Heimskringla is a history of the Norse monarchs of the Viking era, as outlined in a series of 16 sagas written in Old Norse by the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson around 800 years ago. 

They provide present-day historians with an invaluable source of reference, although some of the events Snorri describes took place centuries before he actually sat down to record them, passed down by means of oral tradition. 

Who was Snorri Sturluson?

The clan into which Snorri was born were prominent members of the Icelandic parliament, the Althingi, which would convene at the picturesque, volcanic setting of Thingvellir or Assembly Plains. 

Chieftains and their advisors gathered each June to agree on new laws and consider old ones, a vital and complex ritual whose details were not recorded in writing, at least not there and then.

A Lögsögumaður or Lawspeaker would be tasked with reading out these laws from memory while standing on a certain prominent rock in the middle of Thingvellir to address the throng. A natural platform for such a purpose, the Lögberg welcomed a new Lawspeaker every three summers. 

Snorri Sturluson was just such a Lawspeaker, not once, but twice. He was, therefore, perfectly positioned to know of the workings and heritage of Norse society. In addition, from an early age, he was raised by Jón Loftsson, whose own schooling at the royal center of Kungahälla furnished him with lifelong links to the Norwegian court. 

At the age of 20, Snorri gained chieftain status and an estate at Reykholt through an arranged marriage with Bersi Vermundarson. By now, it was 1199, 15 years after the death of Magnus Erlingsson, the last Norwegian king to whom Snorri would dedicate one of his sagas in Heimskringla. 

Jón Loftsson, his tutor, would have possibly had first-hand, and certainly second-hand, knowledge of a monarch who ruled during their lifetimes. For context, Iceland was mainly settled by Scandinavian chieftains from the late 800s onwards and didn't come under the Norwegian crown until 1262. 

There would have been plenty of trade, traffic, and general interaction between Iceland and the mainland, a sailing journey of around four to five days in the Viking era.

Spa retreat at Reykholt

Around 1206, Snorri settled down at his Reykholt estate, even building himself a spa bath around the hot springs there. You can visit their remains today at the Snorrastofa Research and Cultural Center, at the very site where the great Icelandic poet composed Heimskringla, among other works.

After a decade or so of perfecting his skills as a poet and preparing the lengthy textbook on Norse mythology that would become known as Prose Edda, Snorri was invited to the royal court in Norway. He spent the winter of 2018 there, partly in the company of the recently crowned king, Hakon Hakonarson. 

Ironically later known as Hakon the Old, who would reign for nearly half a century, the monarch was then only 13, surrounding himself with writers and historians to provide him with advice.

The following year, Snorri headed to Sweden, where he spent time with the Swedish Lawspeaker Eskil Magnusson, who imparted his knowledge of the workings and heritage of the monarchy there.

By the time Snorri returned to Iceland in 1220, he was a leading authority on Norse history and was again selected to be Lawspeaker at the Althingi, this time for ten years. Thus began the Age of the Sturlungs, a short but violent period in medieval Icelandic history. 

Snorri had entered into yet another useful marriage, to the granddaughter of his former tutor, Jón Loftsson. This helped make him Iceland's most powerful chieftain from 1224 onwards, one who favored union with Norway, not the most popular view in certain important political circles in his homeland.

A statue of Snorri Sturlusson in Iceland. Photo: BMJ / Shutterstock

Odin, the Ynglinga, and Scandinavia united

It was during this time that Snorri began work on his magnum opus, Heimskringla, the name given to it centuries later. The earliest surviving manuscript, a page dating from 1260, around three decades after Snorri had written it, is called Kringla, 'Circle.' 

Its title, by which it is known today, Heimskringla, 'The Circle (or Orb) of the World,' is taken from the first words of the first of the 16 sagas.

Chronological in order, the sagas begin swathed in Norse mythology. The opening Ynglinga Saga is based on a previous work more than two centuries earlier by the Norwegian skald, Thjódólf of Hvinir. 

They describe a mythological prehistoric time when the Norse gods came to Scandinavia to found the Swedish royal dynasty, Ynglinga. This begins with the Earth's circle, heimskringla, soon divided into three parts, Europe, Asia, and the cold north, or Swithiod the Great.

This world is further divided between gods and men, Godheim and Mannheim. East of the river Tanals, commonly thought to be the Don, is a country, Vanaland, where Odin is a warrior chief, unbeaten in battle. 

He travels to Saxland, modern-day Germany, then across the sea to the north, Sealand, today's Scandinavia, guided by two ravens and his own unique magic powers. 

Among Odin's decrees is that the deceased should be burned with their belongings, and the more distinguished among them interred within a mound. When Odin himself dies, he ascends to Godheim, also referred to as Swithiod the Great. 

His successor, Njord, presides over an era of calm and plenty, leaving the gods to disappear and Njord's successor, Frey, to establish a capital at Uppsala in Sweden. 

Frey is also known as Yngvi, meaning his descendants are Ynglinga, whose subjects continue to make sacrifices to Frey. The Ynglinga continued to rule over Sweden for several centuries, until Agne, whose existence may be proved by excavations of his burial mound in Sollentuna, north of Stockholm. It dates to around 400.

Snorralaug, Snorri Sturluson's warm outdoor bathing pool in Reykholt, Iceland. Photo: Linda Harms / Shutterstock

There follows a similar list of subsequent rulers and descriptions of their actions and battles, most notably as they maraud Denmark and Finland. These characters are semi-mythical and often share parallels with actual figures from history. 

The series ends with Ottar, also cited in the Old English poem Beowulf, who would have lived in the early 500s before his slaying by Danes. Excavations of his mound in Uppland revealed a gold Roman coin with which he was buried, dating to the mid to late 400s.

Subsequent monarchs, from Haifdan the Black onwards, are granted their own saga. The third focuses on Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway, possibly born around 850, who ruled over a kingdom roughly equivalent to the modern-day country from the 870s onwards. 

Haakon Haraldsson, 'The Good,' was the first king to try to introduce Christianity, Harald II 'Greycloak' was the son of Harald Fairhair, and Olaf Tryggvason was said to have built the first church in Norway and founded the city of Trondheim.

By the time we get to St Olaf, the seventh saga, Snorri combines skaldic poetry with the Latin tradition of idealized hagiography, making it the longest of his tales.

Magnus the Good (1035-1047) became king of Norway and Denmark, while Harald Hardrada (1046-1066) was probably the most celebrated and certainly most traveled of Norway's kings, the one slain at Stamford Bridge in northern England. 

The subsequent monarchs, Olaf III the Peaceful, also present at Stamford Bridge, Magnus III the Barefoot, Sigurd the Crusader, Magnus IV the Blind, Sigurd II, and Haakon II all lived within a century or so of Snorri's lifetime. 

The final monarch described with his own saga, Magnus Erlingsson, was the first to be crowned king of Scandinavia. He died in 1184, when Snorri would have been a young boy.

Snorri and his legacy

Snorri himself lived until 1241, when he was killed by Gissur Thorvaldsson, probably acting on behalf of the King of Norway, following the poet's tense visit there in the late 1230s. He was slain in his own cellar, his last words being, 'Do not strike!'. 

Heimskringla was first translated into modern Scandinavian languages around the 1600s, then into English in 1844. The most recent was published in three volumes by the London-based Viking Society for Northern Research between 2011-15. 

The earliest original parchment, that page from the Saga of St Olaf dating to 1260, is held at the National and University Library of Iceland in Reykjavík

Many centuries after his murder at the age of 62, Snorri Sturluson is considered to have been influential in Norway's successful search for a national identity in the later 19th century, as well as Iceland's decades later. 

Tellingly, the runic code that Otto Lidenbrock discovers in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth is hidden in a copy of Heimskringla, luring the professor and his nephew to Iceland.

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