IDEAS AFTERNOON

A Map of the Heart, Part 1: The Icelandic Sagas,

More than a thousand years ago, rebel Vikings and other settlers fleeing from Norway settled on a craggy, uninhabited island in the north Atlantic: Iceland. There they built a new world pretty much from scratch, with a new legal system, a new social order and — eventually — a new language. They also created stories about who they were. Philip Coulter time-travels into the heart of the Icelandic Sagas.
The Vikings who settled in Iceland in the 9th century created stories and myths to give shape to their lives in a harsh new land. (Philip Coulter/CBC)
Listen to the full episode53:58

More than a thousand years ago, rebel Vikings and other settlers fleeing from Norway settled on a craggy, uninhabited island in the north Atlantic: Iceland. There they built a new world pretty much from scratch, with a new legal system, a new social order and — eventually — a new language. They also created stories about who they were. At first these stories were oral, passed on generation to generation. But with the coming of written language, and in a monumental act of will, they collected their stories, transcribed them, and they became literature. A thousand years later, the Icelandic language has barely changed. And today their stories are read and understood much as they were a millennium ago. Philip Coulter time-travels into the heart of the Icelandic Sagas. Part 1 of 2-part series. Part 2 airs Wednesday, June 19.

What I really like about the sagas is that the author is not really telling us what to think. He's saying 'think', and we have to decide who is taking the right decision, who is taking the wrong decision.- Jon Karl  Helgason

Writing has been a transformative act in every culture. But what seem like obvious advantages to us now were not always so obvious to the people back then, when oral culture was giving way to written culture. Memory, and recounting stories out loud — that culture has its advantages: the speaker, and the authority of that speaker, becomes very important. As does debate and argument over the meaning what that speaker says. Oral cultures put great stock in the idea of community. 

The culture of writing, on the other hand, separates information from the teller, and in so doing makes that information more widely available: more people can read than listen, and that old sense of community gets lost. And what's maybe most important, writing fixes things into permanence. It's less slippery than spoken words, and there's less wiggle room for compromise and negotiation about what things mean.

For the Icelanders 1,000 years ago, that moment of moving from an oral into a written culture was of course transformative. But it took a special mind, and a special person, to see the importance of saving such a great archive of oral knowledge — the stories, sagas, poems and other records of the past — that until that moment lived only in the memories of a few people.  

Detail from the title page (a print edition) of Snorri Sturluson's Edda of 1666. It depicts Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology. (Wikipedia)

That person was Snorri Sturluson, a powerful landowner and politician, a fine poet himself, and also a 'lawspeaker' — meaning that he memorised the entire legal code and recited it at the annual parliament. Snorri must have know that the coming of writing spelled the end of the old ways, that great skills of memory would no longer be important, and that eventually all the knowledge that he and others had in their heads would die with them. So let's write down everything we know!

And he did. Snorri Sturluson wasn't the only one to do this, but he's the one we know most about, and the archive that he helped to create — including what we call the Icelandic Sagas — is  one of the glories of civilisation. And if you're an Icelander, you might think of Snorri Sturluson as being the Father of the Nation. What he helped create for the generations to come was nothing less than a roadmap for citizenship, a text that down through time has helped Icelanders figure out who they are as a nation, and as individuals.

All of which raises the following question: with all our 'smart' devices today, and with memory becoming less important, what's being lost — and who's thinking ahead about what our future generations might be missing?

Gisli Sigurdsson is a research professor at the Arni Magnusson Institute of the University of Iceland. 1:34


Guests in this episode:

  • Emily Lethbridge is a research professor at the Arni Magnusson Institute of the University of Iceland.
  • Jon Karl Helgason is a professor of literature at the University of Iceland.
  • Gisli Sigurdsson is a research professor at the Arni Magnusson Institute of the University of Iceland.

Further reading:

Related websites:


**This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.

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