Poetic Edda is the modern attribution for an unnamed collection of Old Norse anonymous poems, which is different from the Edda written by Snorri Sturluson. Several versions exist, all primarily of text from the Icelandic medieval manuscript known as the Codex Regius. The Codex Regius is arguably the most important extant source on Norse mythology and Germanic heroic legends. From the early 19th century onwards, it has had a powerful influence on later Scandinavian literatures. Not only by its stories, but also by the visionary force and the dramatic quality of many of the poems. It has also become an inspiring model for many later innovations in poetic meter, particularly in Nordic languages, offering many varied examples of terse, stress-based metrical schemes that lack any final rhyme by instead using alliterative devices and strongly-concentrated imagery. Poets who have acknowledged their debt to the Codex Regius include Vilhelm Ekelund, August Strindberg, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges, and Karin Boye.
Codex Regius was written during the 13th century, but nothing was known of its whereabouts until 1643, when it came into the possession of Brynjólfur Sveinsson, then Bishop of Skálholt. At the time, versions of the Edda were known in Iceland, but scholars speculated that there once was another Edda, an Elder Edda, which contained the pagan poems that Snorri quotes in his Edda. When Codex Regius was discovered, it seemed that the speculation had proved, but modern scholarly research has shown that Edda was likely written first and the two were, at most, connected by a common source.
Brynjólfur attributed the manuscript to Sæmundr the Learned, a larger-than-life 12th century Icelandic priest. That attribution is rejected by modern scholars, but the name Sæmundar Edda is still sometimes associated with both the "Codex Regius" and versions of "Poetic Edda" using it as a source.
Bishop Brynjólfur sent Codex Regius as a present to the Danish king, which gave the name. For centuries, it was stored in the Royal Library in Copenhagen but in 1971, it was returned to Iceland.
The title page of Olive Bray's English translation of Codex Regius entitled Poetic Edda depicting the tree Yggdrasil and a number of its inhabitants (1908) by W. G. Collingwood.
The Eddic poems are composed in alliterative verse. Most are in fornyrðislag, while málaháttr is a common variation. The rest, about a quarter, are composed in ljóðaháttr. The language of the poems is usually clear and relatively unadorned. Kennings are often employed, though they do not arise as frequently, nor are they as complex, as those found in skaldic poetry.
Like most early poetry, the Eddic poems were minstrel poems, passed 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. While scholars have speculated on hypothetical authors, firm and accepted conclusions have never been reached.
Accurate dating of the poems has long been a source of scholarly debate. Firm conclusions are difficult to reach; lines from the Eddic poems sometimes appear in poems by known poets. For example, Eyvindr skáldaspillir composed in the latter half of the 10th century, and he uses a couple of lines in his Hákonarmál that are 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, such as 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 to have been composed in Greenland, and seems so by some internal evidence. 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 may have been interpolated with younger verses or merged with other poems. For example, stanzas 9–16 of Völuspá, the "Dvergatal" or "Roster of Dwarfs", is considered by some scholars to be an interpolation.
The problem of dating the poems is linked with the problem of determining where they were composed. Iceland was not settled until approximately 870, so anything composed before that time would necessarily have been elsewhere, most likely in Scandinavia. More recent poems, on the other hand, are likely Icelandic in origin.
Scholars have attempted to localize individual poems by studying the geography, flora, and fauna to which they refer. This approach usually does not yield firm results. For example, there are no wolves in Iceland, but 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 Poetic Edda.
Some poems similar to those found in Codex Regius are also included in some 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 translated titles 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:
Hrafnagaldr Óðins (Odins's Raven Song, Odin's Raven Chant). (A late work not included in most editions after 1900).
Gullkársljóð (The Poem of Gullkár). (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.
The Eldar or Poetic Edda has been translated numerous times, the earliest printed edition being that by Cottle 1797, though some short sections had been translated as early as the 1670s. Some early translators relied on a Latin translation of the Edda, including Cottle.
Opinions differ on the best way to translate the text, on the use or rejection of archaic language, and the rendering of terms lacking a clear English analogue. However Cottle's 1797 translation is considered very inaccurate.
A comparison of the second and third verses (lines 5–12) of the Voluspa is given below :
Ek man jǫtna
ár of borna,
þás forðum mik
fœdda hǫfðu ;
níu mank hęima,
fyr mold neðan.
Ár vas alda
þars Ymir byggði,
vasa sandr né sær,
né svalar unnir ;
jǫrð fansk æva
né upphiminn ;
gap vas ginnunga,
ęn gras hvęrgi.
† The prose translation lacks line breaks, inserted here to match those in the Norse verse given in the same work.
Allusions and quotations
As noted above, the Edda of Snorri Sturluson makes much use of the works included in the Poetic Edda, though he may well have had access to other compilations that contained the poems and there is no evidence that he used the Poetic Edda or even knew of it.
The Volsungasaga is a prose version of much of the Niflung cycle of poems. Due to several missing pages (see Great Lacuna) in the Codex Regius, the Volsungasaga is the oldest source for the Norse version of much of the story of Sigurð. Only 22 stanzas of the Sigurðarkviðu survive in the Codex Regius, plus four stanzas from the missing section which are quoted in the Volsungasaga.
J. R. R. Tolkien, a philologist and de facto Professor of Old Norse familiar with the Eddas, utilized concepts in his 1937 fantasy novel The Hobbit, and in other works: