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Prose Edda, the

Category: Books sutras and myths

 

 

 

The Prose Edda, also known as the Younger Edda, or Snorri's Edda (Icelandic: Snorra Edda) is an Old Norse work of literature written in Iceland in the early 13th century.

 

 

 

Jesse Byock - from the Introduction to a translation of the Prose Edda
The Prose Edda is Scandinavia's best known work of literature and the most extensive source for Norse mythology.  In straightforward prose interspersed with ancient verse, the Edda recounts the Norse creation epic and the subsequent struggles of the gods, giants, dwarves and elves in that universe.  Woven throughout is the gods' tragic realisation that the future holds one final cataclysmic battle, Ragnarok when the world will be destroyed.  The Edda also tells heroic stories about legendary warriors and their kin, stories which incorporate shards of ancient memory.

The stories had a great influence upon later story tellers, poets, musicians and painters,  inspiring J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Richard Wagner's Ring cycle, poets Auden and Longfellow, and many others.

But the Edda as a whole is much more than a set of legends, it is the Norse 'Bible'.  It combines symbolism, descriptions of the creation and its order, descriptions of the Intelligences and their hierarchy; it is smaller, but every bit as rich as the Bible.  In general, the word Edda means "great-parent", or ancestor and the word "kredda" means "belief", as such the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda together constitute the source book for all Norse ancient beliefs or sacred knowledge.

The Prose Edda
The streams called Ice-waves, those which were so long come from the fountain-heads that the yeasty venom upon them had hardened like the slag that runs out of the fire,-these then became ice; and when the ice halted and ceased to run, then it froze over above. But the drizzling rain that rose from the venom congealed to rime, and the rime increased, frost over frost, each over the other, even into Ginnungagap, the Yawning Void.

 

The Prose Edda was originally referred to as simply the Edda, but was later called the Prose Edda to distinguish it from the Poetic Edda, which was compiled around the same time as the Prose Edda in 13th century Iceland. 

The Prose Edda is related to the Poetic Edda in that the Prose Edda cites various poems collected in the Poetic Edda as sources.

 

Authorship

 

The Prose Edda is believed to have been written and compiled by the Icelandic chieftain and Althing law-speaker  Snorri Sturluson around the year 1220. 

Snorri married one of the wealthiest women in Iceland and this wealth and power gave him access to the documents he needed and the time needed to use them.  He made visits to Norway and other countries in an attempt to make alliances and extend his power.  All of these were a  failure politically, but may have been a success in terms of gathering more for the Edda.

The assumption that he is the compiler is based on the following paragraph from a portion of Codex Upsaliensis, [see below under manuscripts]:

This book is called Edda. Snorri Sturluson compiled it in the way that it is arranged here. First it tells about the Æsir and Ymir, then comes the poetic diction section with the poetic names of many things and lastly a poem called the List of Meters which Snorri composed about King Hakon and Duke Skuli.

..... frost giants .....

From this it has been accepted that Snorri compiled some parts of the work and also contributed to it.   The List of Meters is better known as the Hattatal and there is no doubt here about its authorship.  Described as a 'somewhat pedantic work' it is intended to be a teaching aid and is often omitted from translations.  Snorri appears to have been a good compiler and teacher, but not a very good poet.

Both the Eddas - poetry and prose - were written in Iceland but were based in large part on the oral traditions that stemmed from the earlier Viking Age.  This era from roughly 800 to 1100 was a time of raiding and settlement.  Old Norse was the language spoken and the two Eddas were written in a branch of Old Norse that had changed  little from the time Iceland was settled. This fact is important, as there was no intermediate stage of translation into Latin, for example; the Eddas are 'true' to the original sagas.

Much of what is in the Eddas was originally related by word of mouth and remembered, but it is clear that the elders of the time felt that a record was needed as Christianity gradually spread and gripped the northern countries and caused the loss of their heritage.

 

Sturluson thus planned the collection as a way of preserving everything sacred about the Norse heritage – from its symbolism, to its poetic forms, to its history and genealogical record. It also helped Icelandic poets and readers to understand the subtleties of alliterative verse, and to preserve and grasp the meaning behind the many kennings that were used in skaldic poetry.

A kenning is a type of compound word, a symbol made from words – usually just two. For example, Old Norse poets might replace sverð, the regular word for “sword”, with a more abstract compound such as “wound-hoe” (Egill Skallagrímsson: Höfuðlausn 8), or a genitive phrase such as randa íss “ice of shields” (Einarr Skúlason: ‘Øxarflokkr’ 9).  In effect, a new symbol is made from other symbols using words to do so.  Thus to understand a kenning you have to know your symbolism. Kennings are strongly associated with Old Norse and later Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Genealogical lists

The type of genealogical lists used in the Bible are used in the Eddas, the line of shamans – the famous gods.  Genealogical records of this type were exceptionally important to any semi-shamanic society, as it was through the gifted that the gifted later emerged, occasionally skipping generations, but in general emerging as powers of a special kind.

The genealogy presented by Snorri begins with Priam. Priam's daughter Tróán married king Múnón or Mennón. Their son was Trór, or Thor. Thor slew his foster father and married Sibil, identified with Sif. The line of descendants of Thor and Sif is given as Lóriði, Einridi, Vingethor, Vingener, Móda, Magi, Seskef, Bedvig, Athra, Ítermann, Heremód, Skjaldun, Bjáf , Ját, Gudólfr, Finn, Fríallaf.  Finally, the son of Fríallaf was Vóden, whom we call Odin, who came to Germany (Saxland) and established the royal lines there.  Odin had second sight, and his wife also.
In Saxland, Odin's sons Vegdeg, Beldeg (Baldr) and Sigi founded the ruling houses of the Franks, from whom descended the Völsungs.  Odin himself moved on to Jutland (Reidgothland), where he established his son Skjöldr, from whom derive the Skjöldungs, the kings of the Danes. After this, Odin went on to Sweden, where there was a king named Gylfi. Gylfi welcomed Odin and his train as "men of Asia, who were called Æsir".
In Sweden, Odin founded a city called Sigtún. Later, Odin's son Yngvi became king of Sweden, founding the Yngling dynasty. Finally, Odin went on to Norway, where he established his son Sæmingr as king.

 

Snorri's genealogy matches Anglo-Saxon tradition, as preserved by Æthelweard in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. His genealogy from Seskef to Odin directly parallels that from Sceaf to Woden in Anglo-Saxon tradition, and Snorri explicitly gives Odin's original name as Vóden, explaining that the original names of the Æsir were better preserved in England. Snorri's Skjaldun, intermediate between Seskef and Odin, corresponds to the Anglo-Saxon Scyld.

There is also accord with the accounts in the Langfeðgatal.  The Langfeðgatal is a 12th-century Icelandic genealogy of Scandinavian kings.

In all genealogical records of this type there is no separation between the spiritual gods and the human gods.  People of this time made no distinction between the two.  Some gods became physical some didn't, thus purely spiritual with no physical existence and human with physical existence are mixed and often there is no telling whether a god is a spiritual god or a physical god.  So closely tied were humans with the spiritual world that they saw no need to make a separation. 

Like Hesiod’s Theogony, which is very similar in its approach, there is both a line of descent but also a hierarchy, and the hierarchy described in the text is an Intelligence hierarchy, with humans at the bottom of the hierarchy.

In those traditions that recognise the commonality of the Intelligence hierarchy across the world – where it is only the names that change and thus confuse -  the list provided by Snorri would be recognised as a combination of the Planets and the gods

Thor is Zeus is Jupiter, and Zeus’s wife was Hera or Sif.  The Greek gods are the Norse gods, but with different names.  The entire account is thus of the spirit realm, the levels and layers, the various spirit beings, the creation of spirit followed by the Earth and so on, but with human beings as a fundamental part of that overall picture.

The Edda [quoted by Thomas Keightley in The World Guide to Gnomes Fairies Elves and other Fairy people]
There are many fair cities there.  There is the city which is called Alfheim [Elf home] where dwelleth the people that is called Liosalfar [Light Elves/Alfs].  But the Dockalfar [Dark Alfs/Elves] dwell below underground and are unlike them in appearance and still more unlike in actions.  The Liosalfar are whiter than the sun in appearance, but the Dockalfar are blacker than pitch.

Manuscripts

 

Icelanders took great care to preserve the Edda by repeatedly copying it.  Iceland was a literate society in the Middle Ages and this copying of manuscripts was thus made easier by the number of people able to do it.  In the medieval period, Icelandic manuscripts were made of vellum and were expensive to produce, thus the number of early manuscripts is small, but when paper and 'copy books' became available, the Edda was copied into these.  Over 150 paper copies of the Edda still survive from the 19th century.

The four main early source manuscripts are Codex Upsaliensis, Codex Wormianus, Codex Trajectinus and the Codex Regius.

  • Codex Upsaliensis (DG 11), was composed in the first quarter of the fourteenth century and is the oldest manuscript preserved of the Edda of Snorri. It has the advantage of providing some variants that are not found in any of the three other major manuscripts (the name Gylfaginning, title of the first part of the Edda is only provided by this single text). It is preserved in the library of the University of Uppsala (Sweden).
  • The Codex Regius (GKS 2367 4°) is the source for the Poetic Edda and thus an important sourcebook for the Prose Edda, since the Prose Edda not only contains numerous references to the contents of this document, but also contains many of the poems from this source  

Einar G. Petursson, Medieval Scandinavia

Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda is an Icelandic manuscript of ninety small quarto pages, but the fifth gathering, probably 16 pages, is now lost. The manuscript was written by one hand not known elsewhere, and is dated palaeographically to about 1270-1280. Codex Regius is the most important manuscript of eddic poetry. It now contains 29 poems in systemic order; the first 10 lays are about the ancient Norse gods, but the remaining part is about ancient heroes. Codex Regius is a copy of an older manuscript now lost. The fragmentary AM 748 I 4to contains, in no particular order, seven eddic lays, and one of them, Baldrs draumr, is not preserved elsewhere. This manuscript is dated to about 1300 or a little later. The textual relationship between the two manuscripts points to a common written original.
In the 1220s, Snorri Sturlusson wrote a textbook on poetry, called Snorra Edda or the Prose Edda. It is almost certain that he used the text of the mythical poems Vafþrúðnismál and Grímnismál from the common written source underlying the Poetic Edda.

 

  •  
    Bishop Brynjólfur sent the Codex Regius as a present to King Christian IV of Denmark, hence the name Codex Regius. For centuries it was stored in the Royal Library in Copenhagen but in 1971 it was returned to Iceland.  From 1973 to 1997, hundreds of ancient Icelandic manuscripts were returned from Denmark to Iceland, including the Codex Regius, which is now preserved by the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík. 
  • Codex Wormianus (AM 242 fol) was written in the mid-fourteenth century. It is still part of the Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection, originally created by Árni Magnússon, in Copenhagen.
  • Codex Trajectinus (MSS 1374) was written around 1600. It is a copy of a manuscript that was made in the second half of the thirteenth century. It is preserved in the library of the University of Utrecht (Netherlands).

Contents

 

The Prose Edda begins with an explanatory Prologue, containing a section on the Norse cosmology, pantheon and myths. This is followed by three distinct books:

  • Gylfaginning (consisting of around 20,000 words),
  • Skáldskaparmál (around 50,000 words) and
  • Háttatal (around 20,000 words).

Prologue

The Prologue is the first section of the four books of the Prose Edda, and consists of a semi-mythical account of the origins of Norse mythology.  In a Norse culture that was in the process of absorbing elements of classical learning, the Prologue attempts to elevate the status of the Edda by equating Norse stories with those from Graeco Roman tradition.  It also tries to make the Edda's stories more palatable to medieval Christians by harmonising Norse beliefs with Christian concepts.


 

The Prologue may have been part of the original text or some or all of it may have been added later.

 


 

 

 Gylfaginning

 

Gylfaginning (Old Icelandic "the tricking of Gylfi") follows the Prologue in the Prose Edda. Gylfaginning deals with the creation and destruction of the world of the Nordic gods, and many other aspects of Norse ‘mythology’. The section is written in prose interspersed with quotes from skaldic poetry, including material collected in the Poetic Edda.

From the Gyrfa-ginning (Gyrfa's deception) in the Edda [summary by Thomas Keightley]

 Ganglar goes to Asgard the chief residence of the gods to inquire and fathom their wisdom.  Aware of his design, the Aeser [the gods] by their magic art cause to arise before him a lofty and splendid palace, rooted with golden shields. 
At the gate he finds a man who is throwing up and catching swords, seven of which are in the air at the same time [the 7 planets].  This man inquires the name of the stranger, whom he leads into the palace, where Ganglar sees a number of persons drinking and playing, and three thrones, each set higher than the other. 
On the thrones sat Har (High), Jafnhar (Equal High) and Thridi (Third).  Ganglar asks if there is any one there wise and learned.  Har replies that he will not depart in safety if he knows more than they.  Ganglar then commences his interrogations, which embrace a variety of recondite subjects, and extend from the creation to the end of all things.
To each he receives a satisfactory reply.  At the last reply Ganglar hears a loud rush and noise, the magic illusion suddenly vanishes and he finds himself alone on an extensive plain

 

Skáldskaparmál

 

Skáldskaparmál (Old Icelandic "the language of poetry") is the third section of the Prose Edda, and consists of a dialogue between Ægir, a god associated with the sea, and Bragi, a skaldic god, in which both Nordic mythology and discourse on the nature of poetry are intertwined. The origin of a number of kennings are given and Bragi then delivers a systematic list of kennings for various people, places, and things. Bragi then goes on to discuss poetic language in some detail, in particular heiti, the concept of poetical words which are symbolically synonymous, for example "steed" for "horse", and again systematises these.

This section is thus key to unravelling the symbolism used in Norse texts in general, although as we shall see there is indeed a universal symbolism to which Norse mythology adheres.  There are other Norse specific symbols, however, as such this section is exceptionally useful

Háttatal

 

Háttatal (Old Icelandic "list of verse-forms") is the last section of the Prose Edda and was composed by Snorri Sturluson himself. Using, for the most part, his own compositions it exemplifies the types of verse forms used in Old Norse poetry. Snorri took a prescriptive as well as descriptive approach; although he noted that "the older poets did not always" follow his rules.

Most of the forms depend on the number of syllables per line, as well as assonance, consonance, and alliteration. Although end rhyme is represented, it does not function in the ways most modern English speakers expect and plays a very minor role.

“Many scholars have suggested that the form of Háttatal suggests a classical influence deriving from the traditions of Christian learning to which Snorri was doubtlessly exposed. Others have argued that this is a result of using a logical approach, within the framework of a dialog, and that some aspects of the work prove that it was not directly influenced by classical writings”.

But then of course the other very obvious conclusion we can come to, if we are steeped in the same spiritual values as these people were, is that these are the instructions on how to write spells.

 

Hvat eru hættir skáldskapar? Þrennt. Hverir? Setning, leyfi, fyrirboðning. Hvat er setning háttanna? Tvenn. Hver? Rétt ok breytt. Hvernig er rétt setning háttanna? Tvenn. Hver? Tala ok grein. Hvat er tala setningar háttanna? Þrenn. Hver? Sú er ein tala, hversu margir hættir hafa fundizt í kveðskap höfuðskálda. Önnur tala er þat, hversu mörg vísuorð standa í einu erendi í hverjum hætti. In þriðja tala er sú, hversu margar samstöfur er settar í hvert vísuorð í hverjum hætti. Hver er grein setningar háttanna? Tvenn. Hver? Málsgrein ok hljóðgrein. Hvat er málsgrein?Stafsetning greinir mál allt, en hljóðgrein er þat at hafa samstöfur langar eða skammar, harðar eða linar, ok þat er setning hljóðsgreina, er vér köllum hendingar, svá sem hér er kveðit:

 

 

References

We have used the new Jesse Byock translation issued by Penguin for the observations, as well as the edition by Anthony Faulkes issued in two volumes around 1982.

The latter is available as a downloadable PDF file from The Viking Society for Northern Research, which is making virtually all its publications (and some other related items) from inception in 1893 to the present, freely available on its website.  These digital versions are not intended to replace printed publications, and titles currently in print will remain available to buy in book form as long as there is a demand for them (the list can be seen at this LINK).