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(Also known as the Poetic Edda) Old Icelandic poetry composed between the ninth and the eleventh centuries.
The term Elder Edda refers to the most extensive known collection of Old Icelandic mythological poetry. Comprised of approximately thirty individual poems, in addition to several associated works not contained within its manuscript, the Elder Edda exhibits a twofold structure, featuring a mythological cycle focused on the exploits and destruction of the ancient Norse gods, as well as a collection of heroic tales from pre-Christian Scandinavia. In all likelihood originally sung with musical accompaniment by skaldic bards of the Viking period, Eddic verse, as subsequently recorded in the Codex Regius, includes works of narrative and didactic poetry, as well as several dramatic dialogues. Melodic and alliterative, these poems are typically divided into four-line stanzas, each line broken by a medial caesura, and display a characteristically lyrical tone within their epic framework. Use of the metaphorical synonyms known as kennings is extensive throughout the Elder Edda, although not omnipresent. The overarching themes of the collection are mortality and warfare. A foreboding sense of pessimism pervades much of the work, which nevertheless contains interludes of comic and romantic material. Principal figures in the mythological cycle include such familiar gods of the Norse pantheon as Odin (Óðinn), Thor (Þórr), and Loki, while the heroic lays primarily feature the legendary tragic figures Sigurd (Sigurðr), Brynhild, Gudrun (Guðrún), and Atli.
Primarily preserved in a late thirteenth-century manuscript designated the Codex Regius (R2365), Eddic verse is thought to have been composed by numerous unidentified Viking poets between the years of approximately 800 and 1100 a.d., although its origins as oral literature almost certainly predate this period. The Elder Edda is also distinguished from the so-called “younger” or Prose Edda, a work compiled by the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson in the first half of the thirteenth century. The first modern printing of Eddic verse was the 1655 publication of Völuspá and Hávamál. Long regarded as the finest of the Eddic poems, Völuspá remains the most celebrated piece in the collection and has historically elicited the largest share of critical commentary. By the early twentieth century, some forty separate editions of the complete Elder Edda had been printed, with the 1867 critical edition of the poems by Sophus Bugge, entitled Sæmundar Edda, considered the standard into the contemporary period. Editorial reconstruction and translation of the Elder Edda flourished in the twentieth century, while in 1971 the Codex Regius, the oldest extant manuscript text of this collection, held at the Royal Library in Copenhagen for centuries, was transferred to Reykjavik, Iceland.
Plot, Major Characters, and Major Themes
The main setting of the mythological poetic sequence that opens the Elder Edda is Asgard, the citadel of the Norse gods. Excursions are made into the neighboring land of the giants, Jotunheim, and the gods occasionally observe Midgard, the dwelling place of human beings, connected to Asgard by the Bifröst (rainbow) Bridge. The dominating figure of Odin, the All-Father, combines characteristics of a war god, wizard, and seer within his role as divine patriarch. His son Thor, the god of thunder, embodies unsurpassed strength, while the cunning Loki represents the forces of chaos and destruction, and inevitably invites disaster with unceasing acts of deceit. Other prominent figures include Balder (Baldr) and the Vanir siblings Frey (Freyr) and Freya (Freyja), who are associated with regeneration and fertility. The first poem of the collection, entitled Völuspá (The Sibyl's Prophecy), relates the creation myths of ancient Norse cosmology. Framed by Odin's insatiable search for knowledge, the work describes his summoning and interrogation of a preternatural seeress. The sibyl reveals to him the eternal secrets of the universe, including the mythological origins of the gods, men, dwarves, and giants. She foresees the slaying and eventual resurrection of the god Balder, the future destruction of Asgard, and the inevitable demise of the gods, known as Ragnarök. Hávamál (Sayings of the High One), the second portion of the Elder Edda, is actually a collection of shorter poems, ostensibly spoken by Odin, which impart practical advice concerning codes of behavior and ethics, rules of hospitality, and moral maxims. The later section of the Hávamál is considerably more esoteric, describing the nature of runes, a mysterious, quasi-magical written language of which Odin was the acknowledged keeper and master.
Further poems of the mythological cycle primarily record the adventures of the gods, giants, and related figures. In Vafþrúðnismál (The Lay of Vafthrudnir) a disguised Odin enters the hall of the giant Vafthrudnir in order to question him and obtain his wisdom. A battle of wits follows in which Odin wagers his life against the giant's answers. Concentrated on the god Frey, Skírnismál (Skirnir's Journey) describes the efforts of Odin's messenger, Skirnir, to win the giant's beautiful daughter, Gerd, for his master, and places Frey in the role of the archetypal wooing lover. The title Hárbarðzlióð (The Lay of Harbard) refers to Odin's assumed identity as a ferryman who transports his son Thor (unaware that Harbard is actually his father) back to Asgard. In the conversation that ensues, Thor explains how he has defeated the giants of Jotunheim in several contests of strength and fortitude. A somewhat episodic poem that follows, the Hymisqviða (The Lay of Hymir), involves a fishing journey that culminates in a quest to retrieve a giant cauldron from the god Hymir and features further acts of might by Thor. The amoral Loki makes his first major appearance in Lokasenna (The Insolence of Loki), which follows this trickster figure as he insults the collected gods of Asgard and brings about the death of Balder. Punished by the gods, Loki is chained to a rock and forced to endure the torment of venom dropped on his body by a giant serpent above.
Þrymsqviða (The Lay of Thrym) offers a shift in the generally pessimistic tone of the preceding narratives and features a humorous tale in which Thor recovers his magical hammer, Mjöllnir, stolen by the giant Thrym. Another narrative departure, Völundarqviða (The Lay of Volund), situated near the end of the mythological cycle, concerns the hero Volund, the smith—a partially supernatural figure associated with magical elves. The poem relates a tale of his encounter with three beautiful swan-maidens and his capture by the nefarious King Nidud, followed by the smith's eventual escape and revenge. Thor reappears in Alvíssmál (The Lay of Alvis) in order to confront the dwarf Alvis (“All-Knowing”), who has been promised the thunder god's daughter in marriage. As a delaying tactic, Thor engages the dwarf in a lengthy question-and-answer-session. While the creature satisfactorily responds to all of the gods queries, he forgets to return underground before daybreak and is turned into stone by the rays of the morning sun, much to Thor's approval.
The remaining poems of the Elder Edda belong to the collection's heroic cycle and are set in a legendary version of pre-Christian Scandinavia. A few of the heroes described therein possess real-world counterparts, most notably Atli, who is loosely based upon the historical fifth-century King Attila the Hun. Others have literary parallels, like Sigurd the Volsung, a figure corresponding to the Germanic Siegfried, central hero of the Nibelungenlied. The heroic poems also include numerous correlations with the previous mythological cycle. Sigurd's lover, Brynhild, for instance, is a Valkyrie, a supernatural warrior-maiden in the service of Odin whose duty is to transport the souls of fallen warriors to Odin's war hall, Valhalla. The historical struggle between Franks, Huns, and Burgundians that occurred in northern Europe during the fourth and fifth centuries a.d. provides the narrative background to the heroic cycle. Focused on individuals rather than historical matters, the sequence is punctuated by a series of revenge killings and panegyrics for dead heroes and husbands. It opens with Helgaqviða Hundingsbana in fyrri (The First Lay of Helgi Hunding's Bane) and Helgaqviða Hjörvardzsonar (The Lay of Helgi Hjorvard's Son), poems concerning two different heroes named Helgi, each of whom falls in love with a Valkyrie. Sigrun, the otherworldly lover of Helgi Hunding's Bane (Sigurd's half-brother) sings a lament for him after his death in the first of these lays. A subsequent piece, Grípisspá (The Prophecy of Gripir), outlines the life of Sigurd, condensing a mass of legendary material regarding the hero of the Volsungs into synoptic verse. In Sigrdrifomál (The Lay of Sigrdrifa), Sigurd discovers a sleeping maiden, Brynhild, who upon waking shares with him some of Odin's divine knowledge. Sigurðarqviða in scamma (The Short Lay of Sigurd) continues the tale as Brynhild, motivated by rage over Sigurd's betrayal, sets into motion a plot to kill her beloved. A further series of poems, including Guðrúnarqviða in fyrsta (The Lay of Gudrun) and Atlamál in groenlenzco (The Greenland Lay of Atli), relate the tragic story of the legendary figures Gudrun and Atli and culminate in Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrun's Chain of Woes).
In the twentieth century scholars have continued the ongoing process of studying these lays, which long ago were recognized as seminal works of Scandinavian literature. Piecing together scraps of evidence with scholarly conjecture, commentators have speculated about the original composers of Eddic verse and have sought to date the individual poems with varying degrees of success. Modern scholars have also examined these works for the information they offer with respect to cultural conditions and pagan religious practices in pre-Christian northern Europe. Others have investigated etymological and linguistic clues in the Elder Edda, probing its origins as oral literature and the transition to written text it underwent after the eighth century. Language, imagery, and structure remain popular areas of current study with regard to the Elder Edda, as does its mix of comedy and epic tragedy. The nature of its principal characters has been explored by critics, and the individual works themselves, likely composed over many centuries, have been compared in terms of structural, thematic, and formulaic resemblances. Additionally, the Elder Edda has been analyzed alongside Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of both works. Finally, the tools of contemporary literary theory, such as feminist and new historicist criticism, have been applied to the collection, offering new observations on this varied and influential medieval literary text.