The Sources to Old Norse Myths

The Books of Old

By Maria Kvilhaug

What do we actually know about the Old Norse views on creation – the cosmic genesis? Hardly anything at all, it could be argued. All the sources on Norse mythology and cosmology are written sources, written in the Latin alphabet by scholars and monks more than a century or more after the Conversion, and we just do not know to what degree “accurate” Pagan myths survived in the memory of Christian descendants across several generations. Another question is how “accurate” any myth would be in the first place, since the Pagan religion was not a dogmatic religion basing itself on the interpretation of holy books. It was a religion that based itself on magical activities and mystical experience, and myths may have varied according to who related them, when they related them, to whom, and when, and with what purpose. Poetry was a sacred art in Norse Paganism, and poets could take great liberty and apply endless variety in their use of allegory and metaphor in order to convey a message.

What we are left with are two main sources. The most important source is the Poetic Edda, also known as the Elder Edda. The Poetic Edda is a collection of poems that are recognized as belonging to the Edda tradition. The Old Norse word Edda means “Great Grandmother”. It refers to the lore of the ancestors (or more literally, the ancestral mothers). Many of the Edda poems that we know of were collected in a manuscript known as the Codex Regius, which resurfaced in 1647 A.D. after having been kept away from the public for a period of four centuries. An Icelandic family of farmers had been the keepers of the only comprehensive collection of Edda poems that had survived what may have been the censorship of the Medieval Church. The leather manuscript was almost complete, with the exceptions of a few pages that had been torn out in the end. Some of the poems in this manuscript were already known from other papers dating back to the 12th and 13th 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 12th century and probably copied from an older source still) because they may have been invented by Medieval scholars rather than by Pagan poets. Thus many poems, such as the Gróagalðr, Fjölsvinnsmál, Hráfngalðr Óðins, and the Sólarljóð[1] are even left out of modern collections and translations. However, these poems are called Edda poems because they do fit into the category of Edda lore, and in my opinion, an analysis of the structure and the symbolic details within the poems will show that these poems belong to an actual Pagan (and/or pre-Christian) tradition in Scandinavia, because they resemble and fall into a thoroughly Pagan worldview and Pagan concerns. 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.[2]

For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the Edda poems as the “Poetic Edda” despite the fact that no such book really exist since the Codex Regius manuscript did not contain all the Edda poems. I will use my conclusion, that the Poetic Edda represents lore that emerged in an Old Norse Pagan environment, as a starting point.

Snorri`s Edda

The other main source to Old Norse myths is Snorri`s “Prose Edda”. Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) was an Icelandic scholar, chief and poet with a passion for Old Norse poetry known as skaldskáp (“bard-creation”). Between the years 1220 and 1225, he wrote a book explaining the rules of skaldskáp, divided in three parts. The first part was called Gylfaginning. Gylfi was the name of a Swedish sorcerer king who went to seek Ásgarðr, the abode of the Aesir, usually translated as “gods” although they were but one tribe of so-called Powers in which the Old Norse pagans believed in and related to. According to Snorri, the Aesir were “Asians” who had arrived in Scandinavia in the old days. Most scholars believe that this version was Snorri`s way of making the Old Norse myths more palatable to a Christian audience. 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.

When I first tried to look up the meaning of the name Gylfi, I found only one dictionary dating back to 1886[3] which provided a clue. It literally said that Gylfi refers to a “werewolf”, “shape-changer”, or a “sorcerer who changes into a woman every ninth night”. The other word that composes the title Gylfaginning is ginning, which means “illusion”, “hallucination”, “trick” or “vision”. In my opinion, the most correct interpretation of the title of Snorri`s first book would translate something like “The Vision of the Sorcerer”.

In “The Vision of the Sorcerer”, Gylfi, inspired by the powerful deeds of the goddess Gefion (“The Provider” – and a name for Freya), travels to the abode of the Aesir. On his journey, he takes the name Gangleri, which means “Wandering Learner”. He seems conspicuously like the god Óðinn himself, a sorcerer and a shape-changer (who has certainly taken the shape of a woman several times), and who frequently move into the various dimensions of the universe in order to learn ever more, and who takes upon himself countless names. According to the rules of Norse poetry, a character will be hidden in words and identify itself through attributes such as these.

However, when the Wandering Learner arrives in Ásgardr, he encounters another aspect of the god Óðinn disguised in three shapes: The High One, Just-As-High, and Third.[4]

These three take turn in answering Gylfi`s questions about the universe, telling Gylfi all about the history of the world from beginning to end. Most of the story, which may have been invented by Snorri himself, is based on the Edda poem Völuspá (“The Divination of the Witch”), but also makes reference to other Edda poems. When they have finished, the entire Ásgarðr vanishes into thin air, and it turns out that the entire experience had been a ginning – an illusion, a hallucination, a trick, or indeed, a sorcerer`s vision. 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 they [the Aesir] recalled the things they had told the visitor. 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 was only then that Thor got his name…”

The second book of the Prose Edda was called the Skaldskáparmál – “The Speech of the Making of the Art of Poetry”. It, too, is told as a story containing many stories. A giant called Aegir moves from his place at the edge of the world and arrives in Ásgardr, where the Aesir entertain their important guest by letting Bragi, the god of poetry, explain the origin of the art of poetry, referring to myths known both from Skaldic poetry and Edda poetry. It ends with Aegir inviting the gods on a feast in his house which is situated at Hlésey – The Wind-Shielded Island. This island is a symbol of immortality, as I will be explaining later in this chapter, and it is of utmost importance that the gods be able to drink the “mead” of Aegir. In order to do that, they need a cauldron that is big enough, and send Thor out on a mission to get it.

The third book of the Prose Edda is called the Háttatal – “The List of Verses” is usually excluded from popular translated editions because it is much more complicated to understand than the first two. It is not a story but a detailed explanation of the rules of poetry, describing and exemplifying types of verse form. It is the culmination of Snorri`s work.

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. Snorri`s purpose was to preserve the lore that could preserve the Norse art of poetry, and although he did not succeed in his mission – a revival and continuation of the ancestral tradition, we who live today may regard his effort as quite successful for a different purpose. Without Snorri`s work, we would probably not have been able to understand much of the Edda or the Skaldic poems at all.

As a source to Old Norse Paganism, Snorri`s work must be used with care. He wrote the book 225 years after the Icelandic Conversion to Christianity. He based his work on his knowledge of Edda and Skaldic poetry and on the “tales of old men and women who still remember the old ways”. 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.

When looking at the older Poetic Edda as well as the mythological allusions made in Skaldic poetry, we see that Snorri`s work is greatly adapted and modified to fit his time. He consciously left out mythological events and “facts” in his sources that were too provocative to the Church. 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. These were themes that could lead to censorship and in the worst case, book-burning, during the Medieval era. I believe this danger of persecution might be a reason why the Codex Regius with its compilation of Pagan poetry was kept hidden by mysterious Icelandic farmers until 1647 and the Age of Enlightenment. Snorri did his best to convey knowledge in a way that could be accepted by Christians  – that is, by Christians who did not look further – for often enough he hid Pagan knowledge in plain sight.

That Snorri really wanted to convey the totality of Pagan lore becomes obvious when all his works are seen together. Another important source by Snorri was his work Heimskringla (“The World Circle”) in the beginning of his Ynglingatál and sagas of Norwegian kings.  In this work, Snorri fills in several gaps of the Prose Edda, so that seen together, Snorri`s work provides a powerful key to understanding the hidden messages of the Poetic Edda.

The Sagas of Old Times

Another written source to Old Norse mythology is found in the work of Saxo Grammaticus (1150-1220), a Danish scholar who in 1208 finished his work Gesta Danorum, “The History of the Danes”. Like Snorri, Saxo described the Pagan gods as ancestors – particularly devious and immoral ancestors without much honor. Saxo obviously harbored a very hostile attitude to Paganism, but nevertheless provided some interesting additions to and versions of Norse myths.

Finally, we have the förnaldarsögur – the Sagas of Old Times – written down no earlier than the 13th century but claiming to be the heroic lore of Viking Age ancestors. The sagas tell of Viking Age men and women who gained some reputation in their lifetimes, and often contain strong elements of myth and folklore. The heroes frequently move into other worlds and encounter supernatural beings. It is often possible to recognize Pagan characters and Pagan activities such as initiation rituals and magic. Other sagas of kings and Icelandic families sometimes provide insight into folklore and Pagan practices.

Altogether, the sources provide an insight not into the entirety of Old Norse Paganism, but only into a few of the themes and stories that were remembered by Christian descendants. In the case of the sagas especially, attitudes towards magic and magical performers show clear signs of Christian influence, where Pagan practitioners are demonized. After the Conversion, legal texts show that new laws discriminating and oppressing Pagan practitioners, women, homosexuals and cross-dressers of both genders were quickly introduced. Legislation is a powerful changer of attitudes. Thus the presentation of trolls, sorcerers, witches and magical arts are usually negative, which is probably a Christian rather than a Pagan attitude since Paganism embraced witchcraft and sorcery and included people who defied the usual gender roles. In my opinion, however, the themes, storylines, structures and symbolic elements of the sources point to a Pagan origin. The structures of initiation rituals that can only have emerged in a Pagan context are very dominant in much of this lore. Other themes are recognizable from comparative mythology that is certainly ancient, such as the Vedas dating back thousands of years. Finally, archaeological finds often provide illustrations of mythological events that we recognize.

The Key to Understanding Norse Myths

To illustrate an example of how Norse myths must be approached if we are to get a true understanding, I will use the stanza from The Song of the Sun cited in the beginning of this chapter. The Song of the Sun is a late Edda poem that clearly conveys the struggle between Pagan and Christian worldviews and the understanding of the afterlife. In the stanza quoted, it is clearly stated that the god Njorðr has nine daughters.

If your first reaction to reading this is: “But… Njorðr has only one daughter and a son – Freyr and Freya!” I would not be surprised. It was certainly my first reaction.

The reason our reaction would be like this is because anyone who have ever read basic Norse mythology will have been conditioned to believe that Njorð`s only children are Freyr and Freya. But why are we conditioned to believe that this is a mythological “fact”?

The reason is quite simple: Snorri only wrote that Njorðr had two children by his sister, and that these were Freyr – “The Lord Sovereign”, and Freya – “The Lady Sovereign”. Thus scholars have either ignored the stanza in the Song of the Sun or dismissed it as the ramblings of a Medieval Christian who didn’t know his mythology properly.

Actually, the poet who wrote the Song of the Sun applied the Old Norse art of poetry and followed its rules. One important rule was that messages would be conveyed through metaphors – another important rule was that metaphors must be based on mythology known by the poet and his listeners. That means that a line in a poem had to make sense to the audience, referring to something that was known by the audience. The revelation, that Njorðr has nine daughters, is based on something that the poet knew and expected his audience to know. Almost a millennium later, his audience no longer knows the totality of Norse mythology. We only know what a few Icelandic scholars remembered to write down. That means that we only know a tiny bit of what that poet knew. The claim, that Njorðr had nine daughters, is more likely referring to actual mythology remembered by people, than not.

This example illustrates very well how Old Norse mythology as presented in mainstream publications, media and education, does not really describe what Pagans believed but only what descendants have manage to make out of the sources. If we want to understand the myths, they have to become objects of analysis and interpretation, studied from various angles, and different versions must be compared. And we must not, under any circumstance, accept Snorri`s Prose Edda as an accurate description of Old Norse beliefs. The Prose Edda is a key that opens doors. Or as Snorri himself put it:

“I wrote this book so that young students of poetry may grasp that which has been hidden in runes [symbols]”.


[1] ”The Spell-Song of Gróa (Gróa=”Growth” – a witch)”, ”The Speech of Fjölsviðr(=”Much-Knowing”)”, “Odin`s Raven-Spellsong” (also known as Forspjallsljód – “The Song of the First Speech”)” and “The Song of the Sun”.

[2] Kvilhaug 2004/2009: My dissertation on initiation rituals surfacing in the structure of several Edda poems provide an argument for these having emerged in a Pagan environment. This book will continue exploring the inherent Paganism in the Poetic Edda.

[3] Fritzner, Johan: Ordbog over det gamle norske sprog, Det Norske Forlags Forening, 1886

[4] Hár, Jafnhár, Tríði

 

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