Index | About | Mission | Vor Vegr | Resources | Contacts | Book Store | What's New |






Through the flotsam and jetsam of ancient literature we are just allowed some broken glimpses of a ritual drama. Luckily there is in existence a work which gives a comprehensive view of the sacrificial feast, viz, the Voluspá, but in order to bring out the evidential value of the poem in its bearing upon the scenes of the blot and their religious importance, it is necessary to form an estimate of the place occupied by its author in the intellectual development of the viking age.

The Voluspá is not intended to be an illustration of the sacrificial feast. Its author is a genius who has pondered deeply on the destiny of men and the meaning of history, and his thoughts flare up into a vision of the cosmic tragedy from the beginnings of time to its fulfilment; to give expression to his vision he assumes the disguise of a volva, the wise prophetic woman of the North, whose eyes pierce through all worlds and search into the future — which has not “come forth” as yet —as well as into the remote depths of the past.

Her memory reaches back to the time when nothing existed, no cool waves, no green grass, no sky spanning a world; nothing but a vast abyss. Out of the gaping void earth is lifted, sprouting with green plants, by mighty beings; the sun shines out of a bright sky and enters upon its orderly course. The gods are seen moving on the new-born earth in the pride of youth; they rear high-roofed temples, they smelt ore and hammer treasures — gold is abundant; they rejoice and sit on the greensward before the door playing at tables. Over their heads Yggdrasil, the world ash, vaults its boughs rustling with evergreen leaves, and from between its roots there ascend the maidens of destiny.

All of a sudden a change comes over the world; the gods are drawn up in battle array against the host of the Vanes. Odin hurls his spear for luck and victory. War has come into the world, and the tramp of warriors is heard.

The eyes of the volva become aware of a ring of sinister faces closing in upon the bright realm of the gods. The gods take counsel about building a wall to keep out the demons and strike a bargain with the giant who is willing to barter his strength against the promise of sun and moon; and when the two ends of the wall are nearing one another, the gods have no choice but to trick the demon out of his wages, if the light of the world is to be saved. For ever after the jotuns are lusting after the heavenly lights and the love of the goddess, and the gods must use the weapons they have forged and tempered with fraud and broken promises to ward off the wiles and brutal force of their enemies. Filled with anxious forebodings Odin goes out to consult the woman sitting out in the dark; she sees the valkyries riding over the ground to the thunder of hoofs.

Destiny is let loose to run its course. One of the gods is seen bleeding in the midst of his kinsmen; Balder descends to the fields of the dead with his brother's arrow sticking in his breast. A voice of weeping is heard, the goddess mourning over the woes of Valhal. And now a view is opened downwards into the bleak region never touched by the rays of the sun; the blighted realm of Nastrond is swept through with fierce rivers swelling with swords and foaming with venom, and nidings, breakers of oaths, unholy murderers battle their way through the whirling, heavy-smiting waves. The door of the hall standing on the bleak ness opens toward the north, and poison dew drips from its roof.

In the wild, impenetrable forest the wolves are breeding; the cubs run up into the heavens snapping at the sun, they gorge themselves with the bodies of the slain, and blood slavers from their jaws down onto the seat of the gods, tingeing the sunlight with a lurid red.

The world resounds with ill-boding voices; the gleeful singing of the demon from his eyrie on the hillock, the crowing of cocks chiming in with one another, out of several worlds — the gold-combed cock that rouses the inmates of Valhal, the bright red cock among the jotuns — down to the soot-red bird crying from the fence of Hel — above the conflicting noises the hoarse barking of the hound in front of the rocky cave echoes through the world.

Life is blighted, and the curse spreads from the gods to the dwelling-place of human beings. The thoughts of men are darkened and confused by the upheaval in nature and the tumult of their own minds, and in their distraction men violate the very principles of life. The bonds of kinship give way to blind passion: brothers fight with one another, kinsmen shed their own blood, no one trusts his fellow; a new age dawns: the age of swords, the age of axes, the ears of men are filled with the din of shields being splintered and of wolves howling over the bodies of the slain.

A shiver runs through the boughs of the ash, the land resounds with the patter of restless feet and with the groaning of the dwarfs outside their rocky doors.

The barking echoes from the rocks, but now the fetters snap, and the Wolf gallops over the land. From all quarters the hosts advance; the Serpent of Middle-garth writhes through the deep, lashing the waves with his coils; dead men throng upwards along the misty road; Muspel's men come rowing from the east, Loki standing at the rudder-oar; Surt hastens from the south, the battle sun glittering from his sword.

Now the anguish over which the goddess has long brooded comes true: Odin faces the Wolf, Frey closes with Surt, gods and demons slay and are slain. Thor wreaks his wrath on the Serpent and carries his victory nine paces over the battlefield.

The sun is darkened, the earth sinks back into the waves, stars rain down, and the flames leap up and lick the heavens. The barking is heard for the last time as the world-fire flickers down. When the roar and the voices are stilled the earth once more rises out of the sea in evergreen freshness; brooks leap down the hills, the eagle wheels on high peering into the streams. The gods meet among self-sown fields, they call to mind the tale of deeds and former wisdom, and in the grass before their feet the golden tables are found lying. A new hall rises golden-roofed and fairer than the sun; here a race of true-hearted men will dwell and rejoice in their hearts' desire.

Then from above descends the mighty one, all powerful. The dusky dragon flies past brushing the ground with his wings weighted down by dead bodies; he sinks into the abyss and disappears.

This vision of the poet is more closely akin to the eschatological history of Christianity than to the cosmology of the ancient Teutons, and there is no mistaking that he has been impressed by the apocalyptic prophecies of the Church. But here as in all other places where we are concerned with men who are living, the words of “loan” and “influence” are worse than useless; the analytical method that sifts out the minds of men into shreds — ideas from somewhere and images or forms from elsewhere — ought to take a rest after having succeeded through the history of religion and literature and other branches of history, in laying waste the world of living men and turning it into a heap of intellectual débris.

So far from being Christian, the ideas and emotions of the poet and the vision in which his hope and fear join issue do not bear the slightest stamp of Christianity. His anguish does not originate in the Christian's dread of sin and the consequences of disobedience, but in the Teuton's anxiety at seeing the reverence for kinship undermined by ambition and thirst for power. He goes to the storehouse of ancient religion for the matter of his verses, and the ideals which animate his images and mould them into a drama of doom and resurrection, have their roots in the faith of his fathers. Horror-struck he looks on the upheaval of the times in which honour, the fountain head of all virtue, is submerged and noble men are caught up in the tempest of fate and whirled on by its blinding fury. It is the holiness of frith that gives dramatic tension to his poem, and it is in the ancient antagonism between the gods and the demons that the catastrophe of his drama reaches its consummation. It is true that the poet has been inspired by an acquaintance with Christian eschatology, from its apocalyptic scenes he has drawn the inspiration to read his own thoughts and to interpret the experience of his own time, the viking age.





The men of the viking age were a race to whom life appealed as being an adventure. Those great kings and petty chieftains who crossed the ocean and fought on many a coast were not mere soldiers of fortune; many of them at least were shrewd politicians who set out into the world to carve out for themselves a kingdom or an estate. But the spirit of adventure is strongest and most true to itself when it is farthest removed from aimlessness and trusting to chance. Adventure ran in the blood of the vikings and engendered ambitious schemes, and the better calculated were the schemes inspired by the spirit of adventure, the greater was the élan of the adventurers.

The life of the peasant at the homestead had a steady, slow-going rhythm; for him, the events followed one another as orderly and regularly as one season succeeded another; the aspirations and achievements of the sons were firmly linked to the deeds of their fathers, grew out of them in fact, being inspired by the traditions and the luck of the clan. Among the roving chieftains, life was apt to turn into a game for renown and power in which the warrior staked his very existence again and again, ever ready to run the risk of all or nothing.

For the Teutons, living implied fighting, man means a living being who keeps his weapons sharp by grinding them on his honour. Nevertheless it was not war but work that determined the trend of life and gave form to institutions, social as well as religious. A man asserted his gentility no less by tilling his land in luck and showing a generous hospitality, than by courage in action. When the connection with daily occupations and obligations had been severed, as it had to be in armies settling on foreign soil, war filled the scene, and the truest, nay the only proof a man could give of his gentle-ness consisted in deeds accomplished with the axe. These gallant knights were sometimes fain to pour contempt on the patient toil of the bread winner as in the epigram of the Harbardsljod (24): “Odin owns the earls who are slain in battle, Thor owns the race of the thralls”. According to ancient custom war and feast were inseparable; at the courts of sacred kings the horn circled in ceremonial fashion every night; when the king's hall was transplanted into a foreign country and his luck plucked out of the fields and grazing grounds surrounding his manor, life necessarily became a round of battles and drinking feasts.

At the homesteads luck and honour were a family treasure handed down from one generation to another to be maintained by the united strength of all the clansmen; abroad every man more or less had to carve out his own fortune and maintain the standard of his kin single-handed. And just as the athlete of asceticism strives to outdo himself because he has lost the sane measure of social intercourse, so the viking is tempted to overshoot his own mark: his honour becomes more exacting and often roars like a rapacious beast that never knows when it has had its fill. Many a viking had seen kingdoms won and kingdoms falling, and that man was reckoned the greatest character who said: a kingdom is lost, but there is time to win another. When moral strength showed itself not so much in the man's proving himself worthy of his honour as in acquiring glory, it was just as great and possibly a greater act to die than to conquer; survival on the tongues of coming generations was the fairest and surest gain. Honour had been the daily bread of the clansmen, now it turned into the strong drink of immortality that threw open a world of bliss beyond the portals of the grave.

The influence of history on the intellectual life of the viking age has left its strongest mark on the conception of fate. In the old country destiny was bound up with the luck of the clan, the norns shaped —— “chose” — the life of the child by adding substance to it: a measure of years, events to fill them and aims to make striving worth while, and their “choice” was not accepted as a decree but embraced and acted upon as will. In the life of the viking fate asserted itself as a deity with a will of its own and as often as not struck the weapon from his hand; true to the spirit of his ancestors he accepted the ordinance of fate as inevitable and made it a point of honour not to wince at meeting this arbitrary power which one day raised a man into the royal seat and another day drove him to sea with a ship and a handful of men at its oars. A man proved his moral strength by his skill to sail before the wind so long as it filled his sails, and to go down smiling when his “day” had come.

Nowhere in the viking age is there any breaking away from the principles of Teutonic culture; the conquerors and kingmakers wholeheartedly uphold the traditions of their ancestors. The keenest scrutiny will never disclose any change in thoughts and feelings, in ideals or institutions; but there is a new pitch, the old emotions are heightened into a hectic glow and transfigured by their very intensification. And consequent on this spiritualisation religion takes on a new aspect; through the shifting of the accent the ritual and its underlying ideas acquired a new import in the same way as social forms came to serve new purposes. When the Scandinavians went beyond the sea their migration meant more than a change of place. At home the world, large as it was, could be surveyed from the homestead with the eyes of the mind, but as one horizon burst on the view and another closed in to take its place the ancient Middle-garth lost its definiteness and made way for something more akin to our universe. This change of outlook gave birth to a new conception of gods and men. The local deities whose power was coextensive with the territory of their worshippers were replaced by a corporate body of gods ruling the world. The holy place with its blot-house which had formed the centre of Middlegarth, was raised on high and turned into a divine mansion. Time-honoured myths setting forth the doings of mutually independent deities were worked up into a poetical mythology, a divine saga, on the same lines that had been followed by an earlier race of vikings, the Homeric Greeks.

This religion brought a new god to birth: Odin, the leader of men, the lord of the battlefield. Odin is young in the same sense as his followers. He sprang from a clan of chieftains in the South, being the incarnation of their hamingja, and the history of his growing from a local deity, resting in the holy place of the clan, into a warlike genius is identical with the history of his people. The place where he was born must at best be a matter of conjecture; from ancient time he is at home in the legends of Sigurd and his kin, but we have no sure means of settling the identity of the Volsungs or even to decide whether the Volsungs were the original impersonators of the drama. Thus much is clear from the hints of history and legend that during the centuries of upheaval that preceded the birth of medićval Europe the influence of Odin spread by means of alliances between the leading houses. From the pedigrees and family traditions it is evident that the ambitious princes among the Scandinavians eagerly sought for alliance, by way of matrimony or in other ways, with kingly clans who could boast of possessing the hamingja of the Volsungs.

In the religion of Odin, the ideals of the warriors are transfigured into the laws of the world. War is the meaning of life, the years are measured by their harvests of fame, death is celebrated as the entrance to the paradise of heroes, in which the joy of battle is renewed day after day and the ale flows every night. Valhal is a divine counterpart of the court: the god presides in the high seat, the warriors circulate the cup in memory of past deeds and in still higher expectations of the future, bathed in the light of the fire reflected from swords and shields that embody the luck of their chieftain.

The god wears the features of the high-born king. He is called the Wanderer. He appears on the battlefields in all parts of the world and makes his power felt by a wave of the hand; he knows of no joy but that of hearing the swords clash and seeing men meet to give and take the gift of an honourable death. He sets kings on to fight, eager to fill his seats in Valhal with einheries. “I roamed in Valland haunting the battles, I egged on kings and never worked for reconciliation”, such is his confession according to the knightly poet of the Harbardsljod (24).

Odin strides from one battle to another, but he also goes from one love assignation to another. In the Harbardsljod 18 he makes a boast of his conquests in the way of love — “I enjoyed to the full their goodwill and their delight” — and his boasting is borne out by the number of escapades recorded in his legends. The Odin myths reflect the boisterous mirth of the court, its idealisation of war, its jests and quips, its dare-devil humour and its admiration for the poet.

The same tendencies that deified the king also pushed the poet into the foreground. When he stood forth and extolled the prowess of the king the verses were not meant to please for an hour: their heavy ornaments and exuberant imagery served to make the drapa an everlasting monument to the king and his body-guard. The change of tone that had come over the ideas of luck and honour effected a new orientation of the cult; the cup which had formerly overflowed with fertility in man and beast and field as well as with success in fighting, now bubbled with illustrious deeds of arms and undying fame. And when honour crystallised into posthumous fame the poet grew into the priest of honour who made the king immortal by his verses, and literally shaped the body in which the warrior would live among coming generations. This transformation puts its stamp on the legends: Odin usurps the place as the bold robber of the ale of life and immortality, but the kettle which he carries up from the world of the demons and triumphantly deposits on the edge of the sacrificial hearth now contains inspiration for the scalds. The version of the legends handed down to us bears the impress of the viking age; with sly humour Snorri retells the myth, how the god capped the wiles of the demons with tricks of his own, in desperate boldness forced his way into the rocky cave of the giant, blinded his daughter with his love and took his flight with the precious liquid safely lodged in his belly; he winds up his tale with a compliment to the poets who have been favoured by the god with free access to the true source of inspiration.

The version of Snorri echoes the self-consciousness of the court poets; but belonging as he does to an ćsthetic age, he improves on the story with a touch of literary criticism: Odin luckily evades the pursuit of the demon in time to make use of the vessels his brethren hastily produced, as he swooped over the fence of Asgard, but in the need of the moment some parts of the mead took a wrong turning, and these drops are left unguarded; thus we know where bad poets go for inspiration in their verse craft.

The god in the high seat bore the features of the king, it was said, but the lines in his face are deeper and carve a countenance mysteriously disclosing and veiling a mind that takes counsel of its own thoughts and keeps that counsel to itself —the same wayward mystery which the warriors have seen in the face of Fate. His decisions are inscrutable or rather capricious like the decrees of fate: he marks the men for victory or for death, according to his own good pleasure, he chooses his favourites among the kings without regard to right and worth, humouring their wildest ambition, thwarting their plans in the very moment of success, always directing with a high hand, according to the good pleasure of his will.

This religion of the vikings is built on ancient foundations, and as far as its forms are concerned its creators stand acquitted of innovation. The constant celebration of the ale feast in the king's hall, the importance for posthumous life of poetry or ritual recitals, the robbery of the mead, the drift and contents of the legends, even the love motifs in the chronique scandaleuse of Odin: wherever we look we are confronted by time-honoured elements of ritual and drama. And yet everything has changed. Life has swung over into a new rhythm, and with the altering of measure a new harmony imposes itself. When thoughts and feelings and deeds interact in another equilibrium, they may give out a tone as strange as, or stranger perhaps than any revolutionary doctrine is able to produce. In the life of the viking fighting and honour make up what we call fundamental values of existence as in the days of old, but now they are exalted into being the very rules of the principles of life governing the universe: through his living and dying the warrior — qua warrior or man of the sword, it must be added — has contributed to the shaping of the destiny of the universe.

The poems of the viking age resound with the thunder of war and the breaking of shields; they are illumined by the blaze from burning towns. But the boisterous and rather shrill hymn of Odin singing the beauty of war and the majesty of death when met courageously, has an undertone of tragedy and almost of sadness. The men who were caught up in the whirl of conquests sometimes paused aghast at the revolution, mental as well as social, brought about by this breathless struggle for power and fame. In the course of expeditions and especially in the settlements abroad, men were uprooted from their traditional surroundings, thrown together in a fellowship which as often as not overruled or at least put a strain upon the obligations of kinship. In their pursuit of dominion, brothers would be whirled into antagonism, and the self-seeking might grow to such excessive heights in the individual that his ambition broke through the restraint of frith. The Teuton could not find words more poignantly expressive of dismay and utter despair than those verses by the Voluspá poet: “brothers fight one another, cousins do not trust one another”. In the feeling of kinship ethical life had its origin and being, and when the root of all virtues was poisoned the very will to honour was dissolved. When brothers fall out there follows not only an age of sword and axe but an age of wolves, as the Vsp. has it: whoredom is rampant, treachery, breaking of oaths and treacherous murder. Moral dissolution strikes at the very root of life, the poet continues; for the enjoyment of life, fertility and all blessings, material as well as spiritual, are bound up with honour, and on the failing of honour luck, the effectiveness of life, is blighted. The age of war lapses into an age of storms, of blasted crops, of frost and winters lasting all the year round, in the words of the Vsp.

Beneath the glorification of war as the measure of men and death as the appraiser of human worth, there is found lurking a note of suspense as of fate brewing into a tempest that will burst in a sudden eruption and shatter the whole world with its lightning. The story of Balder's death as it is handed down by the Icelanders, is a poetic work inspired by the tragic mood of the viking age. It is overspread by a sinister, fateful gloom radiating from the central scene of the tragedy, in which the gods throng round their kinsman's body, speechless with an agony of apprehension. When blood was shed within the clan the deed threw a shadow of coming disaster across the possessions of the kinsmen; here the shadow is so broad that it envelops the whole world in the blackness of death.

The story of Balder is founded on ancient myth. It abounds in legendary features sufficiently clear to warrant the hypothesis that it is moulded upon a sacrificial drama, probably akin to the ritual of Frey as it is worked out f. i. by Neckel in his book on Balder (G. Neckel: Die Uberlieferungen vom Gotte Balder, 1920); but we have no means of reconstructing the original form and contents of the legend. An unnamed poet of the viking age has steeped this matter in his own experience, transformed the myth into a poem with a purpose, as we would say. By concentrating the scenes around the idea of a divine outrage — niđingsuerk -- so that the anguish of the gods standing with drooping heads and faltering hands steeps every word with an icy dread of coming events, he has changed a fertility drama into a poetic symbol implying that the course of history is tending irresistibly towards a day of doom.

The poet of the Balder story was not a solitary figure in those troubled times; the literature of the viking age proves that other minds had caught a comprehensive view of history as a cosmological drama — in the modern acceptation of the word — tending towards a catastrophe and finding its consummation in a trying of conclusions between the gods and the evil powers. In the light of this idea, fate — or the will of Odin — is unveiled and discovers a far-reaching purpose. The eyes of the god peer into the future and read the signs on the horizon, he knows that the destiny of the world will depend on the depths of his ranks when they are drawn up against the Wolf and his brood. There is a deep-set plan at the bottom of his designing; he urges on the kings regardless of their private aims and ambitions, he leads them to the field of death with a fine unconcern for their friendships or enmities, with the object of filling his seats with the best men.

This spirit has found a magnificent expression in the Eiriksmál, a poem composed to the memory of Eric Bloody-axe. When he fought his last battle its din called up an echo in the hall of Odin so that the wainscots creaked again. There is a noise as if thousands of men thronged forward. Odin is roused from dreaming that the benches of Valhal are strewn with fresh rushes and the vats of ale are made ready for the welcome of heroes entering from the battle. A feeling of joyful anticipation tells him that famous warriors are on the way, it is the arrival of Eric that is announced by the thundering of feet. — Why do you expect Eric more than other kings, it is asked. — Because he has reddened his blade in many countries and carried his sword far and wide heavy with blood. — Why did you rob him of victory who was without blame? — Nobody knows what is coming, the grey Wolf is scowling at the seat of the gods. -- Eric makes his entrance surrounded by five kings, heading a mighty procession of followers, from the storm of swords into the seats of the god.

During their residence in the British Isles the Northmen came into touch with a religious system that differed in character from that of their fathers. No reader of the viking age literature can fail to discover that the poets have been impressed by the thought and imagery of Christianity and chiefly by its eschatology. But the Northmen were not carried off their feet in the stream of Christian ideas; so far from succumbing to the influence of English culture they gathered strength from contact with men of another creed. The history of that age is not made up of a series of piratical expeditions resulting in the establishment of a few short-lived kingdoms and an admixture of Scandinavian blood; with better reason it might be called a spiritual conquest which produces far-reaching effects in the moral development of the conquerors and of the conquered as well. The invading Scandinavians did not content themselves with a wondering or a greedy look at the exteriors of the English churches, they entered upon an intercourse with the Christian men and acquired an intuitive comprehension of the new wisdom that was far from being superficial. It is a remarkable proof of their spiritual and moral strength and the originality of their minds that they were not overwhelmed by the rush of new ideas and images; they learned freely and as freely turned their learning to account according to their own need. Christian eschatology worked in them as an inspiration that crystallised their experience, and the emotions stirred up the comedy and tragedy of these troubled times into clear-cut ideas. The spiritual gain accruing from their contact with the culture of England was in the first place a liberal outlook on the world, an original vision of history and of the struggle of mankind. In reality the tenth century became an age of cultural expansion; the spirit quickened by the stir of events, moral as well as political, found vent in a literature of remarkable depth and beauty, which passed beyond the national boundary and took rank among the works belonging to the world.





In this literature the author of the Voluspá occupies a place of his own. His poem stands out from the other literary works of the same age by virtue of a master idea that knits the verses together as firmly as the links in a chain of reasoning, inspiring them at the same time with a poetry of tense, almost quivering force. In his view the course of history was determined by the entrance of unrighteousness and strife into the world. Life is tragical at the core, and the tragedy is of the gods' own provoking; the power of the gods is bought by deceit and violence and thus suffers from an inner weakness; since the first war life bears a secret burden of guilt that rolls on by its own impetus and irresistibly drives gods and men towards the abyss of death. For the sake of honour and luck the gods must again and again resort to wiles and treachery, by their very regard for truth and right and beauty they are forced into the crooked ways of the tricksters; if the world is to be saved from falling into the clutches of the demons, they must meet insidious stratagem with subtle cunning.

By every victory won over the powers of darkness and brutality the gods sow the seed of destruction and death. The traditional scenes of mythology are arranged by the poet with a view to showing how the seed sown is sprouting and putting forth ears of corn to be reaped on the day of doom in the great Ragnarok.

The first shadow was thrown across the world when Odin flung his spear into the ranks of the Vanes and inaugurated the first war, and it deepened when the giant was cheated out of his reward; through these scenes the poet leads up to a vision of the world, in which mortal men are groping, blinded by the deeds of the gods. The fall of Balder is the prelude to a pandemonium in which men poison their souls by setting the holiest, most sacred laws, the very principles of life at nought. The shadows lengthen and gather at the horizon into a black cloud, and all of a sudden the flames from the demons' realm of death flare up behind the dark mass and transform it into a blaze of lurid red and yellow.

The poet does not end on a note of despair. He looks forward with strong hope to a day of regeneration, a new world of peace and righteousness. The curse burns itself out, gods and men enter upon a new life full of honour and luck and frith, and the life of integrity and goodwill calls down the mighty one from on high. Death is driven out of the world: the last vision passing before the poet's eyes is of the old dragon sinking into the gaping abyss.

This poet is not the man from the North expounding the faith of Thor and Odin, as a generation of romantic historians imagined; neither can he be numbered among the saints of the new creed. He preaches a religion neither Christian nor heathen; it keeps touch with the ideals and emotions of large circles among the Norwegians in the viking age, but it is of startling originality, the confession of an individual soul. Probably the religion of the Voluspá never had more than one adherent, the man who saw the vision, but for all that he takes his place among the religious seers of the world.

The poet achieves his object by a masterly handling of ancient material. Through the greater part of the poem the composition consists of time-honoured legends reproduced simply in the form that was current among the author's contemporaries, but with a minimum of adaptation the poet suffuses his matter with new life by making it subservient to his own experience. The effect is brought about by a deliberate arrangement of the myths so nicely planned that a historical perspective emerges through their reaction on one another. Often the story acquires a novel significance by its very position in the series of visions, as is the case with the war of the gods or the birth of the wolves. Wedged in, as it is, between the ride of the valkyries and the opening of Hel's dark places, the death of Balder is vitally connected with the past and exhibited as a turning point in history; through the divine murder the corroding guilt that has eaten into the heart of life comes to the surface and darkens the whole world. Sometimes the poet puts a fresh point on his theme by a minute twist, as in the tricking of the giant: with a fine economy of art he effaces the note of triumph inherent in the myth and substitutes an anxious pondering on the price paid for victory: the claims that victory must necessarily entail on the conqueror, when he is compelled to buy his triumph at any cost. The great mass of the legends treating of the struggle with the demons is held over for the latter part of the poem to furnish material for the description of the day of doom, when the gods are overtaken by their tragic fate and a new world is to take the place of an earth that is filled with strife and stained with blood. With the sure touch of consummate art the poet dovetails some popular tale into the system with the result that it gives out a tone of horror: the verse depicting the giant singing merrily from his post of observation on the knoll, the crowing of cocks calling to one another from the world of the gods down into the realm of the dead, the barking of the hound — compose a mosaic of current beliefs, but in the design of the poet these items picture the gathering tempest and the atmosphere tremulous with apprehension before the burst of the storm.

The details are chosen so carefully that no single trait is otiose; by means of a masterly composition each particular is absorbed into the vision and quickened by the underlying concept, so that it lights up the past as with a fierce light and at the same time throws ominous gleams far into the future.





The force and grandeur of the Voluspá is largely due to the suggestive power of its imagery; sometimes the verses are like trees bowing and shrieking before the storm, at other times they are filled with softly descending light, as in the lines depicting the cascades leaping from the rocks and the eagle circling on outspread wings. But the poet never achieves his effect by elaborate description; the grip of his pictures, the visionary clearness and suddenness of his scenes result from a terse, allusive economy of words. He never unfurls the events of the drama; in a couple of bold strokes he conjures up a situation, and the story is told in the grouping and in the attitudes of the characters. But over and above this allusive, all but impressionistic vividness of effect there is an uncanny force in the choice of words and images that no analysis of the poet's art can attain to, still less explain. The reader who approaches the poem for the first time will probably grope his way through the verses feeling like a man who passes through a succession of dark places barely marked off from one another by streaks of light. The poet never tells his stories: “Who had filled the air with poison or given Oth's maiden to the giants? Thor struck the blow, oaths were broken”, this is his account of the dealings between the gods and the demon who built the walls of Asgard and got nothing but a broken head for his labour, and if we did not know the myth from other sources we should never be able to reconstruct the sequence of events or even the drift of the story.

The poet handles his material with the skill of a master, but his art, perfect as it is, was prepared for him just as the material lay ready to his hands to be moulded into a perfect work of art; in fact, both were inseparable, for the art was inherent in the matter. There was no need for him to recount the stories; he could not only rely on his contemporaries knowing the ancient tales and being able to evoke them at the slightest allusion, he could draw upon their experience, on their having witnessed the events recounted in the legends. By his words he forced his listeners to see, and this power was given him because his own eyes and the eyes of his friends were filled with the throbbing life of the feast and viewed without effort the entire world concentrated in the scenes of the sacrificial drama. The overwhelming pathos of the poem springs from the visionary power of the images; a hint, a few glimpses suffice to call up not only a situation but a drama touching the depths of existence and reaching to the end of the earth. To feel the suggestiveness of his images we must try as far as lies in our power to realise the comprehensive fulness and the concentration of primitive drama, its religious i. e. vital connexion with the actual experience of life and its influence on material and moral welfare.

Modern playgoers may be moved, and moved deeply, by a new-born sympathy linking them up with strange personalities and destinies; whereas in the classical worshipper, every thought and every sentiment had its root in his holy drama or rather in his living through the events of the drama. The poet was not called upon to expose the significance of his visions, because his listeners were brought up with poetic ritual, images of cosmic or eternal import. When he strung the stories together they coalesced and made up a whole on the strength of a leading idea, in the same way as the dramatic incidents of the blot owed their coherence to an all-pervading theme that found expression in a religious formula: the antagonism between good and evil. His eschatological epic was constructed on ancient lines, with one essential difference, that his idea was startlingly new; he needed not to expound his gospel or to give an express statement of its novelty, as he could trust it to appear immediately to minds which were prepared to understand the significance of things.

No wonder that the Vo!uspá is a difficult work. Though the hearing of it cannot fail to impress the listener with a vague feeling of awe, it scarcely admits of a translation, because it is bound up with ancient ideas and images to such an extent that modern words cannot exhibit the depth and power of its phrases. A paraphrase may bring out some of the salient points, but nevertheless it can do little more than indicate the way of approach to its mystery through a comprehensive sympathy with Norwegian culture in its totality.





When we have considered the Vo!uspá as a religious document and formed an estimate of its bearing upon the spiritual conflicts of its age, we have made it possible to read it as a contemporary description of the ancient feast. The poet does not present us with a photographic illustration of the drama or an index to the sequence of the ritual scenes; in his poem he paints an ideal view of the drama as it developed before the eyes of the sacrificers, and indirect!y but forcibly brings out not only the stirring life of its scenes but still more the poetry, the depth of feeling and poignancy of thought, the experience of a reality, more real than everyday life, which surged in the worshippers, when the gods moved on the stage of the altar.

Incidentally the poem adds some items of considerable interest to our knowledge of the sacrificial technique. The momentous undertakings of the gods are preceded by a ceremony, thus described in the verses: “Then all the gods went to their rök seats and consulted together” — there they discussed such questions as: how the heavenly lights should be named and arrayed in the heavens, who should take upon himself to create the dwarfs, whether the gods should pay tribute to the Vanes, who was the demon who had poisoned the air and caused the loss of the maiden to the giants. These verses delineate an episode of the blot feast: the ritual deliberation that must necessarily precede the ceremonies; there the gestures and formulć are rehearsed in order to ensure a performance without any hitch or stumbling, there the prospective officiant is nominated — in accordance, of course, with a fixed routine — in other words, he went to the rök seats to be invested with authority to carry out his sacred duty (cf. the opening verses of the Hym.).

The same seats served for pronouncing sacred formulć, for the recital of traditions and genealogies, for the repeating of rules and wise sayings: all the wisdom that belonged to the clan and was necessary for right living, was here brought into close contact with the ceremonies. In the Voluspá a list of names is appended to the scene of the dwarfs being called forth from the “foaming” blood of the sacrificial victim, and there are other hints of the rehearsal of mythological lore as an accompaniment to the dramatic performance (cf. 18, 20, 37). Such ceremonial recitals furnished the pattern for didactic handbooks on mythology and cosmology, such as Grimnismál, Vafthrudnismál and Fjolsvinnsmál, or on ritual terminology such as Alvismál. From these poems we get the information that the recitals generally took the form of a dialogue, one of the officiants questioning and thus drawing forth the ritual wisdom of the leader — hapta snytrir. When the Hyndluljod is examined in this light it becomes probable that this poem reproduces the genealogical recital of a Norwegian clan, at most slightly touched up to fit into the literary forms of the tenth century. The collection of didactic and ritual pieces called Hávamál, too, preserves for us the forms of ritual pronunciation, and part of this miscellany is no doubt culled directly from ceremonial texts. In fact the poem closes with the ancient formula that wound up the recitals by “fastening” the luck of the words on the sacrificers: “Now Hávi's words are spoken in the hall of Hávi, useful to the sons of men, unavailing for the children of the demons, heill for the man who spoke, heill for the man who knows, full enjoyment of the words to the man who learned, heill for those who listened”. (For the meaning of enjoy = njóta cf. II 16, 80).

Through the Voluspá we are moreover led on to the discovery of the technical term denominating these ritual discussions and proclamations, viz. doema, “deem”. Drinking and deeming, drekka ok doema, is a formal compound denominative of the proceedings at the feast, note e. g. Rig. 31, Sigurd sk. 2. The slaughtering is preceded by a scene where the men deem before starting for the sheep fold. The clansmen deem in the Hyndluljod of kinship and relations, in Hávamál of runes, and when the gods meet after the battle of Ragnarok they deem of the mighty events and of the gigantic Serpent of Middle-garth.

The corresponding nomen is dómr, which naturally signifies ritual speech as well as ritual event, viz, the holy history inherent in the scenes of the festival. The rejuvenated ases recall the momentous dómar they have passed through. The famous verse of Hávamál 77: “Cattle will die, kinsmen will die, you will die yourself, one I know will never die, the dómr of a dead man”, thus alludes to the fame — eptirmćli as it was perpetuated in the blot. Norna dómr, the judgment of the norns, is identical with the destiny or luck originating in the well at the foot of Yggdrasil and manifesting itself in the omens received from that place during the sacrifice. When the Christian gospel required a name that sounded familiar to the ears of the Northmen, it was naturally called hinn d˙ri dómr, the precious “doom”, the words and deeds of the new god (Lex. Poet. s. v.).

Now the name, too, of the divine seats is clear; rök is a synonym of dómr: ritual speech and hence the holy events which were embodied in the drama. “You know all the röks of the gods”, are the words which Odin makes use of to draw out the giant in Vafthrudnismál (38, 42), and in the Alvismál Thor incites the dwarf to trot out his learning by a piece of flattery, thus: “you know rök fira”, the ceremonial knowledge necessary to the sacrificer.

The locality of the rök seats is not far to seek, they were found near the spot where the holy luck, the blessing of the feast, was concentrated: at the foot of the tree by the well within the sacrificial enclosure. In the language of the legend, Thor and the ases go to Yggdrasil to deem, this phrase of the Grímnismál carries a hint of the ritual praxis when the gods went to their rök seats. Another picture of the ceremonial procession to the rök seats is furnished through the mythology of the same poem (29): “through these — the holy waters — Thor wends his way every day to Yggdrasil, for the bridge of the Ases is on fire and the holy waters are seething”; we see the sacrificers passing along the fire to the rök seats at the back of the seething kettles overspread by the holy branch symbolising the world ash.

One of the speeches of the Hávamál is introduced by this formula: “Now is the time to rehearse sacred words — ţylja —from the speecher's seat — ţular stól — by the well of Urd”; this verb evidently indicates ritual speech not in dialogue, which was pronounced in a chanting voice from the holy place —it is used of poets reciting their poetry and of people talking to themselves (Háv. 111, v. Fritzner s. v. and cf. Danish runic inscr.).

When Eilif, the poet of the Thorsdrapa, had embraced the new faith of Christ, he voiced his reliance on the new god by saying: “Christ is sitting by Urd's well in the South”; in translation Rome was the place of the precious dómr, the rök of Jesus, his words and deeds.




back                                 index                                next