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The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes

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The Poetic Edda comprises a treasure trove of mythic and spiritual verse holding an important place in Nordic culture, literature, and heritage. Its tales of strife and death form a repository, in poetic form, of Norse mythology and heroic lore, embodying both the ethical views and the cultural life of the North during the late heathen and early Christian times.

Collected by an unidentified Icelander, probably during the twelfth or thirteenth century, The Poetic Edda was rediscovered in Iceland in the seventeenth century by Danish scholars. Even then its value as poetry, as a source of historical information, and as a collection of entertaining stories was recognized. This meticulous translation succeeds in reproducing the verse patterns, the rhythm, the mood, and the dignity of the original in a revision that Scandinavian Studies says "may well grace anyone's bookshelf."

343 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1270

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Profile Image for Leonard Gaya.
Author 1 book938 followers
July 13, 2023
The Poetic Edda is the great-grandmother of Icelandic literature. It takes us back to a poetic time when civilisation was young and rough, when gods, elves, giants, dwarves, and men shared the same world, a time before Christianity but preserved by Christian missionaries, the time of Norse myths and heroic deeds. These skaldic songs, disjointed fragments collected from ancient sources, weave a captivating tapestry encompassing comedic sketches and tragic narratives.

With its brevity and allusive power, the Völuspa (Prophecy of the Seeress) covers the grandeur of creation and the foretelling of Ragnarök, the world’s cataclysmic end. Brief allusions hint at larger story cycles. Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning (in the Prose Edda) is a retelling and expanded commentary of the same narrative.

The Havamal and Sigrdrifumal stand as sapiential books, offering wisdom sayings through repetitions to reinforce moral advice to the young, while Alvissmal’s kennings (periphrastic metaphorical verses) paint a vivid picture of the natural world.

Other poems display varied narrative styles, from comedic banter and exchanges of insults, like Harbarthsljoth and Lokasenna, to Q&A formats, like Vafthruthnismal, Alvissmal or Gripisspa (James Joyce would have qualified this style as “catechetical”).

The second half of the Edda focuses on the epic narratives and tragedies of the Völsungs, with tales like Helgakvitha Hjorvarthsonnar and other interconnected stories. Poems like Reginsmal, Fafnismal, and Sigrdrifumal explore the adventures of the young Sigurth (Siegfried), the slaying of dragons, and encounters with Valkyries. Later poems like Sigurtharkvitha and Guthrunarkvitha explore tragic tales of star-crossed lovers, fatal betrayals, revenge, and their devastating consequences.

The Eddic poems, filled with haunting imagery and ethical dilemmas, have left, directly or indirectly, an indelible mark on art, literature and popular culture. From The Nibelungenlied to Snorri’s Edda; from Shakespeare’s tragedies to Richard Wagner’s operas and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth novels; from Neil Gaiman’s modern adaptation to George R.R. Martin to countless video games. In short, The Poetic Edda continues relentlessly to capture readers and audiences.

Finally, a word on translations. I went back and forth between Lee M. Hollander’s and Jackson Crawford’s versions, which couldn’t be more dissimilar. While Hollander uses an archaic and slightly starchy style, Crawford delivers the Edda right to your gut. His translation even offers a version of the Havamal that could fit in a John Ford movie (Vikings, Cowboys, same difference!). Here is a quick example based on stanza 54:

Middling wise every man should be:
beware of being too wise;
happiest in life most likely he
who knows not more than is needful.

You should be
only a little wise,
never too wise.
The happiest people
throughout their lives
are the moderately wise.

Crawford (old cowboy version):
Don’t git too goddamned smart, now,
there’s a measure for ever’thing.
And don’t think it’s for nothing
that the stupid people
tend to be the happier ones, too.

Here is my reading pal Michelle's review.
Profile Image for Wood Wroth.
3 reviews
December 3, 2013
PLEASE NOTE: Due to poor organization of translations on this website, I must note that this is a review of Andy Orchard's translation of the "Poetic Edda", which he has titled "The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore".

Being familiar with Andy Orchard's handbook on Norse mythology ("Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend", 1997) and finding it to be a nice middle ground between Rudolf Simek's deeply flawed handbook and the limited scope of John Lindow's own, it was with high hopes that I waited for Andy Orchard's 2011 English translation of the Poetic Edda, or, alternately, as Orchard has chosen to go with here, the "Elder Edda". Specifically I had hoped that Orchard's 2011 Penguin Classics translation would be a superior alternative to Carolyne Larrington's commonly available Oxford World's Classics translation (titled "The Poetic Edda" and first published in 1996). Unfortunately, Orchard's translation not only continues most of the problems found in Larrington's translation, but also introduces a variety of new issues.

Let's begin with the title. This translation of the Poetic Edda is titled "The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore", and the material contained within is frequently referred to as "viking lore" throughout. Referring to these poems as "viking lore" may have been a marketing decision intended to move units, but it is unfortunately misleading; the lore in question primarily dates from the Viking Age, sure, but elements of the compositions date at least as far back as the Migration Period (the 5th to 9th century CE) and other elements are from a few hundred years after the Viking Age ended (the Poetic Edda was compiled in the 13th century and the Viking Age is held to have ended in the 11th century). Further, famous as the vikings are, they made up a small fraction of Scandinavian society at their greatest. Daily life among the vast majority of the North Germanic peoples was focused squarely on matters pastoral and agricultural and had little to do with this specific class of Norsemen. Anyway, a minor gripe, but it needs to be pointed out.

The introduction essay is considerably more hairy. The first major issue here is Orchard's handling of weekday names. Orchard makes it seem as if the English days of the week are of Old Norse origin (p. xvii) and, consequently, that modern English "Friday" is named after the goddess Freyja. In actuality, these weekday names were put in place by way of a process known as interpretatio germanica. This occurred in nearly all recorded Germanic languages and well before the Viking Age. As a result, the English weekday names are not a product of Old Norse influence but arose natively, and so bear the names of native Anglo-Saxon deities. As a result, English "Friday" in fact translates to 'Frige's Day'. Old English "Frige" is linguistically cognate to the name of the Old Norse goddess "Frigg", and not that of the Old Norse goddess Freyja. Why Orchard offers this muddled commentary rather than simply pointing out how closely related the English and the Norse were I do not know. It would have likely have whetted the interest of the reader to point out that, as is the case with all Germanic languages and mythologies, the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse were fellow siblings of a Proto-Germanic mother.

Later in his introduction, Orchard offers up some curious personal commentary as simple fact. The first incident of this occurs when Orchard discusses women in the mythological poems contained within the Poetic Edda. According to Orchard, "in the mythical world of the Codex Regius [the most important Poetic Edda manuscript], women are largely scheming and suspect, when they are not simply victims or the objects of unwanted sexual attention" (xx). From Freyja's ferocious refusal to be downtrodden in "Þrymskviða" (p. 98), to Odin's reminder that men can be just as untrustworthy as women in "Hávamál" (p. 27), to Odin's dependence upon the wisdom of an ancient, dead female völva in "Völuspá" (pp. 1-14), this is a particularly dubious interpretation of the role of the numerous goddesses, valkyries, and other strong-willed, strong-minded female beings depicted in these poems. True, the female aspect of Germanic mythology is far under-represented in these poems, but so are most things that don't relate to the god Odin or royalty, likely due to the source of their recording (skalds of particular royal courts). Orchard might have pointed out the strong female component found in our records of Germanic paganism and its mythology. Beginning with veneration of Nerthus as recorded by Tacitus in 1 CE (Germania) on to repeated references to a strong tradition of powerful, intelligent seeressess wielding power throughout the records of the heathen Germanic peoples (such as Veleda, Albruna, Waluburg, Ganna, and Gambara), and reaching all the way up to our records of Norse mythology, it is clear that women were no lesser beings to the pre-Christian Germanic peoples.

In the same section is Orchard's commentary on what he calls "the twin fatal flaws of Norse pagan belief" (p. xxxv). Orchard says these two flaws were that Norse pagan beliefs were "fragmented" and also "had an uncertain future". Regarding his first point, Orchard claims that since Germanic (or specifically Norse) paganism appears to have been fragmented and non-unified, it was destined to be replaced by Christianity. However, what he neglects to mention is that while few surviving sources on continental Germanic paganism exist, these sources frequently seem to closely parallel the Old Norse material (i.e. the Merseburg Incantations, Nerthus>Njörðr, etc.), which points to more unity than Orchard is willing to give credit for here, despite the vast distances in time and place between these attestations.

Orchard's second point revolves around Norse afterlife beliefs, which he describes as a simple Valhalla-Ragnarök model (on an apparently linear timescale). Orchard briefly compares this to Christianity's afterlife narrative, which he evidently deems to have offered more to believers and thus insinuates that it was therefore more attractive. This is problematic for multiple reasons, but the primary reason is that the Germanic afterlife beliefs were clearly nowhere near as simple as Orchard here says (which the Poetic Edda alone makes perfectly clear). From references to reincarnation and reduplication of mythical elements (and so to the potential of cyclic time), to several distinctly different methods of burial on the archaeological record, to references in the Poetic Edda to ill-defined afterlife locations such as Freyja's afterlife field Fólkvangr (notably, Orchard ignores that Odin is in fact attested as having to cede half of his harvest of the dead to the goddess, even though he takes the time to problematically render Fólkvangr as--groan--"Battle-Field" (p. 52)), this is a gross simplification on the part of Orchard that is entirely misleading and does not help his audience in understanding the material he presents.

Yet what is perhaps most striking about Orchard's claim of "twin fatal flaws" is that he for some reason neglects to mention the primary reason for this shift in religion: the systemic, bloody, and much-resisted process of the Christianization of Germanic Europe. From Charlemagne's crusade against the pagan Saxons, waged with extermination orders for those that refused Christianization in hand (see Charlemagne's infamous "Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae" and the Massacre of Verden), to archaeological finds of mass employment of emblematic replicas of Thor's hammer all over Scandinavia as a defiant responses to enclosing Christian crosses, and references to death-or-conversion throughout the Old Norse record, it is inappropriate for Orchard to fob off these events with a poorly-supported theory of supposed "flaws".

It is further crucial to mention that, despite the Christianization process, elements of these beliefs continued to live on in folklore and folk practice, where deity names are recorded as in use until as late as the 19th century in Germanic-language speaking areas, sometimes exactly in the context of Old Norse attestations (!). These beliefs have also been the source in modern times for modern reconstructionist Germanic pagan groups. In fact, as Orchard mentions his fondess for taking trips to Iceland in his translation, he should well be aware that a modern Norse heathen movement now makes up the second largest religious group in the country; the ever-growing Ásatrúarfélagið. And they are hardly alone. Groups inspired by Germanic paganism now exist in every country in Europe, throughout the United States, South America, and as far away as Australia. Why does this sizable cultural shift get no mention here? While Orchard does mention that the Poetic Edda has had much literary influence through the years, it is by no means an overstatement to say that the Poetic Edda has been influential well beyond those dusty circles, and that the work remains a potent cultural force.

Moving on to the "A Note on Spelling, Pronunciation, and Translation" section, Orchard details some of his translation choices. Unfortunately, Orchard has decided to arbitrarily and inconsistently translate some of the proper names in the text to whatever he has most preferred. Mind-bogglingly, Orchard admits that this practice is "frankly indefensible" (p. xliv) but goes ahead and does it anyway! What exactly does this mean for the reader? Well, for example, the proper name Gullveig is rendered as "Gold-draught" (p. 8), despite the fact that it is just as likely that "Gullveig" could be rendered as something like "Gold-strength" or even (by way of semantic value) "The Bright One". Additionally, since these are proper names that may have been archaic in their time, this practice is a lot like referring to your 20th century pal Alfred as "Elf-Counsel", yet with far more etymological certainty than is available in most of the etymological troublesome proper nouns Orchard handles in his translation. Restricting this sort of tomfoolery to the Index of Names section in the back of the book would have avoided any confusion nicely, and Orchard's earlier handbook contains plenty of etymologies to draw from.

Adding to this unfortunate decision is Orchard's choice to continue the practice of inappropriate and unhelpful glossing found in some other translations. For example, the glosses "giant" and "ogre" (both derived from Greco-Roman mythology) are slapped on top of various words for a variety of beings specific to the mythology, such as "thurs", "jötunn", "risi", and "troll", rendering exactly what is being referred to unclear and the semantic context totally indiscernible. Even the place name "Jötunheimr" is rendered as "Giants' Domain". Besides, the source text is entirely unclear how "giant" any of these beings were considered at any given time. This poor practice should have been discontinued long ago, even if, yes, a minor note about what the scary, scary word may mean would be required. I mean, do we gloss "valkyrie" as "fury" or "Odin" as "Jupiter"? Fortunately not, and these culturally-specific concepts should be treated with the same level of respect.

Considering the whole package, there does not really seem to be a lot of reason for this translation to exist; it offers essentially nothing of particular value that its precursor (Larrington's translation) does not, and it frequently reads much like it. Additionally, it is an entirely bare-boned affair, free of any special media or aesthetic treatment, and the Old Norse is not included (a low-priced dual-edition translation remains unavailable for all current English translations). It further does not offer, say, translations of rarely published poems associated with the Poetic Edda (such as the wonderful "Hrafnagaldr Óðins", unfortunately restricted to some early translations). The inclusion of any of these elements would have set it apart from all other modern English translations. On the up side, it is useful for its footnotes--which, with the issues outlined above as examples, one would do well to eye with caution--and is also mildly useful as yet another translation to compare prior Poetic Edda translations to. Perhaps Penguin simply needed a translation similar to Oxford's Larrington translation and Orchard was up to the task. Whatever the case, the wait for a definitive English Poetic Edda translation continues.

I am not advising the reader to avoid this translation. In fact, short of Ursula Dronke's unavailable translation(s), a superior alternative does not come to mind. However, if one does decide to get this translation, he or she will benefit from searching online for Benjamin Thorpe's 19th century translation along with Henry Adam Bellows's early 20th century translation for comparison. Both translations are in the public domain. Due to his avoidance of glossing, Thorpe's translation in particular retains its value, and will counteract some of the confusion to be found here. Lee M. Hollander's mid-20th century translation is still widely available and is also useful for comparison. Otherwise, tread with care.
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 30 books14k followers
August 26, 2022

Over the last two and a half years, it has been my great pleasure to help my talented Icelandic colleagues use the LARA platform to put together a multimedia edition of the Poetic Edda. Three poems - Völuspá , Hávamál and Lokasenna - have already been posted separately, and some people will remember the Goodreads reading groups we had for them.

As of today, the project has passed another milestone, and we have just posted a combined edition which contains ten poems (Völuspá, Hávamál, Vafþrúðnismál, Grímnismál, Skírnismál, Hárbarðsljóð, Hymiskviða, Lokasenna, Þrymskviða and Alvíssmál) organised as a single document which you can find here. As with the individual poems, you can view it in Chrome or Firefox and listen to the original Old Norse a verse at a time. Hovering over a ᚠ rune shows a verse translation from the public domain Bellows edition. Hovering over a word shows an English gloss; clicking on it plays audio, and also brings up a concordance on the right hand side where you can see different places the word occurs, both in the current poem and also in the other ones.

The project has been a true labour of love, and hopefully this is still just the beginning. If you want a glimpse of what might be coming next, check out this page.
[Update, Aug 26 2022]

After further diligent work, there's now a second version posted here where the glosses are in modern Icelandic. Even if you don't know any Icelandic or Old Norse, it's quite interesting to go through a few verses, hovering over the Old Norse words to discover how much the language has changed since 1280.

I'm very curious to see feedback from Icelandic high school students who are currently reading the Poetic Edda in class...
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 30 books14k followers
April 10, 2022
I have been helping my Icelandic colleagues put together LARA versions of Old Norse poems from the Edda, which gave me the opportunity to appreciate a few of them in the original; Völuspá and Hávamál were indeed quite magnificent. When I remembered we had this book lying on the shelf, I thought I should read it. I'm fluent in Swedish, it's a direct descendant of Old Norse, translation between closely related languages often works, and Collinder came across as very serious about the project.

Well, having finished, I'm afraid to say I'm disappointed. Collinder was indeed extremely serious, maybe even too serious. He gives the impression of having known everything there was to know about the Edda and Old Norse literature in general, and seems to have spent a good part of his life reworking his translation; I have the third revised edition. He says the meter is always the same as in the original. The long introduction is interesting, and told me a great deal I didn't know about Old Norse poetry. Some verses are very good. But mostly, it's flat. I compare with the lines I'd read in the original, and the music is gone. Well, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. These are some of the greatest poems in world literature, why should they work in translation? Reading through the book was not at all a waste of time though. It has given me an overview of the Edda and made me want to go back and read more of it in Old Norse. Maybe that's all Collinder was trying to achieve.

One noteworthy exception: the translation of the final poem, Egil Skalla-Grímssons Sonatorrek, Egil Skalla-Grímsson's elegy for his dead son, is extraordinary, beautiful and heartbreaking. The pages I have found about Collinder's life are uninformative and don't mention any children, but it's hard not to feel there is some personal connection here.

I reread it, and second time round I appreciated it much more. Collinder's uncompromising language takes some getting used to, and also you have to know the whole story already for it to make sense.

I am now very interested to try reading more of the poems in the original Old Norse. Also the versions of the Völsungasaga by Tolkien and William Morris, both of which I've only just discovered.
Profile Image for Markus.
476 reviews1,565 followers
November 16, 2020
"Wits are needful for someone who travels widely,
anything will do at home;
he becomes a laughing-stock, the man who knows nothing
and sits among the wise."

- Hávamál

Arguably the greatest mythological masterpiece human civilisation has achieved, in my mind. But I'm biased for a variety of reasons; from being from the north, from researching its history and culture every day as a profession and from this being the main inspiration for my favourite literary author J. R. R. Tolkien.

I'll do a more proper review of this when I gather some more thoughts.

"The corpses of doomed men fall,
the gods' dwellings are reddened with crimson blood;
sunshine becomes black the next summer,
all weather is vicious - do you understand yet, or what more?"

- Voluspá
Profile Image for Cinda.
Author 33 books11.2k followers
June 10, 2019
Based on my limited knowledge, Dr Crawford seems to have done an excellent job with the material. An important read for anyone interested in primary sources on Norse mythology. The stories themselves are long on plot, short on character development.
Profile Image for John Snow.
Author 5 books18 followers
October 24, 2013
The Poetic Edda is not a book you read from beginning to end like a novel. The Poetic Edda contains 35 poems, some of which are very complicated. I usually read and study one or a few poems at a time, put the book aside, and then get back to it later. But the more times I read the poems, the more I appreciate their poetic qualities and the glimpses they give into the deep mysteries and wisdom of Norse mythology.

Together with The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, The Poetic Edda is the best medieval source for the study of Old Norse mythology and cosmology. The poems are about the creation of the world, of æsir and vanir (the two kind of gods), of giants, dwarves, elves, volvas, valkyries and all kinds of creatures, including the norns who decide our faith, and Yggdrasil, the World Tree. The poems tell how Thor fights the giants, of Freya's seductive powers, of Siv's beauty, and of Loki's treachery. But first of all the poems are about Odin's obsessive quest for knowledge and the truth about his own death in Ragnarok, the Doom of Goods. The Poetic Edda also tells the stories of Helgi Hundingsbane and his valkyrie bride and the tragic love between Sigurd the Dragonslayer and Brynhild.

It may seem out of place to recommend the reading of another book before you read the one which is up for review, but for the first-time reader who knows little about Norse mythology, Snorri's Edda is actually a better starting point. In his book Snorri explains the old poems and the myths, and the mythological stories are retold in plain prose. With this background it is easier to understand the poems in The Poetic Edda. But it definitely helps that the Oxford edition of the poems is equipped with an index, explanatory notes, genealogies, and an introduction.

Being accustomed to the rhythm and non-Latinate wordings of Norwegian translations, I find it a bit strange to read English versions of the old poems, but I am in no position to compare Carolyne Larrington's translation with other English translations. It is nevertheless very refreshing to get a new perspective on the poems given by another language. And, as I said in the beginning of the review, the more I read the Edda poems, the more impressed I get.
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,286 followers
December 2, 2022
One of the first book I truly loved was an illustrated collection of Greek myths, told for children. Even in a simplified and sanitized version, the strangeness of an ancient mythology fascinated my young mind. Unlike stories written for children—or even for young adults—these myths were full of morally ambiguous characters and real tragedy. The good guy did not always win, did not always get the girl, and was not even necessarily good. And the tricks, powers, and battles of these mythological figures were far stranger and more compelling than the superheroes I was familiar with.

I was happy to find, then, that my early fascination with mythology remains unabated. These Old Norse poems are as full of wonderful images, memorable tales, inspiring heroes, and complex villains as their Greek counterparts. Though written down sometime in the 13th century, the poems originated from a much earlier, pagan tradition—that of the Vikings. Much like Homer’s Greeks, this was a heroic society, wherein craftiness, strength, and valor were the highest values, and the concepts of honor and shame occupied the place of our notions of altruism and fairness. One can see this clearly, albeit humorously, in the Lokasenna, in which Loki walks into a party and insults the other gods in astoundingly lewd terms. His accusations of sexual impropriety are not just punchlines, but serious matters that might upset the moral order.

Thor is, of course, present in these poems, just as mighty as he is in the comic books, and just as dense as he is in the movies. Odin is a surprisingly interesting character—a frightening and mysterious being, wise but not necessarily benevolent. The advice attributed to him in the Hávamál is one of the high points of the book. I found the poems about heroes to be rather less interesting than those about the gods—the plots less focused, the characters less memorable—but they do give a clearer picture of the people who originated this mythology. Not being able to read the original, and not having read any other translation, all I can say is that I found Jackson Crawford’s version to be quite readable.
Profile Image for Leo.
4,390 reviews411 followers
February 19, 2022
I've always been fascinated with the Nordic mythology and the gods and what not. We're shockingly easy to read, must be because of the (I'm guessing, great) translation. Very interesting read
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,492 reviews2,735 followers
September 15, 2017
Then Brynhild laughed - all the hall resounded - / just one time with all her heart: / 'Well may you enjoy the lands and followers / now you've brought the brave prince to his death'

Collected in the 13th century in the Codex Regius, the body of poetry here straddles Old Norse myth and heroic poetry from probably around the 10th century, a time when the pagan North was becoming Christianised. The heroic verse is primarily from the complicated tales of Helgi, Sigurd, Gunnar and the valkyrie Sigrdrifa usually better known via the Germanic The Nibelungenlied. Other poems have been added to this canon and Larrington includes quest and other poetry.

Unlike Snorri's The Prose Edda, the poetry here is not systematic nor connected in any easy way: what we have instead are fragments and tales that might contradict or undermine or supplement each other in a nicely allusive and intertextual way. Different versions of the heroic sagas emerge and diverge: so while this might be comparable to other great mythic collections like Ovid's Metamorphoses or Hesiod's Theogony, this is far more unstable in an interesting way.

Source material for The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, this is a fascinating window into Old Norse heroic culture.
Profile Image for Thomas.
490 reviews83 followers
July 7, 2020
Jackson Crawford's translation reads like Lattimore's translation of Homer; both of them sound overly literal at times, but in each case the original shines through. The poems here often read like fragments -- sometimes they are exactly that, fragments -- which again enhances the feeling that you're reading something closer to the original than the many reconstituted versions of the stories. I came to the Poetic Edda via Neil Gaiman's very entertaining Norse Mythology, and I came to that via Wagner's Ring cycle. But sooner or later you'll want to taste this whiskey straight up, and Crawford's got the stuff.
Profile Image for saïd.
6,321 reviews979 followers
August 23, 2023
My personal favourite translation of the Poetic Edda is Lee M. Hollander’s translation, which came recommended to me by a friend who specialises in the field of Scandinavian mythological studies with a focus on Old Norse literature, and it remains—despite its flaws—the best translation of the Edda I’ve readda. (Sorry, I had to.) I had my trepidations going into this particular translation, Andy Orchard’s “Elder Edda,” beginning with the truly awful title. The “Elder Edda”? Really? The Codex Regius has been firmly codified¹ as the “Poetic Edda” for quite some time, and Orchard’s translation was published by Penguin Classics as recently as 2011. What is it with Penguin Classics and making bad translation decisions? Were they just trying to outdo the previous Oxford translation by Carolyne Larrington?

There are issues with Orchard’s translation and with his introduction, and those are both perfectly encapsulated in this excerpt:
The twenty-nine poems (and various prose pieces) [...] deal with a common stock of inherited stories that together speak of gods and heroes from an ancient era. They are projections back into the pagan past, yet evidently preserved over the years and in many manuscripts by the skill of Christian scribes long after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity in 999–1000. Some of these pagan gods survive into English in the names of the days of the week (in so far as Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday can still be claimed to commemorate Týr the war-god, Odin the psychopomp and god of frenzy, Thor the thunder-god and Freyja the goddess of love and sex)...
Well, Iceland was infiltrated by Christianity much earlier than that, and became “Christianised” by the eighth century, so I am unsure where those numbers are from. Further, I would like to introduce a fascinating little phenomenon known as interpretatio germanica (pace Rudolf Simek), the practice by the Germanic peoples of identifying Roman gods with the names of Germanic deities. This cultural appropriation went both ways, and in fact similar syncretistic phenomena sprung up in all eras and locations, but the relevant example took place in the first century CE, long before what is commonly identified as the Viking age.

For example: Tuesday, the “day of Tīwaz” (Old Norse Týr; Old English Tīw; Althochdeutsch Ziu), was earlier known as the “day of Mars” (itself being the Latin form of the god Ares). Friday, far from being inspired by Freyja, was actually derived from Proto-Germanic *Frijjō (ON Frigg; AhD Frīja), earlier the “day of Venus,” a roughly analogous goddess. Most Romance languages, descended from Latin, preserve the Roman deities’ names in the days of the week, e.g. French “lundi” (Lunae dies), “mardi” (Martis dies), “mercredi” (Mercuni dies), “jeudi” (Jovis dies), “vendredi” (Veneris dies). The weekend days, “samedi” (Sabbati dies) and “dimanche” (Dominicus dies), are later additions; indeed, English “Saturday” is from Saturni dies (cf. OE “sæterdæg, sæternesdæġ”; Proto-West Germanic *Sāturnas dag, itself a direct translation of the Latin).

I was also not pleased with Orchard’s treatment of the pervasive and ubiquitous misogyny found in the Edda. For example (again from the introduction):
In the mythological world of the Codex Regius, women are largely scheming and suspect, when they are not simply victims or the objects of unwanted sexual attention. Indeed, even giant-women can be threatened with giant lust, as Gerd is as the unwilling object of Frey’s passion in För Skírnis. In the course of threatening Gerd he condemns her to ergi (here translated as ‘cock-craving’), an insatiable yearning to be sexually penetrated that is beyond the pale. When used, as in För Skírnis 36, of a female, it connotes a wanton lasciviousness that is greatly frowned upon (see further headnote to Lokasenna). By contrast, the heroic poems of the Codex Regius quite regularly present the female perspective, and often with great sympathy and a deep acknowledgement of feminine authority; one can hardly argue that heroines such as Gudrún, Grímhild or Brynhild lack authority, even as they endure deep suffering. Such a contrast underlines a chief concern of the heroic poems of the Codex Regius: the tensions between the family ties of blood and marriage.
I do not think the statement that “women are largely scheming and suspect” can be reasonably considered an objective scholarly observation. (Also, “giants” in Norse mythology are not necessarily “giant” in size; the term refers to a specific species and/or culture.) His translation of ergi is also highly questionable. The word referred to “lust, lewdness” or “wickedness,” and was derived from the adjective argr, (“unmanly, effeminate; cowardly”); i.e., argr (“effeminate”) + -i (“state of”). When Freyr condemns Gerðr he condemns her to the worst possible quality someone could embody: being a woman.

The twin fatal flaws of Norse pagan belief were that it was fragmented and that it had an uncertain future: such a disparate set of locally dissimilar and varied versions of what was never a unified creed, and such a combination of geographically distinct cults, none of which seems to have sought to proselytize or crave converts, was surely no match for the well-defined, written doctrine of muscular Christianity that perhaps inevitably replaced it. As a best hope, paganism is depicted as offering an ill-defined afterlife of feasting and fighting for the few, to be terminated in an apocalyptic battle at Ragnarök (‘The doom of the powers’), where many of the gods themselves will be slain; it will be left to others to see further ahead, and literally to pick up the playing-pieces again.
Addressing these points in order, I’d first draw attention to the fact that the positioning of pre-Christian Scandinavian mythology as “lesser” due to its non-Christian format is... well, rather problematic,² to say the least. While I personally fully subscribe to the idea that there never was a pre-Christian Norse pantheon per se, I’m not naïve enough to fall into the trap of claiming that certain mythologies were more “well-defined” than others, or “no match for” another mythology. Much in the same that claiming a certain language or culture is less-developed than another is, apart from being sociologically inaccurate, an open invitation to dangerous cultural supremacy, positioning the systematic erasure of native mythologies by a concentrated campaign to convert pagans to Christianity as “inevitable” is nothing short of wildly unprofessional. Furthermore, the interpretation of the Scandinavian afterlife myth (ON Valhǫll, “Valhalla” in this context) and apocalypse myth (ON Ragnarǫk, “Ragnarök”) as “ill-defined” is further evidence of a rather biased slant overall. Christianity also has an apocalypse myth, as do the majority of religions; so-called “muscular” Christianity also has an afterlife myth that is perhaps less than desirable (i.e., Hell); Orchard also fails to mention Helheim and Fólkvangr. The Norse myth of Ragnarök is functionally no different than the Christian myth of Noah and the Great Flood, complete with “literally [having] to pick up the playing-pieces again.” Nor are these elements unique to Norse and Christian mythologies: the flood myth dates back to the earliest examples of written literature in Sumer with the Epic of Gilgamesh, and similar flood myths appeared globally, such as the Greek myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha. As surprising as it may seem, the concept of a devastating natural disaster caused by flooding was a very real and present danger throughout the majority of history. And FURTHERMORE, glossing “Ragnarök” as meaning “the doom of the powers” is a depressingly simplistic and inaccurate definition of the term. The etymology of ON ragnarǫk is regin (“gods”) + rǫk (“fate, destiny; course; judgement”), i.e., the fate of the gods; for example, from the Völuspá:
Fram sé ek lengra,
fjǫld kann ek segja
um ragnarǫk
rǫmm sigtíva.
The word regin, pluralia tantum, referred to the gods.

Moving on, chronologically speaking, I came across this passage (emphasis mine):
I have also taken various more-or-less arbitrary decisions with regard to the translation of more-or-less transparent names, acutely conscious of the fact that such random judgement-calls are often both unappealing and wide open to appeal. I have tried to mitigate this frankly indefensible position by making full use of an Index of Names that aims to be both comprehensive and comprehensible; I suspect that for many of the poems of the Codex Regius, collected, compiled and perhaps even composed by antiquarians, the confusing array of shared names of apparently different entities, of multiple names for the same individual and of seemingly transparent names that define specific attributes has contributed greatly to muddying the waters of understanding, and it seems only honest to reproduce, at least in part, that opacity here.
Honestly, I don’t know why this was even included. Orchard plainly states that his “decisions with regard to the translation of ... names” were “more-or-less arbitrary,” describing them both as “random judgement-calls” and as a “frankly indefensible position” to hold. I don’t know why anyone would admit this. This is supposed to be a scholarly text, not a vanity project for one’s own amusement! Translating proper names is generally bad form in translation, doubly so if the meaning of the names in question is unknown or uncertain. What this “frankly indefensible position” means practically is that proper names such as Gullveig are, instead of being left as so, rendered as Orchard’s personal interpretation, such as “Gold-draught” for Gullveig, despite the fact that the etymology of the latter half of the name, -veig, remains unknown (the gull does indeed refer to gold). The suffix -veig, also found in various other personal names (Rannveig, Sölveig, Thórveig, etc.), could mean anything from “power, strength” (cf. Icelandic veigur) to “strong alcoholic drink” (cf. Icelandic veig), to “lady” to “bright” (cf. Heiðr, presumably the same figure) to “gold; gold thread.” (The name Heiðr is similarly turned into “Brightness.”) To put it simply: we don’t have any clue, and such foolhardy commitment to translating proper names is akin to referring to Malory’s King Bear-Man or Fleming’s Heel Bond.

Adding insult to injury is Orchard’s decision to gloss generic or otherwise inappropriate terminology for linguistically and/or culturally specific words, such as jǫtunn, trǫll, risi/bergrisi, íviðja, or þurs/hrímþurs. Essentially all of these words are glossed as “giant” or “ogre,” thus entirely ruining any semantic nuance of the original by failing to distinguish between, say, a jǫtunn and a risi. Even Jǫtunheimr, from jǫtunn (“jötunn”) + heimr (“realm”), becomes “Giants’ Domain.” Which giants? Orchard didn’t even deign to go with the pop-culture mangling, “Jotunheim.” Interestingly, Orchard glosses “Æsir” for æsir instead of translating it literally as “the gods”; the names of easily recognisable figures such as “Odin” or “Thor” are left as such, semi-transliterated and yet untranslated.

For a layperson or otherwise non-specialist, this translation is hardly the worst available. However, based on my personal experience with various English-language translations of the Edda, I would recommend a different translation. Benjamin Thorpe’s translation (1865) is in the public domain and can be found online; this particular translation is desirable due to Thorpe’s purposeful avoidance of glossing. Henry Adam Bellows’s translation (1936) is also in the public domain if you want something a bit more recent. Carolyne Larrington’s translation (1996), already mentioned, is comparable if not preferable. Then there’s Ursula Dronke’s two-part translation (1969), widely considered one of the best available. My personal favourite is Lee M. Hollander’s translation (1962), which is notable due to Hollander’s usage of English words of Germanic origin rather than those borrowed from Greek or Latin or other roots, thus creating a verisimilitude of historicity even in translation.

¹Excluding specifically academic circles. I am excluding specialised debates because, if I didn’t, we’d never get anywhere.
²Original definition.
Profile Image for Gustavo Offely.
84 reviews40 followers
July 4, 2019
Why do you sit, why do you sleep away your life?

Esta pergunta de Gudrun, uma Medeia nórdica, tem uma resposta fácil. As personagens, quando não estão a beber cerveja, estão a morrer ou a receber notícias da sua morte. Entre deuses, runas, cervejas, anéis, dragões, anões e gigantes, está o homem, e não parece estar muito bem; a glória e o bom senso são elogiados, mas ter bom senso parece arruinar qualquer hipótese de glória.
Profile Image for Michelle Curie.
790 reviews379 followers
July 13, 2023
One of the most daunting reads of the year for me so far, this proved to be such a surprising mix of heavy-hitting drama and light-hearted humour.

The Poetic Edda is part of the arguably most important piece of literature in the Nordic world: originating in the 13th century, this is a collection of poems or songs that have been passed around verbally for decades, if not centuries, before an unknown Icelandic wrote them down for us to enjoy today.

It's a crazy treasure chest of culture. Being the original source of Norse mythology, we not only get a peek at Nordic life in early Christian times, but also come to realise how great the impact of these tales was. So many things ring a bell! Not only names like Gandalf (who is here, surprisingly, a dwarf) and Dwalin will sound familiar, but themes from Wagner's operas or more direct retellings will be recognised. Digging up the original source material felt like perpetually discovering a treasure chest of myths and tales, with every page unveiling new secrets.

You really can't complain about variety. This is divided into two parts and depending on which translation or version you are reading, the order is going to be slightly different, but in general you are being served a collection of poems about Gods and another bunch about Heroes. The first half part is concerned with Odin, Loki, Thor and their likes, telling tales of varying subject matter – some are serious portrayals of Odin seeking knowledge or displays of brutality and trickery, but the occasional (amusingly shallow) joke will pop up as well. The second part meanwhile feels more like a modern tragedy, devoid of humour and instead full of drama and intrigue.

It is a challenging read. I was taken aback by the diversity in structure we get here – I lack the vocabulary to describe the specific individual differences, but in terms of metric, tenses and general composition there are a lot of things explored, to a degree where some almost feel like contemporary experimental poems! A lot of it might lead back to how much effort was but in by researchers to make the fragments that have been handed down to us readable and we're lucky that this work has been put in, because it still takes focus and concentration to really get a hold of these. They're not presented in a strictly linear order and depending on which translation you're reading they can feel a lot stiffer or more flowing respectively.

I personally want to thank my well-trusted reading buddy Leonard for the ride, whose review you can read here.
Profile Image for Stuart Brkn Johns.
Author 1 book237 followers
March 30, 2023
"The Poetic Edda" is a collection of ancient Nordic poems compiled in the 13th century. It is one of the most important sources of Norse mythology, giving insight into the religion, culture, and worldview of the Vikings.
The book is divided into two main parts: The first part is called "The Mythological Poems" and the second part is called "The Heroic Poems". The Mythological Poems tell the stories of the creation of the world, the gods and goddesses, their adventures, and their ultimate fate. The Heroic Poems tell the stories of legendary heroes such as Sigurd, Brynhild, and Gunnar.
One of the things that struck me about "The Poetic Edda" is the beauty and power of the language. The poems are written in a highly stylized form of Old Norse, with complex metaphors, allusions, and imagery. Despite the fact that the poems were written over 700 years ago, they still have the ability to captivate and move modern readers.
The gods and goddesses of Norse mythology are depicted as powerful, complex, and flawed. They are not the all-knowing, all-powerful deities of some other mythologies, but rather beings with their own desires, motivations, and limitations. This makes them more relatable and human, and adds to the richness of the mythology.
The themes of "The Poetic Edda" are timeless and universal. The stories of love, betrayal, heroism, and tragedy are just as relevant today as they were in ancient times. The poems explore the human condition in a way that is both profound and accessible.

@StuartBrknJohns - Twitter
2 reviews1 follower
September 1, 2017
Translations like this are what saves ancient literature otherwise doomed to death by obscurity. Dr. Crawford brings the Poetic Edda to life in a clever way that is easily accessible to all readers, without dumbing it down. Translations of the Edda have a high barrier to entry--they have to presuppose knowledge that casual readers generally neither have nor want, and the language tends to be difficult. This translation beautifully strikes that knife's edge balance between modernization and remaining true to the language and spirit of the original. The introduction at the beginning and between each piece is another excellent feature; Dr. Crawford excels at distilling, summarizing, and then delivering vast amounts of unusual and unfamiliar information understandably and engagingly.

This is how you keep literature alive: keep people reading it.
Profile Image for saïd.
6,321 reviews979 followers
March 19, 2023
Reading this Edda is interesting because it’s a retrofitting of Norse mythology that, to what would be the delight of the original authors I’m sure, somehow became the accepted source on actual Norse mythology. It’s fascinating from a historiographic perspective as well that of an historian.

The translation by Lee Hollander is the best English-language translation available. One thing I found particularly entertaining but certainly impressive about Hollander’s translation in particular was the language used. Hollander took care to use English words of Germanic origin rather than those borrowed from Greek or Latin or other roots, a very scrupulous and interesting decision. The syntax is likewise deliberately archaic, as is the metre, which creates a verisimilitude of historicity even in translation.
Profile Image for Rosava Doshchyk.
343 reviews58 followers
January 30, 2021
Після "Старшої Едди" чимало сучасніших сюжетів стали зрозуміліші, наприклад, Толкін. Насолодилася примітками і перекладом, дякую Віталію Кривоносу за ґрунтовну роботу. Щиро тішуся виданню повної "Старшої Едди" українською і тихо сподіваюся на "Молодшу" )
Profile Image for Briynne.
615 reviews56 followers
September 28, 2009
It turns out that I have a real thing for Scandinavian literature. Reading this and the sagas has made me a little obsessed with the idea of visiting Iceland. It’s hard for me to separate my thoughts on the eddas from my thoughts on the sagas and the most recent Sigrid Undset novel I’m reading, but I’m going to try to keep everything to it’s proper review space.

Alright. The Elder Edda (or Poetic Edda) is the written version of the oral-tradition base material from which the later Younger/Prose Edda was constructed. As I understand it, these two eddas are the two most important primary sources for what is known about Norse Mythology. If I can step onto my soapbox for a moment, I think it’s a shame to read those clinical synopsis-type mythologies (i.e. encyclopedia-like entries for each deity and concept) when the source material is so much better. Sure, it can be slightly incomprehensible at times, but you get so much more local color, as it were.

The opening poem, the Völuspà , is a knock-out. Really, go find it on the internet and read it. In the poem, a seer-woman spins the future out for Odin and delivers the dark, dismal fate of the gods and the world in a hauntingly ethereal, lyrical style. What I loved about this collection is that the next poem Saying of the High One does a complete 180 in tone and delivers a sometimes-amusing string of advice that could have been taken from the Viking version of the Poor Richard’s Almanac. The comedy roles on with the Lay of Thrym (note: according to the OED a “lay” is “a short lyric or narrative poem intended to be sung” – I had no idea, so I thought I’d share). In this poem, Thor and Loki disguise themselves, badly, as ladies in order to fool a giant. The king of the giants demands the goddess Freyja as his wife in return for giving Thor back his stupid hammer, but since she won’t have anything to do with it, the guys go in her place. It was funny in an absurd way – I kept thinking that the folks in medieval Iceland probably would have really enjoyed Harold and Kumar.

The Lay of Harbard also operated on this sort of sophomoric level. Basically, Thor and this guy Harbard stand on opposite banks of a river yelling insults at each other. Thor tries to prove his masculinity or whatever by bragging about various feats of battle, to which Harbard responds by enumerating his various, shall we say, romantic conquests. I honestly kept waiting for him to respond with “yo momma”.

Things turned back again in style with The Lay of Alvis, which I really liked. It reminded me of Tolkein, who may not have been as creative as I had originally thought, but he certainly had a good eye for inspiration. The whole poem is dedicated to Alvis listing the names for different things in the various worlds of the Vanir, Æsir, elves, dwarves, and humans; it doesn’t sound interesting, but I found it to be one of the most lovely and poetic of the lays. For instance, when Thor asks Alvis what the sun is called in the different worlds, he replies: “Men call it Sol, and gods the Sun, | The dwarfs say Dvalin’s Delight; | The giants Ever-Glowing, the elves Fair Wheel, | The Æsir Shadowless Shining.”

The entire second half of the Edda is devoted to poems of the Volsung saga. I’m still not in love with this story, although I felt like I got to know the story and characters better in this edda, and I’ve warmed up a little. The drama centers around the Sigurd – Gudrun – Gunnar – Brynhild love square, only not really since Gudrun and Gunnar are siblings. It’s a horrible mess and neither the heroic Sigurd nor the high-maintenance valkyrie Brynhild make it out alive. They both get on my nerves, though, so it’s alright. Gunnar is a loser, and Brynhild was probably right to be so scornful of him.

But Gudrun I like. She is Sigurd’s wife, and there is a really touching lay describing her silent grief after he is killed. I changed from pitying her to just plain being scared of her pretty quickly, though. The Lay of Atli is like a horror movie. In the poem, Gudrun is married against her will to a barbarian king whom she cannot stand after the death of her beloved Sigurd, at the insistence of her brothers. After a few miserable years together, the king kills Gunnar and the rest of her brothers in some dispute and she just snaps. She murders the two young sons they had together and feeds her husband their blood and hearts in disguise as some sort of delicacy at a feast before killing him and everyone else she could find. Not joking. So, she’s completely crazy, but she provides a great punctuation mark to the sometimes tedious Volsung-themed poems.

As a whole, these poems were utterly fascinating. They were strange and beautiful in fairly equal measure, and I’m very glad I tracked this particular translation down through ILL. Seriously, there are some horrific translations out there. I don’t know anything about their technical merits, obviously, but from a readability stand-point this was the best one I could find. I wouldn’t recommend reading this book before you have a little background from either the Prose Edda or one of those anthologies I bashed earlier, because I don’t think it would make a lot of sense without some outside context.
Profile Image for Lancelot Schaubert.
Author 28 books291 followers
September 13, 2014
Where else can you find a joint source for half of Tolkien's names and a good chunk of Marvel comics?

The Poetic Edda is the crux of Norse mythology and I won't presume to aspire to heavy or valued literary criticism here. I appeal as a lay reader to lay readers – you need to work your way through this book as you would any classic piece. You need this book as source material for your own stories, as enjoyment for life, and as a platform upon which to build an understanding of modern stories.

As Lewis said in the intro to Athanasius:

"There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English literature that if the average student wants to find out something about platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of �lato off the library shelf and read the symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about "isms" and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. �ut if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what �lato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worh acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

"This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Booker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

"Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. �t has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o'clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity ("mere Christianity" as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones."

It goes on, but that's enough to say that reading the Poetic Edda is the easiest way to understand much of fantasy literature today. So read it, and then come back and let's discuss its influence.
Profile Image for Scriptor Ignotus.
513 reviews180 followers
July 25, 2023
In the beginning, there was only the formless primeval sea. The earth was fashioned when the gods raised it from the ocean depths; or, alternatively, when Odin the High One and his brothers Vili and Ve slew Ymir and sculpted the cosmos from his blood and bones. The gods are descended from the giants and usurpers of their power (much like the Olympians and Titans of Greek myth); and one day the giants will return from the east, led by Loki—trickster deity and father of Fenrir the ravening wolf, Hel the queen of the underworld, and the Midgard-serpent: the uroboric sea monster coiled about the earth—to meet their progeny in a final confrontation as the world-cycle ends and the Doom of the Gods (Ragnarök) unfolds.

The sun and moon were hung in the sky, and time began. Asgard and Midgard, the worlds of gods and men, were created, as were the metal-working dwarves who live under the earth. The divine offspring became separated and lost knowledge of one another. The tribe of the Æsir lived peacefully until they were visited by a mysterious goddess named Gullveig: perhaps an alter-ego of Freyia. The fearful Æsir speared and burned her three times, but each time she was reborn, at last acquiring powers of prophecy and shapeshifting. Just after this event—and possibly in part because of it—the Vanir made war on the Æsir for a share of their worship. When neither side prevailed, a truce was brokered and hostages were exchanged. Three of the Vanir—the sea-god Niord, his son Freyr, and his daughter Freyia—came to live among the Æsir, while the latter sent Hænir and Mimir to make their abode with the Vanir; only for the Vanir to find them so obnoxious that they shortly sent Hænir home with Mimir‘s severed head.

It is around this time that what mortals call “history” takes place, from its beginnings to the present day. But the seeresses know the fate of the nine worlds as well as their origin, and by their telling the war will prove to have been only the first of compounding woes for the doomed immortals. Fenrir, the devouring wolf, is chained for a time, but not before snapping off Tyr’s hand. The malevolent Loki is bound to a rock with the entrails of his son Narfi, but not before the consummation of his most malicious deed: deceiving the blind Hod into inadvertently slaying Baldr—son of Odin and Frigg, the most beautiful and beloved of the immortals—with an arrow of mistletoe. As the cosmic order weakens, the fetters keeping the agents of chaos at bay will begin to loosen. In the final days, the world-ash Yggdrasill will shake and burn. Loki and Fenrir will slip their bonds, the vengeful giants will return, the Midgard-serpent will uncoil itself, and the whole diabolical host will fall upon the gods and their army of heretofore reposed mortal heroes in the great conflagration of the ages. Odin will be swallowed by the wolf, leaving Frigg twice-grieved. Thor will crush the head of the Midgard-serpent with his hammer miollnir, but only after receiving a fatal injection of its venom. Freyr will fall before Surt, whose glowing sword will cast fire upon the earth. Vidar, son of Odin by a giantess, will avenge his father by spearing the dread wolf between its insatiable jaws. The sun will darken; the earth will burn and sink into the sea, and the world will end.

Only to be reborn in a pristine, paradisical form. Baldr and Vidar will live in this new world; as will a human couple, Líf and Lífþrasir (“Life” and “Lover of Life”), who will survive Ragnarök by hiding themselves in another realm—or, perhaps, in Yggdrasill itself, the fate of which is never explicitly spelled out by the Eddas. They will populate the new earth, and all will live in peace and abundance—until the wheel of ages turns once again.

Such is the fascinating landscape of Norse mythology, much of which has been transmitted to us by the Poetic Edda, a work which survives in a single manuscript produced by an unknown Icelandic scribe in the 1270s. The text was lost to history for nearly four centuries after its composition, whereupon it was rediscovered in 1643 and gifted to King Christian IV of Denmark, becoming known thereafter as the Codex Regius. Though the Eddas certainly draw on a rich and well-developed (if a bit narratively unstable) pre-Christian tradition of cosmology, heroic epic, and wisdom literature, the texts themselves postdate the Christianization of Scandinavia; and the question of whether—or how much—the works were shaped by Christian influences has been a perennial subject of debate. Is the story recorded in Sayings of the High One (Hávamál), one of the constituent texts of the Poetic Edda—in which Odin hangs himself from a “windy tree” (perhaps Yggdrasill) for nine days, piercing himself with a spear and refusing relief, sacrificing himself to himself to learn the secrets of rune-magic—derived in some way from the Crucifixion? Does the Doom of the Gods, prophesied to Odin by the seeress in the Völuspá, reflect the anxiety of a culture that was leaving its traditions behind and embracing a new and unfamiliar worldview?

Whatever the case may be, if the works collected in the Poetic Edda don’t draw consciously from other traditions of belief, they certainly draw from that universal wellspring of mythopoesis which allows the burly and dimwitted Thor, sharing a fishing boat with Hymir after having eaten up the entire food supply for the giant’s household, to dangle an ox’s head (which he ripped right off the poor animal’s body) on the end of his line and catch the very same sea serpent that YHWH is said to have hooked and domesticated in the Psalms—though rather than taming the dragon of the deep, Thor is content merely to bonk it on the head. Chalk it up to the collective unconscious; ascribe it to some primordial Indo-European cosmology; but there’s no denying that it’s there.

I leave off with a few of my favorite proverbs from the Hávamál, as well as some lovely illustrations by the Danish artist Lorenz Frølich which I found while making my way through this compendium.

“He’s a wretched man, of evil disposition,
the one who makes fun of everything;
he doesn’t know the one thing he ought to know:
that he is not devoid of faults.”
- (Hávamál v. 22)

“The stupid man stays awake all night
and worries about everything;
he’s tired out when the morning comes
and all’s just as bad as it was.”
- (Hávamál v. 23)

“A farm of your own is better, even if small,
everyone’s someone at home;
though he has two goats and a twig-roofed room,
that is still better than begging.”
- (Hávamál v. 36)

“Cattle die, kinsmen die,
the self must also die;
but the glory of reputation never dies,
for the man who can get himself a good one.”
- (Hávamál v. 76)

“At evening should the day be praised, the woman when she is
the blade when it is tested, the girl when she is married,
the ice when it is crossed, the ale when it is drunk.”
- (Hávamál v. 81)

Ymir is dismembered by Odin, Vili, and Ve at the creation of the world

The seeress relates the creation epic Völuspá to Odin, who seeks to learn his own fate

Thor runs across a river to reach his chariot while the other Æsir cross Bifrost, the rainbow bridge connecting Asgard with Midgard

Vidar on horseback

Odin and Fenrir at Ragnarok

Odin teaching the Hávamál, a collection of proverbs

Odin's sacrifice on Yggdrasill

The Lokasenna: Loki attends the banquet of the Æsir uninvited and exchanges barbs with each of the divines
Profile Image for Ema Mele.
99 reviews30 followers
January 15, 2019
Kolébku evropské literatury představuje antika, ale mě silně zasáhly i vikinské veršíky. #stayviking
Profile Image for Ostrava.
773 reviews19 followers
May 25, 2022
Less coherent than Greek mythology (probably, as a result of a lack of centralized sources and an inferior body of literature).

Rather than Thor, Loki seems like the real main character of the myths. Technically Odin is of more importance and appears more, but Loki's fall from grace is crucial for Ragnarok. At least, that's the perspective that I found the most captivating.

The poems were surprisingly accessible to modern readers. I've avoided the heroic lays for the moment, but I greatly enjoyed the whole thing.
Profile Image for Ганна Кузьо.
Author 1 book53 followers
October 25, 2021
На любителя, звісно. Цікаво читати до комічного життєві сюжети в епічному викладі. Люди завжди були однаковими - ті самі турботи, п��облеми, конфлікти, що зараз, що у світі Одіна.
Profile Image for Jen.
245 reviews
April 11, 2019
So... yeah. I'm not sure why I had to be a fully-grown adult before it ever occurred to me that I could read this, but I probably would have gotten a bit bored at a younger age.

1. Tolkein was a huge Norse Fanboy. I mean, so was C. S. Lewis to an extent (I'm looking at you, Fenris Ulf, captain of the White Queen's guard), but a full third of Tolkein's named characters are named in the very first poetic Edda. This cracks me up.
2. All the great stories borrow from other great stories in the past.
3. I have a LOT of feelings about how these very sparse stories have inspired so many people about so many things.
4. Odin is a dick. Possibly more of a dick than Loki.
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