Viking Poetry– Important!
In the Viking Age, anything important was composed in poetry. Poetry! And you thought poetry was for wimps. Most of what is known about Norse mythology is found in the Poetic Edda, about 35 poems written in Icelandic about 1250. It is the source of mythology for Snorri Sturluson‘s Prose Edda, which describes in the most vibrant terms the ethics and beliefs of viking myth.
Note: Edda means great-grandmother.
Norse Mythology in the Edda
‘The old, one-eyed god Odin hangs nine days and nights on the windswept ash-tree Yggdrasill, sacrificing himself to himself; the red-bearded Thor swings his hammer against the giant enemy; the ravening wolf Fenrir leaps forward to seize the Father of the gods in his slavering jaws, the terrible passion of Brynhild for the dragon-slayer hero Sigmund culminates in her implacable demand for his murder …’ (Larrington, x) Great stuff!
It is difficult to say where the poems originated, Norway or Iceland. The Hávalmál (Words/Sayings of the High One–Odin) likely originated in Norway because of the mention of bears and wolves which are absent in Iceland. The vikings brought their knowledge of Norse mythology to the British Isles where rune-stones give evidence of pagan belief. The Isle of Man has a number of runestones, a dead giveaway for the presence of the Norse.
The Völuspa, Seeress of the Vikings
The Völuspa is the first poem in the Edda, a poem about Odin who inspired the seeress to make her prophecy. The Hávalmál(Words of the High One) reveals the wisdom of Odin and how he became wise; the Vafthrúdnismál (Words of Vafthrúdnir) describes the wisdom of the giant Vafthrúdnir; and Grímnismál (Words of Grímnir) which describes Odin’s ecstatic performance at the hall of the human king Geirröid. Skírnismál (Words of Skírnir) tells about how Freyr’s servant Skírnir journeyed to court the giantess Gerd.
Poems about Thor are the Hárbardsljód (Song of Hárbard) in which Thor and a disguised Odin exchange insults and anecdotes. The Huymiskvida (Hymir’s Poem) tells about Thor’s journey to the giant Hymir and the fishing of the Midgard serpent. The Thrymskvida (Poem of Thrym) is comical–Thor disguised as Freyja, retrieves his hammer from the giant Thrym. Lokasenna (Loki’s Verbal Duel) tells how Loki insults all the gods. Thor finally chases Loki away. In the Alvíssmál (Words of Alvíss), the all-wise dwarf Alvíss asks for the hand of Thor’s daughter. Thor occupies him by having him say synonyms until the sun comes up and the dwarf turns to stone.
The Wisdom of Odin, god of the Vikings
The foolish man thinks he will live forever
If he keeps away from fighting
But old age won’t grant him a truce
Even if the spears do.
The Norse Cosmos
From the Poetic Edda, we can learn a great deal about Norse religion:
‘In the beginning, there was only chaos of unformed matter. In some poems, the world is formed out of the body of Ymir, the primeval being, who is dismembered by the gods, in others the gods raise the earth out of the sea. The gods are descended from the giants: Odin and his mysterious brothers, Vili and Ve, are the sons of Bor, grandsons of Buri, who, according to Snorri, was licked out of the primeval ice by the cow Audhumla. The sun and moon are placed in the sky and time begins.
The gods construct the home of the gods (Asgard) and a world for men (Midgard), and then they create the dwarfs who live under the earth and work in metal, followed by humankind. The first man and woman are created from driftwood found on the shore…
Now history begins. The main tribe of gods, the Aesir, is visited by a female figure, Gullveig, probably a type of the goddess Freyia, who practices seid, a particularly disreputable kind of magic. The Aesir burn Gullveig three times but she is always reborn and goes about among humans teaching them her magic.
Possibly as a result of their mistreatment of Gullveig, the Aesir are challenged by another tribe of gods, the Vanir, who demand a share of the sacrifices made to the gods and war breaks out. The Vanir seem to be undefeatable and so peace is negotiated and hostages are exchanged: the fertility deities, Freyr, Freyia, and their father Niord, come to live among the Aesir permanently. to the Vanir are sent Haenir and Mimir. Haenir annoys the Vanir by refusing to participate in discussion and by constantly asking Mimir for his opinion, so the Vanir cut off Mimir’s head, preserve it, and send it with Haenir back to the Aesir. (Ynglinga saga, ch 4)
In the centre of the universe is Yggdrasil, the World Ash whose roots go far down below the earth. At their tips are the worlds of the dead, the hall of Hel, and the domain of the frost-giants. Beneath the tree are sacred wells which impart wisdom; these are presided over by the fates and can be reached by the rainbow bridge, Bifrost. Circling the world is the ocean in which lurks the Midgard-serpent, a monstrous serpent which will attack the gods at the end of the world (Ragnarök). The gods possess many palaces (catalogued in Grimmir’s Sayings), and an important building in Asgard is Valhöll where Odin assembles dead heroes in preparation for the final battle at Ragnarok. (Larrington, xiv)
Bifrost (Trembling Roadway) is the flaming rainbow bridge which connects Asgard and Midgard.
Beneath Yggdrasil is the spring of Mimir whose waters contained wisdom and understanding. Odin gave an eye for a drink of water from the spring. Below the tree in the kingdom of the Aesir was the sacred spring of fate, the Well of Urd. Here the gods assembled daily for their court of law to settle disputes and discuss common problems (just like human beings!) Near the spring of Fate lived the Norns, three maidens who ruled the destinies of men. At the top of the tree lived an eagle (with a hawk on its forehead) whose wings caused the winds in the world of men. At the root of the tree lived a serpent that was at war with the eagle. A squirrel ran up and down the tree carrying insults from the eagle to the serpent and vice versa.
Yggdrasil is threatened by Ragnarök, the battle at the end of days. It is not clear if the tree will survive. But the Norns nourish the tree with spring water and heal the trunk with salve. There is hope.
Jesse Byock, trans., Snorri Sturluson: The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology, 2005
H.R. Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic
John Lindow, Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, 2001
Carolyne Larrington, trans., The Poetic Edda, 1996