Edda poems – A Summary

Vǫluspá – The Divination of the Witch: Often known as The Seeress´s Prophecy. This poem takes the form of a séance of oracular divination, i.e. the Old Norse art of seiðr. The diviner, a vǫlva [wand-carrying witch/priestess] divines the history of the universe from beginning to the end and into the new era to come, at the request of Óðinn before the children of Heimdallr [Great World].  This is the one poem that I deal with in its entirety throughout my book “The Seed of Yggdrasill” (coming autumn 2012) as it provides a perfectly chronological framework explaining most of the basics of Old Norse cosmology.

Hávamál – The Speech of the High One: Hár [The High One], a name for Óðinn, offers guidance of wise and proper conduct for the traveler (of the world). The listener is later reveiled to be one Loddfafnir [Embracer of Voluptous Woman / Harvest/ Fate]. Towards the end of the poem, Óðinn recounts his initiation journey in three stages: First, he meets “Twin´s Maiden” and is rejected by her. Second, he meets the maiden Gunnlǫð and is accepted, but after the marriage, he escapes with all the Mead of Poetry, rejecting her instead. Third, he sings charms until the three last charms allow him to yet attract “the maiden”, keep “the maiden” and finally know the best of secrets in the arms of one who is also, perhaps, his own sister. The initiation journey involved being hanged in a tree for nine nights, receiving neither food nor drink – then he receives the learning of runes and magical spells as well as the mead of poetry, a theme which forms the climax of the revelations of the High One.

Vafþruðnismál – The Speech of the Powerful Head Veil. After receiving the reluctant blessings and the advice of his wife Frigg, Óðinn enters the “halls” of the giant Vafþrúðnir [Powerful Head Veil – from váf=head veil, þrúðnir=powerful one] in order to see how these “halls” are created. The giant challenges the god to a duel of wisdom and knowledge – the one who is unable to answer a question must perish. Óðinn asks a series of questions about the order of cosmos, and as such the poem provides valuable information about cosmology same as the Vǫluspá. Óðinn wins the battle when he asks whether the giant knows what Óðinn whispered into the ears of his son Baldr on Baldr´s funeral pyre.

Grímnismál – The Speech of the Masked One. Óðinn and Frigg argue about the worthiness of their respective wards, whom they raised.  Frigg´s ward is Agnarr [Respect Warrior], who now lives in a cave with a giantess, a metaphor for the underworld and death. Óðin´s ward is Geirrǫðr [Red Spear], who still lives and who has become a great king. Óðinn mocks Frigg for having a ward of no consequence, whereupon Frigg mocks Óðinn for having a ward infamous for his inhospitality, cruelty and general stinginess – qualities much disfavored by the gods. Óðinn, enraged, goes to see if this is true, and is taken captive by his own ward, who does not recognize him. The god is placed on a log burning from both ends and must sit there for eight days. On the ninth day, Geirrǫð´s son, named Agnarr after his uncle, thus representing a fusion between the ward of Frigg and the ward of Óðinn, offers a drink to the god and receives a revelation about the various dimensions of cosmos and the true pantheist nature of Óðinn as Spirit, the One Who is Many. Another valuable cosmology poem.

Skírnismál – The Speech of the Shining Bright One. The god Freyr, ruler of order and the fertility of the land, sits in Óðin´s high seat Hlíðskiǫlf [Seat of Openings] from where one can look into all the worlds. Freyr discovers a maiden whose arms shine so bright they illuminate the lands and the oceans. Her name is Gerðr [Enclosure], daughter of Gymir [The One that Hides Something], yet her true identity is subtly reveiled through metaphor: She is probably Freyia, Freyr´s own sister, and the gods and the elves do not wish to see them together. There is also a reference to the Sun goddess, who refuses to shine upon Freyr´s desire, just as the shining giant maiden refuses to give herself to the god.

Freyr sends his servant Skírnir [Shining Bright One] into the world of the dead, where he finds the bright golden halls of the maiden, and is allowed entry. There, he resorts to three kinds of arguments to win her hand for Freyr: the offering of sacred gifts, threats of violence, and finally, when nothing impresses the maiden, he resorts to witchcraft, painting out the terrible future if the maiden refuses to become a bride of the gods. The maiden finally accepts Freyr as a husband – but demands a difficult condition: Freyr has to survive the nine nights of initiation and meet her in the Breezeless Grove of Barri [Pine Needle], which is a metaphor for immortality. Freyr laments, fearing how he shall survive even three of the nights.

Hymiskviða – The Song of Hymir [“Slow One” or “Hymn” – uncertain meaning]. The Aesir are invited to the home of Aegir the Ocean giant, grandfather of this present cosmos. The giant´s home is on Hlésey [Wind-Shield Island] and is thus a realm of immortality where Light Elves dwell and where the Daughters of the Ocean, who are also waves and rivers, provide the golden light of wisdom that illuminate the hall of Aegir. In order to gain entry to this realm, the Aesir, who are not actually immortal, need a cauldron that is big enough to contain all the mead of Aegir. The Thundergod, Þórr, is charged with finding the cauldron, and is accompanied by Týr, the god of battles, victory and strategy. They enter the hall of Hymir and find Amma [Grandmother], a terrible giantess with nine hundred heads. From the scary Grandmother comes the bright and friendly Móðir [Mother], who offers a power-drink to her son, apparently, to Þórr, which leads me to conclude that Mother is Earth herself, þór´s mother, and that the terrible Grandmother is the giantess otherwise known as Nǫtt [Night].

The Earth Mother offers counsel to her son as well as the drink, and Þórr finds the way to defeat the terrible frost-giant Hymir through strategy and deceit. The Thundergod challenges the frost giant for a fishing trip, and gets the Middle World Serpent on the hook. The giant Hymir cuts the string, and the serpent escapes, but Þórrnevertheless manages to steal the cauldron afterwards, running away as the cauldron covers his entire body, on his way to the Hall of Aegir to save the day.

Hárbardsljóð – The The Song of Long-Beard. Þórrtries to cross the river that forms the border between Óðin´s divine land and the Middle World. Þórris the only god who is “too heavy” to enter the divine realms on the bridge called Bíflind [Gentle Shivering] or Bífrǫst [Shivering Voice], so he depends on “the ferryman” to row him across. The Ferryman is traditionally a being who takes people over to the other side after their deaths. However, this time, Óðinn is disguised behind the Ferryman, wearing the name Hárbardr [Long Beard], and challenges Þórr: Why should the Thunderer gain entry into the divine realm?

Þórr brags about his manly deeds, but is mocked by Long Beard, who points out that there are more important matters than being manly when it comes to entering the divine realm – such as the love of a certain Linen-White Maiden. Þórr fails to understand the message and, blinded by his own self-importance and rage, stomps off, while Long Beard offers his final advice: To seek his mother, the Earth, for she will be able to show him the way to the divine lands – and to seek her soon, for she is dying, and to rescue his wife from another man.

Lokasenna – Loki´s Mocking. In the Hymiskvíða, described above, the gods received the invitation to the Hall of Aegir, but would need a cauldron large enough to room all the mead of the Ocean lord in order to complete the banquet (of the immortals). Now they are waiting anxiously for Þórrto arrive with the cauldron, all depending on the Thundergod´s success. While they are waiting, Loki kills the servant called Fímafengr [Clever Fingers] because he is praised so by the gods, unlike Loki, who is overcome by jealousy.

Loki is then thrown out of the hall, but is so blinded by rage that he demands new entry. The servant Eldi [Maturity] tries to stop him, advising him to stay away, but Loki threatens to kill him too. He walks into the hall and reminds Óðinn of their age-old pact of blood-brotherhood, and Óðinn relents. The god Viðarr [Expander] the Silent, son of Óðinn and the giantess Gríðr [Truce] offers a cup of mead to Loki, but Loki refuses to drink, and begins ranting on about the faults of the gods and goddesses.

The goddesses are generally accused of promiscuity and adultery, whereas the gods are accused of cowardice, unmanliness and self-humiliating activities. All the while, the gods and goddesses stand up for each other and attempt to explain for Loki that he has misunderstood the real meaning and value of these stories that he is referring to in mockery and accusations. Loki refuses to listen, always attacking the god or goddess who has stood up for another. Finally, Loki is so enraged that he reveals that he is the true murderer of Baldr, only to hear that Frigg knew it all along. Skaði, the goddess of injuries, finally expresses the rage of the gods against Loki, warning him, yet the mischief-maker continues his rant ever louder. Síf, Þór´s wife, tries to calm him and soothe him by offering him a cup of mead, but even as Loki drinks the mead in his present state, he abuses the gift and brags that he has deceived even Síf, having her for his lover.

Then Þórr enters with the cauldron and finally manages to scare Loki into silence. Loki escapes, but is hunted down to answer for his crime of murdering Baldr. He is tied up in the underworld, and Skaði, who is also a goddess of death, places a poison-dripping serpent above his face. There he is to lie, protected only by his wife Sígyn [Victory Woman], who holds a jar above her husband´s face so as to catch the poison before it hurts him. But sometimes the cup is filled to the brim, and the wife has to empty it – and while she is away to empty it, poison drips into the face of Loki, who trembles in agony, making the whole world shake. At Ragnarǫk, Loki is destined to break free just as his son Fenrir [Greed] is to do, attacking the world of the living.

Þrymskvíða – The Song of the Drummer. In this comedy poem, Þórr wakes up one morning to discover that his hammer, a symbol of his masculine potency and power, as well as a symbol of the thunderbolt, is missing. He seeks the aid of Loki, shaman among the gods, who in his turn seeks the aid of goddess Freyia. Freyia willingly lends out her falcon hide to Loki, who is then able to travel to Þrymheimr [The World of the Drum], the realm of giants such as Þrymr [Drumming One] Skaði and Þiazi [Slave-Binder]. There, he discovers that the giant Þrymr has stolen the hammer and keeps it well locked up. He demands to marry Freyia in return for the hammer. Þórrapproaches Freyia and asks her to dress up as a bride, a request that makes the goddess so angry that the whole Earth shakes, and the Necklace of Flames [Brisinga Mén] bursts, before she tells Þórrthat he is mad to think that she would ever marry a giant.

The Aesir gather at parliament, and Heimdallr [Great World], the wisest and brightest among them, declares that the only way Þórr will be able to retrieve his hammer – his manhood – is to become the bride himself. Þórr refuses at first, fearing that the Aesir will think him unmanly and perverted, but Loki urges the god to obey the will of the Parliament. Thus Þórr dresses up in the dress and the veils of a bride, with rocks for breasts and keys in the belt, accompanied by an equally cross-dressed Loki who happily, even gleefully, plays the role as handmaiden. The wedding banquet proposes a few problems since Þórr, the most manly among gods, has trouble acting convincingly feminine, but Loki saves the day with his clever tongue until the wedding is sanctified. Traditionally, a replica of Þór´s hammer was placed by the groom in the bride´s lap, a symbol of intercourse, in order to sanctify the marriage. As Þórr now receives the hammer in his lap, a symbol of yielding femininity, he actually retrieves his manly power and kills all the giants who wanted his “red rings” (of life).

Allvismál – The Speech of All-Knowing. Allvís [All-Knowing] is an unfortunate but very knowledgable dwarf who seeks to marry the maiden þrúðr [Power], daughter of Þórrthe Thundergod. The father challenges the dwarf in a contest of wisdom, where the dwarf provides valuable information about Pagan cosmology and how the various dimensions correspond and how one singular quality is perceived differently in all the different worlds. Even for all his knowledge, the dwarf is beguiled by Þórrwho keeps the dwarf standing until the Sun goddess shines her rays upon him at dawn. Traditionally, this is understood as the dwarf being turned to stone in the light of the sun, being a dwarf and thus unworthy of marrying a god´s daughter. Þórr tricked the dwarf, showing that for all his knowledge he would not be able to withstand the light of day. I think it may also be a way of symbolizing transformation – from the limited dwarf form and into an enlightened being: The dwarf has to transform this way in order to reach true Power.

Vegtamskviða – The Song of Way-Wont. Also known as Baldrs Draumar (The Dreams of Baldr). The god Baldr, son of Óðinn and Frigg, has terrible dreams about his own death. The Aesir and the Ásyniur gather at Parliament in order to discuss these omens, and Óðinn takes it upon himself to seek a dead vǫlva (witch) in Hel in order to divine the future. He travels into the Underworld, the poem offers a good description of this realm, before he reaches the High Hall of Hel [Hǫll Hár Helju] and sings válgalðr [Death Charms or Choice Charms] for the “ancient wise woman”.

As the witch reluctantly rises from her grave, she reveals, at Óðin´s bequest, that the precious mead is kept beneath shields in Hel, awaiting the return of Baldr. She reveals the identity of the fated murderer, and also reveals who is going to avenge Baldr and who the mother of the avenger is (From other sources, we know that the revelations were kept secret by Óðinn, who allows the murder to happen and who then seeks the mother of the avenger in order to become the father). Óðinn proceeds to ask about some “maidens who wailing throw their veils towards heaven”, but the witch refuses to answer, claiming that it is because she has understood who she is talking to; Óðinn. When the witch cannot answer his question about the maidens, Óðinn understands that the witch is not the actual wise woman that he had sought, but rather the “mother of three trolls”, Loki the bound, who portends Ragnarǫk.

Rígsþula – The List of Ríg. Describes how one Ríg – “Ruler” – walks through the world mating first with Edda [Great Grandmother] to make the class of thralls, then with Amma [Grandmother] in order to make the class of peasants, and finally with Móðir [Mother] in order to beget the noble warrior class. From Móðir is born Kon Ungr [Royal Descendant], who is destined to become a sage and a king.

Hyndluljóð – The Song of the She-Wolf. A young man, Óttarr [Hope Warrior or Fear Warrior] sacrifices to the goddesses and prays until the altar, red with blood from the sacrificed animal (a boar, most likely), turns into crystal and the greatest of goddesses appears before him: Freyia, who transforms his soul into the body of the boar, which she rides into the Underworld, the “darkest of darkness”.

In a rock cave, they find an aspect of Hel in the form of a wolf-riding giantess vǫlva [witch], whom Freyia addresses respectfully as “sister” and “maiden foremost among maidens”. She is called Hyndla – “Bitch” or “She-Wolf”, and she owns a stable full of pitch-black male wolves whom she rides. Freyia declares her purpose: To help Óttarr on his way to Valhǫll or Valland – The Hall or Land of Death-Choice, where Óðin´s warriors dwell after death. Obviously, the purpose of this quest, the sacrifice and the underworld descent, is to become an einheri – a “One-Harrier” or, I suggest, a “Sole Ruler”, one of Óðin´s warriors to aid in the final battle against the destructive powers of Greed during Ragnarǫk. In order to manage the journey, the young man is in need of good advice, for after “the third day” he will have to argue his case as an inheritor of the “gold of Valland” (gold is a metaphor for divine wisdom and light) against his opponent Angantýr [Pleasure Beast].

In a séance of seiðr, the She-Wolf divines the “ancestry” of Óttarr, revealing that he is related to the entire world, to all lineages and all kinds, all united in one single being born of nine mothers – the universe, or Heimdallr – the Great World. Then she divines the future and Ragnarǫk, prophesying the arrival of one being greater than all (the latter is often thought to be a reference to Christ). Finally, Freyia declares that she will offer the precious Mead of Memory to Óttarr so that he may remember the teachings he has received. The She-Wolf then plays the Ogress of Death: Even as she reveals all wisdom, it is her nature to demand oblivion and sleep in death.

Freyia plays the opposite, alternative fate in death, the one that leads to Valhǫll and glory rather than to oblivion in darkness. She is compared to Heiðrún [Illuminating Symbol] who produced the mead of resurrection in Valhǫll by chewing the leaves (lives) of the World Tree. She declares that even in the face of massive challenges and Ragnarǫk, Óttarr, the Warrior of Hope (or, alternately, the Warrior who conquers Fear), will drink the mead of knowledge and remember the teachings, and that she will demand that all the Aesir help him.

Vǫlundarkviða- The Song of the Sacred Grove. Vǫlundr [Sacred Grove] is a smith, an elf and a son of the “Sami king”. With his two brothers, he arrives in Wolf Valley by the Wolf Lake – the wolf a symbol of survival instincts for better and for worse – for desire, hunger, greed, lust, qualities necessary for life´s survival yet easily turned to destructive qualities in the wrong hands. On the Shore of the Soul [Sefarstrǫnd] at the Wolf Lake, the three brothers find three maidens who are norns and valkyriur, wearing swan hides and spinning the linen of fate. The maidens are presented as goddesses of abundance, provisions and wisdom. It is Vǫlundr who marries All-Wise, the youngest of the valkyriur. The three couples live happily together for seven years. Then the women begin to tire of life as house-wives and yearn for battles. The eight year, their yearning grows stronger, and the ninth year, the valkyriur leave their husbands, flying into the Dark Forest in order to fulfill the fate of All-Wise the young.

Without their wives, the brothers feel lost. Two of them begin to seek their wives in the direction of the east (world of giants) and of the south (world of gods and norns), but Vǫlundr the elf-smith remains in Wolf Valley, forging hundreds of red gold rings, awaiting the return of his beloved. This is known by one King Niðuðr [Wave Beneath], who sends his warriors and captures Vǫlundr, wanting to know where the gold is to be found. The King complains that he had not managed to find any gold on the “Path of Grani”, which means the Path of Initiation (Grani is Sigúrð´s horse, used to carry the divine red gold of wisdom and to jump through the fires of death). Vǫlundr explains that the wealth the King is talking about was abundant when the three brothers lived in harmony with the three sisters. The red gold in question is a symbol of divine power, knowledge and wisdom.

The King is not satisfied with this answer, and following the counsel of his cunning wife, cuts over Vǫlund´s hamstrings and places him on an islet called The Place of the Soul [Sefarstaðir], where the elf is forced to forge riches for the King and his people. The King takes Vǫlund´s sword for himself and gives the Red Ring of All-Wise to his daughter Battle Intent [Bǫðvildr]. But Vǫlundr plots his revenge. Through cunning maneuverings and manipulations, he succeeds in taking the lives of the King´s two young and greedy sons, and rapes the King´s daughter,Battle Intent, who becomes pregnant, taking back and mending the Red Ring of All-Wise that the Battle Intent has broken. Then he flies away in the shape of an eagle, letting the King know of the consequences of his actions. The pregnant and raped daughter is now placed under Vǫlund´s protection, becoming the Woman of the Sacred Grove, birthing a new beginning.

Grottasǫngr – The Song of the Mill-Stone. King Fróði [Wise One / Wisdom] receives a huge mill-stone from a “peasant” called Hangakiǫft [Hanging Gaping Mouth], a mill that will grind what the millner speaks, but no one has the strength to draw the mill except two giant maidens called Fenia [Heath-Dweller/Doer] and Menia [Necklace-Owner / Rememberer]. The maidens are taken as slaves and made to draw the mill while singing songs of abundance, peace, wisdom and prosperity. But the king drives them too hard and refuses them rest, and finally, the giantesses grow weary and angry, recalling their own strength and former glory. They begin to call upon the sleeping King Wisdom to wake up and listen to their tales, but as the household of Wisdom continues to sleep, the maiden begin to grind war, pestilence and poverty, ending the Peace of Wisdom that has long reigned.

Sólarljóð – The Song of the Sun. This is usually thought to be a Christian poem for the most part, with remnants of Pagan concepts within. It was probably composed after the introduction of Christianity, in the year 1200, by a person who seems somewhat pulled between the new faith and old concepts and beliefs. A man has died, and is advising his son, telling him about his death journey, where he must sit for nine days in the Chair of the Norns in order to receive the Judgment of the Norns. He describes his vision of the Sun as a glorious goddess to whom he bowed one last time before he died, and many other visions.

The Sun-Song is composed in the style of the Edda poems, yet the poem is often not added to contemporary Edda translations because it is thought to be more of a Christian than a Pagan poem, despite the fact that it clearly explains Pagan concepts. The focus of the poem is in my opinion on Pagan issues, yet not the ones people today traditionally consider crucial to Paganism. I believe the reason for this modern dismissal is the Sun-Song´s focus on the female powers of the Old Norse cosmos, which does not correspond with stereotypical notions held in our day. It is my conviction that the poet who composed this poem in the year 1200 probably knew a lot more about Old Norse Pagan concepts than we do today and that his focus is, to a great degree, on Pagan issues, and that the poet is drawn between these ancient issues and the Christian faith. Various aspects of the Sun-Song will be discussed, particularly in chapter II and in chapter VI.

Hráfnagalðr Óðins eða Forspjallsljóð – Óðin´s Raven Charm or the Song of the First Speech. Another poem composed in the Edda style that has been dismissed by many scholars as a late poem, probably written down centuries after the Conversion by someone who was well acquainted with Edda lore. This possible author has been dismissed as a hoax who tried to brag about his knowledge about the use of metaphors by making a completely unintelligible poem.

In my opinion, the most important reason for this dismissal seems to be the fact that the poem is almost impossible to understand from the traditional perspective on the myths as a kind of fairytales. There is no story and no setting, only a series of cryptic and subtle stanzas often referring to issues and concepts otherwise often, even mostly, unknown to us. From the time that people began trying to decipher the poem, one after the other has given up and dismissed the poem as unintelligible and thus a fake, invented by some hoax perhaps during the 17th century AD. This is why this poem also hardly ever is presented in Edda translations and collections.

I found, when I tried a translation of my own, that this poem becomes deeply meaningful if the names of characters and places are interpreted and translated, and that it continuously alludes to the basic issues of the Mysteries that in this book are revealed to be at the heart and core of Edda lore. On this ground, I am firmly convinced that this poem deserves its space among the Edda poems, and I have, in some instances, used some stanzas from this poem as relevant sources.

Gróagalðr – The Spells of Growing

A young boy stands before the “doors of death” at the mound of his long dead mother, a witch (vǫlva) called Gróa [“To Grow”]. The mother wakes up from the dead and speaks to her son, who tells her that his stepmother has forced him to seek the hand of the maiden Menglǫð [Invitation to Blend or Necklace Joy]. The boy is anxious, believing himself to be too young to undertake such a dangerous and difficult task, and asks his mother´s advice. The dead woman declares that the path is terribly dangerous and difficult, but if he succeeds, fortune will be his. She sings nine spell-songs that will help him on the way – all spells having to do with letting go of the past, letting go of all things that holds the boy back, and to follow his own way, and to not be distracted, especially by “Christian women”. The dead witch says farewell with a final advice: That he shall always remember his mother´s advice.

Fjǫlsvinnsmál – The Speech of Much Knowing

The young boy of the Gróagalðr suddenly finds himself floating in the darkness of the Outer World [Utgarðr]. The place is dark, hostile and the home of giants. Yet the boy can see a beautiful, golden hall with a tree called the Mímameiðr [Tree of Memory] within, and at its root a mountain called Lyfjaberg [The Mountain of Medicine]. On top of this mountain by the root of the tree sits a dreaming, sleeping maiden: His beloved Menglǫð. She is accompanied by nine beautiful and friendly maidens. The boy knows that he has to enter this hall and wake up the maiden, but the hall is protected by fearsome walls and gates and blood-thirsty hounds, as well as by the guardian and servant of the maiden, Fjǫlsviðr [Much Knowing]. The guardian challenges the boy, saying that since he is neither dead nor dying, this is not a place for him (letting us know that this is a place for the dead and the dying). The boy, now calling himself Wind-Cold, a way of indicating that he is actually dead, begins to engage the giant guardian in a word duel, asking questions to see if the guardian can answer. The questions lead to a revelations of secrets about the properties and functions of the realm of the maiden, who is revealed to be The Great Maiden [þióðmæra] and the ruling queen of the giant world. Finally, the boy asks the right question and realizes that he has been married to this maiden for an eternity, but that he has forgotten because of multiple deaths. When he remembers his true identity, the maiden wakes and calls for the guardian to let her beloved through, declaring herself as his fylgja [“follower”, a guardian spirit/ancestral mother/soul].

Heroic Poems

Helgakviða Hiǫrvarðssonar – The Song of Helgi Hiǫrvarð’s son. The poem begins with the story of King Hiǫrvarðr and his earl´s son Atli [Intender]. Atli plays the role of a shaman, a priest and a guide through initiation. The title iarl [earl] is derived from the older erilaR and used to refer to a sage or a priest, one who knew runes. After seeking visions in a sacred grove where birds talk to him, Atli moves into the Land of Sleep [Svávaland] in order to woo a maiden there for King Hiǫrvarðr, Sígrlinn [Mild Victory]. The theme is similar to that of the Skírnismál (above) where the servant Skírnir enters the Underworld to woo a supernatural maiden for his lord Freyr. He does not succeed in bringing out the maiden, but must return with the King. The two ascend a Sacred Mountain [Helga Fjǫll] in order to see the state of the Land of Sleep. Then they sleep by a river (a border between the worlds), and as they sleep, Atli moves into the realm and fetches the maiden for his King and her handmaiden for himself after killing the giant in eagle disguise (a symbol of death) who has guarded the maidens in a house surrounded by flames.

Later, Hiǫrvarð´s son by the supernatural maiden grows up unsociable and different from other men, and no name will stick to him. One day as he sits on a burial mound, nine valkyriur ride past. Their leader is Sváva from Sefafjǫll [The Sleeper from Soul Mountain], who names the boy Helgi [Sacred One] and points out his sacred destiny. Helgi has to go through trials in order to win the hand of the valkyria in marriage. On the journey, he has to go into the Fjord of Hatred [Hatafiord] and battle the giants called Hatred [Hati] and Rage Ocean [Hróðmar].

After a successful battle, Helgi and his men, who sleep aboard their ship, are attacked by the giantess Frosty Enclosure [Hrímgerðr], a daughter of Rán [Robbery – the death goddess of the ocean]. Frosty Enclosure, who is a deadly wave, tries to rock the boat into sinking, wanting the bodies of the drowned in her cold embrace, as her lovers (which means that she wants to kill them). Helgi´s attendant Atli [Intender] manages to keep the giantess occupied in a verbal exchange until dawn breaks and the ogress is turned into stone. Before she dies, she reveals that only the light of the valkyriur had prevented her from taking the mens´ lives. Helgi and Sváva get married, and she protects, guides and loves him throughout his life lika a valkyria, but Helgi must fight once more at the battle of the Rock of Greed [Frekasteinn], where he dies. Sváva, devastated, goes to sleep once more.

Helgakviða Hundingsbani hin fyrri- The First Song of Helgi Hunding´s Bane. Helgi, from the poem above, is reborn as Helgi, son of Sigmundr Vǫlsung, and later known as Hunding´s Bane. In this first poem, Helgi´s birth is described as if it was the birth of the present Universe itself. I believe this is a way of showing how Helgi´s story is relevant to all men – it is the story of man´s quest for and journey towards wisdom.

In this life, Helgi begins his career as a Viking greedy for spoils. One day, as he dozes off after a battle during a near-death experience, the valkyria of his previous life appears before him, this time calling herself by the name Sígrún [Victory Symbol], reminding him of their previous life together, when he had her as his wife. She urges him to change his life and go through the same trials of initiation that he did in his previous life. Helgi goes through more or less the same (at least very similar) battles as before, this time aided by his older half-brother Sinfiǫtli [Pale Fetters, i.e. “Death Gods”], who grew up as a refugee in the forest, learning to change his shape into animal form, to speak the language of birds and animals, and to know healing herbs.

Sinfiǫtli helps the present Helgi much the same way as Atli helped the previous Helgi, and Helgi succeeds his battles: This time, he is also victorious in the crucial battle at the Rock of Greed. Helgi dies only when Óðinn chooses him for his own and leads the spear of the valkyria bride´s own brother. The couple goes to stay together and drink precious mead in the burial mound, and Helgi is allowed entry in Valhǫll, moving between the two afterlife realms, the mound and the heaven. The valkyria Sígrún goes to sleep once more and is only woken up when Helgi´s younger half-brother, Sígurðr, born after the death of Helgi, comes of age.

Helgakviða Hundingsbani ǫnnur – The Second Song of Helgi Hunding´s Bane. This poem tells the same tale about Helgi Hundingsbani, some events are told in a different version, and some events are added to and complimented, and the comparison to the birth of the universe is not present in this poem.

Frá dauða Sinfiǫtla – About the Death of Sinfiǫtli [Pale Fetters]. This is not a poem but a prose interlude written by those who edited and wrote down the Edda poem collection of the manuscript that was hidden away until 1647, containing most of the Edda poems in a meaningful chronology (I have followed this chronology in this presentation, adding the Song of the Sun and the Raven Charm, which have been transmitted in torn-out pages.

The editors explain that Sinfiǫtli, son of Sígmundr [Victory Origin] Vǫlsung [Descendant of the Witch´s Wand] and brother to Helgi, was killed by his stepmother as a vengeance for his killing her brother. Sigmundr, in grief, takes the body of his son to the shores of death where the Ferryman awaits, and almost goes into the ferry with his son, but the Ferryman refuses him.

Sigmundr then leaves Denmark, where he had lived with his wife, and moved south to Frankland, where he marries Hiǫrdís [Herd Goddess], daughter of King Eylimi [Connects Islands] and sister to Grípir [Grasping One], which is a name for Óðinn. With Hiǫrdís Sígmundr has a son, Sígurðr [Victory Beginning]. But the Hundings attack, killing all the men of the family. Hiǫrdís escapes with her young son and finds refuge with King Hialprèk [Communicator], where she marries his son Álfr [Elf, i.e. soul, ancestor]. There, her son Sígurðr grows up an orphan, raised to avenge his father and grandfather.

Grípisspá – The Divination of Grípir. As a young man, Sígurðr seeks his maternal uncle, the sorcerer Grípir [Grasping One = Óðinn]. The sorcerer performs a séance of seiðr where he divines the young man´s future and destiny. He tells Sígurðr that there is a maiden, a valkyria, a golden goddess, who is the foster-daughter of “The Worlds” [Heimir]. She has been sleeping since the death of Helgi. If the young man can manage to wake her up, she will teach him knowledge about runes, healing and every language there is, everything that a human being would ever want to know. But there is a danger, namely that he may forget the valkyria bride and fall into the trap of cunning powers weaving for their own ends…

Reginsmál – The Speech of the Ruler. Sígurðr is taught by the dwarf smith Reginn [Ruler] in his forge. They forge the blade called Rage [Grámr] as the Ruler tells Sígurðr a tale about how the Red Gold of Andvari [Alert Spirit] came into the possession of a giant in serpent´s disguise, Fafnir [Embracer], Reginn´s own brother. The serpent now “embraces” the Red Gold, keeping the inheritance of the gods hidden away from human kind, scaring them away while he snorts his poisons and wears the Aegishjalmr [Helmet of Fear, i.e. a fearful mind].

In this poem, Sígurðr and Reginn travel to fulfill the duty of the son towards his father and grandfather: to slay the Hundings. On the way across the ocean they enter a violent storm, yet in the middle of the storm they see a sorcerer standing calmly on a cliff. As they ask his identity, the sorcerer offers some clues, revealing that he is really Óðinn, the One Who is Many.  Sígurðr invites the god aboard the ship, and the storm immediately calms down. The young man asks advice for his present quest, and is given counsel. He wins the battle against the Hundings, and Reginn sings his praise.

Fafnismál – The Speech of the Embracer.  Having fulfilled his cultural duty as a young nobleman, avenging his father, Sígurðr embarks on the quest for the Red Gold, urged on by Reginn, who pretends to be a beneficial spiritual guide, yet is spurred by greed and hatred only. Sígurðr goes up on a heath called Gníta [Lice Egg (?)], later described as a Sacred Mountain, where he digs a hole in the ground for himself. As the fear-helmeted giant in serpent´s shape moves over the hole, Sígurðr drives his sword through its body, and is surprised when the serpent begins to ask questions about his descent: Sígurðr identifies himself as the “Foremost Animal” whose courage had whetted him and whose hands had assisted him, as well as the sharp sword [tool]. I suggest this is a way of saying that Sígurðr represents human kind in general.

Sígurðr manages to turn the table and asks questions back, and the dying serpent reveals powerful and secret knowledge about himself, and about the true and secret intentions of his brother Reginn. He reveals that Sígurðr, man´s representative, believes himself to be free, but that he is in fact a slave moving unknowingly towards his final destiny and towards the judgment of the norns [fate-goddesses], and that he is in danger of drowning on the way. Sígurðr responds to this information by asking who the norns are, who saves the mother from the children, and Fafnir reveals that there are three kinds of norns. An exchange about Ragnarǫk follows before the serpent dies, and Sígurðr returns to his mentor Reginn, now able to see through his mentor´s base intentions. Reginn praises Sígurðs courage once more, but this time the young man rejects the praise, declaring that courage has nothing to do with killing others. Reginn, suspecting that he is losing his control over the boy, goes angry, but can do nothing. He demands the serpent´s heart to eat in order to learn the whereabouts of the Red Gold, but falls asleep. Sígurðr tastes the blood of the serpent and immediately understands the speech of birds. The birds confirm that Reginn has bad intentions, adviced Sígurðr to kill the smith, and to seek the Sacred Mountain once more. He will find the Red Gold of the gods, and then he will find the golden bright maiden who has slept – ever since his previous death.  Sígurðr follows the advice of the birds and finds the Red Gold in the serpent´s lair.

Sígrdrífumál – The Speech of Sígrdrífa [“Victory Snowfall” – a valkyria]. Carrying the Red Gold, Sígurðr reaches a high hall on the mountain surrounded by flames made out of radiant river-light (the light of the Daughters of the Ocean). The flames reach high up into the heavens. Knowing no fear, Sígurðr rides through the flames, shining with the bright gold of Alert Spirit, and finds a warrior sleeping within, hidden by shields. As he removes her helmet, he discovers that the warrior is a woman. Her armor has grown into her body. He removes her armor, and the lady wakes up, revealing that she is a valkyria by the name Sígrdrífa, and that the god Óðinn has made her sleep because she chose a warrior she loved, Agnarr [Respect Warrior] rejecting Óðin´s request, that she should choose a warrior that was called Hjalmgunnarr [Helmet-Fight Warrior, i.e. conflicting mind]. Óðinn had then put her to sleep, at the cost of the welfare of humankind – for as long as the valkyria sleeps, woe is in the world.

The valkyria offers the Mead of Memory to the young man, and with it, she offers the knowledge about how to use the runes for all kinds of purposes: healing, midwifery, stilling storms, making enemies into friends, convincing others, ensure victory in all things, eloquence, protection. Finally, she reveals the existence of húgrunar – “Soul Runes” – which must be possessed in order to obtain true wisdom. She reveals how these runes were discovered, formed and distributed by Óðinn into all the worlds. Finally, the valkyria offers her guidance throughout the young man´s life, if he chooses to listen to her, and the remainer of the poem consists of advice for proper conduct similar to those found in the Hávamál.

Helreið Brynhildar – Brynhild´s Ride to Hel. In the chronology of the Edda collection, this poem appears after two “poems about Sígurðr” and one “poem about Guðrún” that follow the Sígrdrífumál (above). In these, we hear about the circumstanced that led to the death of Sígurðr. In the present poem, Sígurðr is on his way to Hel, where all souls go after death. But his valkyria, now called Brynhildr (after she had married someone else), goes after him and saves him from the clutches of the “Rock Bride”. She has to answer for her crimes in life before the death-ogress before she can justify her actions and retrieve the soul of her beloved out of Hel, forever to be together.

Guðrúnarkviður, Sígurðarkvíður and AtlakvíðurPoems about Guðrún (four poems), Sígurðr (two poems) and Atli (two poems)

Brynhild´s Ride to Hel” is followed by two poems about Guðrún, explaining events that happened after the death of Sígurðr, when his widow Guðrún became a witch and then married King Atli of the Huns [based on the historical character Attila, who died in 452 A.D.]. The previous poems also contribute to the information about this ancient legend, partly based on and inspired by historical events. In the Edda, the Hunnish king is greedy for the Red Gold that he has heard that Sígurðr owned – a magnificent treasure, but a spiritual one. To Atli´s great chagrin, none of this wealth arrives with his new bride, so Atli grows angry with his new in-laws.

The in-laws are identified as Burgunds, a historical German tribe whose ruling class was massacred around the year 432 AD by the Huns under the leadership of a young Attila, in league with the Roman general Aetius who wanted to put an end to the many border squirmishes caused by rebellious Burgunds. These historical events of fifth century Europe have found their way into the legendary lore of the Scandinavian Viking Age, as shown in the Poetic Edda.

King Gunnarr [Warrior] of the Burgunds/Niflungs, whose character is based on the historical Gundahar, king of the historical Burgunds (who died during the 432 AD massacre of the Burgund court), appears in the Edda lore as the brother to Sígurð´s wife Guðrún [Divine Symbold]. The Burgunds (of the Edda, at least) appear to have followed a matrilinear descent, since Sígurð´s marriage to the Burgund princess automatically makes him into the high king of the Burgunds, ruling together with his wife, her mother, and her two brothers Gunnarr and Hǫgnir [Thinker], but obviously considered their male leader through his marriage with the female heir.

Gunnarr wants to seek the valkyria on the mountains just like Sígurðr – a way of alluding to the initiation into manhood and sagacity which was necessary in order to become a king and to marry a princess. Sígurðr willingly accompanies his brother-in-law as his experienced mentor, yet Gunnarr is unable to complete the initiation, being too timid to dare to go through the fire. Sígurðr wishes to save the face of his friend before his friends and family, and secretly, the two change shape so that it is Sígurðr, wearing the appearance of Gunnarr, who actually goes through the fire and meets the valkyria once more.

Later, Gunnarr is married to one Brynhildr [Armor Battle], a name which refers to her previous incarnation, when she was a sleeping valkyria whose armor had grown into her body. Brynhildr is two characters at the same time: On one side, she is a Hunnish princess, sister to King Atli, married to the Burgund prince after his initiation had made him worthy – although this was in fact a hoax since he had not managed to complete the initiation himself. On the other side, she is really the valkyria who has been appearing under different names in the previous poems, the valkyria who sleeps when her human is dead, and who reawakenes when he, reborn, come to seek her and wake her up.

As a Hunnish Princess, Brynhildr discovers that her marriage to the oldest prince among the Burgunds is not going to make her their first lady, since that honor goes to the oldest princess. This conflict is subtly revealed as the two sisters-in-law argue about which of them is the First Lady and ranks higher. For a Hunnish princess who was obviously used to patriarchy this was a shock: She felt tricked into marriage with a man that would never become king, and never be the foremost man among his people. Things do not improve as the argument makes Guðrún lose her temper and reveal a most humiliating fact: That she has received Brynhild´s own wedding gift to her husband Gunnarr not from Gunnarr, but from her husband Sígurðr. This is proof that her present husband is not even the man who entered her wedding bed, thus Guðrún´s husband has not only bested her own husband when it comes to public status, but also though the entry into the marriage bed before the actual husband. This is a deeply humiliating fact for the princess, who feels gravely dishonored and tricked – tricked into marrying the lesser man and tricked into becoming the concubine of the king.

As a valkyria – also described as the Goddess of Gold [Gullna Dís] and the Goddess of the Shield Kind [Skjoldunga Dís], Brynhildr is horrified to realize that she is married to a man whom she never actually married – a man who was too timid to go through the fire. It was her sacred promise never to engage in a relationship with a man who knew fear. Originally, she had not wanted to marry at all, but her brother, who turns out to be Óðinn thinly disguised behind the figure of Atli, was so greedy for the Red Gold of the gods that he demanded that she marry the one who could bring them the Red Gold. After careful consideration, the valkyria, who is revealed to be Óðin´s own sister, agrees on these terms: She will marry the one who is able to bring the Red Gold – a feat that will only be managed by a man who has no fear in his heart. Now she finds herself living like a human woman in a world of deceit where her husband is a timid man and where her true husband – the one who knows no fear – is married to another and appears to have forgotten her completely.

The valkyria proceeds to have her husband and his brother kill the king in order to usurp the throne. The brothers, Gunnarr and Hǫgnir, make the arrangements and are later mocked by both their sister Guðrún and by Brynhildr for having broken their sacred wovs for the sake of greed for power. The Burgund princes have usurped the power, stolen the High Seat from their own sister, and Guðrún, in her shock and grief, leaves her people and disappears into the forest. What really happens is that she embarks on a journey of initiation, where she reaches the realm of the norns and learns how to weave fate according to her liking. Brynhildr kills herself and travels into Hel in order to save Sígurðr.

She weaves a terrible future for her own brothers in order to avenge herself and her dead husband, but her weaving is discovered by another weaver, Guðrún´s own mother Queen Grímhildr [Mask Battle], who urges her sons to seek reconciliation with their sister in the place where she now dwells. The brothers ride to seek their sister´s forgiveness, and after a great deal of begging, their mother offers a cup of mead to Guðrún that heals her from her anger and finally enables her to accept her brother´s offer of peace. The trouble is that her previous weavings have caused the Hunnish King Atli to turn his forces against the Burgunds, suspecting them of having driven his sister Brynhildr to suicide, or perhaps even killed her. The only solution for peace is to offer Guðrún in marriage to the Hunnish king. Guðrún reluctantly agrees.

During the wedding feast for Atli and Guðrún, Gunnarr falls in love with his dead wife Brynhild´s “younger sister”, Oddrún [Edge Symbol] probably yet another incarnation of the ever-reincarnating valkyria goddess. But Atli refuses the match. Later, he grows angry by the fact that Gunnarr has had relations with his sister despite the refusal to marriage, suspecting him of having caused the death of his othe sister, and ultimately for not having brought the Red Gold that was Guðrún´s heritage after her husband. He invites the Burgund princes to a banquet with the secret intention of destroying them. Guðrún sees through his intentions and tries to warn her brothers. When she fails to prevent them from coming, she dresses up as a warrior and fights alongside her brothers during the battle that is to come. The Burgunds are defeated, and Guðrún forced to watch as Atli tortures and murders her brothers Gunnarr and Hǫgnir.

Afterwards, Guðrún accepts Atli´s peace offerings and expresses submission, stating that a woman must often bow to the dominance of men, and that he will rule on his own from now on, since she has no more power. But with her submission comes a warning of how a trunk (the masculine) will topple if the roots (the feminine) are cut from under it. Atli, failing to understand the message, proposes that she arrange a funeral banquet to honor both their dead relatives. Guðrún agrees, and the banquet is a fact – a banquet where she serves the hearts of her own two young sons by Atli to their own father, their blood mixed into the mead and their flesh served as “calf-meat” to all the participants. Although she reveals the gory contents of the food after they have eaten, the entire hall seems spell-bound, and everybody fall asleep beneath Guðrún´s spell. Guðrún kills Atli with his own sword and reveals that she knew how he was the real mind behind the death of her husband Sígurðr, and that he had manipulated everybody to his own purpose, causing deaths and misery. Atli dies gracefully, acknowledging the formidable character of his wife, and asks for a king´s funeral. Guðrún grants his wish by putting the entire hall of the Huns to the fire, with all the sleeping warriors within. The Edda poet praises Guðrún as a warrior woman who fulfilled her duty, avenging her brothers with the utmost ferocity.

The historical events behind this story are based on a rumor that spread soon after the death of the real Attila in 452 AD. The Hunnish lord had died during his wedding night to a German princess (he had many wives, however). His warriors claimed that he had died from heart attack, but rumour had it that it was the bride who had killed him, thus avenging her father and brothers who had died at his hands. The name of the bride was, according to Roman sources, Ildico, which probably is a Latinized version of Hildegunde. We do not know what tribe she belonged to, but it is easy to see that her character has inspired the character of Guðrún in the Edda poems.

The death of the historical Attila actually led to the rapid decline of the Hunnish empire, which had dominated and subdued the European tribes north of the Roman borders for a century already. The woman who reputedly and single-handedly brought down Attila indirectly also brought down the reign of seemingly invincible oppressors, ultimately causing the liberation of all the tribes. It should come as no surprise if that woman was remembered in legends afterwards. The Poetic Edda is the only proof that Hildegunde was thus remembered and praised in the lore of the tribes, even if the memory of her true identity was blurred and mixed up with the memory of the Burgunds´ fall.

Oddrúnargrátr – The Lament of Oddrún. The poem begins with a story about a girl who has concealed her pregnancy for a very long time. She calls the valkyria Oddrún [Edge Rune] to her aid. The valkyria arrives and sings powerful charms that finally brings about the birth of the children of New Fortress [Borgny] in Mornaland [Land of Tomorrow]. The valkyria then proceeds to tell her own tale of loss and sorrow. She had once loved Gunnarr the Burgund, and offered him her cup of mead. But her relationship to the Burgund prince had been discovered by her brother Atli, who refused their match. After the battle between the Huns and the Burgunds, Gunnarr was thrown into a pit full of serpents – a symbol of the Well in Hel (the well of death) where serpents withdraw the life energy of the dead souls, grinding them into the water that runs back into the world.

Gunnarr is given a harp and begins playing with his toes, since his hand are bound. He plays so hauntingly beautiful that everybody begin to weep, even the most hardened warriors, and the serpents are held at bay. The tunes of Gunnarr´s death song reaches the valkyria where she now stays in her father´s house at Hlésey [Wind-Shield (i.e.immortality) Island], identifying the valkyria and the eight sisters she mentions, as the daughters of Aegir the Ocean Lord. The valkyria rides as fast as she can muster to save her beloved, but the call came just too late: Upon arrival, she sees how Atli´s mother, the ogress of death, has turned into a snake and entered the pit. The ogress of death is the only entity that remains unaffected by Gunnarr´s tunes, and promptly bites through his liver, killing him. Oddrún lives on, but in grief.

The poem fills out several details of the story, especially regarding the motifs of King Atli, who once again is described in a manner that reveals his true identity: Óðinn in a greedy and destructive aspect, willing to do anything to get his hands on the Red Gold of divine wisdom, repeatedly attempting to succeed through dishonorable manipulation – and failing miserably. It will take him quite a while to reach the state of perception where he can finally sing the last charm of the ultimate secret…

2 Responses to Edda poems – A Summary

  1. sln1987 says:

    Thank you for putting this together. It makes it easier for me to read the Eddas now that I know what the general story is about.

  2. ÞórmóðiR says:

    Hej Maria,

    This was brought to my attention from a friend on-line that wanted to ask my opinion of it. Now that I know its source I can direct my some of my critiques of the ideas. I understand the idea of the summary is to be brief but there is something here that bothers me and a particular error that I see repeatedly as an issue. Many authors offer transltions of a particular phrase in Old Norse ( Nörrænt ) however few offer their source for their translations. For ex. the ON word “Váf” (which I have looked extensively for to no avail) you used to the break down the name “Vafþruðnirmál”, I am curious where you acquired this word. There is the word “Váfa” and the whole string of words that other word “vaf!” comes from such as “vefja”. The best source and only source for Old Icleandic like this I could find is Cleasby Vígfusson pg.673 offers a translation of Vafþruðnir as “powerful in nonsense or riddles”. Now please forgive me this is not to be rude or mean, it was some advice of mine nothing more. I like alot of your work please don not take offence.
    Guðir eru yfir og undir þig!

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