Heimskringla: or, The Lives of the Norse Kings

Heimskringla: or, The Lives of the Norse Kings

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by Snorri Sturluson

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Great classic by Icelandic poet/chieftain chronicles the reigns of 16 high kings descended from the warrior-wizard god Odin. Major section on 15-year reign of Olav II Haraldson, patron saint of Norway. Based on earlier histories, oral traditions, plus new material by author, all presented with intelligence, warmth and objectivity. Over 130 illustrations and 5 maps.


Great classic by Icelandic poet/chieftain chronicles the reigns of 16 high kings descended from the warrior-wizard god Odin. Major section on 15-year reign of Olav II Haraldson, patron saint of Norway. Based on earlier histories, oral traditions, plus new material by author, all presented with intelligence, warmth and objectivity. Over 130 illustrations and 5 maps.

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Heimskringla, or The Lives of the Norse Kings

By Sunnier Sturlason, Erling Monsen, A. H. Smith

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1990 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13787-2



1. The earth's round face, whereon mankind dwells, is much cleft because great gulfs run up into the land from the ocean. It is known that a sea stretches from Norvasund to Jorsalaland, and from the sea there goes towards the north-east a bight which is called the Black Sea. It is there that one finds the division between the three parts of the earth: to the east it is called Asia, but the land to the west is sometimes called Europa, sometimes Enea. But to the north of the Black Sea there stretches the great but icy Sweden; Sweden the Great some men reckon as large as the great Serkland, others equate it with the great Blaland. The northern part of Sweden the Great lies unpeopled through frost and cold, just as the southern part of Blaland is wasted by the heat of the sun. In Sweden there are many great lordships, many kinds of people, and many tongues; there are giants and there are dwarfs and there are black men, and there are many kinds of strange creatures, there are great savage beasts and dragons. To the south of the fells which lie outside all the inhabited land there runs through Sweden the Great a river which in proper speech is called the Tanais; it was formerly called the Tanakvisl or Vanakvisl; it flows out into the Black Sea. In the olden days the land between the Vanaforks was called Vanaland or Vanaheim. This river divides the world into parts; that to the east is known as Asia, and that to the west as Europe.

2. The land in Asia to the east of the Tanakvisl was called Asaland or Asaheim and the chief town in the land was called Asagarth (or Asagard). In the town there was the chief who was known as Odin and it was a great place for sacrificing. It was the custom for twelve chief priests of the temple to direct the sacrifices and to judge between men; they were called diar or drottnar; and them should all people serve and obey. Odin was a mighty warrior who had wandered far and won for himself many kingdoms; he was so victorious that he won every battle, and through that it came about that his men believed he must needs be winner in every fight. It was his wont when he sent his men to battle or on any other journey to lay his hands on their heads and give them his blessing; they then believed that all would go well with them. And so it was with his men: when they were hard beset on sea or land, they called on his name and always thought they got help from it; in him had they all their trust. He often went so far away that he was many years on the journey.

3. Odin had two brothers; one was called Ve, the other Vili. These two ruled the kingdom when he was away. It once happened when Odin was gone far away and had been a long time from home that his people thought he would not come back. Then his brothers took it upon themselves to divide his goods in succession to him, but they both took to wife his spouse Frigga. But a little later Odin came home and once more took his wife to himself.

4. Odin went with his army against the Vanes, but they withstood him well and defended their land. Each of them was in turn winner; both sides harried one another's land, and did each other great scathe. And when they both became weary of it, they arranged a meeting to make peace and gave each other hostages. The Vanes gave them their highest men, Niord the Wealthy and his son Frey, and the people of Asaland in return gave the man called Hænir, whom they thought well fitted to be a leader, being a big and handsome man. With him they sent Mimir, the wisest of men, and the Vanes in return gave the wisest of their men called Kvasir, and when Hænir came to Vanaheim he was chosen as leader and Mimir gave him every advice. But when Hænir was at the thing or at gatherings, where any difficult matter came before him, then he always answered the same (unless Mimir was present), "Now get the counsel of others", said he. Then the Vanes had a suspicion that the Asaland people had played them false in the exchange of men. They therefore took Mimir and beheaded him and sent his head to the Asaland people. Odin took the head, smeared it with such herbs that it could not rot, quoth spells over it and worked such charms that it talked with him and told him many hidden things. Odin sent Niord and Frey to the temple priests and they now became priests. Niord's daughter was Freya. She was a priestess and she first taught the Asaland people wizardry, which was in use with the Vanes. Whilst Niord was with the Vanes he had espoused his own sister (for that was lawful with them), and their children were Frey and Freya. But in Asaland it was forbidden to wed such near kin.

5. A great ridge of mountains goes from north-east to south-west dividing Sweden the Great from other kingdoms. To the south of the fells it is not far to the land of the Turks where Odin had great possessions. At that time the Roman Emperors were going far and wide over the world and in battle beat down all people; because of the unrest many lords fled from their lands. When Odin looked into the future and worked magic, he knew that his offspring would dwell and till in the northern parts of the earth. He, therefore, set his brothers Ve and Vili over Asagarth and he himself went away and with him went all the priests and many of his folk. First he went to Gardarik and from there he went south to Saxland. He had many sons; he won kingdoms far over Saxland and set his sons as rulers over them. From there he fared north to the sea and found himself a dwelling on an island which is now called Odensö in Fyn. Then he sent Gefion north-east over the sound to look for land; she then came to Gylfi, who gave her a ploughland. Next she went to a giant's home and there begot four sons with a giant. She shaped them in the likeness of oxen, yoked them to a plough and broke up the land unto the sea westwards opposite Odensö; it was called Selund, and there she dwelt afterwards. Skjold, Odin's son, took her to wife and they lived in Leidra. There where she ploughed is now a lake or sea called Löginn; the fjords in Löginn answer to the nesses in Selund. Thus said Bragi the Old:

Gefion drew with gladness
From the gold-rich Gylfi
Denmark's new increase
(So that it reeked from the beasts).

The oxen bore eight eyes
And four heads.
There they went forth,
Far over Vinö's bay.

And then when Odin got to hear that there was good land to the east in Gylfi's country he went there and Gylfi came to terms with him because he deemed he had no power to withstand the Asaland people. Many dealings had Odin and Gylfi between themselves in cunning and charms, but the Asa people always won. Odin set his dwelling near Lögrinn where it is now called Gamla-Sigtun, and where he built a large temple for blood offerings according to the customs of his people. He conquered all the land round it, and called his place Sigtun. He gave the temple priests dwelling-places; Niord lived in Noatun, Frey near Upsala, Heimdal by the Himenfell, Thor in Trudvang, Balder in Breidablik; to all of them he gave good lands.

6. It is said with truth that when Asa-Odin and the diar (priests) came to the northern lands, they brought in and taught others the sports and crafts which were plied there for a long time afterwards. Odin was the cleverest of all, and from him they learned all because he knew most of them first. And why he was so honoured shall be told of him for this reason: when he sat with his friends he was so fair and noble in looks that all were joyful; but when he was with his army then he seemed terrifying to his foes. It was said that he understood such tricks of cunning that he could change himself and appear in any form he would, and it was said that he talked so glibly and shrewdly that all who heard him must needs take his tale to be wholly true; he said everything in rime in a manner which is now called scaldcraft. He and his temple priests were called song smiths because the scaldic art in the northern land had its beginning from them. In battle Odin could make his foes blind or deaf or terrified and their weapons were as nothing more than sticks; but his own men went about without armour and were mad like hounds or wolves, and bit their shields and were strong as bears or bulls; they slew men, but neither fire nor steel would deal with them. This was called a berserk's-gang.

7. Odin often changed himself; at those times his body lay as though he were asleep or dead, and he then became a bird or a beast, a fish or a dragon, and went in an instant to far-off lands on his own or other men's errands. He could do this also: with sacrificial words he slaked fire, stilled the sea or turned winds in what way he would. He had a ship which was known as Skidbladnir; on it he went over mighty seas, but it could also be rolled up together like a table-cloth. Odin had with him Mimir's head and it told him many tidings of other worlds; and sometimes he awoke dead men from the earth and sat himself down under men who had been hanged; and so he was called Lord of the Ghosts or the Hanged Men. He owned two ravens, which he had taught to talk; they flew far over the land and told many tidings. Through all this he became very wise. All these crafts he taught with runes and songs which were called galdrar (enchantments) and so the Asa people were called galdra smiths. Odin knew and practised that craft which brought most power and which was called seid (witchcraft), and he therefore knew much of man's fate and of the future, likewise how to bring people death, ill-luck or illness, or he took power and wit from them and gave it to others. But in promoting this sorcery, lack of manliness followed so much that men seemed not without shame in dealing in it; the priestesses were therefore taught this craft. Odin also knew where any treasure pit was hidden and knew such songs that the earth and hills and rocks and howes opened themselves for him, and he bound with spells those who might be dwelling therein, so that he could go in and take all that he wished. By these crafts he became very renowned; his foes feared him, but his friends took pride in him and trusted in his craft and in him. But most of the crafts he taught the priests; they came nearest to him in all wisdom and wizardry. And many others learned much thereof; from them sorcery has therefore spread widely and long endured. Men sacrificed to Odin and his twelve chiefs and called them their gods and long afterwards believed in them. From Odin's name was the name Audun formed, and by it men called their sons, and from the name Thor are formed Tor-e and Tor-aren or it is joined with other names as in Steintor or Havtor, or varied in other ways.

8. Odin set in his land the laws which had formerly been upheld by the Asa folks; thus, he bade that they burn all the dead and bear their possessions on to the firebale with them. He said that every man should come to Valhall with such riches as he had with him on the firebale and that each should use what he himself had buried in the earth. They should bear the ashes out on the sea or bury them down in the earth; for a renowned man they should build a howe as a mark of remembrance, and for all men in whom there was some manliness they should raise standing-stones, and this custom held good for a long time after. Near winter's day they should sacrifice for a good season, in the middle of winter for a good crop, and near summer's day it was the sacrifice for victory. Over all Sweden they gave Odin scot (or taxes) for every nose, and he would protect their land from war and do sacrifices for them for a good season. Niord took a wife called Skadi; she would not live with him and afterwards gave herself to Odin. They got many sons and one of them was called Sæming: about him Eyvind Scaldaspiller has made this:

Hail, lord!
The chief was begotten
By the kin of the god
With the giantess,
In those days of old
When the prince's friend

Was Skadi's mate
In the Manheims,
And the fell-sliding
Begot with Odin
Many sons.

From Sæming, Jarl Hacon the Mighty reckons his race, man for man. This Sweden they called the Manheims, but Sweden the Great they called the Godheims, about which they tell many tidings.

9. Odin died in his bed in Sweden, and when he was near death he had himself marked with a spear point and dedicated to himself all men who died through weapons; he said that he should now fare to the Godheims and there welcome his friends. The Swedes now believed that he had gone to the old Asagarth and would live there for ever. Then began anew the belief in Odin and prayers to him arose afresh. The Swedes often seemed to see him clearly before great battles began; to some he gave victory, but others he bid come to him; both fates seemed good to them. Odin was burned after his death and the fire was very glorious. It was their belief that the higher the reek went up aloft, the higher place in Heaven would he receive whose body was burned, and the more goods that were burned with him, the richer he became. Niord of Noatun then took the rule over the Swedes and upheld the sacrifices; then the Swedes called him their Drott (or Sovereign) and he then took scot from them. In his days there was peace, and the seasons were so good that the Swedes believed that Niord had power over the crops and the well-being of mankind. In his days most of the diar (or priests) died and all were burned, and afterwards they sacrificed to them. Niord died in his bed; he also had himself marked for Odin before his death. The Swedes burned him and wept much by his grave.

10. So Frey took the rule after Niord; he was called Drott (or Sovereign) of the Swedes and took scot from them; he had many friends and brought good seasons like his father. Frey built near Upsala a great temple, and set there his chief seat, and endowed it with all his income from land and chattels. That was the beginning of the Upsala Crown property which has lasted ever since. In his days began the peace of Frode; then there was also a good season over all the land. The Swedes gave Frey credit for it, and he therefore was much more worshipped than the other gods, as the land folk in his days became richer on account of peace and good seasons than ever before. Gerd, the daughter of Gymir, was the name of Frey's wife, and their son was called Fjölnir. Frey was known by a second name Yngvi; that name was used long after in his race as a name of great worth, and his kinsmen were afterwards called Ynglings. Frey then fell sick, and as he neared death, his men took counsel, and let few men come to him; and they built a great howe with a door and three holes in it. And when Frey was dead they bore him in loneliness to the howe, and told the Swedes that he was still alive; they watched him then for three years, and all scot they hid down in the howe, in one hole the gold, in another the silver, and in the third copper pennies. The good seasons and peace continued. Freya held to the sacrifices still, for she alone of the gods still lived. She then became so very renowned, that they called all their noble women by her name, even as they are now called fruer; so every woman is called Freya (Frue), who rules over her own property, but she is called house-freya (husfrue), who has a household.

Freya was shifty of mind. Her husband was called Od and their daughters were called Noss and Gersimi; they were very beautiful and from them are named the most costly things. When all the Swedes marked that Frey was dead, but that good seasons and peace still continued, they believed that it would be so, so long as Frey was in Sweden; therefore, they would not burn him, but called him god of the earth, and ever after sacrificed to him, most of all for good seasons and peace.


Excerpted from Heimskringla, or The Lives of the Norse Kings by Sunnier Sturlason, Erling Monsen, A. H. Smith. Copyright © 1990 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book definetly gets 4 stars. It succeeds in bringing the realm of the Viking Kings to life. If you like Beowulf, then you have to read this book. It has the same "warrior-soul" theme common to Germanic works of its time.