Mythology

Prose and Poetic Eddas: Exploring the Foundational Works of Norse Mythology

While other sources exist, Skaldic poetry, Runestones, etc., the two foundational works for Norse mythology are the Prose and Poetic Eddas. At least, they’re by far the most popular today. Although both texts serve as important sources for understanding Norse literature, they differ in overall structure and purpose.

Table of Contents

Origin

Origins of the Poetic Edda

The Poetic Edda, also known as the Elder Edda or the Saemundar Edda, is a collection of Old Norse poems. It has an interesting history:

 ““Eddic poetry” is the name we use for a group of about 35 poems, all of them recorded in Iceland during the Middle Ages, nearly all in the thirteenth century. The term “eddic” is a misnomer: Most of these poems are in a single manuscript, and when the learned bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson first saw this manuscript in the seventeenth century, he perceived a similarity to the book called Edda by Snorri Sturluson and imagined that this manuscript, another “Edda,” had been composed by Sæmund Sigfússon the Learned, a priest who flourished in the years around 1100 and who according to tradition was the first Icelandic historian, although no works by him have been preserved. This manuscript was therefore called not only “The Edda of Sæmund” but also the “Elder Edda,” since Sæmund had lived a century before Snorri.”(Lindow, 12)

It consists of mythological, heroic, and didactic stories.

Origins of the Prose Edda

The Prose Edda, draws from the poetic edda, among other sources.  Also known as the Younger Edda it was written by the Icelandic scholar and historian Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. The Prose Edda is divided into sections: Gylfaginning (The Beguiling of Gylfi), Skáldskaparmál (The Language of Poetry), and Háttatal (The Enumeration of Meters). While it does serve as an introduction to the mythology, it also functions like a poetry textbook. The mythology in fact is only a topic of the first section. There is no definitive manuscript copy, and each copy differs from the others, but we think it served as a sort of textbook.

Structure

Structure of the Prose Edda

The Prose Edda is distinguished by its…prose format. Snorri Sturluson structured the text in a didactic manner, resembling a textbook. But like I said, only one part,  Gylfaginning, deals with the mythology. It presents a narrative framework as the mythical king Gylfi learns about the gods and their exploits through a series of dialogues. The others are more didactic; Skáldskaparmál focuses on poetic language and provides examples and explanations of various poetic devices. Háttatal, the final section, enumerates and describes different poetic meters. For this reason, we think its mean to function as a textbook for Old Norse poetry.

Structure of the Poetic Edda

The Poetic Edda, in contrast, is a collection of individual poems, though many follow a common style. We don’t know who individual authors are. Most are composed in alliterative verse, with many of them being in the specific Fornyrðislag verse form or Málaháttr verse form.

References

Lindow, John, Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, Oxford University Press, 2001

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