Saturday, July 18, 2020

Modern Heathens and the Poetic Edda

Forty-nine years ago, one of the most important textual sources of Norse mythology was returned to its original home in Iceland.

The thirteenth-century Icelandic manuscript known as the Codex Regius (“royal manuscript”) contains poems about gods, heroes, dragons, dwarfs, and giants from Iceland’s pagan past.

Illustration of Thor's fishing trip by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939)

Scholars disagree about the composition dates of the various poems, but they generally agree that the written texts preserve elements of oral tradition preexisting Iceland’s public conversion from paganism to Christianity in 1000 CE. After an Icelandic bishop presented the manuscript as a gift to the Danish king in 1662, it became known as the “royal manuscript.”

Iceland’s great collection of mythological poems remained in Denmark for over three hundred years, until the conclusion of process of negotiation that began with the 1961 passing of a Danish law regarding the return of Icelandic manuscripts, continued through legal proceedings, and culminated in the 1971 ratifaction of a bilateral treaty.

Icelanders didn’t trust the safety of air travel for the long-awaited return of the irreplaceable mythological manuscript, so a military escort guarded its journey via ship to Reykjavík, where a large crowd joyfully awaited its arrival on April 21, 1971.

Today, the poems are known and loved around the world as the core of the Poetic Edda, a book that has been repeatedly translated into many languages in various forms since the mid-1600s. The collection tells of the prophecy of Ragnarök, the wise sayings of Odin, the adventures of Thor, the slanderous accusations by Loki, the tragedy of Sigurd the dragon-slayer, and much more.

An insight into a life that was

Pagan poems written down in thirteenth-century Iceland have a vibrant life in today’s Ásatrú, a contemporary iteration of Old Norse religion whose practitioners refer to themselves as Heathens. The name of the new religious movement is a modern Icelandic term that translates as “Æsir Faith,” referring to belief in or loyalty to the main tribe of Norse gods.

In the twenty-first century, the Poetic Edda is treasured by Heathens in Iceland as a vital connection to voices from the pagan past.

“The poems of the Eddas are a source of wisdom of humanity,” says Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, goði (“priest”) of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Ásatrú Fellowship”), the religious organization that began the revival of pre-Christian Heathen religion in Iceland in 1972.

According to Jóhanna, Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), a poem narrated by the Norse god Odin, contains “the best lessons you can learn about getting along with other people in life. The world has changed, but people are still the same.”

Haukur Bragason, another Icelandic Ásatrú goði, sees the poems as sources of both knowledge and entertainment. “They are a treasure, an insight into a life that was,” he says. “They are man-made fantasy explanations to questions that could not be answered. They contain serious philosophical questions and teachings, as well as being the TV series of that time.”

Worldwide Heathens

Although it may be impossible to truly translate poetry, the Poetic Edda is known and loved in many languages.

Since the 1972 founding of Ásatrú in Iceland, modern versions of ancient Norse and Germanic religions have spread widely. The Worldwide Heathen Census 2013 found followers in 98 countries. Iceland has the largest number of Heathens per capita, while the United States has the greatest total number.

The poems resonate with Heathens in many lands, and the myths they contain have an influence that transcends national borders.

“In Germany, we have a long and very rich tradition in translating the Poetic Edda,” says Andreas Zautner of the German Ásatrú organization known as the Eldaring. “There are more than a dozen translations highlighting different aspects. The Poetic Edda is still influencing our daily culture. For example, if you visit Thale in the Harz Mountains, you find wooden statues of Eddic figures all over the town.”

Other Heathens were lured to Iceland by the Poetic Edda.

Statue of Thor and his goats by Haukur Halldórsson in Straumur, Iceland

“I knew the poems before I came to Iceland, because I came mainly to learn more about them,” says Lenka Kovárová, a former member of the Ásatrúarfélagið’s lögretta (board of directors) who came to Reykjavík from the Czech Republic to earn a Master’s degree in Old Norse religion at the University of Iceland. “I see them in wider context as a part of European heritage, as a sort of pattern of wisdom.”

For others, like Eric Scott, an American Heathen who writes for The Wild Hunt and who came to Reykjavík to study Icelandic language, the Poetic Edda is no less important.

“The Edda is like an heirloom – a reminder of where I, as a Heathen, have come from, and an inspiration for the future,” Eric says. “The voice of the poems is a grandfather’s voice, describing a foreign world in a foreign time, but a world less different from my own than it would seem at first. The poetry isn’t a set of fixed laws or inarguable truths, but rather a store of tales and maxims to meditate on.”

Poetry as ritual

Throughout the international Ásatrú community, the Icelandic poems are used in spiritual contexts. “I use the poems to remind me of who I am,” says Jóhanna, “and to teach children who they are and what they can become, if they want to.”

Ryan Denison, member of Atlanta’s Hearthfire Kindred and founder of Polytheist and Pagan Educational Symposium (PAPER), has a complex relationship with the poems. “My group always includes poetry from the Eddas or sagas in our rituals,” he says. “We find it adds beauty and meaning to our rites. Some of the ideas in those works should and need to be left in the past, but there is much wisdom there, as well.”

The poems are spoken or sung in Ásatrú celebrations around the world.

“Ásatrúarfélagið uses the poems in all their rituals and ceremonies,” says Haukur. “You can always find something relevant to the occasion at hand or the milestone in people’s lives. We use verses from Hávamál, Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”), and Sigrdrífumál (“Sayings of the Victory-Driver”), for example, in everything from a name-giving ceremony to a wedding and funeral, and also in common rituals.”

Sigrdrífumál is one of the poems most widely used in modern religious contexts. Two verses used by the Ásatrúarfélagið in ceremonies and celebrations are also used by American groups to begin rituals. In Henry Adams Bellows’ classic translation, they read:
Hail, day! Hail, sons of day!
And night and her daughter now!
Look on us here with loving eyes,
That waiting we victory win.

Hail to the gods! Ye goddesses, hail,
And all the generous earth!
Give to us wisdom and goodly speech,
And healing hands, life-long.
Other poems are often recited or chanted on special occasions. In Germany, a verse spoken or sung by the god Odin is used for funerals and the remembrance of lost loved ones:
Cattle die, and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one’s self;
One thing now that never dies,
The fame of a dead man’s deeds.
The poems are sometimes given dramatic performance as part of religious rituals. Eric has performed Völuspá as part of a midwinter Yule ceremony.

“We walked our group through the mythic history of the poem,” he says, “reenacting its events, especially the tale of Baldr’s death. Stepping into the poem, and embodying it, gave Völuspá even greater depth for me. I had not only read the text, but – in a sense – I had lived it, as well.”

In many ways, in many lands, these ancient Icelandic poems continue to resonate deeply in hearts and minds. Eight centuries after they were first written down, and nearly five decades after the Codex Regius manuscript was returned to Iceland, the poems of the Poetic Edda have a vibrant life as part of the worldwide religious tradition of Ásatrú.

An earlier version of this article was published in The Reykjavík Grapevine.

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