When we think of Norse mythology, we immediately think of such names as Odin, Thor, Loki, Asgard, Yggdrasil, and Ragnarök. Most of us know something of these stories, even if it’s only what we may have picked up from watching a Marvel film!
And yet, much of what we know of these old tales come from a single thirteenth century source known as The Prose Edda. We are really lucky to have it!
As it stands, we know far more about pagan Norse mythology than we do about its Anglo-Saxon or German equivalents. The sad truth is that there is no German or English equivalent to the Prose Edda. And, as it happens, the Prose Edda only exists at all because of the efforts of one C13th Icelander – Snorri Sturluson.
The Harrying of the Heathen
An entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for 793 reads as follows:
“…the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s Church in Lindesfarne by rapine and slaughter.”Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, 793
The heathens concerned were Vikings and the entry for 793 marks the first significant reference to Viking raids on the English coast. It would not be the last. Over the next two and a half centuries, Norse raiders and invaders would terrorise northern Europe.
Not only were the Vikings pirates and raiders, but they were also pagans. To the horror of those they terrorised, they did not know God. Instead, they held to the old ways of the North; the heroic, polytheistic warrior faith of the gods of Asgard. In fact, their beliefs were closely related to the old pagan ways of the Anglo-Saxons and Germans themselves. Odin was just the Nordic version of the Anglo-Saxon Woden, after all. But, of course, by the early ninth century the Anglo-Saxons had long abandoned their old pagan ways.
At one point it even looked like the pagan Danish hordes might overrun all England. But then, as a new millennium approached, the Viking Age entered its twilight and, within a century, it was all over.
Death of the Old Ways
It was not that the Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians disappeared from history. Far from it. But, just like their Anglo-Saxon and German cousins before them, they converted to Christianity.
King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark converted to Christianity in 965 CE. When his grandson Cnut became king of England in 1016, he assumed the throne as a Danish Christian monarch.
Olaf II of Norway worked tirelessly to convert the Norwegians to Christianity during his reign (1015–1028).
Iceland, on the remote fringe of Europe was populated by settlers from Norway. If anything, their transition to a Christian society was easier than in the mother country. At the annual Icelandic national assembly, known as the Althing, in the year 1000, the people of Iceland voted to convert to Christianity.
Sweden, the last bastion of Norse paganism, eventually followed suit during the twelfth century.
The pagan faith might have gone but many of the old superstitions and traditions lingered on far longer. Nevertheless, the old Norse culture slowly faded as a new Nordic medieval society began to take shape.
The Skaldic Tradition
During the Viking Age, stories were conveyed in the form of songs and poetry by Norse bards, known as Skalds. This oral story-telling tradition, rather than the written word, had been the primary way in which sagas and myths were transmitted for centuries. The preservation of Norse mythology was therefore very reliant on a thriving Skaldic tradition.
Even after the Christian conversion, the Skaldic arts retained a certain appeal. People liked listening to the old stories, even if they were just myths now. Many also, no doubt, loved listening to the Skalds sing the old songs and play traditional tunes on their harps. However, once Christianity had taken root, the old Skaldic tradition lost its religious cultural relevance.
As the Middle Ages wore on, Iceland changed. New fashions and tastes spread from mainland Europe. New rhymed verses, songs and dances and trendy new French romances were suddenly de rigueur. The old-fashioned Skaldic songs were all very well, but they were increasingly seen as ‘old music from the old times.’ Nostalgia could only keep them alive for so long.
Son of a Minor Chief
Snorri Sturluson was born in Iceland in 1178 or 1179. He was the son of Sturla, a minor chieftain. He probably would have remained an obscure member of Iceland’s petty nobility were it not for his family’s involvement in a feud. As part of the settlement of this dispute it was agreed that Snorri would be raised in the household of Jon Loptsson. It was a lucky break for young Snorri as Loptsson was one of Iceland’s most powerful noblemen.
Snorri’s association with the Loptssons brought him into contact with Iceland’s leading families. And it was through these connections that he came to marry one of the wealthiest women in the land. It assured his rise to prominence, and he became one of Iceland’s leading citizens. He was elected to the prestigious post of law-speaker of the Althing in 1215 and for a second time in 1222. He even constructed a large residence near to the Althing which he named Valhalla, a reflection of his love of Old Norse culture.
In time, Snorri’s ambitions led him to seek influence at the Norwegian court. He travelled to Norway on at least two occasions and involved himself in court politics in the hope of gaining favour.
Preserving a Dying Tradition
Aside from politics, Snorri took a keen interest in Old Norse culture and the traditional songs and poems of the Skalds. In his day it would have been dying art and Snorri realised that unless someone did something to preserve it, a lot would be lost forever.
His travels in Scandinavia gave him access to information about the Old Norse myths and the Skaldic tradition. Over time, he collected enough to compile all this material in two books: History of the Kings of Norway (Heimskringla) and the Prose Edda.
There is some debate over whether Snorri wrote these entirely himself or whether he used scholars and clerks in his employ to do most of the work. Whatever his approach, the result was a completely unique and invaluable historic record. The Prose Edda remains to this day a key primary source for much of what we know about Norse mythology. It also contained a detailed explanation of the Skaldic art, a kind of ‘how-to’ guide for anyone aspiring to write Skaldic verse.
The Prose Edda
The Prose Edda is a collection of three standalone works, preceded by a prologue.
The prologue was written to provide a Christian explanation for the existence of these Old Norse stories. Why was it, for example, that the pagan peoples believed in these false gods? Rather than choosing to dismiss Odin, Thor and the other gods as heathen superstition, the Prose Edda presented a different explanation. These gods, apparently, had been real enough. However, they were not gods (since there could only be one true god). Instead, they were men. More specifically they were Trojan men who, due to their great knowledge and skill, simply appeared to be gods in the eyes of the primitive Scandinavians.
The prologue was followed by the main three sections of the work. The first is Gylfaginning.
This section describes the Norse gods in detail and provides us with a complete Norse creation story. It ends with an apocalyptic prophecy of the end of days, in the form of the story of the Age of Ragnarök. We also learn about the nature of Asgard and of the famous tree of life, Yggdrasil. Tales are told of the adventures of Thor and the deeds of Loki. We learn about Giants, Dwarves, Elves, Valkyries, and other fabulous creatures such as the world serpent.
Without Gylfaginning, Norse mythology, as we understand it today, simply would not exist.
The second section is Skáldskaparmál. In this section the Norse God of Skalds, Bragi, teaches us about the arts of the Skald.
It includes a series of lessons designed to teach a young Skald the conventions of Skaldic verse. The Skaldic tradition included a special literary approach to describing people and things known as kennings. The point of a kenning is to name a thing by describing its essence with reference to another thing.
Using kennings, the poet might describe a god or a man or a ship etc. An example Bragi gives us is how a Skald might describe a shield:
“Shields can also be called sun, moon, leaf, lustre, or fence of the ship…another possibility is to call the shield the ship of Ull or to allude to Hrungnir’s feet, since he used a shield to stand on.”Skáldskaparmál
These lessons are interwoven with more stories and myths. Here we learn about the Mead of Poetry and The Theft of Idunn and Her Apples. We also hear tell of the Otter’s Ransom (which is the Norse version of the famous German Nibelungenlied).
The kenning technique is most powerfully illustrated in a description of a troll woman provided in Skáldskaparmál. We might be hoping this would supply us with some answers to some of the key questions we might have about trolls. What did trolls look like? What kind of creatures were they? Where did they come from originally? How should we classify them in relation to dwarves, or elves or giants?
However, what is important to us is not necessarily what was important to a Skald. Instead, we are treated to the only description that really matters. A description of the quintessential essence of trolls, using kennings:
“Trolls call me
moon of dwelling-Rungnir,
seeress’s friendly companion,
guardian of corpse-fiord,
swallower of heaven-wheel;
what is a troll other than that?”Skáldskaparmál
What more could we possibly wish to know?
Háttatal is the final section of the Edda. It is the one section we can be certain was written by Snorri himself. It is essentially poetry of his own composition. In it, he provides a commentary on how his work might compare to more traditional compositions. He even highlights where he feels a traditional Skald might have approached it differently.
The Legacy of Snorri Sturluson
In time Snorri’s attempts to climb the greasy pole of Norwegian court politics led him into trouble. He made some unfortunate choices in terms of the factions he decided to align himself with.
In 1241, two of Snorri’s former sons in law, acting on orders from the king of Norway, broke into Snorri’s Reykjaholt estate. Snorri attempted to hide from them in the cellars, but it was to no avail. He was discovered and killed. His political career had ended in his tragic assassination.
However, Snorri Sturluson’s true legacy was the Prose Edda. Without his hard work and enthusiasm, it is unlikely it would ever have been compiled and preserved for posterity. In that sense Snorri Sturluson truly was the Father of Norse Mythology.
If you enjoyed reading this, you might be interested in reading some of our other articles concerning dark age history and mythology:
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References & Further Reading
Illustration of Snorri Sturluson: Christian Krohg, 1899 (via Wiki Commons)
Photograph of Longships: Nasjonal Digital Laeringsarena 2021 (via Wiki Commons)
Illustration of Odin battling the Fenris-Wolf: Emil Doepler 1905 (via Wiki Commons)