Underlying the Prose Edda is the idea that pagan mythology is based on history. This theory, called euhemerism, was first put forth by Euhemerus of Messene, in southern Greece, around 300 BC. It argues that great kings or warriors, as time passes, are later remembered as gods.
Since Snorri is also writing from a Christian perspective, he concludes that old Norse religious beliefs are false. However, Snorri is sympathetic to his ancestors, showing In his Prologue how euhemeristic myths represent a “natural religion."
Prologue to the Prose Edda
Snorri begins by describing how God created the world, in keeping with Biblical accounts. But, he goes on, some men forgot and turned away from worshiping God. Religions based on natural phenomena thereby arose, a notion in keeping with medieval Christian ideas of pre-revelation societies.
Snorri's Prologue then explains how the Trojans of the Iliad are etymologically linked to the Norse “gods.” For instance, he notes the similarity between the name of the Norse pantheon, the Æsir, and the name of Troy's environs, Asia.
In Snorri's view, the “historical” Odin, king of the gods, was one of these "men of Asia" descended from Trojan heroes. He migrated north, founding various Norse, Swedish, Danish, and Saxon dynasties. This Odin is the one who later imparted mythology to Gylfi, a Swedish king, through a deception described in the first main section of the Prose Edda.
Snorri tells how Gylfi, having heard about the Æsir's feats, travels to their home in Asgard. Although Gylfi disguises himself when he enters Val-Hall, Odin and the Æsir know who he is (thanks to their prophetic powers) and are able to prepare an elaborate ruse.
Gylfi encounters three kings sitting on three thrones, called High, Just-as-High, and Third. All three are in reality Odin in disguise. Gylfi interrogates the three about their beliefs, and this narrative "frame" device allows Snorri to tell many stories from pagan mythology, ranging from the creation of the world to Ragnarok.
When Odin is finished, Val-hall suddenly vanishes. Gylfi, duped into thinking that the Æsir are real gods, returns home to spread the stories he has heard.
The Remainder of the Prose Edda
After the Gylfaginning, the Edda has two other main sections. The first is the Skáldskaparmál ("The language of poetry"), consisting of a dialogue between Ægir, god of the sea, and Bragi, god of poetry. Here other important myths and kennings (dense allusions found in pagan Scandinavian poetry), which were not related in the Gylfaginning, are explained.
The last section of Snorri's Edda, Háttatal, is a conventional medieval treatise on the forms and devices of skaldic poetry, and is mostly of interest to specialists.
The Importance of Snorri's WorkAs a poet himself, Snorri Sturluson was keen to preserve the heritage of his pagan ancestors, all but gone in his lifetime, and Snori's literary skill made his Edda a success. Until another Edda (subsequently called the Elder or Poetic Edda) was discovered in the seventeenth century, Snorri's work was the only written account of Norse myths to survive.
The Prose Edda remains the most important, and most surprisingly readable, medieval source about pagan Scandinavian theology. It is indispensable for those wishing to understand the culture of the sagas, or for those simply interested in tales from Norse mythology.