The Significance of a Pilgrimage to Rome

The act of taking a pilgrimage to Rome is a theme often recycled through the Icelandic sagas. Characters often leave on a pilgrimage to Rome and typically, that one sentence about their experience is the only description given. The pilgrimage to Rome, then, must stand for something beyond the literal.  It could be a demonstration of the ideological change occurring as the Scandinavian states were Christianized; it could be a reflection on the monks who actually physically wrote down the sagas hundreds of  years after they occurred; or it could be a metaphorical explanation of the characters themselves, and how they developed over the course of their adventures.

John Shafer of the University of Durham writes that pilgrimages to Rome take place 23 times throughout the sagas, and that their trips are rarely expounded upon. But while the trip may be a metaphor for piety, it is based in fact. (Schafer, 4-6)  And yet, real as they are, the authors of the sagas give very little detail about the trips, though it had to be a subject about which the authors had some expertise, considering their religious origins. Joyce Hill, formerly of the University of Leeds, argues that the reputation garnered from traveling to Rome could have drawn people there. When examining a particular Norseman’s pilgrimage, she wrote, “The prestige and reputation for sanctity which accrued to those who made the pilgrimage from Scandinavian lands probably influenced his selection.” (Hill, 177)

The characters who travel south to Rome are usually characters thought to be in high moral standing, like Aud, Gisli’s enduringly faithful wife from Gisli Sursson’s Saga. After her husband’s death, Aud and Gunnhild, Vestein’s wife, “went to Hedeby in Denmark, took the Christian faith, and then went on a pilgrimage to Rome. They never returned.” (Sagas, 557). Aud was praised implicitly throughout the saga for her loyalty and trustworthiness, like when she does not lie to Gisli when she learns of Asgerd’s infidelity (Sagas, 511). Gisli states this explicitly as well when he says “My death will never be the result of Aud’s treachery.” (Sagas, 547). Faithfulness and loyalty are values shared in both the Viking tradition and the Christian tradition. She stands with her husband consistently, even though his outlawry, and is a good and intelligent woman - and yet the saga does not give her a happy ending since it ends with the death of her husband, to whom she has been so loyal. Rather, she finds peace in her life by converting to the new faith and taking a pilgrimage to Rome. It is impossible to know for sure whether Aud actually went on a real pilgrimage to Rome or not – but, as Hill wrote, those who go on a pilgrimage garner a reputation as holy people. (Hill,177) It could be a literary device using what would be a common indicator of good character at the time to illustrate that Aud was a good woman just as easily as it could refer to a literal pilgrimage taken by this woman.

In one tale, the pilgrimage to Rome is described in a little more detail than Aud’s journey – the Tale of Audun of the West Fjords.  Audun, after trading everything he owns in order to buy a bear for King Svein, remains with him for a while before making a pilgrimage to Rome. Some of the strongest morals of this tale are generosity and integrity, both of which Audun exemplifies when he refuses to give the bear to King Harold and instead takes it as planned as a gift for Svein. Perhaps this is why his pilgrimage is emphasized – he is clearly a good and noble man for his honesty and openhandedness. King Svein is also clearly being held up by the authors of the sage as a good man – he shows this when he gifts Audun with enough money to make the pilgrimage to Rome, calling his plan to make a pilgrimage “noble.” (Sagas, 719) Even after Audun squanders the money and is reduced to vagrancy, King Svein says to his servant, “You have no cause to laugh, for he has better provided for his soul than you have.” (Sagas, 720).This indicates that the pilgrimages themselves might have been literal, but could also be a metaphor for the good moral standing of the pilgrim.

The pilgrimages to Rome could easily have been real activities the characters from the sagas actually did. Indeed, it would be a reasonable assumption considering the time period. During this time Christianity was starting to become a dominant religion, and in that part of the world being a pilgrim to Rome was a common thing to do. The Tale of Audun of the West Fjords mentions groups of pilgrims all walking together (Sagas, 719) – it was not something that the audience of the sagas would consider unreasonable. Shafer wrote, “All these motivations for saga far-travel are literary reflections of historical reality: many medieval Scandinavians did indeed travel to Rome on pilgrimages.”  (Shafer, 4) Without knowing for sure whether the pilgrimage was meant as simply a literal statement, it is helpful to look at the event as both something that might have really happened and something that speaks to the pilgrim’s high quality of character.

When considering the pilgrimage to Rome either as a literal event or as a symbol for character, it is important to recognize the scribes of the sagas. Though they were oral traditions for hundreds of years, the sagas were eventually transcribed by monks as Christianity began taking over Scandinavia. Religious men might have had a different connotation of the sanctity of a pilgrimage to Rome than the Vikings they wrote about. The bias of the author shows through in many places throughout the sagas – for example, Gisli Sursson’s wife Aud. After losing her husband quite tragically, Aud finds solace in converting to Christianity and leaving Iceland on a pilgrimage to Rome, from which she never returns. This shows the Christian bias of the monks transcribing the sagas because it sets up converting and leaving Iceland as an alternative to the happy ending she might have had if Gisli had lived. It is also shown in that saga through Gisli himself as he goes away to Viborg and when he returns, he still practices all the customs of his people, but he ceases sacrifices. (Sagas, 512). It is not stated outright that he converts, but the hero’s change in practice shows the author’s bias through the text.

Characters taking pilgrimages to Rome happens frequently across the sagas. Aud takes one in Gisli Sursson’s Saga and Audun of the West Fjords takes one in his own saga, but scholars count no fewer than 23 separate pilgrimages (Shafer, 6) throughout the Icelandic sagas. The timing of the sagas is important to considering this significant repetition – just as Christianity was taking over Scandinavia, and monks were transcribing the epic stories. Christianity was beginning to replace the Norse gods and their customs, and acts of Christian valor were held up as examples of good behavior, like Gisli Sursson being the heroic man that he was and ceasing his sacrifices to the gods. It is impossible to know for sure whether the pilgrimages to Rome were literal parts of the story or additions to speak metaphorically – they could be a one-sentence tribute to the goodness of a character just as easily as they could be a significant historical event, and it becomes easier, then, to think of them as both.


  1. Hill, Joyce. "From Rome to Jerusalem: An Icelandic Itinerary of the Mid-Twelfth Century." Harvard Theological Review . Vol. 73.No. 2 (1983): pp. 175-203. Print.
  2. Shafer, John. Viking Travellers of the Sagas. University of Durham, Print.
  3. Thorsson, Ornolfur, (editor) The Sagas of the Icelanders. London, England: Penguin Viking, 2000. Print.


Name: Michelle Fredrickson
Year: Sophomore
Major: Science communication
Expected Graduation Date: May 2016
Hometown: Issaquah, WA.

As a Roman Catholic, going to Rome has always been something I've thought I would love to do - although probably not on a pilgrimage like the characters in the sagas. But it was for this reason that the repeating imagery of the pilgrimage through several Icelandic sagas caught my attention. I found it especially interesting because the meaning behind the pilgrimage wasn't perfectly clear - it could be either something completely literal, or it could be an attempt to communicate something about character, or it could be an enigmatic mixture of both. Either way, it was an interesting reflection on the writers of the sagas and the development of characters as the story progressed.