The Poetry Behind Snorri Sturluson’s Scandinavian History

 

Any person who enjoys learning about the history and religion of ancient and medieval Northern European countries is heavily indebted to a curious Icelandic chieftain named Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241). Between his schemes for power in Iceland, and his travels to Norway and Sweden for political support, Sturluson somehow managed to write down several books of mythology and history. His treasure-trove of Norse mythology was preserved in The Prose Edda, while his dramatic collection of biographical sagas on centuries of Norwegian kings was collected into the Heimskringla.

Understandably, it took considerable effort for Snorri Sturluson to gather the information required to produce works that, in many ways, still serve as the foundational pieces of Scandinavian studies. The great scholar-chieftain had multiple types of sources. For one, he was an Icelander, so he had easy access to an array of Icelandic sagas that were written before his own life. He also made use of historical texts, such as works of the Icelander, Ari Thorgilsson the Learned (1067-1148), as well as numerous other existent biographies and histories devoted to important figures. In addition, Snorri Sturluson made use of oral tradition, pulling on tales he collected in Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Yet, there was another source of information that Sturluson heavily relied upon. Believe it or not, poetry was one of his greatest assets.

Even though poems written about Scandinavian kings (or any monarchs anywhere) were often overly flattering and grandiosely embellished, Snorri Sturluson deemed them to be full of historical detail. As a poet who had, himself, written verse for kings, Snorri Sturluson believed it was not in the best interest of court poets to overtly lie about the deeds of living rulers. Gilded truth would be rewarded, but baseless lies could be ridiculed. As such, Sturluson believed in the validity of poems that had been produced and recited during the lifetime of their respective royal subjects.

Even though Sturluson’s use of poetry as historical evidence may unnerve many modern historians, it served Snorri Sturluson’s purposes well. Like many ancient and medieval historians, Sturluson’s motivation was not necessarily just to write down the events of the past as they really happened—he was also an entertainer who was willing to sacrifice some historical accuracy for emotion and artistry. Despite all this, his writings preserved for later generations the names, locations, ideas and events of times past that may have otherwise been lost, and did so with enough accuracy to secure him recognition as a vital piece to Scandinavian history.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image of an Icelandic Althing, c. 1904, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • The Prose Edda, by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
  • King Harald’s Saga, by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 2005.

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