|Alföður orkar,||Allfather is able,|
|álfar skilja,||Elves analyze,|
|vanir vitu,||Vanir know,|
|vísa nornir,||Norns show,|
|elur íviðja,||Iviðja begets,|
|aldir bera,||humans carry,|
|þreyja þursar,||Thurses crave,|
|þrá valkyrjur.||Valkyries long.|
This first verse is overflowing with allusions which would have been immediately understandable to the reader of the time. I will try to explain those I am able to. To be brief, I have rather abusively simplified the myths.
Óðinn is considered as the father of all the gods, called the Aesir, therefore he is the ‘all father’. The poem Võluspa (this name is the one of the seeress (võlva) who speaks throughout the poem), verse 17, says that the first couple of humans, Asc and Embla, were lítt megandi and ørlõglausa before the Gods had given them real life. These two features must be very important in the Nordic culture since they are part of what makes a real human. Ørlõglausa means ‘destiny-less’, we will come back to this concept below. Lítt megandi means ‘of little ability’ and Óðinn being the epitome of the Nordic man, he has to be able (to act). The verb orka means to work, to be able.
The Elves are divinities that are not very well known (as opposed to popular belief), and not so different from the ‘dwarves’ who are definitively not short malformed beings. Elves are often seen as servants to the Aesir. The verb skilja means to divide, to split (even to divorce), to discern, to understand. This ability is known in our language as the one of analysis (as opposed to the synthesis). This is why that the poem says that they ‘analyze’.
The Vanir are the Gods of one generation before the Aesir, who were at first fighting the Aesir before they made their peace with them. They are actually quite knowledgeable, and they also know about the art of seið or seiðr, a shamanic method of their own that lets them know. The verb vita means to know, to receive knowledge.
Note that the war between the Vanir and the Aesir is called, in Võluspa s. 21, a fólcvíg, i.e., a folk-war, and not any ordinary war.
The Norns are three giantesses mastering the destiny of humans and Gods. They are respected by the Gods. They know the past and they are supposed to forge the future, they show what will be.
Iviðja means ‘she-dweller of the wood.’ She is certainly the mother of the wolf Fenrir and she begot a large amount of other monsters.
Humans carry their destiny, this is an essential feature of humanity in the Nordic myths. As we pointed out just above, Asc and Embla were without destiny before they receive their humanity. In fact, the concept of ørlõg has in common with the Greek myths that nobody can avoid his or her destiny. In the Nordic context, however, ‘bearing’ is to be taken more like ‘to bear with pride or even haughtiness’ rather than ‘to bear with relinquishment’ this is why the poem says they ‘carry’ their destiny more than they bear it. Not only you carry your destiny, but also you accept it (instead of fighting it uselessly as in the Greek myths), and you bear it with pride.
The verb bera means to bear, to bring, to carry, to drive, to discover.
The word ørlõg is the plural of ørlag = ør-lag. ør is a prefix meaning ‘out’ (German : aus) and lag means ‘something laying down’ that evolved into legen in German and ‘lay’ in English. What happened to ørlag in these two Germanic tongues? In German, the verb auslegen means to lay out (paint) and edit (a book). In English, it is funny to see that ‘outlay’ went far from this meaning, while ‘layout’ : and ‘to lay out’ are obvious parents of German ‘auslegen’.
Paint, walls, book exist at first and they are laid out or edited afterwards.
This meaning implies that the Norns lay out our fate from existing stuff, they edit the book of our lives, but they do not write it. They show, as this poem says, they do not create.
The Thurs are the ice giants. This name is used to refer to their strength, resistance and meanness. They painfully long for the time when Heimdal will blow his horn (that will happen at the end of the poem) in order to announce the ‘beginning of the end,’ the Ragnarõk when they will fight the Gods for the last time. Meanwhile they are put in check by Thor (Þórr) and his dreadful hammer, this explains why they wait painfully.
The verb Þreyja means to long for painfully (meaning given by Kuhn) , to long for, to yearn for, to spend time.
The Valkyries are Óðinn’s servants because he is the God of Battles and the Valkyries choose who will die in battle. They long for the battle where they will show their power.
Þrá can mean to long for, but it also means ambiguously languor, fervor, complaint.
|Ætlun æsir||The Aesir guessed that|
|illa gátu,||something ill was being planned,|
|veður villtu||wind was bewildered|
|vættar rúnum;||by the wights with runes;|
|Óðhræris skyldi||Óðhrærir in duty|
|Urður geyma,||was Urðr to watch,|
|máttk at verja||she has power to protect it|
|mestum þorra.||from the worse of the winters.|
The Aesir are the main Nordic Gods and they feel the situation is serious (the ‘worse of the winters’ is coming). The rest of the poem will show how they react.
The sentence “Óðhrærir in duty was Urðr to watch …” follows the Old Norse word ordering but means : “Urðr was put in duty to watch Óðhrærir”.
Óðhrærir is the mead of poetry. Drinking of it gives knowledge, it is also named Ódrœrir. Urd (Urðr) is one of the three Norns. The poem states that she is set to watch the source of knowledge.
Meanwhile, some beings (the ‘wights’) start to “bewilder the wind,” a process that will unleash uncontrollable forces. Several beings, giants, elves, dwarves, norns, and humans know the power of the runic script. Any of them can be accused of joining the bad wights who bewilder the wind. Óðinn also knows the runes to the perfection, but his role is clearly here one of balance keeper, he cannot be charged with this action.
|Hverfur því Hugur,||Hugr disappears,|
|himna leitar,||looking for heaven,|
|grunar guma||suspect humans|
|grand ef dvelur;||destruction, if it tarries;|
|þótti er Þráins||Þráinn’s thought|
|þunga draumur,||is a thick dream,|
|Dáins dulu||Dáinn’s dream|
|draumur þótti.||seems mysterious.|
Hugr is certainly Hugin, ‘thought’, one of Óðinn’s raven.
The sentence “They suspect the humans destruction, if it tarries;” means, I guess, “The humans suspect destruction if it (Hugr) tarries.”
Now, it is high time for Óðinn to send, to gather news, one of the two ravens he uses for his shamanic travels.
The dwarves (who are a kind of Gods – not ill formed subterranean smiths! Remember the poem Võluspa says explicitly they made the human shapes out of which we originate) start loosing their powers; their minds begin to stiffen. We find here an allusion or at least a pun with Hugin’s disappearance: the thought of the dwarves seems to disappear as well.
Þráinn is a dwarf and the Hávamál, s. 143, states that Dáinn carved the runes for the elves, he is usually seen as a dwarf but he might be an elf as well.
|Dugir með dvergum||The powers of the dwarves|
|dvína, heimar||dwindle, the worlds|
|niður að Ginnungs||down into Ginnung|
|niði sökkva;||sink chasm;|
|oft Alsviður||often Alsviðr|
|ofan fellir,||from up there falls,|
|oft of föllnum||often, the very fallen|
|aftur safnar.||after gathers.|
The pseudo-sentence “the worlds down into Ginnung sink chasm” means: “the worlds sink into the chasm Ginnung.”
Alsviðr is one of the horses pulling the sun , he falls but gathers also the other fallen ones. Often, he gathers the very fallen after (him), (he fell himself at first).
In this stanza, the dwarves are clearly described as godlike creatures using their strength to keep the world together. They prevent chaos, they keep order in our universe, they are on the side of the Aesir. We understand now why the stanza before insists on their dwindling power.
Võluspa calls ginnunga the primary abyss from where the Universe sprouts off during its creation. This stanza hints at a reverse step, coming back to the original abyss called here Ginnung.
|Stendur æva||Stand never|
|strind né röðull,||land nor radiance,|
|lofti með lævi||air with fraud|
|linnir ei straumi;||stop not streams;|
|mærum dylst||famous is hidden|
|í Mímis brunni||in Mímir’s well|
|vissa vera;||knowledge dwells;|
|vitið enn, eða hvað?||don’t you ever know, or what?|
The noun lopt or loft means loft, balcony, atmosphere, sky.
“Air with fraud stop not streams” means that “the streams of tricky atmosphere (wind) do not stop.”
“Famous is hidden in Mímir’s well knowledge is hidden” means “Knowledge is hidden in famous Mímir’s well.”
Mímir’s well is a well open between the roots of the tree of the world. From this well flows all kind of wisdom.
Stanza 1 will speak again of ‘the wind of the giantess’: this idea seems very important in this poem.
The Võluspa asks also several times: “vitoð ér enn, eða hvat?” (do you wish to know more, or what?). It seems the poet wanted to copy or mock this way of speaking. The Middle Ages reader certainly knew quite well all these myths. The least one can say is that the poem is winking at its reader at this point: “Remember Võluspa, folks?” This shows that the poet had a sense of humour not so unusual in skaldic poetry, as some scholars want us to believe. I’d even say that the reverse is true. Skaldic language is so often ambiguous that it is necessary to refrain seeing too many puns in it: multiple meanings are more the rule than the exception. K. I. Gade, a scholar who dared to write a paper on “Penile puns … in Skaldic poetry,” aptly concludes that “there is clearly more to be read in and between skaldic lines than can be gleaned from the standard editions and translations.”
|Dvelur í dölum||Stays in the dales|
|dís forvitin,||the inquiring Dis,|
|Yggdrasils frá||Yggdrasil from|
|aski hnigin;||the ash-tree fell down;|
|álfa ættar||elfish of race|
|Íðunni hétu,||Íðunn she was named,|
|Ívalds eldri||of Ívald the youngest|
|yngsta barna.||of the ancient litter.|
The sentence “Yggdrasil from the ash-tree fell down” means “(she) fell down from Yggdrasil, the ash-tree.”
Ívald is an ancient Elf. The Elves are often called the sons of Ívald.
My opinion is that the whole poem hinges around this stanza.
Dis can be translated by ‘woman’ and forvitin by ‘curious’ if you want to see her as a frivolous person, or as I did if you want to insist on her deep motivation: choose the poem’s spirit that suits you the best. A Dis is Goddess looked upon as very similar to the Norns, and she is seeking knowledge. Old High German kept a trace of the divine nature of the Dis, as witnessed by the Merseburg charm, beginning with : “Eiris sazun idisi, sazun hera duoder” (Once the Idisi [Disir] sat, sat here and there).
She was living ‘up there’ in Yggdrasil and she fell down to stay in the valley. It is thus reasonable to suppose that she was living in Ásgarðr with the Aesir. She is from the Elf race, and the youngest of her generation, which is nevertheless ancient. We can also guess that she fell down because of her inquiring mind, but nothing more is said later on this topic.
All this prevents us from hypothesizing that she is one of the three Norns: they are of the Giant race, not the Elf’s, and they do not live in Ásgarðr. Her name was Íðunn, at least as long as she was living with the Gods. Íðunn is Bragi’s wife, the poet God, and she is in charge of keeping the apples that prevent the Gods from aging. Some commentators confuse this with the famous myth where Íðunn is abducted by a Giant and her apples stolen. The following will clearly show that this myth is not the same as the myth in this poem. It is quite possible, however, that it is another version of Íðunn’s departure. Instead of being a naïve girl who lets herself be carried away by sweet words before being abducted, we see here a woman carried away by her will to increase her knowledge. She takes no magical apples with her, only her need to reach enlightment, another kind of power. Her withdrawal also forbears the disappearance of the Gods, not in the comical way found in the classical version of Íðunn’s myth, where the Gods are ridiculed and Íðunn is a silly girl, in this case it is a tragic withdrawal.
Íðunn’s name is quite significant here, since it will vary along the poem, depending of her role. Classically, it is understood as Íð-unn : for-ever-young. Íð means work, activity, achievement. Moreover, translating unn by ‘young’ amounts to understand it as being ungr = young, while we have two straightforward Old Norse candidates, namely unna meaning ‘to love, to like’, and unnr meaning ‘sword’, or one of Óðinn’s names (he is then called ‘the beloved one’). Finally, unnr or uðr mean ‘wave’ – the only meaning given by Kock and Meissner. We have another hint on how to understand unn since a poet, Þjóðólfr ór Hvini, cut it in two in his pieces Haustlõng :
þá vas Ið með jõtnum / unnr [or, depending on the poem editors: uðr] nýkomin sunnan; (then Ið-unnr coming from the South arrived at giants’ place).
Thus, Íðunn can mean the achievement of the wave. Without a clear genitive we cannot be sure, but its meaning could rather be the wave of the achievement, an excellent name for the woman whose destiny (as this poem claims) is to participate in the final fall of the Aesir. At any rate, would it mean the achievement or the work of the sword, of the wave, or of love, or, inversely, the sword, the wave, or the love of achievement or of the work, all are sensical, but none evoke youth control, obviously pushed forward to fit in the youth apples myth.
|Eirði illa||Hardly could she stand it|
|ofankomu,||the one coming from above,|
|hárbaðms undir||of the high tree|
|haldin meiði;||held under the tree;|
|kunni síst||Did not enjoy at all|
|að kundar Nörva,||At Nõrvi’s daughters|
|vön að værri||missing a better|
|vistum heima.||lodging at home.|
The high tree is the world’s tree. Mimir’s well flows at its base. Íðunn is ‘held under the tree of the high tree’ since both baðmr and meiðr mean ‘tree’. The proper meaning of verb halda is ‘to hold in the hand’.
Nõrvi is Night’s father.
This stanza seems to be unimportant. In fact, it shows Íðunn, at first, longs her former world and regrets to have fallen into a world of eternal night. This implies however that her future involvement in this world is worth much discomfort.
|Sjá sigtívar||The victorious Gods saw|
|syrgja Naumu||The grief of Nauma|
|viggjar að véum;||In the holy places of the horse;|
|vargsbelg seldu,||A wolf’s fur to her given,|
|Lét í færast,||She wrapped her up in it,|
|lyndi breytti,||Changed her mood,|
|Lék að lævísi,||Took pleasure in the disaster,|
|litum skipti.||Changed her shape.|
This poem shows that the Gods will be defeated, ‘victorious’ might be then ironical or a complete stereotype that lost its meaning (of which I doubt!). Íðunn’s name changes after her fall, and she becomes Nauma. Her name changes, and her personality as well. The ‘holy places of the horse’ are the temple of the horse, of the wild animal, as wild is a real horse, not the tamed beauty we did of this animal.
The word varg means ‘wolf, ill-doer, banished person’. As Íðunn is banished from the Gods’ dwelling, she becomes an ill-doing witch. One word is enough to tell us this story.
Nauma is possibly a giantess’ name, or the one of a river or of an island, meaning thin, skinny. This noun is also etymologically linked to the one of the rune Nauð, need. Could it be that the poem says also that the beautiful chubby Goddess became a skinny image of necessity?
She practices the art of shape-changing, seemingly forbidden in Ásgarðr. She actually becomes a new being by this ‘disastrous’ practice, she becomes a witch, a võlva as were called these women who were able to perform the best shamanic achievements. Since shamanism is systematically mocked or insulted in the sagas and the runic inscriptions, we understand why it is called disastrous here. The Võluspa is a võlva, called by Óðinn as an adviser, here the võlva is a former female elf, becoming a new võlva. The Võluspa accepted – though unwillingly – to answer Óðinn’s questions, but Nauma is free and the Aesir will not be able to force her to answering their questions.
Not only does she leave beautiful Ásgarðr and finds herself well of it, but she flatly refuses to answer Allfather’s questions! That is an obvious scandal, at least within the normal framework of skaldic poetry. If it is agreed upon the scandal, then the poem becomes very obscure. On the contrary, if you accept Íðunn-Nauma attitude as normal, the rest of the poem will become quite clear. This is why I dare hypothesizing that this poem was written by a female scholar, out of exasperation for the underlying acceptance in skaldic texts of superior ‘male’ values such as physical strength, heat in combat, spreading gold, etc. The sagas give us examples of such learned women, of course called witches, who might have been quite able to write such a poem, and there even exist a few acknowledged skaldic female poets.
What makes the poem ‘not understandable’, in my opinion, is simply that the poet fakes following the normal skaldic values, but she scorns and mocks them by undercurrent.
|Valdi Viðrir||Viðrir chose|
|vörð Bifrastar||Bifrõst’s ward|
|Gjallar sunnu||to ask the door-opening|
|gátt að frétta,||of the sound-giving sun,|
|heims hvívetna||of the world everything|
|hvert er vissi;||who her knew;|
|Bragi og Loftur||Bragi and Loftr|
|báru kviðu.||bore sentence.|
Viðrir is one of many Óðinn’s names, meaning ‘the one who dominates the weather’.
Bifrõst is the bridge linking Ásgarðr and other worlds, his ward is Heimdal who is thus chosen by Óðinn to go down and ask questions to this new võlva. Note that the noun võrð actually means ‘the woman’ and it is understood here as being võrðr, meaning ‘the gardian’. This semblance of a misspelling might be a copy mistake or a joke of the poet who calls Heimdal a woman as if by mistake.
‘The door-opening’ is a classical way to speak of a woman.
Bragi is the God of poetry and Íðunn’s husband, he might have better chances to obtain an answer from Íðunn-Nauma. Loftr (= the one who leaves in a loft, the airy one) is a classical way to name Loki. Loki is a kind of constant character when a God or Gods undergo a dangerous travel, he is almost expected here. That Bragi and Loki ‘bear sentence’ to Heimdal’s mission means that they will stand witness for this mission.
Gjõll can be three things : the name of an underground river, the name of the stone upon which Loki will be bound, and a simple word meaning ‘noise’ (which s the only meaning given by Kock & Meissner in their dictionary of the skaldic meanings). Since Heimdall will sound the beginning of Ragnarõk with a horn named Gjallarhorn, the form of gjõll here evokes an obvious pun between gjallarhorni (= of the gjallarhorn) and gjallarsunnu (= of the gjallarsun). My understanding here is that the woman, Nauma, is a part of the preparation to the Ragnarõk, she is a ‘door-opening’ to the sun that will raise by the noise made by the Gjallarhorn. Obviously, this interpretation gives an unusual importance to Íðunn-Nauma in the process of the Ragnarõk. That Gjõll might be an underground, dark river does not contradict this interpretation since the Võluspa says that svort verða sólscin of sumor eptir “of dark color happen the sunshine of the summers after,” thus the Gjallarsunna can very well be dark.
Anyhow, the reader must understand that this stanza is particularly full of double meanings, and try to imagine them all together in order to get the feeling the poet wanted to convey.
|Galdur gólu,||The galdr they screamed,|
|göndum riðu,||Rode magical staffs ,|
|Rögnir og Reginn||Rõgnir and Reginn|
|að ranni heimis;||Towards the earth’ large house;|
|hlustar Óðinn||Óðinn listens|
|Hliðskjálfu í;||in Hliðskjálf;|
|leit braut vera||The search-party away happen|
|langa vegu.||The long roads.|
The galdr is a magical song-scream based on the runes. To ride a magical staff is equivalent to take a witch-ride. It seems that the magical wand of late became a broomstick in our modern imagination.
gola is a feminine name meaning ‘wind, large intestine’, and can also be a verb meaning ‘to scream’.
Gandr (dative plural form : gõndum) means a magical staff, magic, or a wolf. It is used to designate two monsters: Jõrmungandr, ‘the huge magical wand’ (the exact meaning of this word is discussed below at stanza 25) who circles the world of the humans, and Vánargandr, a name for the wolf Fenrir. Besides, to ride wolves is an ‘ordinary behavior’ of the troll-women, great magic practitioners.
Hliðskjálf is a tower inside Ásgarðr.
rõgnir can be one of Óðinn’s names but essentially means ‘the prince, the master. regin means ‘the giver of advice’, leading to the meaning ‘the Gods’.
ranni heimis can be translated as ‘the large house of the earth’ or as ‘Heimir’s large house’, where Heimir is the name of a giant. Both allude to a lower world as the one where Nauma is now living.
Titchenell and Thorpe translate in such a way that tells us that Heimdall, Bragi and Loki practiced magic during their travel, while Björnsson and Reaves oppose this interpretation arguing that practicing magic in Ásgarðr is strictly forbidden. We must also think of the famous eddic poem, Lokasenna (‘Loki’s teasing’) draws a kind of equivalence between Loki who begot a colt while under the form of a mare, and Óðinn who “sounded the drum like a sorcerer”. To accuse a man of practicing sorcery is a classical insult, including sometimes hints at the pleasure received by the man undergoing sodomy. Since the text is so ambiguous, it is quite possible to understand equally that Heimdall, Bragi and Loki practiced magic, or that some giants came to fetch them, and the giants did it magically. This last interpretation is further confirmed by the fact that stanza 17 is somewhat confusing the carrying giants and the carried Gods.
I feel is totally impossible that the poet might have been unconscious of this ambiguity, thus she meant to insult the Gods, and mainly Heimdal, already called võrð Bifrastar, ‘the woman of Bifrõst’, in stanza 9, who does not behave like a proud warrior, as we shall see in the following.
|Frá enn vitri||Of the wise woman, again, [Alternately: Asked the wise man (Heimdall)]|
|veiga selju||power she-giver [Alternately: to the strong drink she-giver],|
|banda burður||the offspring of the Gods,|
|og brauta sinnar;||and of the harsh ways down companions (asked),|
|hlýrnis, heljar,||of the patterns of Heaven, of Hel-dwellers,|
|heims ef vissi||of the earth if (she) knew|
|ártíð, æfi,||of the origin of time, of eternity,|
|aldurtila.||of until the time (death).|
This stanza is totally ambiguous. Either a wise man (Heimdal) asks a servant about the structure of our universe (the classical interpretation), or a wise woman (Íðunn-Nauma) is asked about the structure of our universe, as I translated it.
My understanding comes from a choice in the translation as follows: frá = of, from; enn = again; vitri = dat. of adjective vitr = wise. Besides, I choose the meaning of ‘power’ out of the several meanings of veiga = f. gen. plur. of veig: ‘power, strong drink, woman, gold’. The noun selja means ‘willow’, a classical way to speak of a woman, and the verb selja means ‘to provide ownership’. These meanings fit quite well with a “power she-giver,” an awarding strong woman.
The alternate interpretation, the more classical one, follows from seeing frá as the preterit of fregna, ‘asking, receiving information’. Once this choice is done, enn becomes an archaic form of inn, ‘the’, et vitri a nominalization to a masc. weak nom. of vitr, ‘wise’, giving thus ‘the he-wise’ who is asking a question. This wise man is then obviously Heimdal who is in charge of asking a question. Hence the classical translation: “The wise man (Heimdal) asked the mead giver …”
In passing, notice that band means also a ‘the act of binding’; burðr means also ‘something carried’ so that banda burður, ‘offspring of the Gods’, is loaded with double meanings such as calling Nauma ‘a binding of the Gods’, or the ‘offspring of the burden’.
The noun brauta is the genitive plural of braut, a path down a cliff, hence ‘a harsh way down’. Bragi and Loki are companions to Heimdall to this harsh way down.
My feeling is that, concerning the Old Norse language strictly speaking, the classical interpretation is better than mine, but you must confess that it makes no sense to ask a set of such difficult questions to a serving maid, except to make fun of her. For me, it is clear that the poetess is winking at the readers who find no scandal in Íðunn’s withdrawal.
|Né mun mælti,||Nor will speak|
|né mál knátti||Nor speech could|
|Gefjun greiða,||Gefjun perform,|
|né glaum hjaldi;||nor noisy joyous noises;|
|tár af tíndust||Tears off appeared,|
|törgum hjarnar,||from the round shields of the frozen brain,|
|eljunfaldin||the (she-)powerful was|
|endurrjóða.||deprived of redness.|
The “round shields of the brain” is a classical kenning for the orbits.
In this stanza, Íðunn-Nauma becomes Íðunn-Nauma-Gefjun. Gefjun may mean ‘the charitable one’ since it probably comes from a Germanic root meaning ‘charity’, and for a plant ‘to thrive’.
This stanza will be better understood by referring to the Võluspa. It says that three Gods bestowed humanity on Asc and Embla:
|õnd gaf Óðinn,óð gaf Hœnir,
lá gaf Lóðurr
oc lito góða.
|breath gave Óðinn,passion gave Hœnir,
life-redness gave Lóðurr
and good color.
|óð means ‘passion’ that can be understood as ‘lust for life’ or even ‘poetical passion’.lá is usually translated as ‘blood’ but Kuhn explicitly gives Lebensröte, life-redness.|
This stanza thus tells us that Íðunn-Nauma, while becoming Gefjun, became also charitable and powerful but she lost much of her humanity: she has no more breath since she cannot speak, she lost her lust for life since she is only able to cry, and she even lost her lá, her red color. None of the existing translations acknowledge the obvious meaning of rjóða (to redden, to cover with blood), this is why I had to call upon the Võluspa to justify my translation.
Gefjun incarnates an Íðunn who became a võlva, a seeress. What she sees is so horrible that that she is unable to express it. The poem clearly states that she does feel something, but she is now overwhelmed by her shamanic powers, and no longer fully human.
Another discussion is relative to the word hjarnar. It can come from two different words. Hjarni is the ‘brain’ and hjarn is ‘hard frozen snow’. For both, the genitive plural should be hjarna, thus the form hjarnar remains puzzling, as noticed by Björnsson and Reaves. The ‘round shields of the brain’ is a classical kenning for the orbits, it is thus normal to understand hjarnar as the genitive plural of hjarni. However, hjarn is perhaps also possible, at least as an allusion. It is clear that the two words sound very much the same and can be used and reused in puns of the kind ‘your brain is nothing but frozen snow,’ or the like. In this case, I suggest that the poem suggests that Íðunn-Nauma-Gefjun’s brain is not functioning properly. She seems to be made dull by the enormity of her knowledge.
As a side remark, I’d like to recall that the 2nd stanza of the Norwegian runic poem states:
er af illu jarne;
opt loypr ræinn á hjarne. (Often walks-glides (its legs sinking in the snow) the elk on frozen snow.)
Here also there are some problems with the cases since the dative of hjarn is hjarni. At any rate, hjarn and hjarni are obviously similar. This verse is looked upon as surprising because it describes a simple fact of life. An extension of the above arguments leads to an other understanding of the verse. It has another hidden meaning I suggest : Often walks-glides (its legs sinking in the brain matter) insanity in the frozen brain.
|Eins kemur austan||‘Of’ one comes from the East|
|úr Élivágum||out of Stormywaves|
|þorn af akri||A thorn of the meadow|
|þurs hrímkalda,||A Thurs rimecold,|
|hveim drepur dróttir||with which strikes people|
|Dáinn allar||Dáinn all|
|mæran of Miðgarð||famous ‘of’ Midgard|
|með nátt hverri.||along night each.|
The Thurs are supposed to live “in the East,” on the other side of the arctic ocean, called here Stormywaves. The word ‘thorn’ designates a Thurs: it is clear here, and we have other examples of this use in the Thorsdrapa. In passing, note that the Old English rune poem calls the 3rd rune “thorn” and many scholars claim it is a change from the Scandanvian rune poems since a giant is not a thorn. We see here that ‘thorn’ a a simple image to designate a Thurs. It follows that the OE and Scandinavian rune poems agree in fact on the meaning of the rune.
Dáinn is the name of a dwarf. This one is becoming dangerous instead of becoming numb as the ones we met in stanza 3. The poem says that Dáinn uses the Thurs in order to kill each night “all people of famous Midgard”, i.e. all the humans.
|Dofna þá dáðir,||Without strength are the actions,|
|detta hendur,||grovel to the ground the grippers, [i.e., the hands hang down to the ground]|
|svífur of svimi||erects and wobbles with uncertainty|
|sverð áss hvíta;||the sword of the white God;|
|rennir örvit||Makes flow the arrow of the understanding, [alternately: mind-numbing ]|
|rýgjar glyggvi,||by the storms of the giantess’ winds,|
|sefa sveiflum||of the spirit with the turning-around(s)|
|sókn gjörvallri.||whole humankind.|
The verb svífa (the svífur of the 3rd verse) is translated by Cleasby as ‘to rove’, but de Vries gives: schwingen which means, for a weapon: to brandish in a shaky way (French: brandiller). I underlined the sexual tones in the present translation. Sexually or not, Heimdall is made ridiculous here: a real warrior should not ‘svífa-schwingen-brandiller’ his sword under any circumstances. Since we do not see which warriors Heimdall has to fight, but he has a woman to convince, the sexual meaning seems to me the strongest. This is a classical modern-womanish way of making fun of a man, especially of a macho one, thus this interpretation reinforces my feeling that the poem was written by a strong woman, one sharing the current feminist views ahead of her time.
The second half of the stanza needs some word re-ordering to be understood: The arrow of understanding makes move the whole humankind with the toppling-over of the spirit (i. e. it causes the spirit to topple over), this being performed by the storms of the giantess’ winds.
Two words deserve a detailed discussion: örvit and sveiflum.
The ö of örvit can be either a (written õ here) or a ø.
ør is a prefix meaning ‘out of’ and ørvit is ‘out of spirit, witlessness’, i.e., mind-numbed. In the context of the poem, this meaning can be expected since becoming numb seems to be already shared by the dwarves and Heimdall. However, as a subject of ‘to make move, to make flow’, this meaning is very surprising.
r means an arrow, and rvit can be understood as the arrow of the wits, unexpected, but certainly able to make something move. If we put ourselves in the position to consider that Íðunn-Nauma-Gefjun is not a secondary figure but the central one, and that her eagerness for knowledge is the cause of all that is happening, she is then the giantess provoking all this toppling over of things, and the primary motivation is sharpness of mind, i. e., the arrow of understanding. Since the other translators do not assume the centrality of Íðunn-Nauma-Gefjun, they rejected this hypothesis as being absurd.
The word sveiflum should mean ‘we topple over’. It comes from an ON word, sveif meaning ‘seal fin’, something that indeed topples over a lot. It gave birth to an Old Swedish word, sveifla meaning to topple over. Since the introduction of a 1st plural person of a verb is almost impossible here, we have to hypothesize that the poetess used it as a noun in the dative plural. Cleasby’s Icelandic-English dictionary gives the meaning of “a swinging round with one’s antagonist” obviously used here in the plural dative form.. This use is not attested in ON, and I think that we spot here an undisputable modern use of a word, showing that the poem cannot be that ancient. We will come back to that at the end of the poem.
|15||word for word||Interpretation|
|Jamt þótti Jórunn||Equally they thought Jórunn,||Jórunn seemed to|
|jólnum komin,||the ones with the gods arrived,||those coming with the gods|
|sollin sútum,||swollen with saddening sicknesses||swollen with unhealthy sadness|
|svars er ei gátu;||of the answer is not the door;||and equally shut off to answering.|
|sóttu því meir||Sickening sadness then more||Sad illness together|
|að syn var fyrir,||with the denial was for ,||with obstinate silence|
|mun þó miður||but all less||could not much be|
|mælgi dugði.||the speech helped.||of help for the talks.|
It is necessary to re-order the words of this stanza: Jórunn seemed to “the one coming with the gods” (Loki) (such that she) was not the door for the answer (the answer will not be obtained through her). Sad illness was for (helped to) the denial (Jórunn’s), but both all less (very little) helped the speech.
Cleasby notes that the Icelandic uses jamt almost as an adverb in order to point at equality between two parts, this is why I put this word at the end of the sentence to show that unhealthy sadness and being shut to answering are the two sides of the same problem.
The destituted Goddess receives here a fourth name: Jórunn. Note it is built as Íðunn, suggesting a link between the beginning and the end of the story. The ‘wave of the achievement’ becomes the ‘wave of the horse’ (jór = horse), where the horse is a wild animal linked to sorcery, thus Jórunn can be understood as the wave of wilderness or of sorcery.
The nouns sút and sóttu both mean ‘sickness, sadness’ this is why I translate them by the equivalent ‘saddening sickness’ and ‘sickening sadness’.
Note that jólnum komin (coming with the gods) points at Loki and sollin sútum (swollen with saddening sickness) points at Jórunn. Nevertheless, their nearness evokes that Loki can as well be affected by a saddening sickness.
The verb koma (past participle komin of the 2nd verse) means to come, and hints at the necessity of coming for a specific goal. It fits perfectly someone in charge of a task.
Why is Loki the only one still able to observe Jórunn? We saw that Heimdall lost his marbles, and next stanza will tell us that Bragi turns into stone, thus Loki is the only one still able to work (ref. s.1, v. 1! Here is yet another example of the ‘Odinic features’ of Loki, hinted at in many texts making of Loki a kind of Óðinn’s twin enemy).
|Fór frumkvöðull||He travelled, the leader|
|fregnar brauta,||asker of ways,|
|hirðir að Herjans||shepherd for Herjan|
|horni Gjallar;||of the Gjallarhorn; [= Gjallarhorn’s keeper for Óðinn]|
|Nálar nefa||Of Nál the nephew|
|nam til fylgis,||took as follower|
|greppur Grímnis||the poet of Grímnir|
|grund varðveitti.||the field marked off.|
Herjan, the ‘army leader’, is yet another of Óðinn’s names.
Heimdall is the keeper of the Gjallarhorn, the horn into which he will blow to call for the final battle, the Ragnarõk.
Nál is Loki’s mother, her ‘nephew’ (actually nefi also means ‘parent’) is Loki himself.
Grímnir, ‘the hidden one’, is again Óðinn; his poet is Bragi.
It is recalled here that Bragi and Loki travel with Heimdall. Óðinn seems to be said to be the owner of the Gjallarhorn.
This stanza says again known information, insisting on the fact that Heimdall is Gjallarhorn’s keeper, and Loki Nál’s son. The role of Bragi deserves an explanation.
Grund means a field, the ground (poetry uses it also for the Earth), and the flat bottom of a pan. The word varðveitti is made of varð-veitti. Varða is a stone showing a way. The verb veita (with the past form veitti) means to grant, to provide. Thus, varðveitti is something like ‘granting a stone sign’. Within this context, it can mean either that Bragi shows the way to a field (as would be a cairn) or that he limits the field. The usual translation says that he “stood watch,” a very strange occupation for a poet. Inversely, the meaning of the words suggests that he stays transfixed in stone, now motionless like a road sign. This interpretation agrees with the fact that the reaminder of the poem never speaks of Bragi again. In particular, in stanza 20, Heimdall and Loki are asked a large number of questions, and none are asked to Bragi who should normally be in charge of telling the story. This suggests that Bragi stays with his ex-wife, transformed into a kind of stone pole.
Anyhow, he can keep watch or be transfixed, in both cases he is made useless.
|Vingólf tóku||Vingólf they caught||They reached Vingólf|
|Viðars þegnar,||of Viðar the warriors,||the warriors of Viðar,|
|Fornjóts sefum||by Fornjót’s sons||by Fornjót’s sons|
|fluttir báðir;||floated both;||both carried as if by a stream;|
|iðar ganga,||Inside they go,||Inside they go,|
|æsi kveðja||the Aesir address,||they speak to the Aesir|
|Yggjar þegar||of Yggr at once||at once, they join in|
|við ölteiti.||towards beer joy.||the beer feast of Yggr.|
Vingólf means “pleasant dwelling”, maybe Valhõll, the famous ‘Valhalla’ the dwelling of the warriors dead in combat ?
Heimdall et Bragi are normally the warrior of Viðar (= Óðinn, or his son ). It is a bit hard to look at Loki as being ‘Óðinn’s warrior’. Bragi, however, is not at all a warrior. The poem thus carries here some ambiguity as whom might be going with Heimdall , is it Loki or Bragi ?
Fornjót is a giant’s name. His sons practice the magic by which Óðinn’s two warriors are carried away by a kind of stream. The word forn means ‘ancient, pagan’, and jótr is ‘look, appearance’. Fornjót is thus ‘the one of ancient look’.
Those going inside are ‘obviously’ the Gods, not the giants. Note however that the phrasing is unclear, as if the poet wanted, an in stanza 10, to indicate some confusion between the Giants sorcerers and the Gods.
We have also to notice how trifling the Gods look. They just failed in an important mission, and their first subsequent move is to join a beer feast. The poet is now obviously ironical, but we shall see this irony decrease later.
Fleeting irony and respect are typical of this poem, and of many Nordic myths. When Loki attaches his testicles to the beard of a goat, when Óðinn is so afraid that he lets some of the mead of the poetry escape “from the behind,” when powerful Thor is disguised as a bride, to cite a few occurrences, the Gods are ridiculous even though the circumstances are tragic. This feature of the poem should thus not be considered as not understandable.
|Heilan Hangatý,||Good health, Hangatýr,|
|heppnastan ása,||happiest of the Aesir,|
|virt öndvegis||the beer wort from the high seat|
|valda báðu;||to lead they requested ; [they requested (Hangatýr) to lead the beer wort (ceremony) from the high seat]|
|sæla að sumbli||hapiness at the sumbel|
|sitja día,||they sit themselves the Gods, [the Gods seat themselves in view of the hapiness of the sumbel (ceremony)]|
|æ með Yggjungi||for ever with the young of Yggr|
|yndi halda.||happiness they hold.|
Hangatýr , means ‘hanged Tyr’, once more Óðinn. This name calls on the suffering he imposed on himself in order to obtain runic magic. There are beer runes, where the word ‘beer’ certainly represents another word for magic. It thus the Gods have their little enjoyment with beer, and look ridiculous in light of the hard times to come, in appearance only. Calling Óðinn Hangatýr, reminds us of the beer runes, and that the Gods might also start a ceremony, where they use their own kind of magic, which depend on the runes.
A sumbel is certainly a ceremony full of joy, but not at all a drinking party. A horn full of beer or mead passes around, and each one drinks a gulp of it. Before drinking, however, a God is called upon, as in a classical (Christian) religious ceremony. The difference is that each one is a priest who drinks a small amount of alcoholic beverage.
Exactly as in a sumbel during which the mood switches from funny jokes to deep religious, the poem switches from mocking to respecting the Gods.
|að Bölverks ráði||following Bõlverk’s advice,|
|sjöt Sæhrímni||the family of Sæhrímnir||[the family of … Rakni,|
|saddist rakna;||sated of Rakni;||sated with Sæhrímnir]!|
|Skögul að skutlum||Skõgul at the small tables|
|skaptker Hnikars||form the long cask of Hnikar|
|mat af miði||measured the mead|
|Mímis hornum.||of Mimir in the horns.|
Bõlverk, the evildoer, is yet another of Óðinn’s names. It begins a half-stanza that can again be mocking to the Gods. Sæhrímnir is a wild-pig the flesh that can never be eaten in full, and its family is a family of pigs. Obviously, poetical Old Norse constantly inverses the genitives in this way, and the exact meaning is given by the context. A kind of confusion is nevertheless underlined by the fact that Rakni is not such a famous person. He is a king of the sea, and his name is linked by the etymology to rõgn ‘the Gods’.
Skõgul is a Valkyrie described as a ‘shield bearer’ by the Võluspa she is thus a she-warrior whose role is protecting a male warrior. This, together with the next name given to Óðinn, Hnikar, ‘the one who pushes the spear’ changes the mood from joke to war in the second half-stanza.
Mímir’s mead is the drink that brings knowledge.
The noun skaptker is read as skapker, a cask used to serve beer. It is also possible to think of a skapt, ‘stalk, stick’ to bring the feeling of a long cask out of which the mead can be served, hence my translation of skaptker by ‘long cask’.
|Margs of frágu||Much they asked|
|máltíð yfir||the banquet along|
|Heimdall há goð,||to Heimdall, the Gods,|
|hörgar Loka,||to Loki, the sacrificial stones,|
|spár eða spakmál||foreseeings or clever words|
|sprund ef kenndi,||whether the woman made known|
|undorn of fram,||meanwhile forwards|
|unz nam húma.||until caught twilight.|
In this stanza, Gods and Goddesses ask Loki and Heimdall until the evening in order to know “whether the woman (i.e., Íðunn- … – Jórunn) made known foreseeings or clever words.”
The word hõrgr means ‘heap of stones, sacrificial place, stone altar’ and, in this context, it certainly points at the Goddesses. Here there is certainly an allusion to hõrr, wax, especially since hõr-gefn, the Gefn (one of Freya’s names) of the wax, is a poetical equivalent to ‘woman’.
In the Lokasenna, Loki boasts of having had sex with all the Goddesses. Our poem is either showing a devilish hint to the Lokasenna or at least underlining the fact that Loki was quite in favor among the Goddesses.
Note that Bragi is totally forgotten while, due to his role of official poet, he should be the one to tell the tale. This fact favors the hypothesis that in stanza 17, Viðar’s warriors are Heimdall and Loki.
|Illa létu||Bad, they left||They let known|
|orðið hafa||became had||that it became|
|erindisleysu||the mission lost||of bad litlle glory,|
|oflítilfræga;||of little glory;||and that they failed their mission.|
|vant að væla||Wont at bemoan||Hard to ask whiningly|
|verða myndi,||that it would happen||so as to make happen|
|svo af svanna||such of a woman||that could be obtained|
|svars of gæti.||of an answer receive.||an answer from such a woman.|
|Ansar Ómi,||Ómi answers,|
|allir hlýddu:||all listen :|
|“Nótt skal nema||“Night will learn|
|nýræða til;||to new powers;|
|hugsi til myrgins||Think until morning|
|hver sem orkar||who so works|
|ráð til leggja||advice to put in place|
|rausnar ásum!”||for the splendor of the Aesir!”.|
Ómi is yet another of Óðinn’s names: the noisy one.
During the sumbel clearly shown that Heimdall’s mission has been a failure. Óðinn is left with the embittered conclusion, given in a pompous way, that night brings advice.
|Rann með röstum||It flew with eddies||Tired, the full-of-lard-hay (or vagina)|
|Rindar móður||of Rindr the tired||of Fenrir of the-meadows-|
|fóðurlarður||hay (or the vagina) of lard||of-Rindr flew|
|fenris valla;||of Fenrir of the meadows.||with eddies.|
|gengu frá gildi||The Gods left|
|goðin, kvöddu||the feast, and greeted|
|Hropt og Frigg,||Hroptr and Frigg,|
|sem Hrímfaxa fór.||as Hrímfaxi raised.|
In the first half-stanza, the complex kenning can be understood as follows: the tired hay-lard of Fenrir (i.e., the sun since a wolf chases the sun in order to eat it, and hay-lard evokes some juicy food) of the meadows of Rindr (the western meadows) (the sun of the western meadows = the setting down sun) flew with eddies.
Rindr is a Goddess loved by Óðinn. She begot him a son, Váli. She is sometimes linked to the West.
As complex as it is already, this kenning contains even more allusions. Recall that Fenrir is a ‘he’ and that the sun is a ‘she’ in Old Norse. This wolf running after a girl recalls strongly Grimm’s tale “Little Red-Ridinghood” (Rotkäppchen). More than one century earlier, in 1697, Perrault reported a similar tale (Le Petit Chaperon Rouge) where Red-cap is eaten, and he provides a moral into which he underlines already the sexual innuendos of this tale. It happens here that the word fóðr means, besides ‘hay’, ‘sheath, vagina’ in such a way that the ‘she-sun’ is also called here a ‘greasy vagina’. The double meaning of the two kinds of body appetites is thus found here. Note how much ‘greasy hay’ sounds awkward, while the sexual meaning is much easier to understand. In passing, note that least one kenning for the pelvic area is known (Meissner : “Schlecht ist die Kenning hjarta sals hõll für Unterleib”).
Hroptr, the airy one, is Loki, Frigg Óðinn’s wife, and Hrímfaxi is one of the horses of Night.
The Gods go back home while night sets up, and they say farewell to their hostess, Frigg, and their guest, Loki.
The word larðr in fóðurlarður of this stanza needs some more explanation. It exists in none of the Old Norse dictionaries. Cleasby only gives it, with the meaning of ‘lard, fat’ from the French lard. Cleasby comments and cites the poem that we are studying : “This poem however cannot be ancient, for this French word probably came to Iceland through the English trade of the 15th century”.
|Dýrum settan||With expensive ones, well put up,||Delling’s son|
|Dellings mögur||Delling’s son||let go forward|
|jó fram keyrði||the horse forward let go||the horse well put up|
|jarknasteinum;||(with) precious stones;||with expensive precious stones.|
|mars of Manheim||of the horse over Manheim,||The mane of the horse glows|
|mön af glóar,||the mane glows||over Manheim,|
|dró leik Dvalins||carried along the game of Dvalin||the steed with its waggon|
|drösull í reið.||the steed with its waggon||carried along the game of Dvalin.|
Delling is Sun’s father. Manheim is the dwelling of the humans. Dvalin is the name of a dwarf, the first of a long line of dwarves.
The sun is ‘the dwarves’ game’ (actually, we must understand the contrary, that the sun fools the dwarves) because its rays turns them into stone.
|í jódyr nyrðra||by the Northern border,|
|und rót yztu||under the root outlying the furthest|
|aðalþollar||from the main tree,|
|gengu til rekkju||go lying on their bed|
|gýgjur og þursar,||Giantesses and Thurs,|
|náir, dvergar||dead ones, dwarves,|
|og dökkálfar.||and dark Elves.|
This stanza provides more details on the way the mythic universe is organized. Under the furthest and the most northern root of Yggdrasil lies Hel, the dwelling of those who are not dead in combat. Here, Jotunheim, the Giants’ dwelling is thus placed with Hel, the dwelling of the dwarves and the dark Elves. These last are the Elves who do not live in Ásgarðr since the Elves are usually beings of divine nature who live together with the Aesir in Ásgarðr.
You will find more detailed versions of this universe in Rydberg, as given by Björnsson and Reaves, or to the scholarly version of Jan de Vries (cited below, pp. 372-392, Das Weltbild) that you will find soon on this site.
This stanza rings gloomy and it announces the forthcoming disaster.
Jõrmungrund is the earth, and its etymology is very interesting. The word grund means a field, the ground but the meaning of jõrmun is more disputed. De Vries links it – in his dictionary – to a primitive form *ermuna meaning ‘powerful, great’. Obviously, Earth is a gigantic field. The very same de Vries, however, in his History of the old Germanic religions (Berlin, 1970 – 1st edition 1957) while describing the God Tyr, associates the two names Tîwaz et Irmin. That is obviously disputable, but we cannot dispute the documentation he gathers on various words such as Irmin, irmingot, eormengrund etc. the various Germanic deities (Hermegiselus, Ermanaricus, etc.) who have a similar name. In other words, Jõrmungrund is indeed the ‘gigantic earth’ but is as well a God of the Earth, or the virile form of an earth Goddess.
|Risu raknar,||Rose the Gods,|
|rann álfröðull,||ran the Elf-sun,|
|norður að Niflheim||North, towards Niflheimr|
|njóla sótti;||Night proceeds;|
|upp nam Árgjöll||Up takes Árgjõll||The master of the horn’s noise,|
|Úlfrúnar niður,||of Úlfrún the descendant,||Úlfrún’s descendant,|
|hornþytvaldur||master of the horn’s noise,||raises high Árgjõll,|
|Himinbjarga.||in Himinbjõrg.||in Himinbjõrg.|
Úlfrún is a giantess, Heimdall’s mother. Árgjõll, is “the one which rings strongly (gjõll) and early (ár)”. Himinbjõrg. is Heimdall’s dwelling.
Niflheimr is either the world (our world), or another realm of the dead, different from Niflhell, the underground world of the dead. The etymology of the root nifl- is disputed: it could be dark, or fog, or deep.
In this stanza, the day begins and Heimdall will ring his horn (the poem says that Heimdall raises his horn) in order to announce the Gods’ judgment day, Ragnarõk, during which even the structure of the universe will be modified.
Many see here a Christian influence, certainly because of the Christian myth of Doomsday. Ragnarõk is indeed a day of doom, but the Gods are judged, not the humans. We already know that the Gods will be doomed, as rendered by the more classical translations of Ragnarõk, as “twilight” (Wagner) or the “bitter fate” ( Boyer) of the Gods, or Genzmer’s Schlachtgötter Sturz, “the fight of the God’s collapse.” This myth is thus very different from the Christian one.
This text is certainly not a ‘forgery’ since it does not hide its age nor its geographical origin. The references to the Võluspa : vitið enn, eða hvað? in stanza 5, would be completely stupid if the author tried to claim a similar antiquity as Võluspa . This poem also constantly uses Swedish words or acceptations of the words, a fact I did not always point out in my comments. A few words are obviously more recent, such as larðr and sveifla, and maybe jamt. It is thus certainly a production of the 15th – 17th century. As long as the author’s genuineness seems to be acceptable, this myth where Íðunn shows no naivety, and is a key to the start of Ragnarõk, looks like a rectification to the classical story.
The surface contradictions in this text originate from quite understandable double meanings, and from a wavering from respect to irony relative to the Nordic Gods. One side of this wavering is feminist, this should not have been so much puzzling to the scholars who found this poem incomprehensible.
On the one hand, it is impossible to classify this poem among the Scandinavian Middle Age poetry. On the other hand, and as long as no deception is noticeable, it seems to me that it is not less valuable as the earlier productions, as a witness of the Scandinavian myths. My feeling is rather that the author of this poem, observing that an essential face of the myths was on the verge of disappearing in his/her time, wanted to put it in writing before it would become completely forgotten.