The Eddas – Genuine sources to pagan religion?


The Hidden Manuscript

“Do not laugh at the ancient sage

often it is good what the old ones say

often wise speech issue from

the wizened old body

hanging among leathers

hiding between hides.”

Hávamál, st.134

Article by Maria Kvilhaug

It is the year 1643 AD, and we find ourselves on an unknown Icelandic farm. The bishop of Iceland, Brynjolv Sveinsson, has just received an ancient leather manuscript into his hands. He is told that the farmer´s family has kept the manuscript safe for quite some time now. In fact, the manuscript, its poems referred to by the scholar Snorri Sturlusson in 1225 A.D., has been hidden away from the public for a period of four hundred years.

As Brynjolv slowly turn the pages, made out of hide, he realizes that an ancestral treasure has been recovered. Ancient legends and myths speak out from the leathery pages through the language of poetical metaphors. Had the book been safeguarded against hostile Church authorities? Was it released now, that the guardians of the book realized that it would finally be safe, now that it would no longer be regarded as a threat to a new and fragile faith? Or was it just a coincidence, a family treasure forgotten for some four centuries until some bright person thought, hey, maybe other people would like to know this book too? It is hard to say, but it is an interesting story. We know this hidden, now recovered, manuscript as the Poetic Edda.

A Language of Parables

The Poetic Edda belongs to a Norse poetic tradition in which metaphor, allegory and parable was essential. Not only would the entire poem, like a riddle, be referring to mythical events that explain the poetical riddle: Basic mythical characters, even places, would in themselves be presented in riddles.

A particular character would be “known by” countless names, names that actually serve as metaphors which describe the character´s essential nature, function and meaning. People would understand what character is really being referred to through these name-meanings and the attributes accompanying the character.

Strangely enough, when the Edda is translated into other languages, the translator hardly ever attempts to translate the names of characters and places, and even less try to identify the “real” character behind the name-metaphor. Names are perceived as mere sounds without meaning, left as they are or transcribed into a sound that fits better with the language that the poems are translated into. The original Norse listener or reader would have understood the meaning of names and known how to decipher the real identity of the characters, while we are left with hundreds of unintelligible, meaningless sound-names. Thus we are left with a translated poetry book where more than half of the meaning is missing.

It is my mission to attempt to uncover the real meaning of the Edda myths, and thus I will attempt  not only to translate names literally, but also attempt to identify the real character or meaning behind the name through the use of metaphor. This is not as controversial as it may seem – Norse linguists are well aware of the metaphorical nature of myths and the fact that names have meaning and may be covers for other characters.[1] It is no secret that Snorri Sturluson wrote his Prose Edda in an attempt to explain the real meaning behind the poetical metaphors – this was in fact his stated intent. And without his work we would have understood nothing at all of the Edda poems.

The problem with using Snorri is that his work, too, was biased. He was probably a devout Christian who loved his ancestry and thus desperately tried to make it more acceptable to the Church. Or he was a secret pagan who desperately tried to preserve the myths in a fashion that would hide pagan messages in plain sight. Snorri´s way of making the pagan ancestry acceptable was by explaining away the gods as actual ancestors that were misjudged by their descendants and turned into false gods. The Church would not look kindly upon pagan gods (demons, idols), but it would not mind ancestors. The Church would not accept pagan doctrines of salvation and resurrection, but it would accept ancestral history. There is a reason why Snorri´s work on the pagan myths was known and accepted throughout the Middle Ages, while the Poetic Edda manuscript was hidden away.

One aspect of Snorri´s work is the repeated failure to describe or explain mythical events that directly describes initiation and resurrection, events that are described in the (once more clandestine) Poetic Edda. This failure is so thorough that one almost suspects his silence to be a pointer towards what we should look for in the Poetic Edda, and this suspicion should be considered in light of  the factual knowledge that educated people in the Middle Ages really were big on codes, coded messages and riddles such as these.

The difficulty with translating names (and, I hope, the reason why so few try to) comes when you try to actually do the translations and the interpretations. If one is to come close to the original meanings, this requires an understanding of the mythology as a complete system of beliefs. Since we are not actual insiders of this previous culture, such an understanding will be a matter of interpretation, a question of how we understand the myths and the culture in which they were nourished.

History is No Longer What it Used to Be

When we are presented with history through mainstream education and mainstream media, we often get the impression that “we know it all”. We are told how people were, how they thought, what they believed in, and what they did. And often, we accept this as absolute truth, and continue regurgitating “historical facts” in our perpetual struggle to understand the present.

The only historical “fact” we have is that history is a great puzzle of which we only have a few pieces. Most mainstream history is presented to us the way it is because it is meant to legitimize present conditions. Luckily, in many parts of the world today, this “historical conditioning” may be challenged when a student starts to learn how historical research actually happens, and learns about source criticism and bias.

The Eyes that See

It is important to realize that what we are left with of historical evidence, cannot ever give us the whole picture of the past. That would be like saying that the personal literary collection of one 21st century man, who found a way to preserve around one hundred books for the future, while no one else did, could alone give our descendants an accurate picture of our time. There would of course be numerous aspects of our time, countless ways of looking at the world, which would not be apparent in that one surviving collection. When we are presented with history through mainstream media and education, we are presented not with an accurate image of the past but only with a biased modern interpretation of a very limited collection of evidence.

I say biased because historical interpretation cannot ever be objective. The idea of objective research has long since been rejected by academics who have had the insight to admit that each and every one of us screen all the facts of life that we are presented with through a filter made up of personal experience and perception. Our gender, our age, our culture, our ethnicity, our religion, our ideology, our values, our special interests – all these things play a part in forming the way we see reality. These produce an effective screen for perceiving what we see in everyday life and is even more effective when trying to understand the past. This is why we should never just accept historical presentations as facts, and always be aware that there could be other evidence that gives another picture. We should also be aware of the possibility that people in the past were no less diverse in their outlook on life than we are today, and that one culture may harbor many different traditions.

The Norse Source-Traditions

There are two main avenues for understanding the past: the science of history, and the science of archaeology. I am an historian and base myself mostly on written evidence, although I will of course use archaeological evidence to support my theories if the evidence appears to be there. The problem with studying the history of pre-Christian Northern Europe is that people generally did not leave that much written evidence. There are a few rune-stones, but they are mostly written in code and incredibly hard to decipher for cultural outsiders – and that would be us moderns. The evidence we have of the Viking Age was written down after the conversion to Christianity and we must expect a certain Christian bias. Even when the Medieval writer obviously appreciates the pagan ancestral heritage, he was not writing as an insider, but as a descendant.

Most of Scandinavia was converted to Christianity between the year 1000 AD and 1070 AD, whereas most written evidence left to us date back at least a century later. Snorri´s Prose Edda, which is the main source of mainstream understanding of Norse pagan mythology, was written down in 1220 AD, the Poetic Edda some decades earlier. Understandably, there is a great deal of dispute as to whether the two Eddas may be used as sources to genuine paganism at all.  Those who believe that the sources, with some criticism and care, may be read as genuine references to pagan beliefs, like myself, point out that archaeology often corresponds well with mythical themes, that there are many elements in the myths that are clearly pre-Christian and may be compared to other non-Christian mythologies, and that paganism took several centuries to disappear in Scandinavia.

Other written evidence that shed light on Norse paganism are the writings of Roman, European and Arab outsiders, dating between the first century BC and until the 10th century AD. The earlier ones usually do not refer to actual Scandinavians but to their Germanic relatives. However, it is easy to see that we are looking at the same kind of cultural tradition. Of course, these written sources are as biased as the later ones, and even if more contemporary, bear even more signs of having been written by outsiders. But it is all we have got, and together with archaeological evidence we may form a picture of the early Iron Age Germanic and Norse traditions that preceded the Viking Age.

A Genuine Pagan Heritage

When Snorri Sturluson wrote his book in 1220-1225 A.D., he complained that young people were beginning to forget the lore of the ancestors. This was two centuries after the conversion, which in Iceland happened in the year 1000 AD, and young people were just beginning to forget. As this fact started to dawn on scholarly Icelanders, they began a rush to write down the family sagas, the legendary sagas and the mythical lore of their ancestors in order to preserve what had, until then, been preserved in oral tradition. That people in the past, especially people who educated professional bards for this particular purpose, were capable of preserving lore through oral transmission for centuries, even millennia, is undisputable.

Adding to this, I am convinced that I have detected a basic structure that carries the myths of the Poetic Edda, and that this structure cannot be anything but pagan in character.[2] It is a structure of pagan initiation, possibly Mysteries[3].

A Special Tradition

If, as I think, the Poetic Edda is the heritage of a Mystery religion, what I just said above means that the Poetic Edda may not necessarily represent the entirety of Scandinavian paganism. In fact, there is ample evidence that many pagan traditions are not represented in the Poetic or the Prose Edda. Gods that were widely worshipped all over Scandinavia in pagan times, such as Ull, Sól and Nerthus receive little or no attention in the myths that are left to us, while gods that do not seem to have been worshipped at all, such as Loki and Baldr, play major roles in the Edda myths. This points to the possibility that the Edda myths may be read as literature rather than religion, or as the literature of a particular spiritual tradition within the wholeness of Norse paganism. It also supports the idea that the divine and giant and heroic characters of the Edda may be understood primarily as poetical metaphors based on more or less genuine pagan gods.

[1] Clunies-Ross, 1987

[2] Kvilhaug, 2004, 2009

[3] See Appendix IV for more on Ancient Mystery Religions


3 Responses to The Eddas – Genuine sources to pagan religion? From the Old Website:

  1. fred mehta says:

    what would be the Norse equivalent to the biblical Lillith ?


    • I am not aware of any such equivalent, actually. As far as I remember the myth of Lilith is very deeply rooted in a worldview that is quite different from the old Norse. By that I am referring to the myth I have heard about: Where Lilith was the first woman created in God´s image together with Adam. She refused to be dominated by him, and when he tried, she spoke the Lord´s name and vanished. Later, Eve was created, but the daughters of Lilith, the Lilim, are supposed to tempt men in their sleep so as to become “unclean”. The entire story is fundamentally different from anything created by the Old Norse culture. But you may be referring to something else about Lilith that I am not thinking of here?


  2. Jera says:

    The original Lillith has been equated with Inanna the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare. This would suggest Freyja, however etymology links Idunn with Inanna, and as Idunn is generally considered to be a hypostasis of Freyja, I would think Idunn.



3 Responses to The Eddas – Genuine sources to pagan religion?

  1. perla says:

    Thank for this. People of the Philippine islands went through a similar history, their myths and spiritual practices lost, faded or replaced because of the colonizing & religious forces that came with the coming of the Catholic Spaniards and the Protestant Americans. Filipinos past and present struggle and strive to dig deep to reclaim and embrace their lost heritage that their ancestors have left for them while struggling against programmed limiting beliefs that their indigenous roots are inferior to imperial powers’ race, culture and ways. I take heart from observing proud people whose lands & ancestors were historically conquered by outside forces but remain a people who still honor their own myths and remember ancestral ways.

  2. Henning Kure says:

    Things to consider:
    Since Snorri did not only refer to the mythological poems, but actually quoted them extensively, does the claim that the so-called Poetic Edda was hidden away from the public for 400 years make sense? Snorri’s Edda was a ‘bestseller’ of its times, and the compiling and ‘publishing’ of the Poetic Edda (i.e. the Old Norse part of Snorri’s source material) seems to be a result of this success. But not making the bestseller list isn’t quite the same as being hidden away, is it?

    “And without his [Snorri's] work we would have understood nothing at all of the Edda poems.” – I disagree strongly with this. Actually I think it is the other way around: Because of Snorri’s work, we still don’t understand much of the mythological eddic poems. But in fact the poems do make a lot of sense in and by themselves without any ‘help’ from Snorri.

    The myths are not only “duly recounted and filled out by Snorri”, they are interpreted and reorganized according to a Christian worldview with the addition of a lot of learned, Christian core ideas. If we base our interpretations on those of Snorri, we end up with interpretations of interpretations – a game that has been going on among scholars and translators for over 300 years.

    The poems were there long before Snorri (I believe), and we still have almost all of the poems on which he based his Edda. We must go directly to those sources. We need to base our interpretations on the poems alone, cutting away everything we know from Snorri. And yes, it is possible, and it offers some huge revelations. Then – and only then – we may return to Snorri’s text and read it as a supplement duly filtered by our new insights.

    Also we need to read the poems as they are written. The emendations (most of them based on Snorri’s interpretations) that have been established as ‘truth’ during centuries of scholarship, must be rejected if we are looking for ancient meaning.

    You are so right on so many points. The importance of the meaning of the names. The telling omissions by Snorri. The existence of a basic structure through the myths of the so-called Poetic Edda connected with initiation. Just to mention a few of the major ones in the article above.

    Your ideas are fantastic and inspiring, your knowledge and insights are truly great – but some core ideas are contaminated because you didn’t deal properly with Snorri as a source first. And you didn’t examine the texts thoroughly enough on a couple of crucial points. You are not alone in this – most scholars do the same – but with a mission like yours, you in particular cannot get away with it. What you do is too important for that. In my opinion. ;-)

    This doesn’t mean that all of your work falls apart. But my guess is that you may have cause to rethink a few of your ideas.
    Making great thoughts even better.
    It never stops.

  3. Henning Kure says:

    On the importance of the names:
    Many of the mythic names can’t be translated with a single word or expression to cover all the layers of meaning in the Old Norse name. If we do that, we simplify and take away the richness of the name. For that reason, sometimes the original name is to be preferred.
    I think that we, who study the texts and pass on our findings, must be careful not to close the doors with our interpretations. Our task is to open the text.
    If initiation truly is at the core of the preserved myths – and I tend to agree with you on this – the essence of these texts actually is the search for meaning. We should help that search along – not bring it to a definite end.
    In my opinion.

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