Between Scandinavians’ diaspora on the North Atlantic and their energetic participation on the Eastern Route is the lively activity and interactions with diverse cultures around the Baltic Sea – the mare nostrum of Baltic, Finnic, Sámi, Scandinavian and Slavic speakers. Sagas provide the richest early written sources not just for Scandinavian cultures but also for their interactions with other groups in this part of the world. In the spirit of these contacts and mobility, we will bring the 18th International Saga Conference to the eastern side of the Baltic Sea to be hosted in two countries, Finland and Estonia, with movement between them.
Scandinavians’ activity in this multicultural part of the world provides the uniting theme of the conference: Sagas and the Circum-Baltic Arena. The vast majority of saga literature concentrates attention on the North Atlantic and western parts of Scandinavia, while the written sources rapidly thin out to the east, with few or no written sources for many cultures on the Baltic Sea until much later. This creates questions for understanding accounts in sagas, but also for what sorts of insights may be gained from relating sagas with evidence from other disciplines, such as archaeology, linguistics and folklore studies. We are therefore promoting interdisciplinarity through four thematic strands concerned with bridging data across different disciplines and methodologies for gaining perspectives on the past.
Sagas and Archaeology
Sagas reflect and construct a Norse intangible heritage of traditions of the past while archaeology reveals acts and practices in the material world. The relationships – or lack thereof – between the worlds of verbal discourse that reach us as literature and the events and manifestations of culture in the archaeological record are not always clear. For example, the mass burial of Scandinavians at Salme on Saaremaa, Estonia, reflects what was no doubt an event engraved on cultural memory and reflected perhaps in kings’ sagas or other monuments in the archaeological record. The strand Sagas and Archaeology brings into focus relationships between written sources and the material record.
Sagas and Language
Language provides some of the richest data for exploring the history of cultures, their categories, conceptions and contacts. Sagas provide valuable resources for exploring diverse areas of culture built into language, ranging from the earliest attestations of many place names to theonyms from other cultures like Puruvit of the Wends or Jómali of the Bjarmians. Words and their use in sagas are resources for understanding social categories like ‘slave’ in society. They have also been key to debates, for example, on Norse magic and ritual through the word seiðr, and more recently in the so-called Vanir debate. Conversely, language outside the sagas can also provide perspectives that can be brought into dialogue with the sagas, such as the South Sámi name Hovrengaellies, which contains a form of Þórr, perhaps indicating the other side of contacts with Finnar described in sagas. The strand Sagas and Language centers on these and other relationships between sagas as discourse or sagas as sources in Norse or other languages.
Sagas and Folklore
In Old Norse studies, ‘folklore’ has customarily been discussed in terms of oral traditions documented in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but folklore has been increasingly recognized as a phenomenon of discourse also in the background of much Old Norse literature. In recent years, there has been a boom of interest in gaining insights into Old Norse sources through compare-sons with later traditions, viewing sagas as windows through which traditions in their background can be glimpsed, and considering relationships between traditions reflected in Norse sources and those only documented much later in other cultures around the Baltic Sea. The strand Sagas and Folklore draws together these three central ways of looking at sagas in relation to folklore.
Sagas and Cultural Geography
In the Viking Age and medieval period, the multicultural world of the Baltic Sea region was conceived in terms of organized geographies that situated peoples and places relative to one another, in some cases tracing these back to events of cosmological proportions. Such geographies are often implicit frames of reference in sagas, some of which exhibit a longue durée through more recent times while others may be more ephemeral or scholars may even be deceived by reading geographies of the past through geographies (and geopolitics) of the present. The strand Sagas and Geographies turns attention to the anthropocentric constructions of the Baltic Sea region as an arena of long-term contacts and relations between diverse groups.