What is the Poetic Edda?

Hi, I’m Old Norse specialist Dr. Jackson Crawford. I teach Norse mythology at the University of Colorado Boulder, previously UC Berkeley and UCLA for many years. Anyone who studies Norse mythology is going to run across the Poetic or Elder Edda at some point. This book is our most important source for Norse myths and in this video I just want to explain a little bit about why that is. The manuscripts on which the bulk of the poems that we call the Poetic Edda are preserved is called the Codex Regius or in Icelandic Konungsbók : either way it means Kings book. And this manuscript was written down at about the 1270s AD in Iceland. However the poems themselves are older than that manuscript. For one thing we can tell that the manuscript itself is a copy from an older manuscript. If you think about the way that language changes from generation to generation. Just consider the fact that in 1940’s US English (just listen to a World War two radio broadcast) you hear people say things like ‘hwat’ and ‘hwether’ and ‘hwen’. But today most people say what, whether and when. That’s a change that’s happened in about 70 years. Well there were similar changes going on in Icelandic in the 1200s. And we can see that the person copying the manuscript (the codex Regius) is mostly replacing those earlier forms with the current forms of the 1270s but is occasionally, probably getting bored with the job or just tired and forgets to change it and will occasionally write the older form that he’s seeing in the manuscript that he’s copying from. And so those copying errors give us a hint that the actual manuscript the Codex Regius is copied from, the original manuscript, dates from perhaps about 1200 about 70 years earlier. Although interestingly the poem Hávamál the very famous compilation of Odin’s wisdom was probably copied from a different manuscript than the rest of the Poetic Edda was copied from. There’s an interesting story in there somewhere that’s lost to us. But again the poems themselves are probably even older than that. There are certain linguistic characteristics that just don’t work in the 1200s if you’re trying to write good Old Norse poetry. Old Norse poetry doesn’t use rhyme like traditional Modern English poetry does. If you think about traditional Modern English poetry you’re looking at something like : Roses are red violets are blue Inside I’m dead and so are you, right? But Old Norse poetry outside of the very complicated Skaldic school, which isn’t what the poetic Edda is written in, uses alliteration not rhyme, so, the ten terrible Tyrannosauruses on Tuesday principal. Well the alliteration sometimes doesn’t work if the language that you’re speaking is 1200s Icelandic. So for instance in the earliest lines of the poem Þrymskviða in which Thor loses his hammer and has to dress up like a bride to go get it back. The the first couple lines are «Reiðr var þá Ving-þorr / er hann vaknaði». That means ‘‘Thor was angry when he woke up’’. Well notice already, it’s not saying ‘‘Thor’’ It’s saying ‘‘Ving-Thor’’. There are a lot of name extensions that you can do for any of the gods to make their names alliterate with other words in the line. Here Thor has been been granted this optional name extension Ving so that it can alliterate with a V but there’s one more V missing. If this is going to be good Old Norse poetry we clearly need another V. This is not there. Well if you change «Reiðr», that very first word angry to «Vreiðr» with a V as one might be tempted to do based on the English cognate which has a W there and Ws in English are typically Vs in Old Norse. Or you might look at the fact that in Danish the word is «Vred» which has a V. That’s ‘‘angry’’. Or you might look at the fact that in earlier Icelandic that word had a V. So you get Vreiðr and then that suggests that of course this poem was composed at a time in Icelandic probably before about the year 1000 when that V was still there. Now that’s interesting because it suggests that these poems when passed down orally in such a way that people actually haven’t changed them even when the poetry ceased to work and that gives us great confidence that these poems are much older than the manuscript that they’re written on. So many of the poems about the gods like Þrymskviða about Thor getting his hammer back Vǫluspá about the beginning and destruction of the world or Hávamál about Odin’s wisdom seem today from about the 900s while some of the heroic poems probably were composed in the centuries just before the Codex Regius was written down but some of the heroic poems are also some of the oldest. Atlakviða about the death of Atilla or Atli and Hamðismál about the death of Guðrun’s sons are probably the oldest two poems in the Poetic Edda probably dating from about the 800s AD. So thanks to linguistics and to an understanding of Norse poetry we do think that these poems are good sources for the beliefs of Scandinavians before their conversion to Christianity which in Iceland traditionally happened in the year 1000. So even though it may be popular on the Internet to claim that the Poetic Edda is not a good source because of when it was written. The question isn’t when it was written but when those poems were composed. Let me also point out that there’s another book called the Prose Edda. Often the Poetic Edda is called Elder Edda because the material in it is so much older than the material in the Prose Edda which is called the Younger Edda also. The Prose Edda is the work of one author, unlike the Poetic Edda which is a compilation of poems from many different places and times. That one author of the Prose Edda is Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic chieftain who was born in 1178 or 1179 and died in 1241. Snorri in his Prose Edda wrote down all of the myths that he knew about the gods and (there’s a chickadee who landed right next to me) and he did so in such a way to make them as cohesive as he could. He was a Christian and of course in medieval Christianity there was a well-formulated series of beliefs about how the world had come to be and about the life of Jesus and etc and he wanted to do the same thing for pre-christian religion although what he found in the poems of the poetic Edda which he knew, was not one cohesive story about a story that contradicted itself because these stories varied from place to place and time to time and and poet to poet. So Snorri kind of makes things too cohesive for the stories to actually be as valuable because unlike the Poetic Edda, which is a recording of old lore, the Prose Edda is kind of a recomposition of old lore. Nonetheless there are a lot of stories we would not know if Snorri hadn’t written them down and so he is also very valuable. But I would have to say if I could choose one of those two books to have survived I would definitely have chosen the Poetic Edda. There are many translations of both books available. For the Prose Edda I recommend the translation by Anthony Faulkes For the Poetic Edda my own translation (which has been available since 2015) is the first by a scholar of the Old Norse language that also presents the text in a readable modern English. So I hope that if you’re curious about these books that you’ll check them out at first hand for yourself. And from beautiful frozen Wyoming, I’m wishing you all the best.

41 Replies to “What is the Poetic Edda?

  1. Since this video was filmed and edited, I have signed with my publisher (Hackett Publishing Company) to produce my own translation of Snorri's Prose Edda as well. This is due after my next translation with them (The Saga of Hrólf Kraki with The Saga of Hervor and Heiđrek), so I would expect it to be available in perhaps 2021.

  2. I dunno if you read comments at this point but it'd be awesome if you made a video about dotted medieval runes and their relation to Younger futhark. Anyways, thanks for everything.

  3. Not: it is Vred even in Swedish. The poem do start
    "Vred var Ving-Tor,
    när han vaknade,
    och sin hammare
    han saknade; "

    I have to say I have enjoyed this going through the Eda. It has been real fun to get understanding and glimps into it.

  4. I don't know what I did on Youtube, but for some reason this channel and a few others keep popping up. So I've watched a few videos and it's really interesting! Thanks!

  5. Would you mind making a video about how the Noah words were used in the Eddas? For example in Alvissmál the alves call the ocean lagastafr. Axel Olrik developed a theory revolving these words. And he meant that the noah words on the Shetland islands were the same as in the eddas. Take my exanple and the similar word 'log' used in Shetlands. What do you think of his theories and could you explain them?
    Best regards

  6. This is so awesome! Dr. Crawford is both knowledgeable and concise, and it looks like Winter Has Come to Colorado. Greetings, from Canada, where believe it or not it is MUCH colder and snowier…'scuse me, I think my direwolf wants to be let back in the house!

  7. Regarding Reiðr / Vreiðr : what if the pronunciation had changed to Wreiðr? Would there be a way to write the W in Old Norse / Old Icelandic?
    Thank you for these videos, Dr Crawford . I'm enjoying them .

  8. I do love your work Dr. J Crawford
    I wanted to ask you opinion on something I had wondered about
    No disrespect meant to any ones religious beliefs.

    Who art in Haven
    Hallowed be thy name
    Thy will be done
    Till Kingdom come
    At our Hearth
    As it is in Haven

    All-Father -Odin
    Haven is a small farming village to the south of Odense near Soby. Nice area to retire.
    Hallowed – Hail Odd – Odin
    Kingdom – the opposite of Freedom
    Ragnarok – the last battle for Freedom.
    End of the free world
    It was understood that after Ragnarok the "undead" would roam the earth,
    those unfortunate souls born without the Freedom to live yet are not dead themselves.
    There seems to be to much coincidence for it to be a mistake.
    Your thoughts?

  9. Stumbled across your channel …. think il hang around, looking forward to learning something new. We have a lot of Viking influences and history in Scotland 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

  10. Is this Attila, Attila the Hun? I'm quite surprised to see some faint link with our history then (Hungarians). Huns said to be lived here (what is Hungary now) and there are some theories that Hungarians and Huns are relatives (I can't judge how serious these theories are, though), though Huns were "here" something like 500 years before the Hungarians (and sadly there is not enough linguistic material on the Hun language, only about some words, which is serious source at least). But anyway, another great video! Not only because my interest in Old Norse, but also because of this interesting link I haven't even heard about (if it's really that Attila). We had to learn about Attila even in elementary school btw.

  11. Off subject, but I'd love to hear your opinion of this movie on Netflix, the Ritual. I know it's very loose, but would love to hear if and where in the story Norse myth may fit in.

  12. I tried to find some information about Valhalla online but couldn't so i ask the question here instead.

    What was the view of foreigners in the eyes of Odin and his Valkyries? Is there anything about this in the Edda's? Say some vikings would invade Francia or the middle east, would the vikings believe that Odin would choose from the slain enemies as well or was it only for the Scandinavians?

    Love your channel as its the best source of Norse language and myths!
    Best regards from Sweden.

  13. I know it'll be completely off topic for you but can you do a more general language comparison video? uhmm, what I mean by that such as asian languages and euro languages comparison. let me give an example, in Estonia and Turkey they say "anne" rest of the europe use some kind of "modher". I know it is about the roots of the languages but mosat of the time that's about grammar not word origins? can you do a video on this subject?

  14. Wauw! These videos are really interesting, – especially for someone like me who descends in a straight line from Harald Blåtand who made the danes Christian around the year 970 🙂 Totally drengr!

  15. I first stumbled on your comparison of Nordic languages to Old Norse and posted it on facebook with the (appreciative) comment: "Varsågod, alla språknördar! Är denne man språkvärldens svar på Indiana Jones?" Imagine my great delight when I went to your channel and spotted THIS thumbnail!!! I'd say it pretty much answers my question. 😉

  16. I really enjoy watching your videos. Do you have any recommendations for language videos based on German, plat Deutsch, or Germanic languages?

  17. In high school English, (mid 80's) our textbook had excerpts from the Poetic Edda as part of our literature curriculum. The problem was that the footnotes would take up about a third of the page trying to put everything into context which took up space which means less actual literature. . I just received your translated work the other day and the first pages really put everything in context and historical position. No more pesky footnotes. Much smoother read and a much more enjoyable read. I could even read this to my nieces and nephews and they would enjoy it. And THAT is your greatest success.

  18. There is a tiny saga that is not so known, but still is very interesting.
    Because it gives you a good insight on the Icelandic justice system at that time. (its already a lot of this, but this is still interesting reading for those who have the interest.) 😉
    The name of the saga is "Soga um Hønse-Tore" directly translated it would be "The Saga about Chicken-Tore".
    Tore is the name of the main character in the saga, and he is a small minded grim person few people will like when they read about him.

    If you have not read it, i hope you will find one, i am pretty sure you will like it. 🙂

  19. I just received you translation of the Saga of the Volsungs, the Poetic Edda is on the way; I'm so glad I found you channel, greetings from Mexico.

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