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The Norse Mythology you thought you knew: Snorri Sturluson's legacy


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You might not have heard of Snorri Sturluson before, but you will have felt his impact. From Marvel's Loki and Thor, to the highly successful new God of War game, his presence is felt. He lived from 1179 to September 23rd 1241.

Through the Prose Edda, Snorri updated the stories of the Norse Gods (the Aesir) for his own time. In a post-Viking age with people Christianised, Sturluson’s recording helped ensure they survived. Assassinated today in 1241, his words nevertheless persist. To celebrate his legacy we will explore his tales from Norse mythology you might not know…

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The weird Christian explanation of Norse mythology

The Prose Edda, like Beowulf and the Ulster Cycle, is a victim of oral pagan beliefs being written up in a Christian literary context. For Sturluson, Norse myth had to fit in with his faith. Due to this, the prologue starts… With Abrahamic God creating earth, Adam, Eve then Noah pops up? Huh?

Suddenly the tale shifts to Troy. Like Rome and its use of the Aeneid, Snorri is trying to write his people’s origins into Troy, a glorious lost city. Thor and Sif pop up alongside King Priam, and then generations later Odin is born. Using his second sight he knows he must take his people to “the northern part of the world” and his sons form the cultures of the Franks, Danes, Swedes and Norse.

The main work of the Edda, Gylfaginning, has the mythic King Gylfi of Sweden meet Odin in disguise and become convinced of the need to follow the Norse faith. At the end, Odin and his experiences fade away and he’s left with the stories to tell. He seems to be used as a way to separate the stories from the Christian present while still telling them. Although this start signifies a loss of the oral Norse tradition, it nevertheless shows how adaptable these tales are. 

Loki has fathered a LOT of weird kids

You know what the MCU films don’t have Tom Hiddleston doing? Shagging everything that moves. In Norse belief, Loki has many children in many forms due to his shapeshifting abilities: the resulting children are a pretty bizarre bunch. 

Humanoid Nari and Vari were born to his wife Sigyn. Following Loki’s killing of Baldr (the son of Odin), the Aesir decided to punish him, turning Vari into a wolf that kills Nari, leaving his entrails which the gods used to tie Loki to stones.

His child Sleipnir is a less tragic story. A mysterious builder stated that he could build a citadel in Asgard in a single winter with his stallion Svadilfari, and if so wanted huge rewards the Gods didn’t wish to give. Loki helped them to trick him by turning into a mare and seducing the stallion whose absence put an end to the giant’s plan. “Somewhat later he gave birth to a foal”, we are told. An eight-legged horse that is “the best among gods” and became Odin’s trusted steed.

His children with giantess Angrboda though were predicted to bring “great misfortune”, so the Aesir took action. Odin threw Jormungandr (the world serpent) into the sea, where he grew so large as to encircle the earth. Hel was sent to Niflheim to rule over the dead and Fenris the wolf was bound with unbreakable chains. Despite these precautions, they would help ensure Ragnarock,  Snorri stated.  

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Thor is a giant hating Maniac that has two goats as steeds

For an accurate depiction of the Aesir god, one should check out God of War’s 2018 release featuring the Spartan Kranos as father to [spoiler!] Loki, where Thor is painted as a terrifying and bloodthirsty spectre (especially if you're a giant). In Gylfaginning we hear how his girdle of might, iron gloves, and hammer Mjöllnir make Thor “strongest of all the gods and men”. The hammer, Odin tells Gylfi is of great worth, as “the Rime-Giants and the Hill-Giants know”, because it has “bruised many a skull among their fathers”.

Thor also has a chariot drawn by two he-goats, “Tooth-Gnasher and Tooth-Gritter”. In Odin’s story of Sleipnir’s begetting, the fear that Thor provokes is highlighted too. The giant makes sure the Aesir take oaths to ensure his safety from Thor who is off fighting trolls. Following the failure of his plan, the gods call on Thor…Who “paid the wright(giant)’s wage, and not with the sun and the moon”, but instead with his hammer leaving the poor giant’s skull “burst into small crumbs” It really does sucks to be a giant near Thor…

No Loki isn’t an adopted son/brother to Odin and Thor

Despite what you might think due to Marvel, Loki is in no way related to Odin or Thor. The “first father of falsehoods”, as Snorri remarks, has Laufey as a mother and giant Farbauti as a father. This “comely”, but evil, “mischief-monger of the Aesir” is also brother to Byleistr and Helblindi.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Mother Earth is a Cow, we all live on a Giant’s corpse, and are trees

The beginnings of the Norse worlds start in “the age when nothing was” and earth was not found, "nor Ether-Heaven”. In Ginnungagap (Yawning Void), ice and wind abounded with the extreme cold of Niflheim and extreme heat of Muspelheim battling two poles of the space. Ice between these extremes melted, forming a giant called Ymir.

Ymir’s children sprung from his hands and feet starting the race of giants. To sustain himself Ymir drank the milk of a cow who happened to exist in Ginnungagap. Being told this, King Gylfi rightly asks what nourished the cow. Salty ice blocks! Licking these deposits over three days a man slowly emerged called Buri whose son Borr was father to Odin, and his brothers Vill and Ve.

Where did Earth come from then? Odin, Vill and Ve killed Ymir and this being done took him to the centre of the Yawning Void where they “made of him the earth: of his blood the sea and waters, the land was made his flesh” This done humans called Askr and Embla were created from whittled trees the brothers bestowed with spirit, feelings and the senses. 

The Norse gods are still worshiped

Amazingly, the Aesir and Vanir have become part of a living religion again recently. Heathenry or Germanic Neopaganism, a system focused on pre-Christian Germanic European gods, involves an animistic view of the cosmos in which the world is imbued with spirits and deities/ancestors honoured by blots (sacrifices in the past, but now offerings of food and libations). A symbel or toasting of the gods is often involved.

Many including my parents or the singer of Gus Gus, follow versions of it like Asatru which are inclusive and accepting. In Snorri's Iceland its the fastest growing faith, with the first temple in 1000 years opening late this year. There are far-right groups however who, like with Greek Hellenism, want to use it (through Odinism) for ill.  

However, these stories were always changing even long before Snorri… Norse Myth is impacted by the context of the time and place it finds itself in. People have always used and altered it for good and for bad, but the stories remain. On the anniversary of Snorri’s death we should discover the norse world through his words. 

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