The major literary sources of Norse myth are of four kinds: eddicpoems, skaldic stanzas, Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, and the sagas.
What unites this body of literature is that it provides us with a picture of the pre-Christian past, either, because the material itself originated in the pre-Christian period and was recorded later, or because its authors were re-creating a pre-Christian past from their own contemporary understanding.
Either way, the surviving representations of Norse myth almost entirely derive from literary texts written down in Iceland by Christians, long after the heathen era had passed. These texts encompass different literary genres and vary widely in how authentically they transmit heathen material or convey reliable information concerning heathen beliefs and practices.
According to John McKinnell, when we look for genuine heathen voices, there are three or perhaps four principal sources:
a) Mythological eddic poems
b) Skaldic verse
c) Viking Age Picture stones
d) Contemporary Christian views of Norse heathenism
Dating the material is problematic. While some of the eddicpoems and skaldic verses may have been composed after the conversion of Iceland, in particular those poems preserved only in late paper manuscripts and skaldic verses incorporated into later sagas, there is little debate that on the whole, the bulk of eddic and skaldic poetry contain authentic heathen material.
If the physical texts of the eddic poems can only be dated to the thirteenth century, that is not to say that the poems themselves did not originate much earlier.Eddic poetry bears all the hallmarks of oral-traditional verse, including alliteration, repetition and formulaic construction, with direct analogs in both Old English and Old High German poetry.
Evidence indicates that the eddic songs are the last vestiges of the ancient oral histories of the Germanic people which Tacitus, writing in the first century AD, says “form the only record of their past,”(Germania 2), and which the Gothic historian Jordanes, writing in the sixth century, confirms, stating that “in the earliest times, they sang of the deeds of their ancestors,” (Getica, ch. 5).
In contrast, Snorri’s Edda, composed pen in hand, is a learned work based on his personal understanding and interpretation of those poetic sources. There is no reason to suspect that Snorri did not give an accurate account of the heathen religion as it was understood in his time. However, that is not to say that he understood the old poetry in the manner his heathen forebears did.
Snorri clearly places the whole of his cultural heritage firmly within the confines of Christian and Classical learning, presenting it as an error from start to finish. Thus, one cannot simply remove the overtly foreign material in his work and assume what’s left is wholly heathen. Since the eddic poems themselves are older than Snorri, and composed by actual heathen skalds, they naturally contain a more accurate reflection of the ancient heathen worldview, being conceptually closest to the source. Thus, when Snorri’s statements conflict with the older poetic sources which are his acknowledged source, the older poems along with historical and archaeological information should be taken as a more reliable record of heathen belief, as I have sought to do here, within this investigation of Mother Earth in Germanic mythology. It is my belief that the preponderance of available evidence, weighted accordingly, clearly demonstrates that during the pagan period the namesFrigg, Jörd and Hlin were regarded as belonging to one goddess representing the Earth, best known as Odin’s wife and the Mother of the Gods, whose existence can be traced from the beginning of Germanic history to the present day. Snorri Sturluson alone suggests otherwise. The reader, of course, must be the judge which view offers a more accurate reflection of ancient heathen belief.
-Excerpt from Odin’s Wife: The Earth Mother in Germanic Mythologyby William P. Reaves (2018)