Snorri Sturluson (1178 – September 23, 1241) was an Icelandic historian, poet and politician. He was two-time elected lawspeaker at the Icelandic parliament, the Althing. He was the author of the Prose Edda or Younger Edda, which consists of Gylfaginning ("the fooling of Gylfi"), a narrative of Norse mythology, the Skáldskaparmál, a book of poetic language, and the Háttatal, a list of verse forms. He was also the author of the Heimskringla, a history of the Norwegian kings that begins with legendary material in Ynglinga saga and moves through to early medieval Scandinavian history. For stylistic and methodological reasons, Snorri is often taken to be the author of Egils saga.
As a historian and mythographer, Snorri is remarkable for proposing the theory (in the Prose Edda) that mythological gods begin as human war leaders and kings whose funeral sites develop cults (see euhemerism). As people call upon the dead war leader as they go to battle, or the dead king as they face tribal hardship, they begin to venerate the figure. Eventually, the king or warrior is remembered only as a god. He also proposed that as tribes defeat others, they explain their victory by proposing that their own gods were in battle with the gods of the others.
By a quirk of circumstance he was raised from the age of three (or four) by Jón Loftsson, a relative of the Norwegian royal family, in Oddi, Iceland. As Sturla was trying to settle a lawsuit with Father Páll Sölvason, the latter's wife lunged suddenly at him with a knife, intending, she said, to make him like his hero Odin (one-eyed), but bystanders deflected the blow to the cheek. The resulting settlement would have beggared Páll. Loftsson intervened in the Althing to mitigate the judgement and to compensate Sturla, offered to raise and educate Snorri.
Snorri therefore received an education and made connections that he might not otherwise have made. He attended the school of Sæmundr fróði, grandfather of Loftsson, at Oddi. He never returned to his parents' home. His father died in 1183 and his mother as guardian soon wasted Snorri's share of the inheritance. Loftsson died in 1197. The two families then arranged a marriage in 1199 between Snorri and Herdís, the first daughter of Bersi. From her father, Snorri inherited an estate at Borg and a chieftainship. He soon acquired more property and chieftainships.
Snorri and Herdís were together for four years at Borg. They had a few children. The marriage succumbed to Snorri's philandering, and in 1206 he settled in Reykholt as manager of an estate there, but without Herdís. He made significant improvements to the estate, including a hot outdoor bath (Snorralaug). The bath and the buildings have been preserved to some extent. During the initial years at Reykholt he had several more children by different women: Gudrun, Oddny and Thuridur.
Snorri was mainly interested in history and culture. The Norwegian regents, however, cultivated Snorri, made him a skutilsvein, a senior title roughly equivalent to knight, and received an oath of loyalty. The king hoped to incorporate Iceland into Norway, which he could do by vote of the Althing, of which Snorri had been a key member.
In 1220 Snorri returned to Iceland and by 1222 was back as lawspeaker of the Althing, which he held this time until 1232. The basis of his election was entirely his fame as a poet. Politically he was the king's spokesman, supporting union with Norway, a platform that acquired major enemies for him among the chiefs. Personally in 1224 he took up residence with Hallveig Ormsdottir, a granddaughter of Loftsson, now a widow of great means, and formed a common-law relationship that lasted the rest of his life. She was a much younger woman. Although they were fond of each other they had no children together, concentrating instead on raising the children they had had with others. Five of Snorri's children survived to adulthood.
Many of the other chiefs found his position as royal office-holder in one state while serving in the governing body of another despicable, especially the other Sturlungar. Snorri's strategy was to consolidate power over them, at which point he could offer Iceland to the king. His first moves were civic. On the death in 1222 of Sæmundur, son of Jón Loftsson, he became a suitor for the hand of his daughter, Sólveig. Herdís' silent vote did nothing for his suit. His nephew, Sturla Sighvatson, Snorri's political opponent, stepped in to marry her in 1223, the year before Snorri met Hallveig.
A period of clan feuding followed. Snorri perceived that only resolute, saga-type actions were going to achieve his objective, but he proved unwilling or incapable of carrying them out. He raised an armed party under another nephew, Böðvar Þórðarson, and another under his son, Órækja, with the intent of executing a first strike against his brother Sighvatur and Sturla Sighvatson. On the eve of battle he dismissed those forces and offered terms to his brother.
Sighvatur and Sturla with a force of 1000 men drove Snorri into the countryside, where he sought refuge among the other chiefs. Órækja undertook guerilla operations in the fjords of west Iceland and the war was on.
Haakon IV made an effort to intervene from afar, inviting all the chiefs of Iceland to a peace conference in Norway. This maneuver was transparent to Sighvatur, who understood, as apparently Snorri did not, what could happen to the chiefs in Norway. Instead of killing his opponents he began to insist that they take the king up on his offer.
This was Órækja's fate, who was captured by Sturla during the pretext of a peace negotiation at Reykjaholt, and also of Þorleifur Þórðarson, a cousin of Snorri's, who came to his assistance with 800 men and was deserted by Snorri on the battlefield in a flare-up over the chain of command. In 1237 Snorri thought it best to join the king.