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Snorri Sturluson: a brief look

Any time one engages with secondary sources, it becomes imperative to understand the inherent bias of the author.  The Prose Edda is no exception.  It is often treated as a primary source, but Snorri Sturluson was a non-heathen writing about heathen matters, and therefore his work cannot be truly primary, and his biases and the culture of the day must be taken into account when working with his Edda.  For this reason, we need to first look at Snorri's life.

Snorri Sturluson was born in the winter of 1178/9 to a minor chieftain, Hvamm-Sturla Þórðarson, who was an expert in gaining influence through the power of litigation.  When Snorri was 3, one of his father's cases was resolved in part with his son's fosterage with the preeminent man of the island, Jón Loptsson of Oddi.  This incredible offer allowed Snorri "to grow up at the main center of learning in the country where young boys received the best Iceland had to offer in the way of education as part of their preparation for holy orders" (Sigurðsson 295).  "Learning in medieval Iceland comprised not only ecclesiastical subjects, but also a sound knowledge of the law, genealogies, the history of Norway (the ancestral land of many Icelanders), stories and sagas about prominent Icelanders of the past, and the art of skaldic poetry" (Ciklamini 20).  Thus, Snorri was well placed to gain a solid, if biased, knowledge of the history of his island and its people.  He used this background to great effect in his adult life, not only as a writer, but in his voracious appetite for power and wealth, and as the elected Lawspeaker in 1215 and 1222.  The Lawspeaker's role was to literally recite the laws at each Althing.  That he held office for at least 11 years (some accounts say 15) speaks highly of his ability to grasp, organize, and recall complex information.  

When Snorri finally emerged as a young man, it was as a skald of no small skill, harkening back to his ancestors Egil Skallagrímsson and Markus Skeggjason.  His father passed away while Snorri was a child, and his mother spent Snorri's inheritance on her own support, leaving Snorri penniless by the time he came of age.  His education and connections were significant however, allowing his families to arrange his fortune through marriage in 1199, leaving him with the estate of his wife's father at Borg.  Snorri was not precisely faithful however, so this first marriage was dissolved.  Snorri finally settled in Reykholt (the homestead of Egil Skallagrímsson) as an estate manager in 1206.  "Under his aegis, Reykholt developed into a prominent center of learning, adorned with a vast collection of classical and medieval texts, and with Snorri's famous geothermal hot tub (Snorralaug), which can still be admired there" (Halink 215).

Snorri was exceptionally ambitious, using his knowledge of the law to insert himself into local conflicts, and then arrange an outcome that increased his power.  "Snorri, it seems, was willing to exploit enmities and cared little about questions of right and wrong in his quest for stature" (Ciklamini 25).  In this manner he accumulated wealth and control of thing-districts, as well as enemies. He also pursued his career of skaldship, for which the pinnacle of success was royal patronage.  This he sought by sending his works to various members of the Norwegian royal family, probably through his foster-father's connections as a descendent of that family. 

Snorri's first term as Lawspeaker in 1215 was cut short when he received an invitation from the young king Hákon Hákonarson.  The implications of this decision are twofold: first, he valued his skaldic reputation more than he did the power he was accumulating in Iceland, and that he believed that power to be best served by pursuing royal patronage.  He stayed the winter with the co-regent of Norway, the king's father in law Jarl Skúli Bárðarson, writing poetry and receiving gifts for it, including a title as a Norwegian noble.  He now had a quest, which he would pursue with little success: to bring Iceland under Norwegian power.

Snorri returned to Iceland in 1220, and recovered the role of Lawspeaker in 1222.  He was however plainly a partisan of the Norwegian government, which earned him several enemies.  In the litigious society of Iceland, sometimes might made right, though apart from one battle (Breiðabolstað in 1221), he avoided actually fighting.    "During the next two decades he would mass his troops occasionally to display his power rather than to mete out death…Snorri continued rather to press for power by fomenting hostilities, accumulating wealth and thing-districts, and arranging potentially advantageous marriages." (Ciklamini 28).  Those marriages which he arranged had a tendency toward disaster, and those hostilities he engaged in tended to fester, making Snorri a powerful man with enemies everywhere.

Snorri's political activities placed him in the middle of the byzantine network of family and feuds that was rampant in Iceland at the time. Relations with his brother Sighvatur and nephew Sturla were extremely volatile. Sturla's uncle Þorvaldur, in one of the many disputes that surrounded his life, renounced his friendship with Sturla and became a partisan of Snorri's, marrying Snorri's daughter Þórdís.  When he was ultimately killed (by enemies supported by Sturla), Snorri bestowed Þorvaldur's  chieftainship on Snorri's only surviving son, Órækja, who wasn't particularly suited for the role.  This enraged Sturla, and in a later confrontation, he captured and gelded Órækja.  The situation was further complicated in that Sturla had just returned from Norway as an emissary of the king, undermining Snorri's position there.  Among Snorri's supporters at this time was Gissur Þorvaldsson, a son-in-law in whom he should not have placed such confidence.

As Snorri continued to consolidate power, presumably in order to turn it over to the Norwegian crown, the co-regency there began to have problems, which by the time Snorri returned to Norway, was beginning to brew into a civil war between Jarl Skúli Bárðarson and King Hákkon Hákonarson.  Snorri once again stayed with Jarl Skúli, which may have contributed to the king ultimately deciding Snorri was unreliable.  Meanwhile back in Iceland, Gissur went to battle with Snorri's brother and major opponent Sighvatur, and his four sons, including Snorri's political nemesis Sturla, and killed them all.  In light of this, Snorri wanted to return home, but the king sought to keep him neutralized in Norway, and forbid him to leave. The Jarl on the other hand, faced with Snorri's now famous statement "út vil ek" ("I will go home," literally "out want I") (Halink 216), arranged for him to return home in 1239.  Snorri gathered his forces, and set out to crush Gissur in court over the deaths of his brother and nephews.  Back in Norway, Jarl Skúli was finally slain by the king in 1240, who then turned his attention to Snorri, sending orders to kill him to Gissur, who eagerly carried them out.

In 1241, Gissur gathered seventy men and raided Reykholt, achieving complete surprise.  Snorri died in the basement, his final words "Eigi skal höggva!" or "Do not strike!" (Halink 216).

The next installment will discuss the implications of Snorri's life and its impact on studies of his writings.


Ciklamini, Marlene. Snorri Sturluson. GK Hall & Co, Boston, 1978

Halink, Simon "Hero or traitor?" In Dovic, Marijan and Helgason, Jón Karl. Great Immortality. Brill, Leiden 2019 pp 211-241

Sigurðsson, Gísli.  "Snorri Sturluson And the Best of Both Worlds" in Sveinbjarnardóttir, Guðrún and Þorláksson, Helgi. Snorri Sturluson and Reykholt.  Museum Tusculanum Press, Copenhagen 2018 pp 291-317

Sturluson, Snorri translated by Anthony Faulkes Edda.  Everyman, London, 1987

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