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Are the Eddas reliable? First of all, what does “Edda” mean? Opinions differ, greatly, as to be expected. But the most usual meaning is that the word is related to ódr (poem/poetry) and may be translated as “poetics”.
Our knowledge of the pagan deities comes from several sources, and most prominent among them are the two Icelandic works, the Poetic Edda, a collection of songs relating the deeds of Nordic gods and heroes, and the Prose Edda, a work composed by Snorri Sturluson. These are two essential works to have an understanding of pagan Germanic religion.
But let’s start with the Prose Edda first, which seems much more complex to talk about. The Uppsala Codex is one of the three most important manuscripts composed by Snorri Sturluson, the first part is about the Aesir and Ymir, then comes the Skáldskaparmál (Poetic Diction) and last the Háttatal (Account of Meters) a composition about King Hákon and Duke Skúli.
Snorri Sturluson writes his Prose Edda during the 13th century. He made good use of the Poetic Edda, but also other accounts, some lost forever, obviously, but others which have survived through oral tradition. He gives us a synthesized and simplified version of the Norse mythology. This work of his comes in contradiction with other sources, and also, quite possibly, his work was influenced by Christianity, which already was the official religion in Iceland for 200 years, already in Snorri Sturluson’s time. It’s also very likely that the sources Snorri used to compose this mythology comes solely from the region of Throndheim, in Norway, such sources composed by the end of the X century. The very myth of creation, transmitted to us by Snorri, which he refers to it as – in the beginning there was only a great void and two worlds were created, one of ice and another of fire – might give us the indication that this might be a very Icelandic perspective of the creation of the world, adding familiar elements to the story, the landscape of Iceland – glaciers and volcano activity – combined to create a land. This brought to my attention that mythology is clearly different from place to place, not only because of historical, cultural and traditional factors, but also because of geographical factors. To the Scandinavian communities further south, where the landscape is clearly different of that of the north, such communities wouldn’t have the same perspectives on the creation of the cosmos.
Another aspect is that the great majority of the sources were composed by poets, financially sponsored by political and military authorities, and also poems to spread amongst warriors. Which means, poems to be read and listened by certain groups, where certain deities were more popular than others, which helps to explain why in archaeology Freyr was much more relevant in ancient Scandinavian societies, and why in Denmark there are more place names related to this deity, and also Týr, but then in the sources, particularly in the Prose Edda, Odin seems to be the most important deity, almost to the point of being the major deity, because in the Prose Edda Odin is seen as a god not only related to war, but also poetry, and here we can see the connection between poets and the military and political leaders.
Being the major deity, or seeming to be the major deity, might be one of the aspects that shows us the influence of Christianity. The Catholic Age in Iceland (1000-1550) changed pagan behaviours a lot. Public sacrifices to the Germanic gods and the traditional faith was kept in private, in hiding. The conversion was a prolonged gradual transition, from generation to generation the new faith, and the culture along with it, began to take hold. Icelandic scholars travelled abroad to learn the new faith, and schools were established in Iceland itself, and 100 years after this slow process of conversion, the Icelandic language was first used to write down histories, sagas and poetry. During Snorri Sturluson’s time, in the 13th century, was a time of Danish dominion in Iceland and a sort of golden age of Icelandic culture and literature. Poems of the Poetic Edda were committed to parchment during this time, also, and Icelanders already lived really comfortable with their national Catholicism.
Snorri Sturluson was a man of power, very active as a politician, and Christianity was also very active in the Icelandic political network. So you can’t expect Snorri Sturluson to write something completely pagan and get away with it during this time. There was the great risk of losing his position in the Icelandic society, so if you read the Prose Edda, you can see a lot of Christian influence; you will see the Icelandic political and social realities printed in this work. So we need to read it and go beyond the metaphors, try to separate what is Christian and what is pagan, so we can understand the religious background of the Norse societies, and of course we need to already have a certain knowledge of the pre-Christian Germanic religion in order to understand it better.
Now, in terms of the Poetic Edda, the majority of the information in there comes from WesternScandinavian sources – Norway and Iceland – with a Germanic influence, of course, in some of its compositions and even Irish, in some of the poems. But what we have in our hands nowadays is the written version made in Iceland, therefore, culturally shaped by Western-Scandinavia. The material of the Poetic Edda was written during the 13th century, but its contents can be dated between the years 800 and 1200 (the Viking period of Scandinavia). Some of the elements come from a much earlier age, through oral tradition, but the form in which they were preserved is definitely medieval. The skalds who composed these poems may have been pagans, but they were aware of Christianity and Islam, which may or may not have influenced them in creating such tales. Furthermore, the religious understanding of the Central-European Germanic peoples who fought the Romans, is very different from the medieval far-travelling Vikings. So it’s a great mistake to think the Vikings subscribed to the exact same mythology as the Central-European Germans a thousand years before. Religion in prehistoric Europe was not a static unchanging tradition, but a wild field of creative innovations, and that sort of thinking lasted till the middle ages.
In conclusion the Eddas reflect late Icelandic believes rather than a Pan-Germanic mythology, but they are still great sources to understand Norse mythology if your mind is opened to the fact that what is written there isn’t purely pagan, and you have to accept that a Germanic religion doesn’t exist as a whole, a unified religious belief; it is a beautiful variety of pre-Christian believes mixed together to give us a better understanding of the world.