Iceland
Sagas Video   3D


Harold the Finehair and Dofri
Harald Fairhair
and Dofri

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Icelanders have always considered sagas to be the most reliable source of information about their history. One class of sagas, known as the Saga of the Icelanders, tells almost exclusively about the earliest settlers in Iceland, from the time A.D. 870 until the conversion to Christianity in A.D. 1000. According to the sagas, most settlers were established families who left Norway rather than submit to the growing power of the king. But the sagas also shed light on the Celtic admixture in the Icelandic settlement. As a literary form, the sagas have their closest parallels to Irish literature, indicating that the impetus for writing sagas may have been inspired by Celtic traditions.

Norway in the sagas
Many sagas begin in Norway, where a wealthy and well respected chieftain is harassed by King Harald Fairhair (A.D. 890-930), who, according to the these sagas, was the first to unite the Norwegian kingdom. Instead of submitting to his rule, this and other chieftains decided to leave Norway and come to Iceland. The Saga of the Faeroe Islanders says that the first settler of the Faeroes, Grim Kamban, was also fleeing King Harald, but his Celtic style surname has led many to suspect he come to the Faeroes from the Hebrides or Ireland. Also, the Faeroes were likely settled several decades before Iceland, well before the reign of King Harald.

RealAudio Listen to the Saga of Erik the Red (RealAudio).

Even after the initial settlement, legal troubles in Norway served as a constant motivation for new immigrants to Iceland, such as Erik the Red who was banished from Norway to Iceland and then fled Iceland and settled Greenland. Nevertheless, Icelanders continued to value their relationship with Norway. Many saga tales include scenes where the protagonist travels to Norway and is warmly received by the king, including Leif Eriksson, and many others.

Celtic characters in the Sagas

The Saga in Cult3D
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Despite the overwhelming emphasis on the Norwegian component in the settlement of Iceland, some of the most memorable early settler saga characters have their origin in the Western Isles. Aud the Deep Minded was the daughter of Ketil Flatnose, the Norwegian Viking who had conquered the Shetlands and Orkneys. Aud left the Orkneys after her husband was killed, and moved to Iceland, taking possession of a large area called Laxdal. She took with her a number of freeborn Celtic servants. Her favorite was a man named Vifil, to whom she gave a portion of her land. Vifil's grand-daughter was Gudrid Thornbjornadottir, who traveled to Vinland and there gave birth to Snorri, the first child of European descent born in the New World.


Gísli Sigurdsson on the Sagas

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Intermarriage (or childbearing) between Viking men and the Celtic women was also common. Leif the Lucky stopped in the Hebrides and there impregnated Thorgunna, an Irish aristocrat. There seems to be no preference for nor prejudice against Celts; in fact, Celtic women, because the Celts had converted to Christianity before the Vikings, may be more highly regarded in the minds of the Christian monks writing the sagas.