Wise woman, to whom is assigned a role similar to that of the Sibyl in early Christian literature
Voluspa, “the wisdom of the prophetess”, the most famous mythological poem of the “Elder Edda“, relates in the form of a vision the beginning and end of all things and tells of the gods and their doom. This vision is attributed to a Volva, or wise woman, to whom is assigned a role similar to that of the Sibyl in early Christian literature. Odhin himself is made to summon the prophetess from her grave that she may give him answer; her prophecy is addressed to all men. She is of the race of giants and her memory goes back to the days when there was neither earth nor heaven, but only ginnunga gap, “the yawning, chasm”. Odhin and his brothers created the world, the dwarfs, and finally men. There was a golden age for the gods which is ended when they kill the maid Gullveig and thus provoke war with her kin, the giants, who are victorious. A compact is made, but broken by the gods, who thereby incur guilt and invite their doom. This destruction of the gods, the ragnarok, is depicted with graphic power. Dire portents forebode the catastrophe; Balder, the innocent god, is treacherously slain through the machinations of the wicked Loki, civil war and crime reign supreme, the powers of ruin, the giants, the wolf Fenrir, the Midgard-serpent, the sons of Muspel, and the fire-giant Surtr gather for the final onslaught. Odhin, Thor, and Freyr are killed. The sun and the stars fall from heaven, fire destroys the earth which slips into the sea. But a rejuvenated world emerges from the ruins and a new golden age is at hand. Balder returns and in the golden hall Gimle the people dwell in unending happiness. From above comes the all-powerful god of judgment, while Nidhogg, the evil dragon, comes from below and bears away the corpses.
The elliptic and disjointed manner in which the events are narrated makes it difficult to interpret accurately some of the most important points in connection with this poem, which is one of our chief sources of knowledge concerning the ancient Germanic cosmogony. There has been much difference of opinion among scholars, particularly as regards the question of foreign and Christian influence. It is now conceded that the poem cannot be dated farther back than the middle of the tenth century and that it probably originated in Iceland. If so, Christian influence is not only possible, but certain; for such influence was bound to come in through contact of Icelanders with the Celts and Anglo-Saxons. To assume that the poem presents us the cosmogonic beliefs of the Icelandic people of the tenth century is a grave error. The anonymous author handled the ancient myths with considerable freedom and independence. While the subject-matter is prevailingly pagan, the point of view has assumed a Christian coloring and there are undoubted Christian reminiscences. Such seem to be the portents announcing ragnarok and the rejuvenation of the world. The coming of the great un-named god reflects the victorious advance of the new religion, Christianity, which in the poet’s time was displacing the old beliefs. The figure of Balder and the importance attached to his death, show the influence of the suffering Christ, the guiltless victim. The “Voluspa” does not present to us Teutonic mythology in its ancient or purely pagan form, but a cosmogony which, while fundamentally pagan, has been subject to much foreign influence. Only the extent of this influence is still a matter of dispute.
ARTHUR F. J. REMY