(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Elder Edda

(Also known as the Poetic Edda) Old Icelandic poetry composed between the ninth and the eleventh centuries.

The term Elder Edda refers to the most extensive known collection of Old Icelandic mythological poetry. Comprised of approximately thirty individual poems, in addition to several associated works not contained within its manuscript, the Elder Edda exhibits a twofold structure, featuring a mythological cycle focused on the exploits and destruction of the ancient Norse gods, as well as a collection of heroic tales from pre-Christian Scandinavia. In all likelihood originally sung with musical accompaniment by skaldic bards of the Viking period, Eddic verse, as subsequently recorded in the Codex Regius, includes works of narrative and didactic poetry, as well as several dramatic dialogues. Melodic and alliterative, these poems are typically divided into four-line stanzas, each line broken by a medial caesura, and display a characteristically lyrical tone within their epic framework. Use of the metaphorical synonyms known as kennings is extensive throughout the Elder Edda, although not omnipresent. The overarching themes of the collection are mortality and warfare. A foreboding sense of pessimism pervades much of the work, which nevertheless contains interludes of comic and romantic material. Principal figures in the mythological cycle include such familiar gods of the Norse pantheon as Odin (Óðinn), Thor (Þórr), and Loki, while the heroic lays primarily feature the legendary tragic figures Sigurd (Sigurðr), Brynhild, Gudrun (Guðrún), and Atli.

Textual History

Primarily preserved in a late thirteenth-century manuscript designated the Codex Regius (R2365), Eddic verse is thought to have been composed by numerous unidentified Viking poets between the years of approximately 800 and 1100 a.d., although its origins as oral literature almost certainly predate this period. The Elder Edda is also distinguished from the so-called “younger” or Prose Edda, a work compiled by the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson in the first half of the thirteenth century. The first modern printing of Eddic verse was the 1655 publication of Völuspá and Hávamál. Long regarded as the finest of the Eddic poems, Völuspá remains the most celebrated piece in the collection and has historically elicited the largest share of critical commentary. By the early twentieth century, some forty separate editions of the complete Elder Edda had been printed, with the 1867 critical edition of the poems by Sophus Bugge, entitled Sæmundar Edda, considered the standard into the contemporary period. Editorial reconstruction and translation of the Elder Edda flourished in the twentieth century, while in 1971 the Codex Regius, the oldest extant manuscript text of this collection, held at the Royal Library in Copenhagen for centuries, was transferred to Reykjavik, Iceland.

Plot, Major Characters, and Major Themes

The main setting of the mythological poetic sequence that opens the Elder Edda is Asgard, the citadel of the Norse gods. Excursions are made into the neighboring land of the giants, Jotunheim, and the gods occasionally observe Midgard, the dwelling place of human beings, connected to Asgard by the Bifröst (rainbow) Bridge. The dominating figure of Odin, the All-Father, combines characteristics of a war god, wizard, and seer within his role as divine patriarch. His son Thor, the god of thunder, embodies unsurpassed strength, while the cunning Loki represents the forces of chaos and destruction, and inevitably invites disaster with unceasing acts of deceit. Other prominent figures include Balder (Baldr) and the Vanir siblings Frey (Freyr) and Freya (Freyja), who are associated with regeneration and fertility. The first poem of the collection, entitled Völuspá (The Sibyl's Prophecy), relates the creation myths of ancient Norse cosmology. Framed by Odin's insatiable search for knowledge, the work describes his summoning and interrogation of a preternatural seeress. The sibyl reveals to him the eternal secrets of the universe, including the mythological origins of the gods, men, dwarves, and giants. She foresees the slaying and eventual resurrection of the god Balder, the future destruction of Asgard, and the inevitable demise of the gods, known as Ragnarök. Hávamál (Sayings of the High One), the second portion of the Elder Edda, is actually a collection of shorter poems, ostensibly spoken by Odin, which impart practical advice concerning codes of behavior and ethics, rules of hospitality, and moral maxims. The later section of the Hávamál is considerably more esoteric, describing the nature of runes, a mysterious, quasi-magical written language of which Odin was the acknowledged keeper and master.

Further poems of the mythological cycle primarily record the adventures of the gods, giants, and related figures. In Vafþrúðnismál (The Lay of Vafthrudnir) a disguised Odin enters the hall of the giant Vafthrudnir in order to question him and obtain his wisdom. A battle of wits follows in which Odin wagers his life against the giant's answers. Concentrated on the god Frey, Skírnismál (Skirnir's Journey) describes the efforts of Odin's messenger, Skirnir, to win the giant's beautiful daughter, Gerd, for his master, and places Frey in the role of the archetypal wooing lover. The title Hárbarðzlióð (The Lay of Harbard) refers to Odin's assumed identity as a ferryman who transports his son Thor (unaware that Harbard is actually his father) back to Asgard. In the conversation that ensues, Thor explains how he has defeated the giants of Jotunheim in several contests of strength and fortitude. A somewhat episodic poem that follows, the Hymisqviða (The Lay of Hymir), involves a fishing journey that culminates in a quest to retrieve a giant cauldron from the god Hymir and features further acts of might by Thor. The amoral Loki makes his first major appearance in Lokasenna (The Insolence of Loki), which follows this trickster figure as he insults the collected gods of Asgard and brings about the death of Balder. Punished by the gods, Loki is chained to a rock and forced to endure the torment of venom dropped on his body by a giant serpent above.

Þrymsqviða (The Lay of Thrym) offers a shift in the generally pessimistic tone of the preceding narratives and features a humorous tale in which Thor recovers his magical hammer, Mjöllnir, stolen by the giant Thrym. Another narrative departure, Völundarqviða (The Lay of Volund), situated near the end of the mythological cycle, concerns the hero Volund, the smith—a partially supernatural figure associated with magical elves. The poem relates a tale of his encounter with three beautiful swan-maidens and his capture by the nefarious King Nidud, followed by the smith's eventual escape and revenge. Thor reappears in Alvíssmál (The Lay of Alvis) in order to confront the dwarf Alvis (“All-Knowing”), who has been promised the thunder god's daughter in marriage. As a delaying tactic, Thor engages the dwarf in a lengthy question-and-answer-session. While the creature satisfactorily responds to all of the gods queries, he forgets to return underground before daybreak and is turned into stone by the rays of the morning sun, much to Thor's approval.

The remaining poems of the Elder Edda belong to the collection's heroic cycle and are set in a legendary version of pre-Christian Scandinavia. A few of the heroes described therein possess real-world counterparts, most notably Atli, who is loosely based upon the historical fifth-century King Attila the Hun. Others have literary parallels, like Sigurd the Volsung, a figure corresponding to the Germanic Siegfried, central hero of the Nibelungenlied. The heroic poems also include numerous correlations with the previous mythological cycle. Sigurd's lover, Brynhild, for instance, is a Valkyrie, a supernatural warrior-maiden in the service of Odin whose duty is to transport the souls of fallen warriors to Odin's war hall, Valhalla. The historical struggle between Franks, Huns, and Burgundians that occurred in northern Europe during the fourth and fifth centuries a.d. provides the narrative background to the heroic cycle. Focused on individuals rather than historical matters, the sequence is punctuated by a series of revenge killings and panegyrics for dead heroes and husbands. It opens with Helgaqviða Hundingsbana in fyrri (The First Lay of Helgi Hunding's Bane) and Helgaqviða Hjörvardzsonar (The Lay of Helgi Hjorvard's Son), poems concerning two different heroes named Helgi, each of whom falls in love with a Valkyrie. Sigrun, the otherworldly lover of Helgi Hunding's Bane (Sigurd's half-brother) sings a lament for him after his death in the first of these lays. A subsequent piece, Grípisspá (The Prophecy of Gripir), outlines the life of Sigurd, condensing a mass of legendary material regarding the hero of the Volsungs into synoptic verse. In Sigrdrifomál (The Lay of Sigrdrifa), Sigurd discovers a sleeping maiden, Brynhild, who upon waking shares with him some of Odin's divine knowledge. Sigurðarqviða in scamma (The Short Lay of Sigurd) continues the tale as Brynhild, motivated by rage over Sigurd's betrayal, sets into motion a plot to kill her beloved. A further series of poems, including Guðrúnarqviða in fyrsta (The Lay of Gudrun) and Atlamál in groenlenzco (The Greenland Lay of Atli), relate the tragic story of the legendary figures Gudrun and Atli and culminate in Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrun's Chain of Woes).

Critical Reception

In the twentieth century scholars have continued the ongoing process of studying these lays, which long ago were recognized as seminal works of Scandinavian literature. Piecing together scraps of evidence with scholarly conjecture, commentators have speculated about the original composers of Eddic verse and have sought to date the individual poems with varying degrees of success. Modern scholars have also examined these works for the information they offer with respect to cultural conditions and pagan religious practices in pre-Christian northern Europe. Others have investigated etymological and linguistic clues in the Elder Edda, probing its origins as oral literature and the transition to written text it underwent after the eighth century. Language, imagery, and structure remain popular areas of current study with regard to the Elder Edda, as does its mix of comedy and epic tragedy. The nature of its principal characters has been explored by critics, and the individual works themselves, likely composed over many centuries, have been compared in terms of structural, thematic, and formulaic resemblances. Additionally, the Elder Edda has been analyzed alongside Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of both works. Finally, the tools of contemporary literary theory, such as feminist and new historicist criticism, have been applied to the collection, offering new observations on this varied and influential medieval literary text.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

*Völuspá [The Sibyl's Prophecy]

Hávamál [Sayings of the High One]

Vafþrúðnismál [The Lay of Vafthrudnir]

Grimnismál [The Lay of Grimnir]

Skírnismál [Skirnir's Journey]

Hárbarðzlióð [The Lay of Harbard]

Hymisqviða [The Lay of Hymir]

Lokasenna [The Insolence of Loki]

Þrymsqviða [The Lay of Thrym]

Völundarqviða [The Lay of Volund]

Alvíssmál [The Lay of Alvis]


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Eirikr Magnusson (essay date 1896)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Magnusson, Eirikr. “Edda.Saga-Book 23, no. 5 (1992): 317-37.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1896, Magnusson traces the etymological origins of the term Edda.]

I shall begin my remarks to you by at once stating how I propose to deal with the subject I have chosen for my discourse to-night. In the first instance, I shall draw attention to the one derivation that has been proposed of the word “Edda,” as a genealogical term. Next, I shall consider the derivation and interpretation that the word, as a book-title, has received. Lastly, I shall endeavour to show what historical facts and probabilities may fairly be taken to favour...

(The entire section is 9106 words.)

Sigurdur Nordal (essay date 1952)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Nordal, Sigurdur. “Three Essays on Völuspá.Saga-Book 18, no. 3 (1972): 79-135.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1952, Nordal presents an in-depth examination of the Eddic poem Völuspá (The Sibyl's Prophecy), discussing its critical and textual history, framework, content, and structure, its anonymous author, the facts of its composition, and its overall artistic merit.]


Völuspá is the most famous poem of the Norse world, and beyond it, and there are many reasons for this. The subject is exalted and of universal application: the destiny of the world, of gods and men, and...

(The entire section is 20237 words.)

Charles W. Dunn (essay date 1969)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Dunn, Charles W. Introduction to Poems of the Vikings: The Elder Edda, translated by Patricia Terry, pp. xiii-xxiv. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.

[In the following excerpt from his introduction to Patricia Terry's English translation of the Elder Edda, Dunn summarizes the pre-Christian ethos of these Old Icelandic lays, also discussing character, theme, and poetic style within the works.]

Deyr fé, deyia fraendr,
          deyr siálfr it sama;
en orztírr deyr aldregi,
          hveim er sér góðan getr.
Cattle die, kinsmen die,
          one day you die yourself;
but the words of praise will not perish
          when a man...

(The entire section is 3435 words.)

Richard L. Harris (essay date autumn 1971)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Harris, Richard L. “A Study of Grípisspá.Scandinavian Studies 43, no. 4 (autumn 1971): 344-55.

[In the following essay, Harris compares Grípisspá (The Prophecy of Gripir) with other poetic versions of the Sigurd legend, arguing that this synoptic Eddic poem is not without artistic value.]

In entering upon a detailed study of the material of Grípisspá and its relation to the rest of the extant Völsung matter in Old Norse, a brief consideration of the spá and its place as a poetic form in Old Norse literature might be relevant. As a literary form, the spá seems to have held some popularity. Both Völuspá, in the...

(The entire section is 4095 words.)

A. Ya. Gurevich (essay date 1976)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Gurevich, A. Ya. “On the Nature of the Comic in the Elder Edda: A Comment on an Article by Professor Höfler.” Medieval Scandinavia 9 (1976): 127-37.

[In the following essay, Gurevich asserts a structural relationship between the comic and the serious elements of the Elder Edda, suggesting that the amusing and satirical qualities of the work should not be interpreted as constituting a critique of heathenism.]

A strong tendency to the comic is clearly seen in the lays of gods in the Elder Edda. In Hárbarðzlióð Þórr and Óðinn (disguised under the name of Hárbarðr) quarrel, the latter mocking and ridiculing simpleton...

(The entire section is 5563 words.)

Einar Haugen (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Haugen, Einar. “The Edda as Ritual: Odin and His Masks.” In Edda: A Collection of Essays, edited by Robert J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason, pp. 3-24. Winnipeg, Can.: University of Manitoba Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Haugen focuses on Odin, a central mythological figure in Eddic verse, in order to discern “the religious beliefs and practices of the Germanic tribes” he embodies.]

Orð mér af orði orðz leitaði.

Hávamál 141

The skalds demonstrate by their use of kennings with mythical content that they knew many myths: but they do not tell them, they only allude to them. Snorri in his...

(The entire section is 9957 words.)

Peter Hallberg (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Hallberg, Peter. “Elements of Imagery in the Poetic Edda.” In Edda: A Collection of Essays, edited by Robert J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason, pp. 47-85. Winnipeg, Can.: University of Manitoba Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Hallberg surveys and analyzes the various modes of metaphorical language employed in the poetry of the Elder Edda, identifying the aesthetic and thematic functions of mythological and heroic kennings, as well as examining other forms of imagery, epithet, and linguistic parallelism.]


The purpose of this paper is to survey various forms of imagery in the Poetic Edda, their...

(The entire section is 16920 words.)

Robert Kellogg (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Kellogg, Robert. “Literacy and Orality in the Poetic Edda.” In Vox intexta: Orality and Textuality in the Middle Ages, edited by A. N. Doane and Carol Braun Pasternack, pp. 89-101. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Kellogg explores the origins of the Elder Edda as oral poetry and its preservation in written manuscripts, including the prose adaptation of Snorri Sturluson.]

The oldest vernacular literary texts that survive from medieval Europe are the products of two cultures. First, they are marked by the characteristics of oral-formulaic composition, pointing back to origins in preliterate societies. But...

(The entire section is 6655 words.)

Uli Linke (essay date 1992)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Linke, Uli. “The Theft of Blood, the Birth of Men: Cultural Constructions of Gender in Medieval Iceland.” In From Sagas to Society: Comparative Approaches to Early Iceland, edited by Gísli Pálsson, pp. 265-88. Enfield Lock, Middlesex, Eng.: Hisarlik Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Linke studies the symbolic representation of female procreative power—and an instance of male appropriation of that power—in the Elder Edda.]

The present work is an excursion into the history of ideas, and not an exploration of customs or social forms. In this essay I examine cultural conceptions of gender in Icelandic mythology, as represented in the Edda (F....

(The entire section is 11037 words.)

Paul Beekman Taylor (essay date April 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Taylor, Paul Beekman. “Völundarkviða, Þrymskviða and the Function of Myth.” Neophilologus 78, no. 2 (April 1994): 263-81.

[In the following essay, Beekman surveys thematic and narrative resemblances between the Eddic poems Völundarqviða (concerning the smith-hero Volund) and Þrymsqviða (centered on the god Thor), considering the ways in which these poems link the mythological and heroic portions of the Elder Edda.]

In the careful ordering of the poems in the Codex Regius 2365, known familiarly as the Poetic Edda, the story of Völund, the archetypal smith of Germanic folklore, appears in the midst of a group of...

(The entire section is 10361 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Dronke, Ursula. “Art and Tradition in Skírnismál.” In English and Medieval Studies Presented to J. R. R. Tolkien on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, edited by Norman Davis and C. L. Wrenn, pp. 250-68. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1962.

Elucidates the ways in which the Eddic poem Skírnismál (Skirnir's Journey) draws upon various traditions of mythological literature, while she argues for the aesthetic and thematic coherence of the work.

Hollander, Lee M. “The Legendary Form of Hamðismál.” In Arkiv för Nordisk Filologi: (1962): 56-62.


(The entire section is 393 words.)