The Prose Edda, also known as the Younger Edda, Snorri’s Edda (Icelandic: Snorra Edda) or, historically, simply as Edda, is an Old Norse work of literature written in Iceland in the early 13th century. The work is often assumed to have been written, or at least compiled, by the Icelandic scholar and historian Snorri Sturluson around the year 1220.
It begins with a euhemerized Prologue, a section on the Norse cosmogony, pantheon and myths. This is followed by three distinct books: Gylfaginning (consisting of around 20,000 words), Skáldskaparmál (around 50,000 words) and Háttatal (around 20,000 words). Seven manuscripts, dating from around 1300 to around 1600, have independent textual value. Sturluson planned the collection as a textbook. It was to enable Icelandic poets and readers to understand the subtleties of alliterative verse, and to grasp the meaning behind the many kenningar (compounds) that were used in skaldic poetry.
The Prose Edda was originally referred to as simply Edda, but was later titled the Prose Edda in modern collections to distinguish it from the collections titled Poetic Edda that are largely based on Codex Regius, a collection of poetry composed after Edda in 13th century Iceland. At that time, versions of the Edda were well known in Iceland, but scholars speculated that there once was an Elder Edda which contained the pagan poems which Snorri quotes in his Edda. When Codex Regius was discovered it seemed that this speculation was correct – and so the name came into common usage, despite later study showing Edda was composed first and at most connected by an original common source.
The Prologue is the first section of four books of the Edda, and consists of an euhemerized Christian account of the origins of Nordic religion: the Nordic gods are described as human Trojan warriors who left Troy after the fall of that city (an origin similar to the one chosen by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century to account for the ancestry of the British nation, and which parallels Virgil’s Aeneid). According to Edda, these warriors settled in northern Europe, where they were accepted as divine kings because of their superior culture and technology. Remembrance ceremonies later conducted at their burial sites degenerate into heathen cults, turning them into gods. Alexander M. Bruce suggested that Sturlson was in possession of the Langfeðgatal or a closely related text when he composed the detailed list of gods and heroes given. He noted parallel sequences in the Langfeðgatal and the Edda, noting the second appearance of a “Scyld figure” as both an ancestor and a descendant of Odin in both. This figure is expanded upon in the Edda detailing Skjöldr as Odin’s son after his migration northwards to Reidgothland and his ordination as a King of Denmark.
Gylfaginning (Old Icelandic “the tricking of Gylfi“) follows the Prologue in Edda. Gylfaginning deals with the creation and destruction of the world of the Nordic gods, and many other aspects of Norse religion. The section is written in prose interspersed with quotes from skaldic poetry.
Skáldskaparmál (Old Icelandic “the language of poetry”) is the third section of Edda, and consists of a dialogue between Ægir, a god associated with the sea, and Bragi, a skaldic god, in which both Nordic mythology and discourse on the nature of poetry are intertwined. The origin of a number of kenningar are given and Bragi then delivers a systematic list of kenningar for various people, places, and things. Bragi then goes on to discuss poetic language in some detail, in particular heiti, the concept of poetical words which are non-periphrastic, for example “steed” for “horse”, and again systematises these.
Háttatal (Old Icelandic “list of verse-forms”) is the last section of Edda. The section is composed by the Icelandic poet, politician, and historian Snorri Sturluson. Using, for the most part, his own compositions it exemplifies the types of verse forms used in Old Norse poetry. Snorri took a prescriptive as well as descriptive approach; he has systematized the material, and often notes that “the older poets did not always” follow his rules.