The second paper given at the International Vinland-Seminar in Chicago on October 16 was Gísli Sigurðsson’s “Vínland – As It Was Recalled in the Icelandic Sagas.” Sigurðsson is Research Professor and Head of the Folklore Department at the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík and teaches in the University of Iceland’s Department of Folklore. An authority on oral traditions, he has studied Iceland’s interaction with Gaelic and Canadian cultures, written books on the Icelandic sagas’ relationship to orality, and published a complete annotated edition of the Poetic Edda. He is also the author of the preface to the Vínland sagas in the Penguin Classics edition of The Sagas of Icelanders (2000).
Dr. Sigurðsson began his presentation by defining the Icelandic sagas as prose narratives that were built on oral tradition. The scope of the sagas covers not only Iceland, but also Orkney, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and North America. They are not historically-accurate accounts but products of memory and oral tradition that portray the world-view of the Vikings as it was remembered in Iceland long after the recorded action. There is, however, a continuity from the time of writing back to the time of the original events.
The two thirteenth-century Vínland sagas are independent of one another and are not related as written documents; one is not based on the other. This means that they are equally reliable (or unreliable). Sigurðsson gave a summary of Eirik the Red’s Saga and pointed out that it should really be called Guðríð’s Saga, as the focus is on the experiences of Guðríð Þorbjarnardóttir. The scope of her adventures reached from New England to Rome, making her the most widely-traveled woman for the next 500 years. He went on to discuss agreements and disagreements between events and locations in Eirik the Red’s Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders.
One interesting item from Sigurðsson’s talk was the fact that Icelanders at the time of the sagas believed Vínland was connected to Africa. They thought that the African continent stretched south, west, then north to become what we now call America. Unipeds (one-legged people) were believed to exist in Africa, so it was taken in stride (!) that they appear in a saga dealing with Viking adventures in Vínland.
Before addressing scholarly trends regarding the actual existence of Vínland, Sigurðsson discussed older written references to the region: Adam of Bremen (Saxony, 1075), Ari the Learned (Iceland, 1120), and an 1121 annal about the Bishop of Greenland who set off in search of Vínland, disappeared, and was never heard from again. Maybe the unipeds got him.
When the first scholarly editions of the Vínland sagas were printed in the early nineteenth century, there were no doubts as to the authenticity of the material. The sagas were thought to be accurate descriptions of actual voyages. Vínland maps were published that centered the action around Boston and New England. The whole issue has been clouded as American memories of the nineteenth-century craze have been mistaken by journalists for oral history from the Viking age.
Later scholars viewed the Vínland sagas as fantasy, deeming them offshoots of Irish wonder tales of the Western Lands. More recently, scholars have come to view them as valuable source materials that include verifiable events that can be cross-referenced with contemporary historical documents.
The Icelandic sagas include confirmable episodes that can be corroborated by contemporary historical documents. The saga description of settlement and societal development in both Iceland and Greenland has been confirmed by archaeological evidence and genealogical studies. The sagas describe Icelandic society as being formed by people from different national and genetic backgrounds; this has been clearly proven through modern scientific methods. In the 1960s, the archaeological investigations at L’Anse aux Meadows provided physical confirmation for the journeys described in the Vínland sagas. Sigurðsson, however, points out that the site is not Vínland itself but a staging-post for southward exploration.
For early Icelanders, the tales preserved in the sagas played social and educational roles. As the stories were told and retold, they played a social role by mediating knowledge of the world. Importantly, they preserved knowledge of voyages and routes, always orienting the audience in the locations of the action. Sigurðsson related Icelandic saga-recital to the Songlines of the Indigenous Australians – “you know your way through the land by the stories you tell.”
Sigurðsson argues that we must take all Vínland saga information and try to piece it together in order to paint a picture of the actual voyages. As part of his presentation, he showed how it is possible to go through the Vínland sagas, match place-names in the text to specific locations, and create a map of the Viking exploration of North America. His maps can be seen in the recent edition of The Sagas of Icelanders that was mentioned above.
At the conclusion of his talk, I asked Dr. Sigurðsson whether he thought the Vínland sagas’ portrayal of the two female characters, Guðríð and Freydís, was colored by a Christian bias held by the writers. Guðríð’s name contains “Guð,” which translates as “God” (in the Christian sense), not “god” (in the pagan sense). Freydís’ name translates as “Lady of Frey,” one of the primary Norse gods. Throughout the sagas, Guðríð is portrayed as a good and charitable woman, while Freydís is shown to be an evil and selfish monster.
In Eirik the Red’s Saga, Freydís saves the members of the Viking encampment when she chases off the attacking Native Americans by baring her breast and slapping it with a sword. In The Saga of the Greenlanders, Freydís encourages one part of the expeditionary group to murder the other; she kills the women by herself. Sigurðsson pointed out that Freydís is not wholly “evil,” but is an active character in both appearances and is never portrayed as passive. One tale is just more positive than the other – to say the least!
Sigurðsson also said that the naming of the characters is one of the elements that makes it so difficult to see the Vínland sagas as purely historical documents. The two women have literary, symbolic names. This happens very often in the works of Charles Dickens; in real life, not so much. This underscores the fact that the sagas are a complex blend of both the historical and the literary.