Prophecy of the Seeress
Trans. Irmin Vinson
Silence I bid of all the hallowed
Silence I bid: The Seeress' call for silence suggests that she is acting in a priestly capacity. Tacitus reports that public assemblies among the Germans were presided over by priests, who called for silence at the outset: "When the assembled crowd thinks fit, they take their seats fully armed. Silence is then commanded by the priests, who on such occasions have power to enforce obedience" (Germania 11). Silence during the assembly is thus a religious obligation.
Heimdall: watchman of the gods who stands guard at the foot of Bifrost, the flaming rainbow-bridge between Asgard and Midgard, heaven and earth respectively. Himinbjorg, his hall, is beside Bifrost, so that he can guard the bridge against giants. With his horn Gjall, Heimdall will sound the alarm that alerts the gods at the beginning of Ragnarok (str. 46), but in the interim the Gjallarhorn serves as a drinking horn in Mimir's Well (str. 27). Although Heimdall is one of Odin's sons, he is here called the ancestor of humanity ("Heimdall's children"), perhaps ancestor of all the other gods as well. He was mysteriously born of nine sisters at the edge of the world, and he is the "whitest of the gods" and "knows well the future" (Gylf [= Gylfaginning] 27; Hyndluliod 35; Thrymskvida 15). Heimdall was born at the beginning (i ardaga), and in Rigsthula he appears as the literal progenitor of both mankind and the human social order and is identified by the Irish name for king (Rigr). All of this suggests an earlier role as a primordial god. Cf. str. 65 below.
Valfather: Odin as "father
of the slain." Old Norse (ON) valr = "slaughter, corpses, those
slain in battle," cognate with Old English (OE) wæl. "[Odin]
is called 'Valfather' because all who fall in battle are his adopted sons;
he assigns them places in Valhalla ['Hall of the Slain'] ... and they are
then called Einherjar" (Gylf 20). (Elsewhere we learn that Freyja
receives half of the slain [Grimnismal 14], though Egil's Saga
78 implies that she receives women.) Since Völuspa is addressed
to both gods and men, we should perhaps visualize the gods and the Einherjar
assembled together in Odin's hall as they await the Seeress' inspired predictions.
I remember giants from earliest
giants ... reared me long ago: i.e. the Seeress is immensely old, her direct knowledge of the cosmos going back almost to its beginning, far back to the era of the primeval giants who raised her, well before the creation of mankind. She is clearly not a mere "witch" or "wise woman" in the normal sense of the terms.
nine worlds ... nine great abodes: The nine worlds of Norse mythology, although they are never fully listed, are Midgard, Asgard, Vanaheim, Jotunheim, Niflheim, Muspellsheim, Alfheim, Svartalfheim, and Utgard. Hel (str. 38) and Gimli (str. 64) could also be included, though the former is often synonymous with Niflheim ("Mist-World"). But these nine worlds ... nine great abodes ("nine roots" in the inferior Hauksbok recension) are parts of the World-Tree as it reaches beneath the earth, and they existed before the creation of most of the Norse cosmos. They must be nine locations within the underworld -- Niflheim, the land of the dead -- which the Völva has clearly visited and in which, apparently, she now lives (str. 66). Elsewhere the wise giant Vafthrudnir explains that he gained his occult knowledge from visits to the "nine worlds" of Niflheim: "I have traveled through nine worlds down to the Misty Hel [Niflhel]; there men die from Hel" (Vafthrudnismal 43). The topography of the Norse afterlife is vague, but the underworld, which existed long before the creation of the earth (Gylf 4), seems to contain a series of large rooms or worlds, the deepest and darkest being the ninth: "Evil men go to Hel and thence down to the Misty Hel; that is down in the ninth world" (Gylf 3). Passing from Hel to Misty Hel is like a second death, but it appears that the experience also confers special wisdom upon anyone who returns.
World-Tree: Yggdrasil, the
cosmic ash-tree or pillar whose upper branches reach into the sky and whose
roots, nourished by sacred wells, extend deep into the earth. "The Ash
is greatest of all trees and best: its limbs spread out over all the world
and stand above heaven. Three roots of the tree uphold it and stand exceeding
broad: one is among the Aesir; another among the Frost-Giants ... and the
third stands over Niflheim" (Gylf 15; cf. Grimnismal 31).
Odin, a magician king, acquired the runes by a ritual self-sacrifice --
"myself to myself" -- on Yggdrasil (Havamal 138-141). Thus Yggdrasil
= "Odin's horse" because Ygg (= Odin) hung there, as if riding (drasill
= horse) on a gallows-tree. Around 1070 Adam of Bremen, in his account
of the Swedish pagan temple at Uppsala, described a tall evergreen with
a fountain or well at its foot, to which worshippers brought offerings.
This sacred tree clearly served as a ceremonial counterpart to the World-Tree,
the axis mundi of Northern religion. Trees were revered in Germanic
paganism, and sacred groves were regular centers of worship. Christian
missionaries often cut down sacred trees as part of their effort to convert
the heathen (e.g. Donar's Oak in Hessen, felled in 725 by St. Boniface.)
Years ago, when Ymir lived,
Ymir: autochthonous frost-giant, probably hermaphrodite (cf. Vafthrudnismal 33). All giants are descended from Ymir. The name Ymir, which can be etymologized as "Twin," links him with other Indo-European (IE) primal twin figures, notably Germanic Tuisto and Vedic Yama. (The latter was the first man to die and thus became the ruler of the realm of the dead, where he presides over an Indo-Aryan paradise together with his twin sister, Yami. Their brother is Manu ["Man"], first father of humanity; manava or "descended from Manu" = human.)
yawning gap: Ginnungagap,
the gaping abyss that stretched between the land of ice and darkness in
the north (Niflheim) and the land of fire in the south (Muspelsheim). Ymir,
who arose from melted ice in Ginnungagap, was thus formed from a union
of opposites. Hesiod's account of creation also begins with a cosmic void,
Gk. chaos, a vast dark space or chasm between heaven and earth (Theogony
Until Burr's sons raised the lands,
Burr's sons: namely Odin, Vili and Ve. Their mother is Bestla, daughter of the giant Bolthorn. Buri, Burr's father and the progenitor of the gods, was licked out of the primeval frost by the cow Audhumla, who also nurtured Ymir in his infancy (Gylf 6).
raised the lands: Odin and his brothers kill Ymir and drag his body across Ginnungagap, thus "rais[ing] the lands" and shaping the world. Ymir's flesh becomes land, his blood fills the abyss and becomes seas, his bones become mountains, and his skull becomes the sky (Grimnismal 40-41;Vafthrudnismal 21) . The creation of the world through the killing and dismemberment of a primal anthropomorphic figure, with the victim's body furnishing the material for creation, reflects an ancient Aryan creation myth. In Rig Veda 10.90, the famous Parusasukta ("Hymn of Man"), the Vedic gods dismember the giant Parusa (sometimes identified with the creator god Prajapati), his eyes becoming the sun, his head the sky, his breath the wind, and so forth.
Midgard: middle-earth, formed from Ymir's eyelashes. Midgard is the center of the earth where men live, located between Niflheim and Muspellsheim. It is also often simply the world as a whole. Originally Midgard was likely thought of as a wall or fence enclosing mankind's living space from the hostile, non-human world beyond.
Sun shone ... on halls of stone: The sun warms and vivifies the stony earth. In this we can perhaps glimpse a reflection of the oldest Aryan creation myth -- the marriage of Sky and Earth (Dyaus and Prithivi in the Rig Veda).
green herbs: lit. "green
leeks," here a synecdoche for luxuriant verdure, contrasting with the stark
absence of vegetation ("nowhere grass") in the preceding strophe. Leeks
had magical properties in Norse religion. The l-rune can be interpreted
as laukaz, leek.
Sun turned from the south together
her right arm rested over heaven's
rim: so that she could turn the sky, thereby setting time in motion.
The gods will assemble to demarcate the times (Night's children) in the next
The gods Sun (Sol) and Moon (Mani)
are the offspring of the obscure Mundilfari (Vafthrudnismal 23);
his name suggests time (ON mund = "time, moment"). Sol is called
"the bride of the sky" (Grimnismal 39), across which she journeys
daily in a chariot drawn by the horses Arvak and Alsvid, the chariot itself
fashioned by the gods from a spark that flew out of Muspellsheim (Grimnismal
37; Gylf 11). The Bronze Age Trundholm sun-chariot indicates that
the daily journey of Sun's horse-drawn chariot was an important component
in Northern Europe's ancient sun-cult. Julius Caesar, in his simplified
account of Germanic religion, reports that the Germans worshipped fire
(or Vulcan), together with the sun and the moon (De Bello Gallico
6.21), an indication (among many others) that solar religion must have
been more significant in earlier periods. Sol will be swallowed at Ragnarok
by the wolf Skoll/Fenrir (Grimnismal 39; Gylf 12;
46), but her daughter will eventually take her place in the reordered world
(Vafthrudnismal 47). In the language of men the sun is called Sol;
in the language of the gods she is called Sunna (Alvissmal 16),
which is also her name in the Second Merseburg Charm.
Then went all the powers to their
powers: ON regin, an old name for the Norse gods. It occurs most notably in ragnarok, the fateful doom of the gods, the great eschatological battle on the massive field of Vigrid, fought between the divine powers and their enemies. ragna = of the powers, gods; rok = judgment, fate.
fate-chairs: the rokstolar, the thrones on which the Norse gods sit in judgment. They were among the gods' first creations: "It was their first work to make that court in which their twelve seats stand, and another, the high-seat which Allfather [Odin] himself has. That house is the best-made of any on earth, and the greatest; without and within, it is all like one piece of gold; men call it Gladsheim" (Gylf 14).
Night: Like other Teutons,
the Norse counted the passage of time in nights, not days. Night (Nott)
therefore subsumes smaller units like morning, midday, etc., which are
times of night rather than times of day. Accordingly Day's mother is Night
(Gylf 10). "They do not reckon time by days, as we [Romans] do,
but by nights. All their engagements and appointments are made on this
system. Night is regarded as ushering in the day" (Germania 11).
Day was also a child of Night among the Greeks (Theogony 124).
The Aesir met on the shining Ida-plain
Aesir: Most of the major Norse gods belong to the Aesir, the gods of war and power, Odin and Thor being their most prominent members; the Vanir are the gods of wealth and fertility. Their rivalry will be described in subsequent strophes, where the Vanir, despite their normally unwarlike activities as gods, are not notably peaceful. Aesir can also be a generic term for all gods. Singular as = god, and the word itself is cognate with Hittite hassus ("king") and with Vedic asura (asu = "vital breath, creative force").
altar and temple: horg oc hof. A Germanic altar (ON horgr) could be merely a pile of stones (e.g. Hyndluliod 10) located in a sacred grove or some holy place where a god was thought to reside. OE hearg = altar, temple; grove. So Tacitus, Germania 9: "their holy places are woods and groves." But the Aesir's high-timbered temple (hof) suggests a large sacral building, perhaps resembling the Norwegian stave churches of the post-pagan era. There is a detailed description of an Icelandic temple, a hof dedicated to Thor, in Eyrbyggja Saga 4.
in Asgard, apparently in the center of the Aesir's city. After Ragnarok
the surviving gods will assemble there (str. 60).
Joyfully they played at tables
in the meadow;
played at tables: some board game played on golden tables, which will be rediscovered after Ragnarok (str. 61).
three thurs-maidens: the Norns, the Nordic Fates whose names are listed in strophe 20. ON thurs is a pejorative for "giant" (jotun), perhaps used here metaphorically. OE thyrs = giant, monster (e.g. Beowulf 426, referring to Grendel, and Maxims 2.42: "the thyrs must dwell in the fen"). Norns are also linked with giants in Vafthrudnismal 49, as if they were their offspring. But "there are also other norns who visit everyone when they are born to shape their lives," and these lesser norns descend from gods, elves and dwarves (Gylf 15). In Völuspa the arrival of the three principal Norns signals the end of a golden age, perhaps because the gods have now become subject to destiny, incapable of evading certain ominous events. The existence of a threatening, self-determined fate is an important theme in Northern literature. Cf. Beowulf 455: "Wyrd always goes as she must."
Jotunheim: Land of the Giants
east of Midgard, separated from the world of men by several rivers and
the forest Jarnvid (str. 40). Thor regularly journeys east in his expeditions
Then went all the powers to their
make the dwarves' lord: The Aesir decide to create the first dwarf, hence dwarves as a race. As in Tolkien, the creation of dwarves precedes the creation of men.
Brimir's blood and Blain's limbs: i.e. from the remains of Ymir (str. 4), like the rest of the world (Grimnismal 40-41; Vafthrudnismal 21) . Specifically, dwarves were formed from the sea (Ymir's blood) and from stone (Ymir's limbs), the latter accounting for the dwarves' preferred residences today -- inside mountains and behind rocks (e.g. str. 48). According to the interpolated Dvergatal ("Catalogue of Dwarves"), of which this is the introductory strophe, the first two dwarves created others by shaping their bodies from the earth. Snorri's Prose Edda gives a much different account: "The dwarves had first received shape and life in the flesh of Ymir, and were then maggots; but by decree of the Aesir had become conscious with the intelligence of men, and had human shape. And nevertheless they dwell in the earth and in stones. Modsognir was the first, and Durin the second" (Gylf 14).
The remainder of the Dvergatal
(omitted here) follows in strophes 10-16.
Then three gods went out from the
three gods: namely Odin, Hoenir and Lodur. Hoenir will play a prominent role after Ragnarok (str. 63). The obscure Lodur may be Loki, the trickster god, here playing a positive role, as he sometimes does.
Ash and Elm: Ask and Embla are two tree trunks that the gods find washed up on the shore, from which they will form man and woman respectively, as described in the next strophe. The origin of men from ash-trees is an ancient European belief, recorded in Hesiod (Works & Days 145) and alluded to elsewhere, sometimes with the oak as humanity's raw material (e.g. Iliad 22.126; Odyssey 19.162-163; Aeneid 8.315; Juvenal 6.12). The early Saxon kings of Kent (the Aescingas) traced their line back to an Asc ("Ash-Tree"), the son of the legendary twin-figure Hengest (Bede, Hist. Eccles. 2.5), which suggests that versions of the Norse story of Ash and Elm were once widespread in the Germanic world. Lifthrasir and Lif, a man and woman who during Ragnarok find shelter inside the trunk of the World-Tree (Hoddmimir's Holt) and subsist on its dew, will survive the conflagration and eventually repopulate the earth, thus reenacting the original creation of mankind from trees (Gylf 53; Vafthrudnismal 45).
fateless yet: Ash and Elm
are as yet without orlog, fate or destiny, the absence of which
is almost tantamount to nonexistence. To be human is to be the incarnation
of a specific fate.
They had no breath, no reason,
Odin ... beauty: Cf. Gylf 9, where the creator gods are Odin, Vili and Ve: "When the sons of Borr [i.e. Burr] were walking along the sea-strand, they found two trees, and took up the trees and shaped men of them: the first gave them breath and life; the second, understanding and power of movement; the third, form, speech, hearing, and sight. They gave them clothing and names: the male was called Ask, and the female Embla, and of them was mankind begotten."
Odin gave them breath: breath
(ond) as life-giving and life-sustaining, thus roughly "soul."
An Ash I know called Yggdrasil,
dews that fall: i.e. the World-Tree provides precious moisture -- perhaps a mead -- that nourishes the earth. "The dew which falls from it to the earth is called honey-dew by men, and the bees feed on it" (Gylf 16).
Urd's Well: a sacred fountain
of wisdom, beside which the gods assemble daily for their court of law.
ON urdr = fate, cognate with OE wyrd and Old Saxon wurd.
The Well of Fate (Urdarbrunn) is located in Asgard beneath a root of the
World-Tree, and nearby the Norns have their hall. "The Norns who dwell
by Urd's Well take water from the Well every day, and with it that clay
which lies about the Well, and they sprinkle it over the Ash, to the end
that its limbs shall not wither nor rot; for that water is so holy that
all things which come there into the Well become as white as the film which
lies within the egg-shell" (Gylf 16). But the next strophe indicates
that the Norns live in the Well, from which they emerge to perform
their daily libations to Yggdrasil.
Thence come three wise maidens
Urd, Verdandi, & Skuld:
Past (or Fate), Present and Future. Collectively the Norns determine human
destiny. Hence the aptness of the story of Ash and Elm, formed from trees.
As runes are carved on wood, so the Norns inscribe orlog on men.
It is possible that Verdandi and Skuld are poetic elaborations of an earlier
Norse conception in which Urd as Fate alone resided in (or near) Urd's
Well. Skuld appears as the name of a valkyrie in strophe 30.
I remember the first war in the
I remember: lit. "she remembers," as elsewhere below. The Seeress often describes her vision in the third person.
first war in the world: the war between Aesir and Vanir. The most prominent Vanir gods are the sea-god Njord and his son Frey and daughter Freyja. The Vanir represent the Norse version of the third function of Indo-European mythology. They are the patrons of wealth and fecundity, as well as beauty and sensuality. The Aesir represent the first two functions: (1) magical and juridical sovereignty (Odin and Tyr); (2) physical force (Thor). In IE myth the first two functions often stand in opposition to the third, as in strophes 21-24. In Indo-Aryan social terms, brahmins (priests) and kshatriyas (warriors) come into conflict with vaisyas (herders, cultivators). The need for the harmonious coexistence of all three complementary functions is the central lesson of IE mythology. The Swedish pagan temple at Uppsala, as described around 1070 by Adam of Bremen, was reportedly adorned with gold and housed cult statues of Wodan (Odin), Thor, and Fricco (Frey), gods representing the three IE functions, namely sovereignty, force and fecundity. The corresponding functional triad in early Rome, before Etruscan intrusion, was Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus. In Vedic India it was Mitra-Varuna, Indra and the Nasatya twins, the Asvins.
Gullveig: Vanir seeress
or witch, practitioner of seid, perhaps an aspect of Freyja. According
to Snorri Sturluson, the Vanir goddess Freyja first brought magic and sorcery
(seid) to the Aesir: "It was she who first taught the Aesir magic
such as was practiced among the Vanir" (Ynglinga Saga 4). Seid
is, nevertheless, a low magic, often feared and reviled, in contrast to
the noble magic of Odin (but see Lokasenna 24). Gullveig is probably
not the Seeress who speaks Völuspa, though some scholars (Grimm
among them) have argued that the two are the same. Gullveig = "gold (gull)
drunkenness," hence "power of gold (to intoxicate the mind)," and she was
apparently sent by the Vanir, dispensers of riches, to corrupt the Aesir,
who unmask her. The Aesir's unsuccessful attempts to destroy Gullveig prompt
the war between the two rival families of gods, which will eventually conclude
with their union in a single pantheon. There is a much different version
of this story in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum (1.7.1), where
Gullveig appears as a golden statue which corrupts Odin's wife.
Heid she was named when houses
Heid: Gullveig's new name after her successive rebirths, which may have increased her magical powers. ON heidr = "bright (one)" but can also serve as an epithet for a witch. Thus "Heid she was named" could simply mean "she was (now) called Witch."
houses she visited: Cf. Flateyjarbok, 1. 346: "At that time wise women used to go about the land. They were called 'spae-wives' [i.e. seeresses] and they foretold people's futures. For this reason folk used to invite them to their houses and give them hospitality, and bestow gifts on them at parting." In Germanic paganism women were believed to have a special affinity for magic and divination, and prophecy was largely female terrain. Tacitus reports: "They believe that there resides in women an element of holiness and a gift of prophecy; and so they do not scorn to ask their advice, or lightly disregard their replies" (Germania 8). The famous first-century seeress Veleda "dwelt in a lofty tower, and one of her relatives, chosen for the purpose, conveyed, like the messenger of a divinity, the questions and answers" (Tacitus, Historiae 4.65). There is a detailed account of the practices of a Scandinavian seeress in Eirik's Saga 4.
wicked women: This must
be read in social terms. The cult of the Vanir, with Heid as its indestructible
priestess, finds many female adherents, thus dangerously dividing human
society. The "wickedness" of the Vanir's followers reflects, of course,
the perspective of the Aesir.
Then went all the powers to their
should all the gods receive
worship?: i.e. "should the Vanir acquire equal divine rank with their
rivals?," which they have apparently demanded as reparation for the Aesir's
crimes against Gullveig. The Aesir initially choose war, as the next strophe
Odin hurled his spear among the
Odin hurled his spear: dedicating the fallen to himself, an act of sovereign magic. Casting a spear over the enemy was a common Norse practice, here performed for the first time (the Seeress tells us) by Odin himself. But clearly Odin's magic does not produce the expected result, as the next lines indicate.
battle-magic: From the example of Gullveig we can plausibly infer that the Vanir, gods of magic and sorcery, have made themselves impervious to injury.
victorious Vanir trod the field:
thus enabling divine reconciliation. "Odin went out with a great army against
the Vanaland people [i.e. the Vanir]; but they were well prepared, and
defended their land; so that victory was changeable, and they ravaged the
lands of each other, and did great damage. They tired of this at last,
and on both sides appointed a meeting for establishing peace, made a truce,
and exchanged hostages" (Ynglinga Saga 4). Among the Vanir's hostages
are Njord, Frey and (apparently) Freyja, though she is not specifically
listed. In the next strophe we find her living among the Aesir, an indication
of the union of the two divine families. As Georges Dumézil has
copiously documented, the fusion and symbiosis of two contrasted sets of
gods, following a series of conflicts, is a common Indo-European theme,
dating back to earlier traditions of Aryan antiquity and appearing in homologous
forms in different Indo-European cultures. The eventual union of all the
gods demonstrates that the initial opposition that divided them was also
an essential complementarity. The combined pantheon represents a necessary
completion of the divine world, rectifying a deficiency. See esp. Dumézil,
"The Gods: Aesir and Vanir," in Gods of the Ancient Northmen, ed.
Einar Haugen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 3-25.
Then went all the powers to their
tainted the air with treachery: as though treachery had permeated and corrupted the atmosphere.
Od's wife: namely Freyja,
who weeps golden tears over her husband Od's mysterious disappearance (Gylf
35). The gods, at Loki's suggestion, offered Freyja (together with the
sun and the moon) to a giant "master-builder" in exchange for constructing
a stone fortification in Asgard, evidently to replace the walls damaged
by the Vanir in strophe 24, and by a stratagem they reneged on their agreement.
Thor then killed the giant (Gylf 42) -- the fateful violation of
a solemn compact, as the next strophe suggests.
Thor alone fought there, filled
with swelling anger --
oaths ... broken: by violating
their agreement, the gods incur the hatred of the giants, who will be among
their many enemies at Ragnarok. In the poet's vision the folkloric story
of the master-builder becomes the gods' original sin, a moral failure lying
behind subsequent events.
I know where Heimdall's horn is
where Heimdall's horn is hidden: namely in Mimir's Well, a fountain located in the realm of the frost-giants beneath a root of the World-Tree. The Aesir god Mimir, already noted for his wisdom, was decapitated by the Vanir, but Odin preserved his head "and spoke charms over it, giving it magic power so that it would answer him and tell him many hidden things" (Ynglinga Saga 4). Now ensconced in the Well, Mimir's head "drinks from the fountain out of [Heimdall's] horn Gjall" and is therefore "full of ancient lore" (Gylf 15). An alternative interpretation would have Heimdall placing one of his ears, instead of the Gjallarhorn, in Mimir's Well in order to acquire his excellent hearing: He can hear wool growing on a sheep. The ON word here translated as horn (hljod) can also mean "hearing," hence (perhaps) "ear."
Valfather's pledge: Odin
(as recounted in the next strophe) placed one of his eyes in Mimir's Well
in exchange for a drink from its magical waters. "The loss of a bodily
eye was the means by which the magician-god acquired in exchange a spirit
eye, the power of second sight, and all the supernatural powers that its
possession brings" (Dumézil, Mitra-Varuna, trans. Derek Coltman
[New York: Zone Books, 1988], 140.) In strophe 46 Odin will confer with
Alone I sat outside when the Old
Alone I sat outside: With
strophe 28 we arrive at the dramatic context for the Seeress' prophecy.
There is no evidence in the poem that Odin has magically raised the Seeress
from the dead, as in Balder's Dreams, where a reluctant seeress
tells Odin of Balder's impending death. He has, rather, sought her
out for her knowledge of Ragnarok, and he has discovered her "sitting out,"
as though she were awaiting his arrival. Norse seeresses often sat in open-air
seance (utiseta) to commune with the spirit world and acquire their
supernatural visions. We should perhaps imagine the Seeress clad in a dark-blue
cloak and seated in some secluded location, like a crossroads or a graveyard.
She is then brought before the gods and men assembled in Odin's hall, as
strophe 1 implies.
War-Father Odin gave me rings and
see ... over all the
worlds: The Seeress is here audaciously claiming an all-seeing power
exercised by Odin himself, who from his towering throne Hlidskjalf can
survey all the worlds (Gylf 17) and whose ravens Hugin (Thought)
and Munin (Memory) whisper "into his ear all the tidings which they see
or hear" (Gylf 38).
I saw valkyries coming from afar,
valkyries: Odin's maidens, who summon men killed in battle to Valhalla, the hall for slain heroes, where they serve the warriors beer and mead. Grimnismal 36 gives an alternate list of their names. Here they are riding toward the home of the gods for Balder's funeral feast. Balder's death will be described in the next strophes, but in the Seeress' supernatural vision the aftermath of the event precedes its occurrence. Valkyrjur = "those who choose the slain." They were originally corpse goddesses, to whom the dead belonged in the same sense (as Tolkien pointed out) that the human carrion on the battlefield is the property of the ravens, Odin's birds. In the remarkable Darradarljod ("Dorrud's Lay," extant only in Njal's Saga 157) the valkyries' prerogative of choosing the slain includes the power to "weave the web of battle," thereby determining the outcome.
Herjan: "leader of the host,"
Odin as lord or commander of the Einherjar.
I saw Balder, the blood-stained
Balder: son of Odin and Frigg. "He is best and all praise him; he is so fair of feature and so bright that light shines from him. A certain plant [the ox-eye daisy] is so white that it is called after Balder's eyelash. It is the whitest of all plants, and from this you can tell his beauty both of hair and body. He is the wisest of the Aesir, and the fairest-spoken and most merciful; but that quality attends him, that none of his decisions can be fulfilled. He dwells in the place called Breidablik ["Broad-Gleaming"], which is in heaven; in that place may nothing unclean be" (Gylf 22). Dumézil interprets Balder as the Norse counterpart of the Vedic sovereign gods Aryaman and Bhaga, both listed among the adityas; the former is the deified personification of the Arya, the Indo-Aryan people.
blood-stained god ... hidden fate: The Seeress sees Balder as predestined to die. Balder's fate was to become "the blood-stained god." This fate (orlog) was hidden and unpredictable, though it was visible to the Seeress. "Blood-stained god" (blodgum tivur) may suggest a necessary divine death; OE tifer = sacrifice.
mistletoe: difficult to
classify, therefore dangerous. Frigg extracted oaths from all things not
to harm Balder, but neglected to ask the mistletoe, thinking it too insignificant.
Loki, discovering her omission, maliciously directed the blind god Hod
to hurl a spear cut from a mistletoe-sprout at Balder, killing him. "That
was the greatest mischance that has ever befallen among gods and men....
Odin bore that misfortune by so much the worst, as he had most perception
of how great harm and loss for the Aesir were in the death of Balder" (Gylf
49). Since mistletoe is neither coniferous nor deciduous, it escapes normal
systems of classification, much as dawn and dusk are neither day nor night.
It grows on deciduous trees and looks like an evergreen, but it is neither.
Mistletoe challenges boundaries and categories. Hence its liberating role
in Christmas traditions, and here its fatal role as Balder's bane. But
like the mistletoe, which survives death in winter, Balder will return
to a reborn earth (str. 62).
From that slender sprig which seemed
Balder's brother: namely
Vali, son of Odin and the giantess Rind, born to take vengeance on Hod
(Balder's Dreams 11; Gesta Danorum 3.4.1; Hyndluliod
29). Since Hod was the handbani ("killer by hand," i.e. the actual
killer) of Balder, he was technically guilty of the crime. Vali will survive
He neither washed his hands nor
combed his hair
neither washed ... nor combed: i.e. Vali does not enter into the world of the gods and its normal social practices until he has accomplished his mission, killing Hod, the purpose for which he was born. Cf. Germania 31: "There is one custom -- sometimes practiced by other German tribes, though rarely, and only as an exhibition of individual daring -- that has become a general rule among the Chatti. As soon as they reach manhood they let their hair and beard grow as they will. This fashion of covering the face is assumed in accordance with a vow pledging them to the service of Valor; and only when they have slain an enemy do they lay it aside. Standing over the bloody corpse they have despoiled, they reveal their faces to the world once more, and proclaim that they have at last repaid the debt they owe for being brought into the world and have proved themselves worthy of their native land and parents. The coward who will not fight must stay unshorn."
Fen-Halls: Fensalir. Why Frigg would choose a marsh for her hall is unclear.
Valhalla's woe: Balder's
death, by bringing mortality into the world of the gods, begins the process
that will end in the destruction of the present order.
Then did Vali twist mighty bonds,
Then ... guts: a short account
of Vali's binding of Loki. Strophe 34 is probably an interpolation, and
it requires an emendation to make Vali the subject of the sentence. The
binding of Loki is described much differently, and at greater length, in
I saw bound in a grove under boiling
unhappy Sigyn: Loki's wife.
In punishment Loki is bound, with the intestines of his son Narfi, and
a poisonous snake is fastened over him. Sigyn catches in a bowl the poison
that drips down on her husband. "When the basin becomes full she goes away
to empty it, but in the meantime the venom drips on to his face and then
he shudders so violently that the whole earth shakes -- you call that an
earthquake. There he will lie in bonds until Ragnarok" (Gylf 50).
In the prose epilogue to Lokasenna, as well as Gylf 50, it
is Skadi, Njord's wife, who fastens the snake over Loki. There is a different
account of Loki's imprisonment in Saxo Grammaticus'
From the east there flows,
Slid: a river in the underworld.
It originates from Hvergelmir, the ancient well beneath Yggdrasil in Niflheim.
"It was many ages before the earth was shaped that Niflheim was made; and
midmost within it lies the well that is called Hvergelmir, from which spring
the rivers called Svol, Gunnthra, Fjorm, Fimbulthul, Slid and Hrid, Sylg
and Ylg, Vid, Leiptr; Gjoll is hard by Hel-gates" (Gylf 4).
North in the dark fields of Nidavellir
Sindri's kin: i.e. dwarves. Sindri (ON sindr = sinders) and his brother Brokk are the dwarvish blacksmiths who forged, among other treasures, Odin's golden arm-ring (Draupnir) and Thor's hammer (Mjollnir).
uncold Okolnir: Although both halls in Strophe 37 are located in the cold north, thus close to Hel, they are places of light and warmth, suggesting their future roles in the reborn earth (Gylf 52).
Brimir's beer-hall: not
the Brimir of strophe 9.
Another hall I saw standing on
the Shore of Death
Shore of Death: sunless Nastrond, the site of Hel's hall. Hel is both a location, the realm of the dead in Niflheim, and the goddess, Loki's daughter, who presides over it. "Hel he [i.e. Odin] cast into Niflheim, and gave to her power over nine worlds, to apportion all abodes among those that were sent to her: that is, men dead of sickness or of old age. She has great possessions there; her walls are exceeding high and her gates great. Her hall is called Sleet-Cold; her dish, Hunger; Famine is her knife; Idler, her thrall; Sloven, her maidservant; Pit of Stumbling, her threshold, by which one enters; Disease, her bed; Gleaming Bale, her bed-hangings. She is half blue-black and half flesh-color (by which she is easily recognized), and very lowering and fierce" (Gylf 34). Hel the goddess may, however, be a late personification of Hel the place, which is at once an "otherworld" far away in the north and an "underworld" deep below the earth.
from its roof: i.e. through
the building's smoke-hole.
I saw there, wading in heavy streams,
I saw there: i.e. in the weapon-bearing river described in strophe 36. Slid is clearly a place of punishment, to which the worst classes of criminals are consigned after death.
Nidhogg: a corpse-tearing dragon or serpent who lives in Hvergelmir and rips at Yggdrasil's roots, causing the World Tree "more anguish than men perceive" (Grimnismal 35; Gylf 15-16). Nidhogg will survive Ragnarok (str. 66).
the wolf: namely Fenrir
(= ? "fen-dweller").
Eastward in Ironwood an old crone
Ironwood: Jarnvid. "To the east of Midgard in a forest called Ironwood lives a giantess. The troll women known as Jarnvidjur live in that forest. The aged giantess gave birth to many giant sons, all of them in the shape of wolves" (Gylf 12). This old crone is the giantess Angrboda, mother of the wolf Fenrir. Loki is the father. Loki and Angrboda ("Boder of Grief") are also the parents of Hel and the Midgard Serpent.
in troll's skin: describing the monstrous shape of a wolf whose mother is a giant and whose father is a god.
swallow the sun: ON tungl
= (some) heavenly body, often the moon, but here it must mean "sun."
He feeds on the flesh of doomed
all weathers bad: the beginning
of Fimbulvetr, the Great Winter when the sun becomes black, which presages
Ragnarok. "There shall come that winter which is called Fimbulvetr: in
that time snow shall drive from all quarters; frosts shall be great then,
and winds sharp; there shall be no virtue in the sun. Those winters shall
proceed three in succession, and no summer between; but first shall come
three other winters, such that over all the world there shall be mighty
battles. In that time brothers shall slay each other for greed's sake,
and none shall spare father or son in manslaughter and in incest.... Then
shall happen what seems great tidings: the Wolf shall swallow the sun;
and this shall seem to men a great harm" (Gylf 51).
There on a mound, striking his
Glad Eggther: a harp-playing giant who guards the troll women of Ironwood, here called glad because he is certain of his side's imminent victory. He is presumably seated on a burial-mound.
birdwood: perhaps the haunt of ravens, traditional harbingers of slaughter. The Hauksbok manuscript has "gallows wood," which is more attractive poetically.
crowed ... Fjalar: apparently
to awaken the giants. Since Fjalar is elsewhere used as a name for various
giants, his allegiance is clear.
To the gods crowed golden-combed
Wakens Odin's warriors:
the Seeress' vision is now clearly shifting from mythological geography
to Nordic eschatology, for the crowing of the cock Gullinkambi signals
the imminent arrival of Ragnarok. Hence Odin's army, the Einherjar in the
Hall of the Slain, must prepare to fight the giants and the chaotic forces
of the underworld, the purpose for which Odin selected them, though he
knew that his defeat was inevitable. This resistance in the face of certain
defeat is an example of what Tolkien called the Northern theory of courage.
Cf. W.P. Ker, The Dark Ages (1904; New York: Mentor, 1958), 44 :
"What is distinctly Northern in the myth of the Twilight of the Gods is
the strength of its theory of life. It is this intensity of courage that
distinguishes the Northern mythology (and Icelandic literature generally)
from all others. The last word of the Northmen before their entry into
the larger world of Southern culture, their last independent guess at the
secret of the Universe, is given in the Twilight of the Gods. As far as
it goes, it is absolutely impregnable. It is the assertion of the individual
freedom against all the terrors and temptations of the world. It is absolute
resistance, perfect because without hope. The Northern gods have an exultant
extravagance in their warfare which makes them more like Titans than Olympians;
only they are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins. The
winning side is Chaos and Unreason; but the gods, who are defeated, think
that defeat is not a refutation. The latest mythology of the North is an
allegory of the Teutonic self-will, carried to its noblest terms."
Garm howls loudly before Gnipahellir,
Garm: Hel's hound, who will kill (and in turn be killed by) Tyr at Ragnarok (Gylf 51). He is probably the same dog that Odin encountered at the outset of his journey into the underworld (Balder's Dreams 2-3).
Gnipahellir: likely a cave
at the entrance to Hel, though its exact location is not specified.
Brothers will fight and slay each
Sisters' sons: Throughout
the Germanic world there was a strong relationship between an uncle and
his sister's son, first noted by Tacitus: "The sons of sisters are as highly
honored by their uncles as by their own fathers. Some tribes even consider
the former tie the closer and more sacred of the two, and in demanding
hostages prefer nephews to sons, thinking that this gives them a firmer
grip on men's hearts and a wider hold on the family" (Germania 20).
The violation of bonds of kinship by sisters' sons is therefore
an especially disturbing example of the social anarchy (a criminal wolf-age)
that the Seeress predicts.
Mimir's sons dance and destiny
Mimir's sons: The names of these sons of Mimir are unknown. They evidently look forward to the coming conflagration. They may be giants, reflecting an alternate account of Mimir's ancestry. Mimir, though counted among the Aesir, may be the giantess Bestla's brother, from whom Odin (his sister's son) acquired magical lore (Havamal 140). Mimir's sons would then be giants, enemies of the gods.
Loud blows Heimdall: to
summon the gods to council (Gylf 51), an immediate result of "destiny's
Towering Yggdrasil trembles,
the giant breaks loose: perhaps Loki, but more likely the wolf Fenrir, hitherto bound by a magical fetter manufactured by the dwarves. Fenrir will swallow Odin (Vafthrudnismal 53).
Surt's flames: lit. "Surt's
Surt is a fire-giant from the south. He will kill Frey and his fire will
burn heaven and earth. "The first world to exist ... was Muspell in the
southern hemisphere; it is light and hot and that region flames and burns
so that those who do not belong to it and whose native land it is not,
cannot endure it. The one who sits there at land's end to guard it is called
Surt; he has a flaming sword, and at the end of the world he will come
and harry and will vanquish all the gods and burn the whole world with
fire" (Gylf 4). It is not clear what
Surt's flames are here
consuming. Hel's Road or Hel itself seem most likely, but Yggdrasil is
How fare the Aesir? How fare the
elves: here good creatures associated with the gods, as they often are. In the Prose Edda the home of the Light-Elves is in the heavens in Alfheim (Elf-Home), where Balder's hall is located (Gylf 17). Elves are noted for their beauty. Icelanders spoke of an attractive woman as Frid sem alkona, "as fair as an elf," and in Old English the adjective aelfscyne = elf-beautiful. But elves can be hostile as well: Among the malign descendants of Cain in Beowulf are eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, "ogres and elves and orcs" (Beowulf 112), and the heathen Anglo-Saxons believed in "elf-shots," invisible darts shot by elves that caused various ailments. Snorri, however, distinguishes light-elves from dark elves: "[in] Alfheim ... dwell the folk called Light-Elves; but the Dark-Elves [perhaps dwarves] dwell down in the earth, and they are unlike them in appearance, but by far more unlike them in nature. The Light-Elves are fairer to look upon than the sun, but the Dark-Elves are blacker than pitch" (Gylf 17).
dwarves groan: as subterranean
creatures, the dwarves can sense reverberations on the ground above.
From the east comes Hrym
Jormungand: the Midgard serpent that inhabits the ocean surrounding the earth, which it envelops with its coils. "[Odin] cast the Serpent into the deep sea, where he lies about all the land; and this Serpent grew so greatly that he lies in the midst of the ocean encompassing all the land, and bites upon his own tail" (Gylf 34). Thor will, at the cost of his own life, vanquish Jormungand at the end of this world; near its beginning his Indo-Aryan counterpart Indra, also a thunder god, killed the drought serpent Vritra. There can be no doubt that these are both reflexes of a common Aryan proto-myth.
Naglfar: the largest of
all ships (Gylf 43), here helmed by Loki (str. 51), in the
Edda by the giant Hrym. "It is made of dead men's nails; wherefore
a warning is desirable, that if a man die with unshorn nails, that man
adds much material to the ship Naglfar, which gods and men were fain to
have finished late" (Gylf 51). The corpse-ship Naglfar will be released
by Jormungand's churning of the waves, which will flood the earth.
The ship sails from the east;
Muspell's people: Muspell is a Germanic term for the conflagration that will destroy the earth. Old High German muspilli = doomsday. Here it must be understood as the name of a fire-giant from Muspellsheim.
Byleist's brother: namely
Black Surt fares from the south,
destroyer of branches: kenning for fire.
heaven is cloven: "In this
din shall the heaven be cloven, and the Sons of Muspell ride thence: Surt
shall ride first, and both before him and after him burning fire; his sword
is exceeding good: from it radiance shines brighter than from the sun;
when they ride over Bifrost, then the bridge shall break.... The Sons of
Muspell shall go forth to that field which is called Vigrid, thither shall
come Fenris-Wolf also and the Midgard Serpent; then Loki and Hrym shall
come there also, and with him all the Frost-Giants. All the champions of
Hel follow Loki; and the Sons of Muspell shall have a company by themselves,
and it shall be very bright. The field Vigrid is a hundred leagues wide
each way" (Gylf 51).
Then comes Hlin's second sorrow
Hlin: Frigg as protectress. Hlin mistakenly appears in the Prose Edda as a separate goddess under Frigg's control: "She is established as keeper over those men whom Frigg desires to preserve from any danger" (Gylf 35).
second sorrow: Odin's death while fighting Fenrir, Frigg's first sorrow being the death of Balder.
Beli's bane: namely Frey. Beli was a giant, perhaps Gerd's brother (cf. Skirnismal 16), killed by Frey with a stag's antler (Gylf 37). At Ragnarok Frey is without his sword, which he lent to his servant Skirnir for his wooing-by-proxy of Gerd, so he must fight Surt without a weapon (Lokasenna 42; Skirnismal 8-9).
Frigg's delight: namely
Then comes tall Vidar, the Victory-Father's
Vidar: the silent god, perhaps Odin's successor, having avenged his death. He will survive Ragnarok and live in "the temples of the gods" of the new world (Vafthrudnismal 51). In Vafthrudnismal 53 and Gylf 51 Vidar tears the Wolf's jaws apart, which must reflect an earlier version of his feat. Cf. Jaan Puhvel, Comparative Mythology (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1987), 56, 204-205: "In the Rig-Veda [the Indic kshatriya god] Vishnu is repeatedly praised as the 'three-stepper,' or 'wide-strider,' for taking his crucial primordial three strides that somehow measured out and affirmed the habitable universe for gods and men alike.... There is a remarkable onomastic parallel to Vishnu in the Norse god Vidar, whose very name contains the exhortation 'wider!', even as Vishnu is plausibly analyzable simply as 'Wide'..."; "Vishnu's specific Norse comparand is the 'silent god' Vidar, who according to Snorri's Gylfaginning 'has a stout shoe and is almost as strong as Thor. The gods rely on him in all difficult situations.' Of the latter kind is Ragnarok itself: when Fenrir has swallowed and killed Odin, Vidar will stride forth, plant his well-shod foot on the wolf's lower jaw, and with his hand force the upper jaw open until the beast's throat is torn asunder. This is the ultimate mythological exhortation "Wider!" which inheres in Vidar's name as well as Vishnu's, only here it is carried out eschatologically and in retribution rather than primordially in mapping out the universe. Typically much of Norse myth gravitates away from creation and toward Ragnarok: Thor's showdown with the serpent, Vidar's exploit of the wide step."
Victory-Father: one of Odin's
many names. Sigfodr specifies his role in apportioning victory;
it is presumably used in this context with some irony.
Then comes Thor, Earth's renowned
Earth's renowned offspring: Thor's parents are Odin and Jorth (= Earth), identified here by her alternate name Fjorgyn.
Back nine footsteps: i.e. into the nine abodes of the underworld.
Dying: from the Dragon's
breath, which is poisonous, a traditional element in dragon lore. "Thor
shall put to death the Midgard Serpent, and shall stride away nine paces
from that spot; then shall he fall dead to the earth, because of the venom
which the Snake has blown at him" (Gylf 51).
Sun blackens, earth sinks into
Life's Sustainer: Yggdrasil.
It is not clear whether the World-Tree survives Ragnarok, though the story
of Lifthrasir and Lif suggests that it does.
Yet I see emerging from the ocean
hunts for fish: i.e. returns
to its normal peacetime pursuits, no longer searching for battle carrion,
as in strophe 50. The eagle, the raven and the wolf are the traditional
"beasts of battle" of Northern literature.
On shining Ida-plain the Aesir
the Aesir meet: "Vídar and Vali shall be living, inasmuch as neither sea nor the fire of Surt shall have harmed them; and they shall dwell at Ida-plain, where Asgard was before. And then the sons of Thor, Modi and Magni, shall come there, and they shall have Mjollnir there. After that Balder shall come thither, and Hod, from Hel; then all shall sit down together and hold speech with one another, and call to mind their secret wisdom, and speak of those happenings which have been before: of the Midgard Serpent and of Fenris Wolf. Then they shall find in the grass those golden playing pieces that had belonged to the Aesir" (Gylf 53).
Fimbultyr's old runes: i.e.
the secret wisdom of Odin, acquired in the preceding age. Fimbultyr = "the
mighty god," an epithet for Odin.
There on the grass they will find
tables of gold: The significance
of these tables is unclear, but their reappearance recalls the idyllic
early days of the elder world and suggests a cyclical progression of time
back to an earlier stage, beginning a regenerated version of the old golden
age. Throughout the concluding strophes of Völuspa there is
a strong sense not only of change but also of continuity between the old
world and the new.
Harvests will grow on unsown acres;
unsown acres: "In that time the earth shall emerge out of the sea, and shall then be green and fair; then shall the fruits of it be brought forth unsown" (Gylf 53).
Hropt's Victory-Hall: Valhalla.
Hropt = Odin. We should recall a curious detail in the Prose Edda's
description of Balder: "that quality attends him, that none of his decisions
can be fulfilled" (Gylf 22). This odd trait evidently anticipates
a future time, with Balder reborn and living in Valhalla, when his decisions
will finally be fulfilled.
Then can Hoenir choose blood-wood,
choose blood-wood: cast rune lots for prophecy; runes used in divination were often hallowed by sacrificial blood. Hoenir is a god of careful deliberation and therefore prudently consults the oracles. Casting lots was an ancient Germanic practice: "For omens and the casting of lots they have the highest regard. Their procedure in casting lots is always the same. They cut off a branch of a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips; these they mark with different signs [i.e. divinatory symbols, runes] and throw them completely at random onto a white cloth. Then the priest of the state, if the consultation is a public one, or the father of the family if it is private, offers a prayer to the gods, and looking up at the sky picks up three strips, one at a time [i.e. three different runes from among those spread on the white cloth], and reads their meaning from the signs previously scored on them [i.e. combines the three into a single meaning]. If the lots forbid an enterprise, there is no deliberation that day on the matter in question; if they allow it, confirmation by the taking of auspices is required" (Germania 10).
the sons of two brothers: the sons of Balder and Hod. Significantly, Forseti, son of Balder and his wife Nanna, is a god of law and justice.
Vindheim: Wind Home, i.e.
I see a hall more fair than the
Gimli: currently occupied
by the Light-Elves. "At the southern end of heaven is that hall which is
fairest of all, and brighter than the sun; it is called Gimli. It shall
stand when both heaven and earth have departed; and good and righteous
people shall dwell therein" (Gylf 17). The name Gimli may mean "fire
shelter," which could indicate that the new order after Ragnarok will be
immune from the chaotic forces that destroyed the old.
Then comes the Powerful One:
the Powerful One: perhaps
Heimdall, though this strophe, which does not appear in the Codex Regius,
is generally regarded as a Christian interpolation, and Snorri has Heimdall
and Loki killing each other at Ragnarok (Gylf 51). On the other
hand, since Heimdall has nine mothers, he may also, as Turville-Petre suggests,
have nine lives.
There comes the dark dragon:
Dark Mountains: Nidafjoll, probably not the Nidavellir of strophe 37, though in the Prose Edda they are treated as the same location.
Nidhogg bears corpses: i.e. carries the corpses back to the underworld, where he will consume them. The poem thus ends on a note of balanced optimism: The world has been reborn and regenerated, but the dragon Nidhogg survives, though living in Nidafjoll, his proper place.
I must descend: back into the underworld.