Translator's Notes

Among the lays and stories of the Edda the place of honor unquestionably belongs to Voluspa. It is the most comprehensive as well as the most enigmatic portion of the Norse scripture. In it are outlined the majestic pageant of worlds in formation, the attributes of the cosmic Tree of Life, its decay and death, and its subsequent renewal and rebirth. To follow the progression of events related by the sibyl we must often resort to other lays and sagor (1) which are more explicit, for in Voluspa we see the work of eternities compressed into the wink of an eye, the vastness of a universe in a grain of sand.

The vala or volva, the sibyl who speaks the poem, represents the indelible record of time, as from a beginningless past events move toward an endless future with universes succeeding one another in surging waves of life. The vala personifies the record of the past: her memory, reaching back through the "foretime," recalls nine former world trees, long since dissolved and now reliving.

Voluspa is the sibyl's response to Odin's search for wisdom. The cosmic record is being consulted by Allfather — conscious, divine intelligence which periodically manifests as a universe, impelled by the urge to gain experience. He is the root of all the lives that compose it, immanent in every portion of its worlds, yet supernal. When the vala addresses Odin as "all ye holy kindred," this not only shows the intimate relationship which links all beings, but also identifies them with the questing god. Odin's cited wish to learn of "the origin, life, and end of worlds" is a device to elicit this information on behalf of all the "greater and lesser sons of Heimdal" (1) (2) — all existing forms of life within this solar system, Heimdal's domain — and, incidentally, of the audience.

To those who picture deity as a perfect, omniscient, omnipresent, and unchanging person, it may seem strange to find a god requesting information on anything, especially in worlds beneath his own divine sphere. But in the myths divinities are not static, congealed in divine perfection, but growing, learning intelligences of many degrees. The Voluspa uses a poetic ploy to suggest that consciousness enters worlds of matter in order to learn, grow, and evolve greater understanding, while inspiring by association the matter through which it operates.

The vala "remembers giants born in the foretime" — worlds now dead, whose energizing consciousnesses have long since left them, whereupon their uninspired material reverted to entropy and chaos. She remembers "nine trees of life before this world tree grew from the ground" (2). Elsewhere there is mention of Heimdal's being "born of nine maidens"; also that Odin's vigil when he is mounted on the Tree of Life lasted for "nine whole nights" (Havamal 137). This all combines to suggest that our earth system is the tenth in a series, following the frost giant Ymer when there was "no soil, no sea, no waves" (3).

Each world tree is an expression of the divine consciousnesses which organize appropriate forms to live in and gain the "mead" of experience. When in due course they withdraw, whatever cannot advance or profit by the association with the gods, that is to say, whatever is unmitigatedly material, becomes the frost giant.

The wise sibyl who tamed wolves, analogous to the cosmic vala, appears to represent the hidden wisdom or occult insight. (It is worth noting that the word "occult" means anything hidden or obscured, just as a star is occulted when it is hidden from our sight by the moon, or any other body. The merest a, b, c, is occult until it is understood.) The vala, Heid, is that hidden knowledge which exerts a fascination on the selfish, hence it is "ever sought by evil peoples," although it may be harmlessly acquired by one who is wise and "tames wolves," who is in control of the animal nature and who by self-discipline and service gains access to nature's arcana. The distinction between the two sibyls is clearly made in the poem: "She sees much; I see more" (45). One pertains to human concerns on earth, the other represents an overview of cosmic records.

The skalds distinguished three different kinds of magic: sejd or prophecy is the faculty of foreseeing events to come as they follow naturally on those of the past. In most countries there were until quite recently many "wise women" who continued to practice this art, most commonly in trivial matters. Such fortune-tellers are still to be found; many of them trade on public gullibility and prophesy more or less spurious "fortunes" for a fee. A second type of magic is the galder — a formula of enchantment purporting to bend the future to one's desire. Such spells, when in any degree successful, are often sorcery, whether performed in good faith and ignorance or, more dangerously, with the impact of knowledge and with will and determination behind them. Inevitably their repercussions complete their circuit and adversely affect the originator as well as associates who may be innocently and ignorantly involved.

A third form of magic is "reading the runes" — perusing nature's book of symbols and gaining progressive wisdom. This is the study of Odin himself, as he hangs in the Tree of Life (Havamal 137-8): "I searched the depths, found runes of wisdom, raised them with song, and fell once more thence" — from the tree.

The vala tells of the end of the golden age of innocence and of the death of the sun-god Balder through the agency of his blind brother Hoder — ignorance and darkness — instigated by Loki, the mischievous elf of human intelligence. As in many other tales of the fall from innocence of the early humans, the agent which brought about our knowledge of good and evil and the power to choose between them, has borne the blame for all subsequent ills in the world. The biblical Lucifer, the light-bringer, from "bright and morning star" has been transformed into a devil; the Greek Prometheus who gave mankind the fire of mind was chained to a rock for the duration of the world and will be rescued only when Herakles, the human soul, shall have attained perfection at the end of its labors. Similarly, Loki was bound beneath the nether gates of the underworld to suffer torment until the cycle's completion. In each case the sacrifice brought us humans the inner light needed to illumine our path to godhood, which will be gained through conscious effort and self-conscious regeneration in ultimate reunion with our divine source.

The Voluspa gives a vivid description of Ragnarok. This has been translated as the "age of fire and smoke," probably because rok in Swedish means smoke, and students of mythology have regarded this as characteristic of the Norsemen's supposedly doleful temperament, given to doom and gloom. But there is a better interpretation of the word: ragna, plural of the Icelandic regin (god, ruler) + rok (ground, cause, or origin) is the time when the ruling gods return to their root, their ground, at the end of the world. The horrors depicted as accompanying the departure of the gods are indeed chilling, punctuated by the howling of the hound of Hel; however, this is not the end. After the toppling of the world tree, the poem continues to describe the birth of a new world and ends on a note of serene contentment at the dawn of a new and golden age. Many are unaware of this and, having some acquaintance with Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelungen" tacitly ignore the implications of a cosmic rebirth. Yet, the pattern conforms far more closely to the tenor of other profound systems of thought than does the idea of an ultimate end. Such irreversible finality is not found in myths; instead we learn of nature's ceaseless flow into being and back to the unknown source, inevitably followed by a new manifestation — a pattern that better mirrors all we know of nature, and evokes a far grander vision of the eternal pulse of life beating through boundless infinitude and endless duration.