Gylfaginning: Sealed in Secret Language

By Donald van den Andel.

One of the most important texts available for Ásatrúar (and others interested in the study of the Norse religion or Icelandic literature) is Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, sometimes referred to as the “Prose Edda” or the “Younger Edda” to differentiate it from mythological and heroic poems normally referred to as the “Poetic Edda” or “Elder Edda.”[1] Sturluson’s thirteenth century work is composed of three parts of which Gylfaginning (“The Tricking of Gylfi”) is the most popular and certainly the most influential. It is this section, which recounts the fantastic tales of the Norse Gods, that has been rewritten and retold by numerous authors through the years. But is Sturluson’s text meant only to entertain by imparting the adventures of the Gods from Ginnungagap to Ragnarok or is there more going on than meets the eye? A close reading of Edda reveals that the book itself may provide a key to unlock the hidden purpose of Gylfaginning.

The first part of Edda contains both the Prologue that explains (or explains away) the Norse Gods to a Christian audience and the well-known Gylfaginning. The second part of the text is the Skáldskaparmál (“The Language of Poetry”). This section is largely a discourse on the nature of poetry. The final section of Edda is Háttatal (“List of verse-forms”). Háttatal is a rather dry listing of verse-forms used in Norse poetry and is even excluded from several contemporary translations. The preface to the Uppsala Codex of 1320, one of the most important manuscripts of Edda, explains the text as follows:

This book is called Edda; Snorri Sturluson wrote it in the same order in which it is set out here. The first part is about the Æsir and Ymir, then comes the Skáldskaparmál (“Poetic Diction”) and the names given to various things, last the Háttatal (“Account of Metres”) which Snorri composed about King Hákon and Duke Skúli.[2]

Sturluson begins his Skáldskaparmál by telling a tale of a conversation between Ægir and Bragi, two Gods of the Æsir (the latter notably the skaldic God of poetry). On the surface, this “conversation” between Gods over drinks recounts how the giant Thiassi was killed by the Æsir. But it is not the tale itself that is of primary interest to our thesis but rather the comments shared at its conclusion. Ægir asks Bragi to explain the origin of Thiassi to which Bragi replies:

His father was called Olvaldi, and you will find what I have to say about him remarkable. He was very rich in gold, and when he died and his sons had to divide their inheritance, they measured out the gold when they divided it by each in turn taking a mouthful, all of them the same number. One of them was Thiassi, the second Idi, the third Gang. And we now have this expression among us, to call gold the mouth-tale of these giants, and we conceal it in secret language or in poetry by calling it speech or words or talk of these giants (emphasis added).[3]

Bragi’s explanation of the origin of Thiassi has been transformed into an example in which “mouth-tale of these giants” becomes a substitute for the more common term “gold.” This brief tale then reveals it’s true purpose – to provide an example of how words may be concealed in a “secret language” commonly known as “poetry.”

Ægir’s response to Bragi provides Sturluson with the perfect seque into a greater explanation of the language of poetry.

This seems to me a very good way to conceal it in secret language. […] How did this craft that you call poetry originate?[4]

When Bragi explains the origin of poetry he does so through the story of how the wise God Kvasir was murdered and his blood mixed with honey to create mead. Bragi explains:

That is why we call poetry Kvasir’s blood or dwarfs’ drink or the contents or some term for liquid of Odrerir or Bodn or Son, or dwarfs’ transportation, because this mead brought them deliverance from the skerry, or Suttung’s mead or the liquid of Hnitbiorg.[5]

To this Ægir replies, “I think it is an obscure way to talk to call poetry by these names…”[6]

Sturluson continues his explanation of poetry through the voice of his Gods by defining the categories into which all poetry is divided.

Then spoke Bragi: “There are two categories into which all poetry is divided.”

Ægir asked: “Which two?”

Bragi said: “Language and verse-forms.”

It is important to remember that this exchange occurs in the Skáldskaparmál, which is Icelandic for “The Language of Poetry.” The final section of Edda is Háttatal or “List of verse-forms.” Hence Sturluson has developed these two sections of his text as a lesson in poetry – in its two divisions as identified by Bragi and Ægir.

Bragi / Sturluson goes on to explain the three categories of the language of poetry.

To call everything by its name; the second category is the one called substitution; and the third category of language is what is called kenning [description], and this category is constructed in this way, that we speak of Odin or Thor or Tyr or one of the Æsir or elves, in such a way that with each of those that I mention, I add a term for the attribute of another As or make mention of one or other his deeds. Then the latter becomes the one referred to, and not the one that was named; for instance when we speak of Victory-Tyr or Hanged-Tyr or Cargo-Tyr, these are expressions for Odin, and these we call periphrastic terms; similarly if one speaks of Chariot-Tyr [i.e. Thor].[7]

The paragraph that follows slips entirely into Sturluson’s voice rather than that of the God of poetry:

But these things have now to be told to young poets who desire to learn the language of poetry and to furnish themselves with a wide vocabulary using traditional terms; or else they desire to be able to understand what is expressed obscurely. Then let such a one take this book as scholarly inquiry and entertainment. But these stories are not to be consigned to oblivion or demonstrated to be false, so as to deprive poetry of ancient kennings which major poets have been happy to use[8] [emphasis added].

There is little doubt among scholars that the second and third parts of Edda are a “scholarly inquiry” – a guide for young poets into the world of poetry. What then is the purpose of the first part of the book – Gylfaginning? I contend that Sturluson intends that Edda be understood as a whole. While there is major disagreement among scholars regarding the etymology of “Edda,” many believe that the word is related to ó∂r (“poem” or “poetry”) and may be properly translated as “Poetics.” Therefore, it may be that the entire work is intended to explain the art of poetry and that this purpose is not relegated to the final sections.[9]

Gylfaginning is not a standalone story and neither is it intended to be a guide of Norse mythology. Rather, not unlike the dialog structure of the first pages of Skáldskaparmál, Sturluson has written Gylfaginning as an example for the new generation.

Gylfaginning or “The Tricking” or “Deluding of Gylfi” sets out to delude the reader who, like King Gylfi, sets out to visit “Asgard,” the home of wise Æsir. The uninitiated reader is indeed deluded and is unable to understand the “obscure” and “secret language” used by Sturluson. The initiated however who achieve the wisdom of the lessons of Skáldskaparmál and Háttatal will be able to understand the hidden intent of Gylfaginning. Sturluson may have also left a subtle clue when he notes that King Gylfi is not what he seems “[Gylfi] assumed the form of an old man and so disguised himself.”[10] All is not what it seems on this trip to Asgard.

Of central importance to the theory of a secret language throughout Gylfaginning is the explanations provided at the conclusion of the episode with Utgarda-Loki. In this instance Sturluson reveals to the reader what is really going on and that appearances (or language) can be deceiving. Before examining this story, it is important to appreciate that Sturluson’s Edda is the only source for most of this material – including the important explanation at the story’s close. There are three brief references to parts of this tale contained in The Poetic Edda, namely in the Hárbarzljó∂ (“The Lay of Hárbarth”)[11] and in Lokasenna (“The Flyting of Loki”).[12] In the former text, Odin by way of the Ferryman refers to Thor sleeping inside the giant Skrymir’s mitten. Similarly Loki mocks in Lokasenna verses 60 and 62 of the same incident. What is critical and noteworthy however is that no explanation for the tale is provided. There is also no mention of Utgarda-Loki or the competition with the giants that makes up a significant number of pages of Gylfaginning.

The well-known tale of the encounter with Skrymir reveals that Thor and his companions found night-quarters in the mitten of the giant himself. The sleep-shattering earthquakes are later revealed to be nothing other than Skrymir’s snoring. The tale also tells of Thor’s amusing struggle to untie the knot on a knapsack and his miserable failure to slay the giant Skrymir with his hammer.

In Sturluson’s account, Thor, Loki, and Thialfi enter the castle of the giant known as Utgarda-Loki. Thor and his fellow travelers are tested through several competitions. Loki competes with the giant Logi in an eating competition. Thialfi runs a race against the “little giant” Hugi. Finally Thor is challenged to drain a drinking horn in no more than three draughts, to lift a grey cat from the ground, and to wrestle the old crone Elli. In each challenge Thor and his companions are defeated with somewhat humorous effect.

Unlike the other episodes that comprise Gylfaginning, here Sturluson informs the reader of the real meaning of the text. Through application of the method provided in this example, it is our theory that Sturluson intends that his readers apply the lesson throughout and appreciate that the other stories that make up Gylfaginning are similarly veiled. The giant Utgarda-Loki reveals the truth as follows:

But I have deceived you by appearances, so that the first time when I discovered you in the forest it was I that came and met you [emphasis added]. And when you tried to undo the knapsack I had fastened it with trick wire, and you could not find where it had to be unfastened. And next you struck me three blows with your hammer, and the first was the smallest and yet it was so hard that it would have been enough to kill me if it had struck its mark. But where you saw near my hall a table-mountain, and down in it you saw three square valleys, one deepest of all, these were the marks of your hammer. I moved the table-mountain in front of your blows, but you did not notice.[13]

Utgarda-Loki goes on to explain what really occurred with each challenge that defeated Thor and his fellow travelers.

So it was too with the games in which you competed with my men. The first was the one that Loki engaged in. He was very hungry and ate fast, but the one who is called Logi [flame], that was wildfire, and it burned the trencher just as quickly as the meat. And when Thialfi competed at running with the one called Hugi [thought], that was my thought, and Thialfi was not likely to be able to compete with its speed. And when you were drinking from the horn and it seemed to you that it was going slowly – I swear by my faith that then there took place a miracle that I would not have believed possible: the other end of the horn was out in the sea, and you did not notice, but now when you come to the sea then you will see what a lowering of the level you have made in the sea by your drinking. This is now known as the tides.[14]

He continues,

It did not seem to me any less impressive either when you lifted up the cat, and to tell you the truth everyone that was watching was terrified when you raised one of its feet from the ground. For that cat was not what it appeared to you: it was the Midgard serpent which lies encircling all lands, and its length was hardly enough for both its head and its tail to touch the ground. And so far did you reach up that you were not far from the sky. And that also was a great miracle with the wrestling when you stood so long and fell no further than on to the knee of one leg when you were fighting Elli [old age], for there never has been anyone, and there never will be anyone, if they get so old that they experience old age, that old age will not bring them all down.[15]

It is important to note that the tale of the visit to Utgarda-Loki bears an uncanny resemblance to that of King Gylfi’s visit to Asgard. Applying the lesson that Utgarda-Loki taught Thor, the reader of Gylfaginning should grasp that the entire work is not what it appears to be. Consider the arrival of Gylfi, which Sturluson describes as follows:

But the Æsir were the wiser in that they had the gift of prophecy, and they saw his movements before he arrived, and prepared deceptive appearances for him [emphasis added].[16]

Sturluson similarly reveals deceptive appearances when Thor and his companions learn the truth from Utgarda-Loki:

But I have deceived you by appearances, so that the first time when I discovered you in the forest it was I that came and met you [emphasis added].[17]

There are similarities as well when we compare Gylfi’s arrival in Asgard with that of Thor and friends arriving at Utgarda-Loki’s castle:

When he got into the city he saw there a high hall, so that he could scarcely see over it…[18]

The narrative continues:

This man spoke first and asked him his name. He said it was Gangleri and that he had travelled trackless ways; he requested that he might have a night’s lodging there and asked whose hall it was.[19]

We find the arrival of Thor and companions described in much the same way:

When it had got dark they looked for somewhere to spend the night and came upon a certain very large building… Here they sought night-quarters for themselves.[20]

Even the conclusion of each adventure draws a striking parallel. As Gylfi / Gangleri leaves Asgard we read:

Next Gangleri heard great noises in every direction from him, and he looked out to one side. And when he looked around further he found he was standing out on open ground, could see no hall and no castle.[21]

Compare now the departure of Thor from Utgarda-Loki’s castle:

And then [Thor] turned back towards the castle, intending to smash the castle. Then all he saw there was a wide and beautiful open landscape, but no castle.[22]

Clearly Sturluson intended the story within the story, that of the visit to Utgarda-Loki to provide a key to unlock some of the mysteries of the larger tale. It is clear also that, at times, there are sophisticated lessons lurking within Sturluson’s words. Similarly there can be little doubt that Sturluson intended that Edda be read in its entirety.

The thrilling text of Gylfaginning was meant to be a challenge to students of poetry and readers of his day. It is the master’s example to his readers, then and now. Only through a proper understanding of the language of poetry attained through the study of Skáldskaparmál and an appreciation of the verse-forms provided in Háttatal can Sturluson’s example, Gylfaginning, be fully understood. To the average reader, Gylfaginning is little more than a fantastic fable about an ancient king seeking the consultation of old heroes who he mistook for Gods. Sturluson’s masterpiece will surely continue to entertain many future generations; it does, after all, provide the plot for so many comic books and movies. But to the initiate who has mastered the secret and obscure art of poetry, a deeper meaning begins to reveal itself.

It is this author’s hope that many will come to appreciate that there is a deeper meaning to Norse mythology that lies just below the surface. But what exactly is that meaning? Is Edda little more than a thirteenth century treatise on Poetry or has Sturluson purposefully hidden ancient truths about the Gods within his pages? The mysteries that Sturluson concealed will be left for other investigators to disclose. It is clear that the northern European people had a more profound understanding of what we today call Norse mythology and that it inspired their faith for a millennia ultimately shaping the culture of the West. It remains uncertain however the degree to which Sturluson understood these mysteries and whether their exposure could reinvigorate the belief in the old Gods thereby starting the cycle anew.


[1] See Lee M. Hollander, The Poetic Edda (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1962).

[2] Jean I. Young trans., The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from Norse Mythology (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1954), p. 7.

[3] Snorri Sturluson, Edda, Anthony Faulkes trans., (North Clarendon, Vt.: Tuttle, 1995), p. 61.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p. 62.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, p. 64.

[8] Ibid. Following this explanation Sturluson returns to the warning of his Prologue noting that Christians must not believe in heathen gods. The intent of the Prologue and Sturluson’s warning go beyond the scope of this article. It may be sufficient to say that these words may too have secret meaning.

[9] Young, The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from Norse Mythology. See especially the Introduction p. 8 by Sigurdur Nordal.

[10] Sturluson, Edda, p. 7.

[11] It is generally assumed that this poem was written in the tenth century.

[12] It is generally assumed that this poem was written in the latter half of the tenth century.

[13] Ibid, pp. 44-45.

[14] Ibid, p. 45.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, p. 7.

[17] Ibid, pp. 44-45.

[18] Ibid, p. 7.

[19] Ibid, p. 8.

[20] Ibid, p. 38.

[21] Ibid, p. 57.

[22] Ibid, p. 46.

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