Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology

Book Review: The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology  by Snorri Sturluson translated with Introduction and Notes by Jesse Byock (Penguin Books 2005)

The two Eddas – Prose Edda and Poetic Edda – were written down during the 13th century in Iceland and are thought to reflect material from the Viking Age (800-1100) oral tradition. There were two forms of poetry, eddic and skaldic, with the poetry of the skalds said to be more intricate, more metrical, and to more reflect the styles of individual poets. The Prose Edda is mostly in a prose form (new to Iceland at the time) with interspersed eddic poetry. The Eddas were written in Old Icelandic. For several reasons Iceland was well situated at the time to preserve trans-Germanic lore and story. The island was isolated and inhabited by settlers mostly from Norway and Norse colonies on the British Isles who desired to keep their old lore. It was less affected than the mainland by classical Mediterranean cultural and academic traditions. Not wanting to repeat the violent transition to Christianity that happened in Norway the transition was peaceful in Iceland with the old lore officially kept more as cultural heritage more so than as religion. The Eddas were written down a few centuries after the conversion to Christianity and Byock suggests that they were influenced by prose and poetic styles from mainland Europe as well as by a desire to keep alive old Scandinavian poetic traditions. The word “edda” means great grandmother but may refer to poetry or as Lee Hollander suggests, ‘Oddi,’ which is a place in Iceland where the presumed author Snori Sturluson studied. He is thought to have traveled around Scandinavia. His other known writing is a history of the Kings of Norway (Heimskringla) and is in the same style of mixed prose and poetics.

The Prose Edda (aka Younger Edda as Poetic Edda is called Elder Edda) is made up of four main parts: The Prologue – which is rather strangely Christianized and interspersed with Graeco-Roman mythology and thus shows a suspicious authenticity. The Gylfaginning – this is a dialogue between King Gylfi (or Gangleri) of Sweden and the newly arrived gods called the Aesir – where he questions three magical beings about their creation stories and the pastimes of the gods. Apparently this section of Prose Edda is very similar in all the manuscript versions. The third section is called Skaldskaparmal which means the ‘language of poetry.’ Apparently this section differs in different versions. Here there are also various tales of the gods and heroes from before Viking times back into the time of the Migration Period of Germanic tribes (5th to 7th centuries). So in this section history and myth intertwine as stories of kings from Eastern Gothic lands, Denmark, Scandinavia, Germany, and the Huns are recounted. The last section is a section about techniques of skaldic poetry called Hattatal, which refers to a list of metres. Only a sample piece of that section is given in this book edition as an appendix.

Byock notes some differences of the Norse gods to the Greek and Roman gods. They do not have the immortality of the Olympians. They meddle less in the affairs of humans. There are often unexpected consequences of their actions. Odin, Thor, and Loki are the protagonists in most of the stories. All are gods of the Aesir tribe or family, although Loki proves to be an antagonist. Magical manifestations such as shapeshifting and creating of visual illusions often occur in the stories. The main gods of the Vanic family are Njord, and the male-female twin-sibs-couple Frey and Freyja. The Vanic gods are mostly associated with fertility and it is often assumed that they were the original gods of the area with the more dominant Aesir coming later perhaps as an invading tribe. Originally there is conflict among these god families but they make a truce. Giants (Jotun), dwarves, and elves appear in several stories. The giants are thought to represent the danger of nature in the form of chthonic forces.

The Prologue begins in a very monotheistic Christian sense where Almighty God creates the world. Next is the assertion that Thor came from ancient Troy as the son of a King Mennon and Queen Troan, who was the daughter of the famed King Priam of myth. Thor was then called Tror and dwelled in Thracia near the Black Sea. Thor’s descendents are given. After 23 generations comes Odin, usually considered All-father, or chief of the gods. Odin traveled from the Black Sea region to Saxland (greater Germany) and eventually reached Sweden where he and his comrades encounter King Gylfi. They settled there and set up in the civilized manner of Trojans. This whole section is rather odd and often thought to be suspect – but perhaps there is some truth to it.

Next begins the Gylfaginning where King Gylfi is dazzled by three Aesir chiefs who tell him of the gods, the creation and configuration of the worlds, and the origins of gods, dwarves, giants, and men. These are all well-known stories so I won’t repeat them here. The worlds were said to have first arisen from the Great Void, called Ginnungagap. Next is recounted the World Tree, Yggdrasil, which forms the cosmological center of all the worlds. There are three wells where descend the three main roots of the tree. One is in the home of the gods, Asgard. The next one is in the land of the frost giants (where the universe arose from the Void) and this is Mimir’s Well where Odin gave his eye for wisdom. The third is in the dark world of Niflheim near the gates to the underworld and is continuously gnawed by Nidhogg the serpent. The three Fates, or Norns, attend the well in Asgard, called Urda’s well. These three are Urd (Fate), Verdandi (Becoming), and Skuld (Obligation). There are said to be other norns – elf norns, human norns, etc. They are the shapers of lives and it is said that the more noble of norns shape better lives whatever that may mean. Other interesting characters that inhabit the World Tree in Asgard include Ratatosk, the slandering gossiping squirrel and two swans who nourish themselves in Urd’s Well. The various heavenly realms of the light elves beyond Asgard are also described. Next is a description of all the gods, goddesses, Loki and his monstrous children with the giant Angrboda: Hel, the goddess of the underworld, the Midgard Serpent, and the Fenris wolf. Loki runs free and has many adventures with his comrade Odin, with both good and bad results. Eventually, he too, along with his three children with the giantess, comes to be in a confined state, bound by the gods. At Ragnarok – the final fate of the gods, aka ‘twilight of the gods’ they are all freed and war against the gods.

In stories, the gods often fall in love and mate with giants. The god Frey marries the giantess Gerd but loses his sword. Tyr loses his hand. Odin loses his eye. Loki loses his freedom. After more tales of the gods and the story of Ragnarok and the rebirth of the gods are told the Gylfaginning comes to an end. Curiously, in an epilogue to it there are some odd associations (perhaps conflagrations) as in the Prologue:

“... Thor of the Aesir, and Thor the Charioteer. To him they attributed the great deeds that Thor, or Ector [Hector] accomplished in Troy. Thus people believed that it was the Turks who told stories about Ulixes [Ulysses] and it is they who called him Loki, because the Turks were his worst enemy.”

The Skaldskaparmal section begins with more stories of the gods and goddesses. These are told by Bragi, possibly a prominent skald of history  – but also the divine skald of myth. They are told to someone called Aegir. Told are the stories of Idunn and the Golden Apples, The Mead of Poetry, and my personal favorite – where Skadi seeks vengeance for the death of her father:

“Another condition of her settlement was that the Aesir must do something she thought they could not do: make her laugh. Then Loki tied one end of a cord to the beard of a goat and the other end around his own testicles. The goat and Loki started pulling back and forth, each squealing loudly until finally Loki fell into Skadi’s lap, and then she laughed.”

Also included in Skaldskaparmal are the stories of Sigurd the Dragonslayer nearly as recounted in the Saga of the Volsungs, King Atli (Atilla the Hun), and the Gothic King Jormunrek. The story of Frodi’s Mill is also given – about King Frodi of Denmark, a descendent of Odin who had a long and peaceful reign until he became greedy and was killed. There is another story of King Hrolf Kraki of Denmark. Many kennings, or poetical references, are given in these tales. Kennings are a feature of many oral verse traditions and were well developed among Nordic skalds. The last section of the Skaldskaparmal contains examples of kennings and kenning structure. There are quite a few traditional kennings. Since gold appears in many tales there are many kennings that refer to it:

“It can be called the fire of Aegir, the leaf of Glasir, the hair of Sif, the headband of Fulla, the tears of Freyja, the utterance, voice, or words of the giants, the drops of Draupnir, the rain or shower from Draupnir or from Freyja’s eyes, recompense for the otter, repayment fro the blow struck by the gods, the seed of the plains of Fyri [Kraki’s seed], the covering of Holgi’s burial mound or the fire of all expressions for water and hands, also the boulder, rocky islet or lustre of the hands.”

There are many more kennings for gold as well as for all the gods, goddesses, for various natural phenomena, and for weapons, battles, armor, ships, time, etc.

There is a final section in the Skalskaparmal about the names and lineages associated with King Halfdan the Old from Scandinavia. These names and lineages stretch from Sweden to France to Russia to Denmark.

Appendix 1 is a section about the Norse cosmos and the World Tree. Byock suggests an Indo-European origin for the World Tree concept but it may well go back much farther in time. Yggdrasil means ‘the horse of the terrible one’ or ‘Odin’s horse’ which is also a metaphor for gallows tree.

“This view assumes that the ancient Scandinavians saw a similarity between how people ride horses and how a hanged person’s head bobs up and down as he ‘rides’ the gallows. The gallows tree was an emotionally significant site for the passage between life and death, and is a fitting symbol for the World Tree as the causeway fro connecting the heavens and the underworld.”

There is also a nice representative picture of the World Tree with all of its inhabitants at the beginning of the book. There is one map.

In Appendix 2 is given the section about skaldkraft. There is more about kennings and heiti, which are simply synonyms. I can imagine clever wordplay where skalds might try to hide meanings through several layers of kennings and others might try to unravel them much like riddles. This seems rather likely as riddles are well known in the Anglo-Saxon poetry. Kennings also help with learning and familiarizing with tales and tradition.

Appendix 3 has a list of Eddic poems used for sources in the Gylfaginning. There is also mention of some lost poems mentioned by name such as Heimdall’s Chant.

Finally there are some genealogy tables of the gods, dwarves, and giants. There is also a short family tree of the lineage of magicians. Here Vidolf is the source of seeresses. Vilmeid is the source of wizards, and Svarthofdi is the source of sorcerers. I would not mind learning more about that one.

The Eddas are essential for understanding Nordic and Germanic myth and lore and Byock does well at explaining. I am currently reading Lee Hollander’s translation of the Poetic Edda for a change of perspective.

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