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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1091

The Elder Edda begins with the Völuspa or 'Sibyl's Prophecy,' a history of the world in the form of a prophecy. The poems following it give instructions for life, the fights and stratagems of the gods, and, finally, a series of heroic narrative poems and dialogues.

Divided Loyalties
Norse society was violent, as reflected in the Sayings of the High One "Don't leave your weapons lying about / behind your back in a field, / you never know when you may need / of a sudden your spear." In this society personal loyalties were everything, the only real basis of order and security. Nothing stood between order and chaos except the certainty that vengeance would be exacted for a wrong. The duty to defend family and lord was at the core too of personal honor and self-esteem. The man who did not take vengeance could expect neither mercy from his enemies nor sympathy from his friends. Neither love nor friendship nor practical expedience could stand in its way for long. Women would sweep aside all the commonplaces of love and gender roles to have it. The clash between competing loyalties and duties is perhaps the most important springboard of action in Old Norse literature.

Hospitality and Generosity
The "Sayings of the High One" paint a world where hospitality to the stranger as well as to the friend was a sacred duty. This idea was founded on the realities of Viking society. Populations were often small and scattered. In winter, it would be murder to deny a traveler a place at the fire. The man who welcomed a traveler to his home might soon be glad of a welcome himself. This idea was important. Odin himself was represented as checking an accusation of inhospitality. Even a child realized that mistreatment of a stranger is wrong and defied his father and king in The Lay of Grimnir to bring a horn of wine and a kind word to the disguised Odin. That small act was enough to win the little boy the lifelong favor of the god.

Generosity was the sign of nobility of spirit, of the regard of the giver for the person to whom the gift was given. It was one of the things that bound society together. If hospitality was born of a recognition of common humanity, gift giving was the specific recognition of the importance of one human being for another, whether between friends, lovers, or a king and his warrior.

Pessimism and Fatalism
Often, characters in the lays know exactly what lies before them and yet appear powerless to stop and make a conscious decision to snap the chain of events. This is a reflection of the belief that people's lives were laid out before them, just as Ragnarok (the end of time) lay before men and gods. The lays surrounding Sigurd and the royal house of the Burgundians are a reflection of this theory. He and they are swept up in a process started long ago, which centered on the cursed treasure that Sigurd won by killing the dragon Fafnir. The ultimate cause of the curse, the capricious slaying of Otter the dwarf by Loki, sets in motion a chain reaction of acts of vengeance and greed in which gods, giants, dwarves, and people suffer.

Ragnarok and Heroism
The opening poem of the Elder Edda describes the history of the world from creation to its destruction. The destruction of the world will take place at Ragnarok with the last, great battle between the gods and heroes on one side and the forces of evil on the other. It is in preparation for this battle that Odin sends his Valkyries to bring the spirits of men slain in battle to Valhalla, the hall of the slain. His need for heroes is so great that he will allow a warrior he has favored to be killed in battle rather than lose his help in the end time. Nevertheless, no matter what Odin and the gods may do, no matter how many heroes join their fight against the forces of darkness, the battle will end in defeat, or more specifically, the mutual destruction of the gods and their enemies. Ragnarok seems to be a symbol of the Vikings' view of their world. They knew that all things end. The world, flawed as it obviously was, could be no different. The important thing was to meet what came, good or bad, head on and unflinching. Man or woman, they must master events. Rather than allowing events to make them less than they were, events were the stage on which they could win the only immortality that mattered: fame. The certainty of defeat and death did not affect the will to fight. Defeat was not important; to endure, to live according to certain standards of loyalty and courage was important. To meet life courageously, however grim life might be, was to rob it of its fears.

Odin gave his eye for wisdom; Sigurd spent most of his courtship of Brynhild learning her supernaturally acquired wisdom. Heroes are expected to have discernment. They must be able to judge a situation and the character of the men and the women around them. The Norse poets gave wisdom, its acquisition, and transmission. The preoccupation with prophecy in the Elder Edda is a reflex of this pursuit of wisdom, even though it is a mixed blessing in a world overshadowed by pessimism and fate. To modern readers, this preoccupation may seem irrelevant and lacking in an aesthetic sense, but in Norse society it was an essential, defining poetic function. Elegance of diction, delicate metrical effects, creation of atmosphere, and emotional power were tools, not ends, for the Norse poet.

In gnomic verse, poets distilled wisdom into memorable turns of phrase. In the narrative lays, poets provided embodiments of wisdom and foolishness in action. Experience is the source of wisdom. Still there are limits to wisdom. The Sayings of the High One suggest that it is better not to know too much or to be too wise; perhaps the true nature of life would be too hard to carry. Most poignantly, however, it warns against knowing the future: "If you can't see far into the future, you can live free from care." Discernment too could be thwarted by pull of other ideals and by magic. The betrayal that lies at the heart of Sigurd's tragedy is one induced by sorcery. Gudrun too knows disaster awaits in marriage with Atli, but she too succumbs to her mother's potions.

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