The Norse countries had a wealth of tales, poetry, myths and legends, but today we know primarily those from Iceland. Iceland produced a magnificent body of literature, both prose and poetry, that can still be read with pleasure. The prose consists of ‘sagas’ and ‘books.’ There were also two eddas, a manual for poets and a collection of pagan poems.


The word ‘saga’ means ‘narrative.’ There are sagas about the Pagan gods, about knights, and bishops and kings, both mythical and historical. Family sagas are tales of struggles between Viking Age families, usually with consequences. The Vinland sagas are part of the family sagas.

There are about forty family sagas. Among the best known are "Njal’s Saga" and "Egil Skallagrimsson’s Saga". Translations into English have been of varying quality. New translations, more faithful to the original language, were published in 1997 in a five-volume work, called The Sagas of Icelanders. A selection of some of them, including the Vinland sagas, were reissued in paperback format in the year 2000, and parts of their texts have been cited here.

Common for all the sagas is their plain and direct language and short laconic sentences. Much of the action occurs between the lines and is only hinted at in succinct sentences, which may make the reader laugh, even when the topic is gory. Understatements abound:

[...]Then Thormod took the tongs and pulled out the arrow. There was a hook on it and pieces of flesh from his heart were on it, some red, and some white. When he saw that he said, ‘ The King has fed us well. There is fat around my heart.’ Then he swayed and died. [...]

"Saga of Olaf the Holy", Chapter 234 , p. 309 [247]

The authors of the family sagas are unknown. Originally the sagas were probably memorized and performed before an audience. Most were recorded in the 13th century.


‘Books’ were historical works, intended as recordings of important events. Íslendigabók [The Book of Icelanders] was written by Ári Fróđi [Ari the Wise or Ari the Learned], who lived between 1068 and 1148. It gives the history of Iceland from the first settlement up to the 1120s.

Landnámabók [Book of Settlements — literally Book of Land Taking] is about the settlement of Iceland. It records the names of about 430 heads of household and the estates claimed by them.

The Icelandic chieftain and Law Speaker Snorri Sturluson, who lived from 1179 to 1241, was a prolific writer, and much of his work has survived. Snorri’s Heimskringla [The Orb of the World] is a history of Norwegian kings, beginning with an ancient and mythical past and leading up to his own time.


Snorri also wrote a text book for aspiring poets, the Edda. As examples of good writing Snorri presented myths about the Norse pantheon of pagan gods who fight against giants. Snorri cites poems drawn from a common Germanic heritage of poems about heroes such as Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, who six hundred years later became popular in the German composer Richard Wagner’s operas. Many of these original poems are recorded in a second edda, the Poetic Edda. The two eddas constitute the leading source for information on ancient Norse mythology.


Poetry was highly regarded by the Norse. The ideal man could compose and recite poetry. Some poems are as direct and simple as the family sagas. Others are complex and filled with allegories. Kings and chieftains used court poets to create flattering stories about themselves.


Other important literary works in Iceland include Voluspá [The Sybil’s Prophecy], Rígsţula [Rig’s Poem], and Hávamál [The Speech of the High One, Odin]. Voluspáis the story of the universe from its creation to its destruction. Rígsţula is a description of the Norse social order, as seen from the point of view of an aristocrat. Hávamál contains lifestyle advice and tips on magic spells, rituals and runes. It also has poems about Odin. Excerpts from all of them will give you a glimpse of the world view of the Vikings.

Chapters in Books