Conceptualizing the Multicultural ‘North’ in the Íslendingasögur: Peoples, Places, and Phenomena


  • Solveig Marie Wang University of Aberdeen



Norse-Sámi relations, Íslendingasögur, Liminal landscapes, Medieval spatial understandings


During the early medieval period, a large part of Fennoscandia was inhabited by the Sámi (Zachrisson 2008, 32). With written sources such as Historia Norvegiæ, Ágrip af Noregs konungasǫgum, and Heimskringla referring to Sámi settlements in the Viking and medieval period reaching as far south into Norway as Hadeland (Einarsson 2007, 5-7), alongside archaeological excavations asserting a Sámi cultural presence south of the contemporary cultural borders of Sápmi (Bergstøl 2008), close contact between the groups is not surprising. Despite often being described as ‘desolate’ and ‘remote’ (especially in the terra nullis colonialism exercised by the Scandinavian nation states in early modern times), the northernmost parts of the Fennoscandian landscape complexes are described as already inhabited in several medieval Scandinavian sagas, including the Íslendingasögur. Primarily, these texts explicitly assert that the ambiguous and distant ‘north’ of Fennoscandia was a special, preternatural place, simultaneously internal and external to what medieval Icelanders perceived as ‘Nóregi’. Whether enforced by the ‘othering’ of characters depicted with northern descent through expressive features and abilities traditionally associated with the area or its indigenous inhabitants, by the descriptions of different landscapes and communities unequivocally ‘othered’ and distinct from that of the saga-writers’ reality, or by extraordinary phenomena connected to the two, ‘norðarliga í Nóregi’ is portrayed as somewhat distinct from that of the rest of the ‘national’ landscape. Encompassing an area extending further south than contemporary northern Norway, the notion of a supernatural north in the Íslendingasögur goes beyond an idea of a unified Nóregi. Moving into the land of powerful chieftains in Naumdælafylki and the ambivalent Hálogaland, venturing ‘á fjall upp’ to the Sámi borderlands of Finnmǫrkr, whilst also incorporating the mysterious landscapes and peoples of eastern Fennoscandia, the notoriously equivocal Kvenland and Bjarmarland, distinct descriptions of peoples, places, and phenomena appear and follow literary patterns and stereotypes that are sometimes archaic. By discussing the portrayal of north Norwegian landscapes and geographical understandings in these texts, in conjunction with an examination of the depiction of the Sámi, this essay aims to demonstrate how north Norwegian spatial awareness in the Íslendingasögur can help enlighten cross-cultural relationships and liminal identities, and present fewer rigid contrasts between people and cultures in Fennoscandia than previously accounted for.


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How to Cite

Wang, Solveig Marie. 2020. “Conceptualizing the Multicultural ‘North’ in the Íslendingasögur: Peoples, Places, and Phenomena”. Nordlit, no. 46 (December):245–262.