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Authors: Snorri Sturluson

The Prose Edda

BOOK: The Prose Edda
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(1179–1241) was born in western Iceland, the son of an upstart Icelandic chieftain. In the early thirteenth century, Snorri rose to become Iceland's richest and, for a time, its most powerful leader. Twice he was elected law-speaker at the Althing, Iceland's national assembly, and twice he went abroad to visit Norwegian royalty. An ambitious and sometimes ruthless leader, Snorri was also a man of learning, with deep interests in the myth, poetry and history of the Viking Age. He has long been assumed to be the author of some of medieval Iceland's greatest works, including the
Prose Edda
the latter a saga history of the kings of Norway.

is Professor of Old Norse and Medieval Scandinavian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Professor at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. A specialist in North Atlantic and Viking Studies, he directs the Mosfell Archaeological Project in Iceland. Prof. Byock received his Ph.D. from Harvard University after studying in Iceland, Sweden and France. His books and translations include
Viking Age Iceland, Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power, Feud in the Icelandic Saga, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki
The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer.


The Prose Edda

Norse Mythology

Translated with an Introduction and Notes by




Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in Penguin Classics 2005
Copyright © Jesse Byock, 2005
All rights reserved
The moral right of the translator has been asserted

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Further Reading

Note on the Translation

Map: The Geographical World of the





Mythic and Legendary Tales

Poetic References from
(Translated by Russell Poole)


1: The Norse Cosmos and the World Tree

2: The Language of the Skalds: Kennings and

3: Eddic Poems Used as Sources in

Genealogical Tables


Glossary of Names


First, I want to thank Russell Poole, who translated the section
Poetic References from Skaldskaparmal.
His knowledge of kennings and poetic language was an important contribution to this volume. Much of this translation was done in Iceland where Kristján Jóhann Jónsson, Eysteinn Björnsson, Aðalsteinn Davíðsson, Ingunn ásdísardóttir, Gísli Sigurðsson, Peter Foote and Paul Taylor generously read parts of the manuscript and made many comments. Vésteinn Ólason also graciously offered his time and the resources of the árni Magnússon Manuscript Institute. Robert Guillemette turned his artistry to the World Tree. Efrain Kristal, the authority on Jorges Luis Borges who translated the
into Spanish, offered many valuable insights. My editor at Penguin Classics, Laura Barber, deserves credit for making this book more succinct. I am fortunate for the assistance of my talented students at the University of California, Brian O'Camb, David Lassen and Natalie Operstein. I greatly appreciated the support of the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and especially thank Deborah Kennel and Karen Burgess. The Fulbright Commission, The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the UCLA Academic Senate all helped bring this project to fruition.

I wish to dedicate this volume to Franz Bäuml, Albert Lord,
Richard Tomasson and Eugen Weber, teachers
from whom I learned.


Prose Edda
is Scandinavia's best-known work of literature and the most extensive source for Norse mythology. In straight-forward prose interspersed with ancient verse, the
recounts the Norse creation epic and the subsequent struggles of the gods, giants, dwarves and elves in that universe. Woven throughout is the gods' tragic realization that the future holds one final cataclysmic battle, Ragnarok, when the world will be destroyed. The
also tells heroic stories about legendary warriors and their kin, stories which incorporate shards of ancient memory. The powerful supernatural tales and heroic lore captured in the
have influenced modern culture, inspiring most notably Richard Wagner's
cycle and J. R. R. Tolkien's
The Lord of the Rings
. The
also influenced poets W. H. Auden and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, and a host of writers and artists in other genres, including fantasy, comic books and film.

Over the centuries the
Prose Edda
has been known as the
Younger Edda
Snorri's Edda
, and simply the
. Many of the stories contained in the
Prose Edda
have counterparts in ancient verse known as eddic poetry – anonymous poems collected and written down in a separate work called the
Poetic Edda
around the same time that the
Prose Edda
was compiled in the thirteenth century. In many instances the
Prose Edda
incorporates stanzas of eddic poems directly into its prose, citing these verses as sources.

The Prose
also adopts stanzas and references from another group of poems, called skaldic poetry. The two forms of poetry, eddic and skaldic, are closely related, and most skalds, as
Old Norse poets were called, could work in either form. The major differences between the two are that skaldic poetry employs more intricate word choices and metres than does eddic poetry, and that skaldic poems, unlike eddic poems, are frequently attributed to individual skalds who composed them.

Both the
– poetry and prose – were written in Iceland during the thirteenth century, and they are based in large part on the oral tradition that stemmed from the earlier Viking Age. This era, from roughly 800 to 1100, was a time when Scandinavian seafarers explored, raided and settled distant lands, including the previously uninhabited Iceland. Old Norse was the language spoken throughout Scandinavia during the Viking period, and the two
were written in Old Icelandic, a branch of Old Norse that had changed little from the time Iceland was settled in the late 800s. The
, like Iceland's sagas, were written in the native language and they were meant to be read aloud, enabling a single manuscript to speak to many, literate and non-literate alike. The content of the
did not go through an intermediate stage of being written and transmitted in Latin, the language of the Church, as did most other non-Icelandic writings from the Middle Ages that give information about Norse myth and legend. For example, the
Prose Edda
differs from the
Gesta Danorum
History of the Danes
), which was written in Latin around the year 1200 by the Danish cleric Saxo Grammaticus for Denmark's archbishop and was strongly influenced by his classical learning.

Geographical and political circumstances help to explain why the Prose
and the
Poetic Edda
were written in the form they were in medieval Iceland. This was an immigrant society formed by colonists from many parts of the Viking world, but especially from Norway and from Norse colonies in the British Isles. In a frontier setting on the far northern edge of the habitable world, the Icelanders held fast to the cultural memories brought by the early settlers, which provided them with a sense of common origin and helped bind them into a cohesive cultural group. Additionally, the Icelanders made the transition from their traditional religious beliefs to Christianity in a manner distinctly different from the contemporaneous conversion in
the Norwegian mother culture. There, Christian missionary kings forcefully uprooted the belief in the old gods. The Icelanders, rather than shedding blood among themselves as did the Norwegians, peacefully accepted the new religion through a political compromise in the year 1000 at their annual national assembly, the Althing. This collective decision sanctioned a gradual transition to the new belief system. The old forms of worship faded within a few decades of the conversion, but the Icelanders continued long afterwards to value stories from the pagan times as a cultural heritage rather than a creed.

Despite the Icelanders' attachment to the Old Scandinavian past, thirteenth-century Icelanders often followed mainland Scandinavia in adopting elements of continental European culture. Many new tastes reached Iceland, especially via Norway, and among the imports came new forms of poetic expression including rhymed verse, sung dances (precursors of the ballad), French romances and Christian religious narratives, which competed with traditional eddic and skaldic poetry. In response to the new trends, the
was written as a handbook for those aspiring Icelandic skalds who wanted to master the traditional forms of verse and the older stories essential to the imagery of Old Norse poetry. Rather than reconstructing cultic practices of the old religion, which had ceased two centuries earlier, the
concentrates on what was still known at the time of its composition: myths, legends and the use of traditional poetic diction. It is evident that the one or more authors who compiled the
wanted to continue knowledge of Old Scandinavian poetry and the culture that surrounded it.

Even though the
relies heavily on native traditions, a good argument can be made that it also shows awareness of two Latin literary genres of the Middle Ages: writings about mythology and about language and poetics. Some scholars propose that Latin treatises may have influenced those parts of the text that treat technical poetic terminology and systems of poetic classification. Further, almost everyone agrees that the writer of the
knew at least something of the ideas current in the general Latin learning of the Middle Ages, whether or not he himself knew Latin.

The Title
and the Question of Authorship

The origin of the use of the word
as a title is elusive. In thirteenth-century Icelandic, the term
meant ‘great-grandmother', which would have been a fitting title for a compilation of traditional stories, but we will never know for sure how the name came to be applied. The original thirteenth-century manuscript is long lost, and it is not known whether the word
was even its title. The name
first appears in the surviving fourteenth-century manuscripts as a subtitle, referring to only a part of the compilation. Two related terms,
, referring to the rules and the art of poetry, also appear in fourteenth-century manuscripts. From these terms and their usage, we infer that the word
had become associated with traditional verse, and by late medieval times the
was regarded in Iceland as the authoritative handbook for training poets in traditional verse forms.

BOOK: The Prose Edda
12.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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