St Magnus and the Orkney Isles
with Dr Heather O’Donoghue (University of Oxford)
at Sutton Hoo, Saturday, May 13th, 2017

We shall explore the extraordinary career of St Magnus of Orkney, focussing on its primary source, Orkneyinga saga ‘The Saga of the People of Orkney’, a thirteenth-century Icelandic saga filled with a rich cast of saints and Vikings, poets and politicians. The saga is set in Orkney from the time of its earliest Scandinavian rulers in the ninth century down to the last independent earls of Orkney in the thirteenth, but it begins with an intriguing account of the mythic origins of Scandinavia itself.

In each of the sessions we will pay particular attention to the distinction between history and fiction and the way we might understand “what happened” from different kinds of medieval source material.

Provisional Programme

09.50 – 10.15:          Coffee on arrival

10.15 – 11.15:          Historical record or literary masterpiece?

                                What can Orkneyinga saga tell us about

                                Viking age Orkney?

11.15 – 11.40:          Coffee break

11.40 – 12.40:          Myth and fantasy in Orkneyinga saga

12.40 – 14.00:          Lunch break

14.00 – 14.50:          Magnus and the medieval Saint’s Life

14.50 – 15.10:          Tea break

15.10 – 16.00:          Viking Age Orkney and the Rest of the


c.16.00:                   Thanks and Close

About Heather O’Donoghue

Heather O’Donoghue is Professor of Old Norse at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Linacre College. She has written on many aspects of Old Norse literature, including its post-medieval reception, as in, for example, From Asgard to Valhalla: the Remarkable History of the Old Norse Myths (IB Tauris, 2007) and English Poetry and Old Norse Myth (Oxford University Press, 2014). She is also involved in reviewing and judging (though not writing) crime fiction, especially Nordic noir. Her current project is an analysis of the narrative art of Icelandic family sagas.


When asked “What was best about the day?” at a previous Study Day by Heather respondents said:

  • Heather’s enthusiasm and ability to bring the subject to life
  • Erodite explanation and exploration of Norse Myths and most entertaining
  • Heather’s knowledge and enthusiasm
  • Whole day enjoyable
  • Fantastic education
  • Quality of lecturer.

Some Suggestions for Optional Background Reading

Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney, translated by Paul Edwards and Hermann Pálsson (Penguin Classics)

Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction, by Heather O’Donoghue (Blackwell, 2004)

From Asgard to Valhalla, by Heather O’Donoghue (IB Tauris 2007)

Holy Vikings: Saints’ Lives in the Old Icelandic Kings’ Sagas, by Carl Phelpstead (Arizona Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2007)

The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga, by Margaret Clunies Ross (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, by various translators and with a preface by Jane Smiley (Penguin Classics)