Song of the Vikings
Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths
By Nancy Marie Brown
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Nancy Marie Brown
All rights reserved.
Wisdom is memory.
— Snorri, Edda
In the beginning, Snorri writes, there was nothing. No sand, no sea, no cooling wave. No earth, no heaven above. Nothing but the yawning empty gap, Ginnungagap.
All was cold and grim.
Then came Surt with a crashing noise, bright and burning. He bore a flaming sword. Rivers of fire flowed till they turned hard as slag from an iron maker's forge, then froze to ice.
The ice sheet grew, layer upon layer, till it bridged the mighty, magical gap.
Where the ice met sparks of flame and still-flowing lava from Surt's home in the South, it thawed, dripping like an icicle to form the first frost giant, Ymir, and his cow.
Ymir drank the cow's abundant milk. The cow licked the ice, which was salty. It licked free a handsome god and his wife. They had three sons, one of whom was Odin, the ruler of heaven and earth, the greatest and most glorious of the gods: the All-Father.
Odin and his brothers killed Ymir. From his body they fashioned the world: His flesh was the soil, his blood the sea. His bones and teeth became stones and scree. His hair became trees, his skull was the sky, his brain, the clouds.
From his eyebrows they made Middle Earth, which they peopled with humans, crafting the first man and woman from driftwood they found on the seashore.
So Snorri explains the creation of the world in the beginning of his Edda. Partly he is quoting an older poem, "Song of the Sibyl," whose author he does not name. Partly he is making it up — especially the bit about the world forming in a kind of volcanic eruption and then freezing to ice. If this myth were truly ancient, there would be no volcano. Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, the Scandinavian homelands, are not volcanic. Only Iceland — discovered in 870, when Norse paganism was already on the wane — is geologically active. In medieval times Iceland's volcanoes erupted ten or a dozen times a century, often burning through thick glaciers. Nothing is as characteristic of Iceland's landscape as the clash between fire and ice.
Ymir's cow may be Snorri's invention, too. No other source mentions this monstrous cow, nor what the giant Ymir lived on, but like all wealthy Icelanders, Snorri was a dairyman. He was also a Christian. It suits his wry sense of humor for the first pagan god to be born from a salt lick.
Snorri goes on: Odin established the godly city of Asgard. There he built his feast hall, Valhalla, with its roof of golden shields and 540 doors. In a silver-roofed palace nearby sat his throne, from which he watched over all the nine worlds, from the highest bright heaven to the damp, dark underworld called Hel. He could see the lands of the Aesir gods (like him) and the Vanir gods (enemies at first, then in-laws and allies), the lands of the frost giants like Ymir and fire giants like Surt, the lands of the light elves and dark elves, of the dwarfs in their halls of stone, and Middle Earth, the land where humans lived.
Odin could see what everyone was doing everywhere. In case he missed something, his ravens, Thought and Memory, flew over all the nine worlds each day collecting news. Sometimes Odin wandered the nine worlds himself. One of his first quests was to search out the well of wisdom: He traded an eye for a single sip of enlightenment.
Odin One-Eye was Snorri's favorite of all the Norse gods and goddesses. Following tradition, he placed Odin, god of Wednesday (from the Old English spelling, Woden's Day), at the head of the Viking pantheon of twelve gods and twelve goddesses. Then Snorri increased Odin's power. Rather like the Christian God the Father, Snorri's Odin All-Father governed all things great and small.
Icelanders had in fact long favored Thor, the god of Thursday. They named their children after the mighty thunder god: In a twelfth-century record of Iceland's first settlers, a thousand people bear names beginning with Thor. None is named for Odin. Nor did the first Christian missionaries to Iceland find cults of Odin. Odin is rarely mentioned in the sagas. For a good sailing wind Icelanders called on Thor. But Snorri wasn't fond of Thor — except as comic relief. Thor was the god of farmers.
Odin was a god for aristocrats — not just the king of gods but the god of kings. He had the best horse, eight-legged Sleipnir; Snorri told two memorable tales about Odin's horse. Odin had a gold helmet and a fine coat of mail, a spear, and a gold ring that magically dripped eight matching rings every ninth night. No problem for him to be a generous lord, a gold giver. Finally Odin gave men the gift of poetry. At least in Snorri's mythology he did. Snorri's tale of the divine mead that turns all drinkers into poets is dismissed by modern critics as "one of his more imaginative efforts."
The story begins with the feud between the Aesir gods and the Vanir. They declared a truce, and gods from each side spat into a crock to mark the peace. Odin took the spittle and made it into a man. Truce Man traveled far and wide, teaching humans wisdom, until he was killed by the dwarfs. (They told Odin that Truce Man had choked on his own learning.) The dwarfs poured Truce Man's blood into a kettle and two crocks, mixed it with honey, and made the mead of poetry. To end a feud, the dwarfs gave the mead to the giant Suttung, who hid it in the depths of a mountain with his daughter as its guard. Odin set out to fetch the mead. He tricked Suttung's brother into helping him, and they bored a hole through the mountain. Odin changed into a snake and slithered in, returning to his glorious god form to seduce Suttung's lonely daughter. He lay with her for three nights; for each night she paid him a sip of mead. On the first sip he drank the kettle dry. With the next two sips he emptied the crocks. Then he transformed himself into an eagle and took off. Suttung spied the fleeing bird. Suspicious, he changed into his giant eagle form and made chase. It was a near thing. To clear the wall of Asgard, Odin had to squirt some of the mead out backward — the men who licked it up can write only doggerel. The rest of the mead he spat into vessels the gods had set out when they saw him coming. He shared this mead with certain exceptional men; they are called poets.
Though Odin is sneaky, two faced, arrogant, and avaricious in Snorri's tales, he is no dim-witted muscleman like Thor, no flirtatious mare like the trickster god, Loki. In all his writings Snorri never once made Odin look ridiculous. Perhaps that's because Snorri's own father, Sturla of Hvamm, was once likened to the one-eyed god.
The tale of Hvamm-Sturla and Odin One-Eye is the first to mention Snorri himself, though his role is only a small one when he was three years old.
It begins beside the river Hvita in the West of Iceland, where lay the rich farm of Deildar-Tunga. It was not a large farm, but rich in its ability to make hay, for it owned extensive water meadows along the river banks. Even better, these were warm water meadows. The Hvita is an ice-cold glacial river. Its name, White River, denotes not white-water rapids but milky glacial till. Yet not far from the river, beneath a bluff painted pink with mineral deposits, bubbled a hot spring: the highest-volume hot spring in all of Iceland, an island riddled with more than 250 hot springs. The hot spring at Tunga provided warm water for cooking and bathing and washing clothes, but these were minor benefits compared to its effect on the hay fields. The hot water that spilled into the river and spread over the floodplain made the grass sprout sooner after winter and stay green longer in the fall. Grass was the foundation of Iceland's economy: Hay was the only crop that grew well in the island's harsh climate. Thanks to his hot spring, the farmer at Tunga could make more hay than his neighbors and so keep more cows, sheep, and horses. Cows were highly valued because the Viking diet was based on milk and cheese. Sheep were milked as well (sheep's milk is richer in vitamin C; vital in a land where no vegetables grow), but sheep were prized mostly for their wool: Cloth was Iceland's major export. Horses were necessary for transportation, since Iceland has few navigable rivers.
The wealth of the farmer at Tunga — reckoned, the usual way, in cows or "cow equivalents" (six ewes equaled one cow) — was eight hundred head of cattle. Eighty head was considered a large farm. No wonder the two biggest men in the district took notice when, in 1180, between the Winter of Sickness and the Summer of No Grass, Tunga fell vacant. The farmer and his wife had gone on a pilgrimage to Rome to pray for children. Neither returned, and word came they had died en route. But who succumbed first? Ownership of the farm hung on that question.
Based on reports from travelers, the chieftain Pall Solvason, who lived up the river at Reykholt, announced that the farmer had died first, whereupon all his wealth went by law to his wife. She was Pall's daughter. When she died childless, rich Tunga came to him. Pall took over the property.
Just wait one moment, said the chieftain Bodvar Thordarson, whose estate was a few miles down the river. If the wife died first, her husband, by law, would inherit. When he died, the property went to his sister, who was Bodvar's client. It would be fair, said Bodvar, to give the sister a share. He asked for the value of forty cows. Pall rather ungraciously said no.
Bodvar rode to Tunga with a troop of sixty armed men. This time he asked for the value of sixty cows. Pall still said no — but hurriedly vacated the farm. Bodvar and his sixty men built a high wall around the farmhouse and settled in. Soon the value of the estate dropped from eight hundred cows to four hundred: Bodvar kept holding feasts for his warriors, slaughtering Tunga's fat cattle.
Pall took him to court.
Iceland was an anomaly in the Middle Ages. It bowed to no king. The first settlers, coming to this cold and windy island outpost in the late 800s, had disliked the very idea of a king. Many had fled Norway, having lost their lands in the bloody civil war by which Harald Fair-Hair unified the country, becoming the first king of all Norway in about 885. King Harald claimed every farm and forest for himself and reapportioned the land to those who would pay him taxes. He gave the Norwegians three choices: swear oaths of loyalty, leave, or face the consequences, which included torture, maiming, and death. Some who left went first to the British Isles, only to be pestered by kings, oaths, and taxes there, too. They sailed on to Iceland to be free of such nonsense.
But after fifty years of anarchy the Icelanders deemed some form of government to be necessary, and in 930 a cabal of wealthy men worked out a way to share power. They divided the island into four quarters: North, South, East, and West. Three spring assemblies were to be held in each quarter (four in the larger North Quarter) to discuss local matters and to resolve disputes. Each spring assembly would be governed by three chieftains, for a total of thirty-nine. To these posts they appointed themselves.
In theory the thirty-nine chieftains of Iceland were equals, but some grew more powerful than others, for this new system of government was organized not geographically but by alliances. Uninhabited when it was discovered in 870, Iceland was home to at least ten thousand people by 930. (By Snorri's day the population would be fifty thousand.) There were no towns on the island, and there would not be until the eighteenth century. Instead Icelanders lived on farms scattered around the periphery of the island, which has at its center a vast uninhabitable wasteland of volcanoes and glaciers. Some farms were immense, supporting as many as one hundred people; others were small, farmed by one nuclear family. Every farmer who owned at least one cow or boat or fishing net for each of his dependents had to ally himself with a chieftain, pay him taxes, and, if requested, accompany him to assemblies or fight in his battles. The farmer could choose which of the thirty-nine chieftains he wanted to support, and he could change his allegiance once a year. But generally only the richer farmers dared annoy the local chieftain by choosing a more distant one.
Usually it paid to support a chieftain who lived close by. He was nearer to hand if the farmer was robbed, or his hay stores ran out during a harsh winter, and travel wasn't so onerous when the farmer was invited to a Yule feast or summoned for a raid (as Bodvar had summoned his sixty armed men to Tunga). Yet two chieftains often lived within a day's ride of each other. In that case it paid to choose the one who was less easily bullied, for the support of a chieftain was a family's only protection from a rival clan. Only a chieftain could bring a lawsuit to one of the assemblies, and only a chieftain could answer it.
In addition to the spring assemblies held in each quarter of the country, once a year, on the tenth Thor's Day of summer, in the great rift valley of Thingvellir beside its deep blue lake, Iceland's thirty-nine chieftains and their wives and children and followers gathered for the Althing, the general assembly of all Iceland. The Althing was a grand party. Thousands of people stayed for two weeks in tents and turf-walled booths on the banks of the Axe River, drinking ale, telling tales, taking part in horse fights and wrestling matches, races and dice games, making wedding plans or finalizing divorces, witnessing court cases, and wrangling about the law. Though carrying weapons was not allowed, the assembly was not always peaceful. The summer of 1178, the year of Snorri's birth, was known as the Stone-Throwing Summer for a fight that broke out at the Althing and left one dead and several wounded. But battles of bandied words were more common, for the Althing was Iceland's answer to a king.
Disputes between Icelanders of any rank could be settled at the Althing by appeal to Iceland's laws. There were five law courts: one for each quarter plus an appeals court, each with thirty-six judges. The chieftains chose the judges, each chieftain nominating and vetoing a certain number. Presiding was Iceland's only elected official, the lawspeaker. The first lawspeaker brought the laws of western Norway to Iceland in 930. For nearly two hundred years, until 1118, the lawspeaker recited one-third of the law code at each Althing. The place where he stood, called the Law Rock, was a height of land that formed a natural amphitheater. The chieftains gathered around the Law Rock and after the recitation debated, adjusted, and agreed upon the laws, for, as the sagas say, "With laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste."
Iceland had laws concerning stolen horses, rented cows, dogs that bit, or bulls that ran amok in the neighbor's haystacks. There were laws about betrothals and divorces, buying sheep, or claiming debts. There were laws concerning the welfare of orphans, widows, the sick, the disabled, and the poor. There were laws about renting land or investing in a trading ship. Numerous laws defined homicide, setting the compensation a killer should pay a victim's family to avoid being exiled from the island. And Iceland had inheritance laws that clearly laid out the order in which property descended after its owner's death.
By the time Pall Solvason summoned Bodvar to court at the Althing to determine who owned the rich farm of Deildar-Tunga and its voluminous hot spring, Iceland's law code had been in writing for more than sixty years. Still, there were frequent lawsuits — and many feuds — over the inheritance of real estate. No law book could determine, for example, if the travelers Pall Solvason had quoted had told the truth concerning the time of his daughter's death relative to her husband's. Knowing the law was not enough to win a case at the Althing. As elsewhere in the medieval world, might made right.
Pall Solvason was an aristocrat. In addition to being a chieftain, he was an ordained priest; just a few years before, he had been a candidate for bishop of Skalholt, one of two bishoprics in Iceland. Pall was well educated and ran a school and a book-making scriptorium at Reykholt; he was known as "an old and honored teacher" and had many influential friends. To back up his claim to Tunga, Pall recruited the bishop of Holar and four chieftains, including the most popular chieftain at the time, Jon Loftsson of Oddi, who in later days was dubbed the uncrowned king of Iceland. These men would stand beside Pall in court, lending him their authority and, if necessary, their fighting men. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Song of the Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown. Copyright © 2012 Nancy Marie Brown. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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