The Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Norse poems primarily preserved in the Icelandic mediaeval manuscriptCodex Regius. Along with Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda is the most important extant source on Norse mythology and Germanic heroic legends, and from the early 19th century onwards has had a powerful influence on later Scandinavian literatures, not merely through the stories it contains but through the visionary force and dramatic quality of many of the poems. It has also become an inspiring model for many later innovations in poetic meter, particularly in the Nordic languages, offering many varied examples of terse, stress-based metrical schemes working without any final rhyme, and instead using alliterative devices and strongly concentrated imagery. Poets who have acknowledged their debt to the Poetic Edda include Vilhelm Ekelund, August Strindberg, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges and Karin Boye.
Codex Regius was written in the 13th century but nothing is known of its whereabouts until 1643 when it came into the possession of Brynjólfur Sveinsson, then Bishop of Skálholt. At that time versions of the Prose Edda were well known in Iceland but scholars speculated that there once was another Edda—an Elder Edda—which contained the pagan poems which Snorri quotes in his Prose Edda. When Codex Regius was discovered, it seemed that this speculation had proven correct. Brynjólfur attributed the manuscript to Sæmundr the Learned, a larger-than-life 12th century Icelandic priest. While this attribution is rejected by modern scholars, the name Sæmundar Edda is still sometimes associated with "Poetic Edda."
Bishop Brynjólfur sent Codex Regius as a present to the Danish king, hence the name. For centuries it was stored in the Royal Library in Copenhagen but in 1971 it was returned to Iceland.
Like most early poetry the Eddic poems were minstrel poems, passing orally from singer to singer and from poet to poet for centuries. None of the poems are attributed to a particular author though many of them show strong individual characteristics and are likely to have been the work of individual poets. Scholars sometimes speculate on hypothetical authors but firm and accepted conclusions have never been reached.
The dating of the poems has been a lively source of scholarly argument for a long time. Firm conclusions are hard to reach. While lines from the Eddic poems sometimes appear in poems by known poets such evidence is difficult to evaluate. For example Eyvindr skáldaspillir, composing in the latter half of the 10th century, uses in his Hákonarmál a couple of lines also found in Hávamál. It is possible that he was quoting a known poem but it is also possible that Hávamál, or at least the strophe in question, is the younger derivative work.
The few demonstrably historical characters mentioned in the poems, like Attila, provide a terminus post quem of sorts. The dating of the manuscripts themselves provides a more useful terminus ante quem.
Individual poems have individual clues to their age. For example Atlamál hin groenlenzku is claimed by its title, and seems by some internal evidence, to have been composed in Greenland. If so, it can be no earlier than about 985 since there were no Scandinavians in Greenland until that time.
In some cases old poems can have been interpolated with younger verses or merged with other poems. For example stanzas 9-16 of Völuspá, the "Dvergatal" or "Catalogue of Dwarfs", is considered to be an interpolation.
The problem of dating the poems is linked with the problem of finding out where they were composed. Since Iceland was not settled until about 870, anything composed before that time would necessarily have been elsewhere, most likely in Scandinavia. Any young poems, on the other hand, are likely Icelandic in origin.
Scholars have attempted to localize individual poems by studying the geography, flora and fauna which they refer to. This approach usually does not yield firm results. While there are, for example, no wolves in Iceland we can be sure that Icelandic poets were familiar with the species. Similarly the apocalyptic descriptions of Völuspá have been taken as evidence that the poet who composed it had seen a volcanic eruption in Iceland - but this is hardly certain.
Editions and inclusions
The cover of Lee M. Hollander's English translation of the Poetic Edda.
Some poems similar to those found in Codex Regius are normally also included in editions of the Poetic Edda. Important manuscripts include AM 748 I 4to, Hauksbók and Flateyjarbók. Many of the poems are quoted in Snorri's Edda but usually only in bits and pieces. What poems are included in an edition of the Poetic Edda depends on the editor. Those not in Codex Regius are sometimes called Eddica minora from their appearance in an edition with that title edited by Andreas Heusler and Wilhelm Ranisch in 1903.
English translators are not consistent on the translations of the names of the Eddic poems or on how the Old Norse forms should be rendered in English. Up to three translations are given below, taken from the translations of Bellows, Hollander, and Larrington with proper names in the normalized English forms found in John Lindow's Norse Mythology and in Andy Orchard's Cassell's Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend.
In Codex Regius
Völuspá (Wise-woman's prophecy, The Prophecy of the Seeress, The Seeress's Prophecy)
Hávamál (The Ballad of the High One, The Sayings of Hár, Sayings of the High One)
Vafþrúðnismál (The Ballad of Vafthrúdnir, The Lay of Vafthrúdnir, Vafthrúdnir's Sayings)
Grímnismál (The Ballad of Grímnir, The Lay of Grímnir, Grímnir's Sayings)
Skírnismál (The Ballad of Skírnir, The Lay of Skírnir, Skírnir's Journey)
Hárbarðsljóð (The Poem of Hárbard, The Lay of Hárbard, Hárbard's Song)
Rígsþula (The Song of Ríg, The Lay of Ríg, The List of Ríg)
Hyndluljóð (The Poem of Hyndla, The Lay of Hyndla, The Song of Hyndla)
Völuspá in skamma (The short Völuspá, The Short Seeress' Prophecy, Short Prophecy of the Seeress) - This poem, sometimes presented separately, is often included as an interpolation within Hyndluljóð.
Svipdagsmál (The Ballad of Svipdag, The Lay of Svipdag) - This title, originally suggested by Bugge, actually covers two separate poems. These poems are late works and not included in most editions after 1950:
Hrafnagaldur Óðins (Odins's Raven Song, Odin's Raven Chant). (A late work not included in most editions after 1900).
After the mythological poems Codex Regius continues with heroic lays about mortal heroes. The heroic lays are to be seen as a whole in the Edda, but they consist of three layers, the story of Helgi Hundingsbani, the story of the Nibelungs and the story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths. These are, respectively, Scandinavian, German and Gothic in origin. As far as historicity can be ascertained, Attila, Jörmunrekkr and Brynhildr actually existed, taking Brynhildr to be partly based on Brunhilda of Austrasia, but the chronology has been reversed in the poems.
In Codex Regius
The Helgi Lays
Helgakviða Hundingsbana I or Völsungakviða (The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, The First Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer, The First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani)
Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar (The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjörvard, The Lay of Helgi Hjörvardsson, The Poem of Helgi Hjörvardsson)
Helgakviða Hundingsbana II or Völsungakviða in forna (The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, The Second Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer, A Second Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani)
The Niflung Cycle
Frá dauða Sinfjötla (Of Sinfjötli's Death, Sinfjötli's Death, The Death of Sinfjötli) (A short prose text.)
Grípisspá (Grípir's Prophecy, The Prophecy of Grípir)
Oddrúnargrátr (The Lament of Oddrún, The Plaint of Oddrún, Oddrún's Lament)
Atlakviða (The Lay of Atli). The full manuscript title is Atlakviða hin grœnlenzka, that is, The Greenland Lay of Atli, but editors and translators generally omit the Greenland reference as a probable error from confusion with the following poem.
Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrún's Inciting, Gudrún's Lament, The Whetting of Gudrún.)
Hamðismál (The Ballad of Hamdir, The Lay of Hamdir)
Not in Codex Regius
Several of the legendary sagas contain poetry in the Eddic style. Its age and importance is often difficult to evaluate but the Hervarar saga, in particular, contains interesting poetic interpolations.
Hlöðskviða (Lay of Hlöd, also known in English as The Battle of the Goths and the Huns), extracted from Hervarar saga.
As noted above, the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson makes much use of the Poetic Edda.
The Volsungasaga is a prose Germanic version of much of the Niflung cycle of poems. Due to several missing pages in the Codex Regius. Only four stanzas found on those pages are still extant, all of which are quoted in the Volsungasaga.
Neckel, Gustav (Ed.). (1983). Edda: Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern I: Text. (Rev. Hans Kuhn, 5th edition). Heidelberg: Winter. (A web text of the Poetic Edda based on this edition has been prepared by David Stifter and Sigurdur H. Palsson (1994), Vienna, corrections by Fabrizio Ducci (2001), Titus version by Jost Gippert, available at Titus: Text Collection: Edda.)
Jón Helgason (Ed.). (1955). Eddadigte (3 vols.). Copenhagen: Munksgaard. (Codex Regius poems up to Sigrdrífumál.) (Reissue of the following entry.)
Boer, R. C. (Ed.). (1922). Die Edda mit historisch-kritischem Commentar I: Einleitung und Text. (2 vols.) Haarlem: Willink & Zoon. (Text and German translation.)
Heusler, Andreas & Ranisch, Wilhelm (Eds.) (1903). Eddica Minora. Dortmund.
Wimmer, E. A. & Finnur Jónsson (Eds.) (1891). Håndskriftet Nr 2365 4to gl. kgl. samling på det store Kgl. bibliothek i København (Codex regius af den ældre Edda) i fototypisk og diplomatisk gengievelse. (4 vols.) Copenhagen: Samfund til udgivelse at gammel nordisk litteratur. (A lithographic edition of the Codex Regius with diplomatic text.)
Dronke, Ursula (Ed. & trans.) (1969). The Poetic Edda, vol. I, Heroic Poems. Oxford: Clarendon. ISBN 0-19-811497-4. (Atlakviða, Atlamál in Grœnlenzko, Guðrúnarhvöt, Hamðismál.)
————— (1997). The Poetic Edda, vol. II, Mythological Poems. Oxford: Clarendon. ISBN 0-19-811181-9. (Völuspá, Rígsthula, Völundarkvida, Lokasenna, Skírnismál, Baldrs draumar.)
Bray, Olive. (Ed. & trans.) (1908). The Elder or Poetic Edda: Commonly known as Saemund's Edda, Part 1, The Mythological Poems. Viking Club Translation Series vol. 2. London: Printed for the Viking Club. Reprinted 1982 New York: AMS Press. ISBN 0-404-60012-3
Gudbrand Vigfússon & Powell, F. York (Ed. & trans.) (1883). Corpus Poeticum Boreale: The Poetry of the Old Northern Tongue. (2 vols.) Oxford: Oxford University Press. Reprinted 1965, New York: Russell & Russell. Reprinted 1965, Oxford: Clarendon. Translations from Volume 1 issued in Lawrence S. Thompson (Ed.). (1974). Norse mythology: the Elder Edda in prose translation.. Hamden, CN: Archon Books. ISBN 0-208-01394-6
Orchard, Andy. (Trans.). (2011). The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore. London: Penguin Group. ISBN 0-14-043585-9
Larrington, Carolyne. (Trans.). (1996). The Poetic Edda. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-282383-3
Terry, Patricia. (Trans.) (1990). Poems of the Elder Edda. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-8235-3 hardcover, ISBN 0-8122-8220-5 paperback. (A revision of Terry's Poems of the Vikings of 1969, listed below.)
Auden, W. H. & Taylor, Paul B. (Trans.). (1981). Norse Poems. London: Athlone. ISBN 0-485-11226-4. Also issued 1983, London: Faber ISBN 0-571-13028-3. (Revised and expanded edition of Auden and Taylor's The Elder Edda: A Selection of 1969, listed below.)
Terry, Patricia. (Trans.) (1969). Poems of the Vikings: The Elder Edda. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill. ISBN 0-672-60332-2
Thorpe, Benjamin. (Trans.). (1866). Edda Sæmundar Hinns Froða: The Edda Of Sæmund The Learned. (2 vols.) London: Trübner & Co. 1866. Reprinted 1906 as "The Elder Eddas of Saemund" in Rasmus B. Anderson & J. W. Buel (Eds.) The Elder Eddas of Saemund Sigfusson. Tr. from the original Old Norse text into English by Benjamin Thorpe, and The Younger Eddas of Snorre Sturleson Tr. from the original Old Norse text into English by I. A. Blackwell (pp. 1–255). Norrœna, the history and romance of northern Europe. London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin, New York: Norrœna Society. (A searchable graphic image version of this text requiring DjVu plugin is available at University of Georgia Libraries: Facsimile Books and Periodicals: The Elder Eddas and the Younger Eddas.)