Snorri Sturluson — Viking Mythographer and Historian
by Vésteinn Ólason
Richard and Margaret Beck Trust Lecture
University of Victoria - 21 March 2003
The name of Snorri Sturluson holds a special place of honour in the literary history of medieval Iceland. Those works which can be attributed to him with the greatest certainty, Sagas of the Norwegian Kings and Snorra Edda, are invaluable sources on the ancient cultural heritage of the Nordic nations, better preserved in Iceland than elsewhere. In addition to which they bear witness to the unique talents of the author, his writing prowess and knowledge. Snorri's nephew and disciple, Sturla Þórðarson, who wrote a history of their age a few decades after Snorri's death, makes no mention of his writings, however, with the exception of one sentence, not even mentioning them by name. Snorri was at one point the wealthiest leader in Iceland, enjoying great respect both among his countrymen and at the court of the Norwegian monarch, where he stayed from 1218 to 1220. His fortunes waned as he grew older, however, in the internecine struggles of Icelandic chieftains for power and influence, and he was finally killed in his own home at Reykjaholt on the 23 rd of September 1241. I shall first tell you briefly about Snorri's background and his education and discuss his Edda, where he appears as mythographer, among other things, and then tell you about his career as a politician and discuss his Sagas of the Norwegian Kings.
Snorri was of a prominent family in west Iceland, with a number of illustrious ancestors. Born in 1179, he was the youngest son of a dominant and quarrelsome chieftain who died while Snorri was still a young child. At the age of two years Snorri was sent to Oddi, in south Iceland, where he was fostered by one Jón Loptsson and would dwell for the next two decades. At this time Jón Loptsson was the most powerful Icelandic leader, and a close relative of the Norwegian royal family. 4. mynd The Oddi family included a number of learned men, priests and bishops, and the family's wealth was to a significant extent the result of its connections with the church. At Oddi there had been a school, stretching back to the time of the priest Sæmund Sigfússon the Learned (1056-1133), who had studied in the Frankish realm and was the first Icelandic author. He wrote a brief Latin chronicle of the Norwegian kings, which is now lost with the exception of a few lines quoted in works by other authors. Þorlákur Þórhallsson, who was the bishop in Skálholt 1178-1193, began his studies in Oddi, then continued in Paris and Lincoln, where Jón Loptsson's own son Páll, who was bishop 1195-1211, also studied some years later.
There is no mention of Snorri taking orders at Oddi, although he doubtless learned some Latin there together with the basics of other clerical instruction of the time. The subsequent course of his life indicates that he did not intend to pursue a clerical career, for which he was not lacking the necessary talents, but rather a worldly one. In 1215 he was elected Lawspeaker, the most respected secular position in the country, and one that he would retain until 1231, with a brief interruption while he was abroad. He no doubt studied law with his foster-father Jón Loptsson and other learned men in Oddi. Sæmundur, the first scholar of Oddi, had written of the Norwegian kings and there would have been books there on these kings, as well as the kings of Denmark and earls of the Orkneys, and it is in fact likely that both Skjöldunga saga (a saga of the Scyldings, Danish kings from ancient times) and Orkneyinga saga (the Saga of the Earls of Orkney) were composed in Oddi or by members of family at Oddi during Snorri's youth. Oral lore, both prose and poetry, of men and events in Iceland and abroad would also have been frequently recited at Oddi, providing knowledge of which Snorri could later avail himself in his writings. Snorri's most important sources, and the ones which in particular enabled him to correct and supplement earlier works on the same subject, were laudatory poems celebrating kings and earls, their battles and struggles for supremacy.
— 5. slide: Norðurlönd, Ísland og Bretlandseyjar —
The art of skaldic poetry dates back into ancient times among the Norwegians and possibly other Nordic peoples. While the oldest preserved fragments are considered to date from the 9th century, towards the end of the 10 th, Icelanders appear to hold a monopoly as court poets, or skáld, a profession they would continue to pursue right up to Snorri's day. As a youngster, he himself appears to have intended to gain fame and fortune as a court poet and sent laudatory poems to Norwegian magnates, all of which have, however, been lost. Apparently Snorri must have realised, no later than upon his first visit to the Norwegian court 1218-20, that the skaldic art was in jeopardy – both due to the fact that people had difficulty understanding the complex metaphors of the verse, which are based on references to pagan mythology, and due to a lack of appreciation of the complicated metres. In addition, writing prose histories was a far more influential means of preserving and interpreting the kings' history than the condensed skaldic verses could be. Whatever Snorri's motivation, it is clear what action he took upon returning to Iceland. He undertook to write histories of the Norwegian kings, more comprehensive and impressive than anyone had previously done, but first he compiled what we now call Snorra Edda (Snorri's Edda) or Prose Edda, a work celebrating and explaining the ancient skaldic poetry and the ideological cosmos it was based upon.
— 6. slide: from Uppsala Eddu: Gangleri spyr —
The Edda consists of three main sections, Gylfaginning, The Deluding of Gylfi – an account for the pagan mythology of the Norsemen, Skáldskaparmál, Poetic Diction – an account of how the skalds have created traditional images in their poetry and what special poetic words are used about the various phenomena, and Háttatal, Catalogue of Metres – where he demonstrates 100 different metres or stanza forms. At the beginning of the work there is a Prologue, an introduction that explains, in the context of Christian history, how the ideas and tales about the gods arose.
The author of Edda appears to us in various guises in his work. Firstly, Snorri the scholar and teacher adresses his readers or listeners directly in the Prologue. Here he is communicating historical lore, which he deems to be reliable, and explaining the nature of the phenomena which he discusses. He begins with Genesis, the creation of the world, and then describes how the heathens, who had forgot their creator, nevertheless understood that there must be a creator and invented their own gods. He then describes how the Æsir, a royal kindred from Asia minor migrated to the North and made the Northerners believe that they themselves were gods. The idea that the pagan gods were originally human beings who later were thought to have been gods, the so called Euhemerism, is an old one, older than Christianity, but well known in the Middle Ages.
In the beginning and at the close of Gylfaginning, where the Æsir present their mythology to the Swedish king Gylfi, the author appears to us in a completely different guise from that of the prologue, now as a story-teller describing a visit by Gylfi to the Asian nobles in Sweden. The author conceals himself behind his tale, although there are several hints that here we are dealing with legendary or fictitious matter and not history of the kind discussed in the Prologue. The mythology is presented through a dialogue between King Gylfi and Óðinn in disguise in Gylfaginning, and by the God Bragi in Skáldskaparmál. In these conversations Óðinn and Bragi tell stories in prose studded with frequent quotes in verse form. In Gylfaginning Eddic mythological poetry is quoted, in Skáldskaparmál, skaldic poetry. In the poem Háttatal that comes last of the three main parts, the poet and courtier Snorri addresses King Hákon of Norway and Earl Skúli, praising them in the traditional manner of skaldic poets.
Gylfaginning is the best known part of Snorra Edda and, together with the section of Skáldskaparmál which uses the same narrative form, the most accessible, while the Prologue is an important key to understanding the work.
The following passage from Skáldskaparmál states the purpose of the work and its justification, together with a warning that the heathen myths must not be regarded as true stories. Yet they should not be forgotten.
To any young poets, either eager to learn the language of poetry and acquire a stock of words rich in ancient terms, or eager to be able to understand what lies under the guise of metaphorical verse, may this book provide instruction and entertainment. May they neither forget nor reject these reports and take away from poetry these ancient kennings which were the delight of the leading poets. Christian men shall not, however, believe in heathen gods, nor in the truth of these stories in any other way than is explained at the beginning of this book ...
Skáldskaparmál, Chapter 8
It is important to understand these words correctly. Snorri Sturluson was a Christian, who had been raised and instructed at a seat of Christian learning. There is no reason to expect that he or any of his contemporaries were followers of the heathen faith, or doubted the church's gospel. Snorri's world view was shaped by clerical writings as well as that knowledge of the world and understanding of human existence which the clergy preached in their books and from their pulpits. This is also clearly indicated both in the Prologue and in the words quoted here above. It has been demonstrated how ideas in the Prologue concerning the roots of heathen faith have clear parallels in church teachings and the writings of learned men in the Middle Ages. There is no longer any dispute among scholars on this point, although we cannot know with any certainty how many of his ideas Snorri developed through his own reading, how much he took from sermons or conversations with learned men, and how much is his own original conclusions. It is important, however, that Snorri encourages the young poets not to forget or reject the old traditions. These words, and the whole work, show that his attitude to the heathen material itself was completely different from the most common attitudes of the Middle Ages.
11. slide: Óðinn
Snorri seems to have no prejudice regarding the heathen gods, or stories and poems about them; instead they provide him with the best of entertainment. In this respect he differs from other medieval authors who discuss heathen gods at all — with his older contemporary, the Dane Saxo Grammaticus, a case in point. The understanding expressed in the prologue, that heathen men's conceptions of the gods were the result of how they used the reason God had given them, did admittedly exist among European theologians. But the much more common opinion was that these gods were in fact personifications of Satan, persuading the unenlightened to worship him. Snorri makes no mention of this view, saying only: “They [that is the ancestors] understood all things in an earthly sense, since they had not been endowed with a spiritual wisdom .” The euhemeristic explanation given in the Prologue of the origins of heathen faith can be regarded as an indirect protest against the attitude that heathen gods were evil spirits and at the same time as a justification for recording such varied stories about them. The need to explain the kennings, or metaphors used by ancient poets, by depicting the world to which they refer, was no doubt the principal reason for the writing of Gylfaginning while a general and pervasive interest in the ancestors' culture also prompted the collection of all the lore preserved in Snorra Edda, and the care devoted to making it an artistic presentation. Snorri has combined this interest with the desire to understand the language of poetry and passing his understanding on to new generations. He links the ancient traditions of the North with the world history which western literary culture preserved and which began with the legends of the Old Testament, on the one hand, and Homer on the other.
Snorra Edda is thus a very remarkable source on the knowledge possessed by Icelanders in the Middle Ages and the integration of international knowledge with traditional lore inherited by Icelanders from their forefathers. Knowledge of pre-Christian beliefs in the Nordic countries would be much more hazy and indistinct if it were not for Snorri's explanations and the intriguing sources he refers to, especially skaldic poems on mythological subjects. The mythological poems of the Elder Edda, which Snorri also quotes, are preserved elsewhere, although Snorri's text is of value in itself. Of course, Snorri's picture of the ancient religion is incomplete and no doubt he is mistaken on some points. The same could be said of his understanding of the ancient poetry. His works must be read critically, just as all other scholarly works. But their value as source material is great and his knowledge combined with his proximity to the subject gives him a major advantage over all others. Much of what is found in Snorri's work is also confirmed by other sources.
13. slide: Þór
Thanks to Snorri's exceptional narrative skill, Snorra Edda was a popular work among Icelanders. The measure of his art is visible in the narrative framework of Gylfaginning, which is characterised by a carefully honed irony, but above all in the stories of the gods themselves. Nowhere else in the works attributed to Snorri is his ever present sense of humour given such free rein. Naturally, most of the fantastic and grotesque elements of the stories can be assumed to trace their origins to oral traditions and tales already told, although some of them may in fact be Snorri's own re-telling of poems.
14. slide: Þór stækkaður
But Snorri knows very well where to set the limits and to juxtapose seriousness with jest to give his stories a substantial depth, with many sentences etched in the mind of the reader long afterwards. As an example one could take the story of how the Æsir fettered the monstrous wolf Fenrir. The tale begins with the gods aware of the prophecy that much evil will stem from the wolf and his siblings. But by the time it has reached their attempts to bind the wolf, the scene has become so lively, even comic, that it is reminiscent of children playing with a large, practically harmless dog, and the Æsir have a good laugh when their deception works. But not all of them. “Everyone laughed except Týr. He sacrificed his hand .” All of a sudden the game becomes deadly serious. Here the central motive of ancient Nordic mythology puts in an appearance: the gods constantly have to make sacrifices in their battle with the forces of destruction, they cannot avoid their fate, to meet their doom at Ragnarök.
The story of the world, from its creation to its downfall, Ragnarök, with a glimpse of the world that rises following this, is the core of the story told in Gylfaginning. Knowledge that Ragnarök is ahead gives extra drama to the narrative and provides a tragic undercurrent. The narratives in Skáldskaparmál do not form a similar continuous progression. Here stories of of the gods are followed by tales of heroes, so that Skáldskaparmál could be described as leading the reader from the divine to the mortal world. Finally, a eulogy of the current monarchs in Háttatal concludes the progression from the origin of time, through mythological time, and eventually to the time of the work itself.
Snorra Edda substantially influenced Icelandic poetry of the time and for a long time afterwards. At the time of the Reformation, there was renewed interest in Skáldskaparmál, which bore fruit in the poetry of the 17th and 18th centuries. With the dawn of the Romantic era, avid interest was rekindled in all of Snorra Edda, especially the mythology, with the result that study of the work has hardly ceased since then. Some of the mythological stories are among the first readings attempted by university students of Old Icelandic, and in Iceland they are read in primary schools. Snorra Edda will no doubt continue to inform and entertain a great number of readers in the 21st century.
15. slide: Ættartala Sturlunga
As I mentioned before it is likely that the project of writing a new version of the sagas of the kings of Norway was formed in Snorri's mind simultaneously with his plans for Snorra Edda, no later than upon his return from Norway 1920. Snorri had many qualities that made him an ideal person to take on this task: His upbringing in Oddi had given him access to all kinds of sources, literary and oral; his extensive knowledge and deep understanding of skaldic poetry made him a master of the poetic sources. Last but not least his experience as a successful participant in Icelandic politics during a period of great changes made him an ideal interpreter of the story about the neverending competition for the Norwegian crown among the descendants of Harald Finehair.
By the time Snorri was grown up, his father and foster-father were dead, his mother had squandered his inheritance, and his ambitious and gifted elder brothers had taken over and begun to expand further the sphere of influencewhich their father had established. Rather than sharing their power with Snorri, they arranged a wealthy marriage for him, which brought him control of the farm at Borg in Borgarfjörður and also his first goðorð, - skýra - in this instance the one which had once belonged to his famous ancestor, the skald Egill Skalla-Grímsson. Snorri left his wife after a few years and moved to Reykjaholt in the same area, but he kept control of the property and retained the political position she had brought him.
In less than twenty years Snorri became one of the wealthiest and most powerful chieftains in the whole country. The extent of his authority can be judged by the fact that he was law-speaker in the years 1215-31, apart from one three year period (1219-21) when he was in Norway when election took place. In these years Snorri and two of his brothers — the Sturlungar — had gained control of much of the western quarter of Iceland and had established themselves in parts of the north as well. Subsequently, several of his nephews became influential chieftains. It looked as if these newcomers to the political scene, fiercely ambitious and extremely talented, were set to supersede those great families of the north, south and east, which up to this time had been steadily increasing their wealth and influence. However, the new era of the Sturlungs collapsed: firstly, because of internal conflicts—Snorri's relationship with his brother Sighvatr was strained, and he was in open conflict with one of Sighvatr's sons; secondly, because the old Haukdælir family, for a long time one of the two great dynasties in the south and closely connected with the church, found a leader, Gizurr Þorvaldsson, who was no less politically shrewd than the Sturlungs and a good deal more ruthless than they ever were in his determination to defeat his enemies; thirdly, although the Sturlungs were the first Icelandic chieftains to ally themselves with the king of Norway, the king found them to be unreliable partners and in the end allied himself with Gizurr. He attacked Snorri's brother Sighvatr with most of his many sons in 1238 and killed them.
16. slide:Upphaf Hákonar sögu
Snorri went twice to Norway, in 1218-20, and again in 1237-39. During his first visit King Hákon was still in his early teens, and power lay in the hands of his father-in-law, Earl Skúli Bárðarson, with whom Snorri developed a close friendship. He returned to Iceland having had honours of all kinds showered on him by the King and the Earl, and with a commission to smooth the path for Norwegian merchants and even—although this is not clearly stated in the sources—to secure Icelandic acceptance of the king of Norway as their ruler. Back in Iceland, however, Snorri turned out to be an inefficient and indeed reluctant agent, and when he came to Norway for the second time, the political scene had changed and the king was now holding all the aces.
17. slide: Stækkun
Snorri renewed his old friendship with Skúli, now a duke, but probably did not meet the king and returned to Iceland after two years in defiance of the king's ban, at a time when the rivalry between the king and Duke Skúli was turning into an open rebellion that ended with the killing of the duke. Snorri was suspected of treason, and in 1241 the king duly sent orders to his trusted ally in Iceland, Gizurr Þorvaldsson, to return Snorri to Norway—or have him killed should he refuse to go. Gizurr deemed it prudent not to give the persuasive Snorri any opportunity to ingratiate himself with the king, rode to Reykjaholt where Snorri was killed on the 23 rd of September 1241.
There is no doubt that Snorri impressed his contemporaries with his intelligence and eloquence, his wealth and his aristocratic lifestyle, but he had his faults as a leader of men inspired by heroic ideals. Facing the possibility of violence his strategy was always to try to outnumber his enemies to such an extent that he could control the outcome, or at any rate was able to secure a fair settlement without a fight. When confronted by someone determined to fight, Snorri tended to lose his nerve and withdraw.
Such is the history of Snorri's political career and such is the image of his character which emerges in simplified form from contemporary sources. It is important to have his experience in mind when one reads his kings' sagas.
18.slide: Blaðið úr Kringlu
Snorri Sturluson began his great work of historiography, Heimskringla [The Orb of the World], which may be assigned to the 1220's and 30's, by writing a new saga about Saint Ólaf Haraldsson and continued it with a new chronicle of the Norwegian kings from antiquity to the rise of King Sverrir. When he started this work, sagas about the kings (from Halfdan the Black in the ninth century to Sverrir in the final decades of the twelfth century) were already in existence, and Snorri probably knew and made use of most of them as well as other historical works available. He wrote an introductory section based on Ynglingatal, a poem that connects the Norwegian dynasty with the Ynglingar dynasty of Sweden and traces it back to the world of the gods. Snorri did not set out to create a new work with his kings' sagas. As all other medieval historians he borrowed material from previous works on the subject and made it his own. Although he sometimes omits striking passages or whole tales from these earlier works, and though he seems occasionally to be compromising the artistic force of an incident through narrative pruning, the unanimous verdict of readers has been that his work represents a major advance on that of his predecessors. This seems also to have been the opinion of his contemporaries.
Snorri tends to expand his sources considerably, drawing on his immense knowledge of skaldic poetry, which he quotes copiously to authenticate what he is trying to say. Yet he leaves out tales and information that he looks upon as digressions. In seeking to explain character motivation, he enlivens his narrative and enlightens the reader by the use of dialogues, which he either invents or recycles from his sources, with additional stylistic embellishment. He also departs from his sources by deploying speeches at important moments in order to explain a particular situation or the political consequences of certain actions. Snorri's characterisations are lively and frequently made more effective by his use of contrast. He understands the art of animating a scene by the addition of vivid incidental detail about the weather, the landscape, the appearance or mood of individuals—all such effects achieved with the utmost economy and discrimination. The result is a vigorous narrative that achieves a much greater sense of coherence, rationality and truthfulness than can be found in any work by his predecessors.
Snorri was more judicious and independent-minded towards his sources than most medieval historians, weighing one against another, and, in all likelihood, he had access to more sources than anyone writing on Norwegian history before him. Yet the impression of authenticity depends more on his narrative skill and his psychological and political insight than on his critical scrutiny of sources, or his gifts as an historian in the modern sense of the term.
For all that Snorri occasionally includes passages marked by clerical ideology, his interests are fundamentally secular, and his understanding of history is formed by the Icelandic narrative tradition and by his own experiences as an active participant in the relentless political turbulence of thirteenth century Iceland. He assumed that the political game, which real and prospective kings had been playing in Norway for centuries, was essentially the same as that played in Iceland during his lifetime. From the settlement onwards politics in Iceland had been characterised by compromises. The balance among the chieftains was kept with a constant give and take. The most famous compromise was the acceptance of Christianity in the year 1000. Snorri assumed, no doubt partly correctly, that Norwegian politics were of the same kind. In Heimskringla kings have to make compromises with the most influential aristocrats all the time. This was doubtless often true, especially when many claimants competed for the throne during times of civil war, which had characterised Norwegian history. It is possible and indeed natural that Snorri did not fully understand the nature of the centralized monarchy that was strengthening its position in Norway during his lifetime.
19. slide: rex justus vs. tyrannus
Medieval historians divided kings in two categories: the just king, rex iustus, and the tyrant, rex tyrannus. There is a strong tendency to paint in dark colours the kings who fought against Christianity and oppressed Christians, while supporters of the faith are glorified. Worst of all heathens were the apostates, people who had abandoned their faith. Occasionally we find traces of common rhetorical praise of just kings in Snorri's work, for instance where it is stated that it was King Olaf Haraldsson's justice — that he punished rich and poor alike — that turned the noblemen against him and led to his fall. Close reading of his saga reveals, however, that it is rather a lack of political insight and flexibility that brings Olaf down. In Snorri's opinion the king must make compromises to stay in power. Religion seems to be for him just one of the political issues that a king has to deal with.
20. slide: Upph Ó.s.h
The saga of King Hakon the good, who reigned in the 10 th c. is a case in point. Hakon was brought up and baptized in England. When he came to power in Norway he was eager to convert the Norwegians to Christianity. The chieftains and the farmers turned against him and forced him to take part in their heathen ceremonies. Angry at first, the king calmed down, took the advice of good men and gave up his missionary aims. He is praised in Heimskringla for his good rule, no doubt in accordance with oral tradition. Another notorious apostate was Earl Hakon the Mighty of Lade. He is described as an evilmonger by earlier historians, but Snorri relies on the praise of the skalds and draws a many-facetted picture of the Earl as a man of great wisdom and intelligence who rules well for a long while but loses control of himself in his old age, and then loses the support of the people.
21. slide: Stækkun
The two missionary kings, Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldsson, are described as men of courage and strong character, but both show such cruelty in their treatment of those who resist them that it sometimes seems revolting, and the total effect is a mixture of admiration and shock. Saint Olaf is Heimskringla's most memorable character, and the narrative about his dealings with the Norwegian aristocracy are the most dramatic part of the work. Many of the most positively described characters in Heimskringla are members of the aristocracy, regional leaders like Erling Skjálgsson. These men think highly of themselves and enjoy an unconditional support of their people. The main reason for the fall of St. Olaf is that he tries to undermine the status of such men and supplant them with men of lower birth. In this we can clearly see Snorri's sympathy with a class that he considered his own. One can sense an ambiguous attitude to the Norwegian dynasty, and in the end each of the kings must be judged on his own merits. This is an unusual attitude in the Middle Ages.
Both in his Edda and in Heimskringla Snorri excels as a narrative artist, and the nature of that art is basically the same as that to be found in the Íslendingasögur. It is difficult to account for the sudden flowering of this narrative art in the first decades of the thirteenth century, apart from pointing to the happy intersection of several factors: a lively and rich oral narrative tradition, the new possibilities opened by the use of writing, and a social and intellectual climate which encouraged gifted people to reflect on the past and write sagas about it. It was in these early thirteenth-century decades (the exact date is not clear) and in this fertile cultural climate that the writing of the Íslendingasögur was begun. In all probability Snorri was one of the early masters of this new kind of literature as the author of Egil's Saga. I shall not say anything about Egil's Saga however, nor about Snorri as a poet. That would be a subject for another talk.