The Poetic Edda

History and synopsis of

"The Poetic Edda" is a compilation of Norse-Icelandic poetry that provides information about the mythology of the Vikings. The work is comparable to the mythological verses of Ovid's "The Metamorphosis" and Hesiod's "Theogony." Yet unlike these works, "The Poetic Edda" provides a broad spectrum of genres within its poetry, including comedy, tragedy, satire and prayer.

The poems found in "The Poetic Edda" came from several different sources. Most of the poems came from a manuscript called the Codex Regius. Six of the poems are found in a manuscript called AM 7484. A few poems come from completely isolated works. Unfortunately, scholars have not yet found a satisfactory way to date the poems with reference to each other, nor even a way to determine whether the poems were originally written in Iceland or Norway. Still, scholars believe most of the poems originated from before the insurgence of Christianity in Scandinavia during the 10th century.

The most important of the primary sources is the Codex Regius. Sometime in the 1270s, an anonymous Icelandic writer transcribed this collection of poetry. Bishop Brynjolf discovered this work in the 1640s, and he presented it to the King of Denmark. Scholars of the time realized the significance of the work, since it was believed that the entire Norse mythology had been lost. Until this time, the only accounts of Norse mythology were fragments found in Snorri Sturluson's "Edda", a treatise on the form of Norse poetry. After the discovery, Snorri's work became known as "The Prose Edda," while the Codex Regius and similar works were called "The Poetic Edda". The Codex Regius remained in Europe until the 1960's, when the Danish government shipped it back to Iceland. The work now rests in Reykjavik's Arnamagnæan Institute.

Eddic poetry follows a strict poetic style, but is not as ornate and complex as skaldic verse, which was the poetry of the royal court. Like skaldic verse, Eddic poetry uses kennings. Kennings are coded references to well-known people or things. For example, "the one-eyed wanderer" is a kenning for Odin. Skaldic kennings are more complex than the Eddic ones, using esoteric phrases, like "battle-fish in the hawk's perch" to mean "sword in the hand." Eddic poetry also uses stress and alliteration to create its effect, rather than rhyming techniques or metric rhythms. The two basic forms of eddic poetry are called ljodahattr and fornyrdislag meter.

Ljodahattr is a type of meter used for wisdom and dialogue poetry. The stanzas are broken into two halves. Each half has a long line and a short line. The long line has four stresses and two alliterative syllables. The short line has two stresses and two alliterative syllables. The stresses and alliterative syllables can appear anywhere within the line.

Fornyrdislag is the most common meter. It is used for narratives, especially for heroic poetry. The stanzas contain four lines; each line contains two halves. Each half contains two stresses and one syllable that alliterates with a syllable in the opposite half. These stresses and syllables can appear anywhere within the line.

The Edda shows many aspects of Norse mythology. Like many religious works, it explains the creation of the world. In some poems, the world is created from the body of Ymir, the primeval being, whom the gods dismember. In other poems, the gods raise land out of the sea. Once the world is created, the gods create a home for the gods (Asgard) and a world for men (Midgard). The gods create dwarves to mine the land. Then, they create humans from piles of driftwood.

The first war occurs between the two tribes of gods (the Aesir and Vanir) when a female figure, Gullveig, teaches magic to humans. The Aesir burn Gullveig three times, but she is reborn each time. Due to the mistreatment of Gullveig, the Vanir engage a war against the Aesir. Since the Vanir seem undefeatable, the Aesir negotiate a peace treaty and an exchange of hostages. The Vanir give the Aesir the goddess and gods: Freyia, Freyr, and Niord. The Aesir give the Vanir the goddess and god: Haenir and Mimir. Eventually, the Vanir are so annoyed by Haenir and Mimir, that they cut of Mimir's head, preserve it, and send Haenir back to the Aesir.

The Edda also deals with the end of the world. In Norse mythology, the end of the world scenario is called Ragnarok. Odin, the head god, learns about Ragnarok when he speaks to a seeress. Naturally, Odin decides that he must try to prevent the destruction of the world. Standing before the world tree, Yggdrasill, at the center of the universe, Odin plucks out his eye and throws it into one of the mystic wells. For this sacrafice, Odin sees the future. He understands that the end of the world will come with the death of his son, Baldr. Knowing this, the gods convince all living and non-living things, except the mistletoe, to never do harm to Baldr. The gods then find it a humorous sport to throw things at Baldr because even the largest stones would deflect off his body without harming him. During one of these games, Hod, Baldr's blind brother, throws a mistletoe at Baldr. The small plant mortally wounds Baldr. Then, the goddess of death, Hel, holds Baldr as a prize in the halls of the dead, located at the roots of Yggdrassil. Loki, the trickster, then leads a war against the gods. Fire consumes the world, and everything is destroyed. Despite this tragedy, the world will be reborn again in a new and better form.

There are four heroes in "The Poetic Edda". They are Helgi, Sigurd, Gunnar, and Hamdir. Most of the heroic eddic poetry has been lost, and only fragments have been preserved and reconstructed from other texts, such as the Volsungs saga. These heroic stories primarily concern warriors who fall into dangrous entanglements with Valkeries, the female warrior spirits who guide noble warriors into Valhalla. The poems also depict Norse flitings, a war of words engaged before a battle. During these flitings, rival groups accuse each other of sexual perversions and crimes against humanity. Scholars believe that these flitings accurately depict the ritual of traditional Norse battles, since they have similarities to the battle rituals of other cultures, such as the Japanese samuri.

The Norse pantheon plays a more important role in "The Poetic Edda", than the stories of the heroic mortals. Unlike the religious writings of other cultures, the Norse gods and goddesses rarely disturb or even involve themselves in the lives of humanity. Even heroes rarely meet the gods. "The Poetic Edda" develops scholarly understanding of what these gods and goddesses represented to the Norse. The following is a quick synopsis of the major characters:

Odin is the head of the gods, the ruler of the Aesir, and probably the central god of the Icelandic-Norse religions. Througout eddic poetry, Odin represents wisdom and knowledge; he brings runes (writing) to humanity, and he has the ability to see into the future. Odin sires Thor through a relationship with a giantess named Iord. Odin then marries a goddess named Frigg, with whom he sires three children: Baldr, Hod, and Vidar. Odin dies in Ragnarok while trying to kill Fenrir the Wolf. He is often discribed as the "one-eyed wanderer."

Thor, a god of protection, appears to have been a patron god for farmers and sailors. Thor marries Sif, a goddess of the crops, and they have two children: Modi and Magni. Throughout the stories, Thor uses a sacred hammer, called mjolnir, as a weapon to destroy Jotuns (giants) terrorizing the land. According to legend, the sound of mjolnir striking giants is the sound of thunder in the sky. Thor is also the main character of one of the eddic comedies; in order to get back his hammer, Thor must dress up like a woman and marry a giant. At Ragnarok, Thor kills the Midgard Serpent but also dies in the process.

Baldr is described as the most beautiful and beloved of all the gods. He represents many qualities found in the sun gods and sacraficial gods of other religions. Like Achilles, Baldr is invincible to almost everything. Yet, he dies at the hand of his single vulnerablity. Like Orpheus, Baldr represents the radiant qualities of the sun; his death represents the change between the long summer days and the long winter nights. Baldr is married to Nanna, and he sires a child named Forseti.

In the development of Norse mythology, Tyr appears to be the eldest of the gods, though he is not the chief god. Tyr represent justice, especially oaths and contracts. Sacraficially, Tyr lost one of his hands when holding out an oath with Fenrir the Wolf. Fenrir told Tyr that he would follow the gods only if one of the gods put a hand in his mouth. When the gods put a magical shackle on Fenrir, the wolf bit off Tyr's hand.

Bragi is the god of poetry. He provides mortals with meads of poetic inspiration. Bragi is married to Idunn, who is the goddess who holds the apples of immortality.

Freyia is the goddess of fertility, while her brother, Freyr, is the god of virility. Both are members of the Vanir clan. Freyia marries Od, and Freyr marries a giantess named Gerd. Ironically, Freyia does not conceive any children.

Loki is the trickster god. Throughout eddic poetry, Loki plays pranks on the other gods. Every time Loki does something bad, something better arises out of the damage. For example, Loki cuts off Sif's hair, but her hair grows back beautiful and golden. Loki marries Sigyn, but sires children with Angrboda. His children are Fenrir the Wolf, Hel, and the Midgard Serpent. Loki leads his children and the giants into the war against the gods. Ironically, he is Odin's adopted brother.

Fenrir the Wolf attempts to eat the sun. The gods prevent him from doing this by strapping him into a magic chain. Vidar, Odin's son, kills Fenrir at Ragnarok.

The Midgard Serpent is a giant serpent that wraps around the world with its tail in its mouth. Thor kills the Midgard serpent at Ragnarok.

Hel is the goddess of death. She is described as being half alive and half dead. She rules Niflheim, which is found in the roots of the tree of knowledge, Yggdrasil. She is also responsible for the eternal punishment of oath breakers.

Since the discovery of eddic poetry many authors and critics have written about the subject. W.H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, and many contemporary poets have tried to collaborate eddic poetry into modern works. Richard Wagner based several of his operas on the themes of Norse mythology. The stories also influenced the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Unfortunately, the works were also used as part of the propaganda machine for Hitler's NS-regime.

Since Hitler's reign, the study of Norse culture has waned. Since 1945 criticism has turned towards applications of structuralist, comparative, and feminist theory. All of these criticisms have been relatively successful, since they examine the power structures evoked inside the literature. Most scholars have detracted from the original criticisms because these works attempted to christianize the Norse mythology.

Outside of the academic community, interest in eddic verse has grown alongside the Pagan and New Age religious movements. Two reconstructuralist groups have formed around Norse mythology: the Odinists and the Asatruar. The Odinists primarily worship Odin and show particular reverance towards Freyia, Baldr, and Thor. Asatru, which means praise to the Aesir, allows for the worship of all the gods and goddesses. Asatru has grown significantly in America and the Scandanavian countries. Neither of these groups worships Loki, since he brings about the downfall of the Aesir. Still, some individuals choose to worship Loki outside of group rituals.

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