My Top 10 Favorite Quotes from Icelandic Sagas

VikingThe Old Norse word saga is cognate to English say and German sagen (‘say’). Its meaning in Old Norse is ‘what is said’, ‘tale’, ‘story’, or ‘narrative’. Classical sagas (known as sagas of Icelanders) constitute a unique literary genre. On the one hand, the original listeners (many researchers believe that sagas had long been transmitted orally) were sure that sagas relate the very words and deeds of their ancestors. On the other hand, the events of the classical sagas took place between the 9th and the 11th centuries, which is at least two centuries earlier than the time they were first written down. It was hardly possible to relate accurately what happened two to four hundred years before that.

It is to note that the past of the inhabitants of Iceland was not distant and obscure: they knew that their ancestors had populated their homeland rather recently, and that the events of the ‘taking of the land’ (landnám) were still fresh in the memory of the society as a whole. However, it is not clear whether the authors of the sagas believed they simply told what had actually happened, with no fictional details. (It is not even clear if we can talk about the authors of the sagas at all: passing from generation to generation does not allow for the notion of a single author.)

I hope you will like my top ten favorite quotations from sagas. Do not hesitate to share yours in the comments below.

1. One’s back is vulnerable, unless one has a brother.
Ber er hver að baki nema sér bróður eigi.

The Saga of Grettir, chapter 82

2. There are more things to be thought of by men than money alone.
En fleira er mönnum til hugganar en fébætur einar.

The Saga of Grettir, chapter 47

3. Never break the peace which good men and true make between thee and others.
Rjúf aldrei sætt þá er góðir menn gera meðal þín og annarra.

The Saga of Njal, chapter 55

4. Old friends are the last to break away.
Langvinirnir rjúfast síst.

The Saga of Grettir, chapter 82

5. With law shall our land be settled, and with lawlessness wasted.
Með lögum skal land vort byggja en eigi með ólögum eyða.

The Saga of Njal, chapter 69

6. There are few more certain tokens of ill than not to know how to accept the good.
Fátt vísara til ills en kunna eiga gott að þiggja.

The Saga of Grettir, chapter 78

7. Where fault can be found, the good is ignored.
Fár bregður hinu betra ef hann veit hið verra.

The Saga of Njal, chapter 139

8. A tale is but half told when only one person tells it.
Jafnan er hálfsögð saga ef einn segir.

The Saga of Grettir, chapter 46

9. No one is a total fool if he can be silent.
Enginn er alheimskur, ef þegja má.

The Saga of Grettir, chapter 88

10. Eyes can not hide a woman’s love for a man.
Eigi leyna augu ef ann kona manni.

The Saga of Gunnlaugur the Worm-tongue, chapter 13

For the full texts of the sagas (both in English and Icelandic) see Icelandic Saga Database. Note that all texts are given in normalized modern Icelandic orthography.

Photo courtesy Stefán Freyr Margrétarson. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Licence.

16 comments… add one
  • Xandi

    I’m wondering if you can confirm the interpretation of phrase 10: Eigi leyna augu ef ann kona manni. I always double check translations and I found the following on Google: Not hide eyes if a man loves a woman. I’m sure like many languages, Icelandic/Norse has a different order of phrasing, but this makes a big difference in the meaning of the sentence. Should you “not hide your eyes” or do your eyes “not hide your love?”

    Thank you!

    • Marit

      The eyes (of the w0man) can’t hide the love even if they want to.

  • Dani

    I was wanting to get some of these as tattoos in elder futhark as well as “i live i die i live again” is there any one who can help me with getting the wording right

  • victor A

    hello, i have been searching for more and more quotes and sayings of the sagas and eddas, and by the end of it I hava a list of 14 of them. but Im having problems with some things like websites that try to adapt the originals to the modern language, the thing is, in volsunga, c.24 there is a word that I cannot understand totally “but who shall say what **goodhap** folk may bear to their life’s end?” some sites say that it might be something like “carefree folk may […]”, “good fortune folk […]” thats kind of a problem since their interpretations are so diferente from one another, but I thought that u could help due to your experience with old icelandic and old norse might give a better context or meaning.
    Im still trying to “fix” the fragments I have here but when I do i might just send them here

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Victor. Hap is an archaic word that means ‘luck’ or ‘fortune’. It is borrowed from Old Norse happ. The word happy developed from the notion of someone having good hap, fortunate, lucky.

      In Old Norse this text says: “En háttung er í, hverja giftu menn bera til síns endadags.”

      English translation: “But who shall say what goodhap folk may bear to their life’s end?”

      It does not speak about “goodhap folk”, it speaks about goodhap that folk bear. In other words: “But who shall say what amount of luck they may bear to the end of their lives?”

      Overall meaning: now they are lucky, but we don’t know what happens next.

    • Viking Rune

      Jesse L. Byock’s translation (Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1990, p. 74):

      She replied: “I am faring well. My kin and friends are alive, but it is unknown what fortune men will have to their dying day.”

  • callum

    I have come across an excerpt from a saga I would like to translate for my father.

    “The hand turns to its wonted skill, and that learned in youth is always most familiar.”

    I have viewed a number of books and resources but I have noticed that you guys have a fantastic knowledge of this area. I was wondering if you could provide any insight and assistance in this regard. I was hoping to do a similar format to what you have done above with an English translation, then an Icelandic, and finally a Rune translation.

    Thanks again for all your help.
    Kind regards,
    Callum

    • Viking Rune

      Now in such wise it fared with many, that hand for wont did yearn, and things grew handiest by time that had been learned in youth.

      Nú fór svo mörgum að gjörn var hönd á venju og það varð tamast sem í æskunni hafði numið.

      The Saga of Grettir the Strong, chapter 78

  • Serge

    Great resource. You really did put an effort into explaining a lot. There are some things however that require some more clarification.

    In regards to writing your 1st favourite quote in Long Branch Futhark
    Ber er hver að baki nema sér bróður eigi.
    I got as far as this (see .jpg in the link below), following your recommendations on writing in Runes.
    http://www.omega.mil.pl/roboczy/norseproverb.jpg
    I do need some help allocating the correct “r” sounds (ᚱ reidh or ᛦ yr). Not exactly sure which of the words in the proverb would have the r derive from a “Z”.

    Any and all help with this would be much appreciated.
    Stay safe,
    Serge

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Serge. Note that the quotes above are given in the standard modern Icelandic orthography, which is slightly different from Old Norse. ON hverr (modern Icelandic hver) is from Proto-Germanic *hwarjaz, so my guess is that the final -rr would be spelt with the reið rune (as in the case of Þórr derived from *Þunraz). ON berr (modern Icelandic ber) is from Proto-Germanic *bazaz, so ýr rune. Same rune, I think, for ON genitive singular ending in bróður. As for er, it is the third-person singular indicative present form of vera, and I’ll have to check it in the actual runic inscriptions.

    • Viking Rune

      er < es < *est, so reið rune
      að is modern Icelandic form, Old Norse form was at
      v before vowels was spelt úr not fé
      ei was spelt ár + iss

    • Viking Rune

  • KCGustav

    I read this at the Museum at Roskilde in Denmark. Not sure if it’s from a saga or just an old saying:

    Better Gear
    Than good sense
    A traveler cannot carry.
    A worse burden
    Than too much drink,
    A traveler cannot carry.

    • Viking Rune

      This saying is from Hávamál, which is part of the Elder Edda. In Old Norse the text is as follows:

      Byrði betri
      ber-at maður brautu að
      en sé manvit mikið;
      vegnest verra
      vegur-a hann velli að
      en sé ofdrykkja öls.

  • Richard

    Excellent advice.

    • Viking Rune

      To be sure, Richard!

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