Here’s a thought I had:
Recently, I was surprised when I heard that the Old Norse classic “Voluspa” was interpreted as “the prophecy of the seeress”, as if it were a statement from an actual human being. This, to me, does not seem to be the case. To me, the writing appears as purely mythical involving mythical beings.
In addition, as I reflected on the name “Voluspa”, I began to notice some interesting things about the words “vol” and “spal” which led to a possible alternate interpretation of what “voluspa” means.
THE STATEMENT OF A “MYTHOLOGICAL BEING”???
I have always thought that the “Voluspa” refers to a statement by a “mythological being” (such as a “goddess” or “spirit”) rather than an actual human person, as often seems to be inferred by interpreters. It seems, to me, that it was this “mythological being” who was asked to state mythological history, which makes up the body of the “Voluspa”. In other words, I don’t feel that it intended to be a statement of a human being, such as a witch, seeress, prophetess, or anything like that. This point of view would mean that the “Voluspa” is a mythological work not only in what it says but in who stated it. There are a number of reasons why I think this. These are revealed in a number of statements in the body of the work. Here are some examples:
- “I remember giants born early in time, who long ago had reared me” (Ek man iotna, ar um borna, tha er fordom mik, foedda hofdo). This does not sound like a statement from a human being. It specifically mentions being reared by “giants early in time”. This, it seems to me, refers to a “mythological being”. Is it possible that the “mythological being” is a giant, being that it was reared by giants? Its difficult to say.
- Throughout the text there are numerous statements of “rememberings” of things that have taken place in mythological history, such as “Nine worlds I remember”, “I know of the horn of Heimdall . . . ” , “I saw Baldr for the bloodstained sacrifice, Odin’s child”, “Widely I saw over all the worlds” and such. This sounds like things only a “mythological being” could know.
- “You wish me, father of the Slain, well to narrate the worlds old news, such as I remember from remotest times.” (Vildo et ek, Valfodr, vel fyr telia, forn spioll fira, thau er fremst um man). This appears to show that it was the god Odin (also known as ‘father of the Slain’) who asked to have mythological history narrated. Only a “mythological being” would be able to do this . . . why would a human being be asked to do such a thing? In addition, this spirit speaks of what it remembers from “remotest times” . . . hardly a claim of a human. We must remember that the “Voluspa” describes events from the beginning to the end of mythological time. In my opinion, only a “mythological being” could of been asked to do such a thing.
- “Alone I sat in the night, when the old fellow came, Aesir’s Son of Dread, and looked into my eyes: ‘what do you ask me? why do you try me? I know it all Odin . . . “. Here is the mention of Odin appearing before this “mythological being” as if demanding it tell mythological history. What’s interesting is that this being makes a statement “I know it all Odin”. This point of view has been said before. It states something similar in the ‘Gylfiginning’: “All fates I believe Frigg knows, though she herself does not pronounce.” Frigg is Odin’s wife. Is it possible that the “mythological being” is Frigg herself? I’m inclined to think that this is not the case, as there is no other reference to Frigg, only that it is a being who knows mythological time.
- ” . . . but now I must sink”. This is how it ends. It almost seems to suggest that the “mythological being” was ‘conjured up’ and, as a result, makes an appearance. Once the reciting of history has ended, it ‘sinks’ or disappears. This suggests that this “mythological being” is something like a spirit that was ‘conjured up’ to narrate mythological history. From the earlier account described above it appears that Odin conjured this spirit up and asked it to narrate mythological time.
To me, these all point to a number of things:
- That it was a “mythological being” and not a human being. Because of this it knew much about mythology, the gods, and mythological time. It also seems to suggest that this “mythological being” lived throughout mythological time observing and remembering it.
- It seems to suggest that it was a spirit that was ‘conjured up’.
- From statements in the body of the work it was apparently asked to recite mythological history by the god Odin.
- It does not reveal who this “mythological being” is.
- From a statement in the account this “mythological being” may be a giant or someone associated with giants.
As a result, it appears that this is a purely mythological work, describing mythological reality, and, because of this, the characters of the work are all mythological as well.
SOME ASPECTS OF THE WORD “VOL” AND “SPA”
The name of the work, “Voluspa”, may be revealing about this “mythological being”. The word is made up of two elements: “vol” and “spa”.
The word “vol”
The word “vol” is interesting in that it is associated with “vollr” which is associated with:
- A “field”.
- A plain.
- A level ground.
It is also associated with “valr” which is associated with:
- The “slain”.
- A “hawk”, “falcon”.
Both of these, together, may hint to the fact that “vol” may be associated with a ‘battlefield’, a ‘field’ where people were ‘slain’. This would not be surprising as a form of sacrifice for Odin is war. Because of this, the “field” may refer to any ‘sacrificial field’ (one of which is the battlefield) and “the slain” are the ‘sacrificial victims’ (which are also the soldiers fallen in battle). This may mean that “vol” may actually refer to ‘a place of sacrifice’. The “hawk” or “falcon” may refer to the birds that fly around and eat the dead. No doubt, a sacrifice attracted birds which would hang around the area. It is not surprise, then, that “a place of sacrifice” is associated with birds. Its for this same reason of sacrifice that Odin, who is greatly associated with sacrifice, is associated with birds (most notably the crow or raven).
The world “spa”
The world “spa” is generally interpreted as ‘prophecy’ or ‘wisdom’. No doubt, this really refers to a spiritual ‘seeing’ and not necessarily to a statement of prophecy about the future, s we’d normally think. It’s this spiritual ‘seeing’ that is exactly what the “Voluspa” is about, of seeing into mythological time. In other words, its a reference to seeing into ‘mythological reality’.
“Vol” and “spa”
Both of these words together seem to suggest a ‘prophecy in a place of sacrifice’ or a ‘seeing into mythological reality with sacrifice’. If this is the case then it would suggest that it refers to a specific ritual or ceremony. Perhaps this is what the word originally meant? Unfortunately, if this ritual or ceremony did exist it has been lost to us.
But, even more, it may be a reference to the spirit that appears at this ritual or ceremony. In other words, a “voluspa” may refer to the spirit that appears when one sacrifices for prophecy or to see mythological reality. This would mean that “Voluspa” may actually mean a “a spirit conjured up” probably in a specific type of ritual or ceremony which is associated with sacrifice. Since Odin is associated with sacrifice (and is even mentioned in the body of the text) it shows that this spirit is part of the worship of Odin. This would make “Voluspa” similar to a “Valkyrie”. These are female maiden spirits who “chose” the dead in the battlefield and took them to Valhalla, the hall of the slain. They are associated with Odin and served him. In some respects, they are variations of the same thing: a spirit who appeared at a sacrifice and served Odin.
But “Voluspa” is often interpreted in relation to seeress or witch, a human being. But, because the “Voluspa” refers to a “mythological being” and not a human being, as I mentioned above, I tend to feel that this is not the case. If this is the case, then it shows that there has become a confusion between a witch and ‘a spirit conjured up’ which has happened in the interpretation of this work. No doubt, this has to do with the image of the witch which has appeared in Western Europe as a result of the witch trials and such. Its also possible that this term became associated with any Norse ‘witch’ after the Christian conversion. Because of this, it may have caused a distortion in the interpretation of what the word means.
In the “Voluspa” it was Odin, himself, who ‘conjured up’ this spirit. But, more than likely, this only reflects a similar act performed by human beings at one time: a ritual or ceremony associated with Odin. As I said above, there appears to be no account of this ritual or ceremony that has survived. More than likely this ‘conjuring’ was associated with gaining some form of ‘blessing’ or some form of an ‘answer’. The ‘conjuring’, then, really refers to a communication, so to speak, with the gods.
There appear to be several common themes that are associated with Odin that are associated with this communication. These are:
- Sacrifice. In an earlier article I mentioned that I felt that Odin was a god in which many sacrifices were made . . . a sacrificial god (“Thoughts on how the Norse god Odin’s association with sacrifice, and historical circumstance, turned him into a ‘war god’ and a ‘god of the dead’ “). In other words, it seems, at least to me, that Odin is more than a ‘war god’, as he’s commonly portrayed. This viewpoint appears to of been created later as a result of the Viking invasions and the association with the fallen in battle to sacrifice to Odin. Sacrifice (especially to Odin) was, apparently, somewhat common with the Vikings. More than likely they were done for many different reasons. Most of these reasons have been lost as well as the rituals that accompanied them.
- Poetry or song . . . the means of prophecy? The use of poetry or song is mentioned, especially, in the beginning of the Ynglinga Saga, and is associated with the worship of Odin, who is also credited with creating poetry. As a result, Odin is associated with both sacrifice and poetry and, accordingly, they appear to be intimately bound. I have often questioned if they used sacrifice to open the “doorway to the gods”, so to speak, and then used poetry or song to learn the “will of the gods”. In this way, poetry or song would be similar to the Delphic Oracle whose statements were done in verse. But this is speculation . . . we will never know. If this was done its technique has been lost. The commonly used tendency to do instantaneous inspired poetry by Norwegian and Icelandic skalds may be a hint to revealing how this worked, but its difficult to say. I wrote an article involving these subjects called “Thoughts on Skaldic poetry and the Norse god Odin“.
These themes, associated with Odin and the Norse, show definite association with the themes associated with the word “Voluspa” (field, battle, slain, prophecy). This suggests an association. They are also associated with other Norse accounts showing a cultural base and origin. In fact, these themes are actually quite prevalent which suggests that there is more to all this than it may at first seem, perhaps showing an important and strong cultural element in the life of the Norse. Unfortunately, it shows a connection between these themes but does not reveal the details of what this association consists of or how it was done, which are lost to us. As is often the case when we deal with the early Norse especially, we have missing information that does not allow us to form a complete picture.
Copyright by Mike Michelsen