Saturday, March 2, 2013

Icelandic Sagas - A Cultural Glossary and Location Illuminator

Although the sagas are translated to English they may use words that are not as familiar to us. The translation I'm reading currently uses some lesser known vocabulary and archaic terms. Below is a list of some that I found in The Story of Burnt Njal, The Laxdoela Saga, and The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow (although the latter is not a saga, it is written in that style and uses many of the same words and places.)

Icelandic place names tend to be descriptive of the place, and are often translated into English, which, although they make it easier for us to understand, does make it harder if you're trying to find a place on a map.


The Althing/the Thing - Icelandic parliament/court system which began in 930 A.D.

Boun - to make or get ready. Or as an adverb: ready, prepared, destined. (

Busk - to make ready, prepare. A Scot's word from Old Norse būask.  (

Combe - a deep narrow valley, or a valley on the side of a hill. A British word. (

Dale - a valley

Easterling - a person from Norway. (From notes in The Story of Burnt Njal)

Ell - a term of measurement. For the Icelanders at the time of the sagas it was 18 inches long. "The Viking ell was the measure from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, about 18 inches. The Viking ell or primitive ell was used in Iceland up to the 1200s." (

Fell - a high barren field or moor. From Middle English, from Old Norse fell, fjall mountain. (

Fey - 1. fated to die, having a premonition of death. 2. able to see the future, having an otherworldly demeanor, crazy. (

Firth - a long narrow inlet of the sea.  A Scots word, from Middle English furth from Old Norse fjördhr (The Free Dictionary.)  Notice how the Old Norse word is close to fjord, which also means a narrow inlet of the sea, but refers specifically to those that are a "long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea between steep slopes;" it comes from the same Old Norse word fjördhr . (The Free Dictionary. ) The Icelandic word for firth is  fjörđur (Dicts).

Vetch - a name that refers to a family of plants used for fodder or plant bed cover. Grows 1-4 feet tall. (

Westfirther - I think this means someone from the Westfjords. The Icelandic word for this location is Vestfirðir. The eth (the funny symbol) is pronounced like "th" in "the." So the word is roughly "vest-feer-theer" similar to "westfirther."  Also, (and I think this is the real reason) "er" can be added to a place name to make it into a people group name. Examples: Iceland, Icelander. Michigan, Michigander.  "Firth" is very close to the word "fjord" in origin, and somehow we got Westfirthers instead of Westfjorders. Perfectly plausible. 

Locations mentioned in these two works

Broadfirth - is Breiðifjörður.  It is a exactly what it's name means: A broad firth. It's the northernmost of the two largest bays on the western face of Iceland. Reykjavik is located on the southern one (Faxafloi).
See Wikipedia for more information. 

Hawkdale - is Haukadalur, and it is a name shared by three valleys.  One is in the Westfjords, one is in Snæfellsnes, and the third is a popular tourist destination, containing geysers, including the famous Geysir.
(Hawksdale locations listed on Wikipedia)

Hvammfirth - the southern inlet of Breiðifjörður (see map below).

Pentland firth - the strait between the Orkneys and Scotland (Wikipedia).

Snowfellsness - Snæfellsnes/snjófellsnes, the promontory dividing Breiðifjörður and Faxafloi.

Thingvellir - Icelandic: Þingvellir. The meeting place of the Althing. A valley with big rifts in it. See my post, Þingvellir - That Great Wonder of Iceland   for a description using photos to illustrate.

Westfjords - Vestfirðir. The large peninsula above Breiðifjörður. Maps available here: Westfjords, Wikipedia
Map of Iceland
Western Iceland


I found the translation for Broadfirth and Snowfellness in The Saga Library, edited by William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon 
This link will take you to "Broadfirth" in the Index, where you can then search for other names.

The Story of Burnt Njal, translated by Sir George Webbe Dasent. J.M. Dent & Sons LTD, London, England. Published 1911. Reprinted 1960.

~This post will be updated as I continue reading the sagas. I am also working on a map with major places labeled, including Thingvellir.~

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