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The Poetic Edda, tr. Henry A. Bellows
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Sampled Opening

The final part of the opening is sampled from Professor Bellow's Introduction, with a few additions.

What is called the Poetic Edda is an unnamed collection of Old Norse anonymous poems. Several versions exist. The Eddic poems are composed in alliterative verse. The language of the poems is usually clear and quite unadorned. The Eddic poems were minstrel poems for centuries. None of the poems are attributed to a particular author.

It is not easy to date the poems exactly or find out where they were composed in the first place. However, some poems contain possible clues. For example, Iceland was not settled by Norwegians and all their Celtic women (as genetic studies tell) until about 870. so anything composed before that time would necessarily have been made elsewhere, for example in Western Norway.

Alsom 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 Norwegian settlers in Greenland until that time.

Scholars have attempted to localise individual poems by studying the geography, flora, and fauna they speak of. This approach may suggests origins in Norway, for example, but does not yield firm results. Professor Ludvig Holm-Olsen argues all the same for a Norwegian origin of Havamal by referring to animals, plants and other elements in the poems that are found in Norway, but not in Iceland. Besides, he refers to a fragment of Havamal excavated in Bergen, Norway. And then, again, Icelanders were Norwegians also, for a long time, until they were called Icelanders. They brought a language, customs and so on with them, and interacted with the Norwegians a long time, as Snorri describes in his Heimskringa. Holm-Olsen refers to verses in Havamal:

The majority of . . . the parts of Havamal have such an old look that they . . . may originate in pre-Christian times [in the North]. In some of the stanzas we encounter features that show that we are in the Norwegian nature and cultural environment. Here, but not in Iceland, the heron flies (13) the young fir tree and the oak grow here (50, 137) the wolf hunts here (50, 58), here the reindeer runs in the mountains (90), here are stone monuments by the roadside. Kings ruled here (15, 86, 114, 146), and it was customary to burn corpses (71, 81), a custom abolished when Christianity came, and one was not common in Iceland. Several such features could be mentioned. We can therefore assume that large parts of Havamal are Norwegian poetic material that Icelanders took care of. (Holm-Olsen 1985, 314-15)

There is more: The Norwegian Wikipedia says about the Elder Edda's poems:

Probably they were written in the early 13th century, perhaps in Iceland, perhaps in Norway. It is probable that several of the poems were known in oral form in Norway before the turn of the millennium and that emigrants to Iceland brought them with them. Some runic inscriptions have been excavated at the Bryggen (Pier) in Bergen [an Unesco site], and dated back to the 12th century. They contain stanzas found in the Eddic poems.

Even so, although Icelandic poets speak of wolves and there are no wolves in Iceland, travelling Icelanders may well have heard and seen some in Ireland, England, Scotland and Norway, to name a few countries where there were wolves then. The last wild wolf in Ireland is said to have been killed in 1786, three hundred years after they were believed to have been wiped out in England and a century after they disappeared in Scotland (WP, "Wolves in Ireland").

What poems are included in an edition of the Poetic Edda depends on the editor. 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.

From Henry Adams Bellows' Introduction

Here are extracts and renderings, with a few additional remarks.

The Poetic Edda is the original storehouse of Germanic mythology. It has a literary value apart from its historical significance. The mythological poems include, in the Voluspo, one of the vastest conceptions of the creation and ultimate destruction of the world ever crystallized in literary form. Hovamol [which is a part of this Edda] is a collection of wise counsels that can bear comparison with most of the Biblical Book of Proverbs.

"Beware, take care" is a dominant message, with elaborations like "be prepared for the unexpected", "trust better than fools do," and so on.

The humor is often broad. The Thrymskvitha is one of the finest ballads in the world.

The hero poems give us, in its oldest and most vivid extant form, the story of Sigurth, Brynhild, and Atli, the Norse parallel to the German Nibelungenlied.

There is dramatic force and tremendous imagery embodied in these poems.

The poems of the so-called Edda - "We do not know who composed them, or when or where they were composed; we are by no means sure who collected them or when he did so; finally, we are not absolutely certain as to what an "Edda" is," writes Bellows. (p. xiv)

Icelandic tradition, however, persisted in ascribing either this Edda or one resembling it to Snorri's much earlier compatriot, Saemund the Wise (1056-1133). (p. xv)

The Poetic Edda, as we now know it, is no definite and plainly limited work, but rather a more or less haphazard collection of separate poems, dealing either with Norse mythology or with hero-cycles . . . thirty-four poems have been preserved, twenty-nine of them in a single manuscript collection, which differ considerably in subject-matter and style from all the rest of extant Old Norse poetry, and these we group together as the Poetic Edda. (p. xvi)

The collection of thirty-four poems which we now know as the Poetic or Elder Edda is practically all that has come down to us of Old Norse mythological and heroic poems. (p. xviii)

The gods definitely antedate the year 1000 . . . (fragment). It is a reasonable guess that the years between 850 and 1050 saw the majority of the Eddic poems worked into definite shape, but it must be remembered that many changes took place during the long subsequent period of oral transmission, and also that many of the legends, both mythological and heroic, on which the poems were based certainly existed in the Norse regions, and quite possibly in verse form, long before the year 900. (p. xix)

Tales underlying the heroic lays are clearly of foreign origin: the Helgi story comes from Denmark, and that of Volund from Germany, as also the great mass of traditions centring around Sigurth (Siegfried), Brynhild, the sons of Gjuki, Atli (Attila), and Jormunrek (Ermanarich).

Some of the poem tellers and writers must have been literary artists with a high degree of conscious skill. The Eddic poems are "folk-poetry," - whatever that may be, - some of them strongly reflect racial feelings and beliefs; they are anything but crude or primitive in workmanship, and they show that not only the poets themselves, but also many of their hearers, must have made a careful study of the art of poetry.

Where the poems were shaped is equally uncertain. Any date prior to 875 would normally imply an origin on the mainland, but the necessarily fluid state of oral tradition made it possible for a poem to be "composed" many times over, and in various and far-separated places, without altogether losing its identity. Thus, even if a poem first assumed something approximating its present form in Iceland in the tenth century, it may none the less embody language characteristic of Norway two centuries earlier. Oral poetry has always had an amazing preservative power. (p. xx)

Great literary activity of Iceland after the settlement of the island by Norwegian emigrants late in the ninth century makes the theory of an Icelandic home for many of the poems appear plausible. The two Atli lays, with what authority we do not know, bear in the Codex Regius the superscription "the Greenland poem," and internal evidence suggests that this statement may be correct.

Certainly in one poem, the Rigsthula, and probably in several others, there are marks of Celtic influence. Certainly it was in Iceland that the Norse poems were chiefly preserved.

Old Norse literature covers approximately the period between 850 and 1300. During the first part of (p. xxi) that period occurred the great wanderings of the Scandinavian peoples, and particularly the Norwegians. . . . This was the time of the inroads of the dreaded Northmen in France, and in 885 Hrolf Gangr (Rollo) laid siege to Paris itself. Many Norwegians went to Ireland, where their compatriots had already built Dublin, and where they remained in control of most of the island till Brian Boru shattered their power at the battle of Clontarf in 1014.

Of all the migrations, however, the most important were those to Iceland. Here grew up an active civilization, fostered by some independence and by remoteness from nearly a century of internal wars that wracked Norway, yet kept from degenerating into provincialism by the roving life of the people, which brought them constantly in contact with the culture of the South.

The years between 875 and 1100 were the great spontaneous period of oral literature among Icelanders. Most of the military and political leaders were also poets. Narrative (p. xxii) prose also flourished, for the Icelander had a passion for story-telling and story-hearing. After 1100 came the day of the writers. These sagamen collected the material that for generations had passed from mouth to mouth, and gave it permanent form in writing. The greatest bulk of what we now have of Old Norse literature,--and the published part of it makes a formidable library,--originated thus in the earlier period before the introduction of writing, and was put into final shape by the scholars, most of them Icelanders, of the hundred years following 1150.

After 1250 came a rapid and tragic decline. Iceland lost its independence, becoming a Norwegian province. Later Norway too fell under alien rule, a Swede ascending the Norwegian throne in 1320. Pestilence and famine laid waste the whole North; volcanic disturbances worked havoc in Iceland. Literature did not quite die, but . . .

The mass of literature thus collected and written down largely between 1150 and 1250 may be roughly divided into four groups. The greatest in volume is made up of the sagas: narratives mainly in prose, ranging all the way from authentic history of the Norwegian kings and the early Icelandic settlements to fairy-tales. Embodied in the sagas is found the material composing the second group: the skaldic poetry, a vast collection of songs of praise, triumph, love, lamentation, and so on, almost uniformly characterised (p. xxiii) by an appalling complexity of figurative language.

There is no absolute line to be drawn between the poetry of the skalds and the poems of the Edda, which we may call the third group; but in addition to the remarkable artificiality of style which marks the skaldic poetry, and which is seldom found in the poems of the Edda, the skalds dealt almost exclusively with their own emotions, whereas the Eddic poems are quite impersonal.

Finally, there is the fourth group, made up of didactic works, religious and legal treatises, and so on, studies which originated chiefly in the later period of learned activity.

Most of the poems of the Poetic Edda have unquestionably reached us in rather bad shape by interpolations, omissions and changes, and some of them, as they now stand, are a bewildering hodge-podge of little related fragments, and the result of a later patchwork process.

Some few of the poems, however, appear to be virtually complete and unified as we now have them. (p. xxiv)

The original metrics, alliterations, some artificial sentence structures and forms have been disregarded by me. And all the poems too for now . . . - T. K.


The Poetic Edda,  Henry Adams Bellows, Norse poetry, Norse teaching poem, an Edda poem, Literature  

Bellows, Henry Adams. 1936. The Poetic Edda. Translated from the Icelandic with an Introduction and Notes. Scandinavian Classics, Volumes 21 and 22. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1936.

Holm-Olsen, Ludvig, tr. 1985. Edda-dikt. 2nd rev. ed. Oslo: Cappelen. --

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