OLD NORSE RELIGION IN THE SAGAS OF ICELANDERS 307
reveal an opinion once general and still dominant that Sagas of Icelan-
ders are based on traditions. The next step is to consider whether
there is any way of establishing the age of these traditions at the time
when the authors of the sagas incorporated them. Sagas of Icelanders
for the most part tell of individuals living in the tenth and early elev-
enth centuries, reckoning by other historical sources. The question
then arises whether records of these people survived in oral transmis-
sion all the time from the tenth century, or whether their names have
been associated with traditions established later.
In folklore studies, it is a recognised fact that traditions are modified
by the environment in which they survive. Traditions that migrate
from one country to another change colour according to the area, and
adjust themselves each time to the cultural environment in which they
are recited.17 On the other hand, traditions firmly formulated in one
cultural environment can remain unchanged in new cultural surround-
ings for some time, long or short, even when they are at variance with
current attitudes. Then it is their form that keeps them going.18 We
must always take these two contrasting principles of folklore study into
account whenever we examine traditions that have travelled a long
way in time or space.
The cultural environment in Iceland changed but little in the period
between the completion of the settlement in the early tenth century
right up to the thirteenth century, when the Sagas of Icelanders were
written. Domestic conditions would have been in the main exactly the
same all this time, the size of the population was similar, habitation
was just as scattered. The one change in this period that was of any
significance and could have influenced the form and preservation of
traditions was the Conversion (in 999 or 1000 AD). The great majority
of sagas deal with events which actually happened before the Con-
version, some of them going back to the early tenth century. If tradi-
tions of leading characters had achieved a set form and stamp before
1000 AD, they could perhaps still carry some trace over into the sagas.
But then we have to reckon that these same traditions would have had
to be orally preserved for about two hundred years after the Con-
version. Such transmission was likely to leave its mark, presumably as
Anna Birgitta Rooth, Öskubuska í austri og vestri, Rvík 1982, p. 140.
18 Op. cit., pp. 141-2.