One of the two works referred to as Eddas
, the Poetic Edda
is actually not a single, fixed work, but a collective term for poetry on stories and themes from Norse mythology
as found in old Icelandic
manuscripts. The bulk of these poems, however, is contained in a single manuscript, the Codex Regius
, a work first compiled c. 1230 CE (though the only exemplar we have was created c. 1270 CE).
Those lays that are considered part of the Poetic Edda
, but are not found in the Codex Regius
, are sometimes called the Eddica Minora
("lesser Eddic lays"). All the lays of the Poetic Edda
are generally of anonymous authorship.
For the history and meaning of the name Edda
, see The Eddas
A compilation of ballads, interspersed with a few prose passages to provide context. The unknown compiler of the book grouped the ballads thematically and thus the book can be divided into two parts, the mythological and the heroic.
The Mythological Part
The mythological part begins with "Voluspa" ("The Seeress’ Prophecy"), probably the most quoted part of the Poetic Edda
. It tells the story of the creation of the world as well as that of its impending cataclysm, the Ragnarok ("fate of the gods"), in which Odin and most of the gods are destined to perish.
Other poems are much more light-hearted, especially those dealing with the comedic (mis)adventures of Thor, such as when he is disguised as Freyja and sent to Jotunheim to marry the giant Thrym so he can get his hammer back ("Thrymskvida"), is the hapless butt monkey of Odin's pranks ("Harbardsliod"), or goes on a memorable fishing trip with the giant Hymir and almost
catches Jormungandr ("Hymiskvida").
Apart from these narrative ballads, quite a few poems are essentially knowledge poetry, with the plot being only an excuse
to present mythological knowledge, lists of poetical synonyms, or collections of riddles. Possibly the most fascinating part, however, is "Havamal", a collection of proverbs and advice poetry, presented as a long monologue of Odin.
The Heroic Part
Ballads about mortal heroes of the legendary past. The greater part of the heroic cycle is concerned with a single plot line, the story of Sigurd, the slayer of Fafnir the dragon, and his in-laws the Niflungs, who murder Sigurd but, with poetical justice, fall prey to their own in-law Atli, who in turn is offed in retaliation by his wife Gudrun … well, it's complicated. In the end, everybody kills everybody.
However, as the lays are of different age and authorship, they don’t form a continuity and there are repetitions, gaps
and continuity snarls
between them. What’s more, eight leaves from the middle of the heroic cycle have been ripped out by an unknown rascal between the 13th and the 17th century; the resulting gaping hole has been dubbed the "Great Lacuna"note
by philologists. The contents of the Great Lacuna we can only infer from the Völsunga saga
, which is essentially an adaptation of the heroic cycle of the Codex Regius
into a prose narrative. Volsunga Saga
quotes 4 stanzas from the Lacuna verbatim; still, it’s estimated that a good 200 stanzas are missing.
Mythological poetry found interspersed in Icelandic manuscript outside of the Codex Regius
and the Snorra Edda
. A few "Eddica minora" are found only in MSS as young as the 17th century; these are sometimes excluded from editions for being "not authentic"; this, of course, means little more than they are (probably) not medieval, as any definition of what is an "authentic" "Eddic lay" is ultimately self-referential.
Because of the debates about age and "authenticity", and the different standards of what constitutes an "Eddic" poem, the selection of these can vary considerably between different editions of the Poetic Edda
The Poetic Edda
Pieces from the Poetic Edda with their separate pages:
The Codex Regius provides examples of the following tropes:
The mythological part
- Adam and Eve Plot:
- "Völuspá": The first humans are created by Odin and his two brothers as a couple, Ask and Embla. Suspiciously, their names begin with the same letters as Adam and Eve, which could be an allusion to the Book of Genesis.
- "Vafthrúdnismál": Vafthrúdnir, a wise giant, reveals that Ragnarok will kill all humanity except a single couple, Lif and Lifthrasir, who will then repopulate Earth.
- Creation Myth: In "Völuspá".
- Disguised in Drag: Thor dresses up as Freyja in "Thrymskvida" to get into Jotunheim (and his hands on the hammer Mjolnir).
- The End of the World as We Know It: Ragnarok.
- The Lost Woods: Járnviđr ("iron forest"), a forest "in the East", where a giantess raises giant wolves, "the offspring of Fenrir" ("Völuspá").
- Nutty Squirrel: The squirrel Ratatösk ("Drill-Tooth") is constantly running up and down the tree Yggdrasil, transmitting messages between the eagle at the top and the dragon Nidhoggr at its roots ("Grímnismál")
- Seer: The unnamed seeress that is the speaker of "Völuspá".
The heroic part
Eddic poems outside of the Codex Regius provide examples of: