Sunday, April 17, 2022

Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda


Opening Passage: The first two paragraphs of the Prologue, which I think are important in capturing the principles underlying the book's approach to the stories of the Norse gods and heroes:

In the beginning, almighty God created heaven and earth and all that pertains to them. Lastly he created two people, Adam and Eve, and from them came clans, whose descendants multiplied and spread across the whole world. But as time passed, people became dissimilar from one another. Some were good and held to the right beliefs, but the large majority turned to the desires of this world and neglected God's commandments. For this reason God drowned the world and all its living things in a flood, except for those who were on the ark with Noah. After Noah's flood, eight people remained alive, and they inhabited the world and from them are descended the families of man.

Again, as before, when their numbers had grown and they had settled throughout the world, the majority of mankind loved worldly desires and ambition. They abandoned their obedience to God, going so far that they no longer desired to name God. Who then was able to tell their sons about God's wondrous deeds? Thus they lost God's name, and nobody could be found anywhere in the world who knew his maker Nevertheless, God granted men the earthly gifts of wealth and happiness to enable them to enjoy the world. He also gave them the wisdom to understand all earthly things and all the separate parts that could been of the sky and the earth.... (p. 3)

Summary: If there is one thing that strongly suggests that the traditional view, that Snorri Sturluson is the author of The Prose Edda, is right, it's that the structure fits completely with Snorri's taste for a big canvas. The Edda picks the biggest canvas of all: In the beginning, God created the world. He also created human beings, and although they lost knowledge of God their creator, by His providence and mercy they prospered into the great tribes of the world. Over time, because they understand the world better than divine things, people came to the conclusion that the world was a living thing, based on the many analogies between physical features of the world and animals and plants. Slowly they developed the inference that there was a controlling power of the world, of some kind, and under the impetus of these psychological impulses, the different tribes and clans of the world developed languages, each in its own way.

So we have Genesis and philosophy contributing to the framing of our work, but Snorri isn't done yet. The world is divided into three parts, Europe in the west, Asia in the east, and in the middle a place in which all the benefits of both blend, and because of this the people grow wise and skillful beyond all others. At the very heart of this middle realm was the city of Troy. A fantastic realm of twelve kingdoms under a high king, the people of Troy were of heroic quality, having every human excellence to a degree few others can compare. One lineage of these people, that of Munon or Mennon, who was married to Troan, the daughter of High King Priam, is particularly important; Munon had a son, Tror, or, as we call him, Thor, who married Sibyl, also known as Sif, and from them sprang an extraordinary family that passed through the generations until it gave birth to a man named Voden, or as we call him, Odin, a man skilled in every kind of magic and prophecy available to man. Odin was interested in high adventure and intrigued by the opportunities for it that the northern realms seemed to provide, so he and a great many people set off on a journey northward, bringing with them wondrous things that only the people of Troy could make. Wherever they went, other peoples were awed, and the legends of them grew. They settled in a place called Saxland, where they prospered, and among their descendants are the Volsungs. But Odin seems to have been restless; he set out north again, coming to Jutland, or, as it was known then, Reidgotaland; he stayed there a while, and the Skoldungs (i.e., the Scyldings). Finally, and most pertinently to our work, he came to Sweden, where he and his people inhabited a land near the realm of a king named Gylfi. Gylfi became curious of these Asians, or, as his people called him, Aesir, and wished to discover more about them, and from this we get The Prose Edda.

I've spent a bit of time on this Grand Unified Theory of All European Myth and Epic that we find in the Prologue, in part because I think it is essential for understanding a few things about this work that people are sometimes reluctant to recognize. First, it is explicitly a Christian work, and a presents a Christian theory of mythology, in which Christianity is true. But it is also a view in which the pagan myths are not wholly false. There is a core to them that is true, and they trace out a great and noble heritage. However, they are distortions and (as we shall see) in many cases deliberate distortions. And this is important as well. We are given here a euhemeristic account of the major characters of Norse mythology (more than I've explicitly mentioned); it is put forward as straightforwardly true. In the next section of the Edda, the Gylfaginning, we will get an entirely different account of these characters. This is not, as some seem to want it to be, just starting over and giving a different account, as if the Prologue and the Gylfaginning were just two distinct works in one binding. The Prologue looks forward to the Gylfaginning and the Gylfaginning picks up where the Prologue leaves off, with King Gylfi going in disguise (he is also wise in magic, and he takes the pseudonym 'Gangleri') to the stronghold of the Aesir in order to learn more about these new people. But, this is key: the Aesir, having skills far beyond even those of Gylfi, see through his disguise and figure out immediately what he is doing. They hide that fact, and use it to their advantage, conjuring up illusions. For, you see, 'Gylfaginning' means 'The Tricking of Gylfi', and it is in this context of deception that all of the essential elements of Norse mythology are unfolded. The Prose Edda doesn't merely list the elements of Norse mythology, however. The Prose Edda is the story of how the Aesir invented them. The Aesir, the Norse gods, are invented by the Aesir, the extraordinary men skilled in magic, telling lies about themselves in order to seem even more extraordinary.

Through question after question, three men, each with a name associated in poetry with Odin (they are probably just Odin himself presenting himself as three people by illusions), mock Gylfi's wisdom and depict the Aesir as the makers of heaven and earth, people of extraordinary power and wisdom. Gylfi tries to find out if they have any weaknesses, and the three men oblige, but it's always a deliberately unweak weakness. For instance, when Gylfi asks if Thor has ever been overmatched, they tell him the now-famous story of how Thor, Thjalfi, and Loki met the giant Skrymir. Skrymir is able to tie knots the gods are unable to untie; Thor in anger attempts to destroy Skrymir three times with a hammer and fail; they come to a great hall, Utgarda-Loki, and have contests, in which Loki narrowly fails to out-eat Logi (Fire), Thjalfi barely loses a race to Hugi (Thought), and finally Thor attempts to have a drinking contest with a drinking horn, supposedly one the giants can easily drain, that he barely manages to reduce the level of (we later learn that the drinking horn had one end in the sea), attempts to lift a cat and barely is able to arch its back (we later learn that the cat is actually the Midgard serpent wrapped around the world), and is brought to one knee, but only one knee, in a wrestling match with the giantess Elli (Old Age). This is all extremely transparent. You want to know Thor's weakness? He really struggled to do these completely impossible tasks, and only got farther at them than anyone else ever could. Similarly, the account given of Ragnarok does functionally the same thing. What can destroy Odin and the gods? The upending of the entire universe, which only they keep at bay. Best hope that it not come soon. But even then, the power of the Aesir will not be broken.

If we needed more evidence that this was all deliberate deception, beyond the title and the clear attempt to magnify the Aesir as gods, we find that a theme of deception arises throughout the stories. Everything consists of deceptions built on deceptions. And even when telling stories about themselves, the Aesirs present themselves as deceivers, almost as if it is one more way they are mocking Gylfi. In any case, the Gylfaginning tells us this itself. After Gylfi, amazed at what he's 'learned', goes home, the Aesir get together and start renaming places and people so that people will associate them with the stories and think the stories true. All of Norse mythology is the world's most ingenious propaganda campaign.

After the Gylfaginning, we have the Skaldskaparmal (on poetic diction) and Hattatal (on poetic meter). I am speculating a bit more here, but I think we should also recognize these as continuing the theme. We got the truth (in the Prologue), we got the imaginary fiction (in the Gylfaginning), and now we get how we can participate in the imaginary universe of the Norse gods that was made up by the supposed Norse gods themselves. This is a bit revolutionary. The Aesir are presented as having lied, but with their usual extraordinary skill they invented what we might think of as a poetic technology that now anyone with sufficient skill can use; out of their mythmaking we build the language for poetry, which we can structure into poems. Skaldskaparmal reiterates the same pattern we saw in Gylfaginning. Aegir is a man skilled in magic, like Gylfi, and he too comes to Asgard; as with Gylfi, the Aesir know Aegir's number before he even arrives, and as with Gylfi, they welcome him but with a tissue of illusions that magnify their splendor. Aegir sits next to Bragi, and Bragi tells him about skaldship, in the course of which Bragi gives stories for all sorts of famous poetic kennings and metaphors in Norse poetry. In Hattatal, Snorri gives us the patterns and structures for making poems.

My translation only gives selections from Skaldskaparmal and an example or two in an appendix of the discussion in Hattatal; I supplemented it by looking at a few others, but they do very similar things. If the above interpretation is correct, this is a very grave mistake. The Prose Edda is not four distinct works, but four parts of a single integral whole. It's easy to get lost in what the middle sections tells us about Norse myths, but they aren't presented for the sake of presenting the Norse myths. They are put forward as part of the author's attempt to teach us how to use the power poetic technology the Aesir happened to invent while trying to protect themselves and overawe their neighbors. The Prose Edda makes its readers the equals of the Norse gods.

Favorite Passage:

Gangleri then asked, 'What sort of drink do the Einherjar have that lasts them as long as the food? Or is water there?'

High replied, 'That is a strange question. Would All-Father invite kings, jarls [earls], and other men of rank to his all and give them water to drink?...' (p. 48)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, Byock, tr., Penguin Books (New York: 2005).

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