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
- Burning the Ships: In the "Greenlandic Lay of Atli", the Niflungs do not fasten the boat in which they have rowed to Hunland, a hint that they already expect that they will not return.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: Hogni gets his heart carved out alive, and his brother Gunnar is thrown into a snake pit.
- Die Laughing: When Hogni's heart is cut out he laughs.
- Dragon Hoard: After Fafnir killed his father for a pile of gold, he transformed into a dragon to guard the treasure.
- Driven to Suicide: Having lost Sigurd and her brothers, and having killed Atli and her own children by Atli, Gudrun tries to drown herself, but survives.
- Dying Curse: The prose comments in "Fáfnismál" remark that, after stabbing Fafnir to the heart, Sigurd initially conceals his name in his conversation with the dying monster because he fears Fafnir could lay a curse on him with his dying breath. But when Fafnir taunts him for this, Sigurd does tell him his name; only for Fafnir to make no use of this—instead, he warns Sigurd (truthfully) that the treasure is cursed and that Regin will betray him.
It was the belief in those times that the words of dying persons were of great power, if they cursed an enemy by his name.
- Evil Makes You Monstrous: After murdering his father for Andvari's gold, Fafnir turns himself into a dragon that guards the treasure. While this appears to be a voluntary transformation, he never leaves his dragon form afterwards.
- Handy Feet: Gunnar is thrown into the snake pit with his hands bound, but Gudrun gives him a harp which he plays with his toes and thus puts the snakes to sleep except for one.
- The Lost Woods: There are several mentions of myrkviđr inn ókunna, "the unknown Mirkwood", a vast and little explored forest located somewhere in Eastern or Central Europe.
- Music Soothes the Savage Beast: Tied up and thrown into Atli's snake pit, Gunnar plays a harp with his toes and thus puts all the snakes to sleep except one, which attacks and kills him. In "Oddrun's Lament", the nonmusical snake is actually Atli's sorcerous mother in serpent form.
- Offing the Offspring: After Atli killed her brothers, Gudrun in revenge kills her own children by Atli.
- Our Dragons Are Different: Fafnir is one of the Trope Makers for the sapient dragon that is able to speak.
- Reincarnation Romance: The prose comments in the Helgi cycle say that Helgi Hjörwardsson and Svava were reborn as Helgi Hundingsbani and Sigrun, and afterwards a third time as Helgi Haddingjaskati and Kara.
- Slain In Their Sleep: "Reginsmál" specifies that Fafnir murdered his father Hreidmar by stabbing him in his sleep.
- Snake Pit: Atli has Gunnar the Niflung tossed into one of these.
- Speaks Fluent Animal: After tasting the blood from Fafnir's heart, Sigurd understands the language of the birds.
- Together in Death: Brynhild burns herself on the funeral pyre of Sigurd, the only man that she was willing to marry but couldn't. "Brynhild's Ride to Hel" shows Brynhild riding to Hel, happy in anticipation of her reunion with Sigurd in the underworld.
- Throwing Your Sword Always Works: Sigurd throws his sword after Gutthorm and slices him in half.
- Unable to Cry: In the "First Lay of Gudrun", Gudrun does not weep over the murdered Sigurd. Several women attempt to console her by relating her own sad stories, but fail to get a reaction. Finally Gudrun's sister Gullrönd uncovers Sigurd's corpse; when Gudrun sees Sigurd's face, she cries.
Gudrun sat by the dead Sigurd; she did not weep like other women, even though her heart was near to bursting with grief.
Eddic poems outside of the Codex Regius provide examples of: