Scandinavia--Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland--is blessed with five distinct, yet related, cultures.

Learn about the stories behind the legends, about the countries, and most of all about the people.


"We sailed our ships to any shore that offered the best hope of booty; we feared no fellow on earth..."
Saga of Arrow-Odd

What is Gjetost?
A town in Sweden.
Brown goat cheese.
The word for "hello" in

Roasted fish.
The word for ghost in

Correct answer?
OSLO - Norway

Clustered around the head of the 68-mile-long Oslofjord, Oslo is probably the most spacious city in the world. Its 175-square-mile metropolitan area consists of over 75 percent forests and five percent water. Its fine deep harbor, Pipervika, stretches into the heart of the city and from it leave ferries to Denmark and Germany.

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Feature: Stavanger
Featured City: Oslo
Food: The Great NordicDiet
          Swedish Semla
          Norwegian Cuisine
          Canned Sardines
History: The Round Tower
Arts:   Vigeland Park, Oslo
          Georg Jensen
People: Henrik Ibsen    
News: Happiest Countries          

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The History of Iceland's Sagas
by Bob Brooke

The sagas are a unique medieval literature to which I will continually refer and sometimes quote throughout this book. The word saga can be translated into English as "history;" hence, the Icelandic series slendinga Saga would be translated as History of the Icelanders. In English, however, sagas are the histories written down in Iceland from the 12th through the 14th, but particularly the 13th, centuries.

There are various kinds of sagas from this time--those that deal with ancient, former, and contemporary times, and those that are more self-consciously historical. The sagas of ancient times are heroic accounts of the Germanic peoples during the migration period during the 5th and 6th centuries), while the sagas of former times deal with the first settlers and the early generations of Icelanders. This latter category is conventionally called the sagas of the Icelanders or the family sagas or just the sagas There are about 40 sagas in existence, ranging in length from a few pages to 300 or 400 pages in conventional book form. They describe in a highly realistic and exterior way, in a style similar to Hemingway's, the tumultuous lives of leading Icelandic farming families during the tenth and eleventh centuries, their feuds and their alliances. However, these accounts were not put down on parchment until the late 12th and 13th centuries, two centuries after the purported events they describe. How much they're historical accounts and how much fiction has been a point of intense controversy for the better part of a century.

According to Peter Hallberg, the sagas are believed to be essentially historical. They developed in close connection with the described events, were transmitted from generation to generation by storytellers, and were finally committed to parchment, generally sometime during the 13th century.

The authors of the sagas merely recorded a fixed oral tradition. On the other hand, they have been regarded by some scholars primarily as works of fiction. The overwhelmingly dominant opinion among current literary and historical scholars of the Icelandic Middle Ages is that the sagas are fictional works of art, not historical accounts.

Sigurour Nordal's studied Hrafnkel's Saga, a short, particularly realistic, unexaggerated, believable account of the conflicts among farmers in the eastern fjords. Through close internal and external analysis, Nordal effectively demolished the historical account of this saga, previously thought to be among the most historically reliable, and showed it to be an elegantly crafted short story.

However, even Nordal, who was extreme among saga scholars in his argument that the sagas must be regarded primarily as works of fiction, would never have denied the link to history of most of the leading saga personalities nor that the sagas are, to various degrees, based on actual historical events.

Most significantly, he regarded the artistic success of the 13th-Century saga authors to be the result of their ability to create the appearance of historical reality.

According to Nordal, the writers of the Family Sagas were better off than might be expected when describing times so long past. “The changes in the social and material conditions, in housing, clothes, weapons, seamanship, and so on, were not very remarkable from the 10th to the 13th Century, and obvious anachronisms in such descriptions are rare. “The writers were quite conscious of the distance in time, and they had a considerable historical sense,” he said.

One saga scholar, Jesse Byock noted that Nordal and "so many" of his contemporaries were "virtually blind to the fact that the sagas would be an important resource for today's interest in the function of society and traditional patterning."

But the saga scholars aren't alone in their beliefs. The anthropologist Rosalie H. Wax noted that "most of those Old Icelandic and Old Scandinavian materials [fall] squarely into an area of investigation to which anthropologists and sociologists have been selectively inattentive." She later noted that she does "not believe that there's any other record of comparable richness, volume, and interest in the world."

Her sentiments are echoed by another anthropologist, Victor W. Turner, who observed that the sagas "are many and rich and full of the very materials that anthropologists rejoice in when vouchsafed to them by informants in the field." In one place, he calls Njal's Saga an "anthropological paradise.'"

Turner emphasized that the "major continuities" between the Saga Age and the 13th Century are "so many" . . .at the basic levels of kinship and territorial organization, mode of subsistence, forms of adjudication and arbitration, and norms governing relations between individuals and groups, that sagas treating both the earlier and later periods can be regarded equally as models of and for Icelandic social life as it lasted over several centuries.

To read more articles by Bob Brooke, please visit his Web site.


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