(Epics for Students)

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.