Guide A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics

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Icelandic literature is best known for the richness of its classical period, which is equivalent in time to the early and medieval periods in western European literature. The relative stability of the Icelandic language means that Icelanders today can without difficulty still read Old Icelandic sagas. Because early Norwegian literature is so closely intertwined with early Icelandic literature, both are discussed in this article.

Emeritus Professor Margaret Clunies Ross

The literature of Scandinavia and, in particular, of Iceland has reflected two extraordinary features of the social and cultural history of pagan Europe and of Iceland. The way in which names such as Siegfried , Brunhild , and Atli Attila cropped up again and again in different European literatures has borne witness to the dissemination of legends and traditions common to the early Germanic tribes of Europe, starting from the great movements westward in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries.

The literature of Iceland not only provides the most detailed descriptions available of the lifestyle of early Germanic peoples but constitutes the most complete account of their literature and literary traditions. Although the sagas and poems were first written down by Christian scribes, they present a picture of a pre-Christian European culture that reached its heights of expression in the new settlements in Iceland. A second feature directly concerns the peoples of Scandinavia.

A remarkable characteristic of early Scandinavian literature was the accuracy with which it described the geography of northern Europe, accuracy that was born of actual knowledge. From the late 8th century until well into the Middle Ages, the history of the Norsemen Vikings was one of unceasing movement toward western and central Europe.

The Norsemen discovered Iceland, as early Icelandic historians had it, when their ships were blown off course about The next century found them pushing west by way of Britain, Ireland, and France to Spain and then through the Mediterranean to North Africa and east to Arabia. Across land they reached the Black Sea; by sailing north they came to the White Sea; and finally, turning westward again, they reached America long before Columbus. The roots of Icelandic literature and Norwegian literature, which reach back more than 1, years, are inextricably intertwined.

Old Norse poetry | Revolvy

Although a large part of this early literature was composed either in Iceland or elsewhere in Scandinavia by Icelanders, the Norwegian element in it is considerable and indisputable, even though this cannot always be isolated and defined. Some of the poems in this manuscript were already known from other papers dating back to the 12 th and 13 th centuries.

Some other Edda poems have been preserved in other places, often through copying, so that some poems are given a very late date because the only source to it that we have was written down at a late stage. The poem itself may be far older, earlier transcriptions lost. Some scholars are very cautious about using poems that were written down even later than the Codex Regius which was written down during the early 12 th century and probably copied from an older source still because they may have been invented by Medieval scholars rather than by Pagan poets.

Elder Edda - full audiobook

One of my major arguments concerning most of the Edda poems whether they were collected in the Codex Regius or not, is that they follow a basic structure of initiation which cannot have been known or practiced legally during the Christian era. I will use my conclusion, that the Poetic Edda represents lore that emerged in an Old Norse Pagan environment, as a starting point.

The first part was called Gylfaginning. By letting us know that the Pagan gods were really ancestors who, because of their astonishing deeds and through human folly, had become deified after their deaths, they no longer posed a threat as the gods of a competing religion.


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When I first tried to look up the meaning of the name Gylfi , I found only one dictionary dating back to [3] which provided a clue. According to the rules of Norse poetry, a character will be hidden in words and identify itself through attributes such as these.

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An interesting feature that we will return to later is the fact that after this, Gylfi starts to walk through the world telling people everything he had heard, and one after the other people told the stories. Snorri mysteriously concludes:. And to the people and places that were there, they gave the same names as in their stories, so that people, when great spans of time were gone, should not know that they were the same Aesir, those that they had just made up and who they now gave the same names. It, too, is told as a story containing many stories.

In order to do that, they need a cauldron that is big enough, and send Thor out on a mission to get it.

It is not a story but a detailed explanation of the rules of poetry, describing and exemplifying types of verse form. The entire Prose Edda was, in fact, meant to explain Old Norse poetry, which was based on riddle-like metaphors, allegories and parables. In order to grasp the countless hidden meanings in Norse poems, one needed a deep comprehension of the mythological worldview that formed the basis of the metaphors.

Snorri had noted that young people no longer understood ancestral lore because they did not have the mythological knowledge needed to decipher the metaphors. Thus an ancient and honored art which had once been sacred to Scandinavians, deeply embedded as it was in Paganism, was about to vanish into oblivion. He wrote the book years after the Icelandic Conversion to Christianity.

To what degree the old ways were remembered after more than two centuries, we do not know. Snorri was a poet himself, and the storylines of Gylfi and Aegir may have been invented by himself as they are not referred to in any older sources. Finally, Snorri had to present the myths in a manner that was acceptable to a Christian Medieval audience.

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Such gaps in his otherwise quite detailed accounts seem to scream for attention, and whenever that gap is filled by the older sources, we see that themes of initiation and spiritual transformation, as well as female teachers and leaders and creator entities are continuously left out or rewritten by Snorri. Please take reasonable care of the goods whilst in your care. Any goods returned must be in a resaleable condition. Our customer care will send you specific instructions on how to ship the return package s to the retailer s.

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