How Iceland Saved Viking Lore and Traditions

A majority of the written sources we do have are from Iceland. Vikings discovered Iceland in the middle of the 9th century. This discovery led to a land rush as many families were eager to carve out a new life in this austere place of stark beauty. Many of these settlers were escaping Harald Fairhair and other despotic kings who were nation-building in Scandinavia. These pioneer families were fiercely independent and wanted to preserve their way of life and culture without becoming the serfs of greedy lords.

Consequently, many of the Vikings who settled Iceland were from western Norway. Other Vikings came to Iceland indirectly, by way of the Hebrides, Orkney, Ireland, or the Faroe Islands, with Celts from those lands making up portions of their households.

The Vikings set up a democracy in Iceland, with a firm sense of law based on honor and restitution. In the year 1000, the Icelanders voted to accept Christianity as the public religion, while allowing people to practice whatever religion they chose in private. This decision was made for the sake of peace and to keep up with the changing times. But this peculiar conversion would have another effect as well: while Viking descendants in Christianized Scandinavia, Normandy, England, and elsewhere actively distanced themselves from their pagan past, the Icelanders were much more comfortable with that part of their heritage. This, combined with natural isolation and a conservative disposition, led to Iceland remaining a bastion of Old Norse culture. 

Even today, a thousand years later, the modern Icelandic language is very similar to Old Norse. Though some word meanings and pronunciation have naturally shifted, Icelandic college students can read the Medieval manuscripts without much difficulty. This retention of language is a tremendous testament to the cultural preservation that occurred in that island nation.

In the middle of the 13th century – more than 150 years after the last Vikings sailed the seas or stood in battle – Iceland was undergoing a violent political crisis. This crisis of politics became a crisis of identity, and perhaps because of this, there was a strong intellectual impulse to record the remnants of their ancient heritage. For the first time, Viking lore was set down in writing for future generations to read. 

This creative impulse expressed itself in two forms: The first was the Eddas – the collected poetry and myths of the Old Norse gods, goddesses, and heroes. But the second impulse may have been the more remarkable: the Icelanders set down the stories of their ancestors – ordinary men and women. These sagas were a unique accomplishment in medieval literature. Even today, the sagas are recognized as one of the world’s great literary achievements and a forerunner of the modern novel. 

Even in the Viking Age, poets from Iceland were considered among the best. But after their time, their descendants expanded the Norse oral tradition into a vibrant literary culture. To this day, Icelanders read more books and even write more books per capita than any other nation in the world.

Source: Son of Vikings

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