Edda (Icelandic, ancestress), the name of two collections of ancient poems and legends of the Northmen, or early Scandinavians, from which is chiefly derived our knowledge of Scandinavian mythology. The Eddas, and in some instances the Sagas, were composed originally in Denmark, in Sweden, and doubtless also in Norway, where the language now known as Icelandic was longest preserved on the European continent. There is no doubt that the greater part of the Edda songs were in existence before the emigration to Iceland. They are generally assigned to the 8th, and a few of them to the 9th or 10th century. Judging from the unmixed pagan spirit that pervades them, it is probable that they belong to a much earlier age, and the primitive form of the language in which they have come down to us seems to warrant this opinion. The older Edda is well known under the title of Edda Soemundar hins Froda, "The Edda of Saemund the Learned." What has been preserved of it consists of 39 poems, collected by Saemund Sigfusson, an Icelandic priest, who died in 1133. A copy of this Edda on vellum, the best which is preserved, was found in Iceland by Bishop Brynjulf Sveinsson in 1643, and published under the above title (3 vols., Copenhagen, 1787-1828), with an excellent Lexicon Mythologicum by Finn Arni Magnusson, the editor of the last volume.
This copy is believed to date from the 14th century, and all the other manuscripts are more or less directly related to it. There are editions by Afze-lius in Swedish (Christiania, 1818), by Munch (Christiania, 1847), and by Studach (Nuremberg, 1829). The different poems may be classed, according to the nature of their subjects, as mythological and legendary. The most remarkable in the former classification is that which bears the title Voluspa, the oracle of the vala or prophetess. It is a rapid exposition of the cosmogony of the Scandinavians, from the creation to the destruction of the universe. The Grogaldr, or magical song of Groa, purports to be a response to her son calling her from the grave to teach him the terms of magic. The Vafthrudnis-mal narrates that Odin, desiring to test the wisdom of Vafthrudnir, the wisest of the giants, sought his hospitality, and proposed a contest in questions and answers, the wager agreed upon being the head of the vanquished disputant. The giant recognized his guest at a question which Odin alone could put and answer. The Grimnis-mal describes the 12 homes of the gods (the 12 signs of the zodiac). In the Alviss-mal, the dwarf Alvis goes to Thor and claims his daughter for his bride.
The god agrees to give him his daughter if he will answer his questions. Alvis complies, but failing to watch for the break of day is changed into a stone. The Hyndlu- tells of Freyja, who goes with Ottar to the vala Hyndla, that she may give him an account of his genealogy. The Hava-mal, the sublime discourse of Odin, is a collection of maxims, ending with a chapter wherein the god explains the mysterious power of the runes against various misfortunes. The or song of Hymir, describes a feast given by a sea god to his brother divinities. The Hrafn-agaldr- the song of the raven of Odin, describes the gods lamenting the approach of their last day. The class of legendary poems in the Edda is more abundant than the other. They narrate heroic days, and record the adventures of heroes who have been more or less truly identified with Dietrich, Sigfried, and Attila and his Huns, during their first inroads upon the provinces of Rome. - The peculiarity of the verse of the Edda songs consists in alliteration and in the number of rises and falls of the voice, without regard to the number of syllables. The peculiarity of the alliteration is that different vowels are considered to effect it, and that words beginning with sk, st, sp, must be harmonized with other words commencing with the same two letters. A stanza of the Edda song consists either of two equal parts of four half lines or two full lines, with two rises of the voice for each half line ; or of two parts, each containing a proposition, and each formed of two half lines with two, and a longer line with two to four rises of the voice. - The younger or prose Edda, also called the Snorra-Edda, is ascribed to the celebrated Snorri Sturlason, who was born in 1178. It is a collection of the myths of the gods, and of explanations of the versification of the scalds or poets.
It was gradually formed by the labors of several writers, although it usually bears the name of Snorri Sturlason alone. It was intended for the instruction of the young scalds, and shows that the old poetry of the Icelanders came to be cultivated as a learned art. The Edda of Snorri, obviously of less value than that of Saemund, is principally worthy of attention in so far as it completes and aids the comprehension of the other. The first copy of it was found by Arngrim Jonsson in 1628, and the first complete edition was published in Stockholm in 1818, by Prof. Rask. The work had been imperfectly known in the edition of Resenius (Copenhagen, 1665), which made a careless use of the manuscript, often confounding the text with the notes of the scalds. The introduction, or Formali, is a quaint compendium of Jewish, Christian, Greek, Roman, and Icelandic legend, illustrating the origin and chain of descent of the Scandinavan race from the heroes of Troy. The Gylfa-ginning follows, and relates the visit of Gylfe, a Swedish king and magician, to Asgard, in order to observe at its fountain head the spirit of northern wisdom.
An English translation of the first part of the prose Edda is contained in Mallet's "Northern Antiquities" (Bishop Percy's translation, new ed., London, 1847). The second part of the prose Edda, called Bragar hattir, represents Bragi, the god of poetry, at a feast given by .AEgir, god of the sea, entertaining the celestial company with a narration of their own exploits. The epilogue, or Eptimarli, written by Snorri Sturlason or by a contemporary, is an attempted solution of the Edda fables by events of the Trojan war. At the end of the prose Edda we have the Scalda, a kind of ars poetica, or manual for the use of the young students of the art. The German song of the Nibelungen speaks of adventures and heroes like those of the Scandinavian poems; but while the German poem was probably written about the year 1207, the Scandinavian poems are known to have been earlier, probably by several centuries. - Among the several editions and translations of the older Edda prepared in modern times stands prominent for scientific accuracy and convenience of use, H. Luning's Edda, Ur-schrift mit Anmerkungen, Glossar und Einlei-tung (Zurich, 1859). The best German translation of the two Eddas is by Karl Simrock (Stuttgart, 1851), which has passed through several editions.
The best French translation is by Leouzon-Leduc (Paris, 1868). Baring-Gould's "Iceland, its Scenes and Sagas" (London, 1863), gives an entertaining account of the substance of the Eddas. Eirikr Magnusson and William Morris assert that they give in their " Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, with certain Songs from the Elder Edda" (London, 1870), the first translation into the English language.