Sunday, January 26, 2014

The friend of men gives the wolf a very great deal of corpse-beer. - Snorri Sturulson's Edda

Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, written early in the 13th century, should not be a book anyone reads any more, anyone who is not a linguist specializing in Norse languages.  It is a textbook, for pity’s sake.  Why would I read an eight hundred year old textbook.

The prose Edda is a textbook in Viking poetics.  The last third of the book, for example, is a praise song to the Norwegian king written in every available stanzaic form (“Here the first and third lines have two extra syllables at the beginning which characterize the form, and if they are subtracted then what remains is as dróttkvætt, and from the second and fourth lines…” 202-3).  In one sense a tour de force, in another pure tedium.

So that is not why I read the Edda.

The first two-thirds contain the bulk of Norse mythology.  Creation myths, the pantheon of gods and their adventures, early heroes.  Yggdrasil the world-tree and its adorable squirrel Ratatosk.  The creation of man by a cow:

Then spoke Gangleri: ‘What did the cow feed on?’

High said: ‘It licked the rime-stones, which were salty.  And the first day as it licked stones there came from the stones in the evening a man’s hair, the second day a man’s head, the third day a complete man was there.  (11)

Thor’s journey to the castle of Utgard-Loki is here, easily one of the greatest fantasy stories of all time, an old gnarled root of the current genre.  Thor in the giant’s glove, Thor drinking the sea, all of that good stuff.  I wonder how many young fans of the comic book hero have made their way back to this stuff.  The story of how the trickster god Loki had sex with a horse and gave birth to the eight-legged Sleipnir, greatest horse of all time, is also here.

The long middle section of the Edda turns to poetics, explicating the unique feature of Viking prosody, the kennings, the elaborate metaphorical substitutions that turn Icelandic poems into puzzles, as:

The bow-shaker generous with wealth knows how to prepare the wolves a feast.  The battle-keen lord lets the wolf’s kin rejoice in prey.  The friend of men gives the wolf a very great deal of corpse-beer.  (174)

All three lines say the same thing: “The king won the battle.”  But the Viking skalds say it better.  “Corpse-beer,” that’s great.  Snorri catalogues all of these poetic substitutions, for ships, the sea, gods, men (trees stand in for men), gold, everything.  The metaphors often require stories, so this section may need to be skimmed – it is awfully repetitive – but should not be skipped.

“What is the reason for gold being called otter-payment?” (99)  The answer to this question turns out to be the story of Siegfried and the Rhine-gold, the story of The Saga of the Volsungs, the Niebelungenlied, and Richard Wagner’s Ring operas, told by Snorri in a crisp six pages.  A couple pages later we learn “Why is gold called Kraki’s seed,” a story I also read in The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki.  The author  of the later saga got his story from the Edda.

Nancy Marie Brown has written a book about Snorri, Song of the Vikings, that I perhaps should read.  I have been enjoying her blog, God of Wednesday, quite a lot.  It perhaps nudged me towards this Scandinavian run.  This post on the murder of Snorri was a good one.

I read the Anthony Faulkes translation of Snorri’s Edda, the 1987 Everyman paperback.


  1. Very much enjoying this run of posts, thank you.

  2. Thanks - this stuff is like its own corner of literature. Not quite like anything else. One more post this round, I think.

    Desperate Reader recently read the Sage of the Volusngs.

  3. "Corpse-beer," yes, fine writing. You've made me question whether the textbookish aspects would really bother me all that much after something like that!

  4. Oh yes, I sift through the tedious descriptions of verse forms eagerly, because I dig up that kind of line.