How the Poetic Edda Is Different from the Prose Edda


By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder

A key story from Norse mythology is the tale of how Odin got the mead of poetry from the enemies of the gods. There are two versions of the story, from two different sources, and we get to see a good contrast between the value of the Poetic Edda and Snorri’s Prose Edda as sources. They’re recognizably related, and yet in some ways strikingly different.

Illustration of the goddess, Freyja
The two characters, Freyja and Frigg, in Norse mythology may have been one person. (Image: Ludwig Pietsch/Public domain)

The Constraints of Language

Snorri is not a perfect source, but he is a more effusive source, and because he is not constrained having to write poetry, there is in principle no limit to the details he can provide us in his narrative. 

At the same time, because Snorri is not restricted to retelling the exact wording of poems from centuries before, we cannot always be sure where he might have misunderstood something or embellished something.

Let us contrast the poems of the Poetic Edda. The poem Hávamál was finally written down at about the same time as Snorri was writing the Prose Edda, in the 1200s AD. Both are transmitting stories that ultimately were composed in oral form about two centuries earlier. 

Ancient illustration of the old Norse Edda
The poems in the Poetic Edda use strict, formalized language, likely to reflect the wording of earlier centuries. (Image: Bourbon-88/Shutterstock)

However, a poem like Hávamál uses stricter, more formalized language that is likely to reflect the wording of earlier centuries almost exactly—formal requirements such as alliteration only give so much wiggle room.

Many Plot Holes, but No Answers

Snorri largely retells stories from the poems that he knew, and he does quote many of them. Even when Snorri is not directly quoting poems of the kind we find in the Poetic Edda, he is probably transmitting stories equally as old.

But the medieval sources do not attempt to answer questions that modern readers are often tempted to ask. There is no ‘expanded universe’ to answer such questions, and apparently, the medieval audience did not contemplate the ‘plot holes’ in the way a 21st-century audience might.

For example, it’s not even clear whether the seldom-seen goddess Frigg, Odin’s wife, is a distinct figure from the important goddess Freyja. Frigg’s character is barely developed in our existing sources, where we find not even a family tree for her. She has bit speaking parts here and there, but aside from her attempt to protect her son Balder, she is forever in the background.

Could this be because she and Freyja are imperfectly split portions of what was originally one figure?

This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse Mythology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Are We Talking about the Same Person?

The passages in the Eddas where Frigg and Freyja’s identities seem entangled could simply be places where one name or another is being used for the same figure. A major god like Odin takes on some eighty names across the poems and sagas where he appears. Freyja and Frigg could well be names of the same figure by that standard.

Illustration of Snorri
Snorri largely retells stories from the poems that he knew. (Image: Christian Krogh/Public domain)

We also read that Frigg’s husband is Odin. Meanwhile, Freyja’s husband, says Snorri, is named Od—the same Old Norse root word, just without the ending. And all that is said anywhere about this husband Od is that he goes away on long journeys, and Freyja stays at home crying golden tears for him. The far-off wandering is certainly consonant with Odin, who goes into other realms at will for long periods. And would it be surprising that a god with some eighty names has one more? 

We might also note that Freyja’s name, like her brother Frey’s, is probably not her original name, just on linguistic grounds. While other Norse gods like Odin, Thor, and Tyr have names that we also see in other Germanic languages (for example, Old English Woden, Thunor, Tiw), the names Freyja and Frey are not seen outside of Scandinavia.

But Frey is also known in Old Norse by the name Yngvi, which we do see in other Germanic languages. And the name Frigg is known outside Scandinavia, for example in the name of English Friday. Could Frigg be the original name of Freyja, as Yngvi might well be of her brother Frey? It’s not implausible, especially given that the meaning of Frigg is traceable to an old root for love, a concept certainly associated strongly with Freyja.

Maybe the Sources Got Them Mixed Up, Too

We also see confusion, or overlap, between Frigg and Freyja in certain stories. For example, Loki often borrows a feather-cloak or ‘falcon-skin’ from a goddess to fly in different myths. Sometimes this is said to belong to Frigg, sometimes to Freyja.

But even if all this together does mean that Frigg and Freyja might once have been names of the same goddess, who later got separated, Snorri clearly regards them as separate. The myth of Loki mocking the gods, Lokasenna in the Poetic Edda, also has separate speaking roles for Freyja and Frigg, and the two even talk about each other.

Unfortunately, by the early 21st century, so many writers and enthusiasts have been trying for so long to fill in the gaps in our surviving record of Norse myths that it can be hard for the casual enthusiast to tell what are the genuine bricks of medieval date, and what is the mortar laid down by frustrated or questionably inspired enthusiasts who came later.

Common Questions about How the Poetic Edda Is Different from the Prose Edda

Q: Why did the Poetic Edda have less wiggle room for retelling stories?

The Poetic Edda uses more structured language compared to the Prose Edda. Its formalized language reflects the wording of earlier centuries, so there was little room for retelling stories.

Q: Does Snorri’s retelling of Norse mythology contain poems?

In his retelling of the old stories, Snorri quotes many of the poems which are what the story is based on. But unlike the Poetic Edda, Snorri’s version doesn’t only include poems.

Q: When was the poem Hávamál written down?

The poem Hávamál was written down at about the same time as Snorri was writing the Prose Edda, in the 1200s AD.

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