Chasing Snorri Sturluson: A historical, literary trip to Iceland’s farms

Photo: Terje Birkedal Snorri’s stone hot tub at Reykholt. The door and stone stairs once led into his fortified household compound, which is now an archaeological site. He ran through this door just before his death.

Photo: Terje Birkedal
Snorri’s stone hot tub at Reykholt. The door and stone stairs once led into his fortified household compound, which is now an archaeological site. He ran through this door just before his death.

Terje Birkedal
Anchorage, Alaska

Who is Snorri Sturluson? Even if you have not heard that name before, Snorri Sturluson has had an impact on your life. If you have read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or seen the movies of the same name you have inadvertently entered the world of Snorri Sturluson. If you have ever heard of the Norse gods and their mythology it is because of Snorri Sturluson. And Snorri immortalized the Viking Kings of Norway in his writings. If you know who Olaf Tryggvason is it is because of Snorri.

Who, then was Snorri Sturluson? He is the most influential Icelander of all times. He was a major political leader, author of sagas, a great landowner and farmer, a successful merchant, a gifted poet, a master historian, a ladies’ man, and, yes, at times, a scoundrel. He was a Renaissance man before the Renaissance and my hero since I was first introduced to his writings at the early age of thirteen.

Thanks to my wife’s patience and good humor, I was able fulfill my lifelong dream of visiting all the places where Snorri Sturluson lived and had put his foot in the course our visit to Iceland this last summer. Because Icelandic farm names rarely have been changed since their founding, it is relatively easy to find the old sites even if modern farms or communities now occupy the same ground.

Snorri Sturluson was born in 1179 at Hvamm, a large farm founded by the famous chieftainess Aud the Deep Minded during the Viking Age. It still sits at the base of western Iceland’s rugged mountains in close sight of the sea. While Snorri was still a child his father put him in the foster care of Jon Loftsson, one of Iceland’s richest and most educated men. Loftsson’s farm, named Oddi, was on a prominent hill in the southern reaches of Iceland. Here Snorri learned to read and write; here he stayed until he was a young man. Because Snorri’s father squandered whatever assets he had, Snorri had little in the way of an inheritance. But he had an eye for the ladies and married well. He then moved to his wife’s home which was named Borg (“Stronghold”); a large farm below a fortress-like, craggy hill in western Iceland (It had once been the home of the great Viking, Egill Skallagrímsson of Egil’s Saga).

Clever and politically astute Snorri became a very prosperous famer and rose to become a district chieftain and eventually the Law-Speaker for all Iceland at the high assembly at Þingvellir, a position he would hold for years. As his wealth grew so did his estates and he acquired Bessastaðir, a large farm, which now sits on the outskirts of Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, and today serves as the home of Iceland’s President. Later he acquired two more large and important properties. Both of these were located in western Iceland near the town of Borgarnes. One was Stafholt, which sits on a prominent hill; the other was Reykholt, further to the east, which occupies the flanks of a beautiful mountain valley. At Reykholt Snorri built a fort-like residential complex complete with a well-built, stone-lined hot tub connected to a geothermal spring.

At the invitation of Håkon IV Snorri traveled to Norway in 1218 and stayed as a guest of the king’s prime advisor, Earl Skuli, and they became fast friends. He also traveled to Sweden before returning to Iceland in 1220 where he resumed his role as Law-Speaker for the Alþingi. Upon his return, political feuding began among the high chiefs of Iceland and it gradually evolved into a full-blown civil war. As one of Iceland’s most powerful chiefs Snorri was a major player in these bloody struggles. By 1237 the fighting and feuding had escalated to the point that Snorri thought it would be wise to take another trip to Norway and visit with his old friend Earl Skuli. However, Earl Skuli had now become a rival of Håkon VI and King Håkon no longer trusted Snorri to support his interests in Iceland. The king ordered Snorri to stay in Norway, but Snorri disobeyed the king and defiantly sailed back to Iceland. But the troubles in Iceland continued to grow for Snorri, for now the King of Norway was actively aiding and abetting Snorri’s enemies. In September of 1241 a naked and despondent Snorri (death had just taken his last and most beloved wife) was sitting in his hot tub at Reykholt when Gissur Þorvaldsson, one of Snorri’s main rivals, made a surprise attack with 70 men. Snorri retreated to a storeroom to hide, but he was found and struck dead by a sword wielded by Arni the Bitter at the age of 63. Soon thereafter Iceland’s independence ended and it became the possession of the Norwegian king.

Despite his active political life, Snorri Sturluson was able to find the time to write the Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway, a very well-written and authoritative history of the Norwegian medieval kings. He also wrote one of the most famous Icelandic sagas, Egil’s Saga, perhaps the best of its genre. And he wrote a treatise on the writing of skaldic poetry called the Edda. In addition, he wrote The Prose Edda: Tales from Norse Mythology, which is the primary source for most of what we know about early Scandinavian religion today. All these books were written in vernacular Icelandic and in a flowing, active prose that seems almost modern in its construction.

Norwegians claim Snorri as their own as a “Norwegian” author and Snorri’s Heimskringla inspired and guided the Norwegian people in their struggle for independence. Over 100,000 copies of Heimskringla were in circulation in Norway by 1900. His writings on Norse mythology are also the basis for the worlds created by Tolkien in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings plus the source of numerous comic book stories as well as computer games. Now you know who Snorri Sturluson is, and you know he is worth knowing about.

If you want to learn more about Snorri I recommend Nancy Marie Brown’s Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (2014), published by Palgrave Macmillan. If you wish to chase down Snorri or the place names mentioned in the Icelandic sagas yourself I recommend the Icelandic History and Heritage map series published by Sogukort Islands. These are sold in the Icelandic Tourist Offices. Some of the old farms invite respectful visitation and they are usually marked by a blue heritage sign with the farm name; others are best viewed from afar. There is a very good museum dedicated to Snorri at Reykholt beside the site of his old stronghold and last home.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 30, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.