Hermann, Pernille, Stephen A. Mitchell, and Jens Peter Schjødt, eds., with Amber J. Rose. 2017. Old Norse Mythology—Comparative Perspectives. Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 3. Cambridge, MA: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_HermannP_etal_eds.Old_Norse_Mythology.2017.
Snorri and the Jews
Typology in this sense becomes the pursuit of what St. Augustine called “obscura quaedam figura rerum” (the obscured figure of the thing) (Enarrationes col. 1788). For the typologically-minded reader, all narrative elements can be aligned with a predictive type, drawn from the rich dramatis personae of Christian tradition. The identity of this type will then serve as a predictor for the qualities and behaviors of the character to whom it has been appended. For instance, the Roman Empire is aligned with the Kingdom of Heaven, and therefore becomes a state charged with safeguarding spiritual perfection. Rahab becomes aligned with Ecclesia (Auerbach 1952: 3–4), and thus the scarlet rope she hangs from her window becomes a symbol of Christ’s blood: the sacrifice that saves Ecclesia just as the rope saves the harlot of Jericho. For the purposes of this study, we will focus on the manipulation of one type, namely the Jew(s) as perceived by thirteenth-century Christendom, and its potential influence upon Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, a literary product of that age. Snorri borrows from a given tradition where its imagery inspires or the typological allusion is particularly striking, but it should be stressed that I do not believe he was dealing in allegory per se. This is especially true in the case of Snorri’s use of the anti-Jewish tradition. Snorri did not intend to enter into anti-Jewish polemic, much as the more astute in his audience might have drawn that inference. Rather, amongst a myriad of other, more innocent influences, he was inspired by contemporary ideas about Jews and Judaism, and he then deployed those ideas, liberated from their original frame of reference, in the fantasy world of his Edda.
Praise for the Jews in the Codex Wormianus
Loki the Jew?
Figure 1. Blind Synagoga with St. Paul, Antependium from Kinsarvik Church, Norway, c. 1200. Image courtesy of Norsk Folkemuseum. Interestingly, many of the published images of this altar frontal are cropped in such a way as to remove her.
This is a metaphor which could just as well be applied to Loki under the Æsir.
The sons of Muspell and the Red Jews: Two harbingers of the apocalypse
And when Ragnarøkr  comes, this is what happens:
Snorri quotes stanza 51 of Vǫluspá as his source here:
koma munu Muspells
og lǫg lýðir,
en Loki stýrir.
Þar ró fíflmegir
með freka allir
Þeim er bróðir
Býleists í fǫr (Gylfaginning p. 51; cf. Poetic Edda p. 12)
(A ship journeys from the East
[the sons] of Muspell are coming
across the waves
There are the monstrous brood
with all the wolves
Those are the brothers
of Býleist, on their way)
han foor thẚdhan ower sitiam
ỏster borter ij wẚrlina fram
enkte land laa thiit wt mere
ther man wiste aff sighia flere
han fan ther folk wẚrre ẚn trull
thʒ hafdhe tho rẚt mẚnniskio hull
rẚdhelikith ok mykith oreent
them gat ẚngin opa seet
the hafdho syyn ẚ swa grym
at ẚnghin thordhe se a them
thʒ lifdhe alt widh trulla sidh
ẚngin mẚnniskia fik ther fridh
thʒ aat folk mʒ huld ok krop
inbyrdhis hwart annath op
ok alla handa creatwr
hẚst ok wargh foghil ok diwr
hwath som fỏdhis a iordh ẚller wẚdher
thʒ ẚta the alt saman mẚdher
the plẚgha enkte thera iordha
the ẚtar them op a thera bordhe
hwath man kan hẚlʒt lifwande nẚmpna
orena gerninga margha handa
sa alexander aff them ganga
ther lofflika ẚra skriffwa
thʒ ẚr alt ont thʒ the drifwa
Rỏdhe iudha mon thʒ heta
swa finder han ẚn hwa them wil leta
tha alexander hafdhe thetta seet
badhe hỏrt ok widha leet
at thetta folk dreff tholik last
han thẚnkte ij sinom hoghe rast
vtan thetta folk forgaar
al wẚrlin ẚpter dỏme faar
ok smittas ij tholik gerning snỏdh
all wẚrlin hafwer thẚs stora nỏdh
om thʒ skal ganga sin fram gang
ẚpter thera sidh tha smittas mang
ok lifwa ij thera ẚpter dỏme
thʒ ware bẚtra at man them gỏme
Alexander fan et ful got raadh
thʒ folkith han saman drifwa badh
ij en flok badhe mẚn ok qwinna
swa then mera som then minnda
swa at enkte ater bleff
nor ij wẚrlina alla them dreff
swa langan wẚgh rẚt ij nor
at thiit ẚngin fara thỏr
Thʒ war alexanders idhelik bỏn
til gudh som allom gifwer lỏn
at wẚrlin skulle ekke smittas
aff tholikt lifwerne ekke hittas
han badh swa lẚnge gudh hỏrdhe han
gudh giordhe vnder the ẚra san
ey stort fore alexanders saka
vtan mẚnniskio helso til maka
han bỏdh tvem berghom the standa ẚn
ganga til saman badhin ij sẚn
the waro hỏgh ok mykith lang
gingo saman vtan alt bang
ther ẚr stort rwm innan til
som et ganʒt land iak thʒ sighia wil
bẚrghin ẚra alt kringom brant
som annar mwr thʒ ẚr sẚnt
the ẚra som andre mwrwẚggia hỏghia
ther kan ẚngin op fore ỏghia
the rỏdha iudha ẚra ther inne
badhe flere ok swa minne (Konung Alexander 130–33)
(He goes from there over Scythia.
Away, far to the East of the world.
There was no land out there any more
that anyone knew of. Many say
there he found a people worse than
Although they had human skin
angry and most unclean
No one could bear to look upon them
They had such an ugly appearance
that no one dared to look upon them
they all lived in the manner of trolls.
No human there could find any peace.
They ate people with skin and body
including each other
and all kinds of creatures,
horses and wolves, birds and beasts,
whatever lives on earth or sea,
they ate it all in the same way
they do not tend to their land.
On their tables, they eat up
whatever living thing you can name.
The committing of many impure deeds [spells?]
Alexander saw them do.
There, it is written in law
that everything they do is evil.
They are called “Red Jews”
so he seeks them, and wants to see them.
When Alexander had seen that,
both heard it and clearly observed,
that this people behaved in such a way
he thinks in his booming voice
all the world will be judged
unless this people are destroyed
and will be smote by such sordid actions.
The whole world is in great need.
If things were to go their own way
according to their custom many would be smitten
and live ever after in their power.
It would be better if one could hide them away
Alexander had a great idea.
He had that people rounded up
in one group, both men and women,
the short and the tall,
so that not one was left behind at all.
He had them driven north in the world,
such a long way north,
that no one would dare to go there.
It was Alexander’s pious prayer
to God who rewards all
that the world would not be smitten
and never encounter such a way of life
he prayed so long that God heard him.
God did it, it’s true,
not for Alexander’s sake alone
but for the good of all humankind.
He commanded two mountains—they still stand—
to come together as one.
They were tall and very long.
They went together without any noise
Inside there is a lot of space
like a huge country, I should say
the mountains are steep all around
like another wall, it’s true.
They are like other tall walls.
No one can climb it.
The Red Jews are in there,
both short and tall.)
Figure 2. Der Antichrist, fol. 14v (1480). Image courtesy of Die Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
|Muspellssynir in Vǫluspá||Muspellsynir in Snorra Edda||The Red Jews|
|Appear at the apocalypse?||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|How will they arrive at the apocalypse?||Sea, by boat (kjóll)||By land, on horseback (at ríða), and on foot||By land, on horseback, and on foot|
|Where are they prior to the apocalypse?||Muspell, more specific whereabouts unknown||Underground, inside a cave||Underground, inside a mountain|
|Depicted as a military force?||Uncertain, described as fíflmegir, ‘monstrous men’, perhaps intended here as ‘monstrous brood’ rather than ‘monstrous troops’. However, the point seems obscure.||Yes. They march in a fylking, a medieval defensive formation. They are also referred to as the Muspells megir, ‘men of Muspell’, perhaps intended here in the sense of ‘troops of Muspell’ (but cf. fíflmegir).||Frequently, as in e.g. the Gottweiger Trojanerkrieg late 1200s): “Dar ringe gantz / Ir ringe gantz / Ir helm waren hartte glantz” (Gow 1995: 193) [There under [their armor] they wore huge steel rings / their helmets had a fearful gleam]|
As is so often the case with Snorri’s work, the sons of Muspell are not drawn exclusively from any one tradition. Vǫluspá clearly provided the basic structure upon which Snorri could build his own narrative of Ragnarøkr. But Snorri does seem to be permitting his ancient, pagan materials to draw color from the potent images of the high medieval cultural canon in which he was immersed. Snorri was not insulated from the intellectual climate to which he was contributing, and thus could no more avoid being influenced by the powerful typologies of anti-Judaism than he could avoid any other aspect of the medieval Christian Weltanschauung. Indeed, the emphasis on the “sons of Muspell” as a descent group based on lineage makes them feel more like a contemporary ethnic group than a venerable cosmological fixture.  As if to highlight the originality of the thirteenth-century eddic hybrid he has created, it is only Snorri (and the singular example of stanza 48 in Lokasenna) who employs the name “Muspellssynir” to refer to these agents of the apocalypse. In Vǫluspá, they are elliptically named Muspells, lit. “Of Muspell”. One might rather optimistically attribute the uniqueness of Snorri’s appellation by proposing that he is the only surviving witness of a naming tradition which was already at least two centuries old by the time he wrote it down, having apparently survived in oral record from some time around Iceland’s official conversion in the year 1000 until the 1220s. More soberly, we might consider Snorri’s own era and consider if there were any group in the thought of that period whose presence was associated with the apocalypse and who were known as synir, (sons of). Readers will note the similarity between the phrases Muspells synir and Isræls synir, the term frequently used in thirteenth century works—such as Stjórn—to refer to the Jews. Both are based on the formula of geographical location + synir. They are also phonologically similar. In Snorri’s days the /els syni:r/ of Muspells synir would have made a half rhyme with the /ε:ls syni:r/ of Isræls synir. Admittedly, the proposition that there are resonances of anti-Jewish imagery in Snorra Edda may be unpalatable, but it is a crucial to considering Snorri in his comparative context. Much as scholars may employ Snorra Edda to recover details of the pagan past, it is also necessary to acknowledge Snorri’s Christian present. Thinking about the Jews was an inalienable aspect of that experience.