Odin, Snorra Edda
Snorra Edda
Literature about the Vikings in Scandinavia, though written hundreds of years after the Viking Age and therefore somewhat unreliable, nevertheless provides an intriguing picture of who they were. Two works, the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, demonstrate that Vikings valued intellectual skill and artistic expression far more than suggested by popular imagery.

Old Norse beliefs are best known by literature preserved in Iceland, especially through the works of the great Icelandic author, Snorri Sturluson. Sturluson's Prose Edda is a careful analysis of the different types of poetic verses composed by the Vikings, especially the complex form called Skaldic poetry. This work creates the character of a traveler named Gylfi who comes to the court of three wise men and asks them questions of the sort we might ask ourselves; for instance, why is mead called the liquid of the drawfs in poetry? Through these questions and answers, the wise men reveal many myths and stories, including the explanation for the origin of mead (a fermented honey drink). In this myth, mead was created by the drawfs, who gave it to the giants, but which was later stolen by Odin, the supreme god.

Why did Snorri, a Christian, want to preserve non-Christian beliefs? Snorri's account shows that poetry was intimately connected to Old Norse religion. He seemed concerned that conversion to Christianity would mean the death of this traditional old poetic form, so he recorded tales of the Viking gods Odin, Thor, Frey, Freya, Loki, Frigg, Iduna, and of the end of the world, when the Fenris Wolf swallows the moon. Snorri also explains the intricate structure of Viking poetry, which had a dazzling array of forms. Thanks to Snorri's work, Viking culture emerges as intellectually rich, especially in the verbal arts.

Viking Advice

Gwynn Jones on Sagas

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Another work of literature that gives insight into the intellectual side of the Vikings is called "Havamal", Sayings of the High One (probably refering to the god Odin). This work is part of a collection of poems known as Poetic Edda, perhaps assembled by the Icelandic cleric Saemandur Sigfusson in the 11th century. Similar in tone and style to the biblical Book of Proverbs, Havamal contains short, memorable words of wisdom that help explain the Norse sense of honor and propriety. Examples include: "Be your friend's true friend. Return gift for gift. Repay laughter with laughter again but betrayal with treachery." The picture that emerges from Havamal and saga literature in general is that of a culture bound by strict rules of conduct and a keen sense of honor. Acting wisely, as judged by your peers and elders, is a primary concern.

Similar in style and set-up is an anonymous work from Norway dating to around 1230 called The King's Mirror, which describes an instructive conversation between a father and his son. Here the father gives advice about a range of practical matters, like how to prepare for voyages across the sea to Greenland. As you set off on your own Viking voyage, take heed of the father's words!
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