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Snorri: How Christian is the Prose Edda?

Updated: Feb 14

Let me start with post by thanking Snorri for his Edda and his Sagas. We would know less if it were not for Snorri's efforts. Snorri Sturluson (born in 1179, died in 1241) was elected law-speaker of Iceland's Althing for two different terms. In addition to being a politician, Snorri was a poet, credited with writing the Prose Edda, the collection of Sagas known as Heimskringla, and many scholars feel Snorri is the author of Egil's Saga. There is high praise for Snorri amongst historians. Halvdan Koht described Snorri's work as "surpassing anything else that the Middle Ages have left us of historical literature". [Tanner, J. R., ed. (1929). The Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. VI. Cambridge. p. 387.]


As many of my readers know, I believe for the most part, Snorri was honest on rituals and holidays. When Snorri states that pre-christian Heathen Yule was moved to be at the same time as the christian christ mass (christmas), I take him at his word. Snorri has no reason to lie about that. When Snorri repeatedly states that the historical pre-christian Heathens had three major blots a year, I take Snorri at his word. Snorri has no reason to lie about that. When Snorri describes Blots and Sumbles in his Sagas, I believe that Snorri is true to the ancient poetic source material that he had access to. The holiday Snorri most discusses is Winter Nights. I see in his writing that Winter Nights could have been more important than Mid-Winter. (I think it was to pre-christian Heathens). I think Snorri's writing has zero reason to over-state Winter Nights, and therefore Snorri's account is probably accurate. However, there are times when I read Snorri, and I think: How should I look at this material for the reconstruction of historical Old Ways Heathenry? I ask this obvious question for several reasons, the first of which is that the Prose Edda was written around the year 1200 based upon poetry that Snorri had access to, that is no longer extant. Therefore, we cannot compare his sources with his Edda and Sagas to tell how much Snorri christianized or altered the material. Also, the Prose Edda and the Sagas had to be christianized. Snorri lived in a christian world, and Snorri, a political and military man, could not have gotten away with writing something overtly Pagan in a christian country such as Iceland.


Snorri opens his Prose Edda stating: "In the beginning, before the heaven and the earth and the sea were created, the great abyss Ginungagap was without form and void, and the spirit of Fimbultyr moved upon the face of the deep, until the ice−cold rivers, the Elivogs, flowing from Niflheim, came in contact with the dazzling flames from Muspelheim. This was before Chaos." The phrase "In the beginning" is also the first word (phrase) in the Hebrew Bible. The second verse of the book of Genesis states that the universe was formless, chaotic, void, something Snorri also states. Snorri is linking his creation story in his Preface to the Prose Edda with the Genesis (biblical) account. Snorri presenting the Aesir as "Asians" (Asamen) is also concerning, as no Heathen in pre-Christian times would link the Aesir with "Asians." Snorri therefore is clearly trying to bring Iceland's history into that of mainland Europe's history, and Snorri's writing shows the political and social realities of thirteenth century christian Iceland.


What is a God to the Heathens?

To Heathens, their Gods and Goddesses were not all powerful. Woden (Odin) could not grow back his eye, Tiu (Tyr) did not grow back his hand, almost all of the Gods will die at Mudspelles (Ragnarök) and are not indestructible, the Aesir could not prevent Baldag’s death (Baldr's death) and were never portrayed as being “all-knowing." Unlike the christian god, the Heathen Gods were not seen as "omni-present." Woden (Odin) needed his two Ravens to inform him of the events in the other realms, and even both of Woden's Ravens could not be in all the realms at the same time. The Heathen Gods clearly could not control the future, but were subject to the Uurd-Shapers’ measuring threads (or the Measurings of the Nornir.) The Heathen Gods were a part of the Creation process, but also were created, which is a very different understanding of the christian god who created the entire universe (but somehow existed outside of it before it was created), and who demands human blood sacrifice to cover sin (jesus, the christian human sacrifice). The Heathens certainly saw their Gods as powerful, with the ability to alter the laws of nature. Snorri makes clear that Winter Nights was a blot to the Gods for a good year, and Mid-winter was a blot for a good harvest, Sigrblot was a blot for victory. The earlier Heathenized writings like the Old Saxon Heliand and the Danish/English Beowulf, are consistent with many Heathen ideals presented by Snorri. But there are some clear christianism's that can be seen in Snorri's writings.


How christian was Snorri?

Snorri is clearly writing about Heathen subjects as a christian. But Snorri is not just discussing Nordic Heathenry, he alludes to Greek Polytheism in his work (i.e. Troy). I strongly believe Snorri was familiar not just with the Greek ending of the Iliad, but the continuation of the Trojan story by the Romans who had to finish the Iliad with the Latin Aeneid and the Trojan Horse. Saturn and Jupiter are also mentioned as people in his Edda, clearly classical Roman elements are brought into Snorri's history. This being said, Snorri could have been a strong minded christian with interests in the past “superstitious” religious beliefs of others as well as his own ancestors. I think all we can say is that Iceland was firmly christian for over 240 years at the time of Snorri's death (probably longer than 240 years), and Snorri was raised with a christian worldview. We should analyze, think critically, and do our best to come at a wise decision when incorporating Snorri's mythological material into our reconstructed material. And as I said above, Snorri lived in a christian world, and as a political and military man, could not have gotten away with writing something overtly Heathen in very christian country like Iceland. I should also state at this point, I have a blog article discussing the probability that Snorri's Baldr story was christianized. Baldr has too many christ-like elements to his story, and Baldr's death and afterlife do contradict other information Snorri presents on the Nordic afterlife worldview. Snorri's Baldr story contradicts the genealogies of the Angles in England, and the Baldr story of Saxo.


The Prose Edda in Summary

The Prose Edda divides the world into three parts: The South-west was known as “Africa.” The North-west was called “Europe” and East was considered "Asia." The center of the world was thought to be Troy in Turkey. Troy is pictured as a large city where the earth was very fertile. Troy was made up of twelve kingdoms (twelve is an important biblical number, i.e. twelve disciples of jesus, twelve tribes of Israel etc). The princes (sons) of Troy's kingdom were Troan, Thor, and Odin. Odin and the Aesir (Asians) traveled the world.  (Thor was Priam's grandson, for those who have read the Iliad, this is an interesting proposition to say the least.) When the people saw the Asamen in their land, their harvest went well, and the people thought these travelers caused this. When humans first noticed prosperity that came with these travelers, they just thought the Asamen were successful people. Over time, as the good fortune kept coming with the Asamen’s presence, the people were then understood to be Gods from Troy. Thor stayed in one of the lands he found, making Sigtuna (Sweden) a new place to settle. Thor married Sibyl the prophetess, also named by Snorri as Sif. She was a beautiful woman, having hair like gold. Thor and Sif had a son, Loridi, his son was Einridi, his son Vingethor, his son Vengener, and his son Modi, etc.  Odin’s wife was named Frigida. They ruled over Gaul (France) which would be news to the French today. Odin was known for his wisdom. Odin designed a law code modelled after Troy’s law code. Odin then travelled north placing his son in Norway to be king. Everything in the world, all the accomplishments of civilizations came from when the Asamen spread out over the world. They started civilizations and then their sons continued the legacy.


Conclusion

Snorri's Prose Edda is probably not the best source to understand continental Germanic mythology. I do think Snorri's Edda and his Sagas are absolutely useful in understanding Blot and Sumble, and the timing of the holidays, as Snorri had no reason to lie on this, and the Heathen days and rituals Snorri presents are not tied to the christian holidays (which speaks volumes), unlike Bede's writing describing Anglish Heathenry. Bede clearly has an agenda to show the formerly Pagan Anglish as having christian ways before christianity came to England. Therefore, I think Snorri's writing is great to reconstruct Blot, Sumble, and the Holidays. But when reconstructing continental Germanic Heathen Folklore and Mythology, Snorri is not a great place to start. However, if one wanted to reconstruct Norwegian and Icelandic Mythology, I think Snorri's writings are still great sources to gain insight if your mind is open to the fact that what is written by Snorri is not purely Heathen.



Picture of Odin's travels created by Alexschneider250



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I tend to believe some of Snorri and some of Bede. I find it possible; Bede might have witnessed victory Blot that began at sundown the day before the Christian easter and continued until late. If a full moon was at 3 pm on Saturday, the Christian easter could have been the following day and people could have had a celebration.

As to Snorri, I concur with your theories. Snorri is the only author that I have chosen not to completely avoid based on what I might consider misinformation. I generally avoid authors that make mistakes. With Snorri, I see his holiday's generally equating to times homesteaders would slaughter today, so it feels accurate and easy to understand.

I had…

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One could argue as well Bede had no reason to lie on Mothers' Night, but one could argue he did "christianize" it, and he did have reason to lie. I honestly think the Angles did the same summer/victory blot that the other Germanic tribes did. Bede calls "christian passover" "easter" only when discussing the calendar of the Anglish. The rest of De Temporum Ratione, he calls the christian passover "Pascha". I believe that sometime between Bede and the Chronicle, Eostre became the title for the English Passover (christian passover-easter). If I were an Old English Heathen more, I would study the time between Bede and the Chronicle, and determine the exact time the christian passover in England started …

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Tom Hall
Tom Hall
Feb 14

I agree that Snorri's writings couldn't be overly Heathen in a Christian world. And I don't think he lied as well on holidays and blots. But I do think he had to insert some form Christianized flavor (the only terms I could think of) in his works as he could have been persecuted in that time frame


I know some have referred to Fimbultyr as being Odin and some say it means the Christian god because it means Mighty God.


In Anderson's translation of the Prose Edda describing Ragnarok Fimbultyr appears again, "The asas awake to a new life, Balder is with them again. Then comes the mighty Fimbultyr, the god who is from everlasting to everlasting; the god whom…


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Thank you so much for your words. I have not researched nor thought about Fimbultyr in a long time, so thanks for making me reconsider this! It reminds me of a verse about Ithavoll. I lean towards Voluspa verse 60 there, i.e Fimbultyr is most likely a reference to Odin... "The gods in Ithavoll meet together,

Of the terrible girdler of earth they talk,

And the mighty past they call to mind,

And the ancient runes of the Ruler of Gods." Finnask æsir á Iðavelli

ok um moldþinur máttkan dæma

ok minnask þar á megindóma

ok á Fimbultýs fornar rúnir. PS- Ruler of the Gods is something I think about. I tend to doubt that Odin was to Asgard what Zeus was to Olypus…

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