E is for Edda

The name “Edda” has been retroactively applied to this set of poems and is a reference to the Edda of Snorri Sturluson. . . . The authors of the poems are all anonymous. Debates have raged over the dates and locations of the poems’ composition; all we can really be certain about is that, due to the fact that some of the poems are obviously written in a manner that places them in dialogue with Christian ideas . . .  the poems must have been composed sometime between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, when Iceland and Scandinavia were being gradually Christianized.

The Poetic Edda is likely the single most important of all of our sources.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Until I began the research for this series of blog posts, I thought the word edda was an Old Norse or Old Icelandic word for saga. It turns out there is disagreement about just what the word means (though I subscribe to one theory, explained below).

There are two Eddas, the Poetic and the Prose Eddas.

The Poetic Edda, also referred to as the Elder Edda, consists largely of a number of poems with mythological and heroic themes, including many of the tales of the gods, as well as short prose sections providing explanations where needed. The authors of the poems are all anonymous. Some scholars believe the compiler of the Poetic Edda was an Icelander named Sæmunder the Wise, who lived from 1056 to 1133, though modern scholars doubt this attribution. Nonetheless, the Edda is still often referred to as the Sæmunder Edda.

Another Icelander, Snorri Sturlusson, is credited with collecting and writing down a number of the heroic cycles and stories that were previously only available in an oral tradition several hundred years later. He named his collection The Edda, also known as the Younger Edda, Snorri’s Edda, or the Prose Edda. Sturlsson came up with the name, Edda, for his work. Because of the similarity of the content of his work and the poetic version, the term Edda was applied to the Sæmunder collection as well.

Scholars have debated what the word means. Jacob Grimm, one of the Brothers Grimm, saw commonality with a word in a poem, the Rigsthula, which translates roughly as great-grandmother. This led to the interpretation of the stories as Tales of a Grandmother, not at all accurate as a description of the works and very close in meaning to the somewhat demeaning phrase, old wives’ tales.

An explanation more to my liking is that the 19th century Icelandic scholar Eiríkr Magnússon identified the word Edda as the genitive form of the proper name of the place that both Sæmunder and Sturlsson lived, Oddi, a settlement in the southwest of Iceland. The use of the name of a place in titles, especially of old works, has been common throughout history. Consider The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for example.

Because so many of the stories of the gods were first collected in written form in the Poetic Edda, I will point to the original poems as appropriate throughout the A to Z Challenge.

Keep in mind, however, that the stories contained in the Eddas addressed subjects the audience already knew about; they therefore do not contain what writers these days refer to as the backstories. Reading them is like reading 100-year-old letters in which the writer mentions someone the reader would know who is a mystery to readers a century later.

Image credit: Public Domain, Link

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