All posts by scarlett

Voluspa, Where I Complain a Great Deal

Voluspa, Where I Complain a Great Deal

I have read The Poetic Edda several times, and each time I find something new that I didn’t see before. Usually, I enjoy reading it, but this version is proving to be a bit taxing. I have the Bellows version, which is nice because he breaks down which parts come from the Codex Regius and which come from the Hauksbok. He also explains the kennings and other references that we might not understand clearly in the modern world. It’s not 100% chocked full of awesome, but it is very helpful when trying to wade through some extremely dense and obscure reading. To be completely honest, the Larrington version, although probably more accurate, reads like an Ikea manual. I can appreciate the need for accuracy, that is crucial in understanding the myths, but I really wish there had been some effort put forth into preserving the loveliness of the language and cleverness of word play.

For example, the first verse of the Larrington translation is:

Attention I ask from all sacred people,

greater and lesser, the offspring of Heimdall

Father of the Slain, you wished that I should declare

the ancient histories of men and gods, those which I

remember from the first

That’s nice… for an overhead announcement at an airport. I half expected the next verse to be about how there is no parking in the white zone (Bifrost is for loading and unloading only…)

The same verse from Bellows:

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.

Now we’re cooking with Nordic gas! This version has spirit and passion. I understand not only the intent of the text more clearly, but I am already engaged (you had me at “Heimdall”). I find it hard to believe that the only way Larrington could give us a more accurate text was to strip it of any actual poetry. After researching the translator (because I do that), I was even further baffled to find that one of her areas of study is medieval emotion. When verses like:

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.

Become:

They played chequers in the meadow, they were merry,

They did not lack for gold at all,

until three giant girls came,

mighty and powerful, out of Giantland.

Chequers? Chequers?? Did she really just tell me that the gods played checkers on the lawn like a bunch of bored retirees? Even if they were playing checkers, at least flower that language up a bit. That isn’t epic poetry, that sounds like a sunny afternoon at a nursing home. I do understand why this text was chosen for our class, it is the current accepted translation, but I do wish that the current accepted translation was more artfully done. Why did she replace words like “jötnar“? Jötunheimr sounds like a place where giants live, Giantland sounds like a theme park.

I suppose my point is this; The Poetic Edda is extremely important as an historical document. It is crucial we get the facts as straight as possible if we are to understand the subject matter. However, just as important to the document is the art of the words. There are layers of meaning that are lost if we strip soul from the piece. While it is entirely possible this “soul” is something that we ourselves have invested in the work after the fact, I honestly don’t feel that this in and of itself invalidates the importance of the end result. Authenticity is important, but the imagery and what the work symbolizes are important as well.

Yggdrasil

Yggdrasil

I am realizing these journal entries are going to be difficult to keep on topic, since I have already read a lot of the material, and my ideas are sort of interwoven with things we have not and may not cover in class. Please bear with me, and I apologize in advance.

The concept of Yggdrasill as axis mundi (and similarly Irminsul in Continental Europe) is complex and not easily explained. While the symbolic world tree is a near-global theme, Yggdrasil adds an absurd menagerie and has entire words hanging on it like Christmas ornaments. The translation of the name seems to be “Odin’s Horse”, which in turn is a sort of kenning for “Odin’s Gallows” (as a rider on a horse, so is the hanged man on the gallows). This points to Yggdrasil being the tree that Odin hung from when he sacrificed himself to discover the gift of the runes (Havamal). I have always wondered if this meant he discovered writing or the means of divination. I personally, have always thought that this shamanic experience implied that the revelation of the runes was much more than just the acquisition of an alphabet. The fact that this occurs on the World Tree, the center of the universe is important. Odin says he sacrificed himself to himself, but in doing so he also sacrifices himself to the cosmos. By stripping away the ego and surrendering to the universe, he is able to come back with sacred knowledge.

The reference to the tree as a gallows also gives it an element of death. It is frequently described as being a creature in a perpetual state of decay, on the brink of dying and of having to be sustained by the mud formed by the waters of Fate by the Norns. It is in constant agony, tormented by the myriad of lifeforms that call it home. It is life, and life is suffering. It is death, but it can not die, fate keeps it going. The tendency of Norse myth to incorporate bodily fluids, filth, mud, dirt, and decay into how things are formed makes Yggdrasil a potentially nasty place, yet these are the very building blocks of life in general.

The denizens of Yggdrasil are also of interest to me. Mimir’s well (and by extension, his head), the Norns, the various wells, lakes, and seas are all here, as well as many animals. Ratatosk (or Ratatoskr) is interesting, as he delivers verbal “hate mail” between Nidhogg the serpent that gnaws on the roots of Yggdrasil and the unnamed eagle at the top. I get confused with the stag that chews the leaves of the tree (part of the great agony of Yggdrasil according to Odin in the Grimnismal) and the 4 harts. I have read things that indicate that they might be one and the same, others that say they are different. If they are different, what purpose do the 4 harts serve? Similarly, are Nidhogg, the Midgard Serpent, and the various other snakes related? The significance of the serpents is curious as well, since I wasn’t aware that snakes were a big part or the environment in Northern Europe.

One of my favorite parts of the Yggdrasil myth is the (possibly post-conversion) story of the last 2 humans to survive Ragnarok. They survive by hiding in the world tree, which is a really cool full-circle for the origins of humanity (Askr and Embla pulled from trees by Odin, Vili, and Ve). From where we began, we will begin again. Even if this is a Christian alteration to the story, it is an great addition in my opinion.

On a somewhat personal note, part of my fascination with the idea of Yggdrasil is not only how widespread the World Tree mytheme is, but that it works on so many levels. The World Tree, the Tree of Knowledge, the tree-like shapes of neurons in the human brain, Odin hangs from the tree to gain knowledge: it’s all so very elegant in its synchronicity. Part of my main focus in studying the Norse myths has been analyzing the structures and elements of the Yggdrasil mythos. How does this way of seeing the universe affect the way a person actually experiences the universe? What is the significance of figures like the squirrel, the eagle, and the serpents? Is the tree meant to represent a “macrocosm within a microcosm” universe? My questions are endless, and there is so much more to learn on the subject.