The Northern Way

The Voluspá, The Sibyl’s Lay in the Edda of Sæmund

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By W. F. Kirby, F.L.S., President.

Among the ancient Teutonic nations, women always occupied a very high and honourable place, and not least as prophetesses and sooth-sayers. This was the case even among the Gods, and we read in the Vegtamskvida that when evil dreams and omens threatened the life of Balder, Odin himself rode down to the eastern gate of Helheim, to the grave of a great Vala, and he compelled her by his spells to rise from the dead and answer his questions. When he left her, she declared that he might boast that no man should ever visit her again until Loki shall break his bonds, and Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Twilight of the Gods, all-destroying, shall come. The Vegtamskvide is better known in England than any other poem in the Edda, for it is the original of Gray’s Descent of Odin.

One of the oldest and most interesting poems of the Elder Edda is the Völuspá, or Vala’s Prophecy, which gives a fairly complete outline of Eddaic Cosmogony and mythology, and the Prose Edda of Snorri largely consists of an amplification and commentary on the Völuspá.

At one time this poem was supposed to be of great antiquity, and it embodies much ancient belief; but in its present form it comes down to us from about the time of the introduction of Christianity into the North. We now know that Irish poetry o9f the same period possesses Oriental and Sibylline characters very similar to those of the oldest Eddaic poems, and the literary connection between Ireland and Iceland was probably much closer than we are able to estimate at present.

Vigfusson and York Powell, in their “Corpus Poeticum Boreale,: have subjected the Völuspá to a kind of “higher criticism,” and see in it the prophecy of three Sibyls, in addition to the so-called “Short Völuspá,” which forms part of another poem, the Hundluliöd. But I prefer to discuss the poem in the form in which it generally stands, and following Thorpe’s translation in the main. I may say that it seems to me that Vigfusson and York Powell have been to ready to read Christian allusions into it. Thus, in one passage they allude to the Ash Yggdrasil as the “rood.” But while it is quite possible that certain ideas connected with the Crucifix may have been mixed up with the idea of the World-Tree, yet the original conception is far older, and thoroughly Oriental in character. Nor is it clear that obscure casual allusions to the Mighty One who shall come to preside over the renovated world, necessarily refer to Christ, as they assume. But we will now see what the Sybil herself teaches.

First of all, she demands silence from all men, great and small, the children of Heimdall, who is said, in the Rigsmal, to have infused life into the ancestors of the human race. She remembers the giants among whom she was reared, and nine worlds. Thorpe adds, “nine trees, the great central tree beneath the earth.”

As they suggest, the Pythonesses may refer to the nine virgin mothers of Heimdall; the “blessed Judge” they suggest is Mimir, but the interpretation “Central tree” seems to me much more reasonable. the “blessed Judge,” and the allusion to Mimir, seem to me to be nonsense. Miss Olive Bray reads “nine in the Tree, the glorious Fate-tree that springs ‘neath the earth.”

Then the Sybil relates how in th time of chaos everything was in confusion, till the Gods created or refashioned the heavens and the earth, and assigned their courses to the Sun, Moon, and Stars. Then the Gods settled on the plain of Ida, and led a joyous and prosperous life, and everything was of gold, till there came three hideous giant-maidens from Jötunheim, when all the prosperity of the Gods vanished. Here follows a long account of the creation of the dwarfs from the blood and bones of the Giant Ymir, which Vigfusson and York Powell reject as spurious. According to the Prose Edda, the Dwarfs were created from the maggots that bred in the carcase of the giant Ymir, who was slain by the Gods, and from whose body they constructed the world.

In the Prose Edda, the creative Gods are called Odin, Vili, and Ve; but in one passage in the Völuspá they are called Odin, Hœnir and Lodur, and the last name does not occur elsewhere. They were wandering on the shore, when they found two logs of wood, Ask and Embla (Ash and Elm?), and they changed them into a man and woman, and gave them life and understanding. In the Rigsmal, the vitalizing of the ancestors of the three castes of mankind — thralls, peasants, and nobles (1) — is ascribed to Heimdall, but this is not mentioned in the Völuspá. The Ash was always a sacred emblem in the North; here we find that the ancestor of all men was originally an ash-stump; the great World-Tree, Yggdrasil, was also an Ash; and the son of Hengist was named Æsc; and the men of Kent were called after him Æscings.

Now we come to the Ash Tree itself.

19. I know as ash standing
        Yggdrasil hight,
        A lofty tree, laved
        With limpid water;
        Thence come the dews,
        Into the dales that fall;
        Ever stands it green
        Over Urd’s fountain.

        Here sit the three Nornir — Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld, Past, Present and Future, by the Fountain of the Past, weaving the fates of men.

The Vala then relates how she sat alone, when Odin came and gaze upon her; and she declared to him that she knew how he had left his eye in pledge at the well of Mimir. The allusions to Mimir, the guardian of the Well of Wisdom, are inconsistent. Here, Mimir is said to drink mead every morning from the eye as from a cup. Elsewhere Odin is said to have given his eye for a draught from Mimir’s well; while other passages seem to imply that Odin cut off the head of Mimir, and used to consult it in time of doubt and difficulty, as if it had been a Teraph.

Then Odin conferred on the Vala the gifts of prophecy and seership, and she beheld in vision the coming of the Valkyriur, and of the Witch of Gold, followed by the outbreak of war in the world, between the Æsir and the Vanir (the Gods and the Wind-Gods?), and the murder, by Thor, of a giant to whom the gods had pledged the hand of Freya, which is related more fully in the Prose Edda.

Then the Vala beheld the Witch of the Iron Wood, and the wolves of the race of Fenrir, especially Managarm, who will devour the moon. There is some confusion about these wolves; and the Prose Edda has mixed up two different legends. According to one, the sun and moon are constantly pursued by two wolves, named Sköll and Hati, who will finally overtake and devour them; but according to the other account, the sun and moon will be devoured by Fenrir and Managarm, the former of whom is fettered up while the world lasts, while Managarm, though here said to be reared up in the Iron Wood, is perhaps the same as Garm, the watch dog of Helheim, who is said in the Prose Edda, as Managarm is said in the Völuspá, to be the most terrible of all the monsters.

Then the Vala beheld three cocks, the red cock Fialar, crowing ove rthe Bird Wood, the gold-combed cock, Gullinkambi, crowing ov er the abode of the Gods, and a cock of sooty red crowing beneath the earth in the halls of Hel.

Then follows an account of the slaying of Balder by Höder with a spear of mistletoe, to the great grief of the Gods, and especially of Balder’s mother Frigga. This event Vigfusson and York Powell regard as transferred, and they connect it with the first war in the world, already alluded to, and refer to the story of Cain and Abel, to which, however, it is not an exact parallel, because Hoder slew Balder by misadventure, through the machinations of Loki, who, as the Vala relates, was afterwards bound to a rock, with the entrails of one of his wolf-sons, with his sad wife, Sigyn, sitting by him with a shell to catch the poison dropping from a serpent hung above him, and to prevent it from falling on his face. In another poem of the Edda, however (Ægisdrekka), Loki is said to have been hunted down and fettered up on account of the abuse and scandal he poured on all the Gods at a drinking-bout given by Ægir, the God of the Sea.

Then the Vala speaks of Slid, one of the rivers of Hell; the drinking hall of the Giant Brimir; and the Hall of the Serpents in Naströnd, where murderers, perjurers, and adulterers wade in sluggish streams of venom, and the serpent Nidhögg sucks corpses, and wolves tear them.

Then the Vala passes on to the greatest Myths of the Northern Mythology; the Twilight of the Gods, and the destruction and renovation of the world.


1. Transcribers note: the three classes are sometimes classified as thralls, karls and jarls or slaves, free men, and kings. Back


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