The Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Norse poems primarily preserved in the Icelandic mediaeval manuscript Codex Regius. Along with Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda is the most important extant source on Norse mythology and Germanic heroic legends, the pre-Christian legends and religious beliefs of the Scandinavian people and Northern Germanic tribes, which tend to reflect a focus on physical prowess and military might. They display none of the Christian virtues of redemption or forgiveness, but rather the harsh reality of deceit and retribution.
These myths were originally orally transmitted in the form of odes, sagas, and poetic epics. The Eddas and other medieval texts written down during and after the Christianization of the Norse peoples are written texts that give us knowledge of this oral tradition. The vast majority of written sources were assembled from accounts recorded in Iceland in the eleventh century C.E.
In Scandinavian folklore, Norse mythology has long held cultural currency, and some traditions have been maintained until the present day. This rich mythological tradition also remains as an inspiration in modern literature, as well as for other forms of artwork (including visual representations, films, comic books and stage productions).
Codex Regius was written in the thirteenth century, but nothing is known of its whereabouts until 1643, when it came into the possession of Brynjólfur Sveinsson, then Bishop of Skálholt. At that time versions of the Prose Edda were well known in Iceland but scholars speculated that there once was another Edda—an Elder Edda—which contained the pagan poems which Snorri quotes in his Prose Edda. When Codex Regius was discovered, it seemed that this speculation had proven correct. Brynjólfur attributed the manuscript to Sæmundr the Learned, a larger-than-life twelfth century Icelandic priest. While this attribution is rejected by modern scholars, the name Sæmundar Edda is still sometimes encountered.
Bishop Brynjólfur sent Codex Regius as a present to the Danish king, hence the name. For centuries it was stored in the Royal Library in Copenhagen but in 1971, it was returned to Iceland.
The Eddic poems are composed in alliterative verse. Most are in fornyrðislag, while málaháttr is a common variation. The rest, about a quarter, are composed in ljóðaháttr. The language of the poems is usually clear and relatively unadorned. While kennings are often employed they do not rise to the frequency or complexity found in skaldic poetry.
Like most early poetry the Eddic poems were minstrel poems, passing orally from singer to singer and from poet to poet for centuries. None of the poems are attributed to a particular author though many of them show strong individual characteristics and are likely to have been the work of individual poets. Scholars sometimes speculate on hypothetical authors but firm and accepted conclusions have never been reached.
The dating of the poems has been a lively source of scholarly argument for a long time. Firm conclusions are hard to reach. While lines from the Eddic poems sometimes appear in poems by known poets such evidence is difficult to evaluate. For example Eyvindr skáldaspillir, composing in the latter half of the tenth century, uses in his Hákonarmál a couple of lines also found in Hávamál. It is possible that he was quoting a known poem but it is also possible that Hávamál, or at least the strophe in question, is the younger derivative work.
The few demonstrably historical characters mentioned in the poems, like Attila, provide a terminus post quem of sorts. The dating of the manuscripts themselves provides a more useful terminus ante quem.
Individual poems have individual clues to their age. For example Atlamál hin groenlenzku is claimed by its title, and seems by some internal evidence, to have been composed in Greenland. If so, it can be no earlier than about 985 since there were no Scandinavians in Greenland until that time.
In some cases old poems can have been interpolated with younger verses or merged with other poems. For example stanzas 9-16 of Völuspá, the "Dvergatal" or "Catalogue of Dwarfs," is considered to be an interpolation.
The problem of dating the poems is linked with the problem of determining where they were composed. Since Iceland was not settled until about 870, anything composed before that time would necessarily have been elsewhere, most likely in Scandinavia. Any young poems, on the other hand, are likely Icelandic in origin.
Scholars have attempted to localize individual poems by studying the geography, flora and fauna refer to in the work. This approach usually does not yield firm results. While there are, for example, no wolves in Iceland, one can be sure that Icelandic poets were familiar with the species. Similarly the apocalyptic descriptions of Völuspá have been taken as evidence that the poet who composed it had seen a volcanic eruption in Iceland–but this is hardly certain.
Editions and inclusions
Some poems similar to those found in Codex Regius are normally also included in editions of the Poetic Edda. Important manuscripts include AM 748 I 4to, Hauksbók and Flateyjarbók. Many of the poems are quoted in Snorri's Edda but usually only in bits and pieces. Poems included in an edition of the Poetic Edda depend on the editor. Those not in Codex Regius are sometimes called Eddica minora from their appearance in an edition with that title edited by Andreas Heusler and Wilhelm Ranisch in 1903.
English translators are not consistent in the translations of the names of the Eddic poems or the manner in which Old Norse forms are rendered in English. Up to three translations are given below, taken from the translations of Bellows, Hollander, and Larrington with proper names in the normalized English forms found in John Lindow's Norse Mythology and in Andy Orchard's Cassell's Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend.
In Codex Regius
- Völuspá (Wise-woman's Prophecy, The Prophecy of the Seeress, The Seeress's Prophecy)
- Hávamál (The Ballad of the High One, The Sayings of Hár, Sayings of the High One)
- Vafþrúðnismál (The Ballad of Vafthrúdnir, The Lay of Vafthrúdnir, Vafthrúdnir's Sayings)
- Grímnismál (The Ballad of Grímnir, The Lay of Grímnir, Grímnir's Sayings)
- Skírnismál (The Ballad of Skírnir, The Lay of Skírnir, Skírnir's Journey)
- Hárbarðsljóð (The Poem of Hárbard, The Lay of Hárbard, Hárbard's Song)
- Hymiskviða (The Lay of Hymir, Hymir's Poem)
- Lokasenna (Loki's Wrangling, The Flyting of Loki, Loki's Quarrel)
- Þrymskviða (The Lay of Thrym, Thrym's Poem)
- Völundarkviða (The Lay of Völund)
- Alvíssmál (The Ballad of Alvís, The Lay of Alvís, All-Wise's Sayings)
Not in Codex Regius
- Baldrs draumar (Baldr's Dreams)
- Rígsþula (The Song of Ríg, The Lay of Ríg, The List of Ríg)
- Hyndluljóð (The Poem of Hyndla, The Lay of Hyndla, The Song of Hyndla)
- Völuspá in skamma (The Short Völuspá, The Short Seeress' Prophecy, Short Prophecy of the Seeress)—This poem is included as an interpolation in Hyndluljóð.
- Svipdagsmál (The Ballad of Svipdag, The Lay of Svipdag)—This title, originally suggested by Bugge, actually covers two separate poems:
- Grógaldr (Gróa's Spell, The Spell of Gróa)
- Fjölsvinnsmál (Ballad of Fjölsvid, The Lay of Fjölsvid)
- Gróttasöngr (The Mill's Song, The Song of Grotti) (Not included in many editions.)
- Hrafnagaldur Óðins (Odins's Raven Song, Odin's Raven Chant) (a late work not included in most editions).
After the mythological poems Codex Regius continues with heroic lays about mortal heroes. The heroic lays are to be seen as a whole in the Edda, but they consist of three layers, the story of Helgi Hundingsbani, the story of the Nibelungs and the story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths. These are, respectively, Scandinavian, German and Gothic in origin. Historically, Attila, Jörmunrekkr and Brynhildr actually existed, taking Brynhildr to be partly based on Brunhilda of Austrasia, but the chronology has been reversed in the poems.
In Codex Regius
- The Helgi Lays
- Helgakviða Hundingsbana I or Völsungakviða (The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, The First Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer, The First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani)
- Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar (The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjörvard, The Lay of Helgi Hjörvardsson, The Poem of Helgi Hjörvardsson)
- Helgakviða Hundingsbana II or Völsungakviða in forna (The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, The Second Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer, A Second Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani)
- The Niflung Cycle
- Frá dauða Sinfjötla (Of Sinfjötli's Death, Sinfjötli's Death, The Death of Sinfjötli) (A short prose text)
- Grípisspá (Grípir's Prophecy, The Prophecy of Grípir)
- Reginsmál (The Ballad of Regin, The Lay of Regin)
- Fáfnismál (The Ballad of Fáfnir, The Lay of Fáfnir)
- Sigrdrífumál (The Ballad of The Victory-Bringer, The Lay of Sigrdrífa)
- Brot af Sigurðarkviðu (Fragment of a Sigurd Lay, Fragment of a Poem about Sigurd)
- Guðrúnarkviða I (The First Lay of Gudrún)
- Sigurðarkviða hin skamma (The Short Lay of Sigurd, A Short Poem about Sigurd)
- Helreið Brynhildar (Brynhild's Hell-Ride, Brynhild's Ride to Hel, Brynhild's Ride to Hell)
- Dráp Niflunga (The Slaying of The Niflungs, The Fall of the Niflungs, The Death of the Niflungs)
- Guðrúnarkviða II (The Second Lay of Gudrún or Guðrúnarkviða hin forna The Old Lay of Gudrún)
- Guðrúnarkviða III (The Third Lay of Gudrún)
- Oddrúnargrátr (The Lament of Oddrún, The Plaint of Oddrún, Oddrún's Lament)
- Atlakviða (The Lay of Atli). The full manuscript title is Atlakviða hin grœnlenzka, that is, The Greenland Lay of Atli, but editors and translators generally omit the Greenland reference as a probable error from confusion with the following poem.
- Atlamál hin groenlenzku (The Greenland Ballad of Atli, The Greenlandish Lay of Atli, The Greenlandic Poem of Atli)
- The Jörmunrekkr Lays
- Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrún's Inciting, Gudrún's Lament, The Whetting of Gudrún)
- Hamðismál (The Ballad of Hamdir, The Lay of Hamdir)
Not in Codex Regius
Several of the legendary sagas contain poetry in the Eddic style. Its age and importance is often difficult to evaluate but Hervarar saga, in particular, contains interesting poetic interpolations.
- Hlöðskviða (Lay of Hlöd, also known in English as The Battle of the Goths and the Huns), extracted from Hervarar saga.
- The Waking of Angantýr, extracted from Hervarar saga.
- Sólarljóð (Poems of the sun).
This poem, also not in Codex Regius, is sometimes included in editions of the Poetic Edda even though it is Christian and belongs, properly speaking, to the visionary literature of the Middle Ages. It is, however, written in ljóðaháttr and uses some heathen imagery.
Allusions and quotations
- As noted above, the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson makes much use of the Poetic Edda.
- The Volsungasaga is a prose version of much of the Niflung cycle of poems. Due to several missing pages in the Codex Regius, the Volsungasaga is the oldest source for the Norse version of much of the story of Sigurð. Only four stanzas found on those pages are still extant, all of which are quoted in the Volsungasaga.
The two Eddas, the Prose Edda, or Younger Edda together with the Poetic, or Elder Edda, represent the best written sources for modern knowledge of the old Germanic mythology. The Poetic Edda's collection of heroic poems have been described as "dramatic dialogues in a terse, simple, archaic style that is in decided contrast to the artful poetry of the skalds."
The first half of the work is a mythological cycle, including a cosmogonic myth. The second half of the work is composed of heroic lays, poems that are characterized by the deceit and vengeance of its "heroic" characters.
Bibliography in reverse chronological order
- Neckel, Gustav (Ed.). (1983). Edda: Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern I: Text. (Rev. Hans Kuhn, 5th edition). Heidelberg: Winter. (A web text of the Poetic Edda based on this edition has been prepared by David Stifter and Sigurdur H. Palsson (1994), Vienna, corrections by Fabrizio Ducci (2001), Titus version by Jost Gippert, available at Titus: Text Collection: Edda.)
- Jón Helgason (Ed.). (1955). Eddadigte (3 vols.). Copenhagen: Munksgaard. (Codex Regius poems up to Sigrdrífumál.) (Reissue of the following entry.)
- —(Ed.) (1951–1952). Eddadigte. Nordisk filologi A: 4 and 7–8. Copenhagen: Munksgaard.
- Finnur Jónsson (Ed.). (1932). De gamle Eddadigte. Copenhagen: Gads.
- Boer, R. C. (Ed.). (1922). Die Edda mit historisch-kritischem Commentar I: Einleitung und Text. (2 vols.) Haarlem: Willink & Zoon. (Text and German translation.)
- Heusler, Andreas & Ranisch, Wilhelm (Eds.) (1903). Eddica Minora. Dortmund.
- Wimmer, E. A. & Finnur Jónsson (Eds.) (1891). Håndskriftet Nr 2365 4to gl. kgl. samling på det store Kgl. bibliothek i København (Codex regius af den ældre Edda) i fototypisk og diplomatisk gengievelse. (4 vols.) Copenhagen: Samfund til udgivelse at gammel nordisk litteratur.
- Bugge, Sophus (Ed.). (1867). Sæmundar Edda. Christiania: P. T. Malling. (Available at Old Norse: etexts.)
- Munch, P.A. (Ed.). (1847). Den ældre Edda: Samling af norrøne oldkvad. Christiania [Oslo]: P.T. Malling. (Available in image format at books.google.com.)
- Sagnanet: Eddic poetry (Portal to graphic images of Eddic poems from manuscripts and old printed texts).
Original text with English translation
- Dronke, Ursula (Ed. & trans.) (1969). The Poetic Edda, vol. I, Heroic Poems. Oxford: Clarendon. ISBN 0-19-811497-4. (Atlakviða, Atlamál in Grœnlenzko, Guðrúnarhvöt, Hamðismál.)
- — (1997). The Poetic Edda, vol. II, Mythological Poems. Oxford: Clarendeon. ISBN 0-19-811181-9. (Völuspá, Rígsthula, Völundarkvida, Lokasenna, Skírnismál, Baldrs draumar.)
- Bray, Olive. (Ed. & trans.) (1908). The Elder or Poetic Edda: Commonly known as Saemund's Edda, Part 1, The Mythological Poems. Viking Club Translation Series vol. 2. London: Printed for the Viking Club. Reprinted 1982 New York: AMS Press. ISBN 0-404-60012-3
- Gudbrand Vigfússon & Powell, F. York (Ed. & trans.) (1883). Corpus Poeticum Boreale: The Poetry of the Old Northern Tongue. (2 vols.) Oxford: Oxford University Press. Reprinted 1965, New York: Russell & Russell. Reprinted 1965, Oxford: Clarendon. Translations from Volume 1 issued in Lawrence S. Thompson (Ed.). (1974). Norse mythology: the Elder Edda in prose translation.. Hamden, CN: Archon Books. ISBN 0-208-01394-6
English translation only
- Larrington, Carolyne. (Trans.). (1996). The Poetic Edda. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-282383-3
- Terry, Patricia. (Trans.) (1990). Poems of the Elder Edda. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-8235-3 hardcover, ISBN 0-8122-8220-5 paperback. (A revision of Terry's Poems of the Vikings of 1969, listed below.)
- Auden, W. H. & Taylor, Paul B. (Trans.). (1981). Norse Poems. London: Athlone. ISBN 0-485-11226-4. Also issued 1983, London: Faber ISBN 0-571-13028-3. (Revised and expanded edition of Auden and Taylor's The Elder Edda: A Selection of 1969, listed below.)
- Terry, Patricia. (Trans.) (1969). Poems of the Vikings: The Elder Edda. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill. ISBN 0-672-60332-2
- Auden, W. H. & Taylor, Paul B. (Trans.). (1969). The Elder Edda: A Selection. London: Faber. ISBN 0-571-09066-4. Issued in 1970, New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-70601-3. Also issued 1975, Bridgeport, CN: Associated Booksellers. ISBN 0-571-10319-7
- Hollander, Lee M. (Trans.) (1962). The Poetic Edda: Translated with an Introduction and Explanatory Notes. (2nd ed., rev.). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-76499-5. (Some of the translations appear at Wodensharrow: Texts).
- Bellows, Henry Adams. (Trans.). (1923). The Poetic Edda: Translated from the Icelandic with an Introduction and Notes. New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation. Reprinted Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellon Press. ISBN 0-88946-783-8. (Available at Sacred Texts: Sagas and Legends: The Poetic Edda. An HTML version transcribed with new annotations by Ari Odhinnsen is available at Northvegr: Lore: Poetic Edda - Bellows Trans..)
- Thorpe, Benjamin. (Trans.) (1866). Edda Sæmundar Hinns Froða: The Edda Of Sæmund The Learned. (2 vols.) London: Trübner & Co. 1866. (HTML version transcribed by Ari Odhinnsen available at Northvegr: Lore: Poetic Edda - Thorpe Trans.) Reprinted 1906 as "The Elder Eddas of Saemund" in Rasmus B. Anderson & J. W. Buel (Eds.) The Elder Eddas of Saemund Sigfusson. Tr. from the original Old Norse text into English by Benjamin Thorpe, and The Younger Eddas of Snorre Sturleson Tr. from the original Old Norse text into English by I. A. Blackwell (pp. 1–255). Norrœna, the history and romance of northern Europe. London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin, New York: Norrœna Society. (A searchable graphic image version of this text requiring DjVu plugin is available at University of Georgia Libraries: Facsimile Books and Periodicals: The Elder Eddas and the Younger Eddas.)
- Cottle, A. S. (Trans.). (1797). Icelandic Poetry or the Edda of Saemund. Bristol: N. Biggs. (Oldest English translation of a substantial portion of the Poetic Edda.)
- La Farge, Beatrice & Tucker, John. (Eds.). (1992) Glossary to the Poetic Edda Based on Hans Kuhn's Kurzes Wörterbuch. Heidelberg. (Update and expansions of the glossary of the Neckel-Kuhn edition.)
- Glendinning, Robert J. & Bessason, Haraldur. (1983). Edda: A Collection of Essays. Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba.
- Old Norse poetry
- Norse mythology
- Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature (ISBN 0-87779-042-6), 363.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Anderson, Rasmus B. 1876. Norse Mythology: Myths of the Eddas. Chicago: S. C. Griggs and company, 2003. ISBN 1-4102-0528-2.
- Björnsson, Árni (ed.). 1975. Snorra-Edda. Reykjavík. Iðunn. OCLC 7621737.
- Lindow, John. 2001. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515382-0.
- Magnússson, Ásgeir Blöndal. 1989. Íslensk orðsifjabók. Reykjavík. OCLC 21964891.
- Ólafur Briem (ed.). 1985. Eddukvæði. Reykjavík: Skálholt. OCLC 38604542.
- Orchard, Andy. 1997. Cassell's Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. London: Cassell. ISBN 0-304-36385-5.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the Shadow. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. ISBN 9780618083572.
All links retrieved November 24, 2022.
- The Poetic Edda, Bellows translation at sacred-texts.com
- Critical editions of the Poetic Edda in pdf format at septentrionalia.net
- The Elder Eddas of Saemund Sigfusson; and the Younger Eddas of Snorre Sturleson, available for free via Project Gutenberg, translated by Benjamin Thorpe (Elder Eddas) and I. A. Blackwell (Younger Eddas). (1906)
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