(This post was inspired by one written by Nancy Marie Brown at God of Wednesday: A Viking Fairy Tale. She in turn was inspired by a question from a reader, and a paper by Takahiro Narikawa. And on it goes.)
Long before I began this blog, just plain long ago in fact, I did a degree in Medieval Studies, with a specialty in English. This taught me how to dig into a text for its meaning, but we rarely considered the political or historical aspects of the texts. In some cases it would have been difficult to do so.
Who wrote Beowulf? We can guess at his (probably his) politics, and what was happening around him while he was writing, but we know very little about him. Even much later texts have similar problems, such as Gawain and the Green Knight. The poet Simon Armitage hypothesized that the author was from northern England, based on some of the words used, but we don’t know for sure.
Snorri Sturluson and Norse Myth
Luckily, some of the main sources for Norse myth have an author – the Icelander Snorri Sturluson. He belonged to an aristocratic family and was a Christian. His recording of pagan myth doesn’t conflict with this – he wanted literate people to know the old myths so they could understand skaldic poetry, which was heavy with mythological references. His Christian beliefs, however, led to a certain amount of tidying-up of the myths, and his own value judgements come through.
Two versions of Freyr
In the Eddic poem Skírnirsmál, for example, the god Freyr falls for the giantess Gerdr, and sends his servant Skírnir to get her by whatever means necessary. She refuses at first, but when Skírnir threatens her and curses her, she gives in, and agrees to meet the god, nine nights hence.
Snorri’s version is somewhat different. He tells us that Freyr and Gerdr married, which is not stated in the poem. He also mentions their son, Fjölnir, also not in the original. (This was probably because the Swedish kings claimed descent from Freyr and his son, and he wasn’t going to insinuate that their king was illegitimate.)
He also shows Freyr as lovesick and weakened by his love for Gerdr – and includes the detail that Freyr gave up his magical sword to win the giantess, which meant that the giants had it. (Since the gods fight the giants at Ragnarok, this is not good.) Once again, the poem only states that Freyr gave Skírnir his horse and sword for the journey – it doesn’t say anything about them being gifts for Gerdr.
Odin and Skadi: married?
Snorri also tidies up the liaison between Odin and another goddess/giantess – Skadi. Their son, Sæming, was the ancestor of the earls of Hladir, in eastern Norway. The poem that tells us this – Háleygjatal, doesn’t mention a marriage, only says that they had sons. However, in the Yngling saga (part of Heimskirngla, Snorri’s collection of sagas) he says that:
Njörd got that wife, who was called Skadi. She did not wish to have intercourse with him and was married afterwards to Odin. They had many sons. One of them was called Sæming.
In the prologue to the Poetic Edda, he says that Sæming was one of Odin’s many sons, and that when Odin became ruler of Sweden he set up Sæming as ruler of Norway, and “the kings of Norway, the jarls and other powerful people, traced their lineage to him, as it says in Háleygjatal.”
This seems pretty straightforward, but in the prologue to Heimskringla, Snorri tells us that Sæming was the son of Yngvi-Frey. Perhaps someone was trying to have it both ways, claiming ancestry from two of the most prominent gods of the Scandinavian pantheon. (Someday a manuscript may be found which claims Thor as Sæming’s father – a Norse trifecta.)
You might think that if someone wanted to claim ancestry from the Vanir, instead of the Aesir gods, they would have thought immediately of Skadi’s former husband, Njörd. (Freyr’s father, by the way.) The couple, however, were famous for not getting along, and divorcing. Njörd already had two children, Freyr and Freyja, and since Freyr was a very popular god, he was the logical choice.
There are many other examples of Snorri “marrying” gods and goddesses whose sexual activities were of a somewhat more irregular nature. (Many think that this is one reason why he has little to say about the very sexual goddess Freyja.) I wanted to dwell on these instances because they reflect directly on myths with political import.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987.
The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996.
Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson/ Lee M. Hollander, American-Scandinavian Foundation, University of Texas Press, 1992 (7th ed.)
Clunies-Ross, Margaret 1987: Skáldskaparmál: Snorri Sturluson’s ars poetica and medieval theories of language, Odense University Press.
Lindow, John, 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
If you like the image of the Norwegian coast, click here.