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.
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!