Snorri Sturluson: Keeping the Old Alive with the New.
Originally posted on Tumblr on: September 8th, 2017.
ruimtetijd asked: “Hello, vinur minn! (I’m learning haha!) I have a question I’ve been thinking about since I’ve started reading the Poetic Edda, and delving into the stories. To what extent do you think Snorri’s Christian background influenced his writings? Obviously, there are many parallels, and many of these parallels occur in many, many religions (ex: virgin births, Odin/Christ’s sacrifices on the tree/cross and being pierced by pointy things, etc). Natural overlap/ideas must be taken into consideration. But what about Christianity, and its influence on Snorri, specifically? Do you think that there are any particular stories or themes that are purely Norse? For example, from what I remember, the cyclical aspect (birth and rebirth of the world, the beginning, Ragnarok, and the cycle repeating) of the Norse religion is fairly unique compared to other more linear religions (such as Christianity). What are your thoughts in this? (Sorry the question is a little messy).”
In sum: To what extent do you think Snorri’s Christian background influenced his writings? What about Christianity specifically? Do you think that there are any particular stories or themes that are purely Norse? What are your thoughts on this?
Velkomin(n), vinur minn!
(Welcome, my friend!)
Without a doubt, his background and time influenced his writings a great deal, but not necessarily in an intentionally malicious way. Christianity inevitably played a considerable role in this (culturally), but not in a completely restricting way, either (especially for Iceland). Besides, discussing anything “pure” is quite tricky (if not impossible). Even the Prose Edda itself, as a work of literature, was influenced by Latin treaties (in terms of form and structure, but not necessarily in purpose). Furthermore, even the concepts of rebirth surrounding Ragnarok can be found in Greek mythology and in the Old Testament (both feature Great Floods), but even in the New Testament with Jesus’ return (which in itself is a form of a reborn world). They may have different ways of telling the story, but the essence is still shared (as you have noted). Despite this, Snorri seems to have actually managed to preserve some genuine Norse lore. It may not be in the same form that it once was, and it may not be “pure” to some fictional standard version that never actually existed, but there is truth within his work; he did not simply conjure up these tales from nothing. They have mixed with a later culture, but they derive from older roots.
But that’s just the simple, quick-and-dirty way of answering your questions. We have much more to discuss if I want my words and thoughts to be taken seriously. But do keep in mind that I am a historian, which means that my thoughts are based on historical areas (social, cultural, etc.) rather than strictly literary analysis. In other words, I have not broken down individual stories to discover what is Norse and what is not, but instead I have broken down Snorri’s life and society to discover what might have contributed and influenced the creation of the Prose Edda itself.
Snorri Sturluson: Keeping the Old Alive with the New.
To get into the depth of your questions, we need to first get a grasp for who Snorri was and what kind of world he lived in. What was his education? What influenced him? What was his purpose? How would his work have been received? The answers to these questions can be found both in his personal life and in the society in which his life took place.
Snorri Sturluson’s Life and Education.
Snorri was born at Hvamm in western Iceland around the year 1179 ADto a powerful family known as the Sturlungs. He was fostered at Oddi in southern Iceland after the age of three, partly due to the death of his father. The one who fostered him was Jón Loptsson, who was both a deacon and a chieftain, but also the grandson of the Latin-writing historian Sæmundr fróði (the Learned).(1) Although Jón was a religious man, he fought strongly against the solidification of the Icelandic Church throughout the later twelfth century.(2)
As for Snorri’s education, it does not seem that he was deeply familiar with Latin; he seldom uses it, even in quotation.(3) In the end, his learning “was mostly in native lore rather than continental European writings in Latin.”(4) What he did know about Latin concepts and theological ideas came from society, from clerical friends, such as Styrmir Kárason (a priest and historian), and from “vernacular preaching in churches.”(5) Although Snorri himself was not directly exposed to Latin learning (as a student), he was, at the very least, indirectly exposed to it (as a layman) through society.
The majority of the rest of his life is filled with secular politics (which we need not concern ourselves with too much), wherein he gained considerable wealth through marriage (to Herdís Bersadóttir) and acquired connections with powerful Norwegians (such as the young King Hákon and his father-in-law Jarl Skúli).(6) He was so involved with secular affairs, in fact, that he died in 1241 while ‘feuding’ with the also powerful Icelander Gizurr Þorvaldsson.(7) Yet, no matter how involved Snorri was with secular, native life and knowledge, he was a Christian and so was the majority of his society (which had been so for over two hundred years). This inevitably impacted his writing of Norse lore and myth, but how much so? In what ways did his writing of old material reflect this new society?
Snorri’s Writing: The Debate of Influence.
Ursula and Peter Dronke, Faulkes, and Margaret Clunies Ross have all “pointed to various Latin sources, Classical, Biblical or Medieval, as possibly contributing to Snorri’s understanding of the heathen religion.”(8) Andreas Heusler, an earlier historian from the early twentieth century, even rose the question of Snorri’s authorship of the Prologue and Gylfaginning completely, calling it (the Prologue in particular) ‘ein elendes Machwerk’ (‘a sorry piece of work’).(9) To further illustrate how Snorri deviated from other authors who were, in fact, steeped in knowledge of the Latin tradition, Anthony Faulkes offers this:
“For even more remarkable is the fact that none of the writers mentioned has been able to point to any verbal correspondence in Snorri’s work with a Latin source. It is only the concepts that can be said to be similar. He has no quotations from or references to non-Icelandic works, and unlike the priest Ari Þorgilsson he does not scatter Latin words in his text, or use Latin in his headings (Ari’s surviving work is labelled Libellus Islandorum). Though he has prologues like Latin writers, Snorri’s prologues do not include the same standard topics as those of writers in Latin (see Sverrir Tómasson 1988). In his well-known discussion of the importance of skaldic verse in the prologue to Heimskringla he directly contradicts the views of most Classical historians, who generally did not regard poetry as suitable for use as a historical source.”(10)
To continue on, Snorri briefly mentions in his Prologue that the gods came from Troy, which is a point often raised by those who say that his Prose Edda is ‘corrupted’ by Christianity. This is also known as euhemerism, a concept attributed to the Greek philosopher Euhemerus (c. 300 BC), and a concept that was “widespread in the Middle Ages, usually among historians (my emphasis).”(11) Instead of portraying the old gods as the devil in disguise, as most theologianswould have, Snorri went the philosophical (historical) route. Furthermore, allegory was “all-pervasive in Latin writings during the Middle Ages,” but Snorri “does not interpret mythology allegorically, nor does he derive moral teaching from it.”(12) Instead, he speaks of them rather plainly; his account seems more like “a scholarly and antiquarian attempt to record the beliefs of his ancestors without prejudice” for the sake the skaldic art which was still alive in his day (but at risk of losing its older roots).(13) In further regards to Troy, Faulkes has this to say:
“So this way of reading mythology is closest to euhemerism: the Greek and Trojan heroes came to be regarded as gods after their deaths, their deeds were transferred into supernatural ones, and their names changed. It is nothing like the allegories of Latin tradition, and there is little or no moralisation. The writer of this passage, whether is was Snorri or not, had clearly come across allegory, but has not fully understood how it works (my emphasis). His allegorisation of the Greek story does not give it any coherent non-historical meaning. His equivalences are also mostly preposterous, and there are many mistakes or misunderstandings of the Greek story. It cannot be used as evidence that the author was greatly acquainted with Medieval Latin tradition.”(14)
In the end, when looking more closely at Snorri’s work, it is evident that he was not professionally trained in the Latin tradition. Instead, the Christian influences that made their way into Snorri’s rendition of Norse mythology do not come from education or learned ‘bias’, but rather from the influence of his society. Thus, it was not just Snorri’s own Christian background that influenced his writing; he was influenced by (and perhaps to a greater extent) the cultural environment in which he grew up and worked in. Snorri’s attempt to preserve the Old was true, but he inevitably mixed it with the New in order to ensure it survived by making old lore relatable to a drastically different world.
Snorri’s Cultural Environment: The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries.
What determined the degree of Christian influence in his works, then, was not even an active desire to Christianize older material, but rather to rationalize it within the framework of his own, later time; he had to make heathen gods and stories appealing and useful to a Christianized culture.
To provide a bit of historical context, the Icelandic church had been consolidating throughout the twelfth century, before Snorri’s birth. Although the Icelanders had been Christian since around the year 1000, the real founding years of the Icelandic Church were during the years of Bishop Gizurr (1082-1118), the first true bishop of Skálholt.(15) The bishopric of Skálholt (which is fairly close to Oddi) is traditionally dated to having been founded in 1056. Another bishopric was then established at Hólar under Jón Ögmundarson (1106-21), who swiftly began a cathedral school there.(16) During this time, under Bishop Gizurr (and beyond), Christianity began to expand. In 1096, tithing was introduced to Iceland, and by 1133, Iceland had its first monastery (and would gain six more by the end of the medieval period) at Þingeyjar in Húnavatnsþing; in 1186, Iceland’s first nunnery was established at Kirkjubær in Skaftafelsþing.(17)
Even before Snorri’s birth, Christianity was rapidly being embraced and expanded by Icelandic society and culture. Oddi, where Snorri was fostered, was not only near Skálholt, and thus inevitably exposed to its cultural and learning environment, but also regarded as a place of learning with a latin school.(18) Although Snorri himself likely did not learn at such a school, he would have been influenced by those who had, and the ideas that flowed in that region as a result.
I suppose the question we must turn to, then, is how did goðar(chieftains, of which Snorri was a part) adapt to the presence of Christianity? How did Christianity transform their role, and how, then, did it influence them?
Before Christianity, the goðar were also pagan priests. Although it is not known when goðar began to seek Christian learning, it is not unreasonable to assume that they maintained their dual role as both social and religious authorities by, to put it simply, switching gods.(19) As a result, lay aristocracy began to intermingle with the tasks often reserved to Churchmen in continental Europe. Iceland soon felt tension as some Church authorities began to push for a separation, which began in the late twelfth century (especially with St. Þorlákr) and early thirteenth century. This struggle is what Snorri grew up with, and the Church never quite separated itself from lay society during his time.
Snorri himself was far more concerned with secular life than religious learning, but he was inevitably exposed to both worlds given his position and upbringing. Furthermore, the world that he was communicating to was now deeply Christian, which is stressed by the fact that secular authorities had even embraced Christianity into their domain; it was more and more a part of everyday life. Thus, even though his formal Christian background was quite meager (educationally speaking), he lived within a culture and society that now communicated through a different lens. It was this cultural lens, more than his own personal background, that truly influenced his work. Since this lens now dominated their worldview, it obscured any old material that passed through it. Such is the natural process for historical information, for even today the lens of present experience filters and ‘alters’ meaning, interpretation, and significance.
So, if not to Christianize older material, why did Snorri write the Prose Edda? To what benefit did he see old lore to such a Christianized culture and society? Anthony Faulkes has words better than I on this, and I would like to close our discussion with them:
“Sagas and poetry on native subjects were not the only sorts of writing cultivated in Iceland. Literature of other kinds was penetrating the north from southern Europe. From early in the twelfth century at least, saints’ lives and other Latin works had been known and soon translated in Iceland. Stories of love and chivalry, like that of Tristram and Yseult, and ballads, were becoming known and popular in Scandinavia. It is likely that Snorri Sturluson, traditional aristocrat as he was, would have foreseen that the traditional poetry of the skalds was to be superseded on the one hand by the writing of prose sagas (an activity in which he himself engaged, ironically with greater success that his poetical compositions), and on the other by new kinds of poetry in different metres and on new themes. It seems that he wrote his Edda as a treatise on traditional skaldic verse to try to keep interest in it alive and to encourage young people to continue to compose in the traditional Scandinavian oral style, although in form the work itself is highly literary and owes much to the newly introduced tradition of Latin learned treatises.”(20)
In the end, it is difficult (if not impossible), to sort out what is “purely” Norse against what is Christian influence from his contemporary cultural environment. What we do know, however, was that Snorri gathered genuine Norse lore and, through a new form of expression, brought it into conversation with a Christian culture; he aimed to make old lore relevant to a new, Christianized society. And so, to answer your question, I would say that his personal background influenced him less than his society did, and that Christianity only dramatically influenced his work in terms of form and presentation. Even Snorri himself should have known that such lore once orally told never had a concrete, singular form; but his writing had to subject it to such stagnancy if it were to be preserved amid the influx of ‘foreign’ culture; his society was becoming more and more literate, and thus becoming less oral. He did what he felt necessary to promote and educate the new, younger generation in the old, traditional art form of skaldic poetry.
That said, he was not hostile to his contemporary society; he was not a pagan, nor was he promoting a resurgence in paganism. In fact, if anything truly influenced his writing of Norse myth, it was his purpose. His goal was not to create an objective history of Norse lore, but rather to make it useful to a new society. Even today, most historians do not find an objective history plausible. Historians create narratives from a chaotic past; we make stories out of scrambled evidence that we can relate to. Snorri was no different. He gathered scattered bits of tradition and brought them together into a narrative that himself and his contemporaries could better understand and appreciate.
Með vinsemd og virðingu,
(With friendliness and respect,)
1. Anthony Faulkes, “Snorri Sturluson: his life and work” (London: Viking Society for Northern Research), 1.
2. Ibid. Secular and religious (Christian) life were strongly intertwined in Iceland. The Church began to push for autonomy, but the secular ‘lords’ pushed back against them.
3. Ibid. He easily could have been, but our historical records do not show us enough to be confident in making such an assertion.
6. Ibid., 1, 3.
7. Ibid., 3.
8. Anthony Faulkes, “The influence of the Latin Tradition on Snorri Sturluson’s writings,” (London: Viking Society for Northern Research), 1.
10. Ibid., 2.
11. Ibid., 3-4.
12. Ibid., 5.
13. Anthony Faulkes, “Introduction,” in Edda (London: Everyman, 1995), xviii.
14. Faulkes, “The Influence of Latin Tradition…,” 7.
15. Gunnar Karlsson, The History of Iceland (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 38. Technically speaking, Ísleifr was the first, but he was “hardly more than a missionary bishop.” Ari Þorgilsson credits Gizurr as being the one who “laid down as law that the see of the bishop that was in Iceland should be at Skálholt, whereas before it had been nowhere…”
17. Ibid., 39.
18. Ibid., 41.
19. Ibid., 40.
20. Anthony Faulkes, “Introduction,” in Edda (London: Everyman, 1995), xiii.