Snorri Sturluson

(1179 - 1241)

In many countries of the world presiding officers of legislative chambers are called “speakers,” however, “speaking” is not their main task. They might occasionally say a few words, like at the beginning or the end of a session as well as when directing its proceeding. Still they are either not very consequential guardians of the procedure or on the contrary highly consequential movers of behind the scenes politics, rather than prolific narrators. Yet there was a time and a place where “speaking” was the main part of the job of a speaker. That place was The Icelandic Commonwealth (Þjóðveldið Ísland) until its demise in 1262. The exact title of the official was Speaker of the Law (lögsögumaður, literally “law speaking man“), and boy did it require speaking! Once a year the legislature Alþingi (“assembly of all”) would gather at Þingvellir (“assembly fields”) to discuss the business of the Commonwealth, but the main event of the gathering was the Lawspeaker reciting all the laws in force in Iceland in that year. By far the most famous of all Lawspeakers was Snorri son of Sturla Þórðarson, hence Snorri Sturluson. He served in that highest (and only) public office in Iceland twice, in 1215-1218 and in 1222-32. Snorri did not just recite laws. His whole life he was an active participant in the politics of both Iceland and the country from which its population originated – Norway. While Iceland was a republic (Þjóðveldið is literally “common-wealth-the” following the rules of Icelandic and Old Norse grammar), Norway was a kingdom and a more powerful entity. At certain times Snorri, who was courted and honored by King Hákon, was a supporter of king’s interests, which were to make Iceland its dependency (in which Hákon eventually succeeded). However, at other times, particularly by end of his life, Snorri became a supporter of Jarl Skule, father-in-law of the king and a pretender to the throne. That allegiance cost Snorri his life.

Yet if Snorri Sturluson had been just a player, albeit a prominent one, in medieval Norse feuds, he would have been one of many historical figures of moderate distinction. But Snorri was a poet. Indeed, his second stint as the Lawspeaker happened because of his by then considerable fame as a writer.

Most tellers of myths are nebulous figures at best or themselves mythical. Elephant Ganesha wrote down Mahabharata. Homer and other ancient Greeks lived thousands of years ago. Many other myths have no authors names attached to them. The closest to us in time myth giver is Snorri Sturluson. In 1220 he came up with what’s called Prose or Snorra (Snorri’s) Edda. It’s a collection of stories about creation, birth and genealogy of gods, feuds and eventual destruction of the world, though also its possible subsequent regeneration. This first myth telling part is called the Gylfaginning, the story of acquiring knowledge by King Gylfi, a mythical one himself. The part of Edda following that one is a treatise on the important features of Nordic poetry, the skaldic tradition. This section of Edda is called Skáldskaparmál – the language of skalds. It discusses kennings and heiti.  The former is a tradition of representing objects with their circumlocutional descriptions rather than actual names. An example of a kenning is báru fákr “wave’s horse” = “ship”. (The word kenning itself is a relative of “know” and “can”.) Heiti is a simpler one-word substitution of a more exotic, usually higher register or more archaic vocabulary for a common word. A good example is using jór – “steed” instead of the more prosaic hestr – “horse.” The term itself comes from the verb meaning “to call, to name.” Snorri presents a list of known heiti examples from skaldic poetry.

Such was the acclaim of Snorri’s work that his second election as a Lawspeaker was assured by his new literary reputation. But he was not done yet.He embarked on another major writing project, the history of Scandinavian kings. It starts with some legendary ones but also treats historic rulers on the span of the three centuries leading to Snorri’s time. The title of the work, given to it later, is Heimskringla, which means “world’s circle.” It is based, however, not on the broad sweep of the narrative, but on the words in the beginning of the text, nomenclature similar to the Hebrew names of the books of the bible. As I mentioned above, he not only chronicled past royal deeds but took an active part in the contemporary ones, ultimately with a sad end.

In 1218 Snorri left his position and sailed to Norway on young King Hákon Hákonarson’s invitation. He also met co-regent Jarl Skúli. When he returned to Iceland two years later, he was a supporter of the union with Norway. Many years of political and military turbulence in Iceland followed. At his next visit to Norway in 1238 Snorri was persuaded to support Jarl Skúli instead, who had been feuding with the king. Snorri returned to Iceland in 1239 (Skúli was defeated and killed in 1240). Snorri’s turn came a year later. He was besieged in his stronghold in Reykholt, which unluckily for him was not strong enough, and assassinated there on the orders of the king.

I did not get to visit Reykholt, but we surely flew over it on the way to Snæfellsnes (see the story of our adventures in Iceland, including at the Alþingi here).

The Gylfaginning was translated to Spanish and commented on by Jorge Luis Borges, another cultural hero of mine.

Old Snorri

Þingvellir, the site of the Alþingi

Snorra Edda