Can someone please explain the story of Gylfaginning for me?

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The Gylfaginning is a part of Snorri Sturluson’s thirteenth-century literary legacy. It is an illustrious depiction of the mythology and religion of the Viking Age, particularly as it applies to the Old Nordic pantheon. For many scholars, it has helped elucidate Scandinavian, Germanic, and Indo-European religions more generally. The story follows the travels of Gylfi, a Scandinavian king, who travels the Nordic lands until ultimately arriving at an enormous palace. There, he is introduced to three wise kings, who are simultaneously represented as one and three separate individuals. They are named “High,” “Just-as-High,” and “Third.” Gylfi speaks with the three kings at length about the nature and origins of the universe before finally being transported back to his home country.

Although the story of the Gylfaginning is long and complicated, one aspect you should take away from it is that it bears some very revealing similarities to other Indo-European mythologies. For example, when Third tells Gylfi about how three great brothers killed an enormous giant named Ymir, he points out that these brothers took various parts of Ymir’s body and made the earth and sky out of them. Third says,

They [Óðinn, Vili, and Vé] took his [Ymir's] skull and made the sky from it and set it up over the earth with four corners, and under each corner they set a dwarf.

The perspicacious scholar will note how similar some elements of this story are to those in other parts of the ancient world. The use of parts of the body to create the world are apparent, for example, in the story of Adam and Eve, where God fashions woman from the rib of Adam, and in the Babylonian epic the Enuma Elish, where the god of wisdom, Ea, uses the blood of the great god Quingu to create mankind. In the Egyptian pantheon, Nut, goddess of the sky and heavens, is often depicted as a star-covered, nude woman arching over the earth. Her body thus serves as the physical manifestation of the observable universe. In this way, Sturluson’s Gylfaginning, which is a representation of Old Germanic and Nordic mythology, may have borrowed certain literary themes from contemporaneous Indo-European religious beliefs.

Finally, the Gylfaginning, in many ways, falls into the tripartite division of Proto-Indo-European mythology originally propounded by the French mythographer Georges Dumézil. Dumézil argued that myth served to justify the classification of early Indo-European peoples into three distinct groups: those in power, those in the military, and those engaged in farming and other aspects of domestic production. The text of the Gylfaginning displays a similar kind of social stratification to Dumézil’s original conception: characters like Odin, Vili, and Vé originally constitute the warring class of society but ultimately come to make up the ruling elites.

It is important to note that in the Gylfaginning, it is implied that Gylfi is being tricked into believing the stories told to him by the three great men so that he can write about them without getting into trouble with the Christian Church. Therefore, it is very hard to tell how accurately these stories reflected the actual mythology of the ancient Nordic peoples.

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