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Norse Gods in Tyrkland: The Manipulation of the Classical Tradition in Snorra Edda

Kathleen Noelle Cruz

Princeton University

            In the early 13th century, the Icelandic poet and politician Snorri Sturluson composed his Edda (now known as the Prose or Snorra Edda) while part of the court of the Norwegian king Hákon Hákonarson. The Edda promises to allow its student to become a master of an archaic style of Scandinavian poetry and begins with a genealogical account of Scandinavian rulers. In this account, Snorri focuses his attention on “the middle of the world” (miðri veröldinni), or Troy (Trjóa, now Tyrkland). Among its rulers are Priam (Príamí) and his descendent Thor (Þór) (ch. 4). Snorri later edits his own genaelogy and fully asserts that the Norse deity Thor is in fact the same as Hector of Troy, and not only that, but one can attribute the great stories of Ulysses to the god Loki (ch. 54).

            Scholars have had mixed reactions to Snorri’s bold claims both of Scandinavian royalty’s descent from a Trojan line and of Hector and Ulysses being equivalent to Thor and Loki. While some have observed only an example of the larger trend found in medieval histories of locating the origin of one’s nation in Troy (Faulkes 1982), others have rejected one or both of these passages as inauthentic and the fault of later editors (Brodeur 1916). They have also been dismissed as scholarly entertainment, either for Snorri himself or later interpolators, and as linguistic games (e.g., Thor being found in Hec-tor) that ought not to be taken seriously (Lorenz 1984).

            In this paper, I argue that these passages, and in particular the associations Snorri draws for Thor-Hector and Loki-Ulysses, are purposefully chosen through similarities between their contemporary mythic profiles. I do so by comparing Snorri’s pairings with the iterations of Hector and Ulysses we find in our greatest source for medieval Iceland’s conception of the Trojan narrative, Trójumanna saga (The Saga of the Men of Troy). Scholars have noted that Trójumanna saga is a clear adaptation of the 5th or 6th century Daretis Phrygii de excidio Troiae (Eldevik 1987 and 2004), but the significant changes to the Latin text made by the saga author, I contend, both mirror the priorities of Icelandic culture found in other texts of this period and, more importantly, make the connections of Thor-Hector and Loki-Ulysses more explicit and defensible. In particular, Trójumanna saga repeatedly emphasizes Troy’s immense fortifications and Hector’s role as their defender in a way that neatly parallels Thor’s position as the protector of Asgard’s walls throughout Snorra Edda, and the saga’s invented speeches concerning Ulysses and Ajax flesh out both Ulysses’ wily, loquacious character and its very real consquences: an inherent point about Loki’s nature throughout the Edda.

            After establishing the Icelandic connections between Thor-Hector and Loki-Ulysses, I conclude by arguing that this serious approach to Snorri’s use of the classical tradition also allows us to better understand what value the classical tradition had for medieval Scandinavia and its political players. Building on Kevin Wanner’s (2008) work understanding Snorra Edda as a piece of cultural capital, I argue that these scattered allusions to the Troy narrative are strategically placed to appease the changing literary interests of King Hákon. King Hákon’s reign notably shifted away from royal appreciation of traditional Scandinavian poetic styles – including the very kind of verse that the Snorra Edda aims to teach – in favor of the classically inspired literary tradition of southern Europe. Snorri’s attempts to connect Hákon’s line and office with classical antiquity in the Edda thus represents an effort to appease a classically-interested reader while still remaining a composer of a traditional, Scandinavian art form. In other words, Snorri’s use of the classical tradition is a direct response to, in his view, an infringement of the classical onto the Scandinavian, and the Edda introduces the classical only as a way to halt a complete usurpation of its literary landscape.

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