The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

Culture: Eddic and skaldic poetry

Old Icelandic literature can be divided into two main categories, poetry and prose, and the poetry can be further divided into two distinct traditions, "skaldic" and "Eddic" poetry. "Skaldic" poetry was written by skalds, young Icelandic poets who often travelled abroad, staying at the courts of foreign kings, in whose honour they would compose poetry in return for favours from the king. So great was their wanderlust, and so popular their works, that Iceland's young poets travelled widely, and were found in many European courts, as well as in Russia and Byzantium. Many of them became influential figures in the courts which they attended, and on their return to Iceland became figures of note in their own country, where the news they brought of events in the outside world was eagerly awaited. Such skalds played an important rôle, not just for their contemporaries but also for later historians, in recording accurately the events of which they heard tell on their travels.

The skalds drew their material not from legend or myth but from contemporary events and individuals, commemorating battles, or praising the exploits of an influential king or leader. They took pride in elaborate and artificial poetic styles, with frequent use of obscure metaphors and clever phrasing. They are generally known by name (indeed many of the heroes of the Sagas are skalds), unlike the Eddic poets who are anonymous. Skaldic poets were, therefore, essentially skilled versifiers, masters of style who won great reputations for recording the events of their times. The most famous skald was Egill Skallagrímsson (c.910–90), the first of the Icelandic court poets and the hero of one of the Sagas of Icelanders.

The phrase "Eddic poetry" refers to the poetry contained in the manuscript known as the Poetic Edda, a collection of thirty–five heroic and mythical poems. Relics of an oral poetic tradition which was written down c.1200, these poems represent a much older, pagan world view; as mentioned earlier, they provide practically the only examples of pre–Christian Germanic literature in existence. Some of the poems recount myths of the pagan gods. From these we learn the world-famous stories of Óðin and Thór, of Balder, Freya and Loki. Others tell semi–legendary tales of historical figures from early German history (for example, Attila the Hun features in one of the oldest poems); others still are devoted to legendary heroes such as Sigurd (Siegfried).

The poetry is far more direct, simple and objective than skaldic poetry, with little elaboration or imagery. It makes great use of dialogue, and strong connections with early forms of drama have been postulated by some commentators. There is frequently an elegiac or melancholy cast to the poems, perhaps foreshadowing the coming of the Ragnarök, the great battle in which most of the old gods would perish.

During the fourteenth century, a verse form called the rímur was developed by the Icelanders, a mixture of skaldic poetry and European verse forms that employed strict stanza form coupled with elaborate imagery, rhyming patterns and alliterative effects. Over a thousand rímur cycles from 330 poets have been recorded. For inspiration they draw largely on the Sagas of Ancient Times: inevitably, with considerable repetition.

This secular poetic tradition developed side by side with sacred poetry which started to replace the pagan Eddic following the formal establishment of Christianity in the island in 1000. Most of this poetry had little literary significance, with the notable exception of Lilja (The Lily), written c.1343–44 by Eysteinn Ásgrímsson.

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The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy