This paper deals with two “textual maps” by an Icelandic historian of the 13th century, Snorri Sturluson, that occur in his
In the opening chapter of
Kringla heimsins, sú er mannfólkit byggvir, er mjǫk vágskorin. Ganga hǫf stór ór útsjánum inn í jǫrðina. Er þat kunnigt, at haf gengr frá Nǫrvasundum ok allt út til Jórsalalands. Af hafinu gengr langr hafsbotn til landnorðrs, er heitir Svartahaf. Sá skilr heimsþriðjungana. Heitir fyrir austan Ásíá, en fyrir vestan kalla sumir Európá, en sumir Eneá. En norðan at Svartahafi gengr Svíþjóð in mikla eða in kalda. Svíþjóð ina miklu kalla sumir menn eigi minni en Serkland it mikla, sumir jafna henni við Bláland it mikla. Inn nørðri hlutr Svíþjóðar liggr óbyggðr af frosti ok kulða, svá sem inn syðri hlutr Blálands er auðr af sólarbruna. […] Ór norðri frá fjǫllum þeim, er fyrir útan eru byggð alla, fellr á um Svíþjóð, sú er at réttu heitir Tanais. Hon var forðum kǫlluð Tanakvísl eða Vanakvísl. Hon kømr til sjávar inn í Svartahaf. […] Sú á skilr heimsþriðjungana. Heitir fyrir austan Ásíá, en fyrir vestan Európá (ed. Bjarni Aðalbjarnarson 1941).
[The disc of the world that mankind inhabits is very indented with bays. Large bodies of water run from the ocean into the land. It is known that a sea extends from Nǫrvasund (the Straits of Gibraltar) all the way to Jórsalaland (Palestine). From the sea a long gulf called Svartahaf (the Black Sea) extends to the north-east. It divides the world into thirds. To the east is the region called Asia, and the region to the west some call Europe, and some Enea. And from the north to Svartahaf extends Svíþjóð in mikla (Sweden the Great) or in kalda (the Cold). Some claim Svíþjóð in mikla to be no smaller than Serkland it mikla (Saracen-land the Great, north Africa), others compare it to Bláland it mikla (Blacks-land the Great, Africa). The northern part of Svíþjóð remains uninhabited because of frost and cold, just as the southern part of Bláland is empty because of the heat of the sun. […] From the north, from the mountains that are beyond all habitations, flows a river through Svíþjóð that is properly called Tanais (Don). It was formerly called Tanakvísl (fork of the Don) or Vanakvísl (fork of the Vanir). It reaches the sea in Svartahaf. […] This river separates the thirds of the world. The region to the east is called Asia, that to the west, Europe (trans. Finlay & Faulkes 2011).]
The Earth in Snorri’s “introductory geography” appears in the form of a plane circle surrounded by the ocean and divided into three parts. This image is a reflection of the Christian cosmological concept that prevailed in the Middle Ages, polemicising against the ideas accumulated in the previous epoch as pagan, and refuting the idea of the sphericity of the Earth. The Earth, according to official Christian dogmas, again “became” flat, as in ancient Ionian science or in the writings of some Roman geographers whose land descriptions were nothing but the geography of the Earth’s disc, or more precisely, of the “circle of lands”,
Í upphafi þersa litla annálabæklíngs skulo vèr skrifa nokkut litið af heimskringlunni… ok vèr höfum fundit í bókum skilríkum eðr annálum fyrri manna, ok svá hefr. Röksamlig skipan fornrar vizku hefir svá ok heldr, at viðerni heimsbygþarinnar er sundrskipt í þrjá hluta: heitir einn þriðjúngr Asía, ij Europa, iij Africa (Melnikova 1986, p. 86).
[At the beginning of this little book of annals, we must write a little about the disc of the world... and we have found [all this] in reliable books or annals of ancient people, and it begins like this. Ancient wisdom established a reasonable order, according to which the expanses of the inhabited land are divided into three parts: one third is called Asia, the second is Europe, the third is Africa.]
For the Christian geography of the Middle Ages, a three-part division of the oecumene was not only a development of the ancient view, but also an illustration of the biblical teaching that after the flood all the land was divided between three sons of Noah (Simek 1996). In the Icelandic geographical treatise
Sidan skipti Noe heime med sonum sinum i þria hluti ok gaf nafn öllum hlutum i heiminum, þeim sem adr voro önefndir, hann kalladi einn hlut heims Asiam, enn annan Affrikam, enn þridia Eyropam (Melnikova 1986, p. 133).
[Then Noah divided the world into three parts between his sons and gave the names to each part in the world that had no name before. He called one part of the world Asia, the other Africa, and the third Europe.]
Surprisingly, it was well known in medieval Iceland that the earth was spherical. We can judge the prevalence of this knowledge on the basis of the Old Icelandic translation of
Coming back to Snorri’s “textual map”, it is worth paying attention to his description of the river
In Old-Norse literature, along with Snorri Sturluson’s
According to Snorri, the Tanais river flows through
Finally, Snorri’s geographical description contains some vague knowledge of the ancient concept of latitudinal climatic and natural zoning. Having written that “the northern part of Svíþjóð remains uninhabited because of frost and cold, just as the southern part of Bláland is empty because of the heat of the sun”, Snorri thus made it clear that
Snorri’s descriptive map combines at least three methods of presenting the oecumene that scholars observe in medieval geographic maps: a principle of
We only know that Snorri had been brought up by the most powerful chieftain in the country, Jón Loftsson, in his estate Oddi in the south of Iceland, noted both for its school and for the scholarship of its inhabitants. In 1181 Jón Loftsson was forced to offer to foster the infant Snorri. Thus the boy got the opportunity to grow up at one of the main centres of learning in Iceland. As a result, Snorri “received a comprehensive education in the secular spheres required by a young man of chieftainly class aspiring to get on in the world as a poet and a politician: law, poetry, genealogy, cosmology, mythology, and the art of storytelling” (Gísli Sigurðsson 2018, p. 295). We have no information as to what books there were in Oddi, but it’s easy to imagine that Latin books with maps (or their copies) were being brought there. As Anthony Faulkes states, “many pieces of classical geography had been translated into Icelandic in the twelfth century, though it is unnecessary to suppose that Snorri had read any of these translations himself” (Faulkes 1993).
Snorri’s geography is, no doubt, influenced by contemporary encyclopaedic knowledge: the ocean-girdled
Still, there is a place-name that occurs neither in Scandinavian, nor in foreign sources, but is used only by Snorri Sturluson, and is presented as an alternative name for Europe:
It is considered that the place-name
It is interesting in this connection to note the opinion of Margaret Clunies Ross (1978, p. 155) that some Latin works were known to Snorri, and that he was familiar with certain subjects from the
Dares Phrygius’s Latin translation (done between the 4th and 6th centuries) of a Greek work (very likely, written in the 1st century AD) entitled
To sum up, Snorri’s descriptive map, although it has some kind of antique parallels, is in reality a product of the Middle Ages. Encyclopaedic medieval knowledge could enter through the books, but also through the mediation of better-educated people from Snorri’s entourage. Credit for the appearance of the place-name
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