Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Considering the Source: Snorri's Prose Edda

To my greatest shame, I don't have a hard copy of the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. Thankfully we live in the information age, and the internet does provide! I have been remiss in my studies of late, what with the distraction of Theseus and all that Trojan War mythology, so this post is long, long overdue, but I thought you, my fabulous followers and friends, would appreciate some examples as to why we must always, always consider the nature of the source when we look at the textual evidence we have for Norse Mythology.

To begin with, Snorri's Edda, the Prose Edda, is prefaced by a somewhat long-winded account of the beginning of man-- that is, the Christian Account of that evolution, and ultimately how it led to the men who would later be considered gods to the Norse people. Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark, the Great Flood, even King Priam of Troy get mentions. Snorri doesn't hide his agenda. In one respect, this makes it a lot easier to sift through. We know Snorri is writing from a Christian Worldview, and it's quite clear that he means to discount the divinity of the gods in order to preserve that theology.

For instance, in the prologue Snorri places Thor quite firmly into human history as a grandson of King Priam:
One king among them was called Múnón or Mennón; and he was wedded to the daughter of the High King Priam, her who was called Tróán; they had a child named Trór, whom we call Thor.
and turns Sif into Sibil the prophetess:
In the northern half of his kingdom he [Thor] found the prophetess that is called Síbil, whom we call Sif, and wedded her. The lineage of Sif I cannot tell; she was fairest of all women, and her hair was like gold.

Oh so very Greek of him, and a testament too, to the pervasive nature of the mythic Troy* and it's people as a fact of history, cross culture.  He also goes on to make Odin a descendent of Thor, and leader of an exodus to the Northlands:

Odin had second sight, and his wife [Frigg] also; and from their foreknowledge he found that his name should be exalted in the northern part of the world and glorified above the fame of all other kings. Therefore, he made ready to journey out of Turkland, and was accompanied by a great multitude of people, young folk and old, men and women; and they had with them much goods of great price. And wherever they went over the lands of the earth, many glorious things were spoken of them, so that they were held more like gods than men.

To say this is a far cry from the Norse creation myth**  is an understatement. But it serves his purpose-- turning gods back into men, historical figures who can then be explained by gossip and boasting pre-vikings. I can certainly appreciate his translation of Aesir into a term referring to men from Asia, as in men descended of the House of Priam from Troy, though his supposition that they brought with them the language from Asia has, as far as I know, no linguistic basis whatsoever. It is, however, rather creative of him.

But this is what Snorri DOES; he rationalizes the mythology of his people to something which can fit within the Christian theology without competing against it. Suggesting that these gods were not gods at all, but men who have been honored and revered to the point where we forgot they were just men allowed a certain amount of preservation, even if it leaves us with a lot of teases and a source of questionable reliability.

On the one hand, we should be grateful to Snorri for preserving even as much as he did. On the other hand, I would give my left arm for a textual source written down before contact with the Christians and the conversion of the Norse people to that new faith. To hear the stories of the Norse gods from someone who honestly believed in them, knew them for allies, and placed him/herself in their hands, would be an incredible gift to our understanding. Snorri, though, is not it.

*The influence of Homer is pretty astounding when you think about it-- this Edda was written around 1200 AD, and Homer's Iliad was at earliest recorded ~700 BCE. That's almost 2000 years later, and don't forget that Snorri is also an Icelander! That's a long way in time and physical distance for the Epics of Homer and the ancient Greeks to travel.

**Odin, a son of Bor, himself a son of Buri who was licked from the ice by the cow Audhumla, and thereby the father of all other gods--and Thor the son of Odin after Odin and his brothers slew Ymir, the giant of all giants, and formed from Ymir's body, blood and bones the mountains, rivers, seas, etc. that make up our world.


  1. Ooohh, this is really interesting. Isn't that always the way with historical sources? Like, it sounds like he wrote it in order to consolidate the old beliefs with the new which is fascinating in itself even if it's not as good as an original source from pre-christian thinking.

    Hmmm. I would love to see that too.

  2. There is without a doubt ALWAYS an agenda. But even sources that were put down before the Christian influence aren't immune to the discounting of the gods, I guess. Finding a source written by a believer and not filtered through non-believers would be a gold-mine.

    I think it's REALLY interesting that Snorri chooses to consolidate the Norse stuff into the Greek-- claiming descent from Troy of all places! I would love to have seen his references and justifications for that bloodline.

  3. Ya gotta love how one religion subsumes another, deconstructing it so that it has no more power. Wonder how the next big religion will do the same to Christianity?!

    btw, I've got an award for you at my blog!

  4. What a NEAT post, Amalia! I never knew (I only guessed) at Snorri's theories on the orgins of the gods. I'm not too surprised as it were. Like the epic "flood" story that exists everywhere, the creation of these pantheons do tend to start with basic ancestor worship and then turn into legend and finally into myth.

    What a funny and strange race we humans are. I'm reminded again that whatever our differences, we tend to have all been on the same boat since long ago.

  5. Fascinating! Isn't it interesting how every religion tries to adapt every other religion as if it had always been part of itself? Christianity is especially (even deviously, one might say) good at this. Masters of reinterpretation, they are (I'm Christian myself, so no offence meant).

    Great post, my dear!

  6. Thanks everyone!

    Mara: Thank you! How kind! And I often wonder the same thing :)

    Monica: That's Snorri's argument exactly-- in contrast to the traditional Christian view of the time that the Norse gods were obviously demons and satanspawn. The baptismal vows up north were known to include a promise to reject Thor AND Satan both :)

    Tessa: it really is. On the one hand, at least it preserves something, on the other hand, I think Christianity on the whole was far more destructive than not in the big picture, and it kind of breaks my heart. Myself, I'm Catholic, but it absolutely horrifies me what the Church did to history and myth in some arenas.

  7. Indeed, there is always an agenda, whether it's personal, political or religious. One of the few quotes I can hold in my feeble brain is Churchill's, "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." I'm sure it's a similar thing with mythologies.

  8. So true about religions incorporating local myths into the religion itself as a way to gain support. "It's fine to celebrate such-and-such pagan ritual, we'll call it St. So-and-So Day!"

    I love how your blog always makes me think. My brain turns on here. I think it turns off at my own blog... stupid brain.

  9. Yes, to what Diana said. As a person that loved my Greek Mythology course (my prof was passionate about Greek Mythology), I can honestly say I know what you mean. They justified everything in that text. Even the creation of the Greek gods themselves as a metaphor of the Norse (patriarchal society) influence on the matriarchal society living in the region at the time. Since the sky god (Uranus) forced himself on Gaia (Earth) and thus the gods descended from them. And then the Romans being the eclectic society that they were, took bits from every people they conquered. So, it is said, the Roman Catholic Church created Christian holidays to mask the pagan ones. Christmas for the solstice and Easter for the fertility rituals of spring. Very interesting subject. :D

  10. I love it when you post about the mythologies! I love them and I really want to get through some more in the future. They're just so facinating.

  11. I gotta come here more often! I enjoy your take on mythology. And this: "To hear the stories of the Norse gods from someone who honestly believed in them, knew them for allies, and placed him/herself in their hands, would be an incredible gift to our understanding."

    I've often thought this very sentiment.

    You rock Amalia. Truly.


  12. A very fitting quote, VR! The religion which conquers very much influences the interpretation of past mythology!

    Di and Tina: What I find most interesting is seeing the way those myths are incorporated later even further into fairy tales-- perhaps as a further marginalization?

    Tina: The Greeks didn't do anything that the Christians didn't, sadly, when it comes to rationalizing Patriarchal society :-/

    Thanks Donna! I'm glad you enjoy my posts! One of my friends told me once that there are still people in Norway way up north in isolated places who still believe but I expect they are working from the same texts I am :-/

  13. You know what I love most? Reading the name Snorri. I say it, though not out loud, when I read it, and I just love it. What a great name!

  14. hahaha. You crack me up, Sarah! It is kind of a fun name though.

  15. Culture and Royalty dont always in fact correlate the same. What you say of Snorri might have some truth to it, but that doesn't stop the knowledge that ancient Germanic kings count gods as their ancestors, nor does it kill the greater possibility that these very earlier bloodlines may have been, originated or have intermarried with Scythian or Thracian royalty and via the latter, Trojan. Also, Trojan mythology may come from Greek sources but Trojan culture wasnt Greek.

    1. MOST royalty claimed divine ancestry of some kind or another-- that was how they justified and legitimized their rule over their people. And I suppose you're right, there could have been intermarriage between the Germanic tribes and the other cultures which had some relation to the Trojans. But the things Snorri says about Odin and Thor do not at all line up with the mythology (Thor as Odin's father, coming most immediately to mind) and since the Church did respect and accept a certain amount of Greco-Roman mythology as fact and history, tying Norse mythology into those same stories (and the the Trojan war as recorded by Homer is very much a Greek myth -- What the Trojans believed on their end of things, I haven't the foggiest notion) would have given it that same respectability and legitimacy. Certainly what Snorri did was meant to protect the myths and also his own backside from the Church, but it doesn't make it at all accurate as an interpretation.


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