Saxo Grammaticus

views updated Jun 08 2018


SAXO GRAMMATICUS (c. 1150after 1216) was a Danish historian whose writings (Gesta Danorum ) constitute one of the few important early sources on Germanic mythology and religion. Saxo studied in France and later became secretary to the Danish archbishop Absalon, who suggested that he write a history of Denmark. By 1200 he had completed seven books covering the monarchy from Harald II (known as Bluetooth) to Knut IV (a period from c. 9501086.) During the next decade, he wrote nine more books on the mythical traditions of antiquity prior to Harald II. He drew upon all available sources, both oral and written, and wrote excellent Latin, including verse in various classical meters. He was well acquainted with Norse saga traditions, which he had either heard as a boy or learned from Icelandic poets. He wove the legendary material into a continuous narrative, taking liberties as he pleased. Book 3 contains the earliest mention of the Hamlet story.

Saxo's importance is threefold. Much of his material provides corroboration of other mythological documentation, in particular the works of Snorri Sturluson. Furthermore, some of Saxo's material is all that exists on certain topics, because of the loss of original texts. Finally, his legendary tales demonstrate his euhemeristic method of transforming myths into history. A fine example of all three points is the saga of Hadingus (Gesta Danorum 1.58). The main character, Hadingus, is none other than the god Njo̜rđr transformed into a hero. The parallels are striking. Both figures have two relationships with women. The earlier relationship in each case is incestuous (Njo̜rđr with his sister and Hadingus with the giantess Harthgrepa, who had nurtured him as a child). The later relationship for each comes about when the woman uses a special method of selecting her mate (Skađi chooses Njo̜rđr on the basis of his beautiful feet, while Regnilda picks out Hadingus by his legs). In this saga, Saxo corroborates the information provided by Snorri on Njo̜rđr. Like Njo̜rđr, Hadingus is a master of the ocean, having power over the winds and familiarity with the seas. Saxo provides copious detail on how Hadingus acquired this mastery; such detail in respect to Njo̜rđr is completely lacking in other sources. There are many other examples of Saxo's euhemerization of the Norse pantheon, such as his transformation of Freyr to Frothi, Baldr to Balderus, and Skađi to Høtherus. Saxo and Snorri used the same sources, but Snorri's rendition of the old myths is more adept.

See Also

Germanic Religion; Njo̜rðr; Snorri Sturluson.


An English translation of Saxo's Gesta Danorum is Hilda R. Ellis, ed., The History of the Danes, vol. 1 (Cambridge, 1979), translated by Peter Fisher; Fisher and Ellis wrote the commentary that makes up volume 2 (Cambridge, U.K., 1980). A recent collection on Saxo is Carlo Santini, ed., Saxo Grammaticus: Tra storiografia e letteratura (Rome, 1992); see especially the articles by Teresa Paroli, Anatoly Liberman, Mats Malm, Regis Boyer, and Margaret Clunies Ross. See also Karsten Friis-Jensen, Saxo Grammaticus As Latin Poet: Studies in the Verse Passages of the Gesta Danorum (Rome, 1987). Georges Dumézil's From Myth to Fiction: The Saga of Hadingus (Chicago, 1973) is a work on Saxo and his importance for Indo-European myth and religion. Dumézil's Gods of the Ancient Northmen (Berkeley, Calif., 1973), edited by Einar Haugen, contains his tripartite structure of Indo-European religion as reflected in the Germanic branch. Jan de Vries, Altnordische Literaturgeschichte, 2d ed. (2 vols., Berlin, 19641967), contains much useful information on Saxo.

John Weinstock (1987 and 2005)

Saxo Grammaticus

views updated May 21 2018

Saxo Grammaticus a 13th century Danish historian, author of the Gesta Danorum, a partly mythical Latin history of the Danes (which contains the Hamlet story).