SNORRI STURLUSON (1179–1241) is Iceland's greatest historian. His writings include the Prose Edda and the Heimskringla, which along with the Poetic Edda are the major primary sources for Germanic mythology and religion. Snorri was sent at a young age to a settlement in southern Iceland called Oddi to be fostered by Jón Loptsson, grandson of Sæmund Sigfússon and of Magnus III of Norway. Jón Loptsson was the most powerful chieftain in Iceland at the time, and his farm was a center of learning without equal. Snorri received the best education possible; his power and stature increased, and he was elected law speaker in 1215. After one term, ending in 1218, he journeyed to Norway to visit its rulers, the regent Earl Skúli and the young King Hákon. For several years Snorri traveled widely throughout Norway and Sweden. He thwarted a scheme to force Iceland to submit to Norwegian rule and left Norway in great honor, promising to work for Norway's cause in Iceland. Snorri was re-elected law speaker for three terms (1222–1232), and it was during this period that he found the time to produce his greatest writings. Ever a ruthless and opportunistic leader, Snorri was involved in many disputes, even with his own relatives, and in 1241 he was murdered by one of his enemies.
Upon his return from Norway, Snorri composed the Háttatál (List of Verse Forms), a poem in praise of Earl Skúli and King Hákon that became the final section of a three-part handbook for skaldic poets now known as the Prose Edda. The Háttatál consisted of three poems in 102 stanzas demonstrating possible verse forms for Old Norse skaldic poetry. By itself it would have been difficult for Snorri's contemporaries to understand, despite its explanatory prose commentary, for there were many complicated metaphors with allusions to long-forgotten mythological material. Snorri therefore went on to write a second part (the Skáldskaparmál ) on poetic diction that supplied the rules for the formation of kennings (compound metaphors) and heiti (poetical nouns). Many of the examples of kennings contain mythological information not found elsewhere. Moreover, there is an extensive introduction (the Bragarœður ), according to which the god Ægir, during a visit to Valhǫll, entertained his table companion Bragi with old tales of the gods, including important myths, such as the theft of Iđun's apples, the adventures of Þjazi, and the story of how Óðinn (Odin) obtained the poetic mead.
Since much of this mythological material, too, would have been unfamiliar to the readers of his time (who, like Snorri, were Christians in a country that two centuries earlier had accepted the Christian faith), he prefaced it with an introduction to Norse mythology, the Gylfaginning (The deluding of Gylfi). In this section he presents Gylfi, a fictional Swedish king who, disguised as an old wanderer, travels to Ásgarđr to find out about the ancient pagan gods and meets Óðinn, also in disguise, who answers his questions. Óðinn describes the Norse mythological world from its beginning to its end in the Ragnarǫk (the destruction of the cosmos and its rebirth), noting important facts about the various gods, Valhǫll, Yggdrasill (the cosmic tree), and more. It was presumably Snorri who also wrote a prologue with a euhemeristic derivation of the Norse gods as kings descended from King Priam of Troy. As sources, Snorri used Eddic and skaldic poetry and oral tradition.
Snorri then proceeded to compose the Heimskringla (Orb of the world), his monumental history of the Norwegian kings from their mythical origins through Magnús V Erlingsson (r. 1162–1184). The first part, the Ynglingasaga, traces the origins of the kings back to their mythical ancestor Yngvifreyr, and before him to Njǫrđr and ultimately Óðinn. The purpose of the Ynglingasaga was to provide a meaningful connection between the traditional and Christian periods and to provide the Norwegian kings with an illustrious ancestry that confirmed their sacred right and ability to govern. As a source on Norse mythology, the Ynglingasaga is the most important of the Heimskringla sagas, though others contain mythological material as well.
Snorri's Prose Edda is available in full in The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from the Norse Mythology (Berkeley, Calif., 1992), translated by Jean I. Young. See also Edda: Prolog of Gylfaginning (Oxford, U.K., 1982), edited by Anthony Faulkes; Edda: Skáldskaparmál (2 vols., London, 1988), edited by Anthony Faulkes; Edda: Háttartál (Oxford, U.K., 1991), edited by Anthony Faulkes; and Snorri Sturluson, Edda (London, 1987), translated by Anthony Faulkes. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway (Austin, Tex., 1964), by Snorri Sturluson, translated with introduction and notes by Lee M. Hollander, is an excellent English translation of Snorri's work on Norwegian kings. Secondary literature includes Hans Fix, ed. Snorri Sturluson: Beiträge zu Werk und Rezeption (Berlin, 1998); Stefanie von Schnurbein "The Function of Loki in Snorri Sturluson's Edda," History of Religions 40 (November 2000), 109–124; John Lindow, "Loki and Skađi," in Snorrastefna (Reykjavík, 1990), edited by Úlfar Bragason; Thomas A. DuBois, Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (Philadelphia, 1999); and Frederic Amory, review of Skáldskaparmál: Snorri Sturluson's Ars Poetica and Medieval Theories of Language, by Margaret Clunies Ross, Scandinavian Studies 62 (Summer, 1990), 331–339. In addition, Marlene Ciklamini has published two useful works on Snorri: Snorri Sturluson (Boston, 1978), and "Ynglinga Saga: Its Function and Its Appeal," Mediaeval Scandinavia 8 (1975): 86–99.
John Weinstock (1987 and 2005)
The Icelandic statesman Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) was his country's most renowned historian. Although some might with justice question his accuracy, few would deny that he was a literary genius creatively writing from the viewpoint of his own times.
The life of Snorri Sturluson was as eventful as the lives of the Norse heroes about whom he wrote. The son of a chieftain in the western fjords, he was brought up by the powerful chief Jon Lofstsson, who awakened in him an interest in poetry and history. Two successful marriages gave prestige and wealth. Ambitious and a shrewd politician, he twice became president of the Legislative Assembly and as such was the supreme magistrate in Iceland. At times he could be passionate, mean, and untrustworthy if judged by modern standards rather than Viking standards. He was not so bloodthirsty and cruel as his opponents, and his political victories were not marked by maimings and killings.
Snorri traveled twice to Norway: once to avert a Norwegian military expedition to Iceland, and a second time to escape capture and perhaps death at the hands of his brother Sighvatr and his nephew Sturla. With the defeat of his enemies, he returned to Iceland hoping to regain political power but was killed at his estate at Reykholt by his sonin-law Gissur Thorvaldson, who was acting as the agent of the Norwegian king Haakon IV (the Old). He died on Sept. 22, 1241, an Icelandic patriot. By 1262 Iceland had become a tributary to the Norwegian crown.
His writings rather than Viking deeds and intrigue make Snorri one of the most important figures in Scandinavian history. More than any other person, he preserved the knowledge of the skalds and their poetry. He used them extensively in his histories, and the second part of his Prose Edda is a catalog of kennings, whose use in poetry is illustrated by examples. The Heimskringla (Sagas of the Norwegian Kings) shows him as both poet and historian. A highly creative literary genius, he brings the work to a climax in the Saga of St. Olaf. In addition he was probably the author of Egil's Saga, which is the story of a renowned 10th-century Icelandic Viking poet who fought as a mercenary in Norway.
Snorri was a key figure culminating the Icelandic renaissance. The Heimskringla, a work of unique literary achievement, is the single most important source for events that transpired in Norway from the 6th to the late 12th century.
Most of the editions of the writings of Snorri contain extensive introductions dealing with his life. The Prose Edda, translated by Jean I. Young (1966), and the Heimskringla, translated by Samuel Laing (rev. ed., 3 vols., 1906), are excellent. Peter Hallberg, The Icelandic Sagas (trans. 1962), adds much information on Snorri's life and times. □