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Literature / Poetic Edda

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Thor fishes up the Midgard Serpent, as told in "Hymiskvida". Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1901)

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). The poems themselves are thought to date from various points between the 10th and 13th century. The exact dating of individual poems has always been subject to debate.

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.

Codex Regius

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.

"Eddica Minora"

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 at and Wikisource.

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" and "Grimnismal".
  • Disguised in Drag: Thor dresses up as Freyja in "Thrymskvida" to get into Jotunheim (and his hands on the hammer Mjölnir), with Loki as his bridesmaid.
  • Death Glare: In "Hymiskvida", Thor and Tyr go to the hall of the giant Hymir to borrow his cauldron. When they arrive, Hymir is not at home, and Hymir's mother asks them to hide behind a pillar, because Hymir does not like guests and might especially get angry if he sees Thor. When Hymir comes home, his mother gently instructs him who has come to visit him, and that Thor and Tyr are presently behind the pillar. Hymir turns to the pillar and glares at it so sharply that it splinters, and the cross-beam above it comes down. (Note that Hymir does not normally have a magical gaze.)
  • Enchanted Forest: Járnviðr ("iron forest"), a forest "in the East", where a giantess raises giant wolves, "the offspring of Fenrir" ("Völuspá").
  • The End of the World as We Know It: Ragnarok.
  • Evil Gloating: Loki gloats about murdering Baldr in Lokasenna.
  • Giant Corpse World: "Grímnismál" and "Vafþrúðnismál" mention that the gods created the world from the dead body of the primal giant Ymir. Ymir's flesh became the earth, his bones mountains, his blood the sea, and his skull the dome of the sky. "Grímnismál" additionally mentions the gods making Ymir's hair into trees, his brains into clouds, and his eyelashes into the fortification of Midgard, which separates the world of men from the world of the giants.
  • Jerkass Gods: Loki takes quite a few levels of jerkass in Lokasenna, especially his murder of Ægir's servant because he was jealous of the positive attention said servant recieved.
  • Lady Macbeth: The advice to hamstring the captive Völundr is given by King Níðuðr 's wife ("Völundarkviða").
  • Rape Discretion Shot: Völundr's rape of the king's daughter is not explicitly stated in "Völundarkviða", but it can be inferred from context what has happened.
  • Shapeshifting Lover:
    • Völundr and his two brothers encounter three valkyries spinning flax in the wild and take away their swan-shirts which the valkyries need to transform into birds. After living with the brothers for nine years, the valkyries retrieve their magic shirts and fly away.
    • Loki is said to have taken the shape of a milk maid and carried children.
  • Slipping a Mickey: As part of his vengeance on King Níðuðr, Völundr drugs Níðuðr's daughter with tampered mead when she is visiting his smithy, then rapes her.
  • Seers: The unnamed seeress that is the speaker of "Völuspá" (i.e. "Prophecy of the Seeress").
  • The Stars Are Going Out: In the last phase of Ragnarok, after the last battle of the Aesir against their enemies has taken place, the stars will vanish from the sky, together with the sun, to be followed by total destruction of the earth in fire and water ("The Seeress's Prophecy").
  • The Weird Sisters:
    • According to "Voluspa", the sacred Well of Urd is guarded by three Norns (goddesses of fate) by the names of Urd ("fate"), Verdandi ("happening") and Skuld ("destiny"). The guardians of the Well of Urd are consistently referred to as "maidens".
    • Valkyries, the supernatural women who determine who is going to die in a battle, frequently come in threes or multiples of three: There is a list of six valkyries in "Voluspa" and a list of twelve in "Grimnismal". The young Helgi Hjorvardsson sees nine valkyries riding by, and the giantess Hrimgred mentions she has seen Helgi being followed by twenty-seven valkyries who protect him.
    • Volund and his two brothers encounter three valkyries spinning flax on the shore of a lake, and by taking their swan garments prevent them from turning into birds and flying away.

The heroic part

  • Afterlife of Service: When Helgi Hundingsbani is killed after a heroic career and goes to Valhall, Odin "asked him to rule over everything with him." Straightaway Helgi orders his old enemy Hunding (who, having been killed by Helgi, is already in Valhall) to serve the other warriors in Valhall and do menial work, like kindling the fire, watching the horses, and feeding the pigs ("Second Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani").
  • 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.
  • Graceful Loser: After Sigurd has mortally wounded the dragon Fafnir, the dying Fafnir asks Sigurd about his family, with Sigurd initially evading his questions because he fears Fafnir might curse him once he knows his name. Nevertheless Sigurd eventually reveals his name and lineage to Fafnir; Fafnir however does not exploit this, but instead warns Sigurd that Fafnir's hoard will bring about his death and that his foster-father Regin will betray him. Though Sigurd initially suspects Fafnir is screwing with him, time proves that Fafnir was right on both counts ("Lay of Fafnir").
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Playing Both Sides: Odin helps Dag murder Helgi, but clearly favours Helgi since he allows Helgi to humiliate Helgi's olde enemy Hunding once the two meets in Valhalla.
  • 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.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: In Atlakviða, belived to be one of the oldest of the poems, Gudrun feeds Atli the hearts of his own sons then personally kills Atli in his bed, and with the help of some bribed housecarls, sets fire to Atli's hall and eventually entire estate, murdering all of his followers in order to avenge the death of her brothers.
  • Runic Magic: In the Sigrdrífumál, the Valkyrie Sigrdrifa presents Sigurd with a memory-draught of ale charmed with "gladness runes" and then goes on to list victory-runes to be carved on a sword-hilt, runes to protect against bewitching ale, runes to facilitate childbirth, runes to protect ships...
  • Slain in Their Sleep:
    • "Reginsmál" specifies that Fafnir murdered his father Hreidmar by stabbing him in his sleep.
    • Atli is killed in his bed.
  • 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.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Dag prays to Odin to help him avenge the death of his father. Odin lends him his spear, and Dag waylays his father's killer. When Dag's sister later calls him out on the killing, Dag calls her sister mad and complains that Odin causes all strifes with his runes. Never mind he asked for Odin's aid in the murder.

Eddic poems outside of the Codex Regius provide examples of:

  • Epiphora: The poem "Baldrs draumar" or "Vegtamskviða" has the seeress who Odin revives to know the meaning of Baldr's bad dreams finish three stanzas saying she was summoned against her will . In Henry Adams Bellows's translation, she repeats "Unwilling I spake, and now would be still.", while in Benjamin Thorpes', she says "By compulsion I have spoken; I will now be silent."
  • Necromancy: In "Baldrs draumar", Odin journeys into Niflhel in his wanderer disguise to revive a jötunn seeress and learn the meaning of Baldr's baleful dreams.
  • Rhyme Theme Naming: The poem "Grottasöngr" (i.e. "The Mill's Songs" or "The Song of Grotti" in English) features two enslaved giantesses named Menja and Fenja, who are forced to work on the titular mill to grind wealth for the king.

Alternative Title(s): Codex Regius, Elder Edda