The Poem

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Voluspo. Odin, chief of the gods, calls an ancient wise woman to prophesy for him. She tells first of the creation of the earth from the body of the giant Ymir and catalogs the dwarfs who live beneath the earth. She then describes Yggdrasil, the great ash tree that supports the universe. Its roots reach clear to the underworld, and it is guarded by the three Norns—Past, Present, and Future—who control the destinies of human beings. She also tells briefly how Loki tricked the giant who built Asgard, the home of the gods, and how Loki himself was punished when he killed Odin’s much-loved son Balder. He was bound to a rock so that the venom of a serpent dripped onto his face. The prophet last foretells a great battle. Odin and the other gods will confront the forces of evil, such as the wolf Fenrir, one of Loki’s children, who is fated to kill Odin himself. In conclusion, the wise woman foretells the emergence of a new world that will rise out of the destruction of the old one.

The Ballad of Grimnir. Odin makes a wager with his wife, Frigg, about the relative virtues of two men they have saved from being lost at sea. Frigg accuses King Geirröth, the man Odin has saved, of miserliness and lack of hospitality. Odin goes to Geirröth disguised as Grimnir and is taken prisoner and tortured. The king’s son, Agnar, befriends the prisoner, however, and is rewarded with the mythological lore that makes up most of the poem.

The Lay of Hymir. Thor seeks a kettle big enough to brew ale for a feast of all the gods. He and the god Tyr go to the home of the giant Hymir, where they escape the wrath of Hymir’s nine-hundred-headed grandmother. Hymir then provides a feast for them at which Thor eats two oxen. Finally, they join in a fishing contest in which Thor demonstrates his prowess by hooking Mithgarthsorm, the great serpent that surrounds the earth. Thor and Tyr steal the kettle and carry it home.

The Lay of Thrym. Loki manages to recover Thor’s hammer when the giant Thrym steals it and holds it hostage, demanding Freyja for his wife. Thor goes to Thrym, disguised as Freyja in bridal dress, and takes Loki, disguised as his serving woman, with him. After Thor and Loki have some difficulties in accounting for their huge appetites and masculine looks, Thor is given the precious hammer as a wedding gift, whereupon he slays Thrym and the two return to Asgard.

Balder’s Dream. Acting on an ominous dream his son Balder has had, Odin rides into the underworld, where a wise woman tells him that the blind god Hoth, guided by Loki, will throw the dart of mistletoe that will kill the otherwise impervious Balder. The murder will later be avenged by Vali, whom Odin conceives for that purpose.

Lay of Völund. Völund is a hero who, along with his brothers, captures and lives with the swan maidens, Valkyries who live on earth disguised as swans. When the swan maidens leave, the brothers seek them. In doing so, Völund is captured by a Swedish king, Nithuth, who accuses him of stealing his treasure. While making his escape, Völund kills Nithuth’s sons and sends their skulls, set in silver, to their father. He then makes good his escape by flying away on wings he has made for himself.

The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjorvarth. Helgi is befriended by a Valkyrie who sends him a sword that allows him to do great deeds. Together with...

(This entire section contains 1042 words.)

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Atli, he subdues the ferocious daughter of a giant. Later, as a king in his own right, he marries Svava, the Valkyrie who aided him. He dies in a duel with King Alf.

The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane. At an early age, Helgi, a son of Sigmund, begins to do valorous deeds. Urged on by the Valkyrie Sigrun, he later engages another king, Granmar, in a sea battle in order to release Sigrun from her obligation to marry Granmar’s son Hothbrodd.

Of Sinfjotli’s Death. Helgi’s brother Sinfjotli is killed by his stepmother, Borghild, in revenge for his murder of her brother. She kills him by making him drink poisoned ale.

Gripir’s Prophecy. Sigurth, another of Sigmund’s sons, receives a prophecy about his life. Gripir tells him that he will avenge his father’s death and fight a terrible dragon named Fafnir. Then Gripir tells him how he will be sent to court Brynhild for King Gunnar, whose form he will take on. As Gunnar, he rides through a ring of fire and wins Brynhild. When she learns of his deception, however, she goads her brother-in-law to kill him.

The Ballad of Regin. Regin tells Sigurth how Loki has killed Regin’s brother Otr, having mistaken him for an actual otter. Otr’s father, Hreithmar, demands payment in gold as recompense. When Hreithmar refuses to share the “man-money” with his sons Fafnir and Regin, Fafnir kills him and takes all the treasure. Once Sigurth comes of age, Regin urges him to fight with Fafnir.

The Ballad of Fafnir. In Sigurth’s battle with the dragon Fafnir, the hero tastes blood from the dragon’s heart and immediately discovers that he can understand the speech of birds. When he learns from the birds that Regin plans to kill him, he kills Regin as well as the dragon.

The First Lay of Guthrun. In Guthrun’s lament for her dead husband, Sigurth, she tells of his being killed as the result of Brynhild’s fury at his deception when he courted her disguised as Gunnar. Brynhild blames the murder on her brother Atli, who forced her to marry Gunnar.

The Short Lay of Sigurth. Brynhild describes her rage at having to marry Gunnar. In the end she kills herself.

The Greenland Lay of Atli. When Guthrun’s brothers visit her at her husband Atli’s court, Atli kills them. In revenge, Guthrun kills Atli’s sons and feeds their hearts to her husband; then she stabs him and burns the court to the ground.

Historical Context

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The Vikings The Vikings have entered popular imagination as bloodthirsty and immensely daring pirates, but they were first and foremost farmers and traders, raiding for treasure and slaves to accumulate capital to acquire status at home, or looking for lands abroad to colonize. Their raids, trading expeditions, and colonizing took them from Constantinople, modern Istanbul, to the coast of North America. They laid the basis of the Russian state with their trading posts along the Volga and Dneiper. They founded nearly all the cities of modern Ireland. The threat of their great raiding parties was crucial to the development of England as a unified state.

The society the Vikings came from was one of mixed farming, fishing and hunting, supplemented by trading. They would turn their hand to anything. The development of greatly improved ship designs towards the end of the eighth century gave the Scandinavians the finest ships in Europe. Their knorrs were the most effective cargo ships yet built. Their longships could cross the Atlantic or sail up the Seine to lay siege to Paris.

Beside their trading and manufacturing settlements in Ireland and settlements in England, the Vikings colonized the Isle of Man, the Orkneys, Iceland and Greenland. Many of the original settlers of Iceland were from Norway where the consolidation of the country under a central kingship was opposed by many noblemen and free farmers, used to handling their own affairs without outside interference. Others came from the Viking settlements in Ireland, always under pressure from the native Irish princes.

Viking Society Scandinavia and her people were dominated by the sea. The landscapes of the three Nordic countries, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, are each distinct, but in all of them the terrain tended to separate communities, while the sea connected them. The people looked to the sea as naturally as to the land for opportunities.

The Scandinavians were farmers wherever the land was good enough. Rye, wheat, oats and barley were grown depending on local conditions. Cows, sheep, pigs, geese and chickens were kept. They supplemented agricultural production with hunting, fishing and gathering wild foods: honey, birds eggs and wild plants. Farms were family enterprises, and depending on the richness of the land, often at some distance from one another. Towns only began to emerge from trading posts and ritual centers towards A.D. 1000.

Control of land was the basis of wealth. Sons in a land-owning family increased its power since their wives' dowries would increase and consolidate their landholdings. The family itself in a legal sense and in terms of the various social obligations of Norse society was defined to the degree of third or fourth cousins recognizing a common great-great-great-grandfather. Obligations of one kind or another would also bind a man to the protection of a more powerful neighbor, whom he in turn would support at need. In a hard and violent age these mutual bonds were essential to the maintenance of order and to ensure access to justice.

Men worked their farms with the help of their family which might include two or three generations. Slaves were used for heavier labor by those who could afford them. Free laborers might work for their keep and a small wage. A rich landowner could afford to employ more help, giving him the leisure to go raiding and trading and with luck acquire the wealth necessary to maintain or enhance his status.

Viking Ships and Shipbuilding The development of ship construction towards the end of the eighth century gave the Scandinavians the finest ships in Europe. They perfected sailing ships that had no need of deep water, safe anchorages or quaysides, but could cross the North Sea or the North Atlantic under sail, as well as be rowed up most of the major rivers of western Europe. These ships were slender and flexible. They had symmetrical ends and a true keel, the lengthwise structure along the base of a ship to which its ribs are connected. They were clinker-built, that is of overlapping planks riveted together. At times these planks would also have been lashed to the ribs of the ship with spruce roots to ensure the ship's flexibility in rough seas. They were steered with a side rudder fitted to the starboard side. One ship excavated in 1880 from a mound at Gokstad on the west side of the Oslo Fjord was 76 and 1/2 feet long. At its widest it was 17and 1/2 feet. When fully laden it would have drawn only three feet of water: it could have been sailed deep into the heart of the Irish countryside or up to the gates of Paris. A copy was sailed across the Atlantic.

Treasure However it was acquired, treasure, particularly silver, was important in Viking society. One function was display. Fine jewelry and ornamented weapons were an obvious indication of status and success. It was considered part of family wealth like land, and, despite legend, no more than one or two pieces of jewelry were buried with the dead. It was used to reward one's retainers and to provide lavish hospitality. Both of increased a man's standing in his society. Spent on land it raised a freeman's status. For a slave it could mean liberty.

On a practical level, because they did not have a coinage, silver had to be weighed and tested before transactions could take place. It was not necessary, therefore, to keep all one's silver in coins or even ingots. If, mid-deal, a man found himself a little short of cash, he need only throw in his cloak pin or a piece of a bracelet, properly weighed.

Iceland and its Professional Poets Almost from the beginning of its settlement, Icelanders kept in constant touch with Ireland, England and their Scandinavian homelands. Icelanders with poetic skills found their services appreciated and well rewarded by Norse rulers or by rulers with Norse subjects. Indeed poetry became something of an Icelandic monopoly. For 350 years, from Egill Skalla-Grímson to Jón murti Egilsonn who composed for King Eiríkur Magnússon in 1299 there are records of 110 Icelandic court poets. Snorri was probably trying to keep alive a tradition which had proved useful not only to individual Icelanders, but to Iceland as a whole. A successful court poet would give his fellow countrymen access to the king's court, and keep distant Iceland's concerns from being completely forgotten.

Literary Style

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Epic Characteristics Leaving aside the Sayings of the High One, which has more in common with works like the biblical Proverbs, it appears that the Elder Edda is not an epic but materials for one. Here, for once, modern readers have the relatively short poetic narratives, or lays, which supposedly lie behind the epic. While the collection provides in the Sibyl's Prophecy a narrative from earth's creation through destruction and renewal, the majority of the poems fit only loosely into that scheme. There is no single hero, but rather a number of heroes ranging from the dim-but-effective god Thor to Gunnar, the treacherous brother-in-law of Sigurd, who, nevertheless, dies a hero while fighting the great tyrant of the age, Atli. Unlike the generic epic, the Edda has the obscenities of Loki in The Insolence of Loki and the broad humor of the Thor episodes—particularly the Lay of Thrym, an early example of that situation beloved of slapstick humor: the brawny man forced to pass himself off as the blushing girl.

Point of View Each poem in the Elder Edda must be considered individually as to its narrator and point of view. The composite Sayings of the High One gives the impression of more than one narrator. The simple narratives use a third person point of view: except for the occasional lines like: "Hlorridi's heart leaped with laughter / Then grew hard when he saw his hammer." Characters' thoughts and emotions are revealed entirely through their own words and actions. For example, Freyja's rage is clear from her actions in the Lay of Thrym: "Freyja snorted in such a fury / she made the hall of the Aesir shake." Two of the lays, the Sibyl's Prophecy and the Prophecy of Gripir by virtue of being prophecies, have an omniscient narrator. In some of the question and answer dialogues, for example, the The Lay of Vafthrudnir, the purpose is to provide specific information, but the dramatic and ironic interest that keeps the exchange from descending into a glossary is that while one character only appears to be omniscient the other truly is omniscient.

Setting The characters' conduct in the Elder Edda is not greatly different from what we know of society in the Viking age. The physical setting of the lays stretches on the modern map from Scandinavia to southwestern Russia, home of the Goths before they entered the Roman empire in the late fourth century. The important Sigurd lays are centered on the Rhine valley in western Germany. The true setting of the Elder Edda, however, is a universe of nine worlds: Asgard, home of the gods in the center; Midgard, the home of men around it; and Utgard, containing Jötunheim, (giants), Alfheim (elves) Svartalfheim (dark elves) and possibly, the sources are not clear, Vanaheim, home of the Vanir gods. Under these three is Niflhel, the realm of Hel, the goddess of the dead. The ninth world is possibly that of the dwarves, but its name and exact location are not certain. Asgard and Midgard are protected from Utgard by a body of water in which lives the Midgard serpent, so big that it encircles the whole of Midgard with his tale in its mouth. A rainbow bridge, Bifröst, connects Asgard and Midgard. The great world ash tree, Yggdrasil, has one root in Asgard, one in Utgard, and the third in Niflhel. Under the first root is the spring of Urd or Fate, under the second, the well of Mimir, the source of Odin's wisdom, and under the third is Hvergelmir, the source of all rivers. A dragon gnaws continually at its deepest root.

Allusions The Elder Edda constantly alludes to a whole body of myth and legend that it only imperfectly preserves and that controls the imagery and symbolism of not only of the Elder Edda, but of Norse literature in general and Skaldic verse in particular. Even within the Elder Edda, there are poems that are essentially dramatic glossaries of allusions and metaphors: The Lay of Alvis and The Lay of Vafthrudnir.

Heiti and Kennings The two most prominent poetic devices are heiti and kennings. Heiti are simply cultivated and unusual words for common things or concepts. They can be archaisms, lost from everyday speech, or common words used in a way peculiar to poetry, or poetic coinages. Kenning comes from the verb kenna to characterize or define. They consist of a noun plus a modifier in the possessive case, as 'the raven's feeder' for a warrior. Some rely on natural or everyday connections 'the bane of tinder' for fire or 'the giver of linen' for a lady. The most complex rely on allusions to legend or myth.

Prosody The Elder Edda are typically in four line stanzas. Each line is divided by a caesura (pause). Each half-line contains two stressed syllables; the half-lines are connected across the caesura by alliteration connecting a stressed initial sound in the first half of the line to a stressed initial sound in the second. Individual consonant sounds only alliterate with the same sound. All vowels alliterate with each other. There is no restriction on the position of the stressed syllables. Fornyrdislag (ancient verse) allows generally only two unstressed syllables per half-line: Betty Bouncer bought a candle. Málaháttr (speech verse) allows three unstressed syllables per half-line: Sad little Susan, sought for a candle. In a third stanza form ljódaháttr (song measure) the first and fourth lines are in Málaháttr, the second and fourth have only three stresses.

Compare and Contrast

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Setting during The Elder Edda: During the Viking era, raw material and slaves are the main resources of northern and western Europe. Tens of thousands of European men, women, and children are sold into slavery not only within Europe, but into Muslim Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. Today, the tide of cheap labor has turned and thousands of North Africans are forced to seek a living in Spain and France.

Medieval Iceland: Iceland is poor, with a small population, but it produces a vibrant and extensive literature in prose and poetry. Reading to the family group or to assembled neighbors is a common winter's entertainment into the nineteenth century in farming districts. Iceland still has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

Tenth and Twelfth Century: Norse colonies flourish in Greenland, which they found to be uninhabited and to have a climate good enough for stock-raising and their traditional way of life. Climactic change meant a return to the weather we see today and the Eskimo who had retreated north before the Vikings arrived. The colony finds it culturally impossible to adapt to the new conditions and disappears by the end of the fifteenth century.

Media Adaptations

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The Elder Edda was a primary source for Richard Wagner's cycle of musical dramas The Ring of the Nibelungen, four interconnected operas, Rhinegold, The Valkyries, Siegfried, and The Twilight of the Gods. Wagner adapted the mythical and legendary world of the Elder Edda to express his own disquiet with the industrial revolution and political movements and developments in nineteenth-century Germany.

Two of the most important German movies of the silent era are Fritz Lang's Siegfried (1924) and Kriemhild's Revenge (1924).

The Swedish poet Victor Rydberg in Den nya Grottasongen (1891) transformed the Lay of Frodi's Mill into a picture of the excesses of industrialism and capitalism, and its cynical exploitation for human beings.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Dronke, Ursula, "Art and tradition in Skirnismal," in English and Medieval Studies Presented to J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by N. Davis and C. L. Wrenn, Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1962, pp. 250—268, repr. Myth and Fiction in Early Norse Lands.

----, "Classical Influence on Early Norse Literature," in Classical Influences on European Culture, A.D. 500-1500. edited by R. R. Bolgar, Cambridge University Press, 1971, pp. 143-149, repr. Myth and Fiction in Early Norse Lands.

----, "Eddic Poetry as a source for the history of Germanic religion," in Germanische Religiosgeschichte. Quellen und Quellemprobleme, edited by H. Beck, D. Elmers, and K. Schier, Walter de Gruyter, 1992, pp. 656-684, repr. Myth and Fiction in Early Norse Lands.

----, Myth and Fiction in Early Norse Lands, Variorum Collected Studies Series CS524, 1996.

----, "Pagan beliefs and Christian Impact: The Contribution of Eddic Studies," in Viking Revaluations. Viking Society Centenary Symposium, edited by A. Faulkes and R. Perkins, Viking Society for Northern Research, 1993, pp. Germania Latina 1, Egbert Forsten, 1971, pp. 3-23, repr. Myth and Fiction in Early Norse Lands.

----, "The war of the Aesir and Vanir" in Völuspá Idee, Gestalt, Geschichte. Festschrift Klaus von See, edited by G. W. Weber, Odense University Press, 1988, pp. 223-238, repr. Myth and Fiction in Early Norse Lands.

Nordal, Sigurthur, ed., Völuspa, translated by B. S. Benedikz and John McKinnell, Durham and St. Andrews Medieval Texts 1, 1978.

Sturluson, Snorri, The Prose Edda: Tales from Norse Mythology, translated by Jean I. Young, University of California Press, 1966.

Further Reading Byock, Jesse L., The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, University of California Press, 1990. A thirteenth century prose version of the Volsungs drawing upon the Edda lays. It will help the reader place the dramatic and allusive lays in a coherent narrative.

Dronke, Ursula, The Poetic Edda: Volume I Heroic Poems, Clarendon Press, 1969. This book is the most modern edition. The analysis of the poetry is designed for the advanced student but is the finest available.

Grahm-Campbell, James and Dafydd Kidd, The Vikings, British Museum Publications Limited, 1980. A magnificently illustrated book with a good but non-technical discussion of the Vikings at home and abroad.

Ker, W. P., Epic and Romance, Dover Press, 1957. A very old, but very engaging book. It has introduced generations to the excitement and beauty of Norse literature.

Magnusson, Magnus, Viking Expansion Westwards, The Bodley Head, 1973. This history of the Vikings from England to North America reads like a novel. It is full of lively portraits and the small happenings of everyday life as well as heroism and violence.

Sturluson, Snorri, The Prose Edda: Tales from Norse Mythology, translated by Jean I. Young, University of California Press. This text provides a lively translation of the most accessible parts of an encyclopedic thirteenth-century prose collection of the myths and legends at the heart of the Norse poetic vocabulary.

Taylor, Paul B., and W. H. Auden, tran., The Elder Edda: A Selection translated from the Icelandic, introduction by Peter H. Salus and Paul B. Taylor, Faber and Faber, 1969. Auden was a major twentieth century avant-garde poet who nevertheless maintained a lively interest in early medieval poetry. The introduction is particularly useful for the beginner.

Terry, Patricia, Poems of the Vikings: The Elder Edda, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1969. A nearly complete and very careful translation of the Elder Edda. The introduction is clear and to the point.

Turville-Petr, E. O. G., Myth and Religion of the North, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. This book is still considered the best and most readable on the subject.


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Acker, Paul, and Carolyn Larrington, eds. The “Poetic Edda”: Essays on Old Norse Mythology. New York: Routledge, 2002. Collection of essays presents analyses of the major poems in the work from feminist, structuralist, poststructuralist, and other modern standpoints. Includes introductions that provide an overview of the Poetic Edda’s critical history.

Bellows, Henry Adams, ed. and trans. The Poetic Edda. New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1957. Includes a general introduction that gives an excellent overview of the poems, their origins, manuscript texts, and verse forms.

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. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991. Discusses the Poetic Edda as a collaboration between the oral and the literate worlds. Examines evidence of the oral origins of the poems that make up the work.

MacCulloch, John A. Eddic [Mythology]. Vol. 2 in The Mythology of All Races. New York: Cooper Square, 1964. Retells the stories told in the Poetic Edda, analyzing and ordering them by subject and discussing their relationships to the mythologies of other peoples.

Ólason, Vésteinn. “The Middle Ages: Old Icelandic Poetry.” In A History of Icelandic Literature, edited by Daisy Neijmann. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. Offers a discussion of the Poetic Edda within its historical context.

Ross, Margaret Clunies. A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2005. Guide to the literature of early Scandinavia places the Poetic Edda within its social context. Describes both eddic and skaldic poetic genres and the various styles and subjects of Old Norse poetry.

Tucker, John, ed. Sagas of the Icelanders. New York: Garland, 1989. Collection of essays covers subjects of general interest in early Icelandic literature, including the figure of the heroine, the poets’ rhetorical modes, and the figure of the poet. Some essays discuss individual characters from the stories, including some of the gods.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide