Mon
Nov 12 2012 1:00pm
Seven Norse Myths We Wouldn’t Have Without Snorri

We think of Norse mythology as ancient and anonymous. But in fact, most of the stories we know about Odin, Thor, Loki, and the other gods of Scandinavia were written by the 13th-century Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson.

Notice I said “written” and not “written down.” Snorri was a greedy and unscrupulous lawyer, a power-monger whose ambition led to the end of Iceland’s independence and to its becoming a colony of Norway.

But Snorri was also a masterful poet and storyteller who used his creative gifts to charm his way to power. Studying Snorri’s life to write my book Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, I learned how he came to write his Edda, a book that’s been called “the deep and ancient wellspring of Western culture,” and his Heimskringla, a history of Norway from its founding in the far past by Odin the Wizard-King.

These two books are our main, and sometimes our only, source for much of what we think of as Norse mythology—and it’s clear, to me at least, that Snorri simply made a lot of it up.

For example, Snorri is our only source for these seven classic Norse myths:

1. The Creation of the World in Fire and Ice

2. Odin and his Eight-legged Horse

3. Odin and the Mead of Poetry

4. How Thor Got His Hammer of Might

5. Thor’s Visit to Utgard-Loki

6. How Tyr Lost His Hand

7. The Death of Beautiful Baldur

In this series, I'll go through these seven Norse myths one by one and try to explain why I think Snorri made them up. But first, you may be wondering why Snorri wrote these myths of the old gods and giants in the first place. Iceland in the 13th century was a Christian country. It had been Christian for over 200 years.

He did so to gain influence at the Norwegian court. When Snorri came to Norway for the first time in 1218, he was horrified to learn that chivalry was all the rage. The 14-year-old King Hakon would rather read the romances of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table than hear poems recited about the splendid deeds of his own ancestors, the Viking kings. The Viking poetry Snorri loved was dismissed as old-fashioned and too hard to understand. So, to reintroduce the young king to his heritage Snorri Sturluson began writing his books.

The Edda is essentially a handbook on Viking poetry. For the Vikings were not only fierce warriors, they were very subtle artists. Their poetry had an enormous number of rules for rhyme and meter and alliteration. It also had kennings. Snorri defined kennings in his Edda (he may also have coined the term). As Snorri explained, there are three kinds: “It is a simple kenning to call battle ‘spear clash’ and it is a double kenning to call a sword ‘fire of the spear-clash,’ and it is extended if there are more elements.”

Kennings are rarely so easy to decipher as these. Most kennings refer—quite obscurely—to pagan myths.

Kennings were the soul of Viking poetry. One modern reader speaks of the “sudden unaccountable surge of power” that comes when you finally perceive in the stream of images the story they represent. But as Snorri well knew, when those stories were forgotten, the poetry would die. That’s why, when he wrote his Edda to teach the young king of Norway about Viking poetry, he filled it with Norse myths.

But it had been 200 years since anyone had believed in the old gods. Many of the references in the old poems were unclear. The old myths had been forgotten. So Snorri simply made things up to fill in the gaps.

Let me give you an example. Here’s Snorri’s Creation story:

In the beginning, Snorri wrote, there was nothing. No sand, no sea, no cooling wave. No earth, no heaven above. Nothing but the yawning empty gap, Ginnungagap. All was cold and grim.

Then came Surt with a crashing noise, bright and burning. He bore a flaming sword. Rivers of fire flowed till they turned hard as slag from an iron-maker’s forge, then froze to ice.

The ice-rime grew, layer upon layer, till it bridged the mighty, magical gap. Where the ice met sparks of flame and still-flowing lava from Surt’s home in the south, it thawed and dripped. Like an icicle it formed the first frost-giant, Ymir, and his cow.

Ymir drank the cow’s abundant milk. The cow licked the ice, which was salty. It licked free a handsome man and his wife.

They had three sons, one of whom was Odin, the ruler of heaven and earth, the greatest and most glorious of the gods: the All-father, who “lives throughout all ages and … governs all things great and small…,” Snorri wrote, adding that “all men who are righteous shall live and dwell with him” after they die.

Odin and his brothers killed the frost-giant Ymir. From his body they fashioned the world: His flesh was the soil, his blood the sea. His bones and teeth became stones and scree. His hair were trees, his skull was the sky, his brain, clouds.

From his eyebrows they made Middle Earth, which they peopled with men, crafting the first man and woman from driftwood they found on the seashore.

So Snorri explains the creation of the world in the beginning of his Edda. Partly he is quoting an older poem, the “Song of the Sibyl,” whose author he does not name. Partly he seems to be making it up—especially the bit about the world forming in a kind of volcanic eruption, and then freezing to ice.

If this myth were truly ancient, there could be no volcano. Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, the Scandinavian homelands, are not volcanic. Only Iceland—discovered in 870, when Norse paganism was already on the wane—is geologically active. In medieval times, Iceland’s volcanoes erupted ten or a dozen times a century, often burning through thick glaciers. There is nothing so characteristic of Iceland’s landscape as the clash between fire and ice.

That the world was built out of Ymir’s dismembered body is Snorri’s invention. The idea is suspiciously like the cosmology in popular philosophical treatises of the 12th and 13th centuries. These were based on Plato, who conceived of the world as a gigantic human body.

Ymir’s cow may have been Snorri’s invention too. No other source mentions a giant cow, nor what the giant Ymir lived on. A cow, to Snorri, would have been the obvious source of monstrous sustenance. Like all wealthy Icelanders, Snorri was a dairyman. He was also, as I’ve said, a Christian. It fits with his wry sense of humor for the first pagan god to be born from a salt lick.

Finally, the idea that Odin was the All-father, who gave men “a soul that shall live and never perish” and who welcomes the righteous to Valhalla after death is Snorri’s very-Christian idea. He was trying to make the old stories acceptable to a young Christian king who had been brought up by bishops.

 

In my next post, I’ll look at how Snorri created the character of the god Odin.


Nancy Marie Brown is the author of Song of the Viking: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, a biography of the 13th-century Icelandic chieftain and writer, Snorri Sturluson. She blogs at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com.

27 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
I started your book last week & I am pretty dang happy when I read it. "Oh man, listen to this about insult poles!" I shout, to the stranger next to me on the subway.
David Schwartz
2. snurri
'Partly he is quoting an older poem, the “Song of the Sibyl,” whose author he does not name.'

I assume that Brown is referring to V?luspá. If so, there's a simple reason why Snorri doesn't name the author; the poem comes from oral (skaldic) tradition and even if it was written by one author, the name of that person was long lost even in Snorri's time.

"If this myth were truly ancient, there could be no volcano."

Except that myths travel, and aren't created out of whole cloth in the places where we find them. Snorri may have called the fire a volcano because he was familiar with Iceland, just as the myths he wrote down were influenced by his Christianity and other things about the world he lived in; or the volcano idea may have traveled to that region from elsewhere, with migrating tribes or with traders. But there's a distance between acknowledging that and asserting that he made up his own myths. Many primary sources for Norse mythology have been lost, and what we do have is largely thanks to Snorri's anthologizing them in The Poetic Edda.

I'm highly skeptical of the conclusions you describe, but I don't feel qualified to go into greater detail trying to refute them.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
2. snurri

Really? I find the simple logic behind "Um, Snorri lived in a place of ice & fire; the mythology of the Eddas are all about ice & fire. That...isn't so much true of Scandinavia" to be a really compelling argument for Snorri as it's author.
Peter Stone
4. Peter1742
I agree with @2. Myths travel. The phoenix (introduced to the western world through ancient Egypt) is almost certainly based on the African lesser flamingo, whose young rise each year from the ashes in Lake Natron, in Tanzania, 2000 miles away. The ancient Norwegians easily could have known about volcanos, even if they had never seen one. Of course, this doesn't mean that Snorri didn't invent this creation legend.
David Schwartz
5. snurri
3. mordicai

When we're talking about ethnography, simple logic rarely applies. And what you're describing isn't simple logic. It's a long, long way from "Iceland has volcanoes, Norway, Sweden and Denmark don't" to "Snorri made up the Norse creation myth out of his own head."

Just because Scandinavia isn't tectonically active doesn't mean they had no concept of basic elemental oppositions, and such assumptions ignore the entire field of comparative religion, which traces the parallels between myths and legends across cultures.

In case it's not clear, no one is disputing that Snorri put these stories on paper. But neither, so far as I'm aware, are there any experts in the field of Scandinavian Studies who would posit that he made them up entirely.
Darket
6. Darket
I think Nancy Marie Brown has a too 'modern' view the myths written down by Snorri. He did not grap the stories and filled out the holes from thin air, but from very well knows songs and stories. It was not all politics... and Snorri is, by far, not the only historical source to the Norse myth arc, she should really read, and reference, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (1150-1220)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxo_Grammaticus

As a Danish archaeologist I must also point out that we have numerous other archaelogical sources of Norse myth, and Norse myth's link to Christianity (and to Greek and Roman and Egyptian god, which again have links to Christianity).

Finally, iit is also very wrong to claim that "for 200 years nobody had believed in the old gods", Scandinavia had a far from smooth transition to Christianity, many practices the old religion on the sly, and the Norse mythology is still today kept alive in many traditions today, as well as it is a recognised religion. It is still a very integral part of society in all Scandinavian contries...
Darket
7. mutantalbinocrocodile
Very interested in this book now! With all due respect, snurri and Darket, I think it's high time that we had more skepticism about comparative mythology as a field. Conclusions such as linking Christianity with Egyptian myths, and the whole "unity of mythologies" thesis, really go back to the fascinating but deeply biased 19th-century book "The Golden Bough", and are open to question rather than being certain. Am very interested, on this front, in Ms. Brown's conclusions about the story of Baldur--do tell!
Darket
8. Bjorn Þorsteinsson
I think you give to much credit to Snorri that he led to the end of Iceland’s independence and to its becoming a colony of Norway. Mostly because Hákon the king of Norway told Gissur to kill him... And i think that also there were some outside forces at hand, like nature and that Norwegian ships were not as often in Iceland as before. And that Icelands forests had been cut down alot so there was not as much timber as there was.
But that is maybe not the most important thing in the writing of yours.
Anyway, i find this highly interesting and clever, outside of the box thinking of you. I have not read your book but i am highly interested in reading more of your articles.
Darket
9. Darket
@mutantalbinocrodile

You are right, there should be skepticism towards comparative mythology, I can see why you read my post that way, but I think I was very tired last night and my English was a little off :-)

What I meant was that Sturluson was not the one who invented the link between Norse mythology and Christianity, there are at least 2 other contemporary sources that I can think of which had the same idea in Sweden and Denmark (Sven Aggesen and Saxo Grammaticus). The Scandinavian countries were in the making as nations and were in need of a common history and religion that combined the old and new.

Religions will always be mixed in periods of transition like in Scandinavia year 800-1200, for example is it very difficult to deduce if icons that we find from that time period, are Balder or Jesus, since they are given some of the same caracteristics and symbols. Around year 1000 we also find a lot of Thor's hammer pendants that people would wear the same way Christians wear crossed, to signify religious affiliation. The icons that we find of Odin (which dates back to 500 B.C) have all the caracteristic of an All Father (sitting on a throne with a weapon i.e.), which is not a particularly Christian trait...

I think I was provoked that Brown gives Sturluson way too much credit, it does not seem very well researched... And Brown does not seem a poor researcher to me, she just leaves out a lot of interesting facts in this post, which is Scandinavian middle school curriculum...

It is also provoking that she seems to treat the Norse gods as mere literary characters, when they also have religious, political and historical significance (facts that I think only nuances the stories and make them more interesting :-) ) I am interested in how she next week intends to 'look at how Snorri created the character of the God Odin'... Which is a very bold claim, that even Snorri would oppose...
Darket
10. StrongDreams
@Darket,
How in depth can you go in a thousand word blog post. It's a commercial/teaser for the book.
Darket
11. Darket
...Just trying to start an interesting discussion about one of my (and Ms Brown's) favorite topics...
alastair chadwin
12. a-j
Darket@9
What he said.
Having said that, in England we have Geoffrey of Monmouth who made up a mythic story about the founding of the country (basically a chap called Brutus escapes from Troy, arrives in England, kills the native giants and sets himself up as king). Interestingly, it didn't really take despite his History of the Kings of Britain being immensely popular probably because of the presence of Arthur in the later parts.

Certainly the 'no volcanoes = freshly minted literary story' theory seems a bit pat and while comparative mythology can frequently become foolish, so too can reductive arguments that it was all made up by a Tolkien of his day in the 13th century. What other evidence is there?
Mordicai Knode
13. mordicai
Yeah, I assume we're all arguing in good faith & good fun here; we're having a rousing debate about mythology, that is great!

Let me approach this from a falsifiable direction: are there any accounts or archeological hints, pre-Gylfaginning, of Norse creation accounts? First, I want to say that I think presuming a monolithic or complete religious continuum is probably false, but I'm not looking for a complete tapestry-- just evidence of the "fire & ice" origin that pre-dates Snorri. I'm not all that well versed (kenning pun intended) on Norse anthropology, so I'm genuinely asking for examples.
Darket
14. K. C. Hulsman
Food for thought: we have the death of Baldr in the Gesta Danorum, which is the older source. The account differs from Snorri's, as in this version of the tale Loki isn't featured at all.

@Mordicai - The evidence of fire and ice comes to us solely from the Icelandic written sources, but what's interesting is that if we take a look at Iceland itself. The land is literally the result of plate tectonics, and it was formed by both volcanoes and glaciers. The site of thingvellir (of the national assembly, and where rites were performed) occurs where two plates tear the land asunder (aka the Mid Atlantic Ridge). So at least for the Icelanders, this concept of the world view made perfect sense with the world they witnessed around them. How prevalent that view was in other areas... well no textual or archaeological evidence remains that can really make a statement about that. Or at least, has not to date been found.
Mordicai Knode
15. mordicai
14. K. C. Hulsman

Which is largely Miz Brown's contention, as well-- that the worldview of "fire & ice" is a very Icelandic thing but less so a Scandanavian thing. It seems compelling to me.
Darket
16. S. M. Stirling
Entirely the sort of interpretation you'd expect a modern (not to mention a postmodernist) to come up with.
"Authorship" in the modern sense is a modern invention.

There is absolutely no possibility whatsoever that Snorri just made this stuff up. There's plenty of archaeological, linguistic and textual evidence that he was simply redacting an enormous body of older myth. He undoubtedly added elements; that's how myth evolves.Marx once said that while human beings make history, they don't make it just as they please. That applies to cultural history as well. Nobody makes anything up out of nothing.
Darket
17. Darket
@Mordicai

Your question is really intersting and it made me twist my mind and actively look up early source of the Norse myth of creation! And Im a total nerd, so I did some research that I hope you will find intereting :-)
Your must excuse the wikipedia sources, but this is what I could figure out to add here...

First: To my knowledge, there are no records describing the myth of creation before Christian times (or before Snorre), this could be an element added by Snorre. An other reason for the missing sources could be that there were almost no written sources (apart from a few lines on stones or wood) before 1000 A.D. A creation myth does not seem to have occupied the Norsemen a lot, however a lot of elements of worldbuilding excist on medallions (brakteater) on jewellery and as figurines. For example the world tree Yggdrasil is very often portraied and the sun being pulled over the sky by a horse is a famous bronze age statue from Odsherred on Zeeland in Denmark:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Solvogn.jpg

Most depicted is the worm (snake) Midgårdsormen which also plays a big role in the Norse world building-perspective and how the Norsemen view the world.

Maybe the Norse myth of creation is actually something Sorre made up? I dont know? It is maybe a Christian thing to have the 'need' of a very defined creation? However I really doubt that Snorre grabbed it from thin air.. the myth is kind of discusting, and to me it does not seem to promote a Christian worldview. I dont believe it has such great importance in Snorre's work either...

On the other hand, the Norse Armageddon (Ragnarok) is very well described pre-Snorre, there are a couple of written sources to a lot of the events leading up to Ragnarok. For instace the death of Balder, the Fenris wolf etc. There is the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, there is also the Poetic Edda in the Codex Regius. The poetic Edda is a collection of texts written down in (very) old Norse and with unknown authorship, likely the authors are several Christian priests in Iceland around year 1000. Here is a link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poetic_Edda


There are also numerous archaeological sources to the Asa-belief system. There is lots of depictions of how the Fenris bit off Tyr's hand, how Balder died but especially there are depictions of Thor's hammer and of Odin with a horse or with birds.

The belief system was centered around the characteristica of the different gods (that might have been human worriers once which have been elevated to deity, but this is a different story, one that for instance Geoffrey of Monmouth also takes this approach in the origin of the kings of Britain). Take the weekdays, the etymological origin seems to date back to 400 A.D. (Jensen, Danmarks Oldtid bind 4, 2004, p. 126), and were inspired by the roman names for weekdays which also inspired by gods and their characteristics.

Some of the best finds are the are the ’brakteater’ a kind of medalions with very detailed pictures of the events leading up to the apocalypse, for instance the tragic death of Balder.This for instance is a brakteat found by the city Fakse in Denmark (Jensen, Danmarks Oldtid bind 4, 2004, p. 132). Snorre has one version of this story where Loke is the villan, an other, earlier source is Völuspá.
Below is a link with photoes of the many brakteater. This is also the volume I've referenced above.

http://www.denstoredanske.dk/Danmarks_Oldtid/Yngre_Jernalder/Gyldne_tider_400-550_e.Kr/Asetroens_billeder

If you scroll down, the 7th photo of two brakteats are from around 400-500 A.D. and they depict Balder in the middle with a misteltoe sticking out from his chest. Odin is on his right with his spear Gungner, and maybe the winged person behind is Loke.

The Norse mythology is very complicated to understand for modern people, it was a people's religion and there was no 'book' or 'common reference', only oral lore... The religion has a very close tie to a sun religion and shamanism there is a lot of focus on the link between human an animal (with the animal as a ’helper spirit’) (Jensen, Danmarks Oldtid bind 4, 2004, p. 130). Odin is almost always depicted with animals, the horse and birds were also worrier symbols to illustrate his 'royal' status.

Around 400-500 A.D. a worrier elite emerged in Scandinavia and legitimized themselves through the Asa. This maybe in opposition to the Christian south and the growing Christian influence. This led to A LOT of HUGE gold sacrifices that have been very well preserved till today :-D

All in all, there is no way Nancy Marie Brown can claim that Snorre Sturluson was the inventer or the author of the poems and stories of the Norse mythology or the inventer of the "characters".

(I'm a 'she' btw)
Darket
20. Darket
...Oops, the Völuspá does contain a myth of creation, my bad...
Alana Abbott
21. alanajoli
Interesting post and incredibly interesting comments. Some of what Brown writes, particularly about poetry, makes me think of Sturluson as the Ovid or Shakespeare of his time and place. I suspect that the Ovid comparison is particularly apt, as the Roman poet certainly spun his own take on Greek myths. He clearly didn't invent them, but I believe that some accounts of the Greek myths we have are only present in Ovid, while different variations on those myths are present in other sources. (Note: I believe this is true, but will completely accept someone whose research on the topic is fresher correcting me.)

So, like others, I think that Brown's thesis of Sturluson completely inventing tales whole cloth may be overreaching (and I'm sure the argument is more compelling in the full book rather than the short adapted articles), the idea that he changed things to better suit his audience and his own world view seems completely reasonable to me.

I'm looking forward to reading more of this series -- and more of the excellent comments by people who are clearly also well versed in Norse mythology! It's exciting to find so many myth scholars at Tor.com!
Mordicai Knode
22. mordicai
16. S. M. Stirling

Sir, no one is saying Snorri made the Eddas up whole cloth. We are discussing, in particular, a point within the text. Your "accusations" of post-modernity are particularly interesting in light of your discussions of the modern notion of authorship, which sounds more PoMo to me...but in fact, what we are looking at-- the Fire & Ice on either side of the Grinning Gap-- is a textual oddity. Snorri's work reflect in a great many ways his personal life, as I'm learning from...well, the author's book. There is no reason to think the Eddas are somehow exempt from that.

17. Darket

Hey, I think Wikipedia is a great secondary source, just not a very good primary one, so invoking it here is totally great. No apologies needed! Anyhow, I don't think anyone is claiming Snorri as the sole inventor of Norse mythology! Just the bit of the Gylfaginning where the universe is created in the Ginnungagap between the ice of Niflheim & the fire of Muspelheim. The Christianized aspect of the fire isn't the most interesting part; Iceland's volcanic landscape is, especially contrasted to the lack of volcanos in Scandanavia. The creation myth of the Völuspá is absent of any "fire & ice" overtones, right?

21. alanajoli

I was thinking more the Homer, though Professor Tolkien explicitly compared him to Shakespeare-- saying Snorri was the better of the two.
Darket
23. Mjölner
This is heresy!
Denial of the true faith will send you all to Nifelheim where Hel will torture you by making you to build a ship out of nail clippings!
You are all damned!
Darket
24. Darket
I completely forgot to reply to this post! Im sorry!

@Mordecai.... Okay okay, so maybe the "...of Ice and Fire" is an Icelandic trait, the problem is, there is no way to know, however Norse myhtology did have a couple of houndred years to evolve separately in Iceland before Christianization... AND "...of Ice and Fire" does sound pretty darn good! Just ask R.R. Martin if it sells books ;-)
Mordicai Knode
25. mordicai
24. Darket

Well this is a problem with a lot of the social sciences; you can't really construct repeatable experiments! Still, the theory "the bits of Fire & Ice in Snorri's re-telling of the creation myths is Icelandic in origin" at least has falsifiability; if we can find an earlier reference, there we go. Until then, it is a plausible piece of critique, to my eyes.
Darket
26. Darket
@ Mordicai

Thank you for a great review of Ms. Browns book. I prefer to reply here, since you also referenced this discussion in the review.

I believe there is a big difference between counting black or white swans and analysing a historical source in it's context. The problem with location a pre-snorri (written!) source is that written work was not the medium of the time... Brown's hypothesis/source is falsifiable, but on very thin ground and out of it's 'element' and context. The few other historical sources are unfortunately (and very oddly, since it would not ruin any of Brown's theory about Snorri being a great poet) not mentioned.

It is a very interesting theory Brown puts forward, I just wish, she would formulate her postulations more as hypothesis and not as 'true findings', this really makes me sad, since Im sure it could have been a good couple of blog posts, if she would make more open conclusions, that would leave room for other interpretations and, for instance, the written, linguistic and archaeological sources that I and others, have put forward earlier in this thread... There is just so much more to the 'story' than Brown suggest, also the fact that this is still a recognised religion and that the old religion has had a very strong influence on modern thinking (not only in Scandinavia) is also an interesting point. I guess it all sums up in the book title.. 'The vikings' were never a 'people or country' this is a name given by the English, it really is a verb, meaning 'to go exploring' or later meaning: 'sailor'... It indicates an activity rather than a people, religion or else... The vikings would never call themselves vikings...

I hope Brown's research will make Scandinavian studies popular in the US, and I hope that my all time favorite comic 'Valhalla' by Peter Madsen will be translated and sold in English speaking countries (there is also a cartoon) :-)

An NOW I will put Brown's book on my Christmas wish list, since im sure it is a great, entertaining and enlightening book! 148
Mordicai Knode
27. mordicai
26. Darket

I'd also urge you to read the book & draw your conclusions from there, rather than from a secondary source-- even one that the author wrote-- just in principal, but you sound like you are already set to read it!

(& just so you know, Brown definitely has a distinction between the folks who go a-viking & the ethnic Norse. In fact, Snorri as the author of Viking tales but least-Viking-guy-ever is a big theme of the work.)
Darket
28. Tyler S.
I had long thought that Norse mythology and Christianity had much in common. I'm ecstatic to finally read that this is the case! Great review!
Darket
31. Noone
Heat at the equator (to the south), ice to the north (above the arctic circle), and the middle earth (Eurasia) between them....

fire in the Earth's earliest days, which cooled and become rock, and later ice (Snowball Earth), leading eventually to a planet inhabitable by Man...

freezing depths of the vacuum of space (Ginnungagap) with its comets and frozen outer planets, the fires of the sun...

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment