Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Seven Norse Myths We Wouldn’t Have Without Snorri

We think of Norse mythology as ancient and anonymous. But in fact, most of the stories we know about Odin, Thor, Loki, and the other gods of Scandinavia were written by the 13th-century Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson.

Notice I said “written” and not “written down.” Snorri was a greedy and unscrupulous lawyer, a power-monger whose ambition led to the end of Iceland’s independence and to its becoming a colony of Norway.

But Snorri was also a masterful poet and storyteller who used his creative gifts to charm his way to power. Studying Snorri’s life to write my book Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, I learned how he came to write his Edda, a book that’s been called “the deep and ancient wellspring of Western culture,” and his Heimskringla, a history of Norway from its founding in the far past by Odin the Wizard-King.

These two books are our main, and sometimes our only, source for much of what we think of as Norse mythology—and it’s clear, to me at least, that Snorri simply made a lot of it up. For example, Snorri is our only source for these seven classic Norse myths:

1. The Creation of the World in Fire and Ice
2. Odin and his Eight-legged Horse
3. Odin and the Mead of Poetry
4. How Thor Got His Hammer of Might
5. Thor’s Visit to Utgard-Loki
6. How Tyr Lost His Hand
7. The Death of Beautiful Baldur

Over the next few weeks, I’ll go through these seven Norse myths one by one and try to explain why I think Snorri made them up. But first, you may be wondering why Snorri wrote these myths of the old gods and giants in the first place. Iceland in the 13th century was a Christian country. It had been Christian for over 200 years.

He did so to gain influence at the Norwegian court. When Snorri came to Norway for the first time in 1218, he was horrified to learn that chivalry was all the rage. The 14-year-old King Hakon would rather read the romances of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table than hear poems recited about the splendid deeds of his own ancestors, the Viking kings. The Viking poetry Snorri loved was dismissed as old-fashioned and too hard to understand. So, to reintroduce the young king to his heritage Snorri Sturluson began writing his books.

The Edda is essentially a handbook on Viking poetry. For the Vikings were not only fierce warriors, they were very subtle artists. Their poetry had an enormous number of rules for rhyme and meter and alliteration. It also had kennings. Snorri defined kennings in his Edda (he may also have coined the term). As Snorri explained, there are three kinds: “It is a simple kenning to call battle ‘spear clash’ and it is a double kenning to call a sword ‘fire of the spear-clash,’ and it is extended if there are more elements.”

Kennings are rarely so easy to decipher as these. Most kennings refer—quite obscurely—to pagan myths.

Kennings were the soul of Viking poetry. One modern reader speaks of the “sudden unaccountable surge of power” that comes when you finally perceive in the stream of images the story they represent. But as Snorri well knew, when those stories were forgotten, the poetry would die. That’s why, when he wrote his Edda to teach the young king of Norway about Viking poetry, he filled it with Norse myths.

But it had been 200 years since anyone had believed in the old gods. Many of the references in the old poems were unclear. The old myths had been forgotten. So Snorri simply made things up to fill in the gaps.

Let me give you an example. Here’s Snorri’s Creation story:

In the beginning, Snorri wrote, there was nothing. No sand, no sea, no cooling wave. No earth, no heaven above. Nothing but the yawning empty gap, Ginnungagap. All was cold and grim.

Then came Surt with a crashing noise, bright and burning. He bore a flaming sword. Rivers of fire flowed till they turned hard as slag from an iron-maker’s forge, then froze to ice.

The ice-rime grew, layer upon layer, till it bridged the mighty, magical gap. Where the ice met sparks of flame and still-flowing lava from Surt’s home in the south, it thawed and dripped. Like an icicle it formed the first frost-giant, Ymir, and his cow.

Ymir drank the cow’s abundant milk. The cow licked the ice, which was salty. It licked free a handsome man and his wife.

They had three sons, one of whom was Odin, the ruler of heaven and earth, the greatest and most glorious of the gods: the All-father, who “lives throughout all ages and … governs all things great and small…,” Snorri wrote, adding that “all men who are righteous shall live and dwell with him” after they die.

Odin and his brothers killed the frost-giant Ymir. From his body they fashioned the world: His flesh was the soil, his blood the sea. His bones and teeth became stones and scree. His hair were trees, his skull was the sky, his brain, clouds.

From his eyebrows they made Middle Earth, which they peopled with men, crafting the first man and woman from driftwood they found on the seashore.

So Snorri explains the creation of the world in the beginning of his Edda. Partly he is quoting an older poem, the “Song of the Sibyl,” whose author he does not name. Partly he seems to be making it up—especially the bit about the world forming in a kind of volcanic eruption, and then freezing to ice.

If this myth were truly ancient, there could be no volcano. Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, the Scandinavian homelands, are not volcanic. Only Iceland—discovered in 870, when Norse paganism was already on the wane—is geologically active. In medieval times, Iceland’s volcanoes erupted ten or a dozen times a century, often burning through thick glaciers. There is nothing so characteristic of Iceland’s landscape as the clash between fire and ice.

That the world was built out of Ymir’s dismembered body is Snorri’s invention. The idea is suspiciously like the cosmology in popular philosophical treatises of the 12th and 13th centuries. These were based on Plato, who conceived of the world as a gigantic human body.

Ymir’s cow may have been Snorri’s invention too. No other source mentions a giant cow, nor what the giant Ymir lived on. A cow, to Snorri, would have been the obvious source of monstrous sustenance. Like all wealthy Icelanders, Snorri was a dairyman. He was also, as I’ve said, a Christian. It fits with his wry sense of humor for the first pagan god to be born from a salt lick.

Finally, the idea that Odin was the All-father, who gave men “a soul that shall live and never perish” and who welcomes the righteous to Valhalla after death is Snorri’s very-Christian idea. He was trying to make the old stories acceptable to a young Christian king who had been brought up by bishops.

In my next post, I’ll look at how Snorri created the character of the god Odin.

This essay was adapted from my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure, or meet me on tour:
            11/17: Eagle Eye Books, Decatur, GA @ 1:30
            11/29: Sterling College, Craftsbury Common, VT @ 6:30
            11/30: Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT @ 7:00
            12/3: Scandinavia House, New York City @ 6:30
            12/6: Phoenix Books, Burlington, VT @ 7:00


  1. Hello, Nancy.

    What editions of Snorri Sturluson's works can you recommend in English?
    Are you familiar with the "Prose Edda" from Penguin? It seems at first glance to be the easiest to acquire.

    Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Niels, I like the translation by Anthony Faulkes in the Everyman edition. Faulkes includes Hattatal and the Penguin translation by Jesse Byock doesn't.