His life story could have been ripped from one of the pages of the sagas he so famously compiled, and it is full of high culture, political machinations, and, ultimately, murder.
The Sturlung Era
Snorri Sturluson was born in Hvammar in what is now the island nation of Iceland at the turn of the 12th century in 1179 CE.
For two and a half centuries before Sturulson's birth, Iceland was known as Þjóðveldið Ísland, often translated as the "Icelandic Commonwealth."
The Commonwealth is sometimes seen as one of the world's first parliamentary democracies as chieftains helped shape a political code and would also oversee disputes at a national assembly, the Althing.
Sturluson was born into a prominent family, a member of the powerful Sturlungar clan. This clan controlled vast swathes of land all over the island, especially in the west and northeast.
His childhood was spent with his two older brothers, two sisters, and nine half-siblings in the small village of Oddi.
Somewhat unusually for the time, he was raised by a distant relative, Jón Loftsson, who was a relative of the Norwegian royal family. Sturluson came into Loftsson's care as a result of his father's hot temper.
As his father was trying to settle a disagreement between a priest and a chieftain, the chieftain's wife lunged at Sturla with a knife intending to blind him in one eye, like the Norse god Odin. However, bystanders deflected the blow, and the knife grazed Sturla's cheek instead.
In the political fallout from the knife fight, Loftsson intervened to compensate Sturla by funding the young Snorri's education – a serious and expensive undertaking during the early medieval period.
This political fallout from a knife fight would change the course of Norse mythology and culture forever.
Courtly travels and growing political importance
Loftsson's wealth and political connections saw Sturluson receive an education that he could only dream of. He was groomed to enter the political class and elite of the Icelandic Commonwealth.
Following his studies, he entered into an arranged marriage with Herdis Vermundarson, a daughter of a powerful chieftain. Through this marriage alliance, Sturluson inherited a huge estate making him a powerful landowner. When not busy running this estate, he also had time to father five children.
The next phase of his life saw Sturluson achieve high political office; in 1215 CE, Sturluson was elected as the speaker of the Althing. This was a uniquely Scandinavian legal office with a basis in oral history.
Sturluson was perhaps the most famous holder of this position, which was the only publically elected office in Iceland at the time. He essentially had to know the law – all of the law – by heart and could be called on anytime the Althing met – by any member on any - and every - aspect of the legal code.
This position led to a royal invite from Norwegian King Haakon IV Haakonson, where he spent the next four years meeting the political and cultural elite of both the Norwegian and Swedish realms.
During his sojourn in Norway, Sturluson saw his fascination with history and culture encouraged by the Norwegian King. Upon returning to Iceland in 1220 CE, Sturluson started work on his magnum opus, a huge body of Norse mythology that is seen as the linguistic pinnacle of the Old Norse language.
The Prose Edda and Heimskringla
The Prose Edda is, without any doubt, the most definitive and finest compilation of Norse mythology. Although historical records from medieval Iceland are notoriously sketchy, it is believed that Sturluson began compiling this collection in about 1220 CE.
Its unique division into three parts add to its charm as probably the most important piece of Old Norse literature yet available. It consists of a prologue – a sort of "All you need to know about the Norse gods" in question and answer form, a second part consisting mainly of kennings and other poetic devices.
The final part is mainly a discussion on the finer points of the art of skaldic poetry. The whole work, almost 100,000 words, is believed to have been, at the least, compiled, if not actually written, by Sturluson. The collection of poems contained in the works has been separately labeled, by modern scholars, as the Poetic Edda.
Sturluson's works are still popular today. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Sturluson's time in the Norwegian royal court – and interaction with the Scandinavian political elite there – led to Sturluson's second most important piece of work, the Heimskringla.
Compiled about a decade after the Prose Edda, this was a collection of historical sagas divided into two parts. The first part dealt with the origin of the Yngling dynasty, which ruled both Norway and Sweden from the 8th to 10th centuries CE.
The second part is slightly more historically accurate as it deals with a general history of Swedish and Norwegian royalty stretching from the coronation of Harald Fairhair in 971 CE until the death of a royal pretender, Eystein Meyla, in 1171 CE.
Both works are still popular today and seen as an important intangible asset of Icelandic culture.
Later life, exile, and assassination
Outside of the literary world, Sturluson was, from 1224 – 1230 CE, the most important chieftain in Iceland. His literary and cultural prowess only added to his political importance.
Yet despite his political and literary achievements, Sturluson's later life appears to be ripped out of the pages of a tragic saga. A period of civil war and clan feuding in Iceland occurred and was only stopped by the intervention of Norwegian King Haakon IV.
By 1237 CE, clan jealousies and political machinations saw the tide had turned against Sturluson, and he was forced into exile in Norway.
Despite the hospitality of his Norwegian monarch, civil war and strife in Norway saw Haakon's position weaken. Having been made a knight of Norway in his earlier life, Haakon denied his request to return home to Iceland in order to support the King's ailing rule.
Eventually making it back to Iceland, he unsuccessfully summoned a session of the Althing. In the autumn of 1241 CE, a band of 70 men led a surprise attack on Sturluson's house and assassinated him.
Clan jealousies, as well as the fact he disobeyed Haakon and fled Norway, were seen as the reasoning behind his death. Some twenty years later, Iceland was absorbed into a royal union with Norway, and each Icelander had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Norwegian monarch.
Iceland's man of letters is unique in that it is not often someone who scaled the literary and cultural heights of a nation often meets such a gruesome end.
Later political legacy
Despite a less-than-glorious end, Sturluson's legacy is still glorious, almost eight centuries after his demise.
The Prose Edda and Heimskringla are not only important sources of historical and cultural knowledge but are seen as aiding the Icelandic written language much in the same way Don Quixote has to Spanish, Voltaire, or Shakespeare's works to English.
His works took on a particularly political tone during the 20th century in two Nordic countries.
His Prose Edda was seen as a major highpoint in Icelandic culture and celebrated as Iceland sought to sever ties and gain independence from Denmark in the early 20th century.
In Norway, during the same period, the Heimskringla was used to foster a very Norwegian national identity as it sought independence from Sweden.
Finally, without Sturluson's work, Hollywood would not have been able to make the recent Thor movie franchise. This means Sturluson is worthy of further praise – or scorn – depending on how much you like cheesy Hollywood action movies.
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