Monday, March 15, 2010

What Can One Learn From Saxo?

If no other mythological records existed, and we had to derive all our knowledge of Norse mythology and cosmology from the records Saxo Grammaticus left us in the Gesta Danorum, it turns out that we could learn a great deal. Witness :

1. The Gods consist of a divine senate led by a magistrate or priest, first of equals, named Odin, a tall, old man with one eye and a flying horse, skilled in the arts of war and sorcery, who is married to Frigg, his queen. The Gods include Thor, Baldur, Hodur, Frey, Ullr's mother, a champion of great rank who is an expert in duelling and always victorious (Tyr), and apparently Syr (Freya), Odr, and Lytir (Heimdall).

2. The Gods' enemies are giants, against whom the Gods, who were tremendous sorcerers, once fought great wars, but eventually won the sovereignty. The Gods' enemies include one Loki, who is associated with ravenous beasts, a trickster who is in cahoots with evil sorcerors, and a handmaiden of Freya's who was secretly working for the giants, to whom she betrayed her. Thus both Frey and Freya ended up in the hands of giants at one point in time, while their father fought great naval battles in search of them. There was a time when great famine and change of weather came upon the land for some time, and the jotunn King Snow ruled over the land. Eventually Freya was rescued by her beloved Odr, whom she married.

3. The Underworld is divided into two parts, a place of punishment for the monsters, centered on a foggy, smoky city of the damned filled with giants and ghouls, and guarded by fierce dogs (in which can be found the giant Geirrod and his daughters, slain by Thor, as well as Utgard-Loki), and a place of sunlight and nobility, fields of bliss. The places of punishment include a house filled with snakes (Nastrond), and in the places of bliss warriors stage a tournament each day. The Underworld includes a well surrounded by great treasures. Travel to the Underworld requires a journey North by ocean to places of ice, down through darkness and fog into a great abyss. There are places of resurrection there where the dead receive new life. The Underworld experiences opposite seasons to those on earth. The Underworld is filled with delicious foods and beautiful women who erase all memories of sorrow.

4. Kings ruled by the consent of the people, and were installed to protect their lives and property. The people were quite jealous of their rights and freedoms.

There is no reason to think Saxo's contribution incomplete. In fact, it completes much of what is missing in Snorri, and indeed, Saxo seems to have had access to poets and writings that Snorri does not, because while Snorri seems to think that the Underworld is a gloomy, cold place, Saxo clearly differentiates this one half of the Underworld from its sunnier portions. In fact, in this sense, if Saxo had been the only record to survive, our picture of the heathen afterlife would be far more accurate.

All of this is just skimming the surface of the rich material Saxo provides. When one applies the principle of polynymy to a comparative analysis of variant tales within his work, a history of the first patriarchs from the time of Scef may be constructed, a rich description of the Van-As War revealed (clothed in folkloric storytelling), a background of supernaturally-stirred strife between Hodur and Baldur exposed, and the entirety of Freyr's mythology uncovered. Saxo's work is rife with heathen proverbs and poems.

Many who neglect Saxo or dismiss his work as incoherent folklore vainly becry all of our lost stories, yet herein many may be restored. Saxo is not a source secondary to Snorri ; the Gesta Danorum, properly interpreted, remains a source of prime value, second only to the heathen poems of the Elder Edda.


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