A couple of days ago, I wrote about the Hobbit and mentioned that Norse mythology was a huge source of inspiration for Tolkien. Today I am celebrating the life of the author of one of those sources: Snorri Sturluson. He died on this day in 1241. Actually, he was killed in a cellar on the orders of a king who he had once written a fine poem about, but, as that’s clearly not brilliant, I’ll leave that aside.
In the 1220s Snorri wrote a book about Icelandic myths called the Prose Edda. It was intended to explain the meaning of ancient Icelandic tales about their Pagan gods. These tales can be found in an earlier book by another author, which is referred to as the Poetic Edda. The stories of the Poetic Edda are full of metaphors and allusions that we couldn’t hope to understand without Snorri’s explanations. At the time that he wrote his book, Christianity had really taken over as the major religion in his country and people were beginning to forget about the old stories and what they meant. Every line of verse, every name was full of meaning and Snorri didn’t want them to be lost forever.
The preachers of the new Christian religion were not interested in the old ways. More than that, they wanted them gone forever. Any books found about the old religion were considered threatening to the doctrines of the church and were burned, any of it’s followers would be burned too. You’d think that the Christians could have learned something about what it was like to be persecuted for you beliefs and been a bit nicer about it. Sadly though, it seems to be a thing that the more fanatical believers of an evangelising religion never learn. The Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda are the only survivors from this period of Icelandic history . The Poetic Edda survived as a single copy, referred to as the Codex Regius, which came to light in 1643. It’s contents had been considered so inflammatory that it was hidden away for around 400 years before anyone dared show it to a member of the clergy. Snorri’s Prose Edda survived for a different reason. He presented it as a historical work rather than a fictional one. He began with a prologue explaining that belief in the Old Gods was rooted in ancestor worship. He said that the Norse Gods had originally been human. That they were Trojan warriors who had left Troy to settle in northern Europe where they were revered because of their superior culture. That remembrance ceremonies at their burial sites had eventually become cults and the warriors had then become remembered as gods. The Christians were fine with the stories if they were looked at from this point of view. They could handle pre-Christian history, just not pre-Christian religion.
Snorri’s book is therefore a tool to help people study and understand the legends. Or, as he says: “ I wrote this book so that young students of poetry might understand that which is hidden in runes.” He wanted to keep his country’s poetic tradition alive and in doing so has given a great gift to later generations. Without his work the meanings of the stories in the Poetic Edda would be lost to us.
Many legends of the Norse gods are found only in these two works. We found a great story about how Odin managed to acquire the Mead of Inspiration from some giants. The mead was made by dwarves from the blood of a very wise, half Trojan god called Kvasir which they mixed with honey. To get it, Odin had to transform himself into a snake, back into a god, spend three nights of passion with a lady giant, drink the wine, then transform himself into an eagle and fly away. He then vomited up the wine into some cups that the other gods had waiting for him. But some of the mead spilled out and it is from the spilled mead that poets gain their inspiration. That’s a pretty wild story. I’ve had an interesting day learning a bit about the Eddas, this morning all I knew about Icelandic Sagas came from this Monty Python sketch