Forty-four years ago, one of the most important sources for Norse mythology returned to its home in Iceland. The 13th century Icelandic manuscript, the Codex Regius (“King’s Book”), contains poems about gods, heroes, dragons, dwarves and giants from Iceland’s pagan past.
Scholars disagree about when the poems were first composed, but generally agree that they preserve elements of the oral tradition pre-existing Iceland’s conversion to Christianity in 1000 AD. After an Icelandic bishop presented the manuscript as a gift to the Danish king in 1662, it became known as the “King’s Book.” Iceland’s great collection of mythological poems remained in Denmark for over three hundred years. Icelanders didn’t trust the safety of air travel for the return of the irreplaceable manuscript, so a military escort guarded its journey via ship to Reykjavík, where a large crowd joyfully awaited its arrival on April 21, 1971.
Today, the poems are known and loved around the world as the core of the ‘Poetic Edda’, a book that has been repeatedly translated into many languages in various forms over the last few centuries. The collection of poems tells tales of the prophecy of Ragnarök, the wise sayings of Óðinn, the adventures of Þór, the slanderous accusations by Loki, the tragedy of Sigurðr the dragon-slayer, and much more.
An insight into a life that was
Pagan poems written down in thirteenth century Iceland have a vibrant life in today’s Ásatrú, a modern iteration of Old Norse religion. In the twenty-first century, the ‘Poetic Edda’ is treasured by Heathens around the world as a vital connection to voices from the pagan past.
“The poems of the ‘Eddas’ are a source of wisdom of humanity,” says Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, goði (“priest”) of Ásatrúarfé- lagið, the religious organization that began the revival of pre-Christian Heathen faith in Iceland in 1972. According to Jóhanna, ‘Hávamál’ (“Sayings of the High One”), a poem narrated by the Norse god Óðinn, contains “the best lessons you can learn about getting along with other people in life. The world has changed, but people are still the same.”
Haukur Bragason, another goði, sees the poems as sources of both knowledge and entertainment. “They are a treasure, an insight into a life that was,” he says. “They are man-made fantasy explanations to questions that could not be answered. They contain serious philosophical questions and teachings, as well as being the TV series of that time.”
Although it may be impossible to truly translate poetry, the ‘Poetic Edda’ is known and loved in many languages. Since its founding in Iceland, the modern iteration of Norse religion known as Heathenry or Ásatrú (“Æsir faith”) has spread widely. The Worldwide Heathen Census 2013 found followers in 98 countries. Iceland has the largest number of Heathens per capita, while America has the greatest total number.
The poems resonate with Heathens in many lands, and the myths they contain have an influence that transcends national borders. “In Germany, we have a long and very rich tradition in translating the ‘Poetic Edda,’” says Andreas Zautner of the Eldaring. “There are more than a dozen translations highlighting different aspects. The ‘Poetic Edda’ is still influencing our daily culture. For example, if you visit Thale in the Harz Mountains, you find wooden statues of Eddic figures all over the town.”
Other Heathens were lured to Iceland by the ‘Poetic Edda’. “I knew the poems before I came to Iceland because I came mainly to learn more about them,” says Lenka Kovárová, a member of the Ásatrúarfélagið’s lögretta, who came to Reykjavík from the Czech Republic to earn a Master’s degree in Old Norse religion at the University of Iceland. “I see them in wider context as a part of European heritage, as a sort of pattern of wisdom.”
For others, like Eric Scott, an American Heathen who writes for The Wild Hunt and who came to Reykjavík to study Icelandic language, the ‘Edda’ is no less important. “The ‘Edda’ is like an heirloom—a reminder of where I, as a Heathen, have come from, and an inspiration for the future,” he says. “The voice of the poems is a grandfather’s voice, describing a foreign world in a foreign time, but a world less different from my own than it would seem at first. The poetry isn’t a set of fixed laws or inarguable truths, but rather a store of tales and maxims to meditate on.”
Poetry as ritual
Throughout the international Ásatrú community, the Icelandic poems are used in spiritual contexts. “I use the poems to remind me of who I am,” says Jóhanna, “and to teach children who they are and what they can become if they want to.”
For Steven T. Abell, Steersman (Executive Director) of The Troth, an American Heathen organization, the poems have deep personal meaning that transcends their literary value. “I feel an obligation to honour what is in the ‘Eddas’ in their own terms,” he says. “Just calling them great literature is not enough for me.”
The poems are spoken or sung in Ásatrú celebrations around the world. “Ásatrúarfélagið uses the poems in all their rituals and ceremonies,” says Haukur. “You can always find something relevant to the occasion at hand or the milestone in people’s lives. We use verses from ‘Hávamál’, ‘Völuspá’ and ‘Sigurdrífumál’, for example, in everything from a namegiving ceremony to a wedding and funeral, and also in common rituals.”
‘Sigurdrífumál’ (“Sayings of Sigrdrífa”) is one of the poems most widely used in modern religious contexts. Two verses used by the Ásatrúarfélagið in ceremonies and celebrations are also used by the Troth to begin weddings in America. In Henry Adams Bellows’s classic translation, they read:
Hail, day! Hail, sons of day!
And night and her daughter now!
Look on us here with loving eyes,
That waiting we victory win.
Hail to the gods! Ye goddesses, hail,
And all the generous earth!
Give to us wisdom and goodly speech,
And healing hands, life-long.
Other poems are often recited or chanted on special occasions. In Germany, a verse spoken by the god Óðinn is used for funerals and the remembrance of lost loved ones:
Cattle die, and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one’s self;
One thing now that never dies,
The fame of a dead man’s deeds.
The poems are sometimes given dramatic performance as part of religious rituals. Eric has performed ‘Völuspá’ (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) as part of a midwinter Yule ceremony. “We walked our group through the mythic history of the poem,” he says, “reenacting its events, especially the tale of Baldr’s death. Stepping into the poem, and embodying it, gave ‘Völuspá’ even greater depth for me. I had not only read the text, but—in a sense—I had lived it, as well.”
In many ways, in many lands, these ancient Icelandic poems continue to resonate deeply in hearts and minds. Eight centuries after they were first written down, and four decades after the Codex Regius manuscript was returned to Iceland, the poems of the ‘Poetic Edda’ have a vibrant life as part of the worldwide religious tradition of Ásatrú.