What was Snorri Sturluson best known for?

Image: Snorri Sturluson by Norwegian painter Christian Krohg (1890s)

Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) was a medieval Icelandic historian, poet, and lawmaker.

He is best known for his monumental literary contributions, which have been foundational for our understanding of Norse mythology and historical Norse kings.

World History Edu presents some key points about Snorri Sturluson’s life and major works:

Place of birth and family

Snorri Sturluson, born in 1179 AD, hailed from Hvammur í Dölum, often referred to as Hvamm or Hvammr, in Iceland. He was born to Sturla Þórðarson the Elder of Hvammur and his second wife, Guðný Böðvarsdóttir.

It’s said that he had three siblings, including two older brothers Þórðr and Sighvatr Sturluson. He also had nine half-siblings

His Lineage

Snorri was part of the prominent Sturlungar clan, which held considerable wealth and influence during the period of the Icelandic Commonwealth.

The Icelandic Commonwealth was a unique medieval state, characterized by a lack of central executive power and where much of the authority lay in the hands of local chieftains and assemblies.

His lineage positioned him within a network of power and privilege, which would later play a significant role in his life, both as a historian and a political figure in Iceland’s complex chieftain-led society.

Relationship to Egill Skallagrímsson

Snorri Sturluson’s lineage connects him to the legendary figures of Icelandic history and saga tradition. It’s said that he was a descendant of Egill Skallagrímsson, one of Iceland’s most renowned skalds (poets) and the protagonist of “Egils saga”.

Egill Skallagrímsson was a Viking-age poet, warrior, and farmer who is remembered both for his adventurous life and his significant contributions to Old Norse poetry.

“Egils saga”, attributed to Snorri by some scholars though it remains debated, chronicles the lives of Egill and his ancestors and provides a vivid depiction of life, politics, and poetry in medieval Iceland and the broader Norse world.

Snorri’s familial connection to Egill was a link to the heroic past and the great skaldic tradition of Iceland. This lineage may have influenced Snorri’s interests and predispositions as a writer and historian. Having such an illustrious ancestor, especially one so deeply connected to the saga tradition, could have contributed to Snorri’s motivation to document, compile, and even compose sagas and poetic texts, ensuring the preservation of Iceland’s rich oral history and traditions.

Influence of Jón Loptsson

Snorri Sturluson, a prominent Icelandic historian, poet, and politician of the 13th century, was not raised in his birth family’s home. Instead, from the age of three, he grew up in Oddi, a significant cultural and educational center in Iceland, under the care of Jón Loptsson, a leading chieftain of the time.

Under Jón Loptsson’s tutelage, Snorri would have been immersed in these traditions, which would later influence his writings, especially his most famous work, the “Prose Edda,” a collection of Norse myths and poetic theories.

Jón Loptsson was not only a leader in Iceland but also had connections to the broader European world. This exposure gave Snorri an understanding and appreciation of continental European culture and politics, making him more cosmopolitan in his views. This broader perspective would have been especially useful during Snorri’s political career and his interactions with other Scandinavian leaders.

Oddi in Rangárvallasýsla, Iceland

How Snorri Sturluson came to be put in the care of Jón Loptsson

Sturla, Snorri Sturluson’s father, was in the process of settling a legal dispute with Páll Sölvason, a prominent figure in the community (referred to as a priest and chieftain or Goðorðsmaðr).

During this process, Páll’s wife, Þorbjörg Bjarnardóttir, made a sudden attempt to harm Sturla with a knife. Her intention was to injure him in a way that would make him resemble Odin, the chief deity in Norse mythology who is often depicted with one eye. However, before she could accomplish this, onlookers intervened, causing the knife to strike Sturla’s cheek instead.

Following this incident, the legal judgment that resulted would have caused significant financial hardship to Páll.

However, Jón Loftsson, a powerful and influential figure, intervened during the Althing (the national assembly of Iceland) to lessen the severity of the judgment. In a gesture of compensation for the harm caused to Sturla, Jón Loftsson offered to take in Snorri Sturluson and oversee his upbringing and education.

READ MORE: How did Odin lose one of his eyes?

Most famous works by Snorri Sturluson

  1. Prose Edda: Often simply referred to as the “Edda” or “Snorri’s Edda,” this is a manual of poetics that includes many stories from Norse mythology. Undoubtedly, this work of his is our main source for much of what we know about Old Norse gods and heroes.
  2. Heimskringla: This is a collection of sagas about the Norwegian kings, starting with the legendary Swedish dynasty of the Ynglings and continuing down to the reign of the medieval Norwegian king Magnus Erlingsson.

The Prose Edda (or Younger Edda) is a collection of Norse myths, poetic theories, and traditional Norse poetics. It serves as a manual for aspiring poets to compose in the Old Norse style and is an essential source of knowledge about Norse mythology and historical heroes. Image: Print edition of Snorri’s Edda of 1666


Apart from his prose works, Snorri was also a skald (a kind of Norse poet). Some of his poetry has been preserved in the sagas.

Political career

The Icelandic poet was deeply involved in the politics of his day, both in his country and Norway. He was twice elected (in 1215 and 1222) lawspeaker of the Althing, the national assembly of Iceland.

In 1218, Snorri Sturluson received an invitation from King Haakon IV of Norway (also known as Hákon Hákonarson), an invitation he accepted. This trip was significant in Snorri’s life for a number of reasons.

First of all, the Icelandic poet’s visit helped to cement political and personal ties with the Norwegian court. These connections were essential given the intertwined history and politics of Iceland and Norway.

Snorri’s time in Norway allowed him to gather additional information about Scandinavian kings and the history of the Norwegian monarchy. This information would prove invaluable when he later wrote “Heimskringla,” a collection of sagas about Norwegian kings.

After his visit to Norway, Snorri returned to Iceland with enhanced prestige and influence, which he used to navigate the complex and often violent politics of his homeland.

How did he die?

Snorri’s close ties with Norway and his involvement in its politics eventually led to complications.

His repeated travels to Norway, combined with his shifting allegiances and political maneuverings, made him a contentious figure in both Iceland and Norway.

This would ultimately play a role in the events leading up to his death in 1241. It’s said that the Icelandic poet was assassinated on the orders of King Haakon.

It’s also said that his last words were “Do not strike!” (Eigi skal höggva!), which he screamed at his assassin, Arni the Bitter.

READ MORE: Last words of some of history’s most famous figures

What happened after his death?

His assassination was met with disapproval in both Iceland and Norway, indicating his significance and the controversial nature of his death.

King Haakon IV of Norway, who was believed to have ordered Snorri’s assassination, tried to justify this act by saying that if Snorri had surrendered or complied with his wishes, he wouldn’t have been killed.

In 1262, the Althing (Iceland’s parliament) ratified a union with Norway. This was a significant political shift as it marked the end of Iceland’s Commonwealth era and its beginning as a territory under the Norwegian crown.

After the union, members of the Althing, and possibly other significant figures in Iceland, were required to swear personal loyalty to the Norwegian king. This practice of pledging allegiance continued through successive kings.

The culmination of this gradual erosion of Iceland’s independence was in 1662 when Icelanders formally accepted the concept of an absolute and hereditary monarchy, cementing Iceland’s position as a territory under the Norwegian (and later Danish) crown.

What was his legacy?

Snorri Sturluson’s works have been instrumental in the modern understanding and appreciation of Old Norse culture and literature. Without his recordings, much of the Norse mythology and sagas would likely have been lost to history.

Snorri’s writings, particularly the Prose Edda, are not just historical documents. They’ve inspired countless later works, ranging from the operas of Richard Wagner to contemporary works of fiction and fantasy.

Spouses and children

After the death of Snorri Sturluson’s father in 1183, his mother took on the role of his guardian. During this period, she managed to waste or misuse Snorri’s portion of his family inheritance.

In 1197, Jón Loftsson passed away. Following Jón’s death, the families of Snorri and Herdís, the daughter of Bersi Vermundarson, arranged a marriage between the two in 1199.

Through this marriage, Snorri acquired an estate located at Borg from his father-in-law, Bersi Vermundarson, and with it, the status of a chieftain. Over time, Snorri further expanded his landholdings and gained more positions of leadership, enhancing his influence and status in the region.

Snorri Sturluson and Herdís shared a home in Borg for four years and had at least two children, Hallbera and Jón. However, Snorri’s unfaithfulness led to marital strife, and by 1206, he had moved to Reykholt, leaving Herdís behind.

In Reykholt, he took on the role of estate manager and invested in infrastructure improvements, notably an outdoor bath sourced from geothermal springs, now known as Snorralaug. While residing in Reykholt, Snorri’s personal life remained complicated. He had children with three different women: Guðrún Hreinsdóttir, Oddný, and Þuríður Hallsdóttir, adding five more offspring to his lineage.

Laing’s translation of the Prose Edda

Samuel Laing, a British translator, undertook the task of translating the Prose Edda into English, and his translation was first published in 1844. This work spanned three volumes, and due to its significance and demand among English-speaking readers, it has seen numerous reprints over the years.

Laing’s version made the intricacies of Norse mythology accessible to a broader audience, providing them a window into the ancient beliefs, stories, and cultural practices of the Norse people. The frequent reprinting of Laing’s translation emphasizes both the enduring interest in Norse mythology and the respect for Laing’s work in the scholarly and general community.

READ MORE: 10 Most Powerful Weapons in Norse Mythology

Questions and Answers

What influenced him in writing the Heimskringla?

The “Heimskringla” is a collection of sagas written by Snorri Sturluson that chronicle the lives of Norwegian kings from the legendary past to Snorri’s own time. While Snorri drew upon earlier written histories for this work, he also sought out and incorporated oral narratives and traditions, especially those conveyed through skaldic poetry, which often served as eyewitness accounts of historical events.

The “Heimskringla” is a collection of sagas written by Snorri Sturluson that chronicle the lives of Norwegian kings from the legendary past to Snorri’s own time. While Snorri drew upon earlier written histories for this work, he also sought out and incorporated oral narratives and traditions, especially those conveyed through skaldic poetry, which often served as eyewitness accounts of historical events.

What sets Snorri apart as a historian is his narrative style. He didn’t just present dry facts; instead, he brought the past to life with a dramatic flair.

He portrayed historical figures with depth and complexity, allowing readers to experience the emotions, motivations, and conflicts of these personalities. In doing so, Snorri’s “Heimskringla” transcended mere historical record, standing as a timeless work that combined rigorous historical methodology with the artistry of storytelling.

When was the Prose Edda written?

The “Prose Edda,” also known as the “Younger Edda” or “Snorri’s Edda,” is one of the primary sources for Norse mythology and Germanic heroic legends. It was written in the 13th century by the Icelandic historian, politician, and poet Snorri Sturluson. This text serves as a guide to understanding and interpreting Old Norse poetry and is instrumental for scholars and enthusiasts of Norse mythology.

READ MORE: Most Powerful Gods and Goddesses in Norse Mythology

How did Snorri Sturluson come into conflict with King Haakon IV of Norway?

During his visit to Norway, Snorri Sturluson became deeply entangled in the politics of the region. He established a close relationship with King Haakon IV, and during their interactions, he managed to convince the king of the possibility of bringing Iceland under Norwegian rule with Snorri as a pivotal figure in this transition. In return for this promise, Snorri pledged allegiance to Haakon, effectively becoming his vassal.

In 1220, Snorri returned to Iceland, now carrying the weight of this significant political promise. However, over the subsequent years, the relationship between Snorri and King Haakon became strained.

There are a few reasons for this deterioration:

  • Snorri was unable to deliver on his assurance of bringing Iceland under Norwegian control, leading to Haakon’s disillusionment with him.
  • Many Icelanders were resistant to the idea of Norwegian rule, and Snorri’s association with this initiative undermined his influence and reputation in his homeland.
  • Snorri’s continued involvement in both Icelandic and Norwegian politics made him a controversial figure. He made numerous decisions and alliances that did not always align with Haakon’s interests.

Following Snorri’s death, King Haakon IV continued to exert his influence over Icelandic chieftains. By 1262, the Althing (the Icelandic legislative assembly) ratified a union with Norway, which meant Iceland came under the direct authority of the Norwegian king. Image: Haakon’s seal, from a 1247/48 letter (with reverse). The seal itself was given to Haakon as a gift from Henry III of England in 1236.

Other interesting facts about Snorri Sturluson and his works

  • He was first appointed speaker of the Icelandic parliament – the Althing – in 1215.
  • While in Norway, he was showered with a lot of gifts and high-ranking titles, including skutilsvein, which is the equivalent of knighthood.
  • In addition to Herdís, he also married Hallveig Ormsdottir, a granddaughter of his mentor Loftsson. With this marriage, his influence and wealth increased, becoming the most powerful individual in the country in the late 1220s.

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