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The Struggle for Life in the Prose Edda

[1]

Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, The Ash Yggdrasil, 1886

1,480 words

Snorri Sturluson
Translated by Jesse L. Byock
The Prose Edda 
London: Penguin, 2005

There is always an air of mystery surrounding the most ancient religious texts. The great bulk were gradually developed through oral traditions, passed down, and then evolved from generation to generation. We typically know little or nothing about their authors, whether the Brahmins who composed the Upanishads or the Greeks’ notoriously elusive “Homer.” While these texts no doubt reflect the aristocratic and/or priestly classes which produced and/or consumed them, they above all record and express the spiritual history of a people. These tales are what resonated with them throughout their history, inspiring them to preserve them for their posterity. A people’s values and psychology become, over the generations, projected upon their holy myths and supreme deities. The Tanakh, the Rig Veda, and the Homeric poems are each saturated with the values of Bronze Age peoples violently asserting themselves in the struggle for survival.

Germanic mythology is fated to remain comparatively unknown. The Germanic tribes and Norsemen did not create copious written texts recording their religious beliefs. Our most extensive sources, the two Eddur (singular: Edda), exist because the newly-Christianized Icelanders of the thirteenth century decided to preserve their old pagan poems and stories. It is a good thing that copying ancient texts was a popular Icelandic pastime! (A product, no doubt, of stereotypical Nordic diligence and lack of alternative activities on the island.) The Eddur, written in the thirteenth century, reflect oral traditions going back to the ninth through the twelfth centuries.

The Eddur express the ethos of the medieval Norsemen as a competitive, dynamic, and warlike people, a people who lived in a truly inhospitable far northern climate as thrifty farmers, seafaring traders and explorers, and bandits and conquerors. The Vikings’ accomplishments include the discovery of the Americas, the colonization of Iceland, the conquest of Normandy and Sicily, and possibly the foundation of the first Russian state (Kievan Rus). The so-called Poetic Edda, as the name suggests, preserves various poems, most notably the Hávamál, or Sayings of the High One, a compendium of wise proverbs. The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson recounts the tales in a more straightforward style and often comments on the poems.

The Vikings’ world was one of warriors and explorers, questing for power and wisdom. Young men are expected to take risks, travel, and fight to establish themselves in the world:

Young men who have not yet taken possession of a farm are called drengir while they build up their resources and reputations. If they travel from country to country, they are called fardrengir [traveling lads]. If they serve kings they are called the king’s drengir, and the same designation is used for men who serve magnates and property holders and for men who are ambitious and manly. (118)

This is a world in which “to become renowned, [one] has to place [one]self in danger” (Gylfaginning, 34). A childless man’s kingdom was like a flightless featherless hawk, “disabled” and without a future (Skaldskaparmal, 7).

Warriors have a central place in Norse poetry and mythology. Odin is “the highest and oldest of the gods . . . all serve him as children do their father. . . . He is called Father of the Slain, because all who fall in battle are his adopted sons” (Gylf., 20). Battle is called “the wind, tumult, and din of weapons, and of shields, and of Odin, and of the Valkyrie and of invading kings” (115). Those who fall in battle ascend to Valhalla, a hall lit with shining swords, with the help of the Valkyrie warrior-maidens. They then feast and fight daily until the end of the world.

Life is central to Norse mythology in the most literal sense. The Earth itself is like a living being and nourishes all life:

[T]he earth and animals and birds were in some ways similar, even though their natures were not alike. One of the earth’s features is that, when the high mountains are dug into, water springs up, and even in deep valleys it is not necessary to dig down any further for water. The same is true in animals and birds, whose blood is equally close to the surface on the head and feet. . . . People think of rocks and stones as comparable to the teeth and bones of living creatures. Thus they understand that the earth is alive and has a life of its own. They also know that, in terms of years, the earth is wondrously old and powerful in its own nature. It gives birth to all living things and claims ownership over all that dies. For this reason, they gave it a name and traced their origins to it. (Prologue, 1)

Fire, aldnari, is at once a nourisher of life and a destructive force (147).

The universe’s various worlds are held together by the sacred ash tree Yggdrasil, which is “the central or holy place of the gods” where “each day the gods hold their courts” (Gylf., 15). Yggdrasil does not sustain the cosmos without difficulty. On the contrary:

The ash Yggdrasil
endures hardship,
more than men know.
A stag bites from above
and its sides rot;
From below Nidhogg gnaws. (Lay of Grimnir 3.5)

Nidhogg, meaning “Hateful Striker,” is a malevolent serpent eternally biting at the roots of the World-Tree. The world, depending upon life, is then at once vibrant and vulnerable.

The Norse gods embody various ideals and psychological traits. Odin is wise, cunning, and dangerous. A human visiting Odin is told to grow wiser or he will perish (Gylf., 2). Thor is mighty and courageous, if a little simple-minded. There is no good without willful self-sacrifice: Odin gives up an eye to drink from the well of wisdom. The noble god Týr must give up a hand to the wolf Fenrir to trick and contain that beast.

Female deities are present, but less prominent than their male counterparts. Nonetheless, the Edda insists: “The goddesses are no less sacred [than the gods], nor are they less powerful” (Gylf., 20). The translator notes: “Throughout Scandinavia, women worshiped Freyja as the female deity of love and fertility and as the goddess of pleasure and household prosperity” (xxiii).

Loki is evil or ambiguous: a trickster-god who is typically up to no good but who occasionally is made to work with the gods. Loki and the ogress Angrboda spawned monsters, at which “[a]ll of the gods became aware that harm was on the way, first because of the mother’s nature, but even more so because of the father’s” (Gylf., 34). On one occasion, a dwarf puts an end to Loki’s mischief by sewing his lips shut (Skald., 5).

Men’s fates are predetermined by the Norns. The gods themselves are destined to perish at Ragnarök, the Fate of the Gods, in an awesome battle with monsters and Loki. The fallen at Valhalla themselves will participate in this final struggle. At Ragnarök, the collapse of morality accompanies that of the world: “Brothers will kill brothers for the sake of greed, and neither father nor son will be spared in the killings and the collapse of kinship” (Gylf., 51). The translator, Jesse Byock, notes that the word used for “collapse of kinship,” sifjaslit, also has “the connotation of incest” (146). The World-Tree is shaken:

The ash of Yggrasil trembles
as it stands,
the old tree groans. (The Seeress’ Prophecy, 46)

Perhaps, however, the World-Tree will survive this cataclysm. In any event, life will survive: two humans, appropriately named Life (Lif) and Life-Yearner (Leifthrasir), will go on to repopulate the world (Gylf., 53). The Germanic gods and their world are then not immortal. The Norse peoples, even in their dynamism and conquests, were aware of the inevitability of their own passing and the cyclic renewal of the world. Did they foresee the twentieth century?

Snorri’s Edda is prefaced with a Christian statement:

Again, as before, when their numbers had grown and they had settled throughout the world, the majority of mankind loved worldly desires and ambition. They abandoned their obedience to God, going so far that they no longer desired to name God. Who then was able to tell their sons about God’s wondrous deeds? Thus they lost God’s name, and nobody could be found anywhere in the world who knew his maker. (Prologue, 1)

Does the final line not ring true, regardless of one’s particular spiritual tradition? Are Europeans not living like sleepwalking half-men today, because they have forgotten the force, the natural laws, which made them? The Eddur exhort doomed men to undertake the struggle for life and gloriously join the gods in waging war against the snake Nidhogg and Loki’s spawn. These words have continued to inspire Europeans down the ages. William Pierce [2] would repeat these famous lines from the Hávamál as a credo:

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
And so too must one die oneself.
But there is one thing I know that never dies,
And that is the fame of a dead man’s deeds.