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Wisdom is memory. Snorri, Edda

n the b e g in n in g , Sn or r i w r ites, th e re wa s n oth i n g . No s a n d , n o sea, no cooling wave. No earth, no heaven above. Nothing but the yawning empty gap, Ginnungagap. All was cold and grim. Then came Surt with a crashing noise, bright and burning. He bore a aming sword. Rivers of re owed till they turned hard as slag from an iron makers forge, then froze to ice. The ice sheet grew, layer upon layer, till it bridged the mighty, magical gap. Where the ice met sparks of ame and still-owing lava from Surts home in the South, it thawed, dripping like an icicle to form the rst frost giant, Ymir, and his cow. Ymir drank the cows abundant milk. The cow licked the ice, which was salty. It licked free a handsome god and his wife. They had three sons, one of whom was Odin, the ruler of heaven and earth, the greatest and most glorious of the gods: the All-Father. Odin and his brothers killed Ymir. From his body they fashioned the world: His esh was the soil, his blood the sea. His bones and teeth became stones and scree. His hair became trees, his skull was the sky, his brain, the clouds. From his eyebrows they made Middle Earth, which they peopled with humans, crafting the rst man and woman from driftwood they found on the seashore.


Song of the Vikings

So Snorri explains the creation of the world in the beginning of his Edda. Partly he is quoting an older poem, Song of the Sibyl, whose author he does not name. Partly he is making it upespecially the bit about the world forming in a kind of volcanic eruption and then freezing to ice. If this myth were truly ancient, there would be no volcano. Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, the Scandinavian homelands, are not volcanic. Only Icelanddiscovered in 870, when Norse paganism was already on the waneis geologically active. In medieval times Icelands volcanoes erupted ten or a dozen times a century, often burning through thick glaciers. Nothing is as characteristic of Icelands landscape as the clash between re and ice. Ymirs cow may be Snorris invention, too. No other source mentions this monstrous cow, nor what the giant Ymir lived on, but like all wealthy Icelanders, Snorri was a dairyman. He was also a Christian. It suits his wry sense of humor for the rst pagan god to be born from a salt lick. Snorri goes on: Odin established the godly city of Asgard. There he built his feast hall, Valhalla, with its roof of golden shields and 540 doors. In a silverroofed palace nearby sat his throne, from which he watched over all the nine worlds, from the highest bright heaven to the damp, dark underworld called Hel. He could see the lands of the Aesir gods (like him) and the Vanir gods (enemies at rst, then in-laws and allies), the lands of the frost giants like Ymir and re giants like Surt, the lands of the light elves and dark elves, of the dwarfs in their halls of stone, and Middle Earth, the land where humans lived. Odin could see what everyone was doing everywhere. In case he missed something, his ravens, Thought and Memory, ew over all the nine worlds each day collecting news. Sometimes Odin wandered the nine worlds himself. One of his rst quests was to search out the well of wisdom: He traded an eye for a single sip of enlightenment. Odin One-Eye was Snorris favorite of all the Norse gods and goddesses. Following tradition, he placed Odin, god of Wednesday (from the Old English spelling, Wodens Day), at the head of the Viking pantheon of twelve gods and twelve goddesses. Then Snorri increased Odins power. Rather like the Christian God the Father, Snorris Odin All-Father governed all things great and small. Icelanders had in fact long favored Thor, the god of Thursday. They named their children after the mighty thunder god: In a twelfth-century record of Icelands rst settlers, a thousand people bear names beginning with Thor. None is named for Odin. Nor did the rst Christian missionaries to Iceland

Odins Eye


nd cults of Odin. Odin is rarely mentioned in the sagas. For a good sailing wind Icelanders called on Thor. But Snorri wasnt fond of Thorexcept as comic relief. Thor was the god of farmers. Odin was a god for aristocratsnot just the king of gods but the god of kings. He had the best horse, eight-legged Sleipnir; Snorri told two memorable tales about Odins horse. Odin had a gold helmet and a ne coat of mail, a spear, and a gold ring that magically dripped eight matching rings every ninth night. No problem for him to be a generous lord, a gold giver. Finally Odin gave men the gift of poetry. At least in Snorris mythology he did. Snorris tale of the divine mead that turns all drinkers into poets is dismissed by modern critics as one of his more imaginative efforts. The story begins with the feud between the Aesir gods and the Vanir. They declared a truce, and gods from each side spat into a crock to mark the peace. Odin took the spittle and made it into a man. Truce Man traveled far and wide, teaching humans wisdom, until he was killed by the dwarfs. (They told Odin that Truce Man had choked on his own learning.) The dwarfs poured Truce Mans blood into a kettle and two crocks, mixed it with honey, and made the mead of poetry. To end a feud, the dwarfs gave the mead to the giant Suttung, who hid it in the depths of a mountain with his daughter as its guard. Odin set out to fetch the mead. He tricked Suttungs brother into helping him, and they bored a hole through the mountain. Odin changed into a snake and slithered in, returning to his glorious god form to seduce Suttungs lonely daughter. He lay with her for three nights; for each night she paid him a sip of mead. On the rst sip he drank the kettle dry. With the next two sips he emptied the crocks. Then he transformed himself into an eagle and took off. Suttung spied the eeing bird. Suspicious, he changed into his giant eagle form and made chase. It was a near thing. To clear the wall of Asgard, Odin had to squirt some of the mead out backwardthe men who licked it up can write only doggerel. The rest of the mead he spat into vessels the gods had set out when they saw him coming. He shared this mead with certain exceptional men; they are called poets. Though Odin is sneaky, two faced, arrogant, and avaricious in Snorris tales, he is no dim-witted muscleman like Thor, no irtatious mare like the trickster god, Loki. In all his writings Snorri never once made Odin look ridiculous. Perhaps thats because Snorris own father, Sturla of Hvamm, was once likened to the one-eyed god.