Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Based on a True Story: Ynglinga Saga and How Creativity Has Devalued the "Truth"

Welcome back, History Fans!

Things have been incredibly busy here in Reykjavik. I hope you enjoyed all those beautiful photos because now it is dark and gloomy and rainy and I don't have any money to travel any more anyway!

It's been difficult to find time to update because I have been reading nonstop and working on my Old Norse paradigms. And yes, today I finally made a joke involving two dimes. 

But back to business!

We have been "reading" Heimskringla in one of our classes. And by reading I mean we are reading articles on how Snorri Sturluson may have known Latin or what kind of sources he had when he wrote this masterpiece or whether or not Snorri would have liked "The Princess Bride." And while I am sure all this literary theory is buffing up my prowess as a scholar, it is incredibly dry, difficult to read, and even more difficult to apply. 

But that has never stopped us here at History Books! In fact, I am pretty sure our motto is "Incredibly Dry and Difficult to Read."

For those of you unfamiliar with Heimskringla, it is an enormous account of the lives of Norwegian Kings, beginning in the 8th century and going to about mid-to-late 12th century. You get all the fun kings like Harald Finehair, Saint Olaf, Magnus Barelegs, Wade Boggs, etc. 

Wade Boggs - Norwegian king famous for his crusade against sobriety


Snorri, however, reaches way, way back into pre-history to deliver us an interesting dose of euhemerism, something we have discussed here before. The book begins with Ynglinga Saga, in which Snorri connects the legendary kings to some pretty cool humans that were mistaken for gods because of how cool they were. These guys came from Asia and had names like Odin, Thor, and Frey. These men (and women) were SO COOL! And maybe magical! Snorri's account can be attributed to two ideas: the first is excusing his ancestors for putting their faith in the wrong god(s). The second is connecting kingship with power. If modern kings could trace their ancestry back far enough, they may claim to actually be Odin's offspring. That probably didn't happen but it's politics, baby! Anything goes!

This story is obviously fabricated. If the gods were real (they weren't) then they probably wouldn't have been humans that died. If they were humans (they weren't), they probably would not have been worshipped as gods. Because of this, Ynglinga Saga has been largely ignored by scholars such as Sverre Bagge as "little more than an extended genealogy." This sentiment can be understood. There is no way it is true. It's just a story!

However, why dismiss it? Does the fact that Snorri filled in the holes of a most likely unknown pre-history make it worthless? Does his creativity in recounting the origins of the Scandinavian kings devalue the "truth?" 

We know it is not fact. YES, WE SEE RIGHT THROUGH YOU, SNORRI! However, besides Saxo's convoluted and long-winded Latin account, this is pretty much the only source available to us about such things. If anything, we can acknowledge that it was important for Snorri and his generation to excuse the older pagan generations. That tells us something right there. Not necessarily fact but it is certainly a truth! 

As historians, we can spend our lifetime slamming the Heimskringla into our foreheads and get no closer to the answers of pre-history. However, as humans, we can stand back and admire Snorri's creativity and enjoy the story. So what if it's not exactly like the book?! SO WHAT IF IT WAS DOBBY WHO GAVE HARRY THE GILLYWEED AND NOT THE WITLESS WONDER LONGBOTTOM?? Snorri could very well have given us what he and his contemporaries knew or thought they knew. He could also have been painting a fun picture just to make things interesting since nobody knew the beginnings. That creativity should be valued, and Ynglinga Saga should not be ignored completely but looked at through the same lens as all the other sagas: Not necessarily the truth but certainly contains a Truth or two. 

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