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Christian Bias in the Prose Edda

Updated: Jun 18, 2023

We've covered Snorri's life and times, his reasons for writing the Edda, and his probable education; it's finally time to touch on the Christian bias in the Prose Edda.  Despite Snorri's dedication to preserving the old stories, his agenda and the way the stories had changed leaked into his writing, in some places quite deliberately. He had no compunction against elaborating on various details: "In Heimskringla he treated even his historical sources with a certain freedom, and clearly he would not have felt it wrong to depart from or expand his sources in Gylfaginning too if artistic or other considerations required it, and he would probably not have felt inhibited from inventing new stories or drastically altering old ones if he saw fit" (Faulkes 2005 xxvi). The man was a skald, and it shows. There are many places where the information was presented in ways to make things more palatable to a Christian audience. I don't have enough room to cover all of them here, but we can go over a few of the highlights, and leave the rest for the next segment of this series, in which we will go through the Edda chapter by chapter.


The most overarching evidence of Christian bias comes from the concept of natural religion that permeates the work.  "The idea that God should be deduced to a certain degree from nature, but the rest must come from Grace, is repeated all over the place in Christian writings of the time" (Faulkes 1983 18-19).  This was how the mythographers of the time excused the paganism of classical sources: to explain that they did the best they could at the time with what they had, since the true religion had not yet been proclaimed.    To express this, they would contextualize their stories in a framework that paralleled Christian belief as best as possible. The prologue of the Edda is Snorri's attempt to extend this grape leaf to the stories of his own people, as other paganisms were not generally included under their umbrella.  In the euhemerism of the Prologue, "He takes the Æsir to have come from Asia minor, and their culture to be an offshoot of the pre-Christian culture of the Mediterranean, and not a separate culture at all. He sees all heathendom as having the same roots" (Faulkes 1983 25).  With this connection made, he proceeds later to make his case that Heathenry too was an example of natural religion.  To do this, "he needed to find and emphasize similarities between the heathen myths and contemporary Christian doctrine that could demonstrate the old religion as being an approximation of the new (Faulkes 1983: 305). To Snorri’s mind, these two angles were hardly at odds. He was writing at a time when the Bible represented the original truth, so any possible biblical similarity in the myths would have been perceived by him, as well as by his readers, as being the more original trait." (Kure 85)


He begins with the Flood and the forgetting of God.  "For Snorri, the forgetting of God…is the beginning of a new dialectic, a process in which, aided by a divinely conferred earthly understanding, mankind recovers the knowledge of God, gradually and at first imperfectly, by way of observing created things. When, after the flood, they forgot God a second time, Snorri does not say … that they were deceived by demons. On the contrary, it is precisely then that the true God imparts new wisdom to mankind. It is earthly wisdom, not spiritual; yet it is wisdom enough for them to attain, by contemplating the created world, a glimmering of the nature of its creator, enough for them to renew their belief in his omnipotent presence behind earthly phenomena. The gift that, in Snorri's prologue, God gives mankind after the flood is the power to observe Cosmic design, and then to understand what the philosophers and theologians call 'the argument from design' for God's existence." (Dronke 155-6)


There are many examples of this throughout the Edda.  A prominent one is his attempt to make Odin into a god over everything.  As Faulkes notes (2005, xxvi), he gave Odin characteristics that, if nothing else, don't agree with the Odin of Ynglingsaga. One concept that was current at Snorri's time was that of creation ex nihilo, or from nothing.  Everything Odin made, he made from something else.  Only God could create something from nothing.  Even under this limitation, Odin was still able to take the role of creator.  


Snorri used a one-and-twelve model to connect Odin to Jesus, with his apostles.  In the euhumerisation of the gods, it begins quite early, where he says that "when he arrived in Sigtuna, Óðinn followed the pattern that had obtained in Troy and established twelve chiefs (höfuðmenn) to pass judgements and rule over the land"  (Lindow 2015 135)  Later, in Gylfaginning, when naming the gods, he again uses this model, adding one separated for Loki.  This parallels Jesus and the twelve apostles, including the separated Judas.  He later again uses the number fourteen in counting the ásynjur, this time emphasizing Frigg as an especially revered analogue to Mary.  "Thus Snorri could assign to pre-Christian religion in the north the notion of a group of holy females, one of whom outshone the others, females to whom one could pray for intercession in very specific areas. The ásatrú, he may imply, had a cult of the saints, it just didn’t know what to call it or who the saints really were" (Lindow 2015 146).


In another example, Snorri adjusts an image in Völuspá to make it more like the Christian Revelations.  In this image, murderers, adulterers, and the foresworn were relegated to a hall made of serpent's spines, with poison leaking through the roof, where Niðhogg hunted them to suck them dry.  In contrast, is a hall of gold, and a beer hall called Never-cold.  In Völuspá, these are placed directly after Baldr's death and Loki's binding.  Snorri, on the other hand, "...puts the description of places of reward and torment (Vsp 38– 9) after the account of ragnarøkr … which as a consequence becomes very like the Christian doomsday, instead of before as in Völuspá" (Faulkes 2005 xxvii).  What had been a simple consequence of current betrayal of values became a vision of Hell for those found unworthy.  


At the end of Gylfaginning, the limitation of the three storytellers (High, Just-as-high, and Third - once again, shades of Christianity's trinity) is seen, as their wisdom is finally exhausted.  To Snorri they weren't truly divine, which limited them sharply from the role they had assumed.  "This limitation of divine enlightenment does not only affect Gylfi, but the human Æsir, and the trinity as well: none of them participates in the Christian doctrine. That is the reason why the trinity has to interrupt the dialogue at last, unable to answer any further questions. Neither could Gyli have asked another question. The pagan wisdom, as displayed in Gylfaginning, has reached an end." (van Nahl 132)


There are many more examples of Christian bias. Baldur's story, and the demonization of Loki are two of the better explored issues, so I leave them aside for now; we will discuss them when we get to that point in the Edda.  Unraveling this bias is a difficult task, which some would say is ultimately doomed to failure.  As Heathens, we have very little choice in this matter.  The fact is, Snorri is the only source we have for several of our myths, so the only alternative is to drop those stories altogether, which many of us would consider overly drastic.  The only reason we have fragments of various mythological poems that some prefer to look to, is because Snorri included them.  What we can do is to keep these influences in mind, be alert to places where they may intrude, and use our own intellects and our own experiences to fill in the blanks.

Sources


de Pins, Cyril. "The Fantastical Theology of Snorri Sturluson: A Reading of the Prologue of Snorra Edda" in In The Fantastic in Old Norse/Icelandic Literature: Preprint Papers of the 13th International Saga Conference, Durham and York 6th-12th August 2006, I-II, ed. John McKinnell, David Ashurst and Donata Kick (Durham: Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006). Available at http://sagaconference.org/SC13/SC13.html Consulted 15 March 2023


Dronke, Ursula & Peter.  "The Prologue of the Prose Edda: Explorations of a Latin Background" in Pétersson, E. G., Kristjánsson, J.  Sjötíu Ritgerðir, vol. 1. Reykjavík, 1977


Faulkes, Anthony.  "Pagan Sympathy" Originally published in Edda: A Collection of Essays, ed. R. J. Glendinning and H. Bessason (Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press, 1983), pp. 283–316  Viking Society Web Publications, available in: http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Pagan-sympathy.pdf consulted 14 March 2023


Faulkes, Anthony. "The influence of the Latin Tradition on Snorri Sturluson’s writings" Víking Society Web Publications, available in: http://vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/AF%20miscellaneous%20papers/Web%20page%20replacement/Anthony%20Faulkes%20Arizona%20Paper.pdf consulted 14 March 2023


Faulkes, Anthony.  Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning.  Viking Society For Northern Research, University College, London, 2005  available at http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Edda-1.pdf consulted 1t March 2023


Kure, Henning. "Wading Heavy Currents: Snorri’s Use of Vǫluspá 39" in Gunnell, Terry and Lassen, Annette. The Nordic Apocalypse: Approaches to Vǫluspá and Nordic Days of Judgement.  Brepols, Turnout, Belgium 2013


Lindow, John. "Groups, lists, Features: Snorri’s Ásynjur" in Brink, Stefan and Collinson, Lisa. Theorizing Old Norse Myth.  Brepols, Turnhout, Belgium, 2015 pp. 131-150


Semêdo, Rafael de Almeida & Fernandes, Isabela. "The Context of Christianity and the Process of Composition of the Prose Edda"  Roda da Fortuna. Revista Eletrônica sobre Antiguidade e Medievo, Volume 6, Número 1, 2017, pp. 197-214. Available in https://www.academia.edu/34295036/The_Context_of_Christianity_and_the_Process_of_Composition_of_the_Prose_Edda  consulted 14 March 2023


van Nahl, Jan Alexander. "The Skilled Narrator. Myth and Scholarship in the Prose Edda." Scripta Islandica 66 2015. pp 123–141. Available in https://www.academia.edu/19813742/The_Skilled_Narrator_Myth_and_Scholarship_in_the_Prose_Edda_In_Scripta_Islandica_66_pp_123_141  consulted 14 March 2023


Wanner, Kevin J. Snorri Sturluson and the Edda: The Conversion Of Cultural Capital In Medieval Scandinavia. University Of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2008

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