The Elder Edda is not a single continuous narrative, but a collection of poems, most of which are preserved in the Konungsbók, or Codex Regius (King's Book), copied in Iceland about A.D. 1270. The poems are the work of many poets. Their language suggests that they were composed between 800 and 1100 A.D. and first written down between 1150 and 1250 A.D. The poems are a rich source of information for culture and belief among the Vikings. They are not, however, purely Scandinavian. Christian Irish influence is likely, while the Sigurd story draws on actual events among the tribes that invaded the Roman Empire between 350-600 A.D.

The Elder Edda first came to scholarly attention in the seventeenth century as antiquarian interest in the non-classical past was growing in Europe. It was published in its entirety just as intense romantic and nationalistic interest in the perceived tribal ancestors of the European nation states emerged towards the end of the eighteenth century. This interest, combined with the new science of philology, ensured popular and scholarly interest in texts like the Elder Edda. Some of the lays were available in bowdlerized versions even for children by the later nineteenth century. In the hands of Richard Wagner, the Elder Edda became the foundation of one of the century's masterpieces. While northern legends and the scholarship based on it were misused by the Nazis to develop and further their ideas of race, they are seriously misrepresented by such ideas. In the 1960s, the poet W. H. Auden in collaboration with an Old Norse scholar, Paul B. Taylor, produced a translation of sixteen of the poems.

A Note on Authorship

It is not known where in Iceland the Codex Regius was copied. The elegance of the scribe's writing and its similarity to those of at least two other Icelandic scribes of the period suggest its copyist was connected with a fairly large scriptorium with high standards. Despite early attempts to connect the Elder Edda as a collection with a legendary Icelandic scholar, Saemundur Sigfússon the Learned, (1056-1133), none of the poems can be connected with a named individual and were probably collected together only in the thirteenth century, perhaps only a generation before the production of the Codex Regius.

Nothing is known of the manuscript until the year 1643 when it came into the possession of Bishop Brynjólfr Sveinsson. It was already damaged then, and no copy was made of it before the missing leaves were lost. In 1662 the bishop gave the manuscript to the king of Denmark. In 1665 the two mythological poems Völuspa and Hávemál were published by the Danish scholar Peder Hansen Resen as part of an edition of Snorri Stulason's Prose Edda. The first full edition was prepared by the Arnamagnaean Commission in Copenhagen between 1787 and 1828.

Elder Edda Summary

The Sibyl's Prophecy
At Odin's request, a prophetess predicts the future from creation to fall and renewal. She begins with a time when nothing existed; heavens and earth come into existence, but in chaos. The gods, who create the arts and crafts, social life, and finally, mankind, impose order. She prophesies the war between the Aesir and the Vanir and their conciliation, the death of Balder through Loki's trickery, Loki's punishment, the dwarves's golden home, the realm of the dead, and the punishment of the wicked. She foresees the final battle between gods and giants that will end in their mutual destruction. Sun and stars fail, the earth sinks beneath the sea, but in the final stanzas, she describes a second green earth rising from the waters. Balder and Hod, his blind brother who accidentally killed him, will come again to rule. Then a mighty one, sometimes identified as Christ, will come down to bring the deserving to a hall more beautiful than the sun.

The Sayings of the High One
This is a composite poem in which only stanzas 111-64 are in the voice of Odin the 'High One.' It begins with practical advice on behavior and attitude: "It takes sharp wits to travel in the world / they're not so hard on you at home—Better to be alive than to be lifeless / the living can hope for a cow." Even among such homely advice, however, is fame, so important to the epic attitude: "Cattle die, kinsmen die, / One day you die yourself; but the words of praise will not die." The poem ends with Odin's advice addressed to a young man called Loddfafnir.

The Lay of Vafthrudnir
Odin has a contest with the giant Vafthrudnir to determine who has the greater knowledge of the gods, creation, and the future. Odin wins because he alone knows what he whispered in Balder's ear as he lay on his funeral pyre. The lay serves as a glossary of the metaphors and images used in early Norse poetry.

The Lay of Grimnir
Hunding had two sons: Agnar and Geirrod. They were fishing from a rowboat and were swept out to sea. When they made land, a farmer took them in until spring came. When they arrived back home, Geirrod jumped out of the boat and pushed it and his brother back out to sea. Geirrod became king. Later, Odin and Frigg, his wife, were looking down at earth. Odin teased Frigg that Geirrod, whom he favored, was king while Agnar, whom Frigg favored, lived in the wilds. Frigg answered that Geirrod was stingy. Odin bet her he would find him generous to strangers. Frigg sends a message to Geirrod to beware of a wizard coming to his court, describing Odin in disguise. Odin arrives and when he refuses to give more than an assumed name, Grimnir, he is seated between two fires to make him speak. Geirrod's son Agnar thinks it wrong to mistreat a guest and brings him a drink. For this act, Odin blesses the boy and tells him his real name. When the king hears, he jumps up to take him away from the fires, but stumbles and falls on his own sword.

Skirnir's Journey
This lay tells of the god Frey who saw and loved a giant's beautiful daughter. He sent his servant Skirnir to persuade her to accept him as her lover. Skirnir cajoles and threatens her until she finally accepts Frey.

The Lay of Harbard
The first of the comical lays. Odin disguised himself as a ferryman and engaged Thor in a duel of words. Thor loses badly.

The Lay of Hymir
The gods are feeling like a party and ask the giant Aegir to brew beer for it. Thor unfortunately annoys Aegir. Aegir tells Thor he must borrow the giant Hymir's brewing vat. Thor and Tyr, Hymir's son, set out for Hymir's home where Hymir's young mistress welcomes them. She warns them Hymir does not like guests and makes them hide when he comes. She tells Hymir that his son has come with a friend. Three bulls are cooked for dinner. Thor eats two of them. Hymir tells his guests that they will go out hunting for supper. Thor suggests that he will take a boat out and fish if Hymir provides the bait. Thor rows out, baits his hook with an ox's head, and catches the serpent that encircles the earth, drags it up into the boat, but thankfully, throws it back. Hymir then challenges Thor to crack his cup. Thor flings it; columns crash and stone splinters, but the cup is unbroken. At the mistress's suggestion, he flings it at the giant's head and it breaks. Thor grabs the kettle and kills the pursuing giants. Aegir brews the beer.

The Insolence of Loki
Loki infuriates the assembled gods and goddesses by bringing up past scandals. His stories grow more and more vile until he is finally frightened into leaving with the threat of Thor's hammer. He curses the gods as he leaves.

The Layof Thrym
Thor's great hammer, Mjollnir, is stolen. Loki discovers that the giant Thrym has it. Thrym tells Loki that he will give it back only if he can marry Freyja. Not surprisingly, Thor has no luck in convincing Freyja that she should marry a giant. A council of the gods and goddesses is convened and Heimdal suggests that they dress Thor as a bride with Loki as her maid....

(The entire section is 2097 words.)