Monday, June 7, 2010

Norse Mythology Source Texts: The Elder Edda

NOTE: Multiple posts have been combined here into one exceedingly lengthy collection in order to facilitate access to the complete source texts. These are all now housed as well in the Research Archives on the main website.

PART I: THE MYTHOLOGICAL POEMS - CODEX REGIUS

The first eleven volumes in what I call The Elder Edda "Comparative Study Series" are now up on the research archive page at Fantasy Castle Books and available for free download to any interested parties (links are also provided below for the sections posted today). I hope they'll be of some use to some interested student of Nordic lore other than myself.

The files are all in PDF format to preserve their complex layout, which consists of multi-column text documents with various translations running side-by-side and line-for-line with their respective end-notes included (and for the most part their introductions as well). I put these together from the several translations most commonly found around the internet, including those by Thorpe (1866), Bellows (1936), Hollander (1962), and Auden-Taylor (1969). Of these, Bellows is by far the best to my mind (with Hollander a close second), being the most consciously accurate with respect to the source manuscripts and with the most copious notes to help explain them. But a great deal can be learned just by comparing alternate readings of difficult passages, or simply by seeing another perspective on a perplexing section. As with almost all pre-modern literature, Old Norse texts are notoriously obscure.

Of Thorpe and Bellows complete editions of the Eddas are available. However, for Hollander and Auden-Taylor only sporadic parts are found online (Auden's are mostly defunct), since both of these are likely still within the threshold of copyright protection, although Auden died nearly forty years ago. Of these, I've only used what I have found already posted elsewhere as sample chapters, although I have a print edition of Hollander's translation. There are a few other stray translations out there of various bits, but I'll only resort to these if the others peter out at some point, and only if they're of reputable quality and value. In addition, although the notes refer the student to Snorri's Prose Edda at every point, since his are clearly drawn either directly from, or indirectly based on, the poetic works, I've not included these, except where relevant quotes are provided in the notes.

For the most part I'm focusing on segments relating to the Volsung matter and those dealing with Ragnarök. But with such sporadically compiled documents as the Eddas are these are scattered all over the place in amongst other stories and extraneous matter. That's the main reason for this rather thorough gleaning: I'm just trying to gather together all the relevant bits into some cohesive order. The additional files I'm compiling - on place names, chronologies, outlines and the like - will be added to the archive once I've completed this main research phase.

The sections posted today comprise the first eleven according to the Codex Regius manuscript:
1. Völuspá - or "The Song of the Sybil" - in which a seeress prophecies the end of the world. Probably the most famous section of the Eddas, in addition to a fairly detailed accounting of the end times, the section also includes the Norse creation myth and the first war of the gods. The quintessential source for lore regarding Ragnarök.
2. Hávamál - or "The Sayings of the High One" - essentially a Nordic book of proverbs and gnomic wisdom akin to that of Solomon, with some fascinating insights into the northern social code and world outlook. It also includes both the stories of how Odin won the mead of poetry and the runes, and most perplexingly, a dissertation on the faithlessness of women!
3. Vafþrúðnismál - or "The Ballad of Vafthrúdnir" - a course in Norse cosmogony structured as a riddle game or wisdom contest between Odin and the giant of the title, with the loser's head at stake! Essentially an encyclopedia of Norse mythology hung upon the rather scant bones of a story.
4. Grímnismál - or "The Sayings of Grímnir" - Grimnir being one of the many guises of Odin. Here the contest aspect of the game has gone and we are left with a didactic lesson disguised as a reward for the youth who shows kindness to the tortured captive in disguise. Not a light read, but an essential reference work.
5. Skírnismál or "The Ballad of Skírnir" - in which the god Freyr sends his servant Skirnir to woo the hottest giant in the land for him, a task which is done first in sincere fashion with bribes and flattery, and after threats fail too, spirals out of control with one of the best curses of female stubbornness outside of Shakespeare. Highly recommended for that reason alone.
6. Hárbarðsljóð or "The Lay of Hárbarðr" - a highly comic tale of the battle of wits between Thor and the once again disguised Odin, this time as a ferryman reluctant to transport Thor on his way back from slaughtering a host of giants. Clever, witty fun, and not a little bit ribald, as of course Odin's chief delight is getting women pregnant at every opportunity. Not entirely without merit as far as research goes, but a jolly lot of romping fun to read nonetheless.
7. Hymiskviða, or "The Lay of Hymir." This is a collection of four stories all pieced into one, and all concerning the legendary strength of Thor, which pits him against the giant Hymir, and central to which is the one in which he fishes for the Midgard Serpent using an oxen's horns as hooks. Quite funny.
8. Lokasenna, or "The Flyting of Loki," in which the trickster Loki berates the gods, each in turn, for behavior unbecoming of a deity - including infidelity, cowardice, and treachery. Each one attempts a rebuttal, but Loki bests them all quite handily - that is, until he comes to Thor. The episode is important for its depiction of the means by which Loki is cast in chains and the manner of his punishment, which is quite severe, but well deserved. It's also a fascinating look into how the Norsemen viewed their gods.
9. Þrymskviða, or "The Lay of Thrym," very likely the most popular and comic of Old Norse tales, of which many variations are known. In it, Thor's hammer is stolen by a giant and held as ransom in an effort to win Freya for his wife. To get it back, Thor takes Freya's place at the altar (with Loki by his side dressed up as bridesmaid) - very much to the giant's dismay. Utterly priceless. If only Loki was always this much fun.
10. Alvíssmál, or "The Sayings of Alvís." A short work in which the dwarf of the title ("All-Wise") attempts to steal Thor's daughter for a wife, and ends up in a contest of wits instead. Of interest mainly to poets and other writers, it consists essentially of clever synonyms for numerous objects, which Thor keeps the dwarf busily thinking up until the sun appears and turns him into stone, the point for which the story is most known.
11. Völundarkviða, or "The Lay of Völund." A northern equivalent to the Greek myth of Daedalus mixed together with a bit of the lame god of fire Hephaestos, this is the wrenching story of Volund the Smith - better known today as Wayland - and his captivity and eventual escape and horrific revenge upon his captors. Shakespearean in its tragic depths. This one is sometimes classified among the mythological poems (where it resides in the Regius Codex), and sometimes with the heroic tales.
There are about nine more of the mythological poems, sometimes collectively referred to as the Apocrypha, as they're only found in manuscripts other than the Regius Codex. At least a few of these I'll post up, since they're in some points relevant to what I'm doing, and I like to be thorough. But these should keep you busy for awhile.

So get your glasses on, take an aspirin or two, and settle in for a night among the Old Norse gods.

PART II: THE MYTHOLOGICAL POEMS - APOCRYPHA

Here are the remaining sections from the mythological portion of the Eddas, generally known as the Eddica minora, as none of these are found in the main source manuscript, the Codex Regius, but rather in sundry other scattered documents dating somewhat later. Consequently, there is much debate concerning not only their inclusion in the corpus, but their authenticity and origin. Like the main body of Eddas as a whole, many of these are in fairly bad shape, due either (or both) to manuscript deterioration or scribal errors. Some exist only in fragments, and thus are inconclusive or contextually difficult to comprehend (more so than usual, that is).

You can now click on the titles below to link directly to the relevant document. And I've also gone back and added into the prior blog posts direct links to the archived files there.

So without further ado, here they are:

Baldrs draumar, or "The Dreams of Baldur." This shortest of Eddaic poems functions as something of a companion piece to the Völuspá, as it tells of Odin's ride to Hel in search of answers from the dead witch as to the meaning of Baldur's bad dreams. The seeress describes how Odin's son will die by the hand of his own brother, a fate which Loki later brings about.
Rígsþula, or "The Song of Kings." Unique among the accepted texts, this is a didactic work, much as the Alvíssmál, which offers up the myth of how the three (then current) castes of peasants, yeomen, and the aristocracy came to be. It is therefore basically a poet's ode to royalty (likely for the sake of sponsorship), but also a tale of how tyranny came into the world. Here it is that the term "Edda" is found, thus providing the title of the whole collection, of which it's not even considered a legitimate part!
Hyndluljóð, or "The Lay of Hyndla," including Völuspá hin skamma. Important only in that it contains "The Shorter Völuspá," a late imitative work of some 50 lines which provides an additional glimpse into Ragnarök, as well as a curious and quite compelling myth regarding the genesis of Loki's evil that is found nowhere else.
Svipdagsmál, or "The Lay of Svipdagr," consisting of Grougaldr (Groa's Spell) and Fjolsvinnsmol (the Ballad of Fjolsvith), two related 17th century poems concerning Svipdag's quest for his true love Menglöð, who dwells within a giant-guarded fortress entirely encircled by fire, a motif mirroring the Volsunga Saga Sigurd-Brunhild story. The first is a short charm song chanted by Svipdag's dead mother, while the second consists of a witty riddle game against the hall's giant guardian who seeks to keep Svipdag out.
Hrafnagaldur Óðins, or "Odin's Ravens Song." A short, incomplete poem that is a late imitative work in the style of the Völuspá, providing some vividly bizarre and rather cryptic references to the end times and the final battle of Ragnarök. In it, the gods hold a council to determine what might be done to stop the coming apocalypse, but the answers are unclear, and might best be summed up as "Nothing."
This concludes the mythological portion of The Elder Edda. Although there are a scattering of other poems loosely associated with the corpus, few of them are now included in modern editions, and none are relevant to my research.

Next up: the Heroic Lays, and this is where the real fun begins!


PART III: THE HEROIC LAYS - THE HELGI SAGA

The three Helgi lays come first in the heroic section of The Elder Edda, although they're not the oldest of the poems dealing with the Volsung matter. In fact, they only do so in a secondary way, having sprung from an independent tradition and only later been retrofitted to mesh in with the epic Volsung saga - awkwardly and not always successfully, but quite interestingly nonetheless.

This was done by making Helgi a son of that famous Volsung patriarch, Sigmund, and by adding in superfluous mentions of and parallels to that family, most notably Sinfjotli, now made a half-brother to our hero Helgi. But where the overlap occurs most obviously is in the absorption of themes and plotlines given to new characters and disguised in new settings. Sigrún, for example, is a dead ringer for that tragic Volsung figure Brynhild, even going so far as to make Sigrún a valkyrie, even though she's born of mortal flesh. And though the condition of the poems and the quality of verse is less consistent than nearly anywhere else in the Eddas, still, there is much to love and relish here, particularly in some of the dialogue, which at points is witty and at others quite profound, bringing out the best of the Northern spirit in both its humor and heroic outlook.

So without further ado, I present a glimpse into the distant heroic past. Again, these are available in comparative pdf's for your reading pleasure.

Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, or "The Tale of Helgi, Hiorvard's Son." The saga of Helgi begins with his first heroic incarnation, as the son of Hjörvard. This is a compilation of four different poems crammed together somewhat haphazardly into one, the highlight being the steersman Atli's confrontation with the giantess Hrimgerth, which is witty and slightly ribald, as all good Nordic taunting matches are.
Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, or "The First Lay of Helgi Hunding's Bane." In this version of Helgi's tale, the intrepid hero is reborn as the son of Sigmund, fighting bravely to win the hand of the Valkyrie maiden Sigrún. Featuring another comically boisterous exchange of taunts, this time between Sinfjotli and Guthmund, an exchange both humorous and cutting. I fully intend to use some of these great word contests in The Ring Saga.
Helgakviða Hundingsbana II, or "The Second Lay of Helgi Hunding's Bane." The saga continues in this eight-part mash-up of random odds and ends related to our hero Helgi, including "The Old Volsung Lay" and "The Lament of Sigrún," the latter among the finest of Old Norse poems to be found. Sigrún's curse of her brother Dag is to die for, and I can only hope to write something half so harsh and bitter when it comes time to savagely lash out at some well-deserving villain.
So there you have it, the first trilogy of tales in the heroic lays of The Elder Edda. Stay tuned as we embark upon the Volsung saga proper next time around.

ADDENDUM:

I have now added two new pages to the Fantasy Castle Books website archive which may assist you in your study of these texts. The first consists of outlines I have made of these primary texts to help me both in studying their content and referring back to specific sections as I need to later during the writing process. The second is for genealogies, both of family bloodlines in these older texts, and later as they will appear in The Ring Saga. I will continue to add to these pages as development progresses. You can find them in the research archives section for The Ring Saga.


PART IV: THE HEROIC LAYS - THE SIGURD STORY

Finally we come to the heart of the matter: the cursed Rhinegold and the tragic fate of the Volsung clan. In the Helgi lays are found the first glimpses into their tale, but now the story begins in earnest as the compiler of The Elder Edda attempts to piece together all the scattered fragments relevant to the Sigurd matter. Already in the 13th century this was no easy task, as the source materials had by this time become lost and scattered to the four winds, or existed only in greatly varied oral traditions told differently in Iceland than in Norway or Germany. I'll leave discussion of this problem to the experts, which you can find in part in these files, each of which contains an outline, introductory discussions, and multiple translations of the text side-by-side for ease of comparison. It's amazing to me how completely different two readings of the same passage can be.

So below are the sections leading up to "The Great Lacuna," a section of eight sheets now lost from the Codex Regius manuscript of the Eddas. I'll follow up next time with what comes after.

Frá Dauða Sinfjötla, or "The Death of Sinfjotli." The compiler begins with a short prose narrative describing how Sinfjotli dies and what his father Sigmund does thereafter, which functions to connect the preceding Helgi lays with the following Volsung poems.
Grípisspá, or "The Prophecy of Gripir." The Edda scribe continues with a question-and-answer dialogue between Sigurd and his uncle Grípir in which is foretold all the events of Sigurd's life to come. It functions as something of an overview or preface to the following poems in the Edda collection, and is useful in the main for in its summarizing of the missing sections of "The Great Lacuna."
Reginsmál, or "The Tale of Regin." Here the Volsung saga begins in earnest, starting with the earliest known mention of Andvari's gold, of its being cursed (both by Loki and Andvari in this verison), and the first tragic results of that dreaded hex with the slaying of the giant Hreithmar by his own son Fáfnir, who then turns into the prototypical hoard-guarding dragon! Regin is Fáfnir's brother, who is denied a share of the treasure, and consequently seeks his own revenge through Sigurd.
Fáfnismál, or "The Lay of Fáfnir." The saga continues as Sigurd takes on the hoard-guarding dragon Fáfnir and his wily brother Regin. In this episode our intrepid hero roasts the dragon's heart and from a single touch of its vital blood learns to understand the speech of birds, who tell him in chattery chirp-like stanzas not to trust the dragon's kin. This is the prototypical dragon-slaying hero scene. Sigmund also first hears of Brynhild near the end of this segment, as his doom ensnares him ever tighter in its clutches.
Sigrdrifumál, or "The Ballad of the Victory-Bringer." Here we have one of the primary sources of Wagner's "Sigfried" opera. The opening stanzas of this section tell of Sigurd's finding the sleeping valkyrie Brynhild, in a tower made of shields which is surrounded by a wall of fire and dressed all in armor. In addition, it contains an early conception of a Valkyrie's angering Odin by defending the wrong warrior. The story is interspersed with a lengthy compendium of "counsels" on conduct in battle and Norse society which is quite enlightening, as well as a series of lessons in which Brynhild teaches Sigurd the magic of Rune-lore.
This brings us up to "The Great Lacuna," as the latter part of the Sigrdrifumál is missing from the primary manuscript, though fortunately we have it for the most part from later copies and the partial prose retelling in the Volsunga Saga, which we'll get to soon enough. These five parts, although given separate titles and treated as individual poems by modern scholars, can in fact be seen as essentially a single work - including as well some of what is yet to come - as there are no divisions marked between them in the manuscript, and they are only treated separately for ease of reference, and because of variations in their structure. But overall the fifteen sections dealing with the Volsung matter can be taken as a single work, though pieced together from a great array of diverse parts.

PART V: THE HEROIC LAYS - THE BRYNHILD MATTER

Following "The Great Lacuna" - the loss of eight sheets from the middle of The Elder Edda - the manuscript contains a series of works all dealing with the issue of the valkyrie Brynhild and Sigurd's deaths. The lost section, although missing here, is paraphrased in the Icelandic Volsunga Saga, a prose retelling of matter contained in the heroic lays of the Edda. So fortunately we still have most of the story, albeit in somewhat altered form. Yet because of the manner in which the compiler of the Edda approached his task - through repetition and his own prose narration - much of it can still be gleaned from what remains.

These four poems together tell the story of how Sigurd and Brynhild were ultimately betrayed, of the manner and reasons for this, and of their final fate. Here the tale begins to fracture under the weight of its diverse sources, with their variant takes on the same events, all of which the scribe tried heroically to rectify into a single cohesive strand, at times successfully, at others less so.

For my part what's important in these sections are the early conception of how and why Brynhild angered Odin and the nature of her punishment, how Sigurd came to find her and what happened between them (this is where the greatest divergence occurs), and finally, how the matter of the betrayal of the lovers developed, all of which have a number of fascinating elements that might be further explored. Too, some of the dialogue is particularly poignant, especially those sections dealing with Brynhild's bitterness and sorrow, as well as that of Gudrun's lament and vow of vengenace. The poet seemed to find both these female characters quite compelling, and it's hard to say which he felt the more sympathy towards.

Brot af Sigurðarkviðu, or, "A Fragment of a Sigurd Lay." Twenty stanzas are all that remain of "The Long Lay of Sigurd," a work originally running some 100-250 stanzas, now all but lost. What survives comprises the murder of Sigurd and Brynhild's prophecy of doom for the Gjuking clan, including a psychologically vivid scene of laments and cursing. With this I've included a discussion of "The Great Lacuna" and the relevant selections from the Völsungá Saga to help fill in the missing bits.
Guðrúnarkviða I, or "The First Lay of Gudrún." Here begins Guðrún's part of the tale, which will encompass much of the remainder of the Eddas as the story shifts toward the German version of events. Guðrún merits three of her own lays, of which this first one relates the depths of her grief after Sigurd's death as relatives attempt to console her. It includes a memorable lament sequence as well as her curse of doom on Sigurd's murderers. This was used by Tennyson for his poem "Home They Brought Her Warrior Dead," which I've also included for reference.
Sigurðarkviða hin Skamma, or "The Short Lay of Sigurd." This supposed "short" lay of Sigurd is, in fact, among the longest poems of the Edda collection, running nearly 80 stanzas, telling in part what the now-lost longer lay most likely covered, possibly from different viewpoints and with additional details. Although given Sigurd's name, from the outset this is fully Brynhild's tale, including most prominently her vow of vengeance on Sigurd's murderers, as well as her final words for her husband Gunnar upon her self-inflicted death. Chilling.
Helreið Brynhildar, or "The Hel-Ride of Brynhild." This short poem follows Brynhild into the afterlife as she descends to Hel and is confronted by a giantess, to whom she defends and describes her life as fraught with naught but bitterness and sorrow. It contains a further description of Brynhild's angering of Odin and subsequent punishment, with added details, and is the poet's best attempt to win our sympathy to Brynhild's case.
That sums up the Sigurd-Brynhild portion of the Rhinegold curse, and leaves the gold in Gunnar's hands. Coming next in the final sections is how the curse lives on and brings down the entire Gjuking clan!

PART VI: THE HEROIC LAYS - THE ATLI MATTER

Finally, we come to the poems dealing directly (more or less) with the issue of Attila the Hun (known to the Norse as Atli, and so named in the lays). In the latter tradition of the Sigurd Volsung matter, the historic character of Attila is imported (as it were) into this legendary history of the early Europeans (just as Theodoric himself makes a cameo appearance near their end). Having made such a dramatic and enduring mark upon the dark age landscape, it is perhaps inevitable that this is so, for Attila to this day looms large in our image of those bygone days.
I'll not dwell on the reasons or the manner of this here, leaving it to the commentaries themselves to sort the matter out. Suffice it to say, the old Germanic realm was one where a figure such as Attila stands not alone in his harsh and vicious dealings with the world, and even he must succumb at last to the wicked whims of fate and vengeance.

Here, then, are the concluding sections of the Volusung saga as found in The Elder Edda...

Dráp Niflunga, or "The Fall of the Niflungs." A short prose narrative which functions as a link between the preceding Sigurd matter and the upcoming Atli (Attila) lays, which essentially just summarizes the events to come, providing only little added detail.
Guðrúnarkviða II, or "The Second Lay of Gudrún." Among the earliest sections of the Elder Edda, this second Gudrún ballad contains a superb recounting of her sad lament after Sigurd's death, tells of her unwilling betrothal to Atli as recompense for Brynhild's death, and gives a prophecy of her revenge in the form of dream interpretation, a popular method of divination. It also contains a highly detailed recipe for a potion of forgetfulness, should you ever seek one.
Guðrúnarkviða III, or "The Third Lay of Gudrún." Rounding out the three Gudrún lays is this short episode in which our poor oppressed Gudrún, now falsely accused of adultery, undergoes the ordeal by boiling water. The function of this adjunct accessory seems to be merely to add more fuel to the fire of our heroine's forthcoming vengeance. And yet it is a touching tale all on its own, short though it may be.
Oddrúnargrátr, or "The Lament of Oddrún." Here we find a real accretion to the main collection in the tale of Oddrún, third-wheel sister to Atli and Brynhild, and illicit lover of Gunnar after Brynhild's death. In this episode of wailing grief and lamentation we are given additional details concerning the Gjúking's interactions with the Huns and how they were ultimately defeated by Atli, all as preface to the evil deeds to come.
Atlakviða, or "The Lay of Atli." In the first of two Atli lays we get a shorter (46 stanza), more poetic account of the heroic deaths of Gunnar and Hogni, and the horrific vengeance meted out by Gudrún on the King of the Huns, in a tragedy of truly Shakespearean dimension. Among the most intense and emotionally powerful of the lays, this is one of the finer works found in the Eddas. It is also the earlier of the two variations of the Atli tale, allowing us a fascinating glimpse into how an oral tale might change as it traveled across time and distance.
Atlamál, or "The Greenland Lay of Atli." In this second of the two Atli lays we get a much longer (99 stanza), more romanticized account of the heroic deaths of Gunnar and Hogni, and of Gudrún's terrible vengeance on Atli, here given additional detail and color in its names and places - most of them invented by the poet and quite inaccurate - with a more elaborate recounting of events. Though more developed in terms of length and content, it is also among the more poorly written and flaccid works of Old Norse poetry, though not without its merits. It was, in fact, written in Greenland, and bears the distinctive stamp of that harsh, bleak land.
This brings us to the end of the Niflung (or Volsung) matter as given in The Elder Edda. However, the story is not quite over yet...

PART VII: THE POSTLUDE - GUDRUN'S TALE

At last we come to the of our foray into that ancient northern epic known as The Elder Edda. Two more lays remain after the Atli-Gudrun sections end, and these bring in the tale of Jormunrek and Svanhild, an originally unrelated story connected later by making Svanhild a daughter of Gudrun and the historical Gothic king Jormunrek (Eormanrech). This gives our long-suffering arch-heroine yet further reason for lament, as nothing works out well for her. She is destined, it seems, to make bad decisions, the results of which hurt her as much as anyone.
Guðrúnarhvöt, or "Gudrún's Lament." Gudrún, now married to her third husband, suffers further tragedy and instigates another round of tragic vengeance, this time on Jormunrek for his killing of her daughter Svanhild. This is the true "Lament of Gudrún," of which all others are mere shadows and imitations. It doesn't get much sadder than this, as the poor Gudrún can't even succeed in committing suicide.
Hamðismál, or "The Ballad of Hamthir." In this "old" lay of Hamthir is told in greater detail the attempted revenge of Gudrún's sons on Jormunrek for the death of their half-sister Svanhild, taking up where the narrative of Gudrún's Lament leaves off, thus giving the reason for her latest grief. Here ends The Elder Edda, but not the story of the Volsungs, which will undergo further mutation and accretion in the following centuries.
Having finished these off, I've now posted up two additional genealogies drawn from the Eddas, the first based on the Volsung lays and giving that bloodline, while the second details Gudrun's offspring from her three husbands as given in the Atli-Jormunrek sections. There are some inevitable divergences among them, as the lays are drawn from various traditions spanning thousands of miles and hundreds of years. I've done my best to make them clear and complete. They are intended for my own use in developing the characters and story of The Ring Saga, and consequently will be greatly amplified and altered as work progresses.

There is also a new outline containing a chronological sequence of events as they occur throughout the heroic sections of the Edda. Again, there is a great deal of discrepancy at certain points, and I've used colored fonts to indicate where conflicts occur, while still retaining as accurate a timeline as possible. References to the relevant lays are given for each event for ease of research, which is my purpose. Here again my reasoning behind this extended effort is to sort out all the variant strains and changes and try to make some sense of it, with the intent to forge it into as cohesive a plot as possible. Not that I intend to use it all, or in this form - for that I look to Wagner - but it is upon this foundation that the Volsung tale is built, and a good understanding of that base can only serve to aid in constructing an edifice upon it, however shaky it may be.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Elder Edda: An Introduction

For anyone interested in undertaking a reasonably detailed study of Norse mythology, the place to start is The Poetic Edda, a 13th century collection of Old Norse poems (interspersed with lesser prose passages) which together comprise the earliest and most complete repository of knowledge concerning that ancient pagan belief system. Although compiled around the same time as Snorri Sturluson's "Younger" or Prose Edda (completed about 1220 A.D.), The Poetic Edda is commonly known as the "Elder" Edda due to Snorri's heavy reliance on the older oral verse material it contains, and from which he quotes rather extensively. Together the two works contain nearly all that is now known about the old Norse literary folk traditions.

Containing roughly forty separate pieces (give or take, depending on the edition), the majority of which are contained in a single manuscript known as Codex RegiusThe Elder Edda is divided neatly into two groups, the first comprising those treating matters of a mythological aspect, while the second contain hero tales of a relatively more mundane nature. Of the latter group, all but a handful pertain to the so-called "Niflung Cycle," from which Wagner drew heavily for this Ring Cycle operas (and Tolkien borrowed judiciously for his Middle-Earth material).

The Hollander translation pictured above is the main edition I've been using for years, aside from the more modernized retellings by the likes of Padraic Colum and Edith Hamilton, not to mention Bulfinch's famous volume The Age of Fable(collectivly known as Bulfinch's Mythology), probably my earliest introduction to the subject as a child. Since then it's always boggled me how little space the Norse myths are given in relation to the Greek and Roman stories in collections of mythology such as these, but in reading the source material the reason quickly becomes clear: they're really hard to comprehend.

Reading Old Norse poetry is much akin to working on a Rubik's Cube while raging drunk. It's like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle in which half the pieces are gone, or what I imagine must be the challenge posed by the discovery of a new archaeological find: trying to figure out just where the heck all those scattered bones go. Like gazing at the hieroglyphics painted on the walls of an ancient Egyptian tomb. And therein lies one of it's foremost charms. Reading Norse mythology is not unlike a good detective story, like Sherlock Holmes or Encyclopedia Brown, where you're confronted by a bunch of seemingly random clues that only come together after careful scrutiny and repeated reading.

The Norse and Icelandic bards were not at all akin to the Greco-Roman poets, and for many reasons. For one, their social outlook was altogether different. Their minds just worked differently. They didn't have that insatiable drive for clarity and logic that led to Greek philosophy. Rather, they seemed to thrive on mystery and magic, and not a little chaos. Imagine, for example, knowing nothing of modern science or archaeology, let alone of prehistoric times, and finding uncovered in a glacial snow melt the bones of a mastodon or tyrannosaurus rex. What else could you call it but a troll or giant? The other significant contributing factor, of course, was the fact that until just about the time of these 13th century documents the northern Teutonic races were essentially non-literate, at least in terms of a written language. What they did have was an uncanny ability to remember and recite poems and stories already many centuries old.

The northern world was a harsh and violent place, and life in it was short. There is no more apt metaphor for the mortal human life than that of Bede in which a raven flies in through an open window into a fire-lit hall and out again into the cold, dark night.