The Eddas

What does "Edda" mean?

There are many theories concerning the meaning of the word edda. One theory holds that it means "great-grandmother". Another theory holds that edda means "poetics". A third belief is that it means "the book of Oddi". Oddi is the name of a place Snorri Sturluson was educated. Whatever the meaning of the word, students of Norse mythology would be lost without the Eddas.

The Poetic Edda

The Poetic Edda is the older of the two Eddas and therefore sometimes called the Elder Edda. It is also sometimes referred to as Saemund's Edda after a famous Icelander. It consists of many different tales which were put together by an anonymous person probably around 1250 CE. The date of origin of the various poems has long been under discussion. Birger Nerman, in The Poetic Edda in the Light of Archaeology, puts forward the opinion that the majority of the stories must have been written before the Viking age. This book is quite dated though (1930) and it would be interesting to see a more recent essay on this subject.

The Eddas are two collections of Old Icelandic writings, and together they form the most important source of Scandinavian mythology. The Poetic Edda is a collection of 34 Icelandic poems, interspersed with prose, dating from the 9th to the 12th century. The poems were composed by anonymous poets and deal mostly with mythological themes. Among the most important of these are the poems Völuspá (The vision of the Seeress) and Hávamál (The Speech of the High One). To give some taste of the nature of this poetry, here is a famous quote from Hávamál, where Odin ('The High One') speaks of how he acquired the art of casting runes by being sacrificed on a branch of the World Tree:

 

I know I hung
on the wind swept Tree
through nine days and nights

I was struck with a spear
and given to Odin,
myself given to myself

They helped me neither
by meat nor drink
I peered downward,

I took up the runes,
screaming, I took them -
then I fell back.
The Younger, or Prose, Edda (circa 1220) is the work of the Snorri Sturluson. It was probably intended as a handbook for novice poets who wished to become skalds, or court poets, in a time when the old pagan tradition was already beginning to fade from men's minds but was still appreciated. Snorri was a brilliant stylist, writing in his native Icelandic; his Edda is no dry antiquarian treatise, but a witty, imaginative and lively account of the old tales of the gods. Despite his being a Christian, there is little doubt that Snorri has given us a faithful picture of Heathen mythology as it was known in his day; there are few attempts at rationalizing or pointing towards some Christian moral teaching. It is difficult to know to how far removed Snorri's stories are from the living faith of the pagan era, but despite its limitations, the Prose Edda is the best introduction to the world of Scandinavian mythology in existence.

 The Poetic Edda can be divided into two sections, a mythical one and a heroic one. There are fifteen mythical poems:

Völuspá or "Prophecy of the Vala"

A volva chants about the cosmos, from creation to destruction.

 Hávamál or "Sayings of Hár"
Wisdom sayings. Also, the story of how Odin learned the runes.
 

Vafţrúđnismál or "Sayings of Vafţrúđnir"

Odin matches wits with a wise giant.
 

Grimnismál or "Sayings of Grimnir"

Agnar and Geirrod are brother princes and foster sons of Frigg and Odin. Geirrod the younger does away with his brother so he can be King. Frigg gets Odin to visit his favorite Geirrod, but first she implants evil notions in the King's head so he will treat Odin poorly. Odin arrives at Geirrod's saying his name is Grimnir, gets tossed into a fire, and avenges himself by killing Geirrod.
 

Skirnismál or "Sayings of Skirnir"

Frey falls in love with Gerd so he has his servant Skirnir go woo her for him.

Rick McGregor's Skmrnismal as Ritual Drama: A Summary of Scholarship this Century, is very informative.
 

Hárbarzljóđ or "Lay of Hárbarth"

Thor and Hárbarth (Odin) have a contest regarding who has more accomplishments.
 

Hýmiskviđa or "Lay of Hymir"

Thor and Tyr go to the giant Hymir's in search of a kettle large enough for Aegir to brew ale in for the gods' feast. While with the giant, they go fishing and Thor hooks the Midgard Serpent.
 

Lokasenna or "Loki's Mocking"

Loki crashes a party of the gods at Aegir's hall and slanders all.

A version is available from Loki's Cult page.
 

Ţrymskviđa or "Lay of Thrym"

Thrym steals Thor's hammer. Thrym states he will give it back if he can marry Freya. Freya will have no part in the bargain so Thor dresses in drag, pretending to be Freya going to her wedding feast.
 

Alvíssmál or "Sayings of Alvís"

The dwarf Alvis wants to marry Thor's daughter Thrud. He ends up in a contest of knowledge and is outwitted by Thor, who keeps the dwarf up until the sun comes up, thereby turning Alvis into Stone.
 

Baldrs draumar or "Balder's Dream"

Balder has nightmares so Odin rides to the underworld to talk to a volva to find out what Balder's dreams portend.
 

Rigsţula or "Rig's Song"

Rig, another name for Heimdall, journeys about middle-earth siring the three social classes of man: slave, freeman, and noble.
 

Hyndluljóđ or "Lay of Hyndla"

Freya rides her lover Ottar (in boar form) to Hyndla's and gets the wise woman to state Ottar's ancestory.
 

Vöuspá hin skamma or "The Short Prophecy of the Vala"

A shorter version of the history and future of the universe.
 

Svipdagsmál: Grógaldr, Fjölsvinnsmál or "Sayings of Svipdag: Spell of Gróa, Sayings of Fjölsvith"

Svipdag is pushed by his stepmother into finding the love of his life and winning her.
There are 23 heroic lays, 17 of which are available on-line.

The Prose Edda

The Prose Edda or Younger Edda, was written by Snorri Sturluson around 1220 CE. It consists of three sections. The first part is "The Deluding of Gylfi", or Gylfaginning. It consists of a story in which Gylfi asks three chieftains -- High One, Just-as-high, and Third -- questions about Norse mythology. The second section, Skáldskaparmál ('Poetic Diction'), gives various kennings and the stories behind them. Háttatal is the final part of the Prose Edda and it is about King Hakon and different meters.