Poetic Edda, The

Poetic Edda, The
(Elder Edda)
(ca. 1280)
   The Poetic Edda is a collection of some 38 anonymous poems in Old Norse, drawn together in late 13th-century Iceland into a single manuscript, called the Codex Regius, the most famous manuscript in Old Norse. A second manuscript fragment, Arnamagnaean 748 (ca. 1300), contains six poems also in the Codex Regius, plus one additional poem, Baldrs draumar (Balder’s dream). Sometimes called the “Elder Edda,” this compilation of poems is actually more recent than the PROSE EDDA of SNORRI STURLUSON (ca. 1225); many of the poems it contains were written down between 1225 and 1240, during the revival of interest in the old mythology stimulated by Snorri’s Edda. The history of the Codex Regius manuscript after its production ca. 1280 is unclear, but it was discovered in 1643 by the scholar Brynjólfur Sveinsson, bishop of Skálholt, who presented it to the king of Denmark in 1662. The manuscript was in the Royal Library of Copenhagen until 1971, when it was returned to Iceland. On the assumption that the Eddic poems must be older than Snorri’s Edda, because Snorri quotes from older versions of some of them,Bishop Sveinsson inexplicably attributed the manuscript to the famous Icelandic scholar Sæmundr Sigfusson the Wise (d. 1133). Scholars no longer seriously attribute the Poetic Edda to Sæmundr, but contend that the various poems in the collection were composed by multiple authors over a long period of time. In addition, many of the poems must have been circulating in the late 10th century, since, for example, the poet Eyvindr Skaldaspillir cites some of them in his own work from about that time. Since many of the poems deal with pagan myth and show no influence of Christianity, it seems likely that some of them were composed before the 11th century, when Iceland was Christianized. The term “Edda” itself seems to have been coined by Snorri for his own text, a handbook for SKALDIC poets including a compendium of Norse mythology. Perhaps as a collection of mythic poems, the Codex Regius invited a title that linked it with the other most famous collection of Norse myths.
   The Eddic poems, however, are not nearly as complex as skaldic poems are. Like virtually all Germanic poetry, they use alliterative lines. In general, however, the lines are arranged into simple strophes. There are two basic types of Eddic meter: The first, called fornyr´ ?islag (“old lore meter”), is virtually the same as ALLITERATIVE VERSE common to all Germanic languages—it consists of long alliterative lines of four stressed syllables separated by a caesura. In Eddic verse, however, these lines are also arranged into four-line stanzas. The other chief type of Eddic meter is called ljó´?aháttr (chant meter). Peculiar to Old Norse, this meter also uses four-line stanzas, but while the first and third lines of these are conventional long alliterative lines, the second and fourth are two- or three-stress lines.This type of meter was almost exclusively used for recording characters’ direct speeches.
   The poems of the Poetic Edda fall into two groups: mythological poems and heroic poems. The 15 mythological poems all concern the gods. Some of these are humorous tall tales, like Thrymskvida, or the “Lay of Thrym.” In this poem one of the giants, Thrym, is able to steal Thor’s hammer, and will only restore it to the gods if he is allowed to marry the beautiful goddess Freya. Freya refuses to go through with the marriage, and so Thor is forced to dress as a woman himself and travel to the wedding feast in the land of the giants with Loki as his attending handmaiden.When Thor gets his hands on his hammer, the disguise comes off and he uses the weapon on the giants themselves. Thrymskvida is a fairly late poem in the collection, dated 1150–1300, when paganism was an antiquarian interest rather than a living religion. Other poems are more solemn, and clearly take the gods more seriously, as does the opening poem, Völuspá, or the “Prophecy of Vala” (the Wisewoman). In this, perhaps the most important of the Eddic poems, Odin brings a Wisewoman (a volva) back from the dead, and she chants to him a song of the cosmos, describing the history and composition of the universe, as well as its future. The poem gives us our most striking and complete view of pagan Norse cosmology. It is thought to be a very early poem, dating from 850–1030. In another more serious poem, Baldrs Draumr (Balder’s dream), nightmares haunt the god Balder, and Odin travels to the underworld to consult another volva, who reveals Balder’s impending death, an event that will trigger the ultimate fall of the gods and the end of the world. Although this is a later poem, likely from the 13th century, it is thought to be a reworking of an earlier text.
   There are, in addition, 23 heroic poems of lays in the Poetic Edda, generally concerning different episodes in the famous story of Sigurd the dragon slayer and his family and contemporaries, a story also related in the Norse VOLSUNGA SAGA (ca. 1270) and the Middle High German NIBELUNGENLIED (ca. 1200). Other characters involved in the story told by the Eddic poems as a whole are Atli (Attila), king of the Huns, and Jormunrekr (Ermanaric), king of the Visigoths. These poems, as a group, tell the story of Sigurd’s death at the hands of his brothers-in-law, a revenge plotted by the jealous Brynhild, who also kills herself.Many poems deal with Sigurd’s widow Gu´?rún, who marries Atli. Gu´?rún’s brother Gunnarr dies at Atli’s hands, and Gu´?rún ultimately takes terrible revenge on Atli. Later, when Gu´?rún’s daughter Svanhildr is killed by her own husband, Jormunrekr,Gu´?rún’s clamor for revenge ultimately dooms her sons, the only surviving members of her family. The bulk of this Sigurd-Gu´?rún story seems to have been written down in the 13th century. It seems certain that Eddic poetry was essentially an oral phenomenon, like skaldic poetry but probably predating it, as the chief vehicle for the preservation of the old traditions.We owe a great debt to the antiquarian scholar or poet responsible for the compilation of the Codex Regius, who preserved the tradition in the written form that has kept it alive to this day.
   ■ Archer, Paul, and Carolyne Larrington, eds. The Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Mythology. New York: Routledge, 2002.
   ■ Glendinning, Robert J., and Haraldur Bessason, eds. Edda: A Collection of Essays. Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press, 1983.
   ■ The Poetic Edda. Edited with translation, introduction, and commentary by Ursula Dronke. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969–1997.
   ■ Terry, Patricia A., trans. Poems of the Elder Edda.With an introduction by Charles W. Dunn. rev. ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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