Poetic Edda


About this Edition

  • Translated By
    Publishing Date
    • Henry Adams Bellows

The Wise-Woman’s Prophecy

Introductory Note

At the beginning of the collection in the Codex Regius stands the Voluspo, the most famous and important, as it is likewise the most debated, of all the Eddic poems. Another version of it is found in a huge miscellaneous compilation of about the year 1300, the Hauksbok, and many stanzas are included in the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. The order of the stanzas in the Hauksbok version differs materially from that in the Codex Regius, and in the published editions many experiments have been attempted in further rearrangements. On the whole, how ever, and allowing for certain interpolations, the order of the stanzas in the Codex Regius seems more logical than any of the wholesale “improvements” which have been undertaken.

The general plan of the Voluspo is fairly clear. Othin, chief of the gods, always conscious of impending disaster and eager for knowledge, calls on a certain “Volva,” or wise-woman, presumably bidding her rise from the grave. She first tells him of the past, of the creation of the world, the beginning of years, the origin of the dwarfs (at this point there is a clearly interpolated catalogue of dwarfs’ names, stanzas 10–16), of the first man and woman, of the world-ash Yggdrasil, and of the first war, between the gods and the Vanir, or, in Anglicized form, the Wanes. Then, in stanzas 27–29, as a further proof of her wisdom, she discloses some of Othin’s own secrets and the details of his search for knowledge. Rewarded by Othin for what she has thus far told (stanza 30), she then turns to the real prophesy, the disclosure of the final destruction of the gods. This final battle, in which fire and flood overwhelm heaven and earth as the gods fight with their enemies, is the great fact in Norse mythology; the phrase describing it, ragna rök, “the fate of the gods,” has become familiar, by confusion with the word rökkr, “twilight,” in the German Göterdämmerung. The wise-woman tells of the Valkyries who bring the slain warriors to support Othin and the other gods in the battle, of the slaying of Baldr, best and fairest of the gods, through the wiles of Loki, of the enemies of the gods, of the summons to battle on both sides, and of the mighty struggle, till Othin is slain, and “fire leaps high about heaven itself” (stanzas 31–58). But this is not all. A new and beautiful world is to rise on the ruins of the old; Baldr comes back, and “fields unsowed bear ripened fruit” (stanzas 59–66).

This final passage, in particular, has caused wide differences of opinion as to the date and character of the poem. That the poet was heathen and not Christian seems almost beyond dispute; there is an intensity and vividness in almost every stanza which no archaizing Christian could possibly have achieved. On the other hand, the evidences of Christian influence are sufficiently striking to outweigh the arguments of Finnur Jonsson, Müllenhoff and others who maintain that the Voluspo is purely a product of heathendom. The roving Norsemen of the tenth century, very few of whom had as yet accepted Christianity, were nevertheless in close contact with Celtic races which had already been converted, and in many ways the Celtic influence was strongly felt. It seems likely, then, that the Voluspo was the work of a poet living chiefly in Iceland, though possibly in the “Western Isles,” in the middle of the tenth century, a vigorous believer in the old gods, and yet with an imagination active enough to be touched by the vague tales of a different religion emanating from his neighbor Celts.

How much the poem was altered during the two hundred years between its composition and its first being committed to writing is largely a matter of guesswork, but, allowing for such an obvious interpolation as the catalogue of dwarfs, and for occasional lesser errors, it seems quite needless to assume such great changes as many editors do. The poem was certainly not composed to tell a story with which its early hearers were quite familiar; the lack of continuity which baffles modern readers presumably did not trouble them in the least. It is, in effect, a series of gigantic pictures, put into words with a directness and sureness which bespeak the poet of genius. It is only after the reader, with the help of the many notes, has—familiarized him self with the names and incidents involved that he can begin to understand the effect which this magnificent poem must have produced on those who not only understood but believed it.

Hearing I ask from the holy races, From Heimdall’s sons, both high and low; Thou wilt, Valfather, that well I relate Old tales I remember of men long ago.[1]

I remember yet the giants of yore, Who gave me bread in the days gone by; Nine worlds I knew, the nine in the tree With mighty roots beneath the mold.[2]

Of old was the age when Ymir lived; Sea nor cool waves nor sand there were; Earth had not been, nor heaven above, But a yawning gap, and grass nowhere.[3]

Then Bur’s sons lifted the level land, Mithgarth the mighty there they made; The sun from the south warmed the stones of earth, And green was the ground with growing leeks.[4]

The sun, the sister of the moon, from the south Her right hand cast over heaven’s rim; No knowledge she had where her home should be, The moon knew not what might was his, The stars knew not where their stations were.[5]

Then sought the gods their assembly-seats, The holy ones, and council held; Names then gave they to noon and twilight, Morning they named, and the waning moon, Night and evening, the years to number.[6]

At Ithavoll met the mighty gods, Shrines and temples they timbered high; Forges they set, and they smithied ore, Tongs they wrought, and tools they fashioned.[7]

In their dwellings at peace they played at tables, Of gold no lack did the gods then know,— Till thither came up giant-maids three, Huge of might, out of Jotunheim.[8]

Then sought the gods their assembly-seats, The holy ones, and council held, To find who should raise the race of dwarfs Out of Brimir’s blood and the legs of Blain.[9]

There was Motsognir the mightiest made Of all the dwarfs, and Durin next; Many a likeness of men they made, The dwarfs in the earth, as Durin said.[10]

Nyi and Nithi, Northri and Suthri, Austri and Vestri, Althjof, Dvalin, Nar and Nain, Niping, Dain, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Nori, An and Onar, Ai, Mjothvitnir.

Vigg and Gandalf, Vindalf, Thrain, Thekk and Thorin, Thror, Vit and Lit, Nyr and Nyrath,— now have I told— Regin and Rathsvith— the list aright.[11]

Fili, Kili, Fundin, Nali, Heptifili, Hannar, Sviur, Frar, Hornbori, Fræg and Loni, Aurvang, Jari, Eikinskjaldi.

The race of the dwarfs in Dvalin’s throng Down to Lofar the list must I tell; The rocks they left, and through wet lands They sought a home in the fields of sand.[12]

There were Draupnir and Dolgthrasir, Hor, Haugspori, Hlevang, Gloin, Dori, Ori, Duf, Andvari, Skirfir, Virfir, Skafith, Ai.[13]

Alf and Yngvi, Eikinskjaldi, Fjalar and Frosti, Fith and Ginnar; So for all time shall the tale be known, The list of all the forbears of Lofar.

Then from the throng did three come forth, From the home of the gods, the mighty and gracious; Two without fate on the land they found, Ask and Embla, empty of might.[14]

Soul they had not, sense they had not, Heat nor motion, nor goodly hue; Soul gave Othin, sense gave Hönir, Heat gave Lothur and goodly hue.[15]

An ash I know, Yggdrasil its name, With water white is the great tree wet; Thence come the dews that fall in the dales, Green by Urth’s well does it ever grow.[16]

Thence come the maidens mighty in wisdom, Three from the dwelling down ’neath the tree; Urth is one named, Verthandi the next,— On the wood they scored,— and Skuld the third. Laws they made there, and life allotted To the sons of men, and set their fates.[17]

The war I remember, the first in the world, When the gods with spears had smitten Gollveig, And in the hall of Hor had burned her, Three times burned, and three times born, Oft and again, yet ever she lives.[18]

Heith they named her who sought their home, The wide-seeing witch, in magic wise; Minds she bewitched that were moved by her magic, To evil women a joy she was.[19]

On the host his spear did Othin hurl, Then in the world did war first come; The wall that girdled the gods was broken, And the field by the warlike Wanes was trodden.[20]

Then sought the gods their assembly-seats, The holy ones, and council held, Whether the gods should tribute give, Or to all alike should worship belong.

Then sought the gods their assembly-seats, The holy ones, and council held, To find who with venom the air had filled, Or had given Oth’s bride to the giants’ brood.[21]

In swelling rage then rose up Thor,— Seldom he sits when he such things hears,— And the oaths were broken, the words and bonds, The mighty pledges between them made.[22]

I know of the horn of Heimdall, hidden Under the high-reaching holy tree; On it there pours from Valfather’s pledge A mighty stream: would you know yet more?[23]

Alone I sat when the Old One sought me, The terror of gods, and gazed in mine eyes: “What hast thou to ask? why comest thou hither? Othin, I know where thine eye is hidden.”[24]

I know where Othin’s eye is hidden, Deep in the wide-famed well of Mimir; Mead from the pledge of Othin each mom Does Mimir drink: would you know yet more?[25]

Necklaces had I and rings from Heerfather, Wise was my speech and my magic wisdom; . . . . . . . . Widely I saw over all the worlds.[26]

On all sides saw I Valkyries assemble, Ready to ride to the ranks of the gods; Skuld bore the shield, and Skogul rode next, Guth, Hild, Gondul, and Geirskogul. Of Herjan’s maidens the list have ye heard, Valkyries ready to ride o’er the earth.[27]

I saw for Baldr, the bleeding god, The son of Othin, his destiny set:Famous and fair in the lofty fields, Full grown in strength the mistletoe stood.[28]

From the branch which seemed so slender and fair Came a harmful shaft that Hoth should hurl; But the brother of Baldr was born ere long, And one night old fought Othin’s son.[29]

His hands he washed not, his hair he combed not, Till he bore to the bale-blaze Baldr’s foe. But in Fensalir did Frigg weep sore For Valhall’s need: would you know yet more?[30]

One did I see in the wet woods bound, A lover of ill, and to Loki like;By his side does Sigyn sit, nor is glad To see her mate: would you know yet more?[31]

From the east there pours through poisoned vales With swords and daggers the river Slith. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .[32]

Northward a hall in Nithavellir Of gold there rose for Sindri’s race; And in Okolnir another stood, Where the giant Brimir his beer-hall had.[33]

A hall I saw, far from the sun, On Nastrond it stands, and the doors face north, Venom drops through the smoke-vent down, For around the walls do serpents wind.[34]

I saw there wading through rivers wild Treacherous men and murderers too, And workers of ill with the wives of men; There Nithhogg sucked the blood of the slain, And the wolf tore men; would you know yet more?[35]

The giantess old in Ironwood sat, In the east, and bore the brood of Fenrir; Among these one in monster’s guise Was soon to steal the sun from the sky.[36]

There feeds he full on the flesh of the dead, And the home of the gods he reddens with gore; Dark grows the sun, and in summer soon Come mighty storms: would you know yet more?[37]

On a hill there sat, and smote on his harp, Eggther the joyous, the giants’ warder; Above him the cock in the bird-wood crowed, Fair and red did Fjalar stand.[38]

Then to the gods crowed Gollinkambi, He wakes the heroes in Othin’s hall; And beneath the earth does another crow, The rust-red bird at the bars of Hel.[39]

Now Garm howls loud before Gnipahellir, The fetters will burst, and the wolf run free; Much do I know, and more can see Of the fate of the gods, the mighty in fight.[40]

Brothers shall fight and fell each other, And sisters’ sons shall kinship stain;Hard is it on earth, with mighty whoredom; Axe-time, sword-time, shields are sundered, Wind-time, wolf-time, ere the world falls; Nor ever shall men each other spare.[41]

Fast move the sons of Mim, and fate Is heard in the note of the Gjallarhorn; Loud blows Heimdall, the horn is aloft, In fear quake all who on Hel-roads are.[42]

Yggdrasil shakes, and shiver on high The ancient limbs, and the giant is loose; To the head of Mim does Othin give heed, But the kinsman of Surt shall slay him soon.[43]

How fare the gods? how fare the elves? All Jotunheim groans, the gods are at council; Loud roar the dwarfs by the doors of stone, The masters of the rocks: would you know yet more?[44]

Now Garm howls loud before Gnipahellir, The fetters will burst, and the wolf run free Much do I know, and more can see Of the fate of the gods, the mighty in fight.[45]

From the east comes Hrym with shield held high; In giant-wrath does the serpent writhe; O’er the waves he twists, and the tawny eagle Gnaws corpses screaming; Naglfar is loose.[46]

O’er the sea from the north there sails a ship With the people of Hel, at the helm stands Loki; After the wolf do wild men follow, And with them the brother of Byleist goes.[47]

Surt fares from the south with the scourge of branches, The sun of the battle-gods shone from his sword; The crags are sundered, the giant-women sink, The dead throng Hel-way, and heaven is cloven.[48]

Now comes to Hlin yet another hurt, When Othin fares to fight with the wolf, And Beli’s fair slayer seeks out Surt, For there must fall the joy of Frigg.[49]

Then comes Sigfather’s mighty son, Vithar, to fight with the foaming wolf; In the giant’s son does he thrust his sword Full to the heart: his father is avenged.[50]

Hither there comes the son of Hlothyn, The bright snake gapes to heaven above; . . . . . . . . Against the serpent goes Othin’s son.[51]

In anger smites the warder of earth,— Forth from their homes must all men flee;— Nine paces fares the son of Fjorgyn, And, slain by the serpent, fearless he sinks.[52]

The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea, The hot stars down from heaven are whirled; Fierce grows the steam and the life-feeding flame, Till fire leaps high about heaven itself.[53]

Now Garm howls loud before Gnipahellir, The fetters will burst, and the wolf run free; Much do I know, and more can see Of the fate of the gods, the mighty in fight.[54]

Now do I see the earth anew Rise all green from the waves again; The cataracts fall, and the eagle flies, And fish he catches beneath the cliffs.[55]

The gods in Ithavoll meet together, Of the terrible girdler of earth they talk,And the mighty past they call to mind, And the ancient runes of the Ruler of Gods.[56]

In wondrous beauty once again Shall the golden tables stand mid the grass, Which the gods had owned in the days of old, . . . . . . . .[57]

Then fields unsowed bear ripened fruit, All ills grow better, and Baldr comes back; Baldr and Hoth dwell in Hropt’s battle-hall, And the mighty gods: would you know yet more?[58]

Then Hönir wins the prophetic wand, . . . . . . . . And the sons of the brothers of Tveggi abide In Vindheim now: would you know yet more?[59]

More fair than the sun, a hall I see, Roofed with gold, on Gimle it stands; There shall the righteous rulers dwell, And happiness ever there shall they have.[60]

There comes on high, all power to hold, A mighty lord, all lands he rules. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .[61]

From below the dragon dark comes forth, Nithhogg flying from Nithafjoll; The bodies of men on his wings he bears, The serpent bright: but now must I sink.[62]