Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510
The two parts of the complex group of poems known as the Poetic Edda have rather different characteristics. The first part is composed of stories about the gods of the peoples of ancient Scandinavia. These stories deal with the creation of the earth and its peoples and with the lore that relates to the gods and their histories. Taken as a group, these poems depict a world of cold and danger in which even gods such as Balder could become the victims of evil and treachery.
Some themes in these stories are familiar ones and bear close similarities with the creation stories of other peoples. They include the figure of a trickster god, here named Loki, and journeys into the underworld, such as Odin’s journey for information and Balder’s mother’s effort to recover her dead son. Other typical subjects involve riddle telling and insult contests; the recounting of lore about the gods, giants, dwarfs, and other supernatural beings; and proverbs intended to instruct people in how to live.
Always in the background of these poems there is a sense of doom, which distinguishes them in tone from the Greek myths with which they are often contrasted. The afterlife depicted in the Poetic Edda is a shadowy land; only those who die heroically in battle can expect to be carried to Valhalla, where they will be feasted by the gods. Indeed, even that reward is temporary, for they wait in Valhalla for the final battle against evil, at which time they must aid the gods in their fight.
The poems of the second half of the Poetic Edda deal mostly with the legends of human heroes from Norse tradition. Because few of these poems are strictly narrative and many are incomplete, the stories they tell often seem fragmented, repetitious, and even contradictory. Nevertheless, they represent the main thread of a story that is retold in two other important heroic poems of early Scandinavian and Germanic literature, the Völsunga Saga (c. 1200-1300) and the Nibelungenlied (c. 1200; English translation, 1848). The latter poem was composer Richard Wagner’s source for the plot of his great Ring cycle of operas.
In the Poetic Edda, as in much early Northern literature, a prominent theme is the need for a family or tribe to get revenge for the death of one of its own, a social imperative in a world without law enforcement. This created endless feuding among tribal groups, as one killing led inevitably to the next. If a family failed to avenge a murder, either with another murder or by demanding a monetary payment, that family faced unbearable shame.
A common theme of this literature is a tribe’s attempt to mend a feud through intermarriage, for murder of a family member, even a member by marriage, was taboo. Attempts to establish peace in this way often failed, however. Such attempts provide the motives behind much of the action of the story of Sigurth and Brynhild, and they are visible even in the lyric fragments that make up the Poetic Edda.