It seems like everywhere in Heathenry people have very polarized views about “the Eddas.” Some treat them like they are divinely-inspired, unquestionable texts, sometimes even going as far as to carry around “pocket Hávamáls" or conduct Christian-like "Eddas devotionals." Others mock anyone who references Eddic material in a discussion, claiming that "Snorri wrote it to convert people to Christianity" or something of the like. All I see is inaccurate information everywhere I look, so I decided to make an info post with some basic facts about "the Eddas."
-The Poetic Edda -
Also sometimes called the Elder Edda or Sæmundar Edda^, this text is a collection of poems of indeterminate origins.
Usually the term “Poetic Edda" refers to a specific manuscript, the Codex Regius,which was not discovered until 1643 in the back of another book. Before this, Icelanders only had access to the Snorra Edda (“Prose Edda”) and a few Eddic poems, discussed below. However, because of the references made in the Snorra Edda, it is clear that many of these poems must have existed before that text’s composition.
The Codex Regius is usually dated around 1270. It is very likely that this collection was not used by Snorri when composing the Snorra Edda, because he makes references to poems (such as Hyndluljóð) that do not appear in the Codex Regius. It seems that there were several stages involved in the compilation of this manuscript; Because some of the leafs are more crammed than others, it is likely the scribe was working from an exemplar, or previous text.
Above all, it is important to keep in mind that the poems in the Codex Regius were composed by different poets, at different times, and in different locations. It is a compilation of various poems, not a unified work with a single author.
There are also a few Eddic poems that do not occur in the Codex Regius, such as Hyndluljóð (previously mentioned) which is found in Landnámabók, and some that are included in other sources in addition to the Codex Regius, such as Völuspá, which also appears in Hauksbók.
There have been many attempts to date individual poems and determine which are “authentically heathen.”
The first method often used in this effort is the observation of various linguistic characteristics in the poems, particularly the roticism of es>er in conjugations of vera, to determine a projected date. The shift to “er” is first observed in a Norwegian source around 1182, and finally changed over exclusively to “er” by 1230. However, several poems in the Codex Regius use “es,” thus they seem to predate this shift.
The second method scholars have utilized in efforts to date the poems is intertextuality: both the use of other sources in the Eddic poems and the use of Eddic poems in other sources. For example, Völuspá st. 45 borrows heavily from Mark 13, suggesting that Biblical material must have been known to some degree by its poet. On the other end of this discussion, we have skaldic poets such as Eyvindr skáldaspillir (10th century: Hákonarmál, etc.) quoting stanzas from the Hávamál (“Deyr fé/ deyja frændr”), suggesting the existence of the Hávamál prior to this time. Any poem referenced in Snorra Edda can be dated as older than 1230.
These two methods of dating¹ can provide useful points of discussion, but should not be treated as foolproof. For one thing, Eddic poetry is less strictly structured than skaldic poetry, and thus less stable: It is possible that these poems changed over time with each recitation. Furthermore, we must be mindful of the possibility that particular stanzas or pieces of stanzas could have been added at the time the manuscript was written. Some Eddic “poems” may even be two or more poems spliced together (both Hávamál and Hyndluljóð show evidence of this).
In short, the “Poetic Edda" is a book of poetry drawn from different sources and pieced together into a collection. These poems were composed by poets and likely recited before an audience,² passed down orally before they were written down. The prologues and epilogues for these poems were probably written later than the poems themselves, and their origins are also uncertain. Most extant poems come from a single manuscript, the Codex Regius, but Snorri Sturluson was likely using a different set of poems when he wrote Snorra Edda. And, finally, Snorri Sturluson did not write the Poetic Edda.
.: A “User Guide” to Content about the Æsir in the Poetic Edda :.
Because of its composite nature, the Poetic Edda can be a daunting read. While all of it is useful and entertaining, I am going to take some time to call attention to the most “myth heavy” poems for those approaching Eddic poetry for the first time:
- Poems that discuss Gods, their halls, and family relationships: Vafðrúðnismál, Grímnismál
- Poems about other cosmological issues, particularly the beginning and end of the world: Völuspá, Vafþrúðnismál, Baldrs draumar (not CR), Hyndluljóð/Völuspá in skamma (not CR)
- Stories about particular Gods: Hávamál (Óðinn, interspersed), Skírnismál (Freyr), Hárbarðsljóð (Þórr, Óðinn), Hymiskviða (Þórr, Týr), Lokasenna (Loki, et al.), Þrymskviða (Þórr, Loki, Freyja), Reginsmál (Óðinn, Hœnir, Loki), Baldrs draumar (Baldr, Óðinn, not CR), Hyndluljóð (Freyja, not CR), Rígsþula (Rígr, not CR)
- Poems dealing with runic magic: Sigrdrífumál, Hávamál
- Proverbs and sayings: Hávamál
This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope this offers a starting point for reading about these topics.