"At home a man should be cheerful and merry with his guest,
he should be shrewd about himself,
with a good memory and eloquent, if he wants to
be very wise,
often should he speak of good things,
a nincompoop that man is called, who can's say much for himself
That is the hallmark of a fool."
So says Odin, the All-Father in the Havamal, one of many of the sayings of the High One, one of the chapters in the "Poetic Edda", a 13th century collection of Norse-Icelandic mythological and heroic poetry, containing all the great narratives of the creation of the world and the coming of Ragnarok, the end of the world.
These mythological poems explore the wisdom of the heathen gods and giants and narrate, amongst other stories, the adventures of Thor agains the hostile giants and the gods' rivalries amongst themselves. The poems also trace the exploits of the hero Helgi and his valkyrie bride, the tale of Sighurd and Brynhild's doomed love and the drama of Gudrum and her children.
One-eyes Odin hangs nine days and nine nights on the windswept ash tree, Yggdrasil, sacrificing himself to himself; the red-beared Thor swings his hammer against the enemy; the wolf Fenrir leaps forward to sieze Odin in his jaws ............. all these would make fantastic pieces of TV or film drama today!
Frorm the creation of the world out of Ginnungagap, the endless void, to the destruction of the gods in Ragnarok, the poetry of the Edda gives some of the best evidence for the religious beliefs and the heroic ethics of the pagan north before its conversion to Christianity in 1000 CE.
Most of the poems in the "Poetic Edda" exist in a single manuscript written in Iceland around 1270, known as the Codex Regius, but many of them pre-date the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity, so gives us a glimpse into the Pagan north. The 'Lay of Hamdir' and the 'Lay of Alti' are believed to be the earliest Eddic poems. The manuscript is now kept in the Arnamagnaen Institute in Raykjavik, Iceland.
The other book of Edda is the 'Prose Edda' written/compiled by Icelandic author and historian, Snorri Sturluson, who lived between 1174 and 1241. He wrote a treatise on Norse poetry that he called the Edda and has since become known as the 'Prose Edda' in a manuscript known as the Uppsala Codex, a parchment from around 1320. In this he explains the cosmology of the heathen creation myth, with the world formed out of the body of the giant, Ymir. The first part is about the Aesir (one of the sets of gods) and Ymir and is known as the 'Gylfanginning', the Deluding of Gylfi. The second part consists of a series of 'kennings' (expressions and sayings of various kinds).
So what does Edda mean? Opinions differ greatly. The more usual opinion is that the word relates to Odr, meaning poetry or poem and may be translated as 'poetics'.
For heathens, like myself, the Eddas are handbooks of how our ancestors lived, which we can translate into how we can live today (particularly through texts like the Havamal). It also tells us about how our ancestors worshipped and carried out their religious practices. It is true that Snorri, who was a Christian, always wrote from a Christian perspective. So, for example, in the conclusion of the first chapter of the 'Poetic Diction' (second half of Prose Edda), he wrote: "Christians, however, must not believe in pagan gods or that these tales are true in any other way than is indicated in the beginning of the book." However, Snorri was criticised by many narrow minded clergy for bringing the stories of the heathen gods back to life and back into the consciousness of the people. Clergy in Iceland at that time had gone so far as to banish the names of the old gods from the days of the week, so Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday became Third Day, Midweek Day, Fifth Day and Fast Day. They considered the poetry in the Edda sinful as it included the mythology of the old gods. In some cases Snorri was surprisingly supportive. At one point he asked: "What reason can there be for hating and despising a faith which, after all, served our forefathers as a guide to a life full of courage and achievement?"
Whenever the criticism has been labelled against paganism, in particular heathenism, that we have no sacred texts, nor ethical guidelines on life and that paganism has no creation myth, so is not a fully-formed religion, I always point them to the Eddas. In these manuscripts we have a fully-formed creation myth - as bizarre and interesting as the Christian one, but in my opinion, a lot funnier, with men being born out of the sweaty armpits of a giant who was being licked by a cow! We have stories of our gods and goddesses, how they lived, loved, fought and died and we have great sayings by Odin that are still relevant for us today. For example:
"To his friend a man should be a friend
and to his friend's friend too;
But a friend no man should be
To the friend of his enemy."
And finally ...
"No better burden can a man carry on the road
than a store of common sense;
a worse journey, provisioning he couldn't carry over the land
than to be too drunk on ale".