Published On: April 19th, 2022Last Updated: April 19th, 2022Categories: Pagan GuidesTags:

I had a conversation with a Norse Heathen from Sweden recently and learned something fascinating about Swedish folklore: The way Norse mythology and Nordic folklore is interpreted depends upon whether or not a story is “sägen” or “saga.” Because I’ve never seen this distinction within American spaces before, I figured I’d talk about it here.

So…what is “sägen” and what is “saga”?

Sägen

According to legend, the strip of land known as Hindens rev, located in Sweden, was built by a giantess.

Sägen (plural: sägner) describes a “folk legend.” Sägner are told in a way that could be understood as true. These stories are associated with real places and real people, and sometimes even have a historical component to them. The key feature that distinguishes them from a saga (plural: sagor) is the fact they take place in our lived reality. New sägner appear with the movement and changes of society, and old sägner can be recycled and made anew.

Oftentimes, the purpose of sägner is to provide an explanation for some kind of natural phenomenon. Examples include:

  • Geographical features: “Thor split a mountain and that’s why this valley exists.” / “This boulder was placed here by a jötunn.”
  • Disease: “You peed on the Alvar and now you’ve got rashes.”
  • Superstitions: “Put the butter on top of the porridge so the nisse doesn’t kill our cows.” / “The elves will steal you away if you go into the bog at night, so stay clear of it.”

The folkloric beings within sägner, such as trolls and jötnar, aren’t portrayed as inherently beneficent or malevolent. Instead, they respond to humans the same way any other living thing would—contextually. If you mess with a horse, you get kicked. If you feed and provide for a horse, you earn its trust…hopefully. The same goes with spirits of any sort.

(Urban legends are considered a type of sägner and are referred to as vandringssägner, or “wandering legends.”)

“[These] stories were usually perceived as real and believable, since they were often about things that you yourself or someone you knew had experienced in the local area. In addition, the stories helped explain things that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to understand. We call these stories “sägner,” because they were spread by word of mouth, and rarely got written down. This is also why it is common to find [multiple] versions of the same sägen. Many [of these sägner] have also been used as an effective method of education, e.g. to stop children from going too close to streams, since they risked falling into the water [if they did].”

– Gunilla Roos & Mats Roslund, Skuggor utbudet förflutna på Bjäre

Saga

"Askeladdens adventure" by Theodor Severin Kittelsen, 1910

Saga (plural: sagor) describes a fairy tale. Unlike sägner, these fanciful stories aren’t usually associated with real places or people, and don’t make any claims of truth.

While sägner are used to explain natural phenomena, sagor are purely for entertainment. Sagor feature kings, princesses, magic items, and all the trappings you’d expect from fairy tales. These types of stories play into “good and evil” characterizations far more routinely than sägen. Trolls and giants are described as loutish beings who turn to stone when struck by sunlight. The Ash Lad becomes a rich man because he takes the advice of a talking animal. Thor’s diplomacy skills begin and end with whacking giants upside the head. Ultimately, folkloric beings—including gods—are far less nuanced in sagor than they are in sägen, and far more exaggerated.

Sägenartade Sagor

This is a term used to describe a “fairy tale with the characteristics of a legend,” because sometimes a tale isn’t purely sägen or saga. The Icelandic tale of Loki’s Binding is a good example of this. This tale is mostly a saga—a fairy tale—but it has elements of sägen in it because it explains Iceland’s earthquakes are caused by Loki writhing below the earth. (Earthquakes are not common in other Scandinavian regions, so this legend is specific to Iceland.)

Sägen and Saga within a Heathen context

My Swedish colleague advised me to discern whether a tale is sägen (a legend) or saga (a fairy tale) before applying it to my Heathen practice. This is because the “fairy tales” of sagor don’t represent the real-world understanding of Heathenry’s folkloric beings, nor are they supposed to.

I think this is where many of us American Heathens get tripped up—we have access to stories that fall under saga (like the Eddas), but not those that fall under sägen. In other words, we only have the fairy tales to inform our understanding of Norse Heathenry.

Perhaps someday sägen will circulate in Heathen spaces outside of Northern Europe. But until then, at least knowing the difference helps.

Further Reading

Legends and Tales article by the Swedish Institute of Language and Folklore

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