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What is the Poetic Edda? - Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Leslie McMurtry
In this lesson, we'll be looking at the ''Poetic Edda'' and its relationship to other Old Norse poetry. We will learn about Old Norse poetic forms and about the ''Prose Edda'' written by Snorri Sturluson.

What is Edda?

Have you ever heard Old Norse myths about gods such as Odin, Thor, and Loki? Have you ever heard about the serpent Midgard and the Norse afterlife, Valhalla, where heroes go after death? If you have enjoyed movies about Thor or the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, you may have wondered how the Old Norse legends got passed down to us. One of the sources is the Poetic Edda.

We are not quite sure where the word edda comes from or what exactly it means. 'Edda' is a woman's name and means great-grandmother. It may also refer to Oddi, an area in southwest Iceland. It may be easiest to link edda with a root word for poetics, the study of poetry. The Edda is in essence poetry from the Viking Age (800-1050 AD).

Discovery of the Edda

From early in the Viking Age, bards or poets, called skalds attached themselves to Scandinavian courts, and by the 11th century, these skalds were primarily Icelandic. Iceland was in fact founded around 870 AD by Norwegian nobles who fled there. Centuries later, Scandinavian people became interested in their past, and Danish king Frederic III encouraged Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson to gather all the old manuscripts he could find. In 1643, he discovered what we now call the Prose or Younger Edda, written by Icelandic aristocrat Snorri Sturluson in the 12th century.

In reading the Prose Edda, the Bishop realized that Sturluson was quoting many ancient skaldic poems that no longer existed. Imagine how excited the Bishop was when he found a poetic text that contained many of the poems Sturluson referred to. The Bishop called this manuscript of 29 Norse poems Edda Saemundi Multiscii. Like the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda is Icelandic, but the actual manuscript dates from about 1270. We know nothing about its author, but it cannot be older than 700 AD.

Title page to a manuscript of the Prose Edda
Title page to the Prose Edda

Differences between the Poetic and Prose Eddas

Sturluson's Edda is an interesting book because it is like a technical manual in story form. In it, he shows the readers how to write eddic poetry. He does this by telling Old Norse legends in prose and then gives examples of how previous skalds have described these legends in poetic form.

The Poetic Edda is a series of mythological and heroic poems. Many of the poems are introduced by prose summaries. This poetry is considered to be different from skaldic poetry, which was usually by named poets about contemporary people and characterized by more elaborate diction and meter. The Poetic Edda, by contrast, is composed in a simple style and is anonymous and objective in point of view.

What is the Edda About?

The Poetic Edda is principally retellings of the legends of heroes Sigurdr and Brynhildr, the Niflungar (treasure-hoarding dwarves), and their descendants. Beginning with 'Prophecy of the Sibyl,' which gives the Norse creation myth and foretells the end of the world, the Poetic Edda presents poems about Odin, Freyr, and Thor, followed by the heroic lays (narrative epics about heroes).

Odin
Odin and the Sibyl

Poetic Devices in the Edda with Examples

Alliteration is an obvious feature of Old Norse poetry. Alliteration is the repetition of sounds in nearby words. Old Norse poetry does not rhyme, and stanzas are 4 lines each. The lines are commonly divided into two vísuhelmings (phrases) connected by a caesura (strong pause).

Here is an example from Voluspá (The Prophecy of the Sibyl), with the caesura represented by a *, translated by Lee M. Hollander:

'Hear me, all ye * hallowed beings

both high and low * of Heimdall's children:

thou wilt, Valfather, * that I well set forth

the fates of the world * which at first I recall.'

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