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Overlooked Literature: Old Norse

Classical Literature

Overlooked Literature: Old Norse

Manuscript of Prose Edda (Iceland, 1765-1766)


By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB


This article is part of a series on literature produced in a variety or archaic and modern languages, including Old English, Old Irish, Chinese, Irish, and Gaelic. In this article I focus on the great literary tradition of the Norse peoples.

What is Old Norse?

Old Norse was a North Germanic language spoken by the inhabitants of Scandinavia from the 9th to the 13th century. Several modern languages are directly descended from Old Norse, including Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Icelandic.

Grammatically speaking, Old Norse is very similar to Latin. It has five inflected cases and three genders. However, Old Norse vocabulary is much closer to that of other Germanic languages like Anglo-Saxon and Old German. Many words used in modern English come directly from Old Norse, such as “flat” (flatr), “happy” (happ), and “ill” (illr).

The Eddas

There are actually two books entitled the Edda: The Elder or Poetic Edda (a collection of Old Norse poems about Norse legends) and the Younger or Prose Edda (a handbook of Icelandic poetry compiled by Snorri Sturluson). The Eddas are the chief source for our knowledge of Scandinavian mythology. Scholars are not sure where the name “Edda” comes from. It might be after a character in the Old Norse poem “Rigsthul”, or from the Old Norse word óthr, which means “poetry”. The book mentions a number of pre-Christian gods, since few Scandinavians had been converted when the book was compiled. Here is a fragment taken from the first chapter, the Voluspo, in which a wise woman tells us about the origin of the world:

Hljóðs bið ek allar
helgar kindir,
meiri ok minni
mögu Heimdallar;
viltu, at ek, Valföðr!
vel framtelja
forn spjöll fíra,
þau er fremst um man

Hearing I ask | from the holy races,
From Heimdall’s sons, | both high and low;
Thou wilt, Valfather, | that well I relate
Old tales I remember | of men long ago.

(Translation by Henry Adams Bellows)

The Sagas

The Norse sagas are divided into several subgenres: sagas of the Icelanders, chivalric sagas, saint sagas, etc. The sagas were essentially narratives recited by bards and later written down by scholars. Some examples of great sagas were the Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson (author of the Prose Edda), which gives a full account of all the kings that ruled Norway until the 13th century, and the heroic Saga of Egils and Saga of Njorl.

Here is a fragment from the Heimskringla:

Á bók þessi lét ek ríta fornar frásagnir um höfðingja, þá er ríki hafa haft á norðrlöndum ok á danska tungu hafa mælt, svá sem ek hefi heyrt fróða menn segja, svá ok nökkurar kynkvíslir þeirra, eptir því sem mér hefir kent verit; sumt þat er finnst í langfeðgatali, því er konungar hafa rakit kyn sitt, eða aðrir stórættaðir menn, en sumt er ritat eptir fornum kvæðum eða söguljóðum, er menn hafa haft til skemtanar sér.

In this book I have had old stories written down, as I have heard them told by intelligent people, concerning chiefs who have held dominion in the northern countries, and who spoke the Danish tongue; and also concerning some of their family branches, according to what has been told me. (Translation by Samuel Laing)


I hope more teachers and students will discover the value and beauty of the Old Norse literary tradition. Old Norse may not be an easy language for non-Scandinavian students, but it’s a very rewarding experience.


André Bastos Gurgel
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.

Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.



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