Welcome back, History fans! I hope you enjoyed your visit to Nazi Germany. But today, we are traveling way, way back… TO THE BEGINNING OF THE COSMOS!!!!
Okay, not really that far back. But I want to discuss some Norse Mythology. More accurately I want to explore how the mythology made its way to us today, how it was shaped, written, changed, and evaluated. Because as you should now know, the Christian Icelanders were the ones who wrote down all of the oral histories. And, if you read History Books closely, we know from Dave Buckler’s eloquent post that our worldview will shape our discoveries. The same is true with our Icelandic writers in the 13th century.
Over the past few weeks I have been reading John Lindow’s book that is simply titled, Norse Mythology. It is essentially an encyclopedia of the names and objects found throughout the mythology. But what I found most intriguing was his introduction that dropped bomb on how we understand history: euhemerism. But before we start dissecting this word and its meanings and implications, I think it is important to look at how we got our information on the Old Norse religion. “But why?” you might be asking, if in fact anyone is reading this. I’ll tell you why!
Taken at face value, the gods and the stories of their misadventures are simply that: delightful and fun stories that may or may not serve a purpose to teach a lesson or explain how things came into being. Reading into them, however, you can build a decent platform from which you can see the Viking worldview. A quick example: in the mythology, the gods obtain many precious objects, as well as invaluable concepts, from the dwarves and the giants, simply by taking them. Or, as we see with Thor, killing and then taking. The mead of poetry—stolen from the giants by Odin. Sif’s headpiece—taken from the dwarves by Loki. And so you can kind of see this ingrained belief that it is not only permissible to take valuables from others, but it is straight up honorable! If you transplant this into the Viking Age, maybe you can see how the Vikings did not see themselves as ruthless pirates, but rather honorable warriors who were living out the old stories in real life! Taking valuables from chumps! Pretty neat, huh?
We get our information on the Norse gods from a handful of sources. The two most relevant are the Poetic Edda, and the Prose Edda, the latter written by all around badass, Snorri Struluston. These two important works are confirmed by fragments of poetry and references in the sagas throughout Medieval Scandinavian literature. The Poetic Edda is a collection of eddic poems which describe the exploits of Odin, Thor, and all the wonderful characters in the mythology. More importantly, it contains the poem Voluspa, which describes the CREATION OF THE COSMOS!!! Snorri’s work is more or less a textbook on how to tackle the extremely difficult task of writing and speaking in eddic poetry. He describes the myths not as explanations or as a religious tract. Instead, he is simply citing the old stories as references for how to write and speak in the poetry of the celebrated skalds, or old poets.
In his Prose Edda, Snorri makes sure to let us know that while he is giving information on the old religion, he himself now follows Christ. It is astounding to see a Christian author write with such reverence about the old gods and the old abandoned religion—a point that I am sure I’ve mentioned more times than people care to hear. But Snorri has one other great work attributed to his name, Heimskringla (History of the Kings of Norway), and in it he yanks us all around by our proverbial dicks.
I don’t really think that learning about Snorri’s life will help us better understand his writing. But who knows! Snorri lived, wrote, and died in the tumultuous 13th century in Iceland where he was one of the wealthiest and most respected men of the time. He was elected as law speaker at the Althing multiple times. He was a chieftain who grew wealthy by serving his thingmen and by really manipulating the law in courts. Kind of a shrewd asshole, Snorri found himself a target of those he went up against in court. Eventually he found his way to Norway, where he developed a close relationship with an earl and even the King himself. The King of Norway wanted to use Snorri’s power and reputation to help bring Iceland under Norwegian rule for good. Snorri said yes but either got cold feet or never meant to help. He went back to Iceland where he continued his life, somewhere in there writing the two masterpieces that we have today. He was then murdered by some of his kinsmen at the request of the King of Norway.
Did his indecisiveness at the end of his life leak out of his pen onto the parchment? I highly doubt it. But maybe it is a good explanation for the road he goes down in his work, Heimskringla. In the first chapter, the famous The Saga of the Ynglings, Snorri introduces Odin, Njord, Frey, and Freyja as mortal humans. Why the heck would he do this? We all know he wrote the Prose Edda, in which he explains to us that these were the gods of his ancestors. What does it mean? Lindow’s explanation is one of justification.
Snorri partakes in the most interesting of concepts: euhemerism. Named after the Greek philosopher Euhemerous, the word is in reference to gods ascending from humans. In Heimskringla, Snorri paints Odin as a man with extraordinary powers. He was undefeated in battle and was therefore considered indestructible and his name was called upon by warriors on the battlefield. He could perform magic and use the runes to do his will. But he was a human, nonetheless. And Snorri describes his funeral. Njord and Frey also have superhuman powers attributed to them that explain how people could THINK that they were gods. They, too, meet their mortal ends here on Earth.
Is Snorri justifying how his ancestors were hoodwinked into believing these ludicrous stories? Is he embarrassed? Why then would he write something like the Prose Edda. Lindow argues that even in the Edda, Snorri again uses this method of euhemerism! What?! It’s been a couple years since I’ve read that masterpiece, so I’d need to go back through and seek out this tragedy. Does this tarnish our reputation of Snorri and his wonderful works? I don’t think so. We have enough information to know most of the whole story about which gods were worshipped, and for some, how they were worshipped. Snorri’s dangerous walk down euhemerism is a wonder because he’s not totally sold on it. His work in the Prose Edda proves that he is familiar with the background, and he doesn’t go to the same trouble trying to historify (I made this word up) the myths.
My opinion of Snorri hasn’t wavered. I still think he is a bad ass. What concerns me though is the idea of euhemerism. Where else does it occur? Of course my thoughts immediately go to the Bible. Here we have another religious text written down years after the events occurred. Yet, the intentions would be different. Snorri wanted to excuse his ancestors. He was a believer in Christ. But the Scandinavian culture held family ties and ancestors in extremely high regard. Snorri, who was proud of his ties to Egil Skallagrimsson, wanted to display his belief in Christianity and to exonerate his ancestors. Perhaps this method of euhemerism was his best answer: to squeeze the gods into an actual history and explain how people would have been brought into that false religion.
The authors of the Bible, on the other hand, would want to write their stories into history in order to get more believers! Now I’m in no way saying that I believe that they used such a method, nor am I conjuring up a blasphemous theory about the Bible. I’m simply speculating that if Snorri walked down that road, who’s to say others didn’t as well?
So keep those eyes peeled, History Fans. You never really know what the author of those history books is up to. . . (see what I did there? If I’m lying to you, what can you believe?!?!?)