Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1608
Seventeen of the lays in the Elder Edda concern the house of the Volsungs. Fifteen directly or indirectly point towards the Icelandic Volsung Saga, the Middle High German Nibelungenleid, and finally to Wagner's series of operas, Ring of the Nibelungs. They are part of one of the best case histories for the development of the epic from short lays or tales available. The other two "The First Lay of Helgi Hunding's Bane" and "The Second Lay of Helgi Hunding's Bane" could also be approached as points on a continuum of development, but a development that was somehow interrupted. The second lay has already begun the expansion. It adds incidents and treats them with greater complexity, even if it still relies, in true lay style, on the dramatic use of the characters' voices to create atmosphere and setting, direct the audience's sympathies, and propel the narrative. In that process of development, however, Helgi and his beloved Sigrun proved a dead end, while Sigurd and Brynhild became the star-crossed lovers of northern legend, the Viking answer to Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Isolde.
Sigurd was not the only son of Sigmund to inspire the love of a Valkyrie, but his elder brother Helgi and his Valkyrie, Sigrun/Svava/Kara and their love stretching across three lifetimes has never caught the popular fancy; even the extant lays in the Elder Edda are fragmentary. Their story must once have been popular. What happened?
In the second lay, as mentioned above, the story already incorporates events after Helgi's defeat and killing of Sigrun's father, brothers, and unwanted suitor. The audience now had both the beginning and end of their love, expanding Helgi's death into what might otherwise have been detached as a separate lay. Helgi's death by Dag, the brother-in-law he had spared, is of far less importance or interest to the poet than the love of Helgi and Sigurn. To express this love to the audience, the poet devoted slightly over a third of his lay to Sigrun's lament for Helgi and their meeting in his grave mound. He incorporated both the theme of the unquiet grave and an audacious reversal of the demon-lover motif.
Instead of being carried off unwillingly to the horrors of the grave as in the demon lover ballads and tales, Sigrun goes to the burial mound, arranges a bed, and insists "Here in the barrow we'll go to bed, released from sorrow, I will sleep, Helgi, safe in your arms the way I used to when you were alive." This material might serve to flesh out an epic, but placed on center stage, they seem more naturally the stuff of romance. This and the substitution in the second lay of the first's generalized hero's boyhood with Helgi's daring secret mission to spy on his family's enemies suggests a poet with a gift for narrative innovation. What then cuts off the development? Possibly the lack of a theme to support an extended narrative. The winning of Sigrun provided the center of a narrative lay, but the process was never given the emotional complexity to sustain a long narrative.
The core of the story, the unshakable love between Helgi and Sigrun, could not accommodate an emotional struggle between them to take the place of war. Such a change would rob the story of its essential character. In the second version, the scene in which, going over the battlefield, she first finds the despised Hodbrodd dying and then Helgi safe, might easily have become an extended episode. But when Helgi who says "Sigrun I will grieve you by what I say ... there fell this morning at Freka Stone, Bragi and Hogni; I was their bane." Her reaction does not give the society, which produced the Volsung Saga or Njal's Saga, much to work with to extend the conflict and therefore the narrative: "Then Sigrun wept. She said: 'Now I would wish those warriors alive, and still have your arms around me.'" Then, as the story says, they married and had sons, but "Helgi didn't live to grow old" and "grief and sorrow caused Sigrun to die young." Helgi had spared Sigrun's brother, Dag, who repays the oaths he has sworn with Odin's spear in vengeance for his father. When he confesses the slaying to his sister and offers compensation to her and her sons, she curses him, but she does not pursue vengeance. Her focus and the story's focus remains love of Helgi rather than vengeance. She dares the terrors of the grave for him and dies of her grief; he comes back to her from the dead, from the halls of Odin.
Perhaps the most compelling scene, the one that might have offered the possibility of an extended narrative is Helgi's return from the dead to his wife for one night. It operates within the context of their inability to meet in the Norse afterlife. Since Sigrun is fated to die of grief, not in battle, she cannot join her husband in Valhalla. It is often overlooked by modern readers that Brynhild does not want Sigurd dead merely to punish him. She wants to ensure that she will have him in the afterlife. She does not kill herself out of guilt or remorse, but to join him in the kingdom of Hel. Sigurd must be killed treacherously, not merely because of his prowess, but because if he dies in battle he is lost to her forever. The composers of the lays were very much alive to this. Their sensitivity to it is reflected in "Brynhild's Hel-ride."
The tale of Sigurd and Brynhild was a tale of thwarted love, but there is no adultery, no stolen meetings, none of the twists and turns of lovers's intrigue, only the cold frustrated fury of a woman who has been tricked into marrying a man she despises, having been betrothed to the one man she could respect and therefore love. Besides, the French romance as a genre was not invariably or even usually about adulterous love but a love that found its harbor in marriage.
The women of Elder Edda and of the saga literature in general are praised for the same qualities as the men. Modern readers tend to judge the medieval taste in heroines by Chaucer's, but Geoffrey Chaucer had a highly personal taste for the plaintive and helpless woman (usually married). Brynhild's character did not change substantially between the Norse and courtly version of her story. The ballad tradition is full of women who follow their lovers to war in disguise, often saving them.
The problem of the Helgi legends' dead end may lie exactly in the cleft stick of the Eddic traditions of the afterlife and the in the reincarnation motif. The great engine of the traditional development of the Helgi story, the narrative tool by which the story could be extended was that the lovers were reincarnated at least three times. The story never found a replacement. However much reincarnation may appeal to modern sensibilities, if only as a narrative tool, it was a bar to wider development of the story between the Vikings' conversion to Christianity and the end of the nineteenth century. It has been suggested that the statement at the end of "The Lay of Helgi Horvard's Son" may be a belated scribal attempt to link the old Helgi tradition to the Volsung-Helgi tradition. But, it seems unlikely that such an idea would have occurred to a Christian scribe out of nowhere, least of all to attract an audience. Keeping the interest in the story alive would have suggested suppressing or ridiculing such a heathen concept as reincarnation, as the prose passage at the end of "The Second Lay of Helgi Hunding's Bane": "In olden times it was believed that people could be born again, although that is now considered an old woman's tale." More likely to represent a scribal attempt to make the sequence more acceptable would be the prose introduction to "The Second Lay of Helgi Hunding's Bane": "King Sigmund, the son of Volsung, married Borghild from Balund. They called their son Helgi, for Helgi Hjorvard's son." This at most suggests a subconscious recognition of their similar fate. The lines in "The Second Lay of Helgi Hunding's Bane"—"before she had ever seen Sigmund's son / she had loved him with all her heart"—is also suggestive of a love reincarnated.
Perhaps the problem is more fundamental. There simply wasn't enough material. Despite the great potential offered and already exploited by certain incidents, there were not enough of them. Even when fleshed out, there certainly were not enough tensions to make a convincing saga like that which formed around Sigurd. The tradition of their love offers only one possible tension between them: there is no meeting again for them after death. No writer after the conversion would be able to exploit the literary possibilities of either this endless loss or the alternative, the rebirth and repetition of the cycle of their love. There is no great object to be pursued. It is the nature of their love, their own natures, that they should find each other and nothing shall come between them, not even death itself, which is the meaning of the story. That is what differentiates them from the characters in the Sigurd material. The center of their story is their love that propels them across death. Their great sorrow, the thing that they must conquer, is their separation by death. That is a subject worthy of an epic, but not an epic that could have been written in the prevailing cultural atmosphere.
Source: Helen Conrad-O'Briain, for Epics for Students, Gale, 2001.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3156
In his treatise on poetry, the so-called Edda Snorra, Snorri (1949:244) states that the human mind is periphrased in skaldic speech as 'the wind of troll-women' without offering an explanation for the unexpected image. We do find such kennings as ... 'the storm of Járnsaxa (a giantess) in the meaning of 'courage', or Herkju stormr—'Herkja's (a giantess') storm' in the meaning 'mind'.
Snorri's puzzling statement has given rise to some scholarly interpretations. In his book on magic practices Dag Strömbäck assumed that the noun hugr of Snorri' s sentence (Huginn skal svá kenna at kalla vind troll-kvenna) relates to the force named hugr, which lives in men, and which may, according to Norse belief, detach itself and wander forth, corporeally, to attack and harm an enemy. Strömbäck (1935:175 ff) points out that witches or troll-women are often visualized as traveling in the wind. The "trolls' wind" thus would be equated with the powerful and noxious force, named hugr.
Basing herself on folkbelief, Lily Weiser-Aall (1936:76-78) offered a somewhat different explanation. The word hugr is, according to her, to be understood in its meaning of 'bodily affliction', the kind of sickness which may be brought on by a troll's breath or 'wind', as shown by the modern Norwegian nouns trollgust, alvgust—"trolls' wind", "elves' wind", as names of a disease.
Concerning both interpretations we must note that the kenning "trolls' wind" does not, in the instances which have been gathered, periphrase 'sickness' or 'attack'. The examples, cited by Rudolf Meissner, circumscribe the notions of 'courage', 'mind', 'emotion', 'thoughts', which coincide with the standard meanings of the noun hugr—'mind', 'feeling', 'desire', 'courage'. Snorri must have based his statement on his knowledge of skaldic diction. It is therefore not likely that he used hugr in the meaning 'sickness' or 'attack' if the metaphors consistently relate to the workings of the human mind. Strömbáck and Weiser-Aall apparently did not consider the material from which Snorri's conclusion was derived.
I shall, in my turn, seek to find the reason for linking witches' weather to human thoughts and emotions, and interpret Snorri's sentence, understanding hugr in its standard meaning of 'mind, emotion, consciousness', with the help of a non-Germanic parallel.
The parallel is found among the Eskimos. Their highest god, named Sila, Hila, or Tla, by the various groups, is a being of the outer air, of winds and storms, the great majestic, cosmic power before which men must bow in humbleness and awe. He is, as stated by an Eskimo, "A great spirit so mighty that his utterance to mankind is not through common words, but by storm and snow and rain and the fury of the sea; all the forces that men fear ..."
Surprisingly the name of this great force serves also as a designation of the human mind or human intelligence. In Greenlandic speech it may be said: Siälihliuppa—"Sila rained on him", and it may be stated about someone: "He has Sila," i.e. "He has intelligence." In Alaska the name Sla means 'weather' and the verb slaugohaqtoa means "I am thinking".
We may find an explanation for this duality of meaning by considering that among some of the Eskimo nations, for instance among the Caribou Eskimos, it is indeed from Hila that the shaman-magician, the central figure of religious life, receives his visionary powers. He has prepared himself for this profound experience by leaving the settlements of men and by the endurance of much suffering. Then in his loneliness he may hear the god's voice, be filled with god's presence, and thus himself become part of the secret workings of the universe. "All true wisdom," an Eskimo explained to the explorer Rasmussen, "is only to be learned far from the dwellings of men, out in the great solitudes".
In a recurrent tale from Greenland a poor orphan boy transforms himself into a mighty hero through his strength of will, and he too obtains his gifts through his experience of meeting Sila in the wilderness. If a man wishes to become an angakoq (shaman), we are told by an eighteenth-century observer of Eskimo life, he must go a long way from his home to a field where there are no men; he must look for a huge stone, sit down on it, and call for Torngarsuk (the shaman's helping spirit with this group of Eskimos). The shock of the terrifying encounter will cause the man to fall into a stupor, and to lie like dead; but he will reawaken and return to his community as a shaman.
The examples given testify to a belief that to acquire knowledge of the secrets of the world one must meet and merge with the forces which are manifest in storm and winds.
Eskimo culture, as we know, remained for climatic reasons at a very early stage of economic development, i.e. that of hunters and of fishermen, until the most recent time, and preserved some extremely archaic forms of belief. It is reasonable to assume that these forms had at one time had a wider distribution and that some had stayed, vestigially, in more sophisticated environments.
I wish to show in this paper that the equation "mind—trolls' wind" of skaldic poetry had originated in its turn, as in the scenario of the Eskimos, in a belief, forgotten in its articulated form at the time of our texts, that to receive insight, strength, or vision, a man must attain close contact with the elemental powers. If enough fragments of such a faith are still discernible, though in various altered forms, in our texts we may be able to assume the existence of such a pattern in Germanic lands. To arrive at this assumption we would have to be able to point to the following:
1. that in north-Germanic tradition inspiration may be gained by contact with the forces of untamed nature,
2. that trolls and giants (the names are interchangeable) represent such forces,
3. that trolls and giants are capable of dispensing knowledge and inspiration,
4. that humans have indeed gained inspiration through a meeting with the trolls in distant places.
The examples from the arctic environment, here cited, describe an initiatory experience from which the human arises with a new identity, a new dimension to his person, possibly a new conscious soul. We shall examine whether in the Germanic context the inspiration granted would be of an individual nature, pertaining to a certain task, the working of a poem, or the divining of the future, or to the more profound event of acquiring a new state of consciousness.
1. Inspiration through contact with the forces of untamed nature
The Icelandic noun útiseta—'sitting outside', designates the wizard's practice of staying outdoors for the night in the course of his profession. The act is performed to gather knowledge of the future—eflaútiseta ok leita spádóms—and is considered a felony or crime. And we may understand that the wizard of Germanic society reached in his lonely vigil contact with the superhuman as does the angakoq of the Eskimos, visited by Torngarsuk while 'sitting on a stone'.
Inspiration may also be gained by sitting on a mound—sitja á haugi. After a night of sleeping on a mound an Icelandic shepherd gained the gift of poetic creativity.
While the instances above depict techniques of seeking specific visions or knowledge the episode of an Eddic poem shows how a whole new form of being is granted to a man through forces that have come to him through wind and air. The lad was, in his early youth, mute and without a name. One day, while sitting on a mound, he noticed that a train of shining maidens was riding through the clouds; one of them came to him to bestow these gifts: a name, the power of speech, and a sword. That practices meant to gain manhood, i.e. a new state of consciousness, were associated in Norse tradition with a stay in uncultivated places may be surmised from a sentence of Landnámabók; here a man was led into a certain cave of Iceland before attaining the 'rank of man'.
2. Trolls and giants as representatives of nature
This point hardly needs belaboring. Trolls and giants are the powers of úlgarthar, for they dwell outside of the settlements of men in the stones and crags, the caves and glaziers of the mountainside. Theirs is an especially close alliance with the weather, with storms and snow, and frost and winds. In Norse myth the wind arises because a giant in the shape of an eagle flaps his wings. A saga giant will frequently manipulate the weather to gain his end; he thus may send a storm to wreck the boat of sailors near his shore. The troll-woman Thorgerthr Hölgabrúthr created a hailstorm so that her friend might win his battle (The Saga of the Jomsvikings). The giant Gusir was observed as he was moving in a whirl of snow (Ketils saga hœngs), and Thorri, a giant and a king in a legendary saga, sends snow for 'good skiing' if he is favorably inclined (Hversu Noregr byggthist).
Winds may rise and darkness fall, just before a human meets a giant. The young Icelandic lad Oddr thus found himself in darkness, frost, and drifts of snow as he was about to meet the giant Bárthr (Bárthar saga Snœfellsáss). Rain and hail descended just before the heroes Hjálmthér and Ölvir encountered the giantess Skinnhúfa (Hjálmthés saga ok Ölvis). The Icelander Thorsteinn experienced an agony of cold before he faced the giant Grámann (Ármanns saga inn fyrri). The modern German noun Windsbraul for 'whirlwind' shows that in folk belief storm and wind may be visualized in the form of a witch.
We may be quite sure that the giants speak to men, like Sila of the Eskimos, 'by storm and snow and rain and the fury of the sea'.
3. Trolls and giants as source of knowledge and inspiration
Óthinn learned nine important magic songs from the giant Bolborn, his maternal uncle (Hávamál). The goddess Freyja approached Hyndla, a troll-woman living in a cave, to learn from her the genealogy of her human friend Óttar. And she received the information (Hyndlulióth). Though the Eddic poem Vafthrúthnismál ostensibly presents a contest between Óthinn and a giant, much information, concerning matters of the cosmos, is dispensed by Vafthrúthnir in the course of the event.
Young Oddr acquired so much legal knowledge from the giant Bárthr that he became the greatest lawyer of his generation (Bárthar saga Snœfellsáss). The warrior Thorsteinn learned many skills from his giant mistress (Thorsteins saga Geirnefjufóstra), while another man, named Thorsteinn, was taught so well by a giant woman and her daughters in the arts of courtly accomplishment that none could rival him in these matters (Ármanns saga inn fyrri); and the giant Ármann offered valuable advice in the lawsuit of an Icelandic farmer (Ármanns saga inn fyrri). Bárthr, who himself was a giant, was introduced to magic skills, knowledge of genealogy, sorcerers' chants, and the old magic lore by the giant Dofri (Bárthar saga Snœfellsáss). This giant was also said to be the teacher of the historical king Harald Finehair and he in structed him in learning—frœthi—and accomplishments—íthróttir. The giantess Menglöth appeared to Ormr in a dream and advised him on his future battle (Orms tháttr Stórólfssonar), while the giantess Brana came to Hálfdan in a dream to remind him of a pledge he had forgotten (Hálfdanar saga Brönufóstra). The hero Hadingus was sent for his education to the giant Vagnhofthus and he increased much in strength and skill, as reported by Saxo Grammaticus.
Trolls and giants, who are themselves, as we have seen, wise and versed in magic crafts, thus appear in teaching and counseling, and, in dreams, in helping and admonishment.
4. The inspirational meeting between troll and human in the wilderness
The útiseta, the magician's stay outside of human dwellings, is performed, as it is overtly stated, so that the trolls may be aroused—útisetur at vekja troll upp. The trolls thus are, in this practice, the superhuman forces of the natural environment whom the Norse magician wishes to approach, as the angakoq wishes to approach the mighty Sila.
In most instances, cited under 3, knowledge is imparted and instruction conducted in the uncultivated space of the giant's realm. Oddr spent a winter in his teacher's cave. Thorsteinn lived with Geirnefja as her lover while she taught him, and the other Thorsteinn resided with three giant women. In a mountain cave young Bárthr became acquainted with the many magic powers and the wisdom of the giant Dofri. And young Harald, later king of Norway, spent five years in this giant's cave.
Frequently the hero gains, through his meeting with the troll, usually a troll-woman, a superhuman friend who will help him in time of need in his later adventures. The giantess Mána came to Sörli's rescue when he was threatened by the anger of a queen (Sörla saga slerka), and the giantess Fála rushed to fight at Gunnar's side against an entire horde of trolls (Gunnars saga Keldugnúpsfífls). The giantess Skinnhúfa killed a monstrous whale which had threatened her human friend (Hjálmthés saga ok Ölvis), and the giant woman Brana arrived to save Hálfdan from the fires of a blazing hall (Hálfdanar saga Brönufóstra). A troll-woman, riding on a wolf, offered to become the fylgja, the lifelong and loyal guardian force, of the warrior Hethinn.
After the encounter with the troll some heroes of the legendary sagas are given a new by-name as the fosterson of the respective spirit. In this way Hálfdan became the Fosterling of Brana, Illugi the Fosterling of Gríthr, and Thorsteinn the Fosterling of Geirnefja. King Harald Finehair was also known as the Fosterling of Dofri. It is clear that receiving a new name, which he will bear throughout his future life, marks a decisive change in the being of a person, the reaching of a new stage, the acquisition of an altered identity. And this event is occasioned, in the cases cited, by the man's stay with the troll in the troll's environment.
Let us summarize our argument: we cannot doubt that in north-Germanic tradition men are believed to gain temporary or lasting wisdom or inspiration by meeting with forces of the wilderness (1); it is also clear that trolls and giants represent such forces, especially those of wind and weather (2); trolls and giants, themselves deeply versed in magic wisdom, may generously give of their knowledge (3); an encounter of a human hero with a troll, in the troll's environment, and its impact is also frequently noted in the Old Icelandic texts (4).
We may, however, raise some questions concerning the latest category and wonder if the Norse hero's friendship with the troll is indeed of the same kind as the Eskimo shaman's contact with his god. Let us consider these events more closely.
The Eskimo's experience in the solitude of the arctic waste initiates him into his craft. He leaves the place of contact as a profoundly altered being, a man with a new identity. The Norse hero's experience in a giant's cave also leaves him as an altered being. The possession of a helping spirit has added a new dimension to his person; he may, furthermore, be protected in his future adventures by a magic gift received from his superhuman friend, as is Hálfdan by the corselet Brönunautr. Sometimes, as in the case of Illugi Grítharfóstri, he goes forth as one whose mettle has been tested, for Illugi's courage did not falter even at the moment of the greatest peril. At times a new by-name marks him as a man tested or instructed by a superhuman creature in the wilderness.
The initiatory nature of the Norse episodes is also underlined by the events preceding the adventure. The Eskimo shaman cannot attain his visionary powers without enduring suffering so great that it may endanger his physical existence. The saga hero in his turn is subjected to hardship and to pain. His ship may have drifted aimlessly, for weeks or months, in fog and darkness, before it was shattered on the rocks; he may be the sole survivor on the cliffs (Ásmundar saga Atlasonar). He may have been wounded and lie close to death on the battle ground. He may be on the point of drowning, as was Thorsteinn of Thorsteins saga Víkingssonar, or worn to exhaustion by the cold as was Thorsteinn of Ármanns saga innfyrri.
The initiatory pattern of the saga hero's adventure would allow us to place it generically with the initiatory encounter of the angakoq. We must admit, however, that the experience in the arctic ice is part of the tradition of a living faith while the útiseta of the sorcerer belongs with forbidden practices, and the episode concerning the Norse hero and the troll is embedded in fictional or semi-fictional tales. We may wonder in what way information from such sources may be related to religious beliefs. Clearly the magician's practices, though forbidden in Christian time, had been part of pre-Christian faith and its manifestations persisted, as we may note, after the conversion.
We do not know, however, to what extent the sagas mirror a believed reality. They clearly have preserved a tale of a man's meeting with an elemental power in the wasteland and its impact on his personality. To the extent to which there was belief in the actual existence of the hero there also must have been belief, at least at one time, in the reality of his adventures. That such a faith was likely and that it had, actually, not completely vanished, is supported by the fact that the medieval king Harald Finehair bore, among others, the title Fosterson of (the giant) Dofri. The assumption might have been that to be a real king or a real hero one must have had the tutelage of an elemental force of nature.
If the arguments brought forth allow us to understand that the thought pattern here discussed is, in essence, the same in Eskimo and in Norse tradition then we may also understand the similarity of linguistic dynamics, the equation of Sila with intelligence and the equation of the 'troll's wind' with the human mind, for in meeting with the troll the hero acquired his hugr, his aware and conscious soul. That the meaning 'courage' recurs among the kennings is in keeping with the destiny and role awaiting the young warrior of the northern lands.
Source: Lotte Motz, "The Storm of Troll-Women," in Maal og Minne, Vol. 1-2, 1988, pp. 31–41.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5228
What the Vedas are for India, and the Homeric poems for the Greek world, that the Edda signifies for the Teutonic race: it is a repository, in poetic form, of their mythology and much of their heroic lore, bodying forth both the ethical views and the cultural life of the North during late heathen and early Christian times.
Due to their geographical position, it was the fate of the Scandinavian tribes to succumb later than their southern and western neighbors to the revolutionary influence of the new world religion, Christianity. Before its establishment, they were able to bring to a highly characteristic fruition a civilization stimulated occasionally, during the centuries preceding, but not overborne by impulses from the more Romanized countries of Europe. Owing to the prevailing use of wood for structural purposes and ornamentation, little that is notable was accomplished and still less has come down to us from that period, though a definite style had been evolved in wood-carving, shipbuilding and bronze work, and admirable examples of these have indeed been unearthed. But the surging life of the Viking Age—restless, intrepid, masculine as few have been in the world's history—found magnificent expression in a literature which may take its place honorably beside other national literatures.
For the preservation of these treasures in written form we are, to be sure, indebted to Christianity; it was the missionary who brought with him to Scandinavia the art of writing on parchment with connected letters. The Runic alphabet was unsuited for that task.
But just as fire and sword wrought more conversions in the Merovingian kingdom, in Germany, and in England, than did peaceful, missionary activity so too in the North; and little would have been heard of sagas, Eddic lays, and skaldic poetry had it not been for the fortunate existence of the political refuge of remote Iceland.
Founded toward the end of the heathen period (ca. 870) by Norwegian nobles and yeomen who fled their native land when King Harald Fairhair sought to impose on them his sovereignty and to levy tribute, this colony long preserved and fostered the cultural traditions which connected it with the Scandinavian soil. Indeed, for several centuries it remained an oligarchy of families intensely proud of their ancestry and jealous of their cultural heritage. Even when Christianity was finally introduced and adopted as the state religion by legislative decision (1000 A.D.), there was no sudden break, as was more generally the case elsewhere. This was partly because of the absence of religious fanaticism, partly because of the isolation of the country, which rendered impracticable for a long time any stricter enforcement of Church discipline in matters of faith and of living.
The art of writing, which came in with the new religion, was enthusiastically cultivated for the committing to parchment of the lays, the laws, and the lore of olden times, especially of the heroic and romantic past immediately preceding and following the settlement of the island. Even after Christianity got to be firmly established, by and by, wealthy freeholders and clerics of leisure devoted themselves to accumulating and combining into "sagas," the traditions of heathen times which had been current orally, and to collecting the lays about the gods and heroes which were still remembered—indeed, they would compose new ones in imitation of them. Thus, gradually came into being huge codices which were reckoned among the most cherished possessions of Icelandic families. By about 1200 the Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, already speaks in praise of the unflagging zeal of the Icelanders in this matter.
The greatest name in this early Icelandic Renaissance (as it has been called) is that of Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241), the powerful chieftain and great scholar, to whom we owe the Heimskringla, or The History of the Norwegian Kings, and the Snorra Edda—about which more later—but he stands by no means alone. And thanks also to the fact that the language had undergone hardly a change during the Middle Ages, this antiquarian activity was continued uninterruptedly down into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when it was met and reinforced by the Nordic Renaissance with its romantic interest in the past.
In the meantime the erstwhile independent island had passed into the sovereignty of Norway and, with that country, into that of Denmark, then at the zenith of its power. In the search for the origins of Danish greatness it was soon understood that a knowledge of the earlier history of Scandinavia depended altogether on the information contained in the Icelandic manuscripts. In the preface to Saxo's Historia Danica, edited by the Danish humanist Christiern Pedersen in the beginning of the sixteenth century, antiquarians found stated in so many words that to a large extent his work is based on Icelandic sources, at least for the earliest times. To make these sources more accessible, toward the end of the sixteenth century, the learned Norwegian, Peder Claussön, translated the Heimskringla, which, with the kings of Norway in the foreground, tells of Scandinavian history from the earliest times down to the end of the twelfth century.
Since it was well known that many valuable manuscripts still existed in Iceland, collectors hastened to gather them although the Icelandic freeholders "brooded over them like the dragon on his gold," as one contemporary remarked. As extreme good fortune would have it, the Danish kings then ruling, especially Fredric III, were liberal and intelligent monarchs who did much to further literature and science. The latter king expressly enjoined his bishop in Iceland, Brynjólfur Sveinsson, a noted antiquarian, to gather for the Royal Library, then founded, all manuscripts he could lay hold of. As a result, this collection now houses the greatest manuscript treasures of Northern antiquity. And the foundations of other great manuscript collections, such as those of the Royal Library of Sweden and the libraries of the Universities of Copenhagen and Uppsala, were laid at about the same time.
This collecting zeal of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may almost be called providential. It preserved from destruction the treasures, which the Age of Enlightenment and Utilitarianism following was to look upon as relics of barbarian antecedents best forgotten, until Romanticism again invested the dim past of Germanic antiquity with glamor.
At the height of this generous interest in the past a learned Icelander, Arngrímur Jónsson, sent the manuscript of what is now known as Snorra Edda or The Prose Edda (now called Codex Wormianus), to his Danish friend Ole Worm. Knowledge of this famous work of Snorri's had, it seemed, virtually disappeared in Iceland. Its author was at first supposed to be that fabled father of Icelandic historiography, Sæmundr Sigfússon (1056-1133), of whose learning the most exaggerated notions were then current. A closer study of sources gradually undermined this view in favor of Snorri; and his authorship became a certainty with the finding of the Codex Upsaliensis of the Snorra Edda, which is prefaced by the remark that it was compiled by Snorri.
To all intents and purposes this Edda of Snorri's is a textbook—one of the most original and entertaining ever written. In it is set forth in dialogue form the substance and technique (as we should say) of skaldship, brought conveniently together for the benefit of those aspiring to the practice of the art. The first part, called "Gylfaginning" or "The Duping of Gylfi," furnishes a survey of Northern mythology and cosmogony; the second, called "Skaldskaparmál" or "The Language of Skaldship," deals with the subject of "kennings," whose origin is explained by quotations from skaldic poems and other lore; the third, called "Háttatal" or "The Enumeration of hættir (metres)," contains Snorri's encomiastic poem, in 102 stanzas, on King Hákon and Duke Skúli, exemplifying as many metres employed in skaldship and giving explanations of the technical aspects of the skaldic art.
Among the scholars eagerly scanning this precious find the conviction soon made itself felt that the material in it was not original with Snorri: they saw that much of the first two books was on the face of it a group of synopses from older poetic sources which, in their turn, investigators ascribed to Sæmundr. Hence when that lucky manuscript hunter, Bishop Brynjólfur, discovered (about 1643) the unique and priceless codex containing what we now call The Poetic Edda, it was but natural that he should conclude this to be "The Edda of Sæmundr," whose existence had already been inferred theoretically. And this conclusion was unhesitatingly subscribed to by all, down to modern times. The fact is, though, that the connection of Sæmundr with The Poetic Edda has no documentary evidence whatever. Moreover, it is inherently improbable.
But, since the great bulk of poems which we have come to regard as "Eddic" is handed down precisely in this manuscript, and since we lack any other collective title, the name of Edda, which properly belongs to Snorri's work, has been retained for all similar works. We know with a fair degree of certainty that Snorri himself named his handbook of poetics "Edda"; but as to the meaning of this word we are dependent on conjecture.
Quite early, the name was taken to be identical with that of Edda, who was progenitress of the race of thralls according to "The Lay of Ríg," and whose name means "great-grandmother." This identification was adopted by the great Jakob Grimm who, with his brother Wilhelm, was one of the first to undertake a scientific edition of part of the collection. In the taste of Romanticism he poetically interpreted the title as the ancestral mother of mankind sitting in the circle of her children, instructing them in the lore and learning of the hoary past. However, as it happens, Snorri did not, in all likelihood, know "The Lay of Ríg"; nor does this fanciful interpretation agree at all with the prosy manner in which the Icelanders were accustomed to name their manuscripts, or—for that matter—with the purpose and nature of Snorri's work. It is altogether untenable.
Another explanation was propounded early in the eighteenth century by the Icelandic scholar, Ami Magnússon, and has been accepted by many. According to him, Edda means "poetics"—a title which (from a modern point of view) would seem eminently fitting for Snorri's work. Later scholars, who have provided a more solid philological underpinning for this theory than Arni was able to, also point out that the simplex ódr, from which Edda may be derived, signifies "reason," "soul" and hence "soulful utterance," "poem," agrees excellently, etymologically and semantically, with the related Latin vates and the Old Irish faith, "seer," "poet." Nevertheless, this explanation does not quite satisfy, for the word "Edda" in the meaning "poetics" is nowhere attested before the middle of the fourteenth century.
The simplest theory, agreeing best with the matter-of-fact Icelandic style of naming their writings, is the proposal of the Icelandic-English scholar, Eirík Magnússon. He reminded us that Edda may mean "the Book of Oddi." This was the name of the renowned and historic parsonage in southwest Iceland which under that remarkable mind, Sæmundr Sigfússon, had become a center of learning whither flocked gifted youths eager for historical or clerical instruction. After his death, in 1133, the estate, continuing to prosper, kept up its tradition for learning under his two sons, and especially under his grandson, the wise and powerful chieftain, Jón Loptsson. It was he who fostered and tutored the three-year-old Snorri and under whose roof the boy lived until his nineteenth year. What is more likely than that Oddi with its traditions and associations played a profound role in Snorri's entire development? To be sure, whether Snorri wrote his work there in later years, whether he gave it the title in grateful recognition of the inspiration there received, or whether he wished thus to indicate an indebtedness to manuscript collections of poems owned at Oddi—these are mere surmises.
Magnússon, indeed, believed that Snorri, while in Oddi, had used a manuscript containing about all the lays comprised in the codex found by Bishop Brynjólfur, and from them made the synopses found in the "Gylfaginning." In this he was mistaken however; for it seems well-established now that Snorri could have had before him only "Voluspá," "Vafthrúonismál," and "Grímnismál."
Subsequent finds added a few lays of Eddic quality to those preserved in Brynjólf’ s codex, which thus remains our chief source for them. This famous manuscript, now known as Codex Regius No. 2365 of the Royal Library of Denmark, is a small quarto volume consisting of forty-five sheets closely covered with writing. No distinction is made between prose and poetry, except that the beginning of every lay is marked off by a large colored initial, and every stanza, by a smaller one. The whole is in one firm, legible hand which paleologists agree in assigning to an Icelander of the last half of the thirteenth century. He must have copied it from, it seems, at least two manuscripts for the nature of a number of scribal errors shows that he did not write from memory or from dictation. Paleographic evidence furthermore shows that these postulated manuscripts themselves cannot have been older than the beginning of the thirteenth century; also, that they must have been written by different scribes, for there is a distinct paleographic and orthographic boundary between "Alvíssmál," the last of the mythological lays in Regius, and the heroic lays. We know nothing concerning the provenence of this priceless collection, not even where it was preserved when Bishop Brynjólfur found it. As to the date when the lays were first collected, various considerations make it probable that this occurred not earlier than the middle of the thirteenth century.
Next in importance to the Regius comes the manuscript Fragment 748 of the Arnamagnæan Collection of the Copenhagen University Library, dating from the beginning of the fourteenth century. Among other matters it contains, in a slightly different form and in a divergent order, part of "The Lay of Hárbarth," "Baldr's Dreams" (for which it is the sole source), part of "The Lay of Skírnir," "The Lay of Grímnir," "The Lay of Hymir," and part of "The Lay of Volund." For all the differences between the manuscripts, scholars are unanimous in holding that it derives, ultimately, from the same source as Regius. The different ordering of the two collections may be due to the various lays having been handed down on single parchment leaves, which the scribe of Regius arranged as he saw fit. He no doubt was the author of the connecting prose links.
The large Manuscript Codex No. 544 of the Arnamagnæan Collection, called Hauksbók from the fact that most of it was written by the Icelandic judge, Haukr Erlendsson, about the beginning of the fourteenth century, is important for Eddic study in that it supplies us with another redaction of "The Prophecy of the Seeress."
For "The Lay of Ríg" we are entirely dependent on the Codex Wormianus of the Snorra Edda (referred to above) written in the second half of the fourteenth century, where it is found on the last page.
The huge Codex No. 1005 folio of the Royal Library, known as the Flateyjarbók because Brynjólfur Sveinsson obtained it from a farmer on the small island of Flatey, is the source for "The Lay of Hyndla."
"The Lay of Grotti" occurs only in the Codex Regius manuscript No. 2367 of the Snorra Edda, dating from the beginning of the fourteenth century, where the poem is cited in illustration of a kenning based on the Grotti myth.
There exists also a considerable number of paper manuscripts of the collection; but aside from the fact that some of them contain the undoubtedly genuine "Lay of Svipdag," not found in earlier manuscripts, they are of no importance since they all date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and are essentially derived from the same source as Regius, if not from that collection itself. To be sure, they bear eloquent testimony to the continued interest of Icelanders in these poems.
The Eddic lays which are found in these manuscripts, utterly diverse though they be in many respects, still have in common three important characteristics which mark them off from the great body of skaldic poetry: their matter is the mythology, the ethical conceptions, and the heroic lore of the ancient North; they are all composed in a comparatively simple style, and in the simplest measures; and, like the later folk songs and ballads, they are anonymous and objective, never betraying the feelings or attitudes of their authors. This unity in apparent diversity was no doubt felt by the unknown collector who gathered together all the lays and poetical fragments which lived in his memory or were already committed to writing.
A well thought-out plan is evident in the ordering of the whole. In the first place, the mythic and didactic lays are held apart from the heroic, and those of each group disposed in a sensible order.
The opening chord is struck by the majestic "Prophecy of the Seeress," as the most complete bodying forth of the Old Norse conceptions of the world, its origin and its future. There follow three poems, in the main didactic, dealing chiefly with the wisdom of the supreme god, Óthin (the lays of Hár, of Vafthrúthnir, of Grímnir); then one about the ancient fertility god, Frey ("The Lay of Skírnir"); five in which Thór plays the predominant, or at least a prominent, part (the lays of Hárbarth, of Hymir, of Loki, of Thrym, of Alvís). The poems following in the present translation ("Baldr's Dreams," the lays of Ríg, of Hyndla, of Svipdag, of Grotti) are, it will be remembered, not contained in Regius.
The Heroic lays are found arranged in chronological order, as far as feasible, and joined by Prose Links so that the several smaller cycles form one large interconnected cycle. The procedure is especially clear in the case of the Niflung Cycle. Not only has the Collector been at pains to join the frequently parallel lays, but he tries hard to reconcile contradictory statements. Connection with the Helgi Cycle is effected by making Helgi Hundingsbani a son of the Volsung, Sigmund. The tragic figure of Queen Guthrún then links the Niflung Cycle with the Ermanarich lays ("Guthrún's Lament," "The Lay of Hamthir").
There has been a great deal of discussion as to the authenticity and age of the Prose of the Collection, but it is clear now that (excepting the piece about "Sinfjotli' s Death," which no doubt is a prose rendering of a lay now lost) the Prose Links for the most part add nothing, or very little, of independent value—nothing, indeed, which could not have been inferred from the poems themselves. We shall hardly err in attributing these links to the intelligent, but not very gifted, compiler of the Collection.
The case is somewhat different, perhaps, with the narrative which binds together the fragments of "The Lay of Helgi Hjorvarthsson" and those of "The Second Lay of Helgi," and with the Prose Links of the Sigurth Cycle from "The Lay of Regin" to "Brynhild's Ride to Hel." Especially the latter group notably resembles in manner the genre of the Fornaldarsaga—prose with interspersed stanzas—a form exceedingly common in Old Norse literature and one which, for aught we know, may have been the original form in this instance. Still, even here the suspicion lurks that the Prose is but the apology for stanzas, or whole lays, imperfectly remembered: there is such discrepancy between the clear and noble stanzas and the frequently muddled and inept prose as to preclude, it would seem, the thought of their being by the same author.
Even greater diversity of opinion obtains concerning the age and home of the lays themselves. As was stated above, in sharp contradiction to our knowledge of skaldic poetry, we know nothing about the author of any Eddic poem. Nay, in only a very few, such as "The Lay of Grípir," or "The Third Lay of Guthrún," can one discern so much as the literary individuality of the authors. In consonance with medieval views, they were probably felt to be merely continuators, or elaborators, of legendary tradition. Thus, to illustrate by a very clear case: A Gothic lay about the death of Hamthir and Sorli is known to have existed already in the sixth century. So the person who indited or, perhaps, translated, or possibly, added to such a song could not well lay claim to be an "inventor" and hence worthy of being remembered. Skaldic art, on the other hand, may also deal with myth and legendary lore or allude to it; but—note well—skaldic poems do not narrate directly, though some do describe in detail pictorial representations of scenes from mythology or legendary history. Hence, there the author is faithfully recorded if we owe him but a single stanza; just as was the troubadour and the minnesinger, in contrast with the anonymity of the chansons de geste and the German folk epics.
Thus it is that we are entirely dependent on internal evidence for the determination of the age and the origin of the Eddic poems, individually and collectively. And here experience has taught that we must sharply differentiate between the subject matter of the poems and the form in which they have been handed down to us. Failure to do so was responsible for some fantastic theories, such as the uncritical notions of the Renaissance, that the poems harked back to the Old Germanic songs in praise of the gods of Tuisco and Mannus, or else to the barditus, as Tacitus calls the terrifying war songs of the ancient Teutons, and the speculations of the Age of Romanticism which claimed the Eddic poems as the earliest emanations of the Spirit of the Germanic North, if not of all German tribes, and would date them variously from the fifth to the eighth century.
It was not until the latter third of the nineteenth century, when the necessary advances in linguistic knowledge and philological method had been made, that it was established beyond contradiction that the Eddic poems have West Norse speech forms; that is, that they are composed in the language that was spoken only during and after the Viking Age (ca. 800-1050 A.D.), in Norway, Iceland, and the other Norwegian colonies in the Atlantic, and hence, in their present shape, could have originated only there. In the second place, they can under no circumstance be older than about 700 A.D.—most of them are much later—because it has been shown experimentally that the introduction of older (Runic) forms of the Old Norse language would largely destroy the metric structure. This date a quo is admirably corroborated by comparison with the Loki the trickster, another commonly known Norse figure, is shown here helping Höd aim the arrow that caused the death of Balder.
More general considerations make it plausible that even the oldest of the lays could hardly have originated before the ninth century. Of the Heroic lays precisely those which also appear in other ways to be the oldest breathe the enterprising, warlike spirit of the Viking Age, with its stern fatalism; while the later ones as unmistakably betray the softening which one would expect from the Christian influences increasingly permeating the later times. And the Mythical lays, by and large, bespeak a period when belief in the gods was disintegrating, thanks to contact with the same influences. In particular, "The Seeress' Prophecy" reads like the troubled vision of one rooted in the ancient traditions who is sorrowfully contemplating the demoralization of his times (which we know a change of faith always entails) and who looks doubtfully to a better future.
There is also the testimony of legendary development. To touch on only one phase of the matter: we do not know when the Volsung and Nibelung legends were first carried to Norway, but sparing allusions in the oldest skaldic verses from the early ninth century would point to the seventh or eighth century, thus allowing several generations for the complete assimilation and characteristic Northern transformation of the material. Some lays, however, show traits of a legendary development which had not taken place in Germany before the ninth century—in other words, they presuppose another, later, stratum of importation.
Contrary to views formerly held, we now understand that the lays about the gods are, on the whole, younger than some of the heroic lays, which in substance (except the Helgi lays) deal with persons and events, real or fictive, of the Germanic tribes from the Black Sea to the Rhine during the Age of Migrations. In general we may say that, although there is little unanimity among scholars as to the dating of individual lays, the composition of the corpus of Eddic poetry can safely be ascribed, not to a single generation, not even to a single century, but to three or four centuries at the very least.
Intimately connected with the question of the date is that of the home of Eddic poetry. There is fair agreement about only two poems. "Atlamál," which is generally allowed to be of Greenlandish origin, and " The Prophecy of Grípir," which no doubt was composed by an Icelander of the twelfth century or later who had before him a collection of the lays dealing with the Sigurth legends. But a strong diversity of opinion exists concerning the place of origin of the bulk of the lays.
For one thing, no evidence can be derived from the language because the Old West Norse of the Edda was spoken with scarcely a dialectal variation throughout the far-flung lands of the North Atlantic littorals and archipelagoes. Again, all attempts to seek definite and convincing clues in climatic or topographic references, or in the fauna and flora mentioned in the poems, have proved vain. Did they originate in the motherland, Norway, or in Iceland, or in the British or North Atlantic islands?
Those who claim the bulk of the Eddic poems for Norway have contended that the related Skaldic poetry flourished there especially throughout the tenth century, favored by a period of comparative calm following the organization of the realm by Harald Fairhair; whereas Iceland, from its first settlement down to the beginning of the eleventh century, was in a condition of constant turmoil which could not have favored the rise of a body of literature like that of The Edda. Undeniably, Norway furnishes the cultural background for the Weltanschauung of nearly all of the poems, mythologic, gnomic, and heroic. In every respect their milieu is that of a cold, mountainous land by the sea. One, "The Lay of Hyndla," may refer to a Norwegian princely race; another, "The Lay of Ríg," glorifies the institution of monarchy based on an aristocracy; both poems but poorly agree with Icelandic, republican conditions.
The theory of origin in the British Islands settled by Norwegians—the Orkneys, the Shetland Islands, the Hebrides, the Isle of Man, and the littoral of Ireland, Scotland, and Northern England, is based on several considerations. These regions furnish precisely the stage where the rude Vikings first came in contact with the cultural conditions of a more advanced kind already deeply infused with Roman and Christian elements. Indeed some Celtic influences are seen in the apparel, the architecture, and the wood carving of ancient Scandinavia. In literature the saga, and possibly also skaldic verse, were thought to owe their inception to Irish impulses. Also a small number of both mythical and heroic motifs occurring in the Edda may have congeners in the British Islands. Now, most of these claims are discounted by modern scholarship.
Those who argue Icelandic origin admit that Anglo-Celtic influences are evident, but insist that this can be amply accounted for by the fact that a very large proportion of Icelandic settlers had come from Norway by way of the North British Islands and littoral where they had sojourned for shorter or longer periods, frequently even wintering, and whence they had brought with them a goodly number of Celtic slaves and freedmen. Also, on their return journeys to the motherland they frequently touched at North British, and especially at Irish, trading towns, interchanging goods and ideas. As to the milieu being that of a cold, mountainous land, this holds of course also for Iceland. There, the general state of unrest attending the first times was by no means unfavorable to the intense cultivation of the skaldic art—witness such poets as Egil Skallagrímsson, Hallfrœth Óttarsson, Sighvat Thórtharson, not to mention scores of others—and hence probably was no more unfavorable to conditions for the inditing of Eddic lays. The first families of Iceland were notably proud of their origin from the princely races of the motherland—whence the aristocratic note of some lays. Indeed the whole people clung to their cultural traditions all the more tenaciously for being separated from their original homes. In general, the defenders of Icelandic origin would put the burden of proof on those who contend that the Eddic lays did not take at least their final, distinctive shape in the land where arose, and was perpetuated, virtually all of Old Norse literature. Certainly, the later poems definitely point to Iceland. On the other hand this does not preclude a number of stanzas, particularly the gnomic ones representing the stored wisdom of the race, from having originated in Norway.
Of late the Norwegian paleographer Seip has endeavored to demonstrate, on the basis of a number of Norwegianisms in Codex Regius, that all the Eddic lays were originally composed in Norway. Other scholars would ascribe these to a pervading influence from the motherland, since several manuscripts of unquestionable Icelandic origin also show Norwegianisms.
All this raises the question as to the ultimate source, or sources, of the matter of the Eddic poems. Were they all or partly indigenous to Scandinavia?
With regard to the mythological poems we shall probably never know, though here and there we seem to glimpse a connection with classical or oriental legends. But in all cases the matter has undergone such a sea change that we never get beyond the verdict "perhaps."
With the Helgi poems we are on somewhat firmer ground. The Vendel Period of Scandinavian hegemony (550-800) in the north of Europe, attested by innumerable archeological finds in the western Baltic lands, may well have been accompanied by a flourishing poetic literature of which these lays (and Beowulf) may be remnants.
The matter of the Niflung cycle undoubtedly is of German (Burgundian) provenence; and much has been made by German scholars of faint South and West Germanic traces in the style and language of the lays dealing with the Gjúkungs, Sigurth, and Atli. But whether these stories were transmitted to the North in poetic form or only there received their characteristic aspects, that is another question. The fact that only on Scandinavian soil did a rich literature actually arise as early as the ninth century, although its origins date even further back, would seem to speak for the latter assumption.
See eNotes Ad-Free
Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.