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Norse gods come alive

by Siv Palm, staff writer


Snorre Sturlasson,1179-1241, was a wealthy king, historian, and poet who lived in Iceland at the end of the Viking era. He grew up hearing tales of ancient gods and kings, and recorded them later in his life. The most important of his works is the Edda, which is the story of the gods, the Aesir.


In the Edda, Snorre included a practical learner’s guide to the style, language, and metaphors of drottkvett, the poetic style used in Norway, and later in Iceland and possibly other lands, from about 800 A.D.

The drottkvett style, and the time period it was used to describe, has inspired many writers over the years, including J.R.R. Tolkien. The style of his Lord Of The Rings is short and concise, like the drottkvett style, and the work has many Norwegian words and names.

In the Edda Snorre is inspired by the myths and legends of the Aesir, deities as familiar to most of northern Europe as Zeus and Athena are to the south. Here is the story of Odin, chief of the Norse gods, who gave one of his eyes to the Well of Wisdom so that he could become the wisest of all. Where Zeus and the Greeek gods lived on Mount Olympus, Odin lives in Valhalla, a great hall where he receives and feasts on the souls of the dead. Here is the story of Odin’s son, Thor, also called Tyr, god of war, who creates thunder with his mighty hammer, and of his half-brother and bane, Loke, the trickster, god of mischief and deceit. Here are frost giants and the Fenris wolf, and Baldur the bold, who bound it with a magic rope, and the Valkyrie who collect the souls of fallen heroes, and all the other Norse gods.

Snorre recorded these stories not only to excite and entertain his readers, but also so that they might not be forgotten. During Snorre’s reign, these gods no longer ruled the northern territories. Some 200 years earlier Olav the Holy had brought Christianity from England to the Norse regions and christened Norway the Viking way. That is, if people did not affirm their belief in God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--when asked at spear point, then their heads were cut off. Snorre knew, from the growing ignorance of those to whom he talked, that when people no longer believe in the old gods, they tend to forget about those gods. His Edda is both tribute, history, and mnemonic device.
The stories in the Edda are dramatic but events are never overstated--as they are in American comic books that feature Thor. For example, consider the story of the gods’ attempt to capture the Fenris wolf. It was huge, and scary, and they had been told it would eventually play a big part in Ragnarok, the prophesied destruction of their world. Still they play around, joke, and laugh, and are almost surprised when their plan succeeds and Fenris is captured. Everybody except one, that is. Snorre tells us that “then all the Aesir laughed, except for Tyr -- for he lost his hand.” Short, not so sweet, but to the point.

The Aesir are very like human beings. The have normal lives and families; they eat, drink, and can get hurt, just like ordinary humans. They are stronger, and they do have special abilities, at least most of them, and this makes them fun to read about. They can get themselves into the strangest of messes, especially as they try to trick the most cunning of enemies, all in relatively good spirits. They are like real people, just larger than life, and in Snorre’s writing they come alive. Even though the way they speak seems old fashioned, the joy and cleverness of their speech are not lost on a modern reader.

Scholars argue that the Edda is a collection of tales, not a novel in the modern sense. This makes it appear more fragmented than a 20th- century novel. Others see patterns, thematic unities. In either case, the Edda is the original that has inspired many other works, and it has stood up well against time. If you’ve never heard of it, you should definitely take a look, and if you’re among those Scandinavian students who had to read some in high school, take a new look.


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