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Edda: Its Prose and Poetry

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

EDDA, the title given to two very remarkable collections of old Icelandic literature. Of these only one bears that title from antiquity; the other is called Edda by a comparatively modern misnomer. The word is unknown to any ancient northern language, and is first met with in Rigspula, a fragmentary poem at the end of Codex Wormianus, dated about 1200, where it is introduced as the name or title of a great-grandmother. From the 14th to the 17th century, this word—but no one has formed a reasonable conjecture why—was used to signify the technical laws of Icelandic court metre, Eddu regla, and “Never to have seen Edda” was a modest apology for ignorance of the highest poetic art. The only work known by this name to the ancients was the miscellaneous group of writings put together by Snorri Sturlason (q.v.; 1178-1241), the greatest name in old Scandinavian literature. It is believed that the Edda, as he left it, was completed about 1222. Whether he gave this name to the work is doubtful; the title first occurs in the Upsala Codex, transcribed about fifty years after his death. The collection of Snorri is now known as the Prose or Younger Edda, the title of theElder Edda being given to a book of ancient mythological poems, discovered by the Icelandic bishop of Skálaholt, Brynjulf Sveinsson, in 1643, and erroneously named by him the Edda of Saemund.

1. The Prose Edda, properly known as Edda Snorra Sturlusonar, was arranged and modified by Snorri, but actually composed, as has been conjectured, between the years 1140 and 1160. It is divided into five parts, the Preface or FormáliGylfaginningBragaraeðurSkáldskaparmál andHáttatal. The preface bears a very modern character, and simply gives a history of the world from Adam and Eve, in accordance with the Christian tradition. Gylfaginning, or the Delusion of Gylfi, on the other hand, is the most precious compendium which we possess of the mythological system of the ancient inhabitants of Scandinavia. Commencing with the adventures of a mythical king Gylfi and the giantess Gefion, and the miraculous formation of the island of Zealand, it tells us that the Aesir, led by Odin, invaded Svithjod or Sweden, the land of Gylfi, and settled there. It is from the Ynglingasaga and from the Gylfaginning that we gain all the information we possess about the conquering deities or heroes who set their stamp upon the religion of the North. Advancing from the Black Sea northwards through Russia, and westward through Esthonia, the Aesir seem to have overrun the south lands of Scandinavia, not as a horde but as an immigrant aristocracy. The Eddaic version, however, of the history of the gods is not so circumstantial as that in the Ynglingasaga; it is, on the other hand, distinguished by an exquisite simplicity and archaic force of style, which give an entirely classical character to its mythical legends of Odin and of Loki. The Gylfaginning is written in prose, with brief poetic insertions. TheBragaraeður, or sayings of Bragi, are further legends of the deities, attributed to Bragi, the god of poetry, or to a poet of the same name. TheSkáldskaparmál, or Art of Poetry, commonly called Skálda, contains the instructions given by Bragi to Aegir, and consists of the rules and theories of ancient verse, exemplified in copious extracts from Eyvindr Skáldaspillir and other eminent Icelandic poets. The word Skáldskapr refers to the form rather than the substance of verse, and this treatise is almost solely technical in character. It is by far the largest of the sections of the Edda of Snorri, and comprises not only extracts but some long poems, notably the Thorsdrapa of Eilifr Guðrúnarson and the Haustlaung of Thjóðólfr. The fifth section of the Edda, the Háttatal, or Number of Metres, is a running technical commentary on the text of Snorri’s three poems written in honour of Haakon, king of Norway. Affixed to some MS. of the Younger Edda are a list of poets, and a number of philological treatises and grammatical studies. These belong, however, to a later period than the life of Snorri Sturlason.

The three oldest MSS. of the prose Edda all belong to the beginning of the 14th century. The Wurm MS. was sent to Ole Wurm in 1628; the Codex Regius was discovered by the indefatigable bishop Brynjulf Sveinsson in 1640. The most important, however, of these MSS. is the Upsala Codex, an octavo volume written probably about the year 1300. There have been several good editions of the Edda Snorra Sturlusonar, of which perhaps the best is that published by the Arne-Magnaean Society in Copenhagen in 1848-1852, in two vols., edited by a group of scholars under the direction of Jón Sigurdsson. There are English translations by T. Percy, Northern Antiquities, from the French by P.H. Mallet (1770); by G. Webbe Dasent (Stockholm, 1842); by R.B. Anderson (Chicago, 1880).

2. The Elder Edda, Poetic Edda or Saemundar Edda hins froða was entirely unknown until about 1643, when it came into the hands of Brynjulf Sveinsson, who, puzzled to classify it, gave it the title of Edda Saemundi multiscii. Saemund Sigfusson, who was thus credited with the collection of these poems, was a scion of the royal house of Norway, and lived from about 1055 to 1132 in Iceland. The poems themselves date in all probability from the 10th and 11th centuries, and are many of them only fragments of longer heroic chants now otherwise entirely lost. They treat of mythical and religious legends of an early Scandinavian civilization, and are composed in the simplest and most archaic forms of Icelandic verse. The author of no one of them is mentioned. It is evident that they were collected from oral tradition; and the fact that the same story is occasionally 922repeated, in varied form, and that some of the poems themselves bear internal evidence of being more ancient than others, proves that the present collection is only a gathering made early in the middle ages, long after the composition of the pieces, and in no critical spirit. Sophus Bugge, indeed, one of the greatest authorities, absolutely rejects the name of Saemund, and is of opinion that the poetic Edda, as we at present hold it, dates from about 1240. There is no doubt that it was collected in Iceland, and by an Icelander.

The most remarkable and the most ancient of the poems in this priceless collection is that with which it commences, the Völuspá, or prophecy of the Völva or Sibyl. In this chant we listen to an inspired prophetess, “seated on her high seat, and addressing Odin, while the gods listen to her words.”

She sings of the world before the gods were made, of the coming and the meeting of the Aesir, of the origin of the giants, dwarfs and men, of the happy beginning of all things, and the sad ending that shall be in the chaos of Ragnarök. The latter part of the poem is understood to be a kind of necromancy—according to Vigfusson, “the raising of a dead völva”; but the mystical language of the whole, its abrupt transitions and terse condensations, and above all the extinct and mysterious cosmology, an acquaintance with which it presupposes, make the exact interpretation of theVöluspá extremely difficult. The charm and solemn beauty of the style, however, are irresistible, and we are constrained to listen and revere as if we were the auditors of some fugual music devised in honour of a primal and long-buried deity. The melodies of this earliest Icelandic verse, elaborate in their extreme and severe simplicity, are wholly rhythmical and alliterative, and return upon themselves like a solemn incantation. Hávamál, the Lesson of the High One, or Odin, follows next; this contains proverbs and wise saws, and a series of stories, some of them comical, told by Odin against himself. The Vafprúðnismál, or Lesson of Vafprúðnir, is written in the same mystical vein as Völuspá; in it the giant who gives his name to the poem is visited by Odin in disguise, and is questioned by him about the cosmogony and chronology of the Norse religion. Grimnismál, or the Sayings of The Hooded One, which is partly in prose, is a story of Odin’s imprisonment and torture by King Geirrod. För Skirnis, or the Journey of Skirnir, Harbarðslióð, or the Lay of Hoarbeard, Hymiskviða, or the Song of Hymir, and Aegisdrekka, or the Brewing of Aegir, are poems, frequently composed as dialogue, containing legends of the gods, some of which are so ludicrous that it has been suggested that they were intentionally burlesque. Thrymskviða, or the Song of Thrym, possesses far more poetic interest; it recounts in language of singular force and directness how Thor lost his hammer, stolen by Thrym the giant, how the latter refused to give it up unless the goddess Freyia was given him in marriage, and how Thor, dressed in women’s raiment, personated Freyia, and, slaying Thrym, recovered his hammer. Alvíssmál, or the Wisdom of Allwise, is actually a philological exercise under the semblance of a dialogue between Thor and Alvis the dwarf. In Vegtamskviða, or the Song of Vegtam, Odin questions a völva with regard to the meaning of the sinister dreams of Balder. Rígsmál, or more properly Rígspula, records how the god Heimdall, disguised as a man called Rig, wandered by the sea-shore, where he met the original dwarf pair, Ai and Edda, to whom he gave the power of child-bearing, and thence sprung the whole race of thralls; then he went on and met with Afi and Amma, and made them the parents of the race of churls; then he proceeded until he came to Faðir and Moðir, to whom he gave Jarl, the first of free men, whom he himself brought up, teaching him to shoot and snare, and to use the sword and runes. It is much to be lamented that of this most characteristic and picturesque poem we possess only a fragment. InHyndluljóð, the Lay of Hyndla, the goddess Freyia rides to question the völva Hyndla with regard to the ancestry of her young paramour Ottar; a very fine quarrel ensues between the prophetess and her visitor. With this poem, the first or wholly mythological portion of the collection closes. What follows is heroic and pseudo-historic. The Völundarkviða, or Song of Völundr, is engaged with the adventures of Völundr, the smith-king, during his stay with Nidud, king of Sweden. Völundr, identical with the Anglo-Saxon Wêland and the German Wieland (O.H.G. Wiolant), is sometimes confused with Odin, the master-smith. This poem contains the beautiful figure of Svanhvít, the swan-maiden, who stays seven winters with Völundr, and then, yearning for her fatherland, flies away home through the dark forest. Helgakviða, Hiörvarðs sonar, the Song of Helgi, the Son of Hiörvarð, which is largely in prose, celebrates the wooing by Helgi of Svava, who, like Atalanta, ends by loving the man with whom she has fought in battle. Two Songs of Helgi the Hunding’s Bane, Helgakviða Hundingsbana, open the long and very important series of lays relating to the two heroic families of the Völsungs and the Niblungs. Including the poems just mentioned, there are about twenty distinct pieces in the poetic Edda which deal more or less directly with this chain of stories. It is hardly necessary to give the titles of these poems here in detail, especially as they are, in their present form, manifestly only fragments of a great poetic saga, possibly the earliest coherent form of the story so universal among the Teutonic peoples. We happily possess a somewhat later prose version of this lost poem in the Völsungasaga, where the story is completely worked out. In many places the prose of the Völsungasaga follows the verse of the Eddaic fragments with the greatest precision, often making use of the very same expressions. At the same time there are poems in the Edda which the author of the saga does not seem to have seen. But if we compare the central portions of the myth, namely Sigurd’s conversation with Fafnir, the death of Regin, the speech of the birds and the meeting with the Valkyrje, we are struck with the extreme fidelity of the prose romancer to his poetic precursors in the Sigurðarkviða Fafnisbana; in passing on to the death of Sigurd, we perceive that the version in the Völsungasaga must be based upon a poem now entirely lost. Of the origin of the myth and its independent development in medieval Germany, this is not the place for discussion (see Nibelungenlied). Suffice to say that in no modernized or Germanized form does the legend attain such an exquisite colouring of heroic poetry as in these earliest fragments of Icelandic song. A very curious poem, in some MSS. attributed directly to Saemund, is the Song of the Sun, Sólarlióð, which forms a kind of appendix to the poetic Edda. In this the spirit of a dead father addresses his living son, and exhorts him, with maxims that resemble those of Hávamál, to righteousness of life. The tone of the poem is strangely confused between Christianity and Paganism, and it has been assumed to be the composition of a writer in the act of transition between the old creed and the new. It may, however, not impossibly, be altogether spurious as a poem of great antiquity, and may merely be the production of some Icelandic monk, anxious to imitate the Eddaic form and spirit. Finally Forspjallsljóð, or the Preamble, formerly known as the Song of Odin’s Raven, is an extremely obscure fragment, of which little is understood, although infinite scholarship has been expended on it. With this the poeticEdda closes.

The principal MS. of this Edda is the Codex Regius in the royal library at Copenhagen, written continuously, without regard to prose or verse, on 45 vellum leaves. This is that found by Bishop Brynjulf. Another valuable fragment exists in the Arne-Magnaean collection in the University of Copenhagen, consisting of four sheets, 22 leaves in all. These are the only MSS. older than the 17th century which contain a collection of the ancient mythico-heroic lays, but fragments occur in various other works, and especially in the Edda of Snorri. It is believed to have been written between 1260 and 1280. The poetic Edda was translated into English verse by Amos Cottle in 1797; the poet Gray produced a version of theVegtamskviða; but the first good translation of the whole was that published by Benjamin Thorpe in 1866. An excellent edition of the Icelandic text has been prepared by Th. Möbius, but the standard of the original orthography will be found in the admirable edition of Sophus Bugge, Norroen Fornkvaeði, published at Christiania in 1867.

The Eddaic poems were rearranged, on a system of their own which differs entirely from that of the early MSS., by Gudbrand Vigfusson and F. York Powell, in their Corpus poeticum boreale (Oxford, 1883). This is a collection, not of Edda only but of all existing fragments of the vast lyrical literature of ancient Iceland. It supplies a prose translation.