1995-07-15: Njal’s Saga

Njal’s Saga

translated by Magnus Magnusson & Hermann Palsson (1960)

This Icelandic saga was recommended by Rexroth. It recounts the significant events of a period of about 50 years around 1000 AD. It is very interesting from the memetic viewpoint, for the illustration of an unusual society. The immediately striking aspect is that the society of Iceland’s “best men” was a band-type, in the sense of Farb (see Man’s Rise to Civilization).

Icelandic society was divided into 39 segments, each led by a “chieftain-priest”. Use of the word “chieftain” does not make these divisions chiefdoms. The overriding identity loyalty of the “best men” was to their families. Each man owed loyalty to his father, brothers, uncles, foster-father, father-in-law, brothers-in-law, and sworn-brothers. Each woman owed loyalty to her father’s and husband’s families.

The highest value in the community of “best men” was personal honor. Honor obligated a man to seek redress for insult or injury to himself or to a family member. Redress could take the form of compensation or blood vengeance. The killing of a man over a point of honor was explicitly allowed in the code of law (which was fairly elaborate). The code required that an honor-killing be publicly announced to witnesses, in preparation for a lawsuit to set compensation.

The existence of the body of law is an interesting fact, as is the nature of lawsuits and lawyers. One feature of the law was the ability to sentence someone to banishment or outlawry, permanently or for a set period, such as three years. This was enforceable by virtue of making anyone who harbored or helped an outlaw also outlaw, and no redress for killing an outlaw.

A feature of the society that might make re-reading or further reading worthwhile is the organization and relations between the communities of the society (other than geographic). The following communities can be discerned, and might have been formalized in law: chieftain-priests (39 at the beginning, although Njal maneuvered to create more; these could be bought and traded), warriors (who were also farmers and traders, and could choose the chieftain to follow from the region near where they resided). These two communities made up the “best men” of the society. In the second rank were landowners who can use weapons, but do not seek to make a name for themselves or associate as equals with the “best men”, and other owners of personal property (such as animals) who could serve on juries. Below these were women, slaves, freedmen, free children of slaves, serf-like peasants and servants.

The multiplicity of communities makes this a complex society, unlike those Farb mentions (except the state). The “best men”, and their women, are a band-like society by themselves, and evidently had little obligation to the other communities, other than the justice and religious functions presumably performed by the chieftain-priests, including the actions carried out at the Althing and other assemblies. Iceland was formed from settlers whose ancestors were Norse, some of which had previously lived in “conquered” lands such as Ireland and northern Britain. They brought with them some of the institutions and people with whom they had lived in those places, which made their society state-like in a weak sense. It might be interesting to compare the society of Iceland with a more “pure” Norse society, uncontaminated with the memes of “conquered” peoples and the institutions developed in peaceable living among other peoples. Perhaps the Norse sagas and other Icelandic sagas could provide information for such a comparison.

The society was disrupted (to a degree difficult to assess from this saga) by the introduction of Christianity in 1000. The “priest” part of the title of the leaders seems to have become vestigial. Shortly after the events of the saga, Iceland lost its independence in disruptive feuding, seeking and receiving the protection of the chiefdom of Norway. Eventually, this must have ended the blood-vengeance, and allowed the development of a state ruled more firmly by law.

It would be interesting to know the extent to which the Germanic peoples, such as the Norse, were tribal or band-like in their social organization, before interaction with the Celts and other peoples. My guess is that it was more band-like, with family honor more important than band or tribe loyalty, and no institutional means to prevent blood-feuds and vengeance. I would also like to know if the compensation for injury and death predated the conquests.

Aside from the memetic interest, Njal’s Saga is a great story. The increase in tension from the beginning to the Burning is superbly controlled (if a bit hard to follow in places), and the resolution is similarly well handled.

The society of Iceland contains elements similar to the (popular image of) the western frontier of America in the 1870s, with cattle barons serving as the “best men”, and family loyalty more important than loyalty to any higher society. Similarly, there was little effective means to prevent blood vengeance. It might be interesting to pursue this analogy further, and try to translate Njal’s Saga into that setting.


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