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The Writing of the Prose Edda

If it were possible to sum up the complexity of Snorri Sturluson in one word, that word could be political. Almost everything he did had some political angle, which raises the question, why was the Prose Edda written? What possible political gain could there be in collecting what were quickly becoming esoteric stories from the past?

When Snorri was being raised, the political landscape of Iceland was tumultuous. Iceland had a long history of consolidating the political and religious leadership of the various districts in the goðar. This was not a situation that the growing Church was particularly pleased about, and the practice was stopped while Snorri was being educated. This meant that his education, which might have been ecclesiastical, instead turned to the matters that concerned the skalds. In the previous generation, there was a great deal of political capital to be gained by writing praise poems of the royal houses, but in Norway things were changing. Tales of chivalry were taking hold in England and Continental Europe, and in the court of young King Hákon Hákonarson, the impetus was to become less of a social backwater. The skaldic tradition required a certain degree of education, both in the technical forms and in the stories that were referenced. The young King preferred the more easily enjoyed chivalric tradition of the continent. To Snorri, the formula was simple: the great skald writes a praise poem of the royal family, and in return receives patronage, wealth, and power. The King was simply not interested.

Snorri's skaldic career had a rocky start. He would send poems to the Powers of Norway, but by the time they arrived, those Powers would have passed. This ended when Jarl Skúli Bárðarson, brother of the previous king, was passed over for the throne in favor of his 13 year old nephew, Hákon Hákonarson, but was given a power sharing arrangement to balance the child king. Skúli, unlike his nephew, appreciated the old forms, so when Snorri's poems finally reached a living subject, the invitation to the halls of power was at last extended.

Snorri stayed with Skúli for the winter of 1218-19, and found his poetry appreciated very much by the Jarl, but the King was unimpressed, and when Snorri returned to Iceland, even his successful poetry was ridiculed. From Snorri's perspective, he had invested in learning an art in order to gain accolades that were not coming due to a lack of education. He was determined to correct this issue.

The first piece written was Háttatal, in which Snorri wrote a sequence of stanzas designed to showcase the various forms of skaldic verse. He alternated the praise between the King and the Jarl, focusing on more simple and educational pieces for the King, but indulging in the full complexity of the art in the verses for the Jarl. "Given, however, that each of Háttatal’s 102 stanzas demonstrates a possible metrical or stylistic variation in skaldic verse-making, the poem was clearly intended from its inception, and apart from its commentary, to serve simultaneously as a vehicle of praise and a tool of instruction. The poem’s inherent didacticism suggests that Snorri considered not only his fellow countrymen but also, and perhaps in the first instance, the king and jarl to be among those who would benefit from its metrical instruction." (Wanner 102)

The rest of the Edda fell out from the poem. The second piece written was Skáldskaparmál, whose purpose was to accompany the Háttatal and explain it from a technical standpoint. Gylfaginning was then added to explain the stories required to understand the poem. Finally, the Prologue was added to explain why Norse Mythology was an acceptable subject for a Christian audience.

At the time the Edda was written, there were two competing approaches to "the old gods." "In medieval thought, explaining pre-Christian religion typically involved a combination of euhemerism and demonization. Rather than deny reality to discredited gods, Christian writers, beginning with second-century apologists, interpreted them as heroes and rulers whose identities were assumed after their deaths by demons, who, performing ‘miracles’ and thereby sowing polytheism in defiance of God, were mistaken for deities." (Wanner 154). While this was the more or less official stance of the church itself, medieval historians had more of a tendency to redact the miracles and simply consider these deities to be human heroes whose stories had been distorted over time. The modern eye tends to look at the euhemerism of the medieval period with a cynical eye, but to the people of the time it was a simple historical fact. Snorri's theory of a Trojan origin to the Norse Pantheon was not a question of temporizing, as it is often seen today, but was instead a simple explanation of the facts as they were understood at the time. Snorri might have actually believed it.

Snorri's concept of religion at the time involved a single truth that was incontrovertible, and did not admit the validity of variation. The material he set out to illustrate however was not truly compatible with this perspective. The stories that he collected and shared had a tendency to differ across territory, leaving him with the task of trying to figure out what the singular truth was. "Everything was more susceptible to change during the pre-Christian times. That being said, one should be aware that the stories Snorri collected could not reflect a “pagan reality”, for the “pagan reality” was never one, but always multiple. By turning the multiple into singular, one gets a static result, a very distorted picture of what a dynamic multitude of practices were like, an artificial attempt to view the old faith from Christian lenses. This unifying view is an impact of Christianity in the perspective of the work." (Semêdo 201-2)

The medieval Christian perception of paganism was somewhat varied. The wisdom of the Classical pagans were somehow not suspect, because they came from a class of "natural religion" that was considered as close to Christianity as the poor unenlightened, unsaved people of their time could come. Snorri saw this concept and attempted to gain a similar pass for his own ancestors. This is how he attempted to justify the value of the northern myths. To this end, he linked his deities in early prehistory to Troy, and then in his descriptions to Gylfi, he did his best to establish that the religion of his ancestors was as close to Christianity as the unenlightened might come. An example of this is the twelve-plus-one model he sets up in enumerating the gods. There is Odin (one), and then he names twelve others, finally settling on Loki.

"Whatever other models may inform Snorri’s use of the one-plus model, the obvious analogy of Jesus and the Apostles must have been important to its use in Gylfaginning, for it imported another feature of a natural religion that presaged Christianity among those forbears of Snorri who had forgotten the name of God, as the Prologue has it. Óðinn as Alföðr starts this natural religion; adding an apparent allusion to the apostles furthers it. Indeed, if Snorri composed the Prologue to his Edda after the rest of the text, and if Heimskringla follows the Edda in Snorri’s authorship, as is generally assumed, then the one-plus-twelve pattern originated in the context of natural religion and was later recycled in the context of euhemerism. Thus natural religion would lead to one plus twelve, and a desire to account for Loki’s presence among the Æsir would then account for one plus twelve plus one, and this sequence, I have argued, accounts for fourteen Ásynjur when it is copied" (Lindow 2015 137).

In this matter, Snorri presented the original ancestors, through Gylfi, and those that became the gods, through Odin, as sharing many features of this natural religion.

"Thus, Snorri, rather than assigning natural religion in its pure and, to Christian minds, most praiseworthy form to either set of ancestors, deposits traces of this theology in the beliefs expressed by representatives of both cultures at the time when they are supposed to have met. It is their shared notion of a creator/controller of an ordered universe that provides the common ground for the melding of Gylfi’s and the æsir’s religions and enables the latter to fill in the half-formed polytheism of the former with names and stories of their choosing. One of natural religion’s functions in Snorri’s frame is thus to enhance the verisimilitude of the establishment of the æsir’s more developed brand of polytheism in the north. It also, however, and more importantly serves to soften the spiritual injury caused by the triumph of Óðinn and the æsir in the north. Even if he was not himself too worried by the religious implications of his fabricated history, Snorri had good reason to fear that Hákon, a Christian king closely allied with and dependent upon his country’s episcopal authorities, might have difficulty appreciating the contributions made to the founding of his monarchy by invaders who had maliciously disrupted his ancestors’ spiritual maturation. By suggesting that the æsir’s subjugation of the north resulted in nothing worse than the displacement of one form of mixed natural religion/polytheism by another, Snorri presented the king and his clerics with a narrative of religious history that was not only feasible but also, to the extent that this was possible, theologically palatable." (Wanner 158)

Thus, Snorri managed to fulfill his twofold goal: he was able to educate those who he felt did not understand the value of skaldic poetry, and he managed to present the old religion in such a manner that protected it from the Church's fear-mongering. He hoped that this would secure the political capital that he felt he had earned in studying his culture's traditional poetry, in writing poems in praise of his King. Ultimately, the pull of the Continental chivalry tradition was simply too strong. Hákon had a good friend in the English king of the time, Henry III, who was of an age with him, and who was steeped in the Continental trends. Peer pressure was simply too strong. Still, his attempt did save the mythology from Christian censure, at least enough that it was preserved. Frustrating as it may be to untangle the biases in an attempt to reconstruct the old religion, at least we have this much.

Book Hoard

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

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: consulted 14 March 2023

Faulkes, Anthony. "The influence of the Latin Tradition on Snorri Sturluson’s writings" Víking Society Web Publications, available in: consulted 14 March 2023

Faulkes, Anthony. Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning. Viking Society For Northern Research, University College, London, 2005 available at consulted 1t March 2023

Lindow, John. "Mythology and Mythography" in Clover, Carol J. And Lindow, John Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1985. pp 21-67

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

Ramirez, Luz Andrea De León. "Snorri Sturluson´s influences in the Prose Edda" consulted 14 March 2023

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 consulted 14 March 2023

Simek, Rudolph. "The use and abuse of Old Norse religion it's beginning in high medieval Iceland" in Andrén, Anders. Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives. Nordic Academic Press, Lund, Sweden, 2004 pp 377-380

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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