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“Snorri Sturluson” by Christian Krohg (1890s)
“Snorri Sturluson” by Christian Krohg (1890s)
Snorri Sturluson (1179 – 23 September 1241) was an Icelandic historian, poet, and politician. He was twice elected lawspeaker at the Icelandic parliament, the Althing. He was the author of the Prose Edda or Younger Edda, which consists of Gylfaginning ("the fooling of Gylfi"), a narrative of Norse mythology, the Skáldskaparmál, a book of poetic language, and the Háttatal, a list of verse forms. He was also the author of the Heimskringla, a history of the Norwegian kings that begins with legendary material in Ynglinga saga and moves through to early medieval Scandinavian history. For stylistic and methodological reasons, Snorri is often taken to be the author of Egil's saga.
As an historian and mythographer, Snorri is remarkable for proposing the theory (in the Prose Edda) that mythological gods begin as human war leaders and kings whose funeral sites develop cults (see euhemerism). As people call upon the dead war leader as they go to battle, or the dead king as they face tribal hardship, they begin to venerate the figure. Eventually, the king or warrior is remembered only as a god. He also proposed that as tribes defeat others, they explain their victory by proposing that their own gods were in battle with the gods of the others.
Snorri Sturluson was born at Hvammr into the wealthy and powerful Sturlungar family of the Icelandic Commonwealth, in 1179. His parents were Sturla Þórðarson of Hvamm and Guðný Böðvarsdóttir. He had two older brothers, Þórðr Sturluson (the oldest) and Sighvatr Sturluson.
By a quirk of circumstance he was raised from the age of three (or four) by Jón Loftsson, a relative of the Norwegian royal family, in Oddi, Iceland. As Sturla was trying to settle a lawsuit with Father Páll Sölvason, the latter's wife lunged suddenly at him with a knife, intending, she said, to make him like his hero Odin (who was one-eyed), but bystanders deflected the blow to the cheek. The resulting settlement would have beggared Páll. Jón Loftsson intervened in the Althing to mitigate the judgement and to compensate Sturla, offered to raise and educate Snorri.
Snorri therefore received an education and made connections that he might not otherwise have made. He attended the school of Sæmundr fróði, grandfather of Jón Loftsson, at Oddi, and never returned to his parents' home. His father died in 1183 and his mother as guardian soon wasted Snorri's share of the inheritance. Jón Loftsson died in 1197. The two families then arranged a marriage in 1199 between Snorri and Herdís, the first daughter of Bersi. From her father, Snorri inherited an estate at Borg and a chieftainship. He soon acquired more property and chieftainships.
Snorri and Herdís were together for four years at Borg. They had a few children. The marriage succumbed to Snorri's philandering, and in 1206 he settled in Reykholt as manager of an estate there, but without Herdís. He made significant improvements to the estate, including a hot outdoor bath (Snorralaug). The bath and the buildings have been preserved to some extent. During the initial years at Reykholt he had several more children by different women: Gudrun, Oddny, and Thuridur.
Snorri quickly became known as a poet, but was also a successful lawyer. In 1215 he became lawspeaker of the Althing, the only public office of the Icelandic commonwealth and a position of high respect. In the summer of 1218, he left the lawspeaker position and sailed to Norway, by royal invitation. There he became well acquainted with the teen-aged King Hákon Hákonarson and his co-regent, Jarl Skúli. He spent the winter as house-guest of the jarl. They showered gifts upon him, including the ship in which he sailed, and he in return wrote poetry about them. In the summer of 1219 he met his Swedish colleague, the lawspeaker Eskil Magnusson, and his wife, Kristina Nilsdotter Blake, in Skara. They were both related to royalty and probably gave Snorri an insight into the history of Sweden.
Snorri was mainly interested in history and culture. The Norwegian regents, however, cultivated Snorri, made him a skutilsvein, a senior title roughly equivalent to knight, and received an oath of loyalty. The king hoped to extend his realm to Iceland, which he could do by a resolution of the Althing, of which Snorri had been a key member.
In 1220 Snorri returned to Iceland and by 1222 was back as lawspeaker of the Althing, which he held this time until 1232. The basis of his election was entirely his fame as a poet. Politically he was the king's spokesman, supporting union with Norway, a platform that acquired him enemies among the chiefs. Personally in 1224 he took up residence with Hallveig Ormsdottir, a granddaughter of Loftsson, now a widow of great means, and formed a common-law relationship that lasted the rest of his life. She was a much younger woman. Although they were fond of each other they had no children together, concentrating instead on raising the children they had had with others. Five of Snorri's children survived to adulthood.
Many of the other chiefs found his position as royal office-holder contrary to their interests, especially the other Sturlungar. Snorri's strategy was to consolidate power over them, at which point he could offer Iceland to the king. His first moves were civic. On the death in 1222 of Sæmundur, son of Jón Loftsson, he became a suitor for the hand of his daughter, Sólveig. Herdís' silent vote did nothing for his suit. His nephew, Sturla Sighvatson, Snorri's political opponent, stepped in to marry her in 1223, the year before Snorri met Hallveig.
A period of clan feuding followed. Snorri perceived that only resolute, saga-like actions could achieve his objective, but he proved unwilling or incapable of carrying them out. He raised an armed party under another nephew, Böðvar Þórðarson, and another under his son, Órækja, with the intent of executing a first strike against his brother Sighvatur and Sturla Sighvatson. On the eve of battle he dismissed those forces and offered terms to his brother.
Sighvatur and Sturla with a force of 1000 men drove Snorri into the countryside, where he sought refuge among the other chiefs. Órækja undertook guerrilla operations in the fjords of western Iceland and the war was on.
Haakon IV made an effort to intervene from afar, inviting all the chiefs of Iceland to a peace conference in Norway. This maneuver was transparent to Sighvatur, who understood, as apparently Snorri did not, what could happen to the chiefs in Norway. Instead of killing his opponents he began to insist that they take the king up on his offer.
This was Órækja's fate, who was captured by Sturla during an ostensible peace negotiation at Reykjaholt, and also of Þorleifur Þórðarson, a cousin of Snorri's, who came to his assistance with 800 men and was deserted by Snorri on the battlefield in a flare-up over the chain of command. In 1237 Snorri thought it best to join the king.
The reign of Haakon IV (Hákon Hákonarson), King of Norway, was troubled by civil war relating to questions of succession and was at various times divided into quasi-independent regions under contenders. There were always plots against the king and questions of loyalty; nevertheless, he managed to build up the Norwegian state from what it had been.
When Snorri arrived in Norway for the second time it was clear to the king that he was no longer a reliable agent. The conflict between Haakon and Skúli was beginning to escalate into civil war. Snorri stayed with the jarl and his son and the jarl made him a jarl hoping to command his allegiance. In August 1238, Sigvat and four of his sons (Sturla, Markús, Kolbeinn, and Þórður krókur, the latter two being executed after the battle), were killed at the Battle of Örlygsstaðir in Iceland against Gissur Þorvaldsson and Kolbein the Young, chiefs whom they had provoked. Snorri, Órækja, and Þorleifur requested permission to return home. As the king now could not predict Snorri's behavior, permission was denied. He was explicitly ordered to remain in Norway on the basis of his honorary rank. Skúli on the other hand gave permission and helped them book passage.
Snorri must have had his own ideas about the king's position and the validity of his orders, but at any rate he chose to disobey them, returning to Iceland in 1239. The king was distracted by the necessity to confront Skúli, who declared himself king in 1239. He was defeated militarily and killed in 1240. Meanwhile Snorri resumed his chieftainship and made a bid to crush Gissur by prosecuting him in court for the deaths of Sigvat and Sturla. A meeting of the Althing was arranged for the summer of 1241 but Gissur and Kolbein arrived with several hundred men. Snorri and 120 men formed around a church. Gissur chose to pay fines rather than to attack.
Meanwhile, in 1240, after the jarl's defeat, but before his removal from the scene, Haakon sent two agents to Gissur bearing a secret letter with orders to kill or capture Snorri. Gissur was being invited now to join the unionist movement, which he could accept or refuse, just as he pleased. His initial bid to take Snorri at the Althing failed.
Hallveig died of natural causes. When the family bickered over the inheritance, Hallveig's sons, Klaeing and Orm, asked assistance from their uncle Gissur. Holding a meeting with them and Kolbein the Younger, Gissur brought out the letter. Orm refused. Shortly after, Snorri received a letter in cipher runes warning him of the plot, but he could not understand them.
Gissur led seventy men on a daring raid to his house, achieving complete surprise. Snorri Sturluson was assassinated in his house at Reykholt in autumn of 1241. It is not clear that he was ever given a chance to avail himself of the "capture" option. He fled to the cellar. There Símon knútur asked Arni the Bitter to strike him. Then Snorri said: Eigi skal höggva!—"Do not strike!" Símon answered: "Högg þú!" — "You strike now!" Snorri replied: Eigi skal höggva!—"Do not strike!" and these were his last words.
This act was not popular in either Iceland or Norway. To diminish the odium the king insisted that if Snorri had submitted he would have been spared. The fact that he could make such an argument reveals how far his influence in Iceland had come. Haakon went on suborning the chiefs of Iceland. In 1262 the Althing ratified union with Norway and royal authority was instituted in Iceland. Each member swore an oath of personal loyalty to the king, a practice which continued as each new king came to the throne, until absolute and hereditary monarchy was formally accepted by the Icelanders in 1662.
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In a way, Snorri made a comeback into politics long after his death. His writings could be used in support of the claims of later kings concerning the venerability and extent of their rule. Later, “Heimskringla” became important for Norwegian national independence and identity. The Icelanders’ perception of Snorri in the 20th century and to date has been coloured by the historical views adopted when they wanted to sever their ties with Denmark, any revision of which still has strong nationalistic sentiments to contend with. To serve such views, Snorri and other leading Icelanders of his time are sometimes judged with some presentism, on the basis of concepts that only came into vogue centuries later, such as state, independence, sovereignty, and nation. Snorri’s enduring importance lies in the fact that without his writings, our possibilities for perceiving the views and thoughts of pagan North Europeans, and even of Germanic and other peoples in general, would be considerably more limited than they admittedly are. His writings also provide information and indications concerning persons and events influencing the peoples inhabiting Scandinavia, England, Scotland, Ireland, and other regions, in obscure periods on which information is scarce.
Snorri is referenced in Jules Verne's novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which a German professor discovers a slip of paper from a fictitious scientist, hidden inside a manuscript written by Sturluson, that eventually leads him to embark on an expedition into the Earth's interior.
In 1941, the 700th anniversary of his death was celebrated by the issue of a set of six commemorative postage stamps showing events in the life of Snorri.
There are only three commemorative stamps of 1941, not six.
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