The poetic Edda

The poetic Edda

About this book

Genre: Mythology
Year of first publication: 13th century

The Poetic Edda, also known as the Elder Edda, is a collection of songs from medieval Iceland, consisting of a collection of gods songs with mythological content, more specifically referring to Germanic mythology, and a collection of hero songs with mainly epic content, referring to historical contexts. These mainly relate to descendants of the royal families from the Völsung family. The Poetic Edda is one of the two main primary sources we have of the Germanic pagan worldview, the other such source being the Prose Edda.

The poems in The Poetic Edda are written in alliterative rhyme. Some parts are written in prose, but the overtone remains poetic.

These poems were found in a medieval manuscript, the Codex Regius, which was found in Iceland. This codex, together with The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, is the most important source of knowledge about the ancient Norse and Germanic mythologies and legends.

The Codex Regius was written down in the 13th century, but was only discovered in 1643, after it came into possession of the bishop of Skálholt, Brynjólfur Sveinsson. At that time, a number of versions of Snorri’s Edda were known, but scholars had always assumed that there must have been another Edda, an Elder Edda, that recorded the pagan poems Snorri referred to in his quotations. When the Codex Regius was finally found, it confirmed those earlier speculations. Brynjólfur attributed the manuscript to Sæmundr the Scholar (also called Sæmundr the Wise), an Icelandic priest from the 12th century, and although later researchers came to the conclusion that The Poetic Edda was not actually written by Sæmundr, the name Sæmundr Edda is still often used.

Bishop Brynjólfur sent the Codex Regius to the Danish king, hence the name. Thus, the manuscript remained in the Royal Library of Denmark for centuries. It was returned to Iceland in 1971.

Like most of the works from that time, the poems were minstrelenwerk (skalden), passed down from singer to singer and only written down later. Therefore it is not known exactly who made the poems and when – only from The Prose Edda we know that Snorri Sturluson wrote them down.

It is generally believed that The Poetic Edda dates from the twelfth to thirteenth centuries (that is, when it was written. The songs themselves are actually older), and the written songs are from Iceland. The creation story is also characteristic of a nordic country like Iceland, where fire and ice play a role in everyday life.

Although we can treat the Poetic Edda as a primary source for the Germanic pagan worldview, we have to take a couple of things into account.

First, The Poetic Edda (or the Prose Edda for that matter) is not a ‘pagan bible’. We have no reason to believe that we have to treat it as the word of the gods.

Second, overall it not meant as a practical guideline for everyday life, with the exception of the Hávamál, which offers practical wisdom.

Third, religious beliefs and practices are hardly ever static. The Poetic Edda gives us an insight in the heathen mythology of the Icelanders in the middle ages. During this time heathenry was long past its golden age, and chrisitanity has already had influence on religious thought for centuries. We assume that the tales we find in The Poetic Edda are similar to the tales that would have been told by the Danes, Germans, Swedes, or other Germanic peoples in earlier times, but this is not something we can be entirely sure of.

The Old Norse version of The Poetic Edda can be found at heimskringla.no.

The Poetic Edda contains mythological poems and heroic poems, namely the following:

Mythological poems in The Poetic Edda

  • 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)

Heroic poems in The Poetic Edda

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)

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