- Euhemerism and the Veiling of History in Early Scandinavian Literature
Snorri famously warns in Skáldskaparmál that “eigi skulu kristnir menn trúa á heiðin goð”1 (Christian men must not believe in heathen gods). He explains that the Æsir were merely Asian men who falsified the events of the Trojan War so that the northern people would believe them to be gods. Each story the Æsir tell is a falsified version of a true historical event in Trojan history, each “god” was actually a figure in the war, and what the Æsir called ragnarøkr (the fate or doom of the gods) was in reality the fall of Troy. This passage is both a locus classicus of euhemerism in Old Norse literature and one of the fullest accounts of the learned prehistory, the idea that the Scandinavian kings immigrated there from Asia.2 Frederic Amory makes the penetrating observation that this passage treats Norse mythology as a “fictional integumentum (covering, veil), enclosing some kernel of truth.”3 In this view, proper interpretation of the Æsir’s stories will peel back this integumentum, showing their narratives to be fictions concealing the history of the Trojan War. Yet in the normal practice of medieval literary criticism, integumenta conceal a moral or philosophical truth, not a historical one.4 They are furthermore [End Page 24] usually associated with the twelfth-century intellectual leaders of the European universities.5 Snorri’s Latin learning would have been at some remove from this scholarly milieu, if he knew Latin at all.6 So what exactly is learned about this learned prehistory? In this article, I argue that Snorri’s integumental treatment of the gods relies on a conventional narrative of euhemerism, attested in Latin encyclopedic literature and a variety of Old Norse literary genres, that explains pagan gods’ origins from historical kings. This narrative figures pagan mythology as the literary distortion of true historical events, a kind of fiction that mystifies the history it should describe.
The question of the Edda’s relationship to the tradition of European learning is a notoriously difficult one. The debate has moved in recent decades beyond the polarized arguments that Snorri’s own religion was syncretistic or, at the opposite extreme, that his work was steeped in twelfth-century humanism.7 Since Walter Baetke’s pivotal argument that the Edda views the native mythology through the lenses of euhemerism and natural theology, most work has presupposed some participation in the larger intellectual culture, both Latin and vernacular, of which it was a part.8 A number of additional interpretative models drawn from the mainstream of medieval Latin literature have been adduced for Snorri’s treatment of the native mythology, including some combination of typology,9 allegory,10 analogy,11 [End Page 25] delusion theory,12 and further elaborations upon natural-theological and euhemeristic models.13 These models are surely pertinent, but their ability to explain Snorri’s perspective is a function of the assumed availability of Latin learning. Although no consensus has been reached on the matter, it is difficult to sustain an argument that he possessed a high degree of Latinity; indeed, the most recent assessments of both the historical figure Snorri Sturluson and the writings attributed to him suggest that he was not well trained in the language.14 In a major article on the European context of the learned prehistory, Anthony Faulkes suggests that the euhemeristic tradition of an Asian origin was transmitted to Scandinavia in general and to Snorri in particular by “scattered references in classical and later authors to the origins of the Germanic nations, particularly the Goths, there [around the Black Sea].”15 However, the classical and continental historians he studies were not necessarily widely read in medieval Europe or in Iceland. Nor does the level of engagement seen in many Norse accounts of the native gods’ origins imply their “naive imitation” of such sources, even without the unusually sophisticated case of Skáldskaparmál.16
By focusing on the conventional euhemeristic narrative, I seek, on the one hand, to establish a more precise intellectual model for this passage than those that rely on vague Latinity on Snorri’s part...