JÓN HNEFILL AÐALSTEINSSON
OLD NORSE RELIGION
IN THE SAGAS OF ICELANDERS1
The sagas of Icelanders as sources of Norse religious belief are ob-
scure and difficult to handle. So to begin with I shall run through some
main themes of the research carried out these last decades, and refer
to leading experts on the origin and nature of Icelandic saga-writing.
It is some fifty years since Sigurður Nordal wrote the introduction to
his edition of Egils saga in the series íslenzk fornrit. This introduction
set the standard for this admirable series of texts, and many of the
chief ideas characteristic of the so-called 'Icelandic school' have been
published there. In his introduction, Nordal reviewed (among other
things) the differing opinions held by older scholars on the part au-
thors took in the composition of sagas, and he added: 'It is generally
recognised that most of the material in all the older sagas comes from
oral accounts, yet many sagas clearly show that they were first formed
as a whole by their authors, not to mention those sagas that are entire-
ly or mostly fictitious.'2
Nordal next attacked the doctrine that the Sagas of Icelanders for
the most part reflect a fully-formed oral tradition, saying: '. . . my
own conclusion, after considering separate sagas and the development
of saga-writing in general, is briefly this; that no saga now before us
was written down in the form in which it was told. This is plainly true
of the Kings' Sagas, where in some passages we can follow the devel-
opment of the written text step by step. But the same rule applies to
the Sagas of Icelanders, though in a different way. They too are the
product of saga-writers, authors who have worked over the material
and set their own stamp on the narrative'.3
Nordal has this to say about the development of saga-writing in Ice-
A paper read at the University of Oxford November 18th 1985.
Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar (ÍF II, 1933), introduction, p. lix.
3 Op. cit., p. lx.