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Saga Literature, Cultural Memory, and Storage

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 332-354 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0043

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Saga Literature, Cultural Memory, and Storage

In this article I wish to focus on some of the ways in which saga literature and memory meet. In various contexts, the literary scholars Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning have demonstrated and summarized the manifold relationships between literature and memory. Based on work done in literary studies, they have emphasized three concepts that can describe the relationship between literature and memory: “These basic concepts are (1) the memory of literature, (2) memory in literature and (3) literature as a medium of collective memory” (Erll and Nünning 2006, 13).1 These concepts, which I will elaborate on below, indicate relevant approaches to the sagas, and in the present study it will be demonstrated how sagas have memories, represent memories, and mediate memories. References will be mostly to the Íslendingasögur and the biskupa sögur, but the approaches sketched out here are relevant to other types of sagas as well.

Apart from underscoring that memories were narrated, represented, and mediated in saga literature, the argument will also consider the function of writing for preservation and storage of memories. This article does not provide an exhaustive treatment of the sagas in the light of these general concepts of memory, but rather points only to selected areas where these methods can be relevant. Many of the questions that are central in memory studies have already been anticipated in saga [End Page 332] scholarship, even if the term “memory” has not always been defined or explicitly drawn into the debates. The advantage of an approach that elaborates on the theoretical and methodological insights in types and functions of memory is not that they can explain all complicated questions about the sagas. Rather it is the potential of memory studies to tweak and modify some of the ongoing debates that makes it relevant, not least the potential of memory studies to nuance concept pairs such as the literary/the historical, representation/reality, text/extra-textual context, and orality/literacy.2

Cultural Memory

During the last decades, new frameworks for studying memory have developed (e.g., Halbwachs 1992; Assmann 1988, 2005; Erll and Nünning 2008), and they have begun to influence work with the sagas (Glauser 2000, 2007; Hermann, Mitchell, and Agnes S. Arnórsdóttir, forthcoming). Inspired by these studies, I will specify the understanding of memory that underlies the discussion in the present context. In doing that, I will refer to selected aspects of the concept “cultural memory,” which was initially developed by the German Egyptologist Jan Assmann. On one occasion, he defined cultural memory as such:

jeder Gesellschaft und jeder Epoche eigentümlichen Bestand an Wiedergebrauchs-Texten, -Bildern und -Riten, in deren “Pflege” sie ihr Selbstbild stabilisiert und vermittelt, ein kollektiv geteiltes Wissen vorzugsweise (aber nicht ausschliesslich) über die Vergangenheit, auf das eine Gruppe ihr Bewusstsein von Einheit und Eigenart stützt.

the characteristic store of repeatedly used texts, images and rituals in the cultivation of which each society and epoch stabilizes and imparts its self-image; a collectively shared knowledge of preferably (yet not exclusively) the past, on which a group bases its awareness of unity and character.

At least two aspects become clear from this definition. Firstly, that cultural memory is a type of memory that is collectively shared and connected to the formation of a group’s self-image and identity; secondly, that it takes the form of narrative, image, and ritual, and is [End Page 333] a kind of memory that, metaphorically speaking, is transferred to a variety of representational forms—including literature, which will be of specific relevance in this article. Following the definition quoted here, the sagas cannot merely be understood, as will be suggested below, to have cultural memory, to represent cultural memory, or to mediate cultural memory; instead, they embody it, which makes it apt simply to speak about the sagas as cultural memory.3

Cultural memory is indebted to media, like writing, orality, and images. It needs media in order to be transmitted over time and to be externalized. Media, like representational forms, are crucial for the transfer from individual to collective or cultural memory; it...