- Recovering the Snorra Edda:On Playing Gods, Loki, and the Importance of History
Distinguamus ergo quam fidem debeamus historiae,quam fidem debeamus intellegentiae.—Augustinus, De vera religione
It might seem rather uncreative to those familiar with René Girard's thinking to deal with the story of the murder of Baldr as told in the Edda by Snorri Sturluson, one of the foremost representatives of the extraordinary poetic culture of medieval Iceland, from a Girardian point of view. This is obviously because Girard himself has analyzed this story in detail in a chapter of his book The Scapegoat.1 Everything else could either be seen as an unnecessary addition to what has already been said—at most a contribution of interesting but in the end not substantial details—or a (perhaps hypercritical) objection to the mimetic theory as a whole from the viewpoint of another theoretical approach, in order to detect the heuristic or hermeneutical weaknesses of the mimetic theory. I do not intend to do either. Nevertheless, I will try to outline [End Page 105] a rereading of the Baldr-story that is quite different from and in some respects contrary to the interpretation suggested by Girard. I am, in fact, suggesting that, in order to understand the proper narrative structure and the inner hermeneutical dynamic of the story, it is fundamentally important to read it not solely paying attention to the phenomenological structure of the text, but in the first place attending to the historical context of its genesis. Luckily, this has been the object of historical research for many decades, and we are therefore provided with a solid fundament for the following considerations. I hope to show convincingly that only the application of historical research can enable us to reconstruct the actual essence of this story—something, by the way, that historical research itself has not yet been able to accomplish. Certainly, all this does not mean that we have to historicize the story itself, as, for example, Saxo Grammaticus did in his Gesta Danorum, but merely that we need to situate it—or rather, its author—in the proper historical context.2 And as the mimetic theory is not, as critics constantly claim, a quasi-totalitarian and mono-dimensional system that allows only one "dogmatic" interpretation of a story, it is possible to reinterpret texts already analyzed "formally correctly" by means of the mimetic theory without—I hope—becoming unfaithful to its main theoretical insights. By connecting a historical approach with the insights provided by mimetic theory, I intend to defend an author, Snorri Sturluson, who, I think, is greatly underestimated in Girard's interpretation of the Baldr-story (Girard does not even mention the author's name) and to recover the most profound hermeneutical value of his Edda, which has not yet been detected by historians. Snorri was a poetic genius, but it is not he who needs this defense; it is we who need it, because he is, as I want to show, an author with an incredible understanding of the socioanthropological powers that govern human society.
It is useful to recapitulate Girard's interpretation in The Scapegoat; this requires in the first place a general overview of Snorri's Baldr-story itself.3 We all know the main elements of this story: Baldr, the best and most loved of all the gods, is, as dreams tell him, in danger of being killed. Odin, Baldr's father and the highest of all the gods, knows this and is also aware that this would be the beginning of the end of the world. So the Aesir prepare a strategy in order to prevent any such thing from happening: the goddess Frigg has all creatures take an oath that they will not do Baldr any harm—be it by fire, water, iron, metal, stones, earth, trees, diseases, animals, birds, poisons, or snakes. This [End Page 106] "all-in insurance" makes Baldr and his fellow gods slaphappy—in the truest sense of the word: assuming that nothing can ever hurt Baldr now, they stand around him and throw at him whatever comes to their minds or respectively their hands—and everything seems to...