The Teutonic peoples in the early centuries of our era were found over a considerable part of central Europe, north of the Rhine and the Danube. They also stretched farther northwards and had occupied Denmark and a great part of the Scandinavian peninsula from prehistoric times. In the fifth century began those movements of the Teutonic tribes which led to their occupation of the Roman empire. Ethnology divides the Teutons into three groups — the High Germans in middle and upper Germany, Switzerland, and Austria; the Low Germans, including the North Germans, Flemings, Dutch, Frisians, and Anglo-Saxons; and the Scandinavians of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland.

The religious beliefs of this widespread people are known to us imperfectly, and while all of them must have had a common religious heritage, one of the chief problems of religion and mythology is to decide how far all the various tribes had the same deities, the same beliefs and customs, the same myths. Very different views are advocated as solutions of this problem. What is known from classical observers regarding Teutonic religion, from archaeological remains, from notices in the lives and writings of Christian missionaries, from survivals in folk-custom and folk-belief, from ecclesiastical laws, is of the highest importance. From these sources we gather that, on many matters, there was much similarity of belief and practice, but there are many others on which it is impossible to come to a definite conclusion.

While we may speak within limits of Teutonic mythology, strict exactitude should rather speak of Eddic mythology — the myths found in the Eddas, for detailed myths can hardly be


said to have survived elsewhere. These myths belong to Iceland and Norway, possibly also to Sweden and Denmark. How far any of them belonged to other branches of the Teutonic people is a matter of conjecture. Here and there we have certain lines of evidence which suggest a common heritage of myth. Certain myths, however, belong solely to the Scandinavian regions where the Eddic material was native, just as do also the beliefs in certain gods and goddesses.

The purpose of this book is to give an account of Eddic mythology, showing wherever possible its connexions with that of other branches of the Teutonic stock.

What, then, are the Eddas, and where and when were they composed?

According to one manuscript of a work composed by Snorri Sturluson (1178–1241), which came into possession of Brynjolf Sveinsson, bishop of Skálholt in the seventeenth century, the work itself is called “Edda.” It deals, as we shall see, with Norse mythology. Sveinsson was also owner of a manuscript containing poems, many of which were cited by Snorri and used by him in compiling his work. From this connexion these poems now came to be called Edda or “the Elder Edda,” in distinction from the prose work which was styled “the Younger Edda.” The collection of poems was also called Sœmundar Edda, from the belief that they were the work of Sæmund the Wise, an Icelandic priest and collector of old poetry, who lived in the second half of the eleventh century and died in 1133 A.D. It is now generally known as “the Poetic Edda.”

Different derivations of the word Edda have been suggested. By many scholars it is now conceded that the word is the genitive of “Oddi,” the name of a homestead in Iceland, which was a seat of learning, and where Snorri was educated and lived for many years, and where Sæmund had also dwelt for some time, if tradition speaks true. Hence Snorri’s book would be “of Oddi” or “the book of Oddi.” Another derivation much favoured is that Edda is from oþr, “song,” “poem,” and that



Borg, Iceland, the home of the poet Egil Skallagrimsson and Snorri Sturluson, author of the Prose Edda (see p. 4). The farm of the same name is in the centre of the picture. In the foreground is the family tomb, partly destroyed, where Egil in his poem saw Hel stand and wait his coming. From W. G. Collingwood’s Sagasteads of Iceland.


the title, as given to Snorri’s work, signified its contents and their purpose, viz., “Poetics” or “treatise of Poetics.”

Snorri Sturluson was one of the most learned men of his time — a historian, a lover of poetry, of antiquities, of the traditions of the past, an able and gifted writer. His position in Iceland was one of great influence,-and eventually he became chief judge and president of the legislative assembly there. He wrote or composed the Heimskringla — a series of sagas or stories of the lives of the kings of Norway down to 1177. The first part of the work, the Ynglinga-saga, is based on the old poem Ynglinga-tal, and shows how Odin and other deities were kings and chiefs, and how the Norwegian kings were descended from the Ynglings at Upsala. Snorri’s Edda is justly styled “a manual of Poetics.” There had developed in the North not only special rules for the composition of poetry but a special poetic language. In the latter innumerable periphrases or “kennings” (kenningur) had come into use, and without them poetry was now little thought of. Fortunately the poems of the Poetic Edda are remarkably free of such kennings, and in many other ways differ from the poetry of the skalds or court poets. The following examples of kennings may be given — battle was “storm of Odin”; a ship was “steed of the billows”; the earth was “flesh of Ymir”; gold was “Sif’s hair.” Thousands of such kennings, many of them even more elaborate than these, and mostly based on the old pagan mythology, were in use in the composition of verse. Obviously a knowledge of kennings demanded much study and implied a wide acquaintance with mythology. To give to young poets a full account of the old myths and to illustrate the kennings enumerated from the verses of other skalds, was Snorri’s purpose in compiling his Edda.

It consists of three parts. The first of these, Gylfaginning, “Beguiling of Gylfi,” is a methodical account of the old gods and goddesses, the myths in which some of them figure, the cosmogony, and the final Doom of the gods. It is written with much


liveliness, spirit, humour, and pathos, and it is a wonderful monument of medieval literature. The name of this section of the work is due to the framework in which it is set. Gylfi was king of Sweden, wise and skilled in cunning and magic. He wondered whether the Æsir or gods were so cunning by nature or whether this was a gift from the powers which they worshipped. It should be observed that here and elsewhere in Snorri’s Edda, though not uniformly, as also in a Prologue to the work, he adopts the euhemeristic theory of the gods — they were mortal kings, magicians and the like. Gylfi, in the form of an old man called Gangleri, set out for Asgard, the seat of the gods. The Æsir, knowing who he really was and foreseeing his coming, prepared deceptions for him. He arrived and was well received, and was presented to three lords who sat on as many seats, one above the other. Their names were Har, “High,” Jafnhar, “Equally High,” and Thridi, “Third” — all forms of Odin. Gylfi now began his questions. The answers are the myths of which Gylfaginning is full. When all had been recounted, Gylfi heard great noises, and, looking round, found himself out of doors on a level plain. Hall and castle and Æsir had vanished. He had been deceived by glamour.

In this part of his book Snorri uses some of the Eddic poems — Voluspa, Grimnismal, Vafthrudnismal, with occasional use of four others. These he sometimes expands in reducing them to prose. He also uses poems of an Eddic character now lost, save for fragments quoted by him, poems by the court poets, and, in all likelihood, much oral tradition. The result is a full and systematic account of Norse mythology as it was possible to reconstruct it in Snorri’s day.

The second part, the Skaldskaparmal, “Poetry of skalds,” is preceded by the Bragarœdur — an account of the origin of the poetic mead, told by Bragi to Ægir, also a visitor to Asgard and the Æsir. In the Skaldskaparmal, by means of innumerable quotations from skaldic verse, the use of kennings for many subjects is shown. Much of it deals with the gods and several


myths are told. An example of the method used may be cited. “How should one periphrase Njord? By calling him God of the Vanir, Kinsman of the Vanir, Van, Father of Frey and Freyja, God of wealth-giving.” Then follows a verse by a skald illustrating some of these kennings.

The third part, the Hattatal, “Enumeration of Metres,” contains three songs of praise in which each of over a hundred stanzas is in a different metre, the oldest kinds being given last. Between them are definitions, comments and notes.

It may seem strange that, in a Christian age, Snorri should have composed a work full of pagan myths, regarded from a fairly tolerant point of view. But his enthusiasm as a lover of the past, an antiquary, a folk-lorist, and a poet, explains much.

If there were objectors to this telling of heathen lore, the purpose of it — the guidance of youthful poets and the preservation of the glories of poetic tradition-would serve as its best apology in a cultured age.

The manuscript of the Poetic Edda owned by Sveinsson had been written c. 1300. It is now known as Codex Regius and is in the Royal Library at Copenhagen. It contains twenty-nine poems. Another manuscript in the Arnamagnæan collection at Copenhagen has six of the poems of Codex Regius and a seventh, Baldrs Draumar, which the latter lacks. Other manuscripts contain four poems now included in the Eddic collection — Rigsthula, Hyndluljod, and Svipdagsmal, which consists of two poems, Grougaldr and Fjolsvinnsmal. Another poem, Grottasongr, given in Snorri’s Edda, is usually joined with these. Thus the Poetic Edda consists of thirty-four poems. Almost certainly many other poems of a similar kind and differing from the poetry current in Norway must have existed, but are now lost. A few fragments of such poems are found in Snorri’s Edda. What we do possess is a collection of mythical and heroic poems, which, taken together with Snorri’s work, give us a connected though far from complete view of Norse mythology and heroic legend. Such collections of poems as are


found in the Edda must have been made previous to 1300 A.D. and most probably in Iceland.

Iceland had been colonized from Norway in the ninth century as a result of Harold the Fair-haired’s victory over the Norse nobles, which gave him rule over the whole land. In Iceland there grew up a vigorous civilization and intellectual life, which was abundantly fostered by the links with the world overseas, through the roving habits of the Icelanders. This manifold life was enhanced by the coming of Christianity to Iceland. The Scandinavian peoples had remained outside the Christian fold long after the conversion of the other Teutonic peoples, though not unaffected by currents from Christian civilization. Denmark received Christianity in the tenth century; from there it passed to Sweden and by 1075 was firmly established there. Norway was Christianized during the tenth and eleventh centuries, and in the same period Iceland also became Christian.

Very different opinions are held regarding the date and place of composition of the Eddic poems. Probably many of them belong to the pagan period, i.e., before 1000 A.D. None of them were composed before 800 A.D., and only a few belong to so late a time as the twelfth century. The bulk of the mythological poems, i.e., those dealing with the divinities, were composed before 1000 A.D. Some scholars believe that the poems were written by Norsemen in the Western Isles of Britain and under Celtic influences, or, like Sophus Bugge, that the bulk of them are based on tales and poems heard by the Norsemen from Irishmen and Englishmen, and that these poems and tales were in turn based on Graeco-Roman myths and Jewish-Christian legends.1 Others hold that Norway was their place of origin. Others, again, maintain that they were Icelandic, part of the product of the busy intellectual life of that island. It is quite possible that both Norway and Iceland shared in their production. Two of the heroic poems, Atlamal and Atlakvitha were ascribed to Greenland in the thirteenth century manuscript. The authors of the Eddic poems are quite unknown.


The poems are divided into two groups, mythological (stories in which the divinities are the chief personages) and heroic. The former are almost certainly based on native traditions regarding the gods. On the other hand the material of the heroic poems is not Scandinavian, but was carried to Norway from Denmark and Germany, and freely worked upon by the poets. One peculiarity of the Eddic poems is that they are not descriptive: only here and there a prose insertion explains the situation. Mostly they are in dialogue form, and the narrative is mirrored in the speeches of the protagonists. Many explanations of this have been put forward. The most recent is that of Miss B. S. Phillpotts who maintains that many of the poems were folk-dramas, the action of the actors serving instead of explanatory narrative, while knowledge of the story of the drama would be presupposed.2

Of the mythological poems Voluspa stands first. It is spoken by a Volva or seeress, perhaps one raised from the dead for that purpose by Odin, whom she seems to address. She gives an account of the origin of the world, of men, of dwarfs; of the early days of the gods; and then passes on to a prophecy of the Doom of the gods, preceded by the death of Balder. The poem is impressive, though its meaning is occasionally obscure, and it seems probable that a much shorter original poem was added to and edited at different times.3

In certain poems Odin figures prominently. Vafthrudnismal tells of his questions to the giant Vafthrudnir, the answers forming a kind of cosmogonic encyclopaedia. Grimnismal is of the same character, though here Odin himself as Grimnir, set between two fires by king Geirrod, gives the information to Geirrod’s son, Agnar, and in the end vanishes, while king Geirrod dies on his own sword. In Baldrs Draumar (“Balder’s Dreams”), we see Odin descending to the Underworld to rouse a dead sibyl in order that she may explain Balder’s evil dreams. Havamal is a compound of several poems, in two of which ethical advice or proverbial wisdom is given, presumably by


Odin. The poem also tells of Odin and the daughter of Billing, of his obtaining the poetic mead from Gunnlod, a giant’s daughter, and of his gaining runes.

In other poems Thor is the chief protagonist. Hymiskvitha tells how he sought a huge kettle from the giant Hymir, and how he caught the Midgard-serpent when fishing with the giant. In Thrymskvitha Thor, disguised as Freyja, whom the giant Thrym desires as his wife, deceives the giant and slays him with his hammer, which the giant had stolen. Alvissmal tells how the dwarf Alviss desired Thor’s daughter as his wife. Thor demanded that he should recite the various names given to different objects by gods, elves, giants, dwarfs, men, etc., and thus kept him talking till sunrise which is fatal to dwarfs. In Lokasenna, though Loki is the chief speaker, Thor appears towards the end of the poem and forces him to cease his slanders against the gods and goddesses.

Both Thor and Odin (as Harbard) figure in Harbardsljod. The poem is a “flyting” or abusive dialogue between the gods, who boast of their exploits and threaten each other, Thor, being ignorant that his opponent is Odin.4

Skirnismal is the story of Frey’s passion for the giantess Gerd and tells how his servant Skirnir was sent to seek her for the god.

In Hyndluljod Freyja, mounted on a boar (her lover Ottarr in disguise), seeks the wisdom of the seeress Hyndla to learn the descent of Ottarr. This poem contains a fragment of a cosmogonic poem known as “the short Voluspa.”

Rigsthula tells how the god Heimdall or Rig came to earth and begat the first thrall, the first karl or peasant, and the first jarl or warrior-noble. From the last there ultimately comes one who is a future king. The poem is thus one in praise of kingship, and for that reason is probably of Norwegian origin, though composed by one who had picked up much Celtic speech and culture.

Svipdagsmal consists of two parts — Grougaldr or “Groa’s


spell,” and Fjolsvinnsmal. In the first, Svipdag rouses his dead mother in order that she may aid him in his quest of Menglod, set him by his hostile step-mother. In the second we follow him on the quest and listen to the dialogue between him and the giant guardian of Menglod’s dwelling. In this there is much mythological information.

The heroic poems, with the exception of Volundarkvitha and the three Helgi poems, are concerned with the Volsungs and particularly with Sigurd, the German Siegfried.

Volundarkvitha consists of two poems about Volund joined together. The first is a Swan-maiden story; the second deals with Volund in the power of King Nithud and his escape and revenge. Volund is Weyland the smith of English tradition, and the subject of the poem is of German origin. The stories must have passed from the Saxon region to Scandinavia.

The Helgi poems are based on Danish originals, Helgi having been a Danish hero. In Helgakvitha Hjorvardssonar Helgi is regarded as a different personage from the Helgi of the two Helgakvitha Hundingsbana poems. Both, however, are the same traditional personage, and the prose annotation of the poems makes one a rebirth apparently of the other. The poems tell the adventures of the heroes, chiefly in avenging their fathers, and their love of Valkyries who are also daughters of men (Svava, Sigrun).

The remainder of the poems, sixteen in number, are devoted to various episodes of the story of the Volsungs.

Some of the poems of the skalds of the ninth and tenth centuries deal with mythological subjects and contain references to the deities or to myths about them. The authors of these poems, as distinct from the Eddic poems, are known to us by name. A convenient collection of these, with text and translation, will be found in the Corpus Poeticum Boreale of G. Vigfusson and Frederick York Powell.

From the Icelandic Sagas much information regarding religion and folk-lore is derived. These Sagas are stories of a historical


or biographical kind, though history and biography are often fictitious. Before they assumed written form from the mid-twelfth century onwards, Sagas had formed a favourite entertainment at festive gatherings, told orally by a skilled story-teller.5

Another source of information is the Gesta Danorum or Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, especially the first nine books. Saxo was a Danish scholar living in the twelfth century, and he has incorporated in his work both Danish and Norse materials — sagas, history, poems, and myths. Where myths of the gods are concerned, Saxo regards these deities from a euhemeristic point of view, as we shall see presently.

For Teutonic religion in general the sources are wider, but contain little regarding mythology. The classical writers, especially Tacitus in his Germania and Annales, are first. Inscriptions with names of deities from altars and other monuments in the Romano-German area supply some information. There are also many scattered notices in ecclesiastical and other writings, Lives of Saints, and Histories, e.g., those of Bede or Gregory of Tours. Laws, secular and ecclesiastical, canons of Councils and Synods, the Penitentials, as well as passages of sermons, yield abundant evidence regarding surviving pagan customs and beliefs. Place and personal names, names of plants and the like, have also been found significant. And, in general, folk-customs, folk-lore, and folk-stories, if critically regarded, can be used as sources of information regarding the distant past.

Although the chief if not the only source for mythology is contained in the Eddas, it is impossible to treat the subject without reference to what is known or can be deduced regarding the beliefs of the Teutonic people outside Scandinavia. Taking the myths themselves, some are nature myths, and the meaning of a few, at least, lies on the surface. Many writers on the subject of Eddic mythology have been tempted to give elaborate explanations of all the myths in terms of natural phenomena. Each writer treats a myth according to his own



The Three Odins (Har, Jafnhar, and Thridi) questioned by Gangleri. See p. 6. From a MS of Snorri’s Edda.


predilections. We cannot be certain that the old myths had any of the meanings assigned to them, certainly they could not have had all of these, and such writers do not seem to have seen that they themselves are modern mythologizers, elaborating a complicated mythology of their own upon the stories of the past.