Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.
(The Lay of Odin's Corpse or The Lay of Odin's Ravens)
This lay suggests the aftermath following the death of a planet. It has been omitted from many translations as scholars, led by the eminent Sophus Bugge, have tended to ignore it as being quite incomprehensible. It is a lay of great beauty, with a strong mystical appeal, as the reader senses the unsaid, dreamlike, all but unimaginable hiatus between periods of life when the planetary soul is immersed in the quiescence following death. Every kingdom of nature is held in breathless suspension, unmoving, unaware, unliving, awaiting the electrifying urges of a new dawn. Allfather alone is active. In all the Edda there is no more poignant piece of music than this stilling of the pulse of life, leaving each group of beings fixed in its own characteristic state of awareness for the long rest until the gods return.
Odin's two ravens, Hugin and Munin (mind and memory), "daily fly over the battlefield earth" (1) and report back to Allfather by night. Here we again find mention of the gods' anxiety for Hugin, lest he fail to return. There is cogent reason for this. Mind entails choice: beings who possess this faculty, who have attained the function of intelligence and free will, as has humanity on earth, are faced with the options these present. They can, if they so choose, ally themselves totally with the matter-side of nature, the giants, in extreme cases severing their connection with their inner god, so that their characteristic contribution to the cosmic purpose is lost and the soul forgoes its opportunity to become immortal. Or they can gradually blend with the divine source of their existence. The critical choice is not made all at once; it is the cumulative effect of numberless small choices made through progressive stages of life. In the natural course of growth the soul unites each increment of experience with its divine source and so little by little merges with it.
So it is that at the end of a "day" of life, Hugin returns to Odin, bringing tidings of the manifest world and rejoining the divinity whence it originally flew. Its companion, Munin, is the container of all the record of events since the beginning of time. It is on the report of Munin that is built all attainment, as memory remains eternally as the foundation of future awareness.
It should be noted that both birds refer not merely to human consciousness but to corresponding properties as they manifest differently and in varying degrees throughout nature. A planet, such as Idun personifies, possesses the characteristics contributed by all its components, from elemental consciousnesses through the rudimentary condition of minerals, the greater sensitivity of plants, the budding awareness of animal lives, and self-conscious human souls; it includes also the grander status of perfected men and women as well as kingdoms of life superior to the human. Each awakening consciousness at any stage proceeds through life to gain greater scope and cognition, ever modifying its malleable, growing awareness and comprehension, but it is in the human that we first are able to distinguish the process.
At the end of her life, the planetary soul, Idun, is besieged at the fount of Urd by the anxious gods who seek to learn from her of the past life's growth and to imbibe the mead she can provide. Applying the theosophic keys it seems probable that her father Ivalde represents the previous world, the chain of lunar globes of which our present earth is the successor. Idun, his daughter, is "oldest of Ivalde's younger brood," hence belongs to our earth, and is the offspring of the corresponding globe of the former moon chain. However, this is not the most physical part of it: that was Nanna, the body which is no longer visible to us. Nanna died before our earth was born, before it was made from the materials that had composed her discarded form. She is the planet's lower constituents and so sinks into unconsciousness at death, pricked with the thorn of sleep, the "son of the sleep enchanter." This is the very thorn that brought oblivion to Sleeping Beauty (in another interpretation of the same tale), whose long sleep was ended by the kiss of life. The paralyzing thorn is borne on the icicle waves from the frost giant (22) whose minions characteristically begin to die each midnight, slain by the approaching dawn.
As the poem tells us, the sorrowing Idun had but little to contribute to the feast of the Aesir. However, the final verses of this poem bring us to the birth of a new life: as the hags and giants of the night slink away to their lairs " 'neath the noble ash tree's farthest root" (25), the gods reappear and there bursts into triumphant life a new world with new hope, heralded by the "mighty clarion-blower on the mountains of heaven" (26).
1. Allfather acts, elves discern,
Vaner know, norns point the way.
Trolls nourish, aeons give birth,
Thurses wait, Valkyries yearn.
2. The Aesir suffered grim forebodings,
Seers mistook the fruit-maid's runes. (2)
Urd's mead she guarded but could not defend it
From the insistence of the great host.
3. Hugin soars high to seek her out.
The Aesir are anxious if he delays;
To Longing-for-life (3) dreams become suffering;
Dim dreams surfeit the dead.
4. Dwarfs grow numb; their powers fall;
Worlds into Ginnung's waning sink; (4)
The Allwise fells beings often,
And again reassembles the fallen.
5. No longer stand fast the earth or the sun;
The stream of destruction stays no more aloft;
Hidden deep in Mimer's well
Lies all wisdom. Know you as yet or what?
6. Dwells in the dells the knowing maiden, (5)
Fallen from Yggdrasil down, from the ash;
The elves named her Idun; she is the oldest
Of Ivalde's younger brood.
7. Unhappy she seemed over this misfortune,
Lying captive under the lofty tree.
She liked it not with the daughter of Night,
Accustomed to having worlds for her dwelling.
8. The victory gods saw the sorrow of Nanna (6);
They sent her in Hel's house a wolf-disguise;
She put it on and changed disposition;
Confused with illusion, altered appearance.
9. Odin selected the watcher of Bafrast (7)
To ask of the dead sun's sorrowing widow
All that she knew of the fate of the world.
Brage and Lopt bore the testimony. (8)
10. Incantations they chanted, they rode on wolves,
The ruler and powers, to the ends of the world.
Odin, listening from Lidskjalf, (9)
Lets them journey far and wide.
11. Wise Heimdal asked if the mead-provider
Knew of the origin, age, and the end
Of the races of gods and her companions,
Of heaven, the void, and the earth.
12. Naught would she say, not a word would she utter
In response to the askers, nor discourse with them;
Her tears fell fast from her brain's shields;
Her power was numbed, exhausted, and dead.
13. Filled with sorrow Jorun appeared (10)
Before the gods, unable to speak;
The more they asked, the less she said;
All their words flowed in vain.
14. Foremost at the questing was Heimdal, the watcher
Of the horn of the father of hosts;
He brought with him Loki, the one born of Nal,
While Brage, the bard, stood guard.
15. The warriors of Odin attained to the Winehall,
Brought to the place by the sons of the past;
There entered Ygg's heroes to salute the Aesir,
And share in the feasting on mead.
16. They wished Hangatyr (11) health and contentment,
With well-being ever to brew his ale;
The drinkers were blissful to joy at the tankard,
Eager to feast with the Ever-young.
17. Each benched by Odin, the rulers together
Eat and are sated with Sarimner; (12)
With the ladle of Nikar (13) Skogul at the tables
Serves mead in the horns of memory.
18. At the feast much was asked by the gods of Heimdal,
By the goddesses of Loki.
All day long until darkness fell
They sought the seeress' wisdom and prophecy.
19. Ill they thought was resolved
This matter, and little commendable.
Cunning was needed to elicit
An answer from the sly witch.
20. Darkening, Odin speaks. All listen:
"Night shall be used for renewal of counsel;
Each one who can shall by the morrow
Find some solution for the Aesir's weal."
21. At the mountains' rim round the wintry earth
The offspring of Fenris, exhausted, fell.
The gods left the feast, saluting Ropt (14)
And Frigg, at the departure of the steed of night.
22. Soon from the cast, out of icicle-waves,
Comes the thorn of sleep to the frozen giant,
Whose minions are slain in beautiful Midgard
Every night at the midnight hour.
23. Then wanes the power. Hands grow numb.
A swoon assails the white sword-Ase; (15)
Unconsciousness reigns on the midnight breath;
Thought fails in tired beings.
24. But the son of the Dawn spurs on his charger,
Caparisoned gaily in precious gems.
Over Manhome flows radiance from the steed's mane;
He draws in the chariot Dvalin's toy. (16)
25. At the nourishing earth's northern horse-door,
Neath the noble ash-tree's farthest root,
Went to their lairs hags and giants,
Spooks, and dwarfs, and the black elves.
26. Up rose the gods. Forth shone the sun.
Northward to Niflheim night drew away;
Heimdal once more sprang up upon Bafrast,
Mighty clarion-blower on the mountains of heaven.
1. Grimnismal, 20. (return to text)
2. The planetary equivalent of Bargalmer, the "fruit giant." (return to text)
3. What the Buddhists call tanha, thirst for life. It characterizes the lower elements which are drawn to matter. (return to text)
4. Ginnungagap: the Unfathomable Void. (return to text)
5. Idun: the soul of the dead planet is being questioned by the gods and made to yield its increment of consciousness. (return to text)
6. Nanna: the lowest elements of the dead planet which, when the soul has left, become transformed into the illusory material to be reused in future forms. (return to text)
7. Heimdal: the "white sword-Ase." (return to text)
8. Intuition and aspiring mind. (return to text)
9. The Shelf of Compassion. (return to text)
10. The earth-to-be, Idun reborn. (return to text)
11. The hanged god: Odin, the Great Sacrifice. Cf. Havamal, 137-42. (return to text)
12. One of the boars that feed the One-harriers: Andrimner, air; Eldrimner, fire; Sarimner, water; the elements of earth experience. (return to text)
13. The Shaker: Odin as misfortune. Skogul is a Valkyrie who serves the gods and the One-harriers who have united with their inner god. (return to text)
14. The maligned: Odin as the hierophant. (return to text)
15. Heimdal, watcher of the gods on the rainbow bridge, who blows the horn at Ragnarok. (return to text)
16. Dvalin's toy is the solar disk. (return to text)