The Northern Way

Song and Legend From the Middle Ages

SCANDINAVIAN LITERATURE

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Scandinavian literature embraces the literature of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and their western colonies. In the Middle Ages this literature reached its fullest and best development in Iceland.

The earliest and greatest portion of this literature is the heroic poetry forming the collection called the Poetic or Elder Edda. Like all early poetry these were minstrel poems, passing orally from singer (skald) to singer for centuries. Some of them were composed as early as the eighth century. The collection was probably made in the thirteenth century (1240). The collection consists of thirty-nine distinct songs or poems. They are based upon common Norse mythology and tradition. In one section of this collection is found in outline the story of the Nibelungs and Brunhild---the stories which later formed the basis of the Niebelungen-Lied. This fact connects the two literatures with the original common Teutonic traditions. Anderson says, "The Elder Edda presents the Norse cosmology, the doctrines of Odinic mythology, and the lives and doings of the gods. It contains also a cycle of poems on the demigods and mythic heroes and heroines of the same period. It gives us as complete a view of the mythological world of the North as Homer and Hesiod do of that of Greece." (Norse Mythology).

Almost equal in importance and interest is the Prose Edda, sometimes called the Younger Edda, arranged and in part written by Snorra Sturleson, who lived from 1178 to 1241. The chief portions of it are:

1. "Gylfaginning," in which Odin recounts to Gylf the history of the gods.

2. "Bragaraethur," the conversations of Braga the god of poetry.

Other and less important varieties of Scandinavian literature are the romances of history and romances of pure fiction.

VOLUSPA

The Oracle of the Prophetess Vala.

The Voluspa is the first song in the Elder Edda. It is a song of a prophetess and gives an account of the creation of the world, of man, giants, and dwarfs; of the employments of fairies or destinies; of the functions of the gods, their adventures, their quarrels, and the vengeance they take; of the final state of the universe and its dissolution; of the battle of the lower deities and the evil beings; of the renovation of the world; of the happy lot of the good, and the punishment of the wicked. The first passage selected gives the account of creation.

In early times,

When Ymer (1) lived,

Was sand, nor sea,

Nor cooling wave;

No earth was found,

Nor heaven above;

One chaos all,

And nowhere grass:

Until Bor's (2) sons

Th' expanse did raise,

By whom Midgard (3)

The great was made.

From th' south the sun

Shone on the walls;

Then did the earth

Green herbs produce.

The sun turned south;

The moon did shine;

Her right hand held

The horse of heaven.

The sun knew not

His proper sphere;

The stars knew not

Their proper place;

The moon knew not

Her proper power.

Then all the powers

Went to the throne,

The holy gods,

And held consult;

Night and cock-crowing

Their names they gave,

Morning also,

And noon-day tide,

And afternoon,

The years to tell.

The Asas (4) met

On Ida's plains,

Who altars raised

And temples built;

Anvils they laid,

And money coined;

Their strength they tried

In various ways,

When making songs,

And forming tools.

On th' green they played

In joyful mood,

Nor knew at all

The want of gold,

Until there came

Three Thursa maids,

Exceeding strong,

From Jotunheim: (5)

Endnotes

1. Ymer, the progenitor of the giants.  (back)

2. Bor, the father of Odin, Vile, and Ve.  (back)

3. Midgard, the earth.  (back)

4. Asas, the gods.  (back)

5. The home of the giants.  (back)

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