Poetic Edda vs. Prose Edda: The Difference


Hi, I’m old norse specialist dr. Jackson Crawford and today I’m here to explain to you, in just a couple minutes, the difference between the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. Now, the two most important sources of Norse mythology that are still preserved today are the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. And unfortunately these two very similar titles have created a lot of confusion about which is which and indeed a lot of people today assume that they’re the same book, but they are not. Here’s the difference as succinctly as I can explain it: The Poetic Edda is a compilation of poems. It is a mixtape, it is a playlist put on shuffle. So it is not a compendium of related works. It is not something you can read front to back that has one plot. It’s a compilation. Perhaps somebody’s best-of. But what is it a compilation of? Well, it is a compilation of poems about the Norse gods and heroes. Now, these are composed in the language Old Norse and many of these poems we can date back to the 900s AD or so, based on characteristics of their language, a couple of them back to the 800s AD. Some are considerably later, but the whole thing was written down in manuscript form in about 1270 AD in a manuscript called the Codex Regius. The Codex Regius is not something different from the Poetic Edda. The Codex Regius is the bottle and the Poetic Edda is the whiskey, if you will. So, in the Codex Regius, we find this compilation of poems called the Poetic Edda, but the Codex Regius is not the original manuscript in which they would have been written down. Rather we can tell from some handwriting and some spelling evidence that the Codex Regius is a copy of another manuscript that was written down around 1200. So, even though the actual writing is taking place in 1200 or in 1270 the again, linguistic evidence points to many of these poems actually being quite old. And so, typically the poetic Edda is considered the strongest, as in most likely to actually be from before the Scandinavian countries were converted to Christianity, evidence for Norse myth, at least written evidence for Norse myth. Now, Iceland was converted to Christianity famously in the year 1000 and Iceland is where both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda are written down, so you can see that if The Poetic Edda is of course composed at the same time as it’s written down in the 1200s that would be kind of like us only just now writing down some traditions about something that had happened in the mid 1700s. But instead, since it consists of poetry, and poetry has characteristics such as rhyme, or in Old Norse really alliteration that don’t— That you can’t change without making it not work as poetry anymore, we’re fairly confident in many cases about the dating of these poems. Now, the Prose Edda, by contrast, is a work by one author. This is by the Icelandic chieftain and scholar named Snorri Sturluson, Who would have been born in 1178 or 1179, opinions and accounts defer, and who died in 1241. Now, Snorri set out in the 1220s, probably, to write the Prose Edda which originally was meant to be a manual for how to compose Old Norse poetry. Snorri didn’t like the English and French styles of poetry that were becoming popular in Iceland in his time. Instead he wanted to teach people how to write the actual traditional Old Norse styles of poetry which involved a lot of alliteration and, importantly, a lot of allusive references to the gods and heroes of Norse myth. So in order to explain those allusive references he needed to actually explain the myths as he knew them, and so he wrote the Prose Edda. The most important of the three parts for understanding of Norse myth is the first of the three parts, which is called the Gylfaginning, the Deluding of Gylfi, but then there are also a lot of myths recounted in the second part, Skáldskaparmál, the Art of Poetry. Now Snorri knew the poems of the poetic Edda. He probably did not have— Well, he certainly didn’t have the Codex Regius because that was written down after his life. He just possibly could have had access to the manuscript that it was copied from, although the way that he quotes the poems is often just a little bit different enough that it suggests that he has either a separate written manuscript of these poems or that he knows them orally, and I would actually say that it’s more likely that he knew them orally. So he quotes many of the poems in the Poetic Edda, for example, he quotes probably a third of Vǫluspá, the first poem in the poetic Edda, which is the account of the creation of the world and of Ragnarök. But this also further confuses the question of what the difference is between the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, because people see something in Snorri first, they read a particular bit of poetry there, say, something about Ragnarök and then they say, “well, Snorri says” but that’s not Snorri saying originally, that’s Snorri quoting a poem that is much older than Snorri or the manuscript of the Codex Regius, but that is written down in the Codex Regius and by Snorri, and is considered part of the Poetic Edda, such as Vǫluspá. I hope that this has made this subject a little bit clearer for you and if you’d like to explore more about Norse mythology I encourage you to check out the more than 270 other videos about Norse myth, language, culture, and sagas on this channel. I have also translated the Poetic Edda into a very readable Modern English and that is available in an audiobook narrated by me. And as for the prose edda, I have a contract to translate that as well. But because of other obligations including preceding translation works that I have to do, that will probably not be available till I’m going to say 2021, 2022, somewhere in there. But, in the meantime, I recommend that you check out the translation by Anthony Faulks, which can be found as I speak in December 2018 for free, available from the publisher at the website of the Viking Society for Northern Research. For now, from beautiful Colorado, please know that I’m wishing you all the best.

33 thoughts on “Poetic Edda vs. Prose Edda: The Difference

  1. Search as you wish, but you'll never find anyone more cool than Dr. Crawford.

  2. Your hats are getting even more awesome. I would be disappointed if your next video isn’t filmed on the back of a horse riding into the sunset.

  3. Tusen Takk Dr. jacksoN for sharing your wisdom. I have been wondering what happens to the Goddesses during and after Ragnarök? I know Thor fights the midgard serpent, Odin and Fenrir, Tyr and Garm, etc. What of the Goddesses ?

  4. Can you make a video about friendship in the viking age and the medieval scandinavia?

    I think that now friendships are based on having fun and entertaining because we don't need each other to survive like previously. This leads to weaker relationships now then then.
    There was no police or state that could help you like today so you had to rely on friends and family more and that created stronger bonds.

  5. I often make it clear on my videos the differences between these two sources because it's commonly confused by the similarities of the names and because Snorri used a lot of poems from the oral tradition to compose his Prose Edda, poems that can be found in the Poetic Edda. So people usually think it's all the same.The further back we go in the sources, the fewer Christian influences they have, and thus we can have a better perception of the pre-Christian pagan mind. Although it's important to refer that the poems themselves were tempered with by Skalds and clerical workers, who had to change the poems to fit into an increasing new-religious society. With the conversion to Christianity by high-ranking members of the Norse society, many myths and poems had to change, and what was dark and heathen, in a Christian perspective, had to be removed or altered. So the poems themselves in the Poetic Edda also contain many traces of Christianity, but even so, fewer than in the Prose Edda. Thank you for this video by the way hehe

  6. Very interesting. Are you planning to make a whole video about Snorri Sturluson at some time?

  7. Question regarding the "reconstructed old norse". You use quite a thick "L" for instance in Voluspa, is that your own dialect or is it "reconstructed old norse"? As a Swede it's a rather odd sounding sound.

  8. Good speech…and you look awesome in a suit. The beard adds a dignified touch as well…it seems to be coming along nicely.

  9. In the months of May or April, I am thinking of writing a book called “Legends of The Norse” or i can call it “The Norsemen”. Basically its about the Norse Gods and Ragnarok… these videos are forming the base of the book. Thank you Professor Crawford. Moreover, which name is better: “Legends of The Norse” or “The Norsemen”

  10. Dr. Crawford, thank you for your videos. I'm so glad your books are on Kindle now! My Kindle Paperwhite is on its way and I can't wait to buy and download them 🙂 Keep up the great work and thank you for sharing your knowledge with us!

  11. Picked up a copy of your book yesterday after having gotten it on loan from the library. Got halfway through before having to return it. Wanted to continue on so bought it. Thanks for the work put into it.

  12. Thank you again! Mr. Crawford. It's good to be back, we were away for awhile ( my family). You bring into our home wonderful teaching! Again, thank you.

  13. Dr. Crawford I'm just discovering your channel, it's educational, not simply because of the information you provide but also the way you present it, not to mention you are quite handsome

  14. Currently listening to your audio version of the Poetic Edda. Enjoying it very much.

  15. Love your videos man. I'm trying to incorporate these nordic themes into my songs ( metal).
    Your videos are the first thing I watch after waking up and making my coffee. Been taking notes, your videos help inspire a lot of creativity and ideas. Just wanted to thank you for taking the time and effort to make these and I hope you will continue making them.

    Cheers from India!
    Tanvir.

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