A Layered Landscape: How the Family Sagas Mapped Medieval Iceland
By Carol Hoggart
Limina, Vol.16 (2010)
Abstract: The Icelandic Family Sagas – Old-Norse prose narratives written during the 1200s – inscribe in retrospect a process by which the unknown terrain of late ninth-century settlement Iceland is ‘mapped’ through association with human story. Space begs history: family sagas locate past deeds in a present landscape. At the most evident level, sagas explain how places received their names by reference to the people who had lived there. Another layer of meaning is created by the movement of stories and journeys over this named geography. Furthermore, the saga landscape thus constructed is shown to have continuing relevance: the sagas link past and present, with physical evidence of saga action still evident in thirteenth- or even twentieth-century Iceland. Yet family sagas do not claim that all responsibility for this construction of landscape lay with the early settlers. The land too is shown to have had agency, so choosing its people and history.
Introduction: Iceland at the time of Norse settlement (c.870) was territory unmarked by human culture. It was a space with no history, no myths, no stories attached to it – a land with no human meaning. The ‘family sagas’ written in thirteenth-century Iceland (the Íslendingasögur) describe the past in a way that fills an empty terrain with significance – or as Jürg Glauser puts it, they perform a ‘semioticization of the landscape’. These Old-Norse prose narratives relate the process by which landscape was culturally constructed – and, in the process of telling, the Íslendingasögur are agents in this construction of Iceland. This essay takes as its starting point a notion that humans cannot understand their environment until it is cast in human terms. Space needs to be ‘mapped’, named, understood through (past) human interaction with it. Medieval Icelanders felt the need to place their mark, be it physical or conceptual, on the land.
In this paper I discuss three ways in which the family sagas inscribed cognitive maps over Iceland: firstly, sagas explain how places received their names through the people who lived and acted there; secondly, saga narratives traversing the named landscape act to imprint it further with human meaning; and finally, Íslendingasögur refer us to physical evidence of saga action in the landscape, asserting it can ‘still be seen today’. So convincing has this process been that people still look to find a medieval saga-landscape in modern Iceland, despite evidence in the Íslendingasögur themselves of change since the tenth century. However, family sagas do not claim that all responsibility for the construction of landscape lies with people and their actions. The land too is shown to have had agency, dictating choice of settlement and so effectively choosing its people and history.