The Orkneyinga Saga, written around 1230 AD by an unknown individual in Iceland, is the only medieval text in written specifically about Norse and Viking history in the Orkney Islands (Palsson et al. 1978; Anderson 1873).  It tells the story of the earls of Orkney and other famous Vikings, focusing primarily on their character and deeds (Anderson 1873).  What is essentially a history text was written several hundred years after the event occurred in order “to explore the history of a country through its rulers” (Palsson et al. 1978).  Due to the amount of text dedicated to northern Scotland (that is, not Orkney) and the focus on the earls, the possible earlier name of the saga, Jarla Saga (Earl’s Saga)may be a more accurate title (Cowan 1973).

Much of the history that the saga relates is hundreds of years old, so where did the saga-writer get the information and how accurate is it?  In some cases, contemporary skalds would share historical songs and oral recitations that had been passed down for generations.  The saga-writer then expounded upon these stories (Anderson 1973).

With this in mind, there are at several areas in which accuracy of the historical account is at risk, both in terms of production of the story, transfer of the story orally and eventually to writing, and in interpretation.

    • (1) The original skald who composed the story after of the deed was accomplished may have elaborated or changed elements for dramatic style.
    • (2) There may have been changes to the story during the transition of the account from skald to skald over the generations.
    • (3) The extent of elaboration provided by the writer of the Orkneyinga Saga, as well as the creators’ biases, whether they be known or unknown.
    • (4) Preconceived notions about Scandinavians (“Vikings”, in particular) on the part of the reader, which influences the interpretation of the source (Cowan 1973).  This could include the translation into other languages.

(1) Similar to other Icelandic sagas, the Orkneyinga Saga was composed with a noticeable sense of the “dramatic movement” of the narrative.  Because of this and the subject matter, the final text that the saga writer created contains two important components of a good saga: a story that illustrates the social and historical continuity of a place that is made memorable by “inventive narrative skill” (Palsson 1978).

Joseph Anderson, whose translation of the Saga was published in 1873, provides an interesting glimpse into the construction of the oral histories of the Scandinavians and what this means for their accuracy:

“When great events and mighty deeds were preserved for posterity by oral recitation alone, it was necessary that the memory should be enabled to retain its hold of the elements of the story by some extraneous artistic aid, and therefore they were welded by thewordsmith’s rhymes into a compact and homogenous “lay”. Thus, worked into the poetical setting (as the jeweler mounts his gems to enhance their value and ensure their preservation), they passed as heirlooms from generation to generation, floating on the oral tradition of the people” (Anderson 1873).

Accuracy of the skalds who originally composed the oral recitations was a concern of saga writers. Anderson records the words of famed Icelandic saga-writer Snorri Sturluson:

““These songs,” he says, “which were sung in the presence of kings and chiefs, or of their sons, are the materials of our history; what they tell of their deeds and battles we take for truth; for though the skalds did no doubt praise those in whose presence they stood, yet no one would dare to relate to a chief what he and those who heard it knew to be wholly imaginary or false, as that would not be praise but mockery.””

In order to write the Orkneyinga Saga, the author relied upon several types of sources, including poetry, oral tradition, and written material (Palsson 1978).

(3) As for the saga-writers’ biases that may have influenced the construction of the saga, it should be kept into account that the writer recorded the history several hundred years after it occurred.  It was done at a time when changes in law and culture were occurring.  As Cowen states “However much of the saga originated in Orkney, the version which now exists was put together in Iceland, by an Icelander who detected in medieval Orkney a chronicle of internal strife and external aggression similar to that which threatened his own country in the Age of the Sturlings” (Cowan 1973).

(4) In terms of misinterpreting the saga due to preconceived and strongly held misconceptions about Vikings, according to a paper by Edward J. Cohen, these issues can most strongly be seen in the sections about Earl Rognvald and Sweyn Asliefsson.  As Sweyn Asliefsson is the subject of part of this survey, it will be particularly important to keep this in mind.  Cohen calls Sweyn “a man persistently romanticized by commentators as one who epitomizes the Viking way of life.  Sweyn is an anachronism, his values decadent, in a twelfth century context” (Cowan 1973).


Click here to learn about the Orkneyinga Saga in context