30 Saga Burial Mounds

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Using all forty Íslendingasögur [sagas of Icelanders] as the testing ground, one recurring motif in this large body of literature is viewed from a cultural memory perspective in order to determine if it can shed light on medieval mentalité. How might thirteenth­ and fourteenth Icelanders have collectively remembered signi­ficant events in their nation’s past in literature, most notably the conversion to Christianity (c. 1000) – do these sagas reflect perceptions of Icelandic national identity in that period, and if so, how? A sustained interest in the pagan past underscores depictions of Iceland’s history in the sagas; even so, the conversion appears to serve as a crucial mnemonic break that affects the way saga authors remembered their pagan ancestors and, by extension, conceptualized themsel­ves as Icelanders. The approach taken here follows that of Pierre Nora, which views such breaks with the past as catalysts in creating lieux de mémoire:sites of cultural memory that simultaneously store and allow for the communication of symbolic cultural structures, e.g. national stories and myths, and help engender a collective sense of shared history and identity in the present. The location of burial mounds within the sagas might in this sense be regarded as lieux de mémoire. In the Íslendingasögur, burial mounds are ever­present; they loom large, literal and figurative reminders of ancestry on the landscape (Siewers 2003, 23–25). That they are situated at roadsides, on headlands, and just beyond hayfield walls might be seen as reflecting the tensions that remain in the Ice­landers’ collective psyche centuries after their system of beliefs has changed. Although burial mounds and the pagan figures they encapsulate co­exist with Christians in the sagas, they are also remembered as being separated by distinct boundaries: earth, stones, roads, walls, and the conversion to Christianity.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies
Subtitle of host publicationInterdisciplinary Approaches
EditorsJurg Glauser, Pernille Hermann, Stephen A. Mitchell
Place of PublicationBerlin
PublisherDe Gruyter
Number of pages7
ISBN (Electronic)9783110431360
ISBN (Print)9783110440201
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018


  • Cultural Memory
  • medieval mentality
  • Burial mound
  • sagas of Icelanders


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