EDDAS . The Icelandic works known as the Eddas form our most important sources for Scandinavian mythology. The Poetic Edda is a collection of alliterative poems. First in the Danish Royal Library (hence the collection's name, Codex Regius ), this manuscript was transferred to Iceland in 1971. Sixteen pages were lost from the middle between 1641 and 1643; the remaining ninety pages contain eleven poems about the gods and eighteen about Germanic heroes. A few poems in a similar style are found in other medieval manuscripts. The work known as the Prose Edda or Snorri's Edda is a handbook of poetry written by Snorri Sturluson between around 1225 and 1230. To explain circumlocutions such as "Freyja's tears" for "gold," Snorri relates myths about the gods. In one manuscript the work is given the title Edda. The derivation of this word is obscure, although several explanations have been proposed.
The authorship, date, and place of origin of the eddic poems are unknown. The Codex Regius was written about 1270, but its poems were copied from several manuscripts that are now lost. The poems quoted in Snorri's Edda must be from before 1230, and close echoes of them are found in court verse from the tenth and eleventh centuries. Their mythological lore must be older still, for it underlies the metaphors used by Norwegian court poets from the ninth century on. Eddic poetry was probably being composed in Scandinavia by the ninth century, although the content and form of these poems is unknown. Their mythological and heroic lore existed for two hundred years in Christian oral tradition, most likely for its entertainment value.
Organization of the Codex Regius
The Codex Regius has a clear hierarchical organization. It starts with cosmology; continues with Óðinn, Freyr, Þórr, and other supernatural beings; and concludes with human heroes. The poems on their own are not easy to understand, as they assume familiarity with the myths; therefore, the compiler supplies some commentary. But even so, knowledge of Scandinavian mythology would be sparse were it not for Snorri, who also organizes and explains the mythological lore he sets down. A prologue asserts that the heathen religion arose from nature worship and that the gods known as the Æsir are actually men, the descendants of King Priam of Troy. They emigrated from Asia, from which their name derives, and their king, Óðinn, gave his sons the rule of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. This section, reflecting patristic approaches to paganism, may be intended to deflect any criticism of the retelling of pagan mythology.
The next part, the Gylfaginning (Deluding of Gylfi), uses a frame narrative—the quest of the Swedish king Gylfi to learn about the Æsir—to retell myths about the creation, cosmology, some two dozen gods and goddesses, and the end of the mythological world at Ragnarǫk. The triad of gods who answer Gylfi's questions appears to be modeled on the Christian Trinity. The third section, Skáldskaparmál (Language of poetry), uses a different dialogue to present additional myths, but it primarily discusses the diction of court poetry. The last section, Háttatal (Enumeration of meters), contains three of Snorri's poems illustrating many Norse verse forms, together with a prose commentary. Snorri most likely included mythology in his Edda because so many poetic circumlocutions required a knowledge of it. Viewing the heathen religion with detachment, he writes about the gods with irony and humor. He has little interest in allegorical or symbolic explanations of myths, and where he does offer an interpretation, it is an etiological one.
Given the inescapably mediated nature of the Eddas, can anything about authentic Scandinavian paganism be learned from them? The thirteenth-century forms were recorded by people who cannot have held them sacred, making them an unreliable source for religious history. Nonetheless, the myths do seem to be a reflex of paganism, as seen by the parallels between Snorri's myths and those of Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150–after 1216), whose work predates Snorri's and was not known in Iceland. In addition, the eddic depictions of the gods correspond to what is known of the earlier Germanic pantheon.
The First Five Poems
The Poetic Edda opens with Vo̜luspá (Prophecy of the seeress), composed perhaps in late-tenth- or early-eleventh-century Iceland. It relates the creation of the worlds, the war between the two groups of gods (Æsir and Vanir), the death of Baldr, the fall of the gods, the destruction of the earth by fire and water, and its reemergence from the sea, beginning a new age. The poet was probably not a Christian, but the moral framework, the idea of punishment or reward for human beings after death, the coming of an unnamed new god referred to only as inn ríki (the mighty one), and the obsession with the end of the world do suggest syncretic use of Christian material. If the poet was a Christian, he was well versed in pagan mythology and does not display the hostility towards it common among early Norse Christians.
The second poem, Hávamál (Speech of the High One), begins the sequence about Óðinn. A composite work drawn from at least six sources, it lists the spells known to Óðinn and describes his winning the secret of runes by hanging from the World Tree for nine nights, wounded with a spear, a sacrifice of himself to himself. The elements of this myth all have parallels in Norse tradition, and it is probably not influenced by the Christian crucifixion. Next are two short narratives about Óðinn's unsuccessful wooing of a resolute maiden and his seduction of a giant's daughter in order to steal the mead of poetic inspiration. Finally, a long series of proverbs offers advice. References to cremation and memorial stones indicate the poem's origin in pagan Norway. In the third poem, Vafþrúðnismál (The lay of Vafþrúðnir), Óðinn holds a riddle contest with the giant Vafþrúðnir to see who knows the most mythological lore; defeat means death for the vanquished. They cover creation, the halls of the gods, the World Tree and the creatures that live on it, the life of warriors after death in the hall of Óðinn, and the events leading to Ragnarǫk. A variant of this myth is found in the fourth poem, Grímnismál (The lay of Grímnir).
The fifth poem, Skírnismál (The lay of Skírnir), tells of the wooing of the fair giantess Gerðr by Freyr, the fertility god. This myth seems quite archaic, and even if one sets aside the interpretations associating the story with any particular fertility ritual, there can be no doubt that sex and fertility lie at its core. The myth has also been interpreted as reaffirming the patriarchal structure of Old Norse society, depicting a male-female struggle for power and providing a matrix for resolving conflict between different families through a system of exchange and intermarriage.
ÞÓrr: Four Poems
Þórr is the subject of the next four poems. In Hárbarðsljóð (The song of Hárbarðr) he tries to compel Óðinn, who is disguised as a ferryman, to take him across a fjord. When they recognize one another, they exchange insults referring to shameful incidents in the past. Hymiskviða (The lay of Hymir) describes how Þórr went fishing with the giant Hymir and nearly caught the sea serpent that encircles the earth. The tale is humorously told, but this does not diminish its underlying seriousness, for the emergence of the monster from the depths is the signal for the beginning of Ragnarǫk and the end of the world. The importance of this myth is seen from its depiction on Viking Age carved stones in Sweden, Denmark, and England. Lokasenna (Loki's exchange of insults) tells how the mischievous Loki is evicted from the gods' banquet for killing a servant. He immediately returns, and a heated exchange of abuse ensues in which he reminds each god of some humiliating incident. Lokasenna was grouped with the poems about Þórr because Loki leaves only when faced with Þórr's fury. The poet's purpose was probably to recite a catalogue of the important stories about the gods, perhaps as an aide-mémoire.
Þrymskviða (The lay of Þrymr), thought to be one of the youngest mythological poems (from the beginning of the thirteenth century), borrows phrases from older poems to describe the theft of Þórr's hammer by the giant Þrymr, who wants to exchange it for the hand of Freyja, goddess of love. Þórr goes to Þrymr disguised as Freyja, his face covered by the bridal veil, and Loki accompanies him disguised as a maid. Thanks to this ruse, Þórr is able to recover his hammer when it is brought in as part of the wedding ceremony. Like Hymiskviða, Þrymskviða treats a serious threat in a comic vein. Without Þórr's hammer to protect them, the gods would be at the mercy of the giants, but Þórr's unfeminine behavior and Loki's inspired excuses for him are truly amusing. However, this myth is otherwise unknown, and it may simply be a skillful imitation of "authentic" mythological poems.
The Final Poems on the Gods
The last two mythological poems nominally deal with lesser supernatural beings. Völundarvkiða (The lay of Völundr) tells the tragic story of the smith Völundr (in English: Weland, Wayland), who exacts a grisly vengeance on the king who captures him. Völundr is probably not a native figure of Scandinavian mythology, but his Norse appellation álfa dróttinn (Lord of Elves) seems to have led the compiler of the Codex Regius to place the poem here, rather than with the heroic poems with which modern scholars classify it. Alvíssmál (The lay of Alvíss) is a wisdom contest like Vafþrúðnismál. Here Þórr uses questions to keep the dwarf Alvíss (All-Wise)—who has persuaded the other gods to give him Þórr's daughter as a bride—up all night until the rays of the sun turn him into stone.
Outside the Codex Regius
Eddic poems not in the Codex Regius include Baldrs draumar (Dreams of Baldr), which describes how Óðinn seeks information from a seeress about the fate of his son Baldr. The incomplete Rígsþula (Rígr's list of names) treats the origin and structure of human society. Rígr (whom the medieval scribe says is the god Heimdallr) visits three farms, where each housewife gives birth to a boy nine months later. The child at the first farm is named Þræll (Slave), the child at the second is Karl (Free-man), and the child at the third is Jarl (Earl). Each has the stereotypical appearance of his social class. The poem thus employs an aristocratic, secular perspective in its survey of the social hierarchy and reflects archaic insular influences—such as the name Rígr, which corresponds to the Old Irish rí (king)—and the implicit sanction of the custom of allowing distinguished visitors to have sexual relations with the wife of the host. Scholars are split between regarding it as a mirror of Viking Age society (tenth century to c. 1100) and as a product of the learned milieu of late-twelfth-century and thirteenth-century Norway and Iceland.
Grottasöngr tells how King Fróði of Denmark had a mill that would grind out whatever its owner wished for. At first the king ordered it to grind gold and happiness for himself and peace for his kingdom, but his greed drove the two slaves who worked the mill to rebel and grind out vengeance and destruction. Hyndluljóð 's recounts how Freyja forces the giantess Hyndla to tell the genealogy of her protégé Óttarr. In addition to this information, Hyndla recites a version of Vo̜luspá. Most scholars believe that this was originally a separate poem older than the verses about Freyja and Óttarr but younger than Vo̜luspá. Hyndluljóð 's emphasis on genealogy and the interrelationship of noble families and legendary heroic figures suggests that it is a mythologization created for sociolegal purposes.
When Snorri assembled the myths in his Edda, he made extensive use of the eddic poems and also drew on tales of the gods from other, unknown sources. He gives several traditional views about the creation of the world; describes the gods and goddesses and other supernatural beings, listing lesser ones about whom little or nothing is known; and explains how Óðinn and two companions created the first man and woman from logs of wood. Snorri also recounts a number of myths and legends concerning the gods and the giants. One is the tale of how a giant built the stronghold of Ásgarðr, whereupon the gods cheated him out of his wages and took his life; Óðinn's eight-legged horse Sleipnir was an unintended result of the gods' trickery. Another relates how the god Týr lost his hand in the process of binding the wolf Fenrir. Other tales relate how Óðinn brought the mead of poetry to Ásgarðr, which treasures the dwarfs fashioned for the gods, what befell Þórr in the land of the giants and at the court of Útgarða-Loki, and how he dueled with the giant Hrungnir. The defeat of the giant Þjazi results in the marriage of his daughter Skaði to one of the Vanir hostages, the sea god Njörðr. Loki's escapades culminate in the tale of how he caused the death of Baldr and was bound by the gods under the earth as a punishment. Finally, Snorri gives an account of Ragnarǫk that is based on Vo̜luspá but which incorporates popular beliefs about the world's ending.
Carolyne Larrington's The Poetic Edda (Oxford, 1996) is a good translation of the entire Poetic Edda. B. S. Benedikz and John McKinnell offer a translation with commentary in Vo̜luspá (Durham, N.C., 1978). Ursula Dronke's The Poetic Edda, vol. 2, Mythological Poems (Oxford, 1997), does the same for Vo̜luspá, Baldrs draumar, Rígsþula, Völundarkvíða, Lokasenna, and Skírnismál. The Everyman edition of Snorri Sturluson: Edda (London, 1987), translated and edited by Anthony Faulkes, is the best and most complete translation of Snorri's Edda, omitting only an appendix. For a translation of the prologue, Gylfaginning, and selections from Skáldskaparmál, see Jean I. Young, The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from Norse Mythology (Cambridge, U.K., 1954).
Studies of the eddic myths include Gabriel Turville-Petre's Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia (London, 1964) and Hilda Ellis Davidson's Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Harmondsworth, U.K., 1965). In Gods of the Ancient Northmen (Berkeley, Calif., 1973), Georges Dumézil deals with the eddic myths in the light of other Indo-European mythologies. Papers on the Poetic Edda are gathered in Edda: A Collection of Essays (Manitoba, Canada, 1983), edited by Robert J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason. Jónas Kristjánsson's Eddas and Sagas: Iceland's Medieval Literature (Reykjavík, 1988), translated by Peter Foote, is a popular, illustrated treatment, while Margaret Clunies Ross takes an academic, sociological approach in the first volume of Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Northern Society (Odense, Denmark, 1994). For bibliography and a valuable survey of scholarship up to 1985, consult Joseph Harris, "Eddic Poetry," in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide, edited by Carol J. Clover and John Lindow (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985). Further references can be found in John Lindow's Scandinavian Mythology: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1988). Phillip Pulsiano's Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia (New York, 1993), Rudolf Simek's Dictionary of Northern Mythology (Cambridge, U.K., 1993), and John Lindow's Handbook of Norse Mythology (Santa Barbara, Calif., 2001) supply useful encyclopedia-style entries.
Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (2005)