H is for Heimdallr

Heimdall (pronounced “HAME-doll;” Old Norse Heimdallr, whose meaning/etymology is unknown[1]) is one of the Aesir gods and the ever-vigilant guardian of the gods’ stronghold, Asgard.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Alphabetical order may not be the most sensible way to introduce the characters, settings, and action of Norse mythology, but there is an opportunity for synchronicity to raise its head.

Yesterdays’ post, G is for Ginnungagap, and the previous day’s, F is for Freyr, introduced giants and the fear of the end of the cosmos they evoked among the gods. Remember, giants in Norse mythology are not just oversized beings. They are devourers, destroyers, worthy of being feared.

This is a good bit of introduction for Heimdall since the only aspect of this son of Odin that seems uncontested is that his role is to keep watch and to alert the other gods when giants approach Asgard.

Heimdall doesn’t get many mentions in the Poetic Edda, and even those he gets are often by reference to his role as watchman of the gods rather than by name. His home is Himinbjörg which sits at the top of Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects Midgard (the land of humans) to Asgard (the land of gods). Heimdall’s responsibility is to be continuously watching and listening in order that he can use his horn, Gjallarhorn, to warn the gods of the arrival of the giants which marks the beginning of Ragnarok. Luckily, he needs little sleep, his sight is so good that he can see for hundreds of miles both day and night, and his excellent hearing allows him to hear grass growing on the ground and wool growing on the backs of sheep.[2]

One annotator of the Poetic Edda poem, Rigsthula, suggests that Rig is a name Heimdall takes while he traveled, though how he could both travel and serve as watchman for the gods is problematic. Later scholars believe Rig is Odin, not Heimdall, but I’ve included it in the list of references below because there is very little else in the Poetic Edda that references Heimdall.

In the poem, Rig stops at various locations where he impregnates the wives and from those pregnancies come all classes of humans: the thralls (slaves), peasants, and warriors.

Heimdall plays an important role at the end of the cosmos. I can’t help but think there were more tales of him that have been lost between the years of the mythic stories being passed on in the strictly oral tradition and their being collected in written form. More likely, once the stories were written down, the oral tradition faded because those who knew the stories were convinced writing them down would preserve them. But the written copies were lost, damaged, or discarded as unimportant once Christianity was adopted.

How much more have we lost when we began writing things down instead of remembering and telling them to others? Are we running the same risk again through converting everything that is written or drawn on paper into digital form, confident that the transformation will preserve the physical items forever?

From the Poetic Edda, stanzas 1, 27, 46, Voluspo, The Wise Woman’s Prophecy; stanzas 13, 30, Grimnismol, The Ballad of Grimnir; stanza 28, Skirnismol, The Ballad of Skirnir; stanzas 47 and 48, Lokasenna, Loki’s Wrangling; stanza 14,  Thrymskvitha, The Lay of Thrym; the entire poem, Rigsthula, The Song of Rig; stanzas 30, 37, 39-40,  Hyndluljoth, The Poem of Hyndla;

[1] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 153.
[2] Daniel McCoy, Norse Mythology for Smart People, Heimdall.

Image credit: By Nils AsplundOwn work, Vogler, 2010-10-14, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

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