Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Poetic Edda: The Mythological Poems

The Poetic Edda is that single body of literature that seems to stand above all else in modern heathenry. It’s the source of quotes, the uses for which range from ceremonial utterances, to the
scolding of those in need of hearing the Sayings of Har. It’s sometimes said to be the first book one should start their collection with. It is indeed one of the primary sources from which modern scholars understand the myths of Northern Europe. To this end then, the Edda requires some review.

Of the multiple translations, I consider and highly suggest the Dover edition, translated by Henry Adams Bellows. It’s an older translation and carries some of that old language, but it is much more
accurate in wording to the original than others, especially Lee Hollander’s translation. It also holds a wealth of footnotes, and introductions to each poem, as well as the book itself. It’s these introductions and an understanding of what the Poetic Edda is that are key to putting the Poetic Edda in a context that is appropriate for helping to reconstruct any form of heathenry. The Edda is really a snapshot of poetry, written down by Icelandic Christians, over 200 years after Iceland’s conversion. While they are the remnants of older poetry, much of their content is influenced by Christianity (some poems more than others), and even then they are only a snapshot of a part of Norse myth, during one part in time, after the close of the Viking Age. It is imperative that the poems within be read and internalized with this understanding. With that being said, they do paint a wonderful portrait of Norse Myths, as they were understood in Iceland towards the last days of heathenism. The opening poem, Voluspo depicts the mythological passing of time from the earth’s creation to its end with the burning of Yggdrasil and the worlds contained within. Hovamol, or the words of Othin, is a collection of folk wisdom that resonates throughout each of the sagas as a deep glimpse into the worldview of the time. Other poems depict mythological places and events, from Thor’s battle with Mithgarthsorm, to Loki’s binding. The dialogue is entertaining, and the stories they tell form much of the bulk of what we know about Northern mythology.

As mentioned above, the Bellows version is ripe with necessary introductions and footnotes that should not be overlooked. The book begins with a lengthy introduction in which the origin of the poems is presented along with an overview of their place in Nordic and European literature. Each poem is given its own introduction which includes an overview as well as scrutiny into its origins, original condition, and possible Christian interpolation. Footnotes help to clarify passages, kennings, and are used to flag spots in the poem that may have required the translator’s creative liberties. The language itself is difficult to understand for modern readers, and will likely require a solid grasp of the mythology prior to reading (Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths is highly recommended). The collective body generally known as “The Poetic Edda” is split into two volumes in this case. Volume one contains all of the mythological poems which concern the gods, while Volume two refers to the “Heroic poems”. For its price however, this should not be such an inconvenience.

The poems contained in the Poetic Edda are beautiful in imagery and composition, and they help to shed tremendous light on later age Norse mythology. They also provide us with stories and
poetry worth retelling and preserving through our traditions and customs. However, interpretation of their concepts and what they might have meant to the reader of the time, let alone what they would have looked like or meant to the Norse heathen is exceedingly difficult even for scholars. The subject will likely always remain one of intense debate. It is strongly suggested that the reader avoid attempts at self interpretation regarding what these poems might have meant for the religion of the Icelandic or Scandinavian heathen, but rather to supplement them heavily with the work of academic scholars in the field.