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”?
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.”)