressive list of speakers, that here, in this distinguished venue, you will once again discuss with great knowledge what the Sagas have to say. It is truly impressive, to have such a large group of excellent scholars in the field of Old Icelandic Studies gathered together in one place. The eminent surroundings here at the Library of Congress alone will serve to bring forth noble ideas and wisdom, and also new answers

To the Library of Congress and the Cornell University Library, who have organised this symposium, I wish to convey our most sincere thanks. May your discussions bear ample fruit.