The Poetic Edda – the mythological poems

If the previous post was a factual review of the background to the Elder Edda, this one is a more detailed consideration of the individual poems which make up the first part of the Codex Regius, called the Mythological poems because they deal exclusively with stories about the Norse gods.

Icelandic poetry, like Old English poetry, is characterised by beats not rhymes. The poems come in a number of metres. By far the most common is the so-called Fornyrthislag (“Old Verse”), generally four lines each with four beats, handily remembered as four-four measure. Each short line is divided by a cæsura into two half-lines. Each half-line has two accented syllables and two (sometimes three) unaccented ones. The first and second emphasised syllables in the first half of the line alliterate with the first of the two emphasised syllables in the second half. In this example of a Fornyrthislag stanza the accented syllables are underlined:

VreiÞr vas VingÞórr, | es vaknaÞi
ok síns hamars | of saknaÞi;
skegg nam hrista, | skor nam dýja,
Þ JarÞar burr | umb at Þreifask.

It isn’t always possible to replicate this in English and various translators try (and succeed) to varying degrees. Often the stanza doesn’t have four lines and often it’s hard to identify three clearly alliterating elements, and the translations I’ve read rarely stick rigidly to this schema. In fact finding four English lines each containing four beats, three of them alliterating, is the exception rather than the rule.

The poems have many stanzas, the longest over 160, the average being around 50.

The poems rarely include narrative. They don’t often tell you what happens. Rather as in Greek drama, what happens generally happens offstage and is reported in prose prefaces or prose sentences or paragraphs inserted throughout a poem. This frees the poems to concentrate on what they do well – dialogue: dialogues about the Universe (on the origins and destiny of the world); dialogues about Wisdom (proverbial advice); speeches of praise; and the trading of vituperative insults (in medieval English poetry referred to as flyting (it is striking that the Wikipedia entry on flyting takes as examples two poems from the Poetic Edda, the Hárbarðsljóð where Thor and Odin exchange insults, and the Lokasenna where Loki abuse all the other gods)).

Carolyne Larrington is the author of a very useful paper, Translating the Poetic Edda into English. This lists an impressive sequence of translators: Icelandic Poetry by Amos Cottle (1797), Select Icelandic Poetry by William Herbert (1804, 1806, and 1842), The Edda of Sæmund the Learned by Benjamin Thorpe (1866), The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, with certain songs from the Elder Edda by Eiríkr Magnússon and William Morris (1870), Corpus Poeticum Boreale by Vigfusson and York Powell (1883), The Elder or Poetic Edda by Olive Bray illustrated with black-and-white drawings by W. G. Collingwood (1908), The Poetic Edda by Henry Adams Bellows (1926), The Poetic Edda by Lee M. Hollander (1928), Poems of the Vikings by Patricia Terry (1969), Elder Edda: A Selection by WH Auden, Taylor, and Salus (1969), The Poetic Edda by Carolyne Larrington (1996), Norse Poems (the expanded Auden and Taylor) (1981), and Poetic Edda by Ursula Dronke (1969, 1997), The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore by Andy Orchard (2011).

In an ideal world one would a) have access to them all b) have time to carefully compare and contrast the versions. Ideally one would understand medieval Icelandic in the first place and be able to compare all the translations with the originals. In this life, however, I don’t understand medieval Icelandic and I can’t access most of the 20th century versions. The best I can do is compare & contrast the versions I can access, and try to nail down, to identify, the poetry in these poems. Are they worth reading? Why? What pleasures do they give?

The Tree of Yggdrasil, title page of The Elder or Poetic Edda translated by Olive Bray. By WG Collingwood (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Tree of Yggdrasil, title page of The Elder or Poetic Edda translated by Olive Bray. By WG Collingwood (source: Wikimedia Commons)

þ is pronounced as th as in thing. ð is pronounced as d.

1. The Eleven (or is it Ten?) Mythological Poems

Völuspá (66 stanzas long) – The Volva or seer or prophetess tells what she knows about the Creation of the World, and then about Ragnarok, the famous twilight of the gods when Valhalla will go down in flames and most of the gods will be killed. The wolf Fenrir will swallow Odin. Thor will kill the serpent Jörmungandr but then collapse, dead from its venom.

Henry Adams Bellows translation (1923):

44. Now Garm howls loud | before Gnipahellir,
The fetters will burst, | and the wolf run free;
Much do I know, | and more can see
Of the fate of the gods, | the mighty in fight.

45. Brothers shall fight | and fell each other,
And sisters’ sons | shall kinship stain;
Hard is it on earth, | with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword-time, | shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, | ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men | each other spare.

Andy Orchard (2011)

44. Garm howls loud before Looming-cave
The bond will break, and the ravenous one run;
much lore she knows, I see further ahead,
of the powers’ fate, implacable, of the victory-gods.

45. Brothers will struggle and slaughter each other,
and sisters’ sons spoil kinship’s bonds.
It’s hard on earth: great whoredom;
axe-age, blade-age, shields are split;
wind-age, wolf-age, before the world crumbles:
no one shall spare another.

Hávamál (165 stanzas long) – a long rambling collection of proverbs and wisdom sayings with the tale of Odin and the mead interpolated. The length, complexity and – ultimately – thin content of this one makes it my least favourite. If in doubt, skip it.

Vafþrúðnismál (55 stanzas long) – a wisdom poem, Odin visits the giant Vafthruthnir and they immediately engage in a series of questions about the origin of the world and the workings of the universe.

Othin spake:

36. “Ninth answer me well, | if wise thou art called
If thou knowest it, Vafthruthnir, now:
Whence comes the wind | that fares o’er the waves
Yet never itself is seen?”

Vafthruthnir spake:

37. “In an eagle’s guise | at the end of heaven
Hræsvelg sits, they say;
And from his wings | does the wind come forth
To move o’er the world of men.”

Grímnismál (54 stanzas) – naming himself Grimnir Odin visits king Geirröth who ties him between two fires as a torture. On the eighth day as the fire is burning his cloak Odin/Grimnir speaks a long encyclopedia text, describing the halls in heaven, the geography of the earth with its rivers, the wolves that chase the sun and moon across the heavens, with a resounding peroration enumerating all his names, before the terror-stricken king rises to his feet, stumbles over his sword and (in a fitting punishment for his hubris) impales himself.

46. Grim is my name, | Gangleri am I,
Herjan and Hjalmberi,
Thekk and Thrithi, | Thuth and Uth,
Helblindi and Hor;

47. Sath and Svipal | and Sanngetal,
Herteit and Hnikar,
Bileyg, Baleyg, | Bolverk, Fjolnir,
Grim and Grimnir, | Glapsvith, Fjolsvith.

48. Sithhott, Sithskegg, | Sigfather, Hnikuth,
Allfather, Valfather, | Atrith, Farmatyr:
A single name | have I never had
Since first among men I fared.

Skírnismál (43 stanzas) – Frey spies the giantess Gerd and falls in love with her. He sends Skirnir with his sword to woo her. When Gerd refuses polite offers of apples and gold Skirnir turns very nasty and declaims a long curse: Gerd will live in misery among the giants who rape her and feed her filth. Abruptly, Gerd realises she was in love with Frey all along!

29. “Rage and longing, | fetters and wrath,
Tears and torment are thine;
Where thou sittest down | my doom is on thee
Of heavy heart and double dole.

30. “In the giants’ home | shall vile things harm thee
Each day with evil deeds;
Grief shalt thou get | instead of gladness,
And sorrow to suffer with tears.

Hárbarðsljóð (60 stanzas) – Thor, returning from another giant-killing expedition to the east, comes to a sound and shouts across at the ferryman to bring his boat. The ferryman refuses and they hurl insults at each other, more precisely asking each other what they’ve achieved and belittling each other’s claims. The ferryman is Odin in disguise. It is noticeable that while Thor boasts of fighting giants, Harbard/Odin boasts of sleeping with women.

Harbarth spake:
18. “Lively women we had, | if they wise for us were;
Wise were the women we had, | if they kind for us were;
For ropes of sand | they would seek to wind,
And the bottom to dig | from the deepest dale.
Wiser than all | in counsel I was,
And there I slept | by the sisters seven,
And joy full great | did I get from each.
What, Thor, didst thou the while?”

Thor spake:
19. “Thjazi I felled, | the giant fierce,
And I hurled the eyes | of Alvaldi’s son
To the heavens hot above;
Of my deeds the mightiest | marks are these,
That all men since can see.

Hymiskviða (40 stanzas) – Thor visits the giant Hymir with a view to borrowing his cauldron so Ægir can brew mead for the gods. He persuades Hymir to go fishing but whereas Hymir catches two whales Thor pulls up the world-serpent Jörmungandr. This poem is notable for its unusually high density of kennings or allusive references, poetic riddles.

23. The warder of men, | the worm’s destroyer,
Fixed on his hook | the head of the ox;
There gaped at the bait | the foe of the gods,
The girdler of all | the earth beneath.

24. The venomous serpent | swiftly up
To the boat did Thor, | the bold one, pull;
With his hammer the loathly | hill of the hair
Of the brother of Fenrir | he smote from above.

25. The monsters roared, | and the rocks resounded,
And all the earth | so old was shaken;
Then sank the fish | in the sea forthwith.

Lokasenna (65 stanzas) – Loki gatecrashes a party of the gods and insults each one in turn, with detailed knowledge of their misdeeds and vices. None go uninsulted.

Loki spake to Tyr:
40. “Be silent, Tyr! | for a son with me
Thy wife once chanced to win;
Not a penny, methinks, | wast thou paid for the wrong,
Nor wast righted an inch, poor wretch.”

Loki spake to Freyr:
42. “The daughter of Gymir | with gold didst thou buy,
And sold thy sword to boot;
But when Muspell’s sons | through Myrkwood ride,
Thou shalt weaponless wait, poor wretch.”

Loki spake to Byggvir:
46. “Be silent, Byggvir! | thou never couldst set
Their shares of the meat for men;
Hid in straw on the floor, | they found thee not
When heroes were fain to fight.”

Þrymskviða (33 stanzas) – Thor wakes up to find his hammer is missing. Loki flies as a bird to the house of the giant Thrym who confirms he has it and will only return it if he can marry the goddess Freya. Loki concocts a plan to dress Thor as a woman and journey to Thrym’s court. Here they fool hrym right up until the giant foolishyl returns his hammer to Thor whereupon the god brains him and all his followers. Composed around 900, short and punchy, with no gaps or interpolations, it has been called one of the best ballads in the world.

18. Then bound they on Thor | the bridal veil,
And next the mighty | Brisings’ necklace.

19. Keys around him | let they rattle,
And down to his knees | hung woman’s dress;
With gems full broad | upon his breast,
And a pretty cap | to crown his head.

20. Then Loki spake, | the son of Laufey:
“As thy maid-servant thither | I go with thee;
We two shall haste | to the giants’ home.”

Völundarkviða (43 stanzas) – As Andy Orchard points out, this poem is in the wrong place. It’s a poem about the legendary crippled blacksmith, Völund, his trials and revenge on King Nithuth for hamstringing him (Völund kills the king’s young sons, presents their skulls adorned in silver as drinking cups and their eyes as gems to the queen, and seduces and impregnates the king’s daughter Bothvild). It should be in part two, the section on mortal heroes. That’s where Henry Adams Bellows moves it to.

37. “Their skulls, once hid | by their hair, I took,
Set them in silver | and sent them to Nithuth;
Gems full fair | from their eyes I fashioned,
To Nithuth’s wife | so wise I gave them.

38. “And from the teeth | of the twain I wrought
A brooch for the breast, | to Bothvild I gave it;
Now big with child | does Bothvild go,
The only daughter | ye two had ever.”

Alvíssmál (35 stanzas) – Thor keeps the dwarf, Alvis, who has come to collect Thor’s daughter in marriage, in conversation with a series of questions about the correct names of parts of the universe (sky, sea, stars etc) until day breaks and the dwarf is turned to stone by sunlight.

Thor spake:
29. “Answer me, Alvis! | thou knowest all,
Dwarf, of the doom of men:
What call they the night, | the daughter of Nor,
In each and every world?”

Alvis spake:
30. “‘Night’ men call it, | ‘Darkness’ gods name it,
‘The Hood’ the holy ones high;
The giants ‘The Lightless,’ | the elves ‘Sleep’s joy”
The dwarfs ‘The Weaver of Dreams.”‘

Only ten poems, but reading them all is to go on a long journey across time and space, from the creation of the universe to the end of the world, via a whole series of mini-dramas and ballads laced with heartlessness, humour and horror. These poems and their harsh unforgiving worldview are addictive.

Previous Post
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: