culture, literature

Storytelling in Iceland – Prose And Verse at the Heart of a Nation

I can personally attest to the love Icelanders have for storytelling. Growing up, my grandmother, whose family emigrated from there, was FILLED with stories. It seemed everything contained within it a story. For example, Icelanders have a tradition (and a story) about a strange creature that pretends to be your child, but really is an old man. So what mothers need to do when their children are young is when the child is sleeping under the covers, they need to pull the covers up from over him to make sure the baby isn’t really an old man with a beard smoking a pipe. Luckily, my mom checked on me when I was a baby and I did not have a pipe. Crisis averted. 

These stories are part of a very old tradition of legends that center around the “hidden people” – or as we better know them – elves. In fact, a large number of Icelanders will not deny the existence of the hidden people. I’m sure my grandmother, an educated and highly intelligent woman, wouldn’t have, either.

And why would they? After all, denying the existence of creatures found in their stories would be similar to denying their culture. So much of Icelandic culture stems from a vast, ancient network of storytelling that goes all the way back to Viking Age itself. 

Icelanders in the Viking Age – Great Writers of Power

In the Viking Age itself, Icelanders were sought after for their great, oratory power, and their ability to tell stories and create skaldic poetry after the exploits and powers of great and mighty kings. No offense Norwegians, but your Icelandic cousins of the era far outstripped your ancestors in regards to Skaldic Poetry. 

The thing is, great power was given to the ability and craft of poetry. As is prevalent in Scandinavian myths and even history, the belief in the power of a poem to do good or bad was so great, it was even supernatural. Apart from the supernatural and mythological power of storytelling, the power of the poet also had great practical significance.

It’s not an accident that so many of the great Sagas from the Viking Age were written by Icelanders. Many of the great Skalds were also from Iceland. And it’s thanks to these skalds that we have the epic poems from which the sagas are based. In a very real way, the Skalds did have power – their epic poems were what cast the heroic endeavors of Scandinavian kings into the annals of history. In a time before newspapers, media and so on, the ability to create a compelling poem that could be shared by others across the land meant the difference between boom and bust of your kingdom and dynasty.

It’s easy to see, therefore, why Icelanders who were particularly gifted in this craft and way of storytelling and verse were HIGHLY sought after. Indeed, they could almost entirely transcend their humble, common roots to become almost like nobility, living and taking part in courts, and even befriending great kings. 

Sigvat the Icelandic Skald

One of these great, Icelandic Skalds was Sigvat. A personal favorite of mine, Sigvat was the Skald of King Olaf II of Norway. In addition to being a Skald, Sigvat was also a warrior, and a great friend of Olaf’s, even naming the king’s son while the king himself slept. Sigvat was also present at many of the King’s great battles. This way, he could sign about the many great deeds of the king afterwards.

One very interesting thing about Sigvat was that he actually was quite socially awkward and had no talent for speaking in prose. And yet, he was so incredibly well practiced in verse that he could speak in perfect, beautiful Skaldic verse on a whim.

Olaf II, on the otherhand, is unique as well in that not only was he heralded as a great Viking king, his exploits would also lend him another great title not granted to any other Viking. Due to miracles that took place at the time of his death and afterwards, Olaf, who was a Christian Viking, was labeled a Saint by the Church in Rome.

One might wonder if the stories of Sigvat had something to do with swaying the public opinion of the clergy in favor of Olaf.

Why Were Icelanders Such Great Poets?

Although not all Skalds were Icelanders, Icelanders were disproportionately represented amongst their numbers, and the greatest ones probably were Icelanders. And of course, the greatest Sagas from the Viking Age were written by Icelanders as well. Why was this? What made Icelanders such great storytellers?

I’m not entirely sure. But it seems obvious that the oral tradition and maybe even the isolation of Iceland from the rest of the world aided in developing their craft. Perhaps the first people to go to Iceland tended to be the more wealthy Scandinavians, and could therefore hone their craft in leisure. Maybe it was in part thanks to the very multi-ethnic society of Iceland, with many members of the original settlers coming from Gallic origins, from places like Ireland. Maybe having such a rich society helped inspire the people and the poets. Maybe it was the long winters, the cold, or even the boredom of living on an Island with little else to preoccupy yourself with. Or maybe it was just a more certain way that Icelanders could make something of themselves in the world, rather than stay in a cold and harsh place. Becoming a Skald, after all, gave one incredible social mobility.

It’s really hard to say. But whatever the reason, it’s clear that this gift and bent towards the literary and storytelling has been carried through the ages within Iceland, even today. 

Iceland – A Nation of Storytellers

Story is intrinsic to Iceland. My Great Grandfather, a busy man, a farmer, businessman, and immigrant to America, worked tirelessly to build his fortune in America. And yet, he still had time to sing the Icelandic Eddas to his children, something which I think seriously annoyed my grandmother. She certainly never sang these stories to us, nor did she ever teach my mother Icelandic. 

She did, of course, tell us countless stories about our supposed ancestors – of Leif Eriksson, Erik the Red, Snorri the great writer, Gottskalk the terrible, and other, lesser known, Icelandic legends. 

Today, Iceland is a massively literate country, the most literate in the world, and authors and writers are celebrities. Almost everyone in Iceland is a writer, and many Icelanders will publish a book at some point in their lives. It’s something in the blood, I think, as well as something in the culture, and in the spring water. 

I suppose that’s just what happens when you’ve lived somewhere so long, with stories at the very heart of everything. 

About the Author

Joseph Anderson is a content guru and runs JosephWriterAnderson.com and the hit podcast, Keeping Up with Joe. 

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