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Was Snorri ever ordained?

Updated: May 9, 2023

Many Heathens like to demonize Snorri as being the sole source of christianization in the Prose Edda, pointing to his status as a monk or priest. While he was a major source of christianization in the myths, from the time of the first missionary, "the old faith and Christianity were in constant contact and influenced each other all along" (Semêdo 199). Fostering with Jón Loptsson 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 2018 295). However, Snorri himself was never ordained, nor did he truly receive an ecclesiastical education.


The church's grip on Iceland was actually fairly weak at the time, and a concerted effort was made to bring the island back in line with the rest of the church with several edicts. "The last and most important of these directives, issued in 1190, forbade ordination of goðar. Although never made into law, this ban was extremely effective – after 1190, there is no record of an Icelandic goði ever again entering the priesthood" (Wanner 67), as per Jón Jóhannesson, History of the Old Icelandic Commonwealth, 190. The ban can be found in "Diplomatarium Islandicum, 291 (no. 72). This ban, issued by Archbishop Eiríkr Ívarsson, was preceded by a letter from Archbishop Eysteinn Erlendsson in 1173 which forbade Icelandic clergy from fighting or joining in lawsuits for personal or financial gain, and threatened any Icelander who attacked a clergyman with excommunication (ibid., 222), as well as an 1189 letter from Eiríkr which forbade clergy from carrying arms or participating in lawsuits likely to lead to violence (ibid., 283–4)" (Wanner 195). This ruling came when Snorri was eleven years old, before holy orders would have been given. "...This ban, which forced elite Icelanders to make an unaccustomed choice between pursuing religious versus secular authority, went into effect. Snorri’s choice was unequivocal: unlike his foster-father and foster-brother, both deacons, or his brother Þórðr, a subdeacon, Snorri never held nor seems to have aspired to hold even a minor church office" (Wanner 67).


The ban led to Snorri being educated separately, in the oral tradition of Iceland instead of the written tradition of the Church. "Since Oddi was not comparable to the cathedral schools or nascent universities of continental Europe, and thus Snorri is unlikely to have followed a set course of study mirroring the trivium and quadrivium, his education was probably informal, and our clearest win-dow into its particulars lies in his own cultural output. Based on this alone, Snorri was clearly conversant in commonwealth law, Scandinavian (particu-larly royal) history, genealogical lists, pagan myth, skaldic verse in all its forms, and, for lack of a better term, local lore.

Snorri’s works provide much less certainty, however, about his conversance with Oddi’s Latin resources or contemporary ecclesiastical culture" (Wanner 68). There is currently an argument taking place in academic circles over whether Snorri understood Latin at all.


Ursula and Peter Dronke make the case that Snorri used the framework of Martin of Braga's epistolary sermon De Correctione Rusticorum, noting that it's only in the Latin text itself that the format is seen, not in the sermons derived from it.


"The thought first moves from the creation, by way of the fall of the Angels (which Snorri does not mention), to the fall of man. The next lines, both here and in Snorri, are essentially a recapitulation from Genesis: the multiplication of Adam and Eve's descendants over the earth, sinfulness and the forgetting of God, the destruction of the human race in the flood and its restoration through Noah. Then both Martin and Snorri say what Genesis does not: for the second time mankind, having again multiplied, neglected the worship of God and forgot the knowledge of the true god. In Martin this forgetting is seen as the origin of idolatry: the worship of creatures instead of the creator. Here Snorri diverges from the homilist, or indeed - if he knew this particular homily - deliberately contradicts him…" (Dronke 155-6).


Later, the Dronkes cite a passage by the Third Vatican Mythographer, which they say


"raises the fascinating and difficult question, to what extent could Snorri have been influenced by 12th century Latin thought, as against patristic thought? R.M. Meyer, who has the merit of first suggesting some points of comparison between Snorri and the third Vatican mythographer, was careful to stress that he had in mind the influence not of this particular Latin text but of a text of this type (perhaps one lost today). Nonetheless, Meyer believed it was a question of direct influence, of Snorri's having had access to a particular Latin mythographic text. In what follows we would not wish to go so far: it may well be a question of indirect rather than direct influences. But we would suggest that some of the emphases Snorri gives in his prologue are akin to those given by some of the greatest 12th century Christian platonists… there is nothing in Snorri's prologue to show that he had works by these men at his elbow (though he that he had read some of their writings cannot of course be ruled out). Much, however, suggests to us that Snorri had become familiar with some of their most remarkable ideas - perhaps through conversations with scholars who had studied in France, or through teachers who had undergone this platonizing influence. Above all, we believe a certain influence, direct or indirect, was possible because Snorri would have found in 12th century Latin humanist speculation much that was congenial to him, much that he could absorb because of its kinship with his own attitude to myth and the temperament with which he approached mythological speculation" (Dronke 168-9).


Further, when Snorri describes the wisdom to understand the world that God granted mankind, "We suggest that what Snorri here evokes is the fundamental understanding of creation as the 12th century Christian platonists saw it, and it is an understanding of this kind, however limited, that he attributes to his pre-christian ancestors" (Dronke 171). Their last note on this argument points out that creation requiring a material to begin is a concept that is taken from the Hellenic philosophers; according to Christian thought, God created the world 'ex nihilo;' that the battery is an issue at all would be an indication of an influence from Latin documents.


On the other side stands Anthony Faulkes, who in "The influence of the Latin Tradition on Snorri Sturluson’s writings" rather succinctly disassembles the idea that Snorri spoke Latin at all. He points out that "the order in which a series of concepts are presented may, however, simply reflect the natural order in which such concepts presented themselves to the medieval mind" (Faulkes 1). He goes on to point out that, despite his extensive use of quotes when it comes to poetry, there isn't a single Latin quote in Snorri's work. "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" (Faulkes 2). Faulkes then goes on to point out the misuse of Latin loan words. His argument speaks for itself.


"There are two words apparently used by Snorri that seem possibly to be loan-words or loan-translations from Latin. One is the term fornafn, which he uses in his discussion of the rhetorical devices of kenning and heiti in Skáldskaparmál, the second part of his Edda. This means ‘pronoun’ in Modern Icelandic and seems likely to be a loan-translation or calque of Latin pronomen. But although there has been much discussion of its exact meaning in Skáldskaparmál, it certainly does not mean pronoun there (as it does, by the way, in Snorri’s Háttatal). It probably means the same as Latin pronominatio, for which the more usual term was antonomasia, the Greek term: that is, an expression that stands in place of (for, pro) a proper noun (nomen proprium). It is not therefore, a third category beside those of kenning and heiti, but refers to those expressions, whether kennings or heiti, that replace proper nouns or the names of individual people. While one might argue that this use of the term speaks for considerable knowledge of Latin rhetorical theory, in fact I think it supports the opposite view, that someone who could misuse one of the simplest of Latin grammatical terms like this, and shows no knowledge of any other aspect of Latin grammar or rhetoric, was very ignorant indeed. He has picked up a term from someone else, while his own rhetorical treatise is quite independent of classical rhetorical theory. This is shown most clearly in the fact that he shows almost no interest in metaphor or simile." (Faulkes 2).


Even the descent of the Æsir from Troy gives away Snorri's ignorance:


"All the accurate details of the Troy story in this passage could be derived from the Old Norse Trójumanna saga (‘Story of the Trojans’); none of them comes direct from any Latin source. Here again, the picture is one of a writer who has acquired a smattering of knowledge about Classical literature and is not above parading it to support his argument about an Old Norse tradition (in this case, the origin of the Æsir in Asia Minor); but no one with any real knowledge of Latin literature could have written this. A little learning is indeed a dangerous thing. You can easily get found out." (Faulkes 5)


Sources

Diplomatarium Islandicum: Íslenzkt fornbréfasafn, vol. 1, 834–1264. Edited by Jón Sigurðsson. Copenhagen: S.L. Møller, 1857.


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


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


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 available in https://www.academia.edu/36798056/Snorri_Sturluson_and_the_Best_of_Both_Worlds consulted 10 July 2022


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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