Given their bloodthirsty reputation, it can come as somewhat of a surprise that the Vikings were masters of the arts of storytelling and poetry. The sagas and eddas represent one of the most significant collections of writings produced during the medieval period. Although, strictly speaking, the main volumes were written centuries after what is generally accepted as the “Viking period”, it is clear that they were largely based on an oral tradition that stretched far into the past.
The skald (saga poet) was a highly respected figure in Viking society and their role in the preservation and interpretation of myths, legends and oral histories was recognised as vital in reinforcing what it meant to be a “Viking”. The oral histories developed by the skalds were translated into distinctive literary forms that still help to define the heritage of the entire region of Norse influence.
As time passed and more and more people became literate, the stories that had been passed down through the generations from one skald to another began to be written down. Many of these manuscripts were collected and preserved by scholars and, because the church appears to have been sympathetic to the storytelling tradition, frequently by priests and monks. Perhaps because of relative isolation, or perhaps because of the nature of the Icelandic people, the writings retained a very distinctive style and did not adopt the literary affectations of other nations.
The sagas are probably the mostly widely known and read body of Viking literature. They are a complex blend of family stories, heroic adventure and political history told in a style that is designed to be both accessible and entertaining. The sagas reflect their roots in the oral tradition by adopting a linear approach to storytelling.
The influence of skalds, who were frequently employed by a specific family to record and enhance the history of significant family members, is evident in the many family histories that appear in saga form. This is particularly true of the sagas of the Icelanders which form a considerable part of the total collection.
Although most of the sagas are written in the 13th century, the stories they tell happened several centuries before and, consequently, it is difficult to judge how much of the detail of Viking life and culture included in the texts is reflective of the period in which they are set or the period in which they were written.
There is also considerable debate as to the veracity of their content. Some people regard them almost as historical documents and others express the view that they are largely works of imagination. Storytellers will always embellish history, but it must be acknowledged that events described in the sagas, such as the Viking settlement of North America, were considered by many as fictions until archaeological evidence was produced to verify the settlement at L’anse Aux Meadows.
Where the sagas told the stories of families, kings and heroes, the eddas informed the Viking world about their gods and their mythology. The Vikings had an advanced belief system and a very personal relationship with their gods, as evidenced by the earthy and, in some cases, very human qualities ascribed to them in Eddic poetry.
The Elder or 'Poetic Edda' was a collection of Old Norse poetry from a medieval manuscript – the ‘Codex Regius’. The first part of the works deals with Viking mythology from the creation to Ragnarök, the twilight of the gods. The latter part consists of stories of heroes including one of the earliest written versions of the Sigurd legend which was later to feature in Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’.
The Younger or 'Prose Edda' is a more academic and yet more accessible work written by the great Icelandic scholar and historian, Snorri Sturluson. It seeks to explain the verse-forms and mythologies of the 'Poetic Edda' while offering a more contemporary interpretation of the work for a 13th-century audience.