The Masks of Odin by Elsa-Brita Titchenell
Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.

Chapter 10

Voluspa

(The Sibyl's Prophecy)

TEXT

TRANSLATOR'S NOTES

Among the lays and stories of the Edda the place of honor unquestionably belongs to Voluspa. It is the most comprehensive as well as the most enigmatic portion of the Norse scripture. In it are outlined the majestic pageant of worlds in formation, the attributes of the cosmic Tree of Life, its decay and death, and its subsequent renewal and rebirth. To follow the progression of events related by the sibyl we must often resort to other lays and sagor (1) which are more explicit, for in Voluspa we see the work of eternities compressed into the wink of an eye, the vastness of a universe in a grain of sand.

The vala or volva, the sibyl who speaks the poem, represents the indelible record of time, as from a beginningless past events move toward an endless future with universes succeeding one another in surging waves of life. The vala personifies the record of the past: her memory, reaching back through the "foretime," recalls nine former world trees, long since dissolved and now reliving.

Voluspa is the sibyl's response to Odin's search for wisdom. The cosmic record is being consulted by Allfather — conscious, divine intelligence which periodically manifests as a universe, impelled by the urge to gain experience. He is the root of all the lives that compose it, immanent in every portion of its worlds, yet supernal. When the vala addresses Odin as "all ye holy kindred," this not only shows the intimate relationship which links all beings, but also identifies them with the questing god. Odin's cited wish to learn of "the origin, life, and end of worlds" is a device to elicit this information on behalf of all the "greater and lesser sons of Heimdal" (1) (2) — all existing forms of life within this solar system, Heimdal's domain — and, incidentally, of the audience.

To those who picture deity as a perfect, omniscient, omnipresent, and unchanging person, it may seem strange to find a god requesting information on anything, especially in worlds beneath his own divine sphere. But in the myths divinities are not static, congealed in divine perfection, but growing, learning intelligences of many degrees. The Voluspa uses a poetic ploy to suggest that consciousness enters worlds of matter in order to learn, grow, and evolve greater understanding, while inspiring by association the matter through which it operates.

The vala "remembers giants born in the foretime" — worlds now dead, whose energizing consciousnesses have long since left them, whereupon their uninspired material reverted to entropy and chaos. She remembers "nine trees of life before this world tree grew from the ground" (2). Elsewhere there is mention of Heimdal's being "born of nine maidens"; also that Odin's vigil when he is mounted on the Tree of Life lasted for "nine whole nights" (Havamal 137). This all combines to suggest that our earth system is the tenth in a series, following the frost giant Ymer when there was "no soil, no sea, no waves" (3).

Each world tree is an expression of the divine consciousnesses which organize appropriate forms to live in and gain the "mead" of experience. When in due course they withdraw, whatever cannot advance or profit by the association with the gods, that is to say, whatever is unmitigatedly material, becomes the frost giant.

The wise sibyl who tamed wolves, analogous to the cosmic vala, appears to represent the hidden wisdom or occult insight. (It is worth noting that the word "occult" means anything hidden or obscured, just as a star is occulted when it is hidden from our sight by the moon, or any other body. The merest a, b, c, is occult until it is understood.) The vala, Heid, is that hidden knowledge which exerts a fascination on the selfish, hence it is "ever sought by evil peoples," although it may be harmlessly acquired by one who is wise and "tames wolves," who is in control of the animal nature and who by self-discipline and service gains access to nature's arcana. The distinction between the two sibyls is clearly made in the poem: "She sees much; I see more" (45). One pertains to human concerns on earth, the other represents an overview of cosmic records.

The skalds distinguished three different kinds of magic: sejd or prophecy is the faculty of foreseeing events to come as they follow naturally on those of the past. In most countries there were until quite recently many "wise women" who continued to practice this art, most commonly in trivial matters. Such fortune-tellers are still to be found; many of them trade on public gullibility and prophesy more or less spurious "fortunes" for a fee. A second type of magic is the galder — a formula of enchantment purporting to bend the future to one's desire. Such spells, when in any degree successful, are often sorcery, whether performed in good faith and ignorance or, more dangerously, with the impact of knowledge and with will and determination behind them. Inevitably their repercussions complete their circuit and adversely affect the originator as well as associates who may be innocently and ignorantly involved.

A third form of magic is "reading the runes" perusing nature's book of symbols and gaining progressive wisdom. This is the study of Odin himself, as he hangs in the Tree of Life (Havamal 137-8): "I searched the depths, found runes of wisdom, raised them with song, and fell once more thence" — from the tree.

The vala tells of the end of the golden age of innocence and of the death of the sun-god Balder through the agency of his blind brother Hoder — ignorance and darkness — instigated by Loki, the mischievous elf of human intelligence. As in many other tales of the fall from innocence of the early humans, the agent which brought about our knowledge of good and evil and the power to choose between them, has borne the blame for all subsequent ills in the world. The biblical Lucifer, the light-bringer, from "bright and morning star" has been transformed into a devil; the Greek Prometheus who gave mankind the fire of mind was chained to a rock for the duration of the world and will be rescued only when Herakles, the human soul, shall have attained perfection at the end of its labors. Similarly, Loki was bound beneath the nether gates of the underworld to suffer torment until the cycle's completion. In each case the sacrifice brought us humans the inner light needed to illumine our path to godhood, which will be gained through conscious effort and self-conscious regeneration in ultimate reunion with our divine source.

The Voluspa gives a vivid description of Ragnarok. This has been translated as the "age of fire and smoke," probably because rok in Swedish means smoke, and students of mythology have regarded this as characteristic of the Norsemen's supposedly doleful temperament, given to doom and gloom. But there is a better interpretation of the word: ragna, plural of the Icelandic regin (god, ruler) + rok (ground, cause, or origin) is the time when the ruling gods return to their root, their ground, at the end of the world. The horrors depicted as accompanying the departure of the gods are indeed chilling, punctuated by the howling of the hound of Hel; however, this is not the end. After the toppling of the world tree, the poem continues to describe the birth of a new world and ends on a note of serene contentment at the dawn of a new and golden age. Many are unaware of this and, having some acquaintance with Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelungen" tacitly ignore the implications of a cosmic rebirth. Yet, the pattern conforms far more closely to the tenor of other profound systems of thought than does the idea of an ultimate end. Such irreversible finality is not found in myths; instead we learn of nature's ceaseless flow into being and back to the unknown source, inevitably followed by a new manifestation — a pattern that better mirrors all we know of nature, and evokes a far grander vision of the eternal pulse of life beating through boundless infinitude and endless duration.


Voluspa

1. Hear me, all ye holy kindred, (3)
Greater and lesser sons of Heimdal!
You wish me to tell the ancient tales,
O Father of seers, the oldest I know.

2. I remember giants born in the foretime,
They who long ago nurtured me;
Nine worlds I remember, nine trees of life,
Before this world tree grew from the ground.

3. This was the first of aeons, when Ymer built.
There was no soil, no sea, no waves;
Earth was not, nor heaven;
Gaping abyss alone: no growth.

4. Until Bur's sons raised the tables;
They who had power to fashion Midgard.
Sun shone from the south on the stones of the court;
Then grew green grass in fertile soil.

5. The sun bore south together with moon.
On her right hand was the heaven's door.
Sun knew not what hall she had;
Stars knew not their places yet.
Moon knew not his power.

6. The mighty drew to their judgment seats,
All holy gods to hold council;
They named night and moon phases, separated morn from noon,
Dusk and evening, to tell the years.

7. The Aesir met on the Ida sward,
Timbered lofty courts and altars;
They founded forges, smithied gold,
Fashioned tongs and tempered tools.

8. Goldtable they joyfully played in the court;
Lacked not abundance of gold;
Until there came from the giants' home
Three very immoderate giant maids.

9. The mighty drew to their Judgment seats,
All holy gods to hold council:
Who should fashion a host of dwarfs
From Brimer's blood and the limbs of the dead?

10. There was Force-sucker, master of dwarfs
As Durin knows;
There were fashioned many humanoid dwarfs from the earth
As Durin said.

11. Wax and Wane, North and South,
East and West, All-thief, Coma,
Bifur, Bafur, (4)
Bombur, Nore.

12. An, Anar, Ai, Mead-witness,
Path, Magus, Windelf, Thrain,
Yearning, Longing, Wisdom, Color,
Corpse and New Advice.

13. Slice and Wedge, Discovery, Nale,
Hope and Will, Rooster, Sviur,
Speedy, Antlered,
Fame, and Lone.

14. It is time the dwarfs of Dvalin's kin
Be named, up to Lofar, the handed:
They who have struggled from the hall's
Stone foundation up to the ramparts.

15. Clarifier, Cycler, Shaver, Channel,
Sanctuary-of-youth and Oakshield-bearer,
Fugitive, Frost, and
Finder and Illusion.

16. While ages endure
The long, long reach
Of Lofar's forebears
Shall be remembered.

17. From one such train drew forth in the hall
Three Aesir, powerful, compassionate.
They found on the earth the ash and the alder,
Of little power, indeterminate.

18. Odin gave them spirit,
Honer discernment,
Lodur gave them blood
And divine light.

19. An ash stands, I know, by name Yggdrasil;
That tall tree is watered by white icicles daily;
Thence comes the dew that drops in the dells;
It stands ever green above Urd's well.

20. Thence come maidens who know much,
Three from that hall beneath the tree:
One was named Origin, the second Becoming.
These two fashioned the third, named Debt.

21. They established law,
They selected lives
For the children of ages,
And the fates of men.

22. She remembers the first slaying in the world,
When Gullveig (5) was hoist on a spear;
Thrice was she burned and thrice reborn,
Again and again — yet still she lives.

23. Heid was her name.
To whatever house she came
She prophesied well and was versed in spells.
She was much sought by evil peoples.

24. The mighty drew to their judgment seats,
All holy gods to hold council;
Should the Aesir alone atone the wrong,
Or all the gods make reparation?

25. Odin hurled his spear among the throng.
This became the first war in the world.
The ramparts were rent in the Aesir's stronghold;
Victorious Vaner strode the field.

26. The mighty drew to their judgment seats,
All holy gods to hold council:
Who had mingled the air with evil
Or given Od's maid to the giant race?

27. Thor struck out in mighty wrath;
He stays not quiet when such he learns;
Oaths were broken, words and promises,
Mighty pacts were broken then.

28. She knows where Heimdal's horn is hid
Under the sacred sun-drench'd tree;
She sees ladled a stream mixed with icicle torrent
From Allfather's forfeit. Know you as yet, or what? (6)

29. She sat outside alone when the Old One came;
The fearsome Ase looked her in the eye:
"What ask you of me? Why do you tempt me?
I know all, Odin. I know where you hid your eye —

30. "In the redoubtable Mimer's well.
Mimer quaffs mead each morning
From Allfather's forfeit."
Know you as yet, or what?

31. The Father of Hosts gave her rings
And gems to gain
Wisdom and lore from her.
Far and wide she scanned the worlds.

32. She saw Valkyries ready to ride: Debt bore armor.
So also did War, Battle, and Spearwound.
Thus are the Hero's maidens named,
Valkyries mounted to ride over earth.

33. I saw the fate determined for Balder,
The gentle god, Odin's child.
High above the field there grew,
Slender and fair, the mistletoe bough.

34. The sprig that I saw was to become
A threatening sorrow-dart shot by Hoder.
Balder's brother, born before his time,
But one night of age, Odin's son rode to battle.

35. He laved not his hands nor combed he his hair
Ere he bore Balder's foe on the funeral pyre.
Frigga bewept in her watery palace Valhalla's woe.
Know you as yet, or what?

36. She saw the one bound beneath the court,
Where the caldron is kept.
The wretch resembles Loki.
Unhappy Sigyn remains by her spouse.
Know you as yet, or what?

37. A torrent of daggers and swords
Runs from the East
Through vales of venom.
Her name is Scabbard.

38. On low northern fields stood a golden hall
Belonging to Sindre's race.
Another one stood on the Unfreezing Ocean,
The giant Brimer's brewhall.

39. A hall she sees standing far from the sun
On the shores of death, with its door to the north.
Venomous drops fall in through the weave,
For that hall is woven of serpents.

40. Therein wading the streams she saw
Oathbreakers, murderers, adulterers.
There Nidhogg (7) sucks cadavers,
Wolves tear men.
Know you as yet, or what?

41. Eastward in the Ironwood the Old One sat
Fostering Fenrer's offspring.
Of them all shall come a certain something
That in troll's guise shall take the moon.

42. It feeds on the life of those who die,
And blood-red it colors the dwelling of powers.
The sun shall be dark the summers thereafter,
All winds be odious.
Know you as yet, or what?

43. There in the field, playing the harp,
Carefree Egter sits, watching the sword maids;
There crowed for him in the human world
Fjalar, the fair red rooster of spring.

44. For the Aesir crowed the goldcomb-adorned,
Who wakens the warriors in Hostfather's hall;
But another crows beneath the earth:
A soot-red cock in the halls of Hel.

45. Garm howls at the Gnipa-hollow of Hel.
What is fast loosens, and Freke runs free.
She grasps much; I see more:
To Ragnarok, the Victory-gods' hard death struggle.

46. Brothers shall battle and slay one another.
Blood ties of sisters' sons shall be sundered.
Harsh is the world. Fornication is rife,
Luring to faithlessness spouses of others.

47. Axe time, sword time, shields shall be cloven;
Wind time, wolf time, ere the world wanes.
Din on the fields, trolls in full flight;
No man shall then spare another.

48. Mimer's sons arise. The dying world tree flares
At the sound of the shrill trump of doom.
Loud blows Heimdal, the horn held high.
Odin confers with Mimer's head.

49. With a roaring in the ancient tree
The giant is loosened.
The ash, Yggdrasil,
Quakes where it stands.

50. Garm howls at the Gnipa-hollow of Hel.
What was fast loosens, and Freke runs free.

51. Rymer steers westward; the tree is o'erturned;
In titanic rage
Iormungandr (8) writhes,
Whipping the waves to froth.

52. The eagle shrieks loudly;
Bleknabb (9) tears corpses.
Nagelfar (10) casts off.

53. Comes a keel from the east. From over the waters
Come Muspell's folk with Loki at the helm.
Monsters fare with Freke.
Such is the train of Byleist's (11) brother.

54. How is it with Aesir? How is it with elves?
The giant world roars; the Aesir hold council.
Dwarfs groan before their stone portals,
Masters of mountains.
Know you as yet, or what?

55. Fire fares from south with flaring flames.
The embattled gods' sun is skewered on the sword.
Mountains burst open. Hags hurry hence.
Men tread Hel's road; the heavens are sundered.

56. Then comes Lin's (12) second life sorrow,
As Odin emerges to war with the wolf.
The bane of Bele (13) flashes forth against Fire:
There shall Frigga's hero fall.

57. Victory-father's son, Vidar the mighty,
Comes forth to battle the beast of death.
He plunges his sword from mouth to heart
Of the Son of Completion. The Sire is avenged.

58. Approaches the shining scion of Earth:
Odin's son meets with the wolf.
In raging wrath he slays Midgard's woe.
Then do all men turn homeward.

59. Nine steps only away from the monster
Staggers the son of Earth.
The sun grows dim; earth sinks in the waters;
The sparkling stars fall from the firmament.
Fire entwines the Life-supporter; (14)
Heat rises high to the heavens.

60. Garm howls at the Gnipa-hollow of Hel.
What was fast loosens, and Freke runs free.

. . . . . . . . .

61. She sees rising another earth from the sea,
Once more turning green.
Torrents tumble, eagle soars
From the mountains, seeking fish.

62. The Aesir met on the Ida sward
To judge of the mighty Soil-mulcher; (15)
There to recall their former feats
And the runes of Fimbultyr. (16)

63. There are found in the grass
The wondrous golden tablets;
Them in days of yore
The races had owned.

64. Harvests shall grow on unsown fields,
All ills be redressed, and Balder shall come.
With him Hoder shall build on Ropt's sacred soil
As gentle gods of the Chosen.
Know you as yet, or what?

65. Then Honer may freely seek his destiny,
Shake the divining rods, read the omens;
And the two brothers shall build their dwelling
In wide Windhome.
Know you as yet, or what?

66. She sees a hall more fair than the sun,
Gilded, glowing on Gimle. (17)
There shall the virtuous hosts abide
And Joy in serenity during long ages.

67. Then comes the dragon of darkness flying,
Might from beneath,
From the mountains of night.
He soars o'er the fields in a featherguise.


Chapter 11

Contents


FOOTNOTES:

1. Plural of saga, an oral tradition, transmitted by word of mouth, like the Sanskrit smrti and sruti, teachings "remembered" and "heard" respectively. (return to text)

2. Numbers alone refer to verses in the lay named in the chapter title. (return to text)

3. Genera, generations of related beings. (return to text)

4. Names in italics are not translated; some may be "nonsense syllables," others may refer to fauna or flora not recognized or perhaps extinct. (return to text)

5. "Thirst for Gold." Cf. p. 42 (return to text)

6. This cryptic recurring phrase is translated verbatim. (return to text)

7. The serpent undermining Yggdrasil's roots. (return to text)

8. The world serpent: the equator, ecliptic, or Milky Way. (return to text)

9. "Palebeak": the eagle Rasvalg. (return to text)

10. "Nailfarer," ship of death, built of dead men's nails. (return to text)

11. "Wildfire": the adverse side of Loki. (return to text)

12. Frigga, Odin's spouse. (return to text)

13. The sword of Frey. (return to text)

14. Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life. (return to text)

15. Yggdrasil. (return to text)

16. The "god of secret wisdom." (return to text)

17. A superior shelf of existence, home of the new earth and sun. (return to text)