Odin Seeks Prophesy
Odin, father of all gods in Norse mythology, calls upon the Wise Woman, Volva, to seek knowledge of Ragnarok, the final destiny of the gods. In this final battle, there will be the demise of many heroes and gods as foretold in the poem, The Wise Woman’s Prophecy, the most famous of all the poems in the Poetic Edda.
The Poetic Edda, often referred to as the Elder Edda, is the most important extant source of Norse mythology. It is a collection of ancient Old Norse poems contained in the Codex Regius, an Icelandic manuscript which was written in the 1270s. Many of the stanzas of the Voluspa are also in the Prose Edda of the 13th century, by the Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson.
Odin, the Allfather
Odin is the powerful god of the AEsir (Norse pantheon), the father of all gods. In the Voluspa Odin visits a volva, a shamanic seeress adept in sorcery and prophecy. A volva was highly esteemed and possessed power that surpassed even those of Odin.
Odin wishes to gain the Widsom of the Ages with the help of the Volva, whom he bids to rise from her grave. He is always very aware of impending disasters and continually seeks more knowledge. He calls upon the Volva and she demands a hearing wherein she relates all of the past from Creation forward. All the stanzas herein of the poem come from Volumn 1 of The Poetic Edda, Lays of the Gods, Voluspa.
The First Disaster for the Gods
Before going further, the Volva recalls the death of Baldr.
The first great disaster to the gods defines Loki as an enemy and outcast of the gods in AEsir. This disaster was the death of Baldr, the son of Odin and Frigg. Baldr was the god of light, The Shining One. He had a dream of his own death by an arrow and sought Frigg to tell her. She had the same dream on the same night. She loved Baldr beyond all, so called upon all the trees and plants of the woods. She made them swear that no part of them would ever harm Baldr. All the plants made an oath to her, all except the mistletoe. Frigg thought the mistletoe too young and fragile to swear an oath.
It had become a great game for the young gods to shoot arrows at Baddr and watch them bounce off, not harming him. Loki, the troublemaker, found out about the mistletoe and made an arrow from it He gave the arrow to Hoth, the blind younger brother of Baldr. Happy to be a part ot the game, Hoth hurled the arrow which struck and killed Baldr.
The Volva relates this event to Odin
32. I saw for Baldr, the bleeding god,
The Son of Othin, his destiny set
Famous and fair in the lofty fields,
Full grown in strength the mistletoe stood.
One of Odin’s warriors then slew Hoth. Great was the sorrow of Odin and Frigg for losing their beloved Baldr. The gods took Loki and bound him to a tree with a serpent fastened just above Loki’s head. Venom of the serpent constantly dripped down. Loki’s wife, Sigyn, stays beside him with a bowl to catch the venom. When the bowl is full, she has to leave to empty it and the venom drips over Loki’s face. Earth shook from the struggles of Loki.
The Volva was once called Gullveig by all who knew her. It is uncertain if Gullveig was a goddess or a sorceress. The AEsir had executed her by spearing then burning her. Three times they did this and three times she came back. After the third time she was called by the name Heior, meaning “fame” in Old Norse.
Several scholars have proposed that Gullveig may have been the goddess Freyja. If she had been Freyja, it could have been the cause, or at least one, of the AEsir-VAnir War, the first war of the world. Freyja was a member of the VAnir. As a VAnir goddess, she was adept in witchcraft. Her husband was Oor, a member of the AEsir. Oor often went on long journeys, leaving Freyja alone. She traveled in disguise under many different names searching for Oor. The VAnir would have been furious if Freyja was in fact Gullveig, executed by the AEsir, and would have sought revenge.
The Volva Speaks to Odin
1. Hearing I ask from the holy races,
From Heimdall’s sons, both high and low,
Thou wild, Valfather, that well I relate
Old tales I remember of men long ago.
2. I remember yet the giants of yore,
Who gave me bread in the days gone by,
Nine worlds I knew, the nine in the tree
With mighty roots beneath the mold
Heimdall is the watchman of the gods. His sons, brethren of kin both high and low, are the gods and mankind in general. She refers to Odin as “Valfather”, because all the brave and good slain warriors in battles are brought to him in Valhalla (Hall of the Slain) where they are given immortality till they are to fight in Ragnarok. The nine worlds of the tree are the non worlds (levels) of the gods in Yggdrasil, the World Tree. It s roots reach far down in Earth and its branches reach to Heaven. Its arms spread out over all the world.
The Volva recounts events far into the past, including things only Odin knows, and far into the future she tells of things Odin wishes to know.
When Odin first begins talking with the Volva, there is a formality wherein they each must test each other. She must present proof of the abilities as a Wise Woman and seeress. Odin must therefore listen to her tales of the past and acknowledge her wisdom as truth. The Volva tells Odin she knows where the horn of Heimdall, watchman of the gods, is hidden under Yggdrasil. This is the horn that Heimdall will blow to summon the gods to counsel before the final battle.
27. I know of the horn of Heimdall, hidden
Under the high-reaching holy tree;
On it there pours from Valfather’s pledge
A mighty stream would you know yet more?
The Volva changes directions here and addresses Odin directly. Although Odin has not told her why he called her up, she knows what he wants and how much he has endured in his constant search for knowledge of his own doom. In an earlier journey, Odin had gone to the well of Mimir, The Well of Wisdom. Mimir asked for sacrifice if Odin wanted to see future events. He told Odin that if he wanted to be a seer he must put one of his eyes in the well, so Odin sacrificed one eye. He also pledged to bring mead to Mimir each morn for more knowledge.
Mimir had been a counselor to Hoenir, a chieftain the gods thought was very wise. When the gods found out that it was Mimir who gave the wisdom to Hoenir, they beheaded Mimir and sent the head to Odin in Asgard. Odin embalmed the head and spoke charms over it so the head could counsel Odin on secrets and many things. Odin carried the head with him everywhere. The body of Mimir had been thrown in a well where Odin found it.
The Volva asks Odin (the Old One) , “What questions do you have? Why have you come here? She proceeds to tell Odin she knows where his eye is.
28. Alone I sat when the Old One sought me,
The terror of gods, and gazed in mine eyes:
What hast thou to ask? why comest thou hither?
Odin, I know where thine eye is hidden.
29. I know where Odin’s eye is hidden,
Deep in the wide-famed well of Mimir,
Mead from the pledge of Odin each mom
Does Mirmir drink: would you know yet more?
30. Necklaces had I and rings from Heerfather,
Wise was my speech and my magic wisdom,
Widely I saw over all the worlds.
When she asks, “would you know yet more?” she is relating to Odin that she has proved her knowledge of the past and of the secrets he holds. Odin in turn acknowledges her wisdom and had rewarded her with jewelry, which is an indication to tell him more. She refers to Odin as “Heerfather” (father of the Host). Line 30 brings Odin and the Volva to the point where they both accept that the past she relates to is true and she will now transition to the future and the real reason Odin has come to here.
In the Prose Edda, Loki is introduced formally in chapter 34 of the book Gylfaginning. He is referred to as the “originator of deceits” and ” the disgrace of all gods and men”. Odin and Loki had once been friends and there was a time when Odin said he would not drink mead unless Loki was with him. All the deceits of Loki, all the sorrow he caused had broken the friendship.
Future Destiny of the Gods-
Then the Volva comes to the heart of the knowledge Odin seeks: the events of the future where he asks her many questions. Among many other things, the Volva sees the final destiny of the gods and Odin’s doom during Ragnarok.
The seeress tells Odin of how floods will overwhelm Earth and fires so fierce the flames will leap as high as Heaven while the gods fight to their death with their enemies. She says the Valkyries will bring the slain warriors in AEsir of all past battles to aid Odin and other gods. Loki, now free of his bindings, will lead the evil gods and the wicked slain ones from Hel’s domain.
How Fare the Gods?
Odin asks “How fare the gods?” Some of the AEsir, gods, will return and tell of the deeds of Odin, his sons and others who fought bravely and honorably. They will tell how the fires destroyed Earth and how she was claimed by the sea. Baldr, Odin’s beloved son who was slain long before Ragnarok because of the deceitful god Loki, will return.
In stanzas 39 through 42, the Volva foretells how the great battle begins.
39. In the east sat the old,
giantess in Ironwood,
and fostered there
Just one of these,
of all of them,
becomes the moon-thief
in troll’s guise.
40. Fills the foreshore
with dead men,
reddens reigns abode
with red gore;
black was sunshine
the summer after,
the weather unsafe.
Understand ye yet, or what?
41. Sat there on a pile
and played his harp,
the maidens’ warder,
Resound around him,
in gosling forest,
bright red rooster
that Fialar is named.
42. Resound around Aesir
and wakes yeoman’s
hinge at Heriafather.
before earth below:
in the halls of Heliar.
The giantess was married to Fenrir, a wolf. The brood of Fenrir are their sons, the wolves Skoll and Hati. Skoll steals the sun and Hati steals the moon. Eggther is the watchmnan of the giants. Fjalar is the cock whose crowing screech awakens the giants for the battle, Gollinkambi is the cock who awakens the gods of AEsir.
43. Then to the gods crowed Gollinkambi,
He wakes the heroes in Othin’s hall,
And beneath the earth does another crow,
The rust-red bird hath the barks of Hel.
44. Now Garm howls loud before Gripahellir,
The fetters will burst, and the wolf run free,
Much do I know, and more can see
Of the fate of the gods, the might in light.
Gripahellir is the entrance to Hel’s world of the dead. Garm (Fenrir) is the dog, in some stanzas referred to as a wolf, that guards the gate of Hel.
45. Brothers shall fight and fell each other,
And sister’s sons shall kinship stain,
Hard is it on earth, with mighty whoredom,
Axe-time, sword-time, shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, ere the world falls,
Nor ever shall men each other spare.
The Volva tells of how brothers will turn against each other and how nephews (sisters sons) will turn against their uncles (kindship). The relationship between men and their nephews was often closer than fathers and sons.
46. Fast move the sons of Mirn, and fate
Is heard in the note of the Gjallarhom,
Loud blows Heimdall, the horn is aloft,
In fear quake all who on Hel-roads are.
The sons of Mirn are spirits of the water. Mimer was the one who asked Odin for his eye at Mimer’s well. Gjallarhorn the horn shrieks as Hiemdall blows it hard with all his might, rendering fear in the warriors of Hel.
47. Yggdrasil shakes, and shivers on high
The ancient limbs, and the giant is loose,
To the head of Mirn does Othin give heed,
But the kinsman of Surt shall slay him soon.
Odin leads the gods of AEsir to the battle, Loki, now free of his bindings, leads the evil ones. Just as the most brave and good of the slain warriors were taken to Odin for the final battle, the most evil were taken to the goddess Hel to aid in the battle against Odin. Hel had sent the evil ones to Loki.
The mighty gods fight against the enemy, the creatures of the evil, like the giant serpent, and those gods who lead the evil ones. Many die as the venomous serpent twists and turns in his wrath. The tawny eagle, as it gnaws on the dead screams. Thor, Odin’s powerful son and second in command, advances and strikes a death blow to the serpent. The venom from the serpent suffocates Thor, he staggers nine paces then falls dead.
Fenrir the wolf who guards Griiipahellir, at the gates of Hel breaks free of his chains and Odin fights him. The battle is fierce, the Allfather strong and mighty, but Fenrir slays Odin.
Sigfather is Odin. Vithar is Odin’s son who fights the wolf. Fenrir, the Garm, is a son of a great giantess. Vithar thrust his sword deep in the heart of the wolf and kills him, thereby avenging his father’s death.
52. Surt fares from the south with the scourge of branches,
The sun of the battle-gods shone from his sword,
The crags are sundered, the giant-women sink.,
The dead throng Hel-way, and heaven is cloven.
Surt is the ruler of the fire-world. He came from the south with branches of fire, the sun shining brightly off his sword.
53. Now comes to Hlin yet another hurt,
When Othin fares to fight with the wolf,
And Beli’s fair slayer seeks out Surt,
For there must fall the joy of Frigg.
In horror Frigg (Hlin) had watched the death of Odin, her love, her joy. With the loss of Baldr and now Odin, she is alone in deep sorrow. Beli’s fair slayer is the god Freyr, brother of Freyja. He had killed the giant Beli with just his fist.
Vithar, Odin’s son avenges his father’s death, as the Volva relates:
54. Then comes Sigfather’s mighty son,
Vithar, to fight with the foaming wolf,
In the giant’s son does he thrust his sword,
Full to the heart: his father is avenged.
The battle rages in fury never before seen and the mighty will fall. Fire will engulf Earth and black will be the day from its smoke.
57. The sun turns black, Earth sinks in the sea,
The hot stars down from heaven are whirled;
Fierce grows the steam and the life-feeding flame,
Till fire leaps high about heaven itself.
With stanza 57, we have the account of the horrible destruction of mighty gods and Earth. In the rest of the stanzas the Volva speaks of the new world and those who inhabit it.
Will There be Survivors?
Odin asks if there will be any survivors of Ragnarok and will Earth itself survive. She says there will be two survivors, Lif and Liftharasir, who will survive by living in a cave deep in the woods. Their sustenance will be the morning dew, and eventually they will repopulate Earth.
The Volva sees Earth rising again, in all its glory. What was beautiful before will be even more so. Fields that once were barren and unsewn will bear fruit. Lush areas of green will spawn new growth and the seas will be abundant with fish and all manner of sea life.
59. Now do I see the earth anew
Rise all green from the waves again,
The cataracts fall, and the eagle flies,
And fish he catches beneath the cliffs.
The New World
Throughout all ages the mighty gods, Odin, Frig, their sons Thor, Baldr, Vithar live on in a world beyond what we can see. All the gods live still, either in good worlds like Valhalla, or bad worlds like Hel, where Loki and the demon monsters of Ragnarok abide.
Looking at the troubles of today’s world makes one wonder if there will be a final battle like Ragnarok. Many cultures the world over, like the Hopi Elders, have their beliefs of this world ending and a new one rising from the horrible destruction. Each belief has a few survivors who will re-populate Mother Earth.
Critiques are welcome.
© 2017 Phyllis Doyle Burns