So I said I’d write a separate post about the Prose Edda, concerning its ambiguities and its interesting journey from myths and stories told by Norse poets to its status as an important document of northern European history.
The first thing that really grabbed me about the Prose Edda was the ambiguity of it. It was written by an Icelandic chieftain, Snorri Sturluson, who seems to have been a pretty Machiavellian guy. His life was defined by his desire to be the most powerful man in Iceland. To this end, he got cosy with King Hakon of Norway. Some scholars have suggested that this was in order to bring Iceland under Norwegian rule. His failure in this was eventually the death of him. He was murdered by his son-in-law at the order of King Hakon.
This interests me because it sets up the possibility of the Prose Edda’s existence in part as political status symbol. In fact, the third part of it – which can’t be effectively translated into English – consists of praise poems regarding the very king Sturluson was buttering up.
All of this means there’s immediately uncertainty in reading this work. How much of it was written for the sake of educating future poets, and how much for the benefit of King Hakon? How much of its view of these pre-Christian gods is defined by Sturluson’s own Christianity? At the beginning he says that none of the events or characters are to be believed as fact. He treats his material reverently, though the whole thing is presented as a story within a story.
There is a prologue telling a Christian version of creation. This may have been added on later. The Edda then begins with a legendary king, Gylfi of Sweden, setting off to spy on Odin of the Aesir, a chieftain of Norway (not a god). Odin foresees Gylfi’s coming, even though he’s disguised as an old man. Odin prepares an illusion, so that when Gylfi arrives the shed he lives in appears to be a massive and impressive hall called Valhall (you may be catching a few parallels here). Odin appears to Gylfi as three chieftains called High, Just as High and Third. The various tales of Norse Mythology are then relayed to Gylfi by the three chieftains. Odin seemingly makes the whole thing up as he goes along, giving himself the role of head god and moving on from there.
I read all of this half wondering whether I’d happened across a bizarre post-modern joke. The whole thing is, not to put too fine a point on it, mental. I can’t help but wonder, though, how these stories were told by the ancient bards. How much of the Prose Edda has the fingerprints of a single author? How much is truthfully preserved?
The Edda was preserved by Icelanders who seem to have pursued the scholarship of ancient texts as a hobby. Regarding the Edda’s entrance into the wider western world beyond Iceland, my Penguin edition offers this:
In the sixteenth century, Denmark was an aggressive power in Northern Europe, seeking primacy in Scandinavia and, in common with the rulers of states elsewhere in Europe, the Danish kings strove to advance their ambitious political agenda by documenting the antiquity and legitimacy of their history. For this purpose, the Danish state adopted as its own the mythic and heroic past of all Scandinavia.
Iceland became a possession of the Danish king in the late fourteenth century, and by the sixteenth century the danes had discovered that Iceland’s medieval manuscripts were a treasure trove, containing information about Scandinavia’s past found nowhere else. Icelanders sent manuscripts to the king as gifts, and these and many others found their way in to the archives and royal libraries in Copenhagen. The Danish king went so far as to command the Icelanders not to sell their manuscripts outside the kingdom.
My reason for blogging all of this is the fact these ambiguities and historical details can mirror the movement of language as a whole.
PS – Apparently Edda does not mean Great Grandmother after all. This was a theory put forward by Jakob Grimm, of all people. The more popular interpretation these days is that Sturluson lived in a town called Oddi. The Elder Edda, also known as the Poetic Edda, was at one point referred to as the Book of Oddi, which is similar to Edda. I can’t help but prefer Great Grandmother, random though it would be. Never mind.