Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241) was one of the greatest scholars of the Middle Ages. His fame comes primarily from two great feats of academia, the Heimskringla (History of the Kings of Norway) and The Prose Edda. The Heimskringla was an ambitious text that traced the history of Norway from mythical times up to the reign of King Magnus Erlingsson (r. 1162-1184). More authoritative than the average Icelandic saga, but more eloquent that the typical historical text of his time, the Heimskringla stands as one of the most unique works of the Middle Ages. Whereas the Heimskringla is a huge book, The Prose Edda is a very short and concise work. Yet, once the pages of The Prose Edda are opened and the words are read, the reader immediately understands why this short book became just as renowned as the Heimskringla. The Prose Edda, although small, is the most elaborate collection of Norse mythology known to exist from the Middle Ages. Snorri Sturluson, himself, is equally as deceptive as his handbook of mythology. While his name and works may, at first glance, conjure an image of a robed scholar penning down the legends and tales of his country, he was actually a much more interesting person than that—Snorri Sturluson was a rich, powerful and conniving Icelandic warlord who met a violent death.
Though The Prose Edda is the preeminent source of Norse mythology, Snorri Sturluson was born after Iceland agreed to convert to Christianity at the Althing (parliament/national council of Iceland) in the year 1000. By the time Sturluson likely began writing his Edda in the early 1200s, his country had been officially Christian for more than two hundred years. Nevertheless, the tales, legends and stories of Norse mythology remained a cherished cultural treasure. Snorri Sturluson wrote his Edda to serve as a guide, or handbook, for aspiring skalds and bards who wanted to include Norse mythology in skaldic poetry and song.
Snorri Sturluson wrote in detail about all the Æsir and Vanir (Norse gods), including Odin, Frigg, Thor, Loki, Tyr, Baldr, Freyja and all the rest, but Snorri, himself, did not live a shabby life, either. He was born into the Sturlungar family, a house so powerful that the era he lived in is named Sturlungaöld, the Age of the Sturlungar Family. Snorri was sent from his already powerful family to be raised by an even more influential Icelandic chief named Jon Loptsson. At Loptsson’s Oddi estate, Snorri Sturluson began his studies in history and Norse mythology that he would later immortalize in writing.
After spending sixteen of his childhood and teenage years under Jon Loptsson’s foster care, Snorri Sturluson quickly began to build himself into a man of immense economic and political worth. Around 1200, Snorri married Herdís Bersadóttir, who was one of the wealthiest women in Iceland, which, in turn, made Snorri one of the wealthiest men in Iceland. With their monumental wealth, they made their home in Reykjaholt around 1206, where Snorri began writing most of his literary and historical works.
Besides being a wealthy, landowning Icelandic chief, Snorri Sturluson also rose to the summit of Icelandic politics. He was elected law-speaker of Iceland’s Althing twice (1215 and 1222), the most prestigious political position in the Old Icelandic Free State, and stayed in that office for around thirteen years. He also allied himself to two other Icelandic chiefs, Kolbeinn the Younger and Gissur Thorvaldsson, by marrying the two men to his daughters. Snorri Sturluson’s political acumen, however, was lacking when he began to dabble in the political squabbles of the royal court of the Norwegian King Haakon (or Hákon).
Snorri Sturluson sailed to Norway around 1218 and attempted to make some powerful friends. Besides gathering political allies, Snorri used the opportunity to learn local history, folklore, and poetry, which gave his History of the Kings of Norway more depth. During the trip, he succeeded in gaining the friendship of Earl Skúli Bárdarson, but King Haakon would not offer any aid to Snorri unless the Icelandic chief bound himself in vassalage to Norway. In addition, the king expected Snorri to aid in bringing Iceland under Norwegian control. Snorri Sturluson apparently agreed, in the weakest of platitudes, to become a vassal of Norway, but he returned to Iceland without any intention of doing King Haakon’s bidding.
In the early 1230s, Snorri Sturluson was still reigning supreme in Iceland, but his accumulating wave of success was about to crash into utter chaos. On one hand, the marriages Snorri had arranged with Kolbeinn the Younger and Gissur Thorvaldsson had failed, leaving Sturluson with very few allies and two bitter ex-son-in-laws. Next, King Haakon lost all faith in the status quo of Iceland, so he helped Snorri Sturluson’s nephew, Sturla Sighvatsson, usurp power in 1236, eventually causing Sturluson to flee back to Norway. After spending time in that country, Snorri became homesick. His desire to return home became irrepressible in 1238, for Snorri learned that his rival, Sturla Sighvatsson, was dead. Despite being expressly told by the king not to return to Iceland, Snorri Sturluson refused the direct order and sailed to his home in Reykjaholt. Even worse, before he left Norway, he entangled himself in the nefarious plots of Earl Skúli Bárdarson to remove King Haakon from power, but the plots failed, making Snorri Sturluson not only an inefficient vassal, but also a traitor, in the eyes of King Haakon.
In 1241, Snorri Sturluson’s enemies combined, and his morbid fate was set with as much assurance as the deaths of the Norse gods he wrote about in his Edda. King Haakon, no longer willing to put up with Snorri’s disobedience, ordered for the Icelandic chief to be assassinated. The assassins were none other than Snorri’s former sons-in-law, with Gissur Thorvaldsson being the main leader. A posse of about 60 men found Snorri at his estate in Reykjaholt and broke into his home. Sturluson, approximately sixty-two years old, managed to hide in his cellar, but he was eventually discovered and murdered.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Group, 2005.