The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson (13th century)

Most of our knowledge of Norse mythology comes from two sources, the ‘Prose Edda’ and the ‘Poetic Edda’, both compiled from older texts during the 12th century, in Iceland. It is striking that nobody really knows what ‘edda’ means. Wikipedia explains the main theories of the meaning of ‘edda’. This uncertainty about the very name of the central sources of this culture epitomises the hundreds of other ambiguities and uncertainties one comes across in Norse mythology. There is so little material and what there is is often impenetrably obscure or confusingly ambiguous.

The ‘Prose Edda’ is traditionally associated with the real-life Icelandic scholar and chieftain, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). He is explicitly stated as having written the fourth section and is, by extension, often credited with the entire compilation so that it is sometimes referred to as ‘Snorri’s Edda’.

The ‘Prose Edda’ is a textbook or training manual for trainee Icelandic poets. It sets out to explain the key tenets of Norse mythology; to tell the key legends and myths; then it patiently lists all the ways a poet should refer to all the key protagonists of the culture, not just the gods and heroes but the earth, the sea, the sky etc; it explains key poetic techniques such as kennings and heiti; and it concludes with a long section of practical criticism, showing the metre and diction of Norse poetry in practice.

All this in a surprisingly short space. The recent Penguin translation by Jesse Bycock (2005), including a handy introduction, family trees, a useful glossary and rather thin notes, runs to just 180 pages, with the core of the text, the Gylfaginning a mere 70 pages long.

The ‘Prose Edda’ is made of four parts. The general assumption is these were once separate texts which were stitched together in the 1200s, hence Snorri’s credit as compiler.

1. The Prologue A short pseudo-historical account of the origin of Norse gods as purely human beings. Strikingly this pictures them as migrants from Asia, specifically from the legendary city of Troy, who wander north and west into Europe and do heroic deeds. Long genealogies then connect these emigrants with the later royal houses of Denmark and Sweden. Scholarly opinion is that this is a pretty clumsy late addition designed to attach the myths and stories to the new and highly prestigious classical knowledge and stories which were only recently arriving in Iceland.

2. Gylfaginning These 70 pages form the core of the book and the single most comprehensive source for our knowledge of the Norse gods. Like so much to do with Norse legend and literature it is odd. The word means “the tricking of Gylfi” (the 1879 translation calls it “the fooling of Gylfe”): King Gylfi travels to Asgard where he is introduced to three figures, the High, the Just-as-High and the Third (all avatars of Odin) who answer Gylfi’s questions about the origins of the world and the nature of things. This dialogue form turns out to be a quick and practical way to convey a lot of information. (Who is the highest of the gods? How did things begin? Where do people come from? What is the holy place of the gods?”). It’s notable that this prose account extensively quotes old poetry, including poems collected in the Poetic Edda, as if the poems are proof of the stories. Rather like a New Testament story will go “As it is said in…” and quote a text from the Old Testament, as if this textual reference is proof; here the text tells a legend about Thor or Odin and then says, “as is said in the ‘Lay of Grimnir’ or ‘The Sibyl’s Prophecy’, or whoever. Appendix 3 usefully lists the poems quoted in the text which are in the Poetic Edda.

And this explains why the Prose Edda has a ‘secondary’ feel about it; hence the Poetic Edda is sometimes referred to as the Elder Edda and the Prose Edda as the Younger Edda.

3. Skáldskaparmál (Old Icelandic for “the language of poetry”) is a dialogue between kenning, heiti, , a god associated with the sea, and Bragi, the god of poetry, in two parts 1. Ægir naively asks about mythology allowing Bragi to tell him facts and stories about the gods. 2. Bragi explains the structure and purpose and diction of Norse poetry, explaining among other things the nature of kennings. These are poetic metaphors which always take the form of a noun and a possessive noun eg icicle of blood = sword, horse of the sea = ship, moon of the forehead = eye.

I have come across a rather wonderful online Lexicon of Kennings which continues the spirit of the Prose Edda in being practical and functional.

(It is notable that the 1879 translation just goes for it and divides Skáldskaparmál into two distinct sections, Brage’s Talk, which essentially continues the storytelling of Gylfaginning, and The Poetical Diction.)

4. Háttatal (Old Icelandic “list of verse-forms”). This is the one part which was definitely composed by the Icelandic poet, politician and historian Snorri Sturluson. It uses Snorri’s own compositions to demonstrate the types of verse forms used in Old Norse poetry.

“Háttatal is an ambitious, somewhat pedantic work, whose 102 stanzas demonstrate often small differences in poetic metre and obscure usages of poetic devices. Prose commentary offering technical explanations is interspersed among the verse of this long poem. The poem is a treasure for  those with a knowledge of Old Icelandic and interested in the intricacies of Norse poetry. Because of the technical and obscure nature of Háttatal, it is not included in this nor in most translations.”

Quite ironic that the only section of this classic text which we know for a certainty to have been written by the famous Snorri, is routinely excluded from all translations. I can’t find an English translation of it online. There is a beautifully thorough scholarly edition of Háttatal in Icelandic from the Viking Society.

Title page of an 18th century manuscript of the Prose Edda, showing Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology (Wikimedia Commons)

Title page of an 18th century manuscript of the Prose Edda, showing Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology (Wikimedia Commons)

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4 Comments

  1. Glad I wasn’t the only one not able to find an English translation for the Háttatal. Thanks for the link to the Viking Society document.

    Reply
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