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The Poetic Edda: The Mythological Poems

The Poetic Edda: The Mythological Poems

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by Henry Adams Bellows (Translator)

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The vibrant Old Norse poems in this collection, which may have been brought together as early as the thirteenth century, authentically capture the ancient oral traditions of the Norsemen. In addition, their images of a mythical world profoundly influenced latter-day storytellers as Richard Wagner and J. R. R. Tolkien.
Known as the "Lays of the Gods," these


The vibrant Old Norse poems in this collection, which may have been brought together as early as the thirteenth century, authentically capture the ancient oral traditions of the Norsemen. In addition, their images of a mythical world profoundly influenced latter-day storytellers as Richard Wagner and J. R. R. Tolkien.
Known as the "Lays of the Gods," these mythological poems include the Voluspo, one of the broadest conceptions of the world's creation and ultimate destruction ever crystallized in literary form; the Hovamol, a compilation of sagacious counsels reminiscent of the biblical book of Proverbs; the Lokasenna, a comedy bursting with vivid characterizations; and the Thrymskvitha, a ballad of enduring loveliness.
The Poetic Edda is not only of the highest interest to students of antiquity; in the exceptionally detailed and complete translations included here, it offers lovers of poetry and myth some of the most remarkable surviving specimens from a distant age of poet-singers and oral traditions.

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The Mythological Poems

By Henry Adams Bellows

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13905-0



The Wise-Woman's Prophecy


At the beginning of the collection in the Codex Regius stands the Voluspo, the most famous and important, as it is likewise the most debated, of all the Eddic poems. Another version of it is found in a huge miscellaneous compilation of about the year 1300, the Hauksbok, and many stanzas are included in the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. The order of the stanzas in the Hauksbok version differs materially from that in the Codex Regius, and in the published editions many experiments have been attempted in further rearrangements. On the whole, however, and allowing for certain interpolations, the order of the stanzas in the Codex Regius seems more logical than any of the wholesale "improvements" which have been undertaken.

The genera plan of the Voluspo is fairly clear. Othin, chief of the gods, always conscious of impending disaster and eager for knowledge, calls on a certain "Volva," or wise-woman, presumably bidding her rise from the grave. She first tells him of the past, of the creation of the world, the beginning of years, the origin of the dwarfs (at this point there is a clearly interpolated catalogue of dwarfs' names, stanzas 10-16), of the first man and woman, of the world-ash Yggdrasil, and of the first war, between the gods and the Vanir, or, in Anglicized form, the Wanes. Then, in stanzas 27-29, as a further proof of her wisdom, she discloses some of Othin's own secrets and the details of his search for knowledge. Rewarded by Othin for what she has thus far told (stanza 30), she then turns to the real prophesy, the disclosure of the final destruction of the gods. This final battle, in which fire and flood overwhelm heaven and earth as the gods fight with their enemies, is the great fact in Norse mythology; the phrase describing it, ragna rök, "the fate of the gods," has become familiar, by confusion with the word rökkr, "twilight," in the German Götterdämmerung. The wise-woman tells of the Valkyries who bring the slain warriors to support Othin and the other gods in the battle, of the slaying of Baldr, best and fairest of the gods, through the wiles of Loki, of the enemies of the gods, of the summons to battle on both sides, and of the mighty struggle, till Othin is slain, and "fire leaps high about heaven itself" (stanzas 31-58). But this is not all. A new and beautiful world is to rise on the ruins of the old; Baldr comes back, and "fields unsowed bear ripened fruit" (stanzas 59-66).

This final passage, in particular, has caused wide differences of opinion as to the date and character of the poem. That the poet was heathen and not Christian seems almost beyond dispute ; there is an intensity and vividness in almost every stanza which no archaizing Christian could possibly have achieved. On the other hand, the evidences of Christian influence are sufficiently striking to outweigh the arguments of Finnur Jonsson, Müllenhoff and others who maintain that the Voluspo is purely a product of heathendom. The roving Norsemen of the tenth century, very few of whom had as yet accepted Christianity, were nevertheless in close contact with Celtic races which had already been converted, and in many ways the Celtic influence was strongly felt. It seems likely, then, that the Voluspo was the work of a poet living chiefly in Iceland, though possibly in the "Western Isles," in the middle of the tenth century, a vigorous believer in the old gods, and yet with an imagination active enough to be touched by the vague tales of a different religion emanating from his neighbor Celts.

How much the poem was altered during the two hundred years between its composition and its first being committed to writing is largely a matter of guesswork, but, allowing for such an obvious interpolation as the catalogue of dwarfs, and for occasional lesser errors, it seems quite needless to assume such great changes as many editors do. The poem was certainly not composed to tell a story with which its early hearers were quite familiar; the lack of continuity which baffles modern readers presumably did not trouble them in the least. It is, in effect, a series of gigantic pictures, put into words with a directness and sureness which bespeak the poet of genius. It is only after the reader, with the help of the many notes, has familiarized himself with the names and incidents involved that he can begin to understand the effect which this magnificent poem must have produced on those who not only understood but believed it.

    Hearing I ask from the holy races,
    From Heimdall's sons, both high and low;
    Thou wilt, Valfather, that well I relate
    Old tales I remember of men long ago.

    I remember yet the giants of yore,
    Who gave me bread in the days gone by;
    Nine worlds I knew, the nine in the tree
    With mighty roots beneath the mold.

    Of old was the age when Ymir lived;
    Sea nor cool waves nor sand there were;
    Earth had not been, nor heaven above,
    But a yawning gap, and grass nowhere.

    Then Bur's sons lifted the level land,
    Mithgarth the mighty there they made;
    The sun from the south earth, warmed the stones of
    And green was the ground with growing leeks.

    The sun, the sister of the moon, from the south
    Her right hand cast over heaven's rim;
    No knowledge she had where her home should be,
    The moon knew not what might was his,

    Then sought the gods their assembly-seats,
    The holy ones, and council held;
    Names then gave they to noon and twilight,
    Morning they named, and the waning moon,
    Night and evening, the years to number.

    At Ithavoll met the mighty gods,
    Shrines and temples they timbered high;
    Forges they set, and they smithied ore,
    Tongs they wrought, and tools they fashioned.

    In their dwellings at peace they played at tables,
    Of gold no lack did the gods then know,—
    Till thither came up giant-maids three,
    Huge of might, out of Jotunheim.

    Then sought the gods their assembly-seats,
    The holy ones, and council held,
    To find who should raise the race of dwarfs
    Out of Brimir's blood and the legs of Blain.

    There was Motsognir the mightiest made
    Of all the dwarfs, and Durin next;
    Many a likeness of men they made,
    The dwarfs in the earth, as Durin said.

    Nyi and Nithi, Northri and Suthri,
    Austri and Vestri, Althjof, Dvalin,
    Nar and Nain, Niping, Dain,
    Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Nori,
    An and Onar, Ai, Mjothvitnir.

10. Very few of the dwarfs named in this and the following stanzas are mentioned elsewhere. It is not clear why Durin should have been singled out as authority for the list. The occasional repetitions suggest that not all the stanzas of the catalogue came from the same source. Most of the names presumably had some definite significance, as Northri, Suthri, Austri, and Vestri ("North," "South," "East," and "West"), Althjof ("Mighty Thief"), Mjothvitnir ("Mead-Wolf"), Gandalf ("Magic Elf"), Vindalf ("Wind Elf"), Rathsvith ("Swift in Counsel"), Eikinskjaldi ("Oak Shield"), etc., but in many cases the interpretations are sheer guesswork.

    Vigg and Gandalf, Vindalf, Thrain,
    Thekk and Thorin, Thror, Vit and Lit,
    Nyr and Nyrath,—now have I told—
    Regin and Rathsvith—the list aright.

    Fili, Kili, Fundin, Nali,
    Heptifili, Hannar, Sviur,
    Frar, Hombori, Fræg and Loni,
    Aurvang, Jari, Eikinskjaldi.

    The race of the dwarfs in Dvalin's throng
    Down to Lofar the list must I tell;
    The rocks they left, and through wet lands
    They sought a home in the fields of sand.

    There were Draupnir and Dolgthrasir,
    Hor, Haugspori, Hlevang, Gloin,
    Dori, Ori, Duf, Andvari,
    Skirfir, Virfir, Skafith, Ai.

    Alf and Yngvi, Eikinskjaldi,
    Fjalar and Frosti, Fith and Ginnar;
    So for all time shall the tale be known,
    The list of all the forbears of Lofar.

    Then from the throng did three come forth,
    From the home of the gods, the mighty and gracious;
    Two without fate on the land they found,
    Ask and Embla, empty of might.

    Soul they had not, sense they had not,
    Heat nor motion, nor goodly hue ;
    Soul gave Othin, sense gave Hönir,
    Heat gave Lothur and goodly hue.

    An ash I know, Yggdrasil its name,
    With water white is the great tree wet;
    Thence come the dews that fall in the dales,
    Green by Urth's well does it ever grow.

    Thence come the maidens mighty in wisdom,
    Three from the dwelling down 'neath the tree;
    Urth is one named, Verthandi the next,—
    On the wood they scored,—and Skuld the third.
    Laws they made there, and life allotted
    To the sons of men, and set their fates.

    The war I remember, the first in the world,
    When the gods with spears had smitten Gollveig,
    And in the hall of Hor had burned her,—
    Three times burned, and three times born,
    Oft and again, yet ever she lives.

    Heith they named her who sought their home,
    The wide-seeing witch, in magic wise;
    Minds she bewitched that were moved by her magic,
    To evil women a joy she was.

    On the host his spear did Othin hurl,
    Then in the world did war first come;
    The wall that girdled the gods was broken,
    And the field by the warlike Wanes was trodden.

    Then sought the gods their assembly-seats,
    The holy ones, and council held,
    Whether the gods should tribute give,
    Or to all alike should worship belong.

    Then sought the gods their assembly-seats,
    The holy ones, and council held,
    To find who with venom the air had filled,
    Or had given Oth's bride to the giants' brood.

    In swelling rage then rose up Thor,—
    Seldom he sits when he such things hears,—
    And the oaths were broken, the words and bonds,
    The mighty pledges between them made.

    I know of the horn of Heimdall, hidden
    Under the high-reaching holy tree;
    On it there pours from Valfather's pledge
    A mighty stream: would you know yet more ?

    Alone I sat when the Old One sought me,
    The terror of gods, and gazed in mine eyes:
    "What hast thou to ask? why comest thou hither?
    Othin, I know where thine eye is hidden."

    I know where Othin's eye is hidden,
    Deep in the wide-famed well of Mimir;
    Mead from the pledge of Othin each morn
    Does Mimir drink: would you know yet more?

    Necklaces had I and rings from Heerfather,
    Wise was my speech and my magic wisdom;
    Widely I saw over all the worlds.

    On all sides saw I Valkyries assemble,
    Ready to ride to the ranks of the gods;
    Skuld bore the shield, and Skogul rode next,
    Guth, Hild, Gondul, and Geirskogul.
    Of Herjan's maidens the list have ye heard,
    Valkyries ready to ride o'er the earth.

    I saw for Baldr, the bleeding god,
    The son of Othin, his destiny set:
    Famous and fair in the lofty fields,
    Full grown in strength the mistletoe stood.

    From the branch which seemed so slender and fair
    Came a harmful shaft that Hoth should hurl;
    But the brother of Baldr was born ere long,
    And one night old fought Othin's son.

    His hands he washed not,. his hair he combed not,
    Till he bore to the bale-blaze Baldr's foe.
    But in Fensalir did Frigg weep sore
    For Valhall's need: would you know yet more?

    One did I see in the wet woods bound,
    A lover of ill, and to Loki like;
    By his side does Sigyn sit, nor is glad
    To see her mate: would you know yet more?

    From the east there pours through poisoned vales
    With swords and daggers the river Slith.

    Northward a hall in Nithavellir
    Of gold there rose for Sindri's race;
    And in Okolnir another stood,
    Where the giant Brimir his beer-hall had.


Excerpted from THE POETIC EDDA by Henry Adams Bellows. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Poetic Edda: The Mythological Poems 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
NOTE: This is not a good introduction to Norse Mythology. For that, buy Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, which, on account of it being prose, is much easier to understand (It's also a hilarious read). But of course, the only reason for reading that is so you can get to the real meaty mythology found here in all its glory. Bellows' translation is exceptional. Not only does he retain (somewhat) the original poetic form (which is alliterative), he also produces an easy-to-read, comprehensible translation. Unlike Hollander, this translation uses English words that you will on the whole know the meaning to, and thus there is no need to translate the translation. The only potential problem is Bellows' copious amount of notes, which threaten to overwhelm. However, in the end, they really are useful, and I am glad he chose to err on the side of too much rather than too little. As for the poems themselves: a few are in remarkably poor condition, but a few, which make the entire book worth it, are absolutely incredible. The Voluspo earns its place as first in the volume, given its majestic and unforgettable descriptions of cosmogony and ultimate destruction. In addition, the section of the Hovamol from stanza 139 gives me goosebumps every time I think about it... (buy the book to find out why). Several of the poems are actually quite funny (such as Lokasenna). ALSO: Ignore anyone who says the other volume of Bellow's translation is not available. Just scroll down the page a little more and you will see "The Poetic Edda: The Heroic Poems", which I am currently reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Here is a fine collection of Norse Poetry Told in a way the preserves the Viking persona. Tales of the Gods and valuable advice for the careful reader. Oh, that it were complete! the volume is only half of what it should be--an editorial error. For those seeking the true poems of the Gods here it is, told by the older scholarship not the new.
Anonymous 10 days ago
A wonderful read with comprehensive notes.