Sturluson, Snorri

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Sturluson, Snorri

Sturluson, Snorri (1178-1241) Icelandic mythographer and genealogist

Toward the end of Viking colonial expansion west from Scandinavia into Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland, Snorri Sturluson, a historian, orator, and bard, compiled alliterative myth into the Prose Edda (1225), a repository of pagan culture and wisdom. His work prefigured the role of such antiquarians and romanticists as Sir Walter Scott, the preserver of Scots folklore, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who depicted Iroquois heroism in his epic poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855). Born into a powerful clan of the Icelandic Commonwealth, Sturluson was educated by Jon Lopson, a chief of Norway's royal family at Oddi on the southwestern coast of Iceland. Though he wrote poetry and became famed for it, he was also a lawyer of some importance. By age 38 he had risen to a position of authority during a period of national ambition, venality, and revenge killings, when Norway's King Haakon IV sought to add Iceland to his realm. Sturluson visited Norway from 1218 to 1220, and within two years of his return to Iceland, he had once again become lawspeaker of the Icelandic parliament, a position he held until 1232. Objections to his close relationship with the Norwegian king ignited a period of armed confrontations verging on civil war, with Sturluson pitted against both his own brother and nephew. He returned to Norway to join forces with Haakon, but the king mistrusted him, and after Sturluson returned again to Iceland, Haakon ordered his death for conspiracy. He was killed on September 23, 1241.

As a tribute to Norse power, Sturluson anthologized 16 king stories into the Heimskringla (Orb of the world, 1220), written in Old Icelandic, a branch of Old Norse. Reordering disjointed sagas, the text chronicles the Norse monarchy up to the year 1177, including Halfdan the Old, a raider- king from late fifth-century Denmark who recurs in the folk epic Beowulf (A.D. 800). In heroic style, Halfdan was legendary for seizing in combat a war bride who gave him 18 sons, nine from a single birth. More recognizable as historic figures are Harald I Fairhair (860-940), Haakon I the Good (920-961), and Olaf Tryggvason (964-1000), who introduced Christian beliefs to Viking society.

The Prose Edda, Sturluson’s collection of myths, is a tribute to skaldic or traditional minstrelsy and to the preservation of genealogy, court verse, and a great romantic cycle. Reflecting the politics of his age, the anthology comprises 29 long poems—11 lays about gods and 18 sagas of Germanic heroes. It includes many of the myths and poems of the Poetic Edda, a much older collection of Norse Songs and legends. The ethnographer JACOB GRIMM, in his preface to Deutsche Sagen (German Legends, 1816), praises both Eddas, “whose plan, style and substance breathe the remotest antiquity, whose songs lay hold of the heart” (Grimm 1883, v-vi). Sturluson filled terse lines with muscular verbs and images of natural phenomena and human resolve, as with descriptions of sailing, “The Comber fell headlong o’er me; the main called me home unto it: I accepted not the Sea’s bidding” (Sturluson 1916, 221). Sturluson portrayed the harsh truth of empire in the abasement of the loser: “O Norway’s gracious Signor, grant the wretched, as the happy, may now enjoy thy wise laws; give greatly, hold thy word” (226). Like the Greek tragedians, Sturluson considered his work sacred to the Allfather, who sat on high and viewed mayhem below. Sturluson warned young bards, “Remember always that these old legends are to be used to point a moral or adorn a tale… . Tampering with tradition is a crime against scholarship” (Sturluson 1916, xvii).

In the style of the Hebrew book of GENESIS, Viking cosmology blames the CREATION of woman for earthly strife and human downfall. According to the Poetic Edda, the origin poem “Voluspa” (“The Sibyl’s Prophecy”) describes the curiosity of the omnipotent Odin to know the past and future of the universe. The touchstone of Viking mythology, the text is the word of a female prophetess. As in the Indian Rig Veda (ca. 1200 B.C.), the original Hindu scripture, and the Japanese Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters, A.D. 712), written by the scribe O no Yasumaro, she harkens to a mystic time of nothingness when “Earth was not found, nor Ether- Heaven—a yawning gap, but grass was none” (16). She revisits the hoisting of land from the sea, a manly task that exalts Norse brawn. The creation of the first human couple, Ask and Embla, involves shaping bodies from wood, a holy material honored by tree worshippers. At the center of the new cosmos grows the ash tree Yggdrasil, which shelters the well of fate. The seer looks beyond human empire builders to the Ragnarok (Doom of the gods), a cataclysm of flood and fire when a final earthly battle destroys a pantheon of gods and leaves earth bare for a rebirth. The heroic strivings of humanity in Sturluson’s narrative influenced the collection of Germanic lore by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and the medieval sagas of the Danish-Norwegian novelist SIGRID UNDSET, recipient of the 1928 Nobel Prize for Literature. Edda prototypes suited Hollywood for the films The Vikings (1958), starring Kirk Douglas; The Long Ships (1964), a vehicle for Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier; and 13th Warrior (1999), based on a a retelling by novelist Michael Crichton featuring Antonio Banderas.


Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. Translated by James Steven Stallybrass. London: George Bell & Sons, 1883.

Nejmann, Daisy L. A History of Icelandic Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

Sturluson, Snorri. The Heimskringla; or, Chronicle of the Kings of Norway. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1833.

----- . The Prose Edda. Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1916.