By Lisa Olstad

“This is the work of one single author,” insists Mai Berg, as she lays her hand on an edition of the best-known collection of mythical poems from the Old Norse period. “And what we have here is much more than just a transcription of primitive myths, or merely a collection of pieces of practical household advice. We find an author’s reflections on being an artist and a human being during the Christian era. The writing is beautiful and profound, and the reflections are intriguing. The Elder Edda is a brilliant piece of writing, and it is one the treasures of humankind!”

Mai Berg is a literary scholar. Previous research into the Edda texts has primarily been carried out by linguists. Berg has looked at the work as poetry. Her doctorate was completed at the Department of Scandinavian Studies and Comparative Literature at NTNU in November 2001 – and she is convinced that her thesis has annoyed many Old Norse scholars.

Familiar stories

In 1643, when the Icelandic bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson got hold of the tiny leather-bound book, he believed that it had been written by the famous Saemund the Wise. This Saemund lived from 1056 to 1133, and he was the first Icelandic and perhaps even the first Nordic student in Paris. But contemporary scholars reached a different conclusion; they believed that the poems had certainly been collected, edited, and written down by the one and same person, but that the works had been composed by several unknown authors – perhaps even belonging to different centuries.

The scholars all agreed that the poems originated from primitive, pagan myths – myths that had been passed down orally for generations until they were finally written down. They include all the familiar stories about Odin and Thor and Balder and Frey, as well as pagan conceptions of the creation, and who the first human beings on Earth were. We also find rules of good conduct, along with words of practical wisdom. These views have remained relatively unchallenged for more than 300 years. Mai Berg disagrees with most of them.

One man’s voice

“Whoever wrote these poems, I recognize the distinctive voice of a single author from the first line to the last. I can see it not only in the phrasing and the use of symbols, but also in the way the poems are connected throughout the literary work as a whole. It is a cycle in which each individual poem repeats themes from other poems, and approaches them repeatedly from several angles. We find meta-poetic reflections, thoughts about the role of the artist, as well as existential questions, which are all treated throughout the whole cycle – and each poem takes us closer to understanding and enlightenment. The final stanza in ‘Alvissmaal’ repeats the tone and the theme from one of the first stanzas of ‘Voluspaa’,” says Berg.

Approaching the light

When the sun in ‘Voluspaa’ …her right hand cast/over heaven’s rim, and No knowledge she had/where her home should be, this is not first and foremost a pagan rendering of the creation. It is a vision of an ideal place, one where the individual has reached understanding. Berg is convinced that the sun represents the search for light and insight, whereas the halls are a metaphor for a state of existence.

In the last stanza of ‘Alvissmaal’, we can read: Now sun shines here in the hall, which links it directly to ‘Voluspaa’. The dwarf Alviss, pale and with the mark of death on his forehead, rises out of the unremitting darkness from under a stone. He tells the god Thor that he wants to own the snow-white maiden. Thus a promise which was mentioned in the poem ‘Skirnismaal’ is about to be fulfilled. Thor orders Alviss to list what all kinds of things and phenomena are called by human beings, giants, elves, spectres, and wanes. As the dwarf is in the midst of carrying out this order, the sun rises and the path leading back down beneath the stone is blocked forever. Alviss is doomed to a life in the sun.

“Normally, Thor is seen as having tricked Alviss, and accordingly this is seen as a tragic ending. My interpretation is the opposite: Alviss reaches understanding and gains happiness on Earth. He wins the maiden, both physically and spiritually. The poem is a wonderful demonstration of how poetry can depict different phenomena from different angles. We are made to see how complex the human condition is, and to understand that the final goal of any human being is to reach the surface,” asserts the literary scholar.

Fire, water, and wit

The opening lines of ‘Haavamaal’ are: Within the gates / ere a man shall go / full long let him look about him. Further on we can read: Fire he needs / who with frozen knees / has come from the cold without, and Water and towel and welcoming speech / should he find, who comes to the feast. And last but not least: Wits must he have / who wanders wide.

Practical words of wisdom? Certainly. But once again, “another meaning lies buried in this text. The first stanza places us on the threshold of something. You are about to enter the unknown, so beware! In the beginning, the individual is incapable of distinguishing between good and evil. Flames and water are familiar symbols: fire and cleansing. Common sense is necessary when the individual is searching for the right path, but if we are to attain understanding we also need experience. ‘Haavamaal’ grapples with the purely existential matters,” Berg explains.

A scholar and a Christian

The Edda researcher does not want to hazard a guess as to exactly when the Elder Edda was written. But she is confident that it was written within a Christian tradition. The poems are dominated by European intellectual traditions of the early medieval period.
“This cannot be a pagan text. The poetic human philosophy belongs to a Christian era, but it is also an original philosophy. The poems are concerned with the struggle between good and evil, between the physical and the spiritual. The characters are all pagans, but they represent a line of thinking and a human perspective that came with Christianity. Odin is no primitive god of war in this cycle of poems He is an image of the ideal. This is all about an immense yearning for truth and how we cannot reach our goal unless we live through struggle and defeat. The concept of having to undergo cleansing in order to be born again is a Christian one,” says Berg.

She is not in any doubt that the author, in addition to being a profound thinker, also was a scholar: “The images and symbols in these poems remind us of concepts that we recognize from medieval Europe as well as from Greek Antiquity. The author must have been highly familiar with the cultural life of medieval Europe. It is quite conceivable that it was Saemund the Wise who wrote the Elder Edda, sometime during the 12th century,” says Mai Berg.

Translation of Edda excerpts by Henry Adams Bellows [1936]

Contact: Mai Berg,

Facts about the Edda:
* The Elder Edda is a collection of mythological and heroic poems, written in Old Norse. This is the source of most of our familiar stories from pagan mythology.
* The 30 poems are written down on parchment in a leather-bound book which dates from the late 13th century. The text itself could well be much older.
* Bishop Brynjólfur gained possession of the book in 1643. It was later passed on to the King in Copenhagen, where it was named Codex Regius (The King’s Book).
* Today, this book is Iceland’s most highly valued national treasure.
* The book should not to be confused with the Younger Edda, which is the name of Snorre Sturlason’s textbook about skaldic verse.
* There are Edda researchers all over the world.