“Edda” (; Old Norse Edda, plural Eddur) is an Old Norse term that has been attributed by modern scholars to the collective of two Medieval Icelandic literary works: what is now known as the Prose Edda and an older collection of poems without an original title now known as the Poetic Edda. The term historically referred only to the Prose Edda, but this sense has fallen out of use because of the confusion with the other work. Both works were written down in Iceland during the 13th century in Icelandic, although they contain material from earlier traditional sources, reaching into the Viking Age. The books are the main sources of medieval skaldic tradition in Iceland and Norse religion.
There are several theories concerning the origins of the word edda. One theory holds that it is identical to a word that means “great-grandmother” appearing in the Eddic poem Rígsþula. Another theory holds that edda derives from Old Norse óðr, “poetry”. A third, proposed in 1895 by Eiríkr Magnússon, is that it derives from the Icelandic place name Oddi, site of the church and school where students, including Snorri Sturluson, were educated. A fourth hypothesis—the derivation of the word Edda as the name of Snorri Sturluson’s treatise on poetry from the Latin edo, “I compose (poetry)”, by analogy with kredda, “superstition”, from Latin credo, “creed”—is now widely accepted, though this acceptance may stem from its agreement with modern usage rather than historical accuracy. There is also a suggestion from local Icelandic scholars that Edda is cognate with Sanskrit Véda वेद (véda), meaning ‘knowledge’.
The Poetic Edda
The Poetic Edda, also known as Sæmundar Edda or the Elder Edda, is a collection of Old Norse poems from the Icelandic medieval manuscript Codex Regius (“Royal Book”). Along with the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda is the most expansive source on Norse mythology. The first part of the Codex Regius preserves poems that narrate the creation and foretold destruction and rebirth of the Old Norse mythological world as well as individual myths about gods concerning Norse deities. The poems in the second part narrate legends about Norse heroes and heroines, such as Sigurd, Brynhildr and Gunnar.
The Codex Regius was written in the 13th century, but nothing is known of its whereabouts until 1643, when it came into the possession of Brynjólfur Sveinsson, then the Church of Iceland’s Bishop of Skálholt. At that time, versions of the Prose Edda were well known in Iceland, but scholars speculated that there once was another Edda—an Elder Edda—which contained the pagan poems Snorri quotes in his book. When the Codex Regius was discovered, it seemed that this speculation had proven correct. Brynjólfur attributed the manuscript to Sæmundr the Learned, a larger-than-life 12th century Icelandic priest. While this attribution is rejected by modern scholars, the name Sæmundar Edda is still sometimes encountered.
Bishop Brynjólfur sent the Codex Regius as a present to King Christian IV of Denmark, hence the name Codex Regius. For centuries it was stored in the Royal Library in Copenhagen but in 1971 it was returned to Iceland.
The Prose Edda
The Prose Edda, sometimes referred to as the Younger Edda or Snorri’s Edda, is an Icelandic manual of poetics which also contains many mythological stories. Its purpose was to enable Icelandic poets and readers to understand the subtleties of alliterative verse, and to grasp the mythological allusions behind the many kennings that were used in skaldic poetry.
It was written by the Icelandic scholar and historian Snorri Sturluson around 1220. It survives in four known manuscripts and three fragments, written down from about 1300 to about 1600.
The Prose Edda consists of a Prologue and three separate books: Gylfaginning, concerning the creation and foretold destruction and rebirth of the Norse mythical world; Skáldskaparmál, a dialogue between Ægir, a Norse god connected with the sea, and Bragi, the skaldic god of poetry; and Háttatal, a demonstration of verse forms used in Norse mythology.