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Edda › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Kimberly Lin
published on 21 March 2017
Prose Edda (Unknown)

Edda is a term used to describe two Icelandic manuscripts that were copied down and compiled in the 13th century CE.Together they are the main sources of Norse mythology and skaldic poetry that relate the religion, cosmogony, and history of Scandinavians and Proto-Germanic tribes. The Prose or Younger Edda dates to circa 1220 CE and was compiled by Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic poet and historian. The Poetic or Elder Edda was written down circa 1270 CE by an unknown author.


Snorri Sturluson's work was the first of the two manuscripts to be called Edda, however, scholars are uncertain how this exactly came about. Snorri himself did not name it. The term, 'Edda', was later ascribed to Snorri's work by a different author in a manuscript from the early 14th century CE, the Codex Upsaliensis, which contained a copy of Snorri's Edda within it.Gudbrand Vigfusson, in The Poetry of the Old Northern Tongue, quotes the Codex Upsaliensis as saying, “This Book is called Edda, which Snorri Sturlason put together according to the order set down here: First, concerning the Æsir and Gylfi.” The first use of the word 'Edda', that has thus far been located, was in a poem called the Lay of Righ ( Háttatal ), which was authored by Snorri. In this poem, the word 'Edda' is used as a title for “great-grandmother.” Multiple theories exist, but one suggests that the term may have become associated with Snorri's manuscript because, like a great-grandmother, it carries a breadth of ancient knowledge and wisdom. Another theory that is more widely accepted by scholars today proposes that 'Edda' is closely associated with the word Oddi, which is the Icelandic town where Snorri grew up.


Snorri Sturluson's Edda was later called the Prose Edda, due to his addition of prose explanations of the difficult alliterative verse and symbolism. It appears that Snorri designed the manuscript as a textbook on skaldic poetry. However, it has been most highly prized for the songs and poems that record an incredible array of mythology, heroes, and battles. His verse was reflective of older styles of court poetry and was esteemed as a high standard for other poets. It was a standard perhaps unattainable by future generations of poets, as it was considered by many as overly cryptic and difficult.


Snorri’s Edda was later nicknamed the 'Younger Edda' because much of it derives from older sources. What those sources were is a matter of speculation. Some researchers believe Snorri based it largely on folkloric oral traditions that he may have heard, while others think he used an elder written Edda. However, experts agree that he did add many of his own details. As a result, he gives readers a more elaborate version of Norse mythology that at times reveals his Christian influence.


  • Prologue: Snorri reveals his Christian influence by giving an account of the Biblical version of creation with the stories of Adam and Eve, the Great Flood and Noah's Ark.
  • Gylfaginning: Here Begins the Beguiling of Gylfi - Perhaps truest to ancient sources, this book is a mythological story in the form of Odinic poems that explain the origin of the Norse cosmos and the chaos that will ensue.
  • Skáldskaparmál: The Poesy of Skalds - This text continues with mythological stories of the Norse gods but weaves educational explanations on skaldic poetry into the narrative.
  • Háttatal: The Enumeration of Metres - Includes three distinct songs that celebrate King Hákon and Skúli Bárdsson, the powerful father-in-law of the king. Snorri added comments and definitions between stanzas to ease the reader's difficulty of interpretation.


The following excerpt from the first book in the Prose Edda, 'Gylfaginning', connects the Poetic and Prose Edda together. In it, Snorri references the 3rd stanza of Völuspá, the most famous poem of the Poetic Edda that details the mythological creation and destruction of the Norse cosmos. This story in the Prose Edda is about King Gylfi of Scandinavia who travels to investigate the wise and cunning leaders of the east. The king pretends to be an old man, Gangleri, who asks many questions of the leaders.
Gangleri said: 'What was the beginning, or how began it, or what was before it?' Hárr answered: 'As is told in Völuspá
Erst was the age › when nothing was:
Nor sand nor sea, › nor chilling stream-waves;
Earth was not found, › nor Ether-Heaven,--
A Yawning Gap, › but grass was none.
(Gylfaginning: Chapter IV)


In 1643 CE, a highly respected Icelandic collector of numerous works on Norse literature, Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson, obtained a copy of an older manuscript. No scholar knows where it came from or if it originally had a name, however, it was evident that the newly discovered compendium and Snorri's Edda had some common origins. Although the bishop attributed this manuscript to the priest and author, Saemundur Sigfússon (1056-1153 CE), and called it Saemundur's Edda, today, scholars agree that this was incorrect. The author/compiler is still unknown. However, Bishop Brynjólfur believed the manuscript to be the Elder Edda. Completely written in verse, the Elder Edda later became known as the Poetic Edda to distinguish it from Snorri's prose counterpart.
In 1662 CE, Bishop Brynjólfur gifted many of his important literary collections to the King of Denmark, Frederick III, to place in the new Royal Library. The Poetic Edda was among those gifts. It became known as the Codex Regius ('King's or Royal Book') and remained safeguarded in Denmark until it was returned to Iceland in 1971 CE.
Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda

Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda

The Codex Regius is a cherished artefact containing ancient myths and stories of heroes that cannot be found elsewhere.Older copies of the Codex Regius and its sources that may have once existed were lost or destroyed. It currently contains 90 pages, but 16 of those went missing sometime after it went to Denmark. The Poetic Edda took a bit of an evolutionary divergence from the Codex Regius as other poems were added to the Poetic Edda over the years. Today, many people refer to the oldest King's Book as the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda to distinguish it from a different volume of Codex Regius, which contains a copy of Snorri's Edda and dates to the first half of the 14th century CE. The contents of any modern Poetic Edda vary and depend on the author.


Mythological Poems :
  • Völuspá - The Seeress's Prophecy
  • Hávamál - Sayings of the High One
  • Vafþrúðnismál - The Ballad of Vafthrúdnir
  • Grímnismál - The Lay of Grímnir
  • Skírnismál - The Lay of Skírnir
  • Hárbarðsljóð - The Lay of Hárbard
  • Hymiskviða - The Lay of Hymir
  • Lokasenna - Loki ’s Wrangling
  • Þrymskviða - The Lay of Thrym
  • Völundarkviða - The Lay of Völund
  • Alvíssmál - The Lay of Alvís
Heroic Poems :
Three lays of Helgi
  • Helgakviða Hundingsbana I or Völsungakviða
  • Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar
  • Helgakviða Hundingsbana II or Völsungakviða in forna
  • Frá dauða Sinfjötla - A short prose text
  • Grípisspá - Grípir's Prophecy, The Prophecy of Grípir
  • Reginsmál - The Lay of Regin
  • Fáfnismál - The Lay of Fáfnir
  • Sigrdrífumál - The Lay of Sigrdrífa
  • Brot af Sigurðarkviðu - Fragment of a Sigurd Lay
  • Guðrúnarkviða I - The First Lay of Gudrún
  • Sigurðarkviða hin skamma - The Short Lay of Sigurd
  • Helreið Brynhildar - Brynhild's Ride to Hel
  • Dráp Niflunga - The Slaying of The Niflungs
  • Guðrúnarkviða II - The Second Lay of Gudrún
  • Guðrúnarkviða III - The Third Lay of Gudrún
  • Oddrúnargrátr - Oddrún's Lament
  • Atlakviða - The Lay of Atli
  • Atlamál hin groenlenzku - The Greenlandic Poem of Atli
  • The Jörmunrekkr Lays
  • Guðrúnarhvöt - Gudrún's Lament
  • Hamðismál - The Lay of Hamdir


  • Baldrs draumar - Baldr's Dreams
  • Gróttasöngr - The Song of Grotti
  • Rígsþula - The Lay of Ríg
  • Hyndluljóð - The Lay of Hyndla
  • Völuspá - Short Prophecy of the Seeress
  • Svipdagsmál - The Lay of Svipdag
  • Grógaldr - Gróa's Spell
  • Fjölsvinnsmál - The Lay of Fjölsvid
  • Hrafnagaldr Óðins - Odins's Raven Song


One of the most important mythological poems is Hávamál, in which Odin explains how he acquired the runes by sacrificing himself to himself on the Yggdrasil tree. As translated by Olive Bray, stanzas 137 and 138 explain:
I trow I hung on that windy Tree
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,
high on that Tree of which none hath heard
from what roots it rises to heaven.
None refreshed me ever with food or drink,
I peered right down in the deep;
crying aloud I lifted the Runes
then back I fell from thence.


It was by good fortune that the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda was preserved. Widespread destruction of pagan manuscripts occurred in the 18th century CE across Europe. Additionally, in 1728 CE the Great Fire in Copenhagen tragically burned at least one-third of the city including over 35,000 volumes of books and a large collection of historical documents at the University of Copenhagen library.
Today, the Eddas are a key to the ancient world of Germanic history. More than just a vast source of mythology, the Eddasreveal the intimate relationships between humans, gods, and nature, and the deep reverence that was built upon these beliefs.This is especially significant in light of a resurgence of Icelandic Pagan religion. Additionally, the extensive usage of the Eddasacross the world as resources for Norse studies testifies to their scholastic relevance. Both the Prose and Elder Eddas are national treasures that have captured history within their poetic pages and are a testament to the tenacity of the Icelanders to remember and preserve their precious heritage.

Barnhouse Settlement › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 25 October 2012
Barnhouse Settlement (Martin McCarthy (Tumulus))

The Barnhouse Settlement is a Neolithic village located in Antaness, Orkney, Scotland, which was inhabited between c.3300 and 2600 BCE. The present designation of `Barnhouse' comes from the name of the farmland on which the village was discovered in 1984 CE by the archaeologist Dr. Colin Richards. Excavation of the site began in 1986 CE, revealing ten stone buildings which conformed in design and construction, though not in style, to the village of Skara Brae (c. 3100 BCE) located 5 miles (8 km) to the north-west. Only the foundations of these buildings remain intact as the village was deliberately destroyed, seemingly by the inhabitants, in 2600 BCE and centuries of agricultural activity on the farm displaced many of the loose stones. Grooved Ware pottery found at the site further links Barnhouse to Skara Brae and also to the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness where similar ceramics were uncovered. To date, fifteen buildings have been excavated and partially reconstructed. Unlike Skara Brae, where the houses were built into the earth and surrounded by midden, the structures which comprise Barnhouse were free standing. Most of these are small buildings which appear to have been homes while two large structures seem to have served other purposes.


The site also comprises the famous monolith known as the Barnhouse Stone which is aligned directly to the passage entrance of Maeshowe, half a mile (800 metres) to the north-east and to the Standing Stones of Stenness, by the same distance, to the north-west, to form a kind of triangle between the three structures. The Barnhouse Stone is thought to have played a significant role in rituals performed at these nearby sites as did the village itself. Proximity to the enormous complex presently being excavated at the Ness of Brodgar, and the alignment of Maeshowe, Barnhouse, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Watchstone, Ness of Brodgar, and Ring of Brodgar, seem to confirm a clear connection between all these sites. Mr. Peter Flett observed, in 1952 CE, that the Barnhouse Stone is aligned with the Watchstone in a direct line to the centre of the Ring of Brodgar and points to the rising sun on 1 May, the traditional date of the pagan Sabbat of Beltane (Orkneyjar.com).


The buildings of the village were constructed along the same lines as those at Skara Brae and many feature the same design of a central, kerbed hearth, stone furniture, recessed stone beds, and `dressers'. The two large buildings designated Structure Two and Structure Eight, however, are noticeably different in style and size and suggest use as ritualistic community centres rather than domiciles. All the houses at Skara Brae are identical in feature and size and this has been interpreted to mean that the community considered everyone in the village as equally important, with no chief or ruling class given any special accommodations. These two larger structures at Barnhouse suggest the theory that this community was centred on someone, or something, they considered of great importance. As the Barnhouse Settlement lies in proximity to so many other sites clearly identified as ceremonial in nature, it has been suggested that the larger structures were the dwellings of a priestly class who officiated at rituals held at Maeshowe, the Standing Stones of Stenness, The Ness of Brodgar, and Ring of Brodgar. It is equally possible, however, that the two structures were themselves ceremonial sites.


Structure Two conforms to the design of a chambered cairn in which rituals were known to take place elsewhere and Structure Eight contains a `dresser', which has been interpreted as a kind of altar, as well as what appears to have been offerings. One such offering, perhaps, is a Grooved Ware ceramic pot, containing fourteen pieces of flint, found near the hearth in Structure Eight. As flint was rare on Orkney, a pot containing fourteen nodules of the stone would have been very valuable and considered an impressive sacrifice. As there is no way to determine what the ceramic pot of stone signified to the ancients, however, it is unknown whether the flint was an offering or simply a valuable which was kept by the hearth.
That Structure Two could have been the home of a person or persons of importance, is possible as the building was in use throughout the life of the village. Certain features, however, such as a stone cist filled with human bones, suggests a ritual use.This cist, covered by a triangle of stone, was positioned so that anyone entering the building would have to walk across it.Further, the chambers of Structure Two do not conform to other sites (such as Skara Brae) where sleeping quarters have been identified. The purpose and use of Structure Eight (located directly across from Structure Two) is equally mysterious.
Structure 8, Barnhouse Settlement

Structure 8, Barnhouse Settlement

Structure Eight is the largest edifice in the village and is built, like Maeshowe, on a platform of clay. The building was originally roofed (as all the structures of the village were) and contained a central hearth and `dresser' flanked by two large stones. The layout of the interior, especially the long passageway between the entrance and the hearth and dresser, suggests a definite ritual use. It has been suggested that this building represents a shift in religious understanding as the paradigm of services changed from outdoor ceremonies, which included the entire community, to cloistered rituals which were only for the initiated.This theory seems to rest partially on dating the Standing Stones of Stenness, where open air rituals were known to have taken place, earlier than the accepted date of 3000 BCE. It has therefore been argued, especially in light of the recent excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, that Structure Eight was another of the ceremonial sites which made up part of what is now seen as a complex stretching from Barnhouse through the sites leading to the Ring of Brodgar and is not evidence of change in religious understanding. The evidence of offerings at the hearth in Structure Eight and the bone-filled cist in Structure Two have been seen to support the theory that these buildings were used to either commune with, remember, or honor the dead and this seems in keeping with finds at the Ness of Brodgar.
House 3, Barnhouse Settlement

House 3, Barnhouse Settlement


It is well substantiated that Barnhouse Settlement (including Structure Two) and the Standing Stones of Stenness were in use at the same time but, it should be noted, Structure Eight was built later than the rest of the village (c. 2600 BCE) and, in fact, after the village had been abandoned and purposefully destroyed. Evidence suggests that all of the buildings were simultaneously demolished sometime around 2600 BCE at the same time Structure Eight was raised and this has further bolstered the theory of a dramatic change in religious understanding and practice dated to this time. The existence of the `blocking stone' in the entrance passage at Maeshowe has been interpreted as evidence that closed rituals may have been performed at that site as well. Since no definite evidence found thus far fully substantiates this theory, however, it must remain conjecture. Skara Brae was once thought to be unique until the discovery of Barnhouse and Structure Eight was the largest roofed Neolithic Age building to be uncovered until the recent discovery of Structure Ten at the Ness of Brodgar. Excavations at that site have already changed the way the other nearby sites are understood and archaeologists are confident that continuing work there will reveal many more important finds which will further clarify what now remains mysterious.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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