Saga Brief 22: Drinking in the Viking Age and the Sagas of Icelanders (Part I: What Were They Drinking?)

In this long overdue Saga Brief, we discuss drinking in the Viking Age and the Sagas of Icelanders. This first part looks at what they were drinking and how it was perceived culturally. In the second part, coming soon, we’ll look into the culture of drinking as we explore where and how they drank.

Here is a short bibliography of the texts and studies referred to, either directly or indirectly, in this episode:

Etting, Vivian. The Story of the Drinking Horn: Drinking Culture in Scandinavia during the Middle Ages. Publications of the National Museum of Denmark v.21, 2013.

Dineley, Graham, and Merryn Dineley. “Where Were the Viking Brew Houses?” EXARC 2013/2 (2013).

Hallgerður Gisladottir, ‘The Use of Whey in Icelandic Households’, in Milk and Milk Products from Medieval to Modern Times: Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Ethnological Food Research, Ireland. J992, ed. Patricia Lysaght (Canongate Academic, 1994), pp. 123-29.

Mark, Joshua J. “Norse Alcohol and the Mead of Poetry.” World History Encyclopedia. Published January 7, 2019.–the-mead-of-poetry/ .

Riseley, Charles. Ceremonial Drinking in the Viking Age. MA Thesis. University of Oslo, 2014.

Rodriguez, Jesús Fernando Guerrero. Old Norse Drinking Culture. PhD Dissertation. University of York, 2007.

Rood, Joshua. Drinking with Óðinn: Alcohol and Religion in Heathen Scandinavia. Háskoli Íslands, 2014.

Vuorisalo, Timo, et al. “High Lactose Tolerance in North Europeans: A Result of Migration, not In Situ Milk Consumption.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 55:2 (2012), 163-174.

Winroth, Anders. The Age of the Vikings. Princeton UP, 2016.

Music Credits

Opening song – Icelandic Folk Music: Tröllaslagur

Poetry music – Midnight Tale by Kevin MacLeod

Outro – Ólafur Liljurós

Saga Short 7 – The Tale of the Volsi

Warning: This episode may not be suitable for young children

It’s winter in Norway, a time when most people huddle together with family and friends to share warmth, tell stories, and await the coming of spring. But the Christian king Olaf the Stout has heard word about strange goings-on at a farm in the north, where the lady of the house has found a new way to pass the time—she’s starting her own religious cult. So the king and his friends must travel through the winter weather in disguise to learn just what this household is worshiping in the woods—and what they find is something altogether more ridiculous than they could have imagined.

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This one’s unlike anything else we’ve read on the podcast so far—it’s got a well-endowed horse, a boy who’s given to shouting dirty poetry, an open-mike of verse-making at the farmhouse, three men who all choose the same disguise, and a dog who’s hungry for a good time. And what on earth is the farmer’s wife keeping in that long box that smells of leeks and herbs? Enjoy the strange world of Völsa þáttr!

Music Credits:

Intro: From “Death Awaits” by Billy Malmstrom

Outro: From “Óðinn” by Krauka

Saga Short 6 – The Tale of Thidrandi and Thorhall


Knock knock.

You’d better not say “Who’s there?” Strange things are afoot during the Winter Nights feast at Hall of Siða’s homestead. Thorhall the Prophet warns everyone to stay inside. But some do-gooders simply can’t help themselves when they hear a knock at the door. Find out who’s there in this chilling episode of Saga Shorts.

Music Credits:

Intro: From “Death Awaits” by Billy Malmstrom

Outro: From “Óðinn” by Krauka

Saga Short 4: The Tale of Thorstein Shiver

What happens when a stubborn Icelander enters an outhouse alone at night against the orders of King Olaf Tryggvason? Find out as Saga Thing takes on The Tale of Thorstein Shiver!

If you haven’t read this one yet, you can find it in the back of your Penguin edition of Sagas of Icelanders or Icelandic Histories and Romances

Also, check out Vikings in 30 Seconds (mentioned by John in the conclusion).

Music Credits:

Intro: From “Death Awaits” by Billy Malmstrom

Outro: From “Óðinn” by Krauka

Episode 26a – The Saga of the People of Kjalarnes

Bui Burns the Temple (Matt Smith 2018)

As we have mentioned recently on social media, the great Matt Smith has agreed to join the Saga Thing team and provide us with an original drawing for each saga episode. We’re excited to be working with him. You’ll get a fuller appreciation of each image he creates for us by listening to the episode. I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear that this image was inspired by one of the climaxes of the saga. One of the climaxes? Yes. Just one of many.  Thanks again to Matt for donating his time and talents. Matt wrote and illustrated Barbarian Lord, a graphic novel heavily inspired by the Icelandic Sagas.  You can see more of his work here: Welcome to the team, Matt! If you like what he’s doing for Saga Thing, drop him a line and express your appreciation on Twitter, where he’s @barbarianlord.

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In this episode, we discuss the first half of Kjalnesinga saga (The Saga of the People of Kjalarnes). You’re not alone if the name doesn’t ring a bell. This saga isn’t widely read or commented upon, despite being full of interesting tidbits for further discussion. For example, Kjalnesinga saga is the only saga whose action takes place within the modern boundaries of Reykjavík.  If you’ve been to Iceland’s capital, then you’ve no doubt seen the impressive Mount Esja (Esjan) looming across the bay. This saga offers some clues about where the mountain and the places around it got their names, at least according to the saga author.  In addition to some fascinating toponomy, Kjalnesinga saga looks into the lives of the first two generations of settlers in Kjalarnes, starting with Helgi Bjolan and a group of Irish immigrants that he graciously welcomes into his land. The majority of the action concerns the children of these initial settlers.  Here’s a quick key for those of you who have trouble keeping track of all the names.

Kjalnesinga Genealogy

As if a genealogical tree wasn’t enough, we’ve also got a map of Kjalarnes for you, generously prepared for us by Rob from Totalus Rankium podcast, using Emily Lethbridge’s Icelandic Saga Map.  to get a sense of the region and who lives where. Rob is an unofficial/official member of the Saga Thing team. We look forward to more awesome maps from Rob for future episodes. If you find these maps helpful, let Rob know on Twitter, where he’s @TotalusRankium.

Kjalnesinga Saga (Map)

When you’ve finished digesting all this great info, give the episode a listen. Kjalnesinga saga features a vivid description of a pagan temple, rising tensions between Irish Christian immigrants and the just-a-little-less-recently-immigrated pagan Icelanders, one of our more violent slayings (which is really saying something), an official holmgang, and our first ever love quadrangle…or square, if you will. There’s plenty here for everyone.

Because we promised a link to our Saga Brief on the holmgang, as if you haven’t already heard it, I’m providing it. John put no effort or time into providing this link, just as I suspected.

Music Credits:

Intro Music – “Prelude and Action” by Kevin MacLeod (

Summary Music“Galway” by Kevin MacLeod (

Outro Music – “Stormfront” by Kevin MacLeod (

Selections from music by Kevin MacLeod licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License


Saga Shorts 2: The Tale of Thorstein Bull’s-Leg


For our second episode of Saga Shorts, we’ve chosen the brilliant “Tale of Thorstein Bull’s-leg” (Þorsteins Þáttr uxafóts).  As one of the longer þættir, this one defies categorization. It tells the story of Thorstein Oddnyarson, a child abandoned at birth who grows up to be a hero in the court of King Olaf Tryggvason.  Along the way, he’ll find his parents, do battle with the undead, raid the home of a troll family, experience a miracle, almost drown in vomit, and fight a pagan bull.  It’s got everything you could want in a saga and more, all wrapped in a nice little Þáttr sized package.
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For this episode, we used George Clark’s translation, “The Tale of Thorstein Bull’s-Leg,” in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, Vol. 4, ed. Vidar Hrinsson (Reykjavik: Leifur Eiriksson Publishing, 1997), 340-54.

We mention Elizabeth Ashman Rowe’s “Þorsteins þáttr uxafótsHelga þáttr Þórissonar, and the Conversion þættir,” Scandinavian Studies 76, no. 4 (2004): 459-74.

Music Credits:

Intro: From “Death Awaits” by Billy Malmstrom

Outro: From “Óðinn” by Krauka

Episode 22a – The Saga of the People of Vopnafjord

Vopnafjord Monument

Monument to Vopnfirðingasögu

The Saga of the People of Vopnafjord picks up where The Saga of Thorstein the White left off.  It tells the story of two friends, Brodd-Helgi Thorgilsson and Geitir Lytingsson, and their rise to power.  The two men share everything in the beginning, including a desire to have that which is not theirs.  Their friendship only deepens when Brodd-Helgi marries Geitir’s sister, Halla.  Later, their son Bjarni is given to Geitir as foster-son.  Things really couldn’t be better between the two leading men of Vopnafjord.


But things fall apart, as they do in these stories, after Brodd-Helgi and Geitir begin to mistrust one another after a plot to rob a hapless Norwegian merchant crumbles.  Their relationship suffers further when Halla becomes ill and Brodd-Helgi wastes no time arranging another marriage for himself, this time to Thorgerd Silver.  The resulting animosity between Geitir and Brodd-Helgi proves too much for the district to bear.  Men from both sides are drawn into the conflict and some even lose their lives.  Though Geitir is reluctant to act as the aggressor, he is finally put on the offensive after some prodding by his thingmen.  What happens next is lost in the great gap left to us in the manuscript.  The saga picks things up again with the next generation from each family trying to pick up the pieces.  Here we find Bjarni, the son of Brodd-Helgi, going head-to-head with Thorkel, Geitir’s son.  The two are not only kinsmen, they had also grown up together at Krossavik.  Though Bjarni attempts to make peace with Thorkel, there’s little that can be done to assuage the thirst for vengeance.  Will Bjarni succeed in putting an end to this bloody and unfortunate feud? Or will Thorkel continue the cycle of violence and pass it on to the next generation?  There’s only one way to find out.

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stone_armor_defense (Hurstwic)

The Stone Armor Defense

The above image comes from Hurstwic’s recreation of Brodd-Helgi’s clever use of a stone slab to protect himself from Svart in chapter 2 of Vápnfirðinga saga.  Read all about this and other creative battle tactics here.

For some more on this saga and its background, check out:

Chapter 13 of Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland – “Friendship, Blood feud, and Power: The Saga of the People of Weapon’s Fjord”

Alan Berger’s “Lawyers in the Old Icelandic Family Sagas: Heroes, Villains, and Authors” in Saga Book XX (1978-79): 70-79

And if you’re interested in traveling to Vopnafjord and taking in all the sights yourself, maybe take a gander at a waterfall or two and pause for some fishing, then start here at

Music Credits:

Intro Music – “Prelude and Action” by Kevin MacLeod (

Episode Summary – “Clash Defiant” by Kevin MacLeod (

Outro Music – “Stormfront” by Kevin MacLeod (

Selections from music by Kevin MacLeod licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

Episode 20k – Njal’s Saga (Part 11)



Kari Solmundarson


The epic journey through Njal’s Saga finally comes to an end.  In this episode, we follow Kari Solmundarson on his quest to avenge the deaths of everyone he was forced to leave behind in the burning house.  His targets are Flosi and the Burners.  With so many against him, the odds aren’t in his favor.  But Kari is known throughout Iceland for his unmatched bravery and fearlessness.  His pursuit of the burners carries him from Iceland to the British Isles and then on to Rome.  Along the way, we’ll take a brief detour to Ireland for a glimpse at the historic Battle of Clontarf. 1200px-'Battle_of_Clontarf',_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Hugh_Frazer,_1826 Though this may be the end for our little summer saga, there’s plenty here for everyone to enjoy.  In addition to the revenge, the battles, and the blood, you’ll want to keep listening for the world’s strangest mathematics word problem and a brief discussion on Entish naming practices.  Enjoy!

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Promised References from this episode:

The Icelandic Saga Map

The Irish History Podcast – Episode 11: Brian Boru, The Battle of Clontarf, and the Aftermath

William Ian Miller’s Why Is Your Axe Bloody?

Miller Axe Bloody

Music Credits:

Intro Music – “Prelude and Action” by Kevin MacLeod (

Previous Episode Review – “Whispering” by Paul Whiteman

Episode Summary – “Satiate – Percussion” by Kevin MacLeod (

Hrafn’s Clontarf Report Poem – “Teller of Tales” by Kevin MacLeod (

Outro Music – “Stormfront” by Kevin MacLeod (

Selections from music by Kevin MacLeod licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

Episode 20h – Njal’s Saga (Part 8)


In this episode, we leave the conversion behind and get back to Njal’s Saga. Tensions are running high yet again thanks to the careful plotting of your favorite villain, Morð Valgardsson.  Despite their troubled history with Morð, the Njalssons accept his friendship and quickly find themselves on the wrong side of the law.  With a major lawsuit pending and most of Iceland turning against them, the Njalssons seek help from some of Iceland’s most powerful men, including such notable figures as Guðmund the Powerful, Thorkel the Bully, and the inestimable Snorri Goði.  Will Skarpheðin lead his brothers to glory? Or will fate finally catch up with Njal and his sons?  Find out as Saga Thing takes on Njal’s Saga (again).

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Music Credits:

Intro Music – “Prelude and Action” by Kevin MacLeod (

Previous Episode Review –  “Don’t Be That Way” by Chick Webb Orchestra

Episode Summary –  “Hitman” by Kevin MacLeod (

Outro Music – “Stormfront” by Kevin MacLeod (

Selections from music by Kevin MacLeod licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

Saga Brief 7: The Conversion of Iceland (Part 2)


In the second part of our Saga Brief on the conversion of Iceland, we discuss the conversion tactics of King Olaf Tryggvason, the Icelanders’ controversial decision at the Althing of 1000, and the effects of Christianity on Icelandic culture.  You might notice that Andy is a bit more subdued than usual in this one. He was sick during recording. 

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Intro to Saga Brief – from Icelandic Folk Music: Tröllaslagur
Poem Song – Moorland by Kevin MacLeod (
Outro – 
Ólafur Liljurós