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Life and works of Snorri Sturluson

by Jónas Kristjánsson

 

 

Snorri Sturluson was born at Hvammur in the Dalir region in 1179 (rather than 1178). His father, Sturla Ţórđarson , was of high birth; he had a reputation for aggression, and acquired his wealth by means of disputes and conflicts with other magnates. His story is told in one of the sagas in Sturlunga saga, a reliable historical source but of no great literary merit. Near the end of the saga, an account is given of Sturla's dispute over an inheritance with Father Páll Sölvason of Reykholt. At a meeting of negotiation between them in the autumn of 1180, Ţorbjörg, Páll's wife, came towards them "and had a knife in her hand and stabbed at Sturla towards his eye and said this: "Why should I not make you like the one you most wish to resemble, which is Óđinn?" And at that she was seized and the thrust was stopped and caught his cheek, making a great wound." Sturla demanded enormous compensation for the injury, while Father Páll sought the support of Jón Loftsson of Oddi, Iceland's greatest magnate at that time. At the Alţingi (general assembly) Jón compelled Sturla to accept a settlement, and to reduce his demands. In order to ensure that the settlement would be observed, Jón offered to foster Sturla's son, Snorri, and he was taken to Oddi by his father at the age of three.

 

Oddi had been one of Iceland's primary cultural centres ever since the time of Sćmundur the Wise, Jón's paternal grandfather, and so this dispute was highly fortunate for Icelandic literature, since it led to Snorri growing up at this educational centre. In the early days of Christianity in Iceland, the church was under the ages of secular powers; many magnates were also trained for the priesthood, and hence foreign and Icelandic cultural traditions were brought together. Jón Loftsson had been ordained as a deacon, as were several of his sons, all of whom were older than Snorri; one of them, Páll Jónsson, became Bishop of Skálholt (1195-1211).

 

But by the time Snorri was growing up at Oddi, the separation of secular and ecclesiastical power had begun, on the European model. Bishop Ţorlákur Ţórhallsson campaigned for the autonomy of the church, and shortly before 1200 secular magnates were prohibited from taking holy orders. This may have been the reason why Snorri was never ordained, as his allies and relatives envisaged a future of worldly power for him. But there can be little doubt that at Oddi he learned Latin and theological studies, as well as becoming familiar with ancient poetry and epics, and reading Icelandic sagas and other national literature.

 

When Snorri was nineteen, his foster-brother Sćmundur and his brother Ţórđur arranged a marriage for him with Herdís, the only daughter of Father Bersi the Wealthy of Borg in Mýrar. Initially they lived at Oddi, but after the death of Bersi in 1202 Snorri took over the estate of Borg as his heir. With his wealth, he acquired secular power. He inherited the gođorđ (chieftainship) of Mýrar from Bersi, and in subsequent years increased his power by acquiring several more chieftainships. In around 1206 he moved to Reykholt. "And he became a great magnate, and did not lack money," says his nephew, Sturla Ţórđarson, in Islendinga saga. Snorri was Law Speaker at Alţingi in 1215-18 and 1222-31 or perhaps until 1235. "He became an excellent poet and was skilled in all he undertook, and had excellent order in all that had to be done," says Sturla. "He composed a poem about Earl Hákon galinn, and the earl sent gifts in return, a sword and a shield and a coat of mail."

 

But his domestic life was not without problems, and his worldly success proved transient. We may say that he had a number of the faults that he describes so well in some of his characters, and that his own actions contributed to some degree to his downfall. His marriage to Herdis was not a happy one, and he left her behind when he moved to Reykholt. He was, according to Sturla, "promiscuous, and had children by other women than Herdís." He had two children by Herdis who survived to adulthood, and three by other women. But after this period of libertinage he settled down into a new marriage in 1224 with Hallveig Ormsdóttir, who was, according to Sturla, "the richest woman in Iceland." This relationship, contracted as a mariage de conveniance, appears to have been entirely successful. Hallveig died in the summer of 1241, "and Snorri felt that it was a considerable loss to him." But he did not live to mourn her for long.

 

He was no more fortunate with his children than with women. He lost his favourite son, Jón murtur, a promising young man, who died tragically. He was left with another son, Órćkja, who proved most unruly, and three daughters. In order to reinforce his power base, he married his daughters to magnates of Iceland's most powerful clans. Snorri thus appeared to be in a very strong position due to his family ties, but some discerned the faults in his planning. Snorri's kinsman Sturla Bárđarson likened his alliances to those of King Hrólfur kraki, who according to legend was killed in battle against his sister and brother-in-law. This prophecy came tragically true when two of Snorri's former sons-in-law participated in the conspiracy against his life.

 

Snorri's character reveals contradictory facets that enable him to describe people of all kinds, and to view events from differing viewpoints. The diligence of Egill's father, Skallagrimur, reflects his own zeal, skill and good management. In Egill his poetical skills appear "without blemish," as well as the covetousness which was to prove his own downfall. In St. Olaf we see his authoritarianism and generosity, and also his Christian philosophy that developed as he grew older. In Einar Ţverćingur, who defended Iceland against the ambitions of the Norwegian king (later Saint) Olaf, Snorri articulates a feeling for Icelandic independence. Ironically enough, Snorri, who recorded this impassioned defence of Iceland for posterity, was the first Icelander who undertook to represent the interests of a Norwegian king in Iceland. In his early years he took part in armed combat, but never again. He invariably avoided such conflict, and successfully - except the last time. It is clear that his nephew Sturla attributes this to cowardice, probably reflecting the judgement of his contemporaries. But it is equally possible that Snorri's unmartial behaviour was an expression of a civilised man's distaste for violence and bloodshed.

 

In the summer of 1218 Snorri sailed to Norway. Hákon Hákonarson had recently succeeded to the throne, aged only 14, and Earl Skúli Bárđarson ruled with him. "The earl took Snorri very well and he went to the earl. . . Snorri spent the winter with the earl." The king and the earl honoured him in various ways, making him first a squire and then a liegeman. When Snorri returned home to Iceland two years later, the earl gave him the ship on which he sailed, and another fifteen generous gifts. Snorri had composed two poems about the earl which are now mostly lost; and on his return to Iceland he composed a poem of over a hundred stanzas about both earl and king. Preserved as the last part of Snorri's Edda, the poem is known as Háttatal ("Enumeration of metres"), as each stanza is in a different metre or form. He completed this huge poem in the winter of 1222-1223. Although Snorri's honours were nominally bestowed by both king and earl, the earl was de facto ruler in the young king's name, and it was with the earl, his contemporary, that Snorri established links that would lead both to their deaths.

 

Before and during his journey to Norway, Snorri had composed several poems which are now lost, and many people feel that this is no great loss, as Snorri's gift was not for poetry. But he is remembered for his prose works, and he is believed to have begun work on them soon after his return home. The general consensus has been that he wrote his Edda first - placing the Háttatal at the end - then Egils saga and finally Heimskringla. All these works reveal such familiarity with Norwegian geography that the author must almost certainly have spent time in Norway. The order in which the works were written is, however, far from certain. The present author believes he has covincingly argued that that Egils saga was written later than Heimskringla - or at least later than the first part of it.

 

In the summer of 1236, Sturla Sighvatsson, Snorri's nephew, led an armed force against him at Reykholt. In keeping with his pacific nature and in view of his relationship to Sturla, Snorri fled to Nes, and the following summer he went to Norway once more. Earl Skúli and King Hákon, now an adult, were at daggers drawn. Mediators persuaded them to make peace; Hákon received the hand of Skúli's daughter in marriage, and gave him the title of duke, but this was not enough. Snorri spent another two winters in Norway, the first with Skúli's son Pétur, the other with the duke himself. Before Snorri left for home, the duke dubbed him earl in the presence of several witnesses, but the event was not made public.

 

War was clearly on the way in Norway, and the king naturally suspected Snorri's motives. He forbade Snorri to leave Norway; in this he was within his rights, as Snorri's liege lord. When Snorri received the news, he simply said "I want to go," and sailed immediately. He had every reason to do so; during the summer, Sturla Sighvatsson had been killed in the battle of Örlygsstađir, together with his father (Snorri's brother) and three of his brothers. There was no longer anything to prevent Snorri returning home and resuming his powers and control of his estates.

 

Soon after this, Skúli was elected king at the assembly of Trondheim, and civil war broke out in Norway. For a long time, it was not clear who would be victorious, king or earl. In the spring Duke Skúli advanced south to Bergen, and King Hákon fled east to Oslo, where the crucial battle was fought in the summer of 1240. Hákon, with royal daring and youthful energy, was the victor. Skúli fled into outlawry, and remained in hiding during the winter. In the spring he was slain by royal followers outside the monastery of Helgisetur.

 

Much may be inferred from this account that is not directly stated. Skúli dubs Snorri earl just before he initiates his rebellion. The intention must have been that Snorri would be one of Skúli's supporters in Norway, or, more probably, that he would represent Skúli's interests in Iceland as earl - just as Gissur Ţorvaldsson was later appointed earl by King Hákon. All this and more must have been known to Hákon. In a letter to his follower, Gissur Ţorvaldsson, he called Snorri "a traitor to him" for breaking his bond of allegiance. The king instructed Gissur to ensure that Snorri returned to Norway, willingly or unwillingly, or otherwise to kill him. Gissur did not vacillate, and had Snorri executed at his home in Reykholt on a dark autumn night of 1241. Ironically enough, before his death Snorri had, in his histories, created the most durable memorial to the Norwegian kings that any royal house has ever received.

 

Heimskringla

Snorri Sturluson's history of the kings of Norway has come to be known as Heimskringla (the orb of the  World), from the first sentence of Ynglinga saga: "The orb of the world that is inhabited by men has a deeply indented coastline." The book begins with legendary Swedish kings, after which the clan moves to Norway. The story becomes more historical with Halfdan the Black and his son, the conquering hero Harald Fairhair. Each king has his own saga, in chronological order, while the longest and most detailed of the sagas is that of the canonised King Olaf Haraldsson, who was the primary saint of the Nordic world.

 

In a foreword, Snorri makes some reference to his sources. The only historian he mentions is Ari the Wise, author of Íslendingabók (the Book of Icelanders), a history of Iceland's earliest centuries. Other than this, he places the most trust in the court poets, as these are contemporary sources. "It is the way of poets to praise most highly the person they are with," says Snorri. "But the poet would not dare to speak to the person himself of achievements that all those present knew were inventions and lies, and he himself also. For that would be satire, not praise."

 

Many of the sources used by Snorri have survived, some of them only in later versions than those available to him. His handling of these sources varies greatly. When he feels that the accounts he has are acceptable, he makes little or no change; but it is remarkable to see how he can, when necessary, endow lifeless material with vitality. The most interesting comparisons can be made with the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason by Oddur Snorrason, a monk at the Ţingeyrar monastery, the Helgisaga (Hagiography) of St. Olaf, and finally Morkinskinna, which tells of the kings after Olaf, especially his son Magnus the Good and his brother Harald the Hard Ruler.

 

Although Snorri remoulded older sources in order to bring them to life, he was also a more critical scholar than the authors of the older sagas. Such was the power of Heimskringla that the older sagas were often neglected and lost afterwards; and in cases where Snorri used a part of a saga, his version has sometimes subsequently been inserted into the original, such as part of Orkneyinga saga and Fćreyinga saga. For this reason, much remains unclear about Snorri's methods.

 

What is it, then, that makes him so superior to the other authors of sagas of kings? The magic of good literature will always remain intangible, but several factors are worth mentioning. Snorri is a realist, as may be seen in his unflinching rejection of hagiographical accounts of the lives of Norway's missionary kings, Olaf Tryggvason and St. Olaf Haraldsson. He has an outstanding talent for drama, depicting a large cast of clearly-defined characters, presenting living personalities, and putting forward powerful opponents in absolute symmetry, and explaining both causes and consequences. Due to this powerful realism, proximity to the characters of the story, and the logical progression of events, we cannot help finding Heimskringla more credible than other sagas of the kings. Snorri's creative and critical skills become one when he, so to speak, becomes the character he presents.

 

Let us take a single example: Olaf Haraldsson has been driven from the country by the aggression of landowners. He gathers forces in Sweden, then returns to reclaim his kingdom. Before long, he will rise from the bloodbath of Stiklarstađir a saint; before the battle, Snorri has a Danish bishop deliver a electrifying speech, in which he recounts King Olaf's acts of violence in his lifetime. "What citizen is here," asks the bishop, "who does not have an injury to avenge? Now he leads a foreign army, mostly outlaws or other ruffians. Do you think he will take mercy on you now, when he has such villains as his followers, if you consider the acts of war he perpetrated when all his followers tried to discourage him? Now we must go against them and cut down this rabble to be eaten by eagles and wolves, and leave the corpses lying where they are slain, unless you prefer to drag their carcasses to rocky places." After Bishop Sigurd has spoken, the reader is convinced that only a martyr's death can salvage the reputation of this luckless tyrant.

 

From a pedantic modern viewpoint, Snorri's historical methodology is not above criticism. He rarely seeks social explanations, generally attributing events to human factors. He does not hesitate to alter the sources in conformity with his own ideas, or even write whole new sections in order to explain the context and imbue the narrative with life. But by the standards of his time, this was the correct approach to history - and it has much to recommend it. Together with his creative vision and narrative skill, Snorri has a critical approach to sources, and a logical approach to historical processes.

 

Heimskringla has been published repeatedly in Norwegian translation, and has become a national "Bible" to the Norwegians. It played an important role in the nationalist awakening of the 19th and 20th centuries, in the same way as the Icelandic movement for freedom and independence drew inspiration from the Sagas of Icelanders. It was thanks to Snorri, more than any other individual, that Norway became an independent nation. After five centuries of foreign rule, they acquired a new king. When he ascended the throne, he took the name of the very king that had, centuries before, ordered the death of the scholarly magnate at Reykholt.

 

Egils saga

The saga of Egill is based upon old poetry composed by the tenth-century poet Egill Skallagrímsson, the leading poet of his time. It is also highly probable that various oral traditions, relating to some degree to his poetry, had survived about this warrior poet. In Egils saga the subject is approached in a manner both scholarly and poetic: information and art, realism and fantasy, maintain a delicate balance. In this sense, Egils saga has much in common with Heimskringla, and indeed it has long been believed that both were written by Snorri. Many shared features have been cited in style and vocabulary, and both works display the same characteristic of the author to take a broad view and to adopt different personalities, the same dramatic talent, the same ability to present strong contrasts, and to see both sides of a question.

 

For example, when the sons of Hildiríđur slander the splendid magnate Ţórólfur Kveldúlfsson, "popular among all men," they make their case so cleverly that the reader cannot help feeling suspicion - just as King Harald Fairhair of Norway does. Compelled by circumstance, Ţórólfur grows more and more ambitious, until his inevitable defeat at the hands of the powerful absolute monarch of Norway.

 

Another example: Egill has found himself at odds with King Erik Blood-axe, humiliated him publicly by means of a "shame-pole," and killed his son. Erik is forced out of Norway and flees to England, where he reigns at York with his queen, Gunnhild. They are accompanied by the lord Arinbjörn, an old friend and benefactor of Egill. Under a spell cast by Gunnhild, Egill is brought to York by a storm, and has no option but to give himself up to his enemies. Gunnhild incites Erik to kill Egill, and harshly recounts his misdeeds. Arinbjörn defends his friend with great forensic skill, but finally ceases his attempts at pacification, and resorts to threat: "Nobody will think the more of Erik for killing one foreign farmer's son, who is in his power, and if he boasts of this I can promise that these events will be regarded as more newsworthy, for Egill and I shall stand together and both of us must be dealt with together. Egill's life will be costly to the king, by the time we are all slain, my followers and I." During the night, Egill composes the poem Höfuđlausn (Head-ransom), and recites it the following day. Erik can now, without humiliation, pardon his life. The reader, however, may wonder whether it was the quality of the poetry, or fear of Arinbjörn's threat, that did the trick.

 

Egill Skallagrímsson is the most extreme and spectacular character portrayed in the Icelandic sagas. He resembles his father and paternal grandfather physically; he is large, ugly, and goes bald at an early age. He also owes his ferocious character and battle frenzy to them. But beneath his rough exterior beats the noble heart of his uncle Ţórólfur, slain by King Harald Fairhair, and his brother of the same name, killed in the army of King Athelstan. He is possessed by an urge to travel and see the world. He dreams of the excellent woman who was married to Ţórólfur - and wins her at last. Óđinn bestows on him the gift of poetry to soothe his grief at the deaths of his brother and sons. Egill is an extraordinary mixture of divine inspiration, human sensitivity and barbarism. Only Snorri Sturluson could have made his hero into such a monster, yet portray him as the most memorable of all heroes.

 

 

Snorra Edda

The Edda, known as Snorra Edda, is generally believed to be the oldest of Snorri's writings. It is the only one of his works that can be dated with some accuracy. On his return from Norway in 1220, he composed a poem in praise of King Hákon and Earl Skúli, as mentioned above - 102 stanzas in 100 different styles or metres. This poem is called Háttatal. It is based upon Háttalykill (Key to Metres) by Hallur Ţórarinsson and Rognvald Earl of Orkney, but Snorri's poem includes more forms, and is more completely systematized. The poem is accompanied by annotations such as those in medieval Latin grammars. To modern eyes, the poetry is superficial and its content meagre; naturally enough, since the poet's primaryaim was to illustrate poetic forms.

 

The Háttatal is probably the oldest section of the Edda, to which Snorri added the other two parts. In Gylfaginning he recounts the heathen mythology required in order to understand the symbolic language of scaldic poetry, dróttkvćđi, but is carried away by his storytelling zeal into telling various other stories which are not strictly necessary. In Skáldskaparmál, Snorri then discusses the metaphorical references used in poetry, to some extent drawn from the mythology explained in Gylfaginning. He also adds, as required, various other stories, and illustrates his theories liberally with quotations from old poetry.

 

Snorri's Edda begins with a foreword which is redolent of foreign scholarship. It is for instance stated that Ćsir (the race of gods) were "men from Asia," mortal chieftains who had come from Asia, led by Óđinn, and settled in the Nordic world. The concept of the human origin of the gods derives from the Ancient Greeks, attributed to the philosopher Euhemeros, who believed that the Olympian gods had originally been mortals.

 

Gylfaginning (the deception of Gylfi) tells of a king in Sweden named Gylfi who journeyed to the home of the gods, Ásgarđur, to learn from them, disguising himself and calling himself Gangleri (the travel-weary). In Valhalla he is brought before three kings seated on thrones which are progressively higher: the lowest is called Hár (High), the second Jafnhár (Equally High) and the third Ţriđji (Third), all of which are alternative names for Óđinn; the heathen high god thus appears in the guise of the Holy Trinity. Gylfi poses questions to the kings on various matters and events in the world of gods, and the three easily answer all. The interlocutory form is drawn from the scholarly works of the middle ages, in which the disciple asks, and the master answers; but it is also reminiscent of the eddic poems Valţrúđnismál and Grímnismál, in which information of a similar nature is presented in question-and-answer form. Snorri's principal source on mythology is, however, Völuspá, and he also sometimes draws upon other poetry than these three works, occasionally including works that are now lost. It must be assumed that he was also familiar with myths recounted in prose form; the brilliant story of Ţór's visit to Útgarđa-Loki, for instance, is not supported by any quotations from poetry.

 

Snorri employs the interlocutory form for two purposes: he makes the narrative into a play, while also distancing himself, as a Christian, from responsibility for recounting such heathen superstitions. All is a performance, an illusion, the deception of King Gylfi. It transpires that his instructors are mere mortals, playing the parts of gods, and at the end of the tale Gylfi stands alone in the wilderness, with no palace or city in sight.

 

Snorri's original intention appears to have been to write Skáldskaparmál as an instructive dialogue between the gods Ćgir and Bragi. But the subject material was not suited to the form, and these two characters are soon forgotten, although the question-and-answer form lasts rather longer. Snorri here explains the language of poetry, the complex system of periphrastic naming by allusion (kenning). This is the crucial part of the Edda as a textbook in poetry, which was subsequently most used by poets as a work of reference. But Skáldskaparmál is also of value for the mythical and heroic legends it recounts. Many verses, and even whole poems, such as Ţórsdrápa and Gróttasöngur, are preserved only here. And while Háttatal perhaps demonstrates that Snorri was no great poet, he handsomely compensates for the lack by collecting and preserving an excellent selection of old Icelandic poetry in his Edda.

 

Snorri's Edda is a complex work. Its purpose is to serve as a work of reference on Icelandic poetry, and for centuries it was used as a handbook by Icelandic poets. But the modern reader, who is less interested in the complexities of verse forms, is primarily drawn to Snorri's accounts of ancient gods and heroes. He treats his sources, perhaps, with a freer hand than some critics would wish. Yet Snorri has shaped all perceptions of the old heathen religion, by virtue of his own skill as a storyteller. And readers of all ages will continue to enjoy these tales, which combine a childlike simplicity with sophisticated thought; while humorous and witty, they are both informative and insightful.

 

Translation: Anna Yates