The sources cited on this page can be found here: https://marnietunay2.wordpress.com/2016/03/05/sources-for-volundarkvida-when-where-and-why/
Contender with Völuspá for the title of ‘most haunting poem’ in the 12th ? cent. Old Norse manuscript known as the ‘Codex Regius,’ Völundarkviða* ‘is hands-down the eeriest of the Eddic poems. Most probably composed in 10th century British Yorkshire, it tells the story in terse verses (in a free fornyrðislag metre**) of the elf-man who wreaks a preternaturally savage revenge upon the ruthless monarchs who had him shanghaied, robbed of his gold and hamstrung.
*’the song of Völund’
**“old lore metre,” a stanza in 8 half-lines
If you’re not familiar with the poem, Wikipedia can give you a quick rundown: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%B6lundarkvi%C3%B0a
and the excellent online site http://germanicmythology.com/ has a good translation into English by Benjamin Thorpe: http://germanicmythology.com/works/ThorpeEdda/thorpe19.html (That site also has Eddic translations into other languages, German, Norse and Swedish: http://germanicmythology.com/works/eddiccollections.html )
Other free online sources for various translations of the poem include:
[Bellows’ translation with his notes and texts, but the concordance with the Old Norse text is messed up. If you don’t care about that, then this is a great free source for the poem, as well as for numerous others, including an excellent translation of Völuspá.]
Yves Kodratoff corrected the concordance for the above translation: http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/VolundarkvithaEngONfacing.pdf (There’s one typo though, as of this writing; Kodratoff wrote that it was Benjamin Thorpe’s translation, which it is not; it’s the translation of Henry Adams Bellows. He may have corrected that by the time this blog-post gets published; I’ve written to him and he agrees it’s a typo. Moreover, Bellows’ notes are, as Kodratoff says, not in step with the verses. Kodratoff also has a site rich in Old Norse pagan material: http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/ and I recommend it.]
Another good free online source for myths from many cultures is sacred-texts.com, and they also have the Henry Adams Bellows translation of the ‘Lay of Völund:” http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe17.htm together with Bellows’s notes.
Two other translations I can recommend are Ursula Dronke’s, in her book ‘The Poetic Edda, Volume II, ‘Mythological Poems;’ and Lee F. Hollander’s, in his book ‘The Poetic Edda.’ Dronke’s translations are peerless, I think, and Volumes I and II of her ‘Poetic Edda’ contain painstaking, detailed notes. However, Lee Hollander’s edition is much cheaper in price than Dronke’s, and he tries to replicate the metric patterns (which he also discusses in his introduction.)
Detailed Commentaries on Völundarkviða. Recommended
John McKinnell. ‘Völundarkviða: Origins and Interpretation,’ in his Essays on Eddic Poetry. University of Toronto Press 2014 John McKinnell. ‘The Context of Völundarkviða,’ in Vol. XXIII of the ‘Saga-Book of the Viking Society,’ 1990 – 93 John McKinnell. ‘The Context of Völundarkviða,’ in The Poetic Edda, Essays on Old Norse Mythology. Edited by Paul Acker and Carolyne Larrington. Routledge, 2002 Ursula Dronke. ‘Völundarkviða,’ in ‘The Poetic Edda: Volume II Mythological Poems. Edited with Translation, Introduction and Commentary by Ursula Dronke. Clarendon Press, 1997 John McKinnell. ‘Eddic Poetry in Anglo-Saxon northern England,’ in Vikings and the Danelaw: Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress. Edited by James Graham-Campbell et al. Oxbow, 2001 Kaaren Grimstad. ‘The Revenge of Völundr,’ in Edda: A Collection of Essays. Edited by R.J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason, pages 187 – 209. University of Manitoba Press 1983 H.R. Ellis Davidson. ‘Weland the Smith’ in ‘Folklore, Vol. 69, No. 3,’ Sept. 1958
I hope to show herein that Völundarkviða may be read as a subtle cautionary treatise, from both a mystical and from a political standpoint, on the dangers both of that Northern aspect of sorcery known as seiðr* as well as on those dangers inherent in the mis-use of especially political power.
*For a quick and very rough idea: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sei%C3%B0r
I also hope to show that the poem’s enduring power arises in part from the spiritual power of its composer, who, again and again, picks up anew and transforms the elements in his story, never making a false move, never selling out to popular sentiment, and in the end transforming a weather-beaten old tale into an enduring myth, with real power even today to significantly affect the lives of those with the temerity to try to draw nearer.
What I can only say I believe, but of course will be unable to verify, is the poem was composed in North Yorkshire, perhaps in the 10th century, for the benefit of people who were working with techniques to develop their powers of attention. I believe this, because I think I understand what the essence of seiðr was all about, thanks to the work of scholars such as Eldar Heide, and from this I also understand why seiðr was called ‘ergi,’ ‘perverse,’ ‘unmanly’ by the 13th century writer and politician Snorri Sturluson.  Eldar Heide has argued persuasively that a very significant component of seiðr involved attempting to “attract” someone or something to oneself by ‘hidden’ or ‘magical’ means. One does that by creating a ‘receptive’ field, in one’s span of attention.  It’s ‘black magic,’ when it seeks to act on others without their knowledge or understanding. Certain spiritual techniques, when practiced extensively, certain forms of meditation, for instance, will tend to produce insight into principles of attraction along the way, hopefully at the same time that conscience is developed and an awareness of the risks of using attraction to manipulate the material world. In the warrior societies of the north, sitting quietly and sneakily attempting to ‘pull’ someone or something to one must have seemed at odds with the warrior ethos, best left to women, in the minds of most, back then. (The two Northern deities most known for their affiliations with seið and magic in general, were Oðinn and Freyja.)
Age and Provenance of Völundarkviða, ‘The Song of Völund:’ The brilliant British scholar John McKinnell takes a number of good runs at this aspect of the poem: in Saga-Book XXIII, he is writing for specialist academics when he sets out (in pages 1 – 14) his case, based on specific vocabulary elements used by the poet, that Völundarkviða may well have been composed in Yorkshire of Britain in the 10th or early 11th century. His Saga article assumes his readers have a good knowledge of both Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon or at least the Old Norse text of the poem with a facing-page translation. [McKinnell (2) p. 1 – 14]
In his 2002 essay, McKinnell focuses on his interpretation of the context, and merely summarizes briefly the points he made in his earlier essay on the age and provenance. He does, however, provide more translations into English of those elements he discusses with respect to dating and provenance. [McKinnell (5) p. 198 – 200] He concludes herein that “the poem probably originates from a Norse-influenced area of England,” namely, “in Yorkshire, and hence to date from the period ca. 900 – 1050.” [ibid, p. 200]
McKinnell’s 2014 essay strikes a nice balance between depth and accessibility; the arguments are both more extensive than those in his 2002 essay, and more directed towards an audience that may not have a working knowledge of Old Norse or Anglo-Saxon. His discussion of provenance is also greatly expanded from that in his earlier articles on Völundarkviða. [McKinnell (1) p. 221 – 233] His conclusion remains much the same, however, that “it is in the Yorkshire of the tenth or early eleventh century that [he] would tentatively place the origin of the poem we have, or at least an important part of its form and language.” [ibid, p. 233] I find his research and thought in this area to be very persuasive.
The three McKinnell essays on Völundarkviða are distinct, and I recommend reading all three, but, if you must choose only one, let it be the 2014 essay [McKinnell (1)].
McKinnell’s 1997 article, ‘Eddic poetry in Anglo-Scandinavian northern England’ [McKinnell (3)], has an extensive section on Völundarkviða, including a run-down of the most significant indications of Old English influence together with English translations, and his most detailed examination of provenance with respect to the poem’s metrical structure. He concludes herein that “Overall, the case for an Anglo-Norse origin for Völundarkviða seems unanswerable; the evidence comes from all major sections of the poem, and later Icelandic alterations or additions are not now detectable except where they consist of editorial or scribal misunderstandings.” [McKinnell (3), p. 333]. This article is very tightly organised; and the English translations are a nice surprise, as they usually get left out of McKinnell’s articles. This would be the first article on Völundarkviða that I would recommend, but for the considerable expense of the book itself.
Over the period of some thirty years, John McKinnell’s conclusion that Völundarkviða was most likely composed in the 10th century or in the early 11th century, in Yorkshire, has never wavered; and nobody has seriously challenged his work in this regard for decades.
I will be discussing specific points raised by McKinnell and other scholars as I go through the poem, stanza by stanza (below).
In an earlier work than that of McKinnell’s, Lee Hollander considers that the “brief glimpses of nature” in the poem “leave little doubt that the poem originated in Norway,” (Hollander, p. 158), but McKinnell disputes this in detail . Hollander goes on to say that the metre of the poem – “a free fornyrðislag –“ [see for ex. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alliterative_verse#Fornyr.C3.B0islag ] “and treatment place it among the earliest in the Edda, that is, perhaps the ninth century.” [Hollander, p. 158].
McKinnell, however, has made the best case for the poem’s having been composed in tenth or early eleventh-century British Yorkshire, as we shall see.
Kaaren Grimstad does not address the issue of age and provenance at all with respect to Völundarkviða, preferring to address the question of Völund’s identity – man, elf, or god?
Ursula Dronke looks at the issue of origins in a painstaking examination of the earliest traces of the legend of Völund [Dronke (1), p. 258 – 296] and tentatively concludes that the earliest traces of the poem, “ancient Germanic material,” “may be drawn ultimately from England rather than from Germany.” [ibid, p. 274] However, she also points out that “The names of the three main characters in the poem, Völundr, Níðuðr, Böðvildr, are not found as personal names in Old Norse or Old English historical records. In German records, however, all three are found: Weland and Baduhilt from the seventh century, Nidhad from the eighth. This points to a German version of this story at this period.” [Dronke (1), p. p. 269 – 270]
Context of Völundarkviða: Hollander considered the poem to be an embodiment of an ancient Germanic “glorification” of revenge, and that the “motif belongs essentially to Germanic hero lore…” which was “given its most authentic expression” in Völundarkviða [Hollander, p. 159].
McKinnell echoes this perspective, saying that by the time of this version of the myth, “Völund’s days as a hero were numbered.” [(1), p. 243] He thinks that the poet “seems to regard” Völund as a man, “apart from taking over the probably traditional phrases which call him an elf…” [ibid, p. 242] He states on (1) p. 234 that “the poem is characterised by an evident mistrust of the power of women…”
McKinnell states that Völundarkviða is “an attempt to assert exact poetic justice” that “must be attributed to the poet rather than the source.” [ibid, p. 235] He later goes on to examine the validity of the acts of vengeance taken within the context of medieval Anglo Saxon law and concludes that Völund’s acts of vengeance, in particular the slaying of the two young boys, have no validity within the context of the law. [ibid, p. 242]
But, in my opinion, this view of the poem, as being an account of an outstandingly flawed hero who’s ditched by his otherworldly wife and then messed up bad by other humans for no good reason, the latter to whom he dishes it back in spades, fails to take into account at least two critical problems with the ‘heroic’ perspective:
- There is nothing heroic whatsoever, even by medieval standards, in any of Völund’s actions from beginning to end of the poem. Just for starters, when his swan-like wife takes off for sunnier skies, Völund doesn’t do the ‘manly thing’ like his brothers do, according to the Viking standard of the times, and head back out into the world, seeking his fortune and maybe seeking after the errant spouse as well. He stays put; and, about this, McKinnell cites the story of ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ saying: “… Staying put in such a situation is also more sensible in terms of this relationship; the human will not be able to find his supra-human mate against her will…” But Völund is not a little pig, and there is only one place in Völundarkviða where the poet refers to him as a human being, using a poetic word for ‘man’ [‘seggr,’see my Note 1]; whereas he refers to Völund several times in the poem as “the prince of elves.”
Ursula Dronke was inclined to think that the poet meant to portray Völund as an elf: “Are we to suppose that Vǫlundr was called ‘lord of elves’ because he commanded such spirits to aid him in his craft – as a Prospero commands an Ariel? It is more in keeping (I suggest) with the treatment of fantasy in the poem – that of the swan maidens, for example – that he should be identified as an elvish being, an elf man, as his wife is a swan woman. He has the radiant complexion of the elves (cf. hvítan háls, 2/9 – 10) that betrays his affinities. Belief in ‘mixed beings,’ having a human and a non-human spirit within them, has been, and still is, widespread in many cultures…” [Dronke (1), p. 262]
Hilda Ellis Davidson agreed that the Anglo-Saxon version of Völund was a supernatural being. She says: “But although Weland is linked with the world of heroes through his son, and in Deor is apparently accepted among heroes who have known hardship, he was clearly no mortal smith. The weapons he forged were those of legend, and he is at home in the Other World, the world of the unquiet dead and of fierce struggles against hostile magic, where ordinary moral judgments are suspended. The motif of a powerful supernatural being oppressed by a foolish or arrogant king and taking summary vengeance upon him is one familiar in mythology, and Odin himself is found more than once in such a position. Other heroes beside Weland have one foot in the familiar world of heroic loyalties and another in the implacable supernatural world. The outstanding example is Sigurd the Volsung, whose story has many points of contact with Weland, and there are others from Saxo’s collection of stories, in which again cruelty, treachery and vindictiveness are common. We find Weland and his family inhabiting tombs and mountains, descending to realms under the sea, hurling great stones through the air and forging the superb weapons of legendary heroes. His place then would seem to be among those powerful beings we call giants, although they could have dealings with mortals and even mate with them…” [Ellis Davidson, p. 159]
Moreover, Völund is not tending the crops on a farm while he awaits the return of his wife: Identified by the poet throughout the poem as being one of those sketchy elven-smiths, he occupies his time in a very dodgy-appearing act of metal-working, namely, making hundreds of gold rings, stringing them on linden ropes, and, get this, counting those rings, every last one of them, apparently as a nightly ritual. McKinnell thinks it’s the work of a devoted and forlorn abandoned husband, saying that “there is an apparent rightness” about the nightly ritual. [McKinnell (1), p. 237] But there is nothing in the text to back up McKinnell’s value judgment of “rightness” and what the poet actually has to say about that, is to immediately preface his account of the nightly ring-ritual with the phrase “prince of elves,” using the phrase for the first but certainly not the last time in the poem. This appearance of this phrase in the poem’s recital would have immediately alerted an Anglo-Saxon listener that magic was afoot. McKinnell at least concedes that it is possible the ritual involved magic to compel the smith’s errant wife back to him [ibid]; and he knows elves were viewed quite dimly in Anglo-Saxon Britain as being trouble-making and dangerous supernatural beings [see Alaric Hall, for instance]; so, where he got the idea that there was any appearance of “rightness” about the ritual is beyond me.
We will learn a lot more about that ring-ritual as we go into the poem stanza by stanza (below), as well as others of Völund’s even more clearly unheroic acts; and, as we shall see, the poem fairly reverberates throughout with undertones of magic.
- At the end of the poem, Völund finally escapes his captors by flying away, on ‘webbed feet.’ If he’s a “hero,” then his act of flying away is unique in Norse accounts of heroes. As Kaaren Grimstad remarks: “… although gods and giants can fly, either by changing themselves into birds or by donning a feather coat, there is no instance of a mortal flying…” [Grimstad, p. 191].
Gods, elves can fly in the Old Norse myths, but, humans? – only as the ‘astral selves of witches.’ [For ex. see st. 157 of the Eddic poem Hávamál here: http://www.germanicmythology.com/works/ThorpeEdda/thorpe07.html And for more on that reference in Hávamál see my note  below.)
Also, having ‘webbed feet’ doesn’t exactly speak to Völund’s humanness either.
Then there is the poem’s position in the Codex Regius, which is the only manuscript that gives the full reading of the poem: Völundarkviða is either the last of the mythic poems or the first of the heroic poems, depending on your perspective. John McKinnell considers it to be “a waste of time” to consider the poem’s position in CR [McKinnell (4), p. 38], but if the poem was placed in that position intentionally, then it cannot be ruled out that the CR scribe intended thereby to highlight a shifting ambiguity as regards the nature of the elf-prince, perhaps, part human and part elf, a “mixed being.” [Dronke (1), p. 262]
In addition to the foregoing, there is no place in the poem where Ursula Dronke gives a translation of ‘hero’ for the poet’s words for the “prince of elves.” [Dronke (1), p. 243 – 254] [See my note 3]
One roughly contemporary Anglo-Saxon account of the Völund, the late-9th century [North (1), p. 101] poem ‘Deor,’ does perhaps go closer to the concept of Völund as being a hero. See stanza 1 here: http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=get&type=text&id=Deor which calls him a man and even “a better man” than the king who had him enslaved and hamstrung – although calling him a “better man” than his tormentor would still be setting the bar awfully low for ‘hero’ status. In any case, John McKinnell points out that in several significant respects, “the spirit of Völundarkviða is quite different from that of Deor, and probably represents innovation by this poet.” [McKinnell (5), p. 202]
The same can clearly be said and has been said, as regards the oldest known Anglo-Saxon version of the Völund myth, which is embodied on the 8thcentury Franks Casket [McKinnell (5), p. 201 – 202], namely, that it differs quite significantly from Völundarkviða, and it actually has more in common with the 14th century Þiðrekssaga. [See Dronke’s remarks on the Franks Casket, my note 4.]
Catharina Raudevere emphasises the importance of remembering that the meanings given to eddic lore could change in different historical periods, saying: “Too often Old Norse mythology has been presented as a reflection of static and homogeneous conditions rather than as part of dynamic processes and changes in northern Europe. The same stories must have been given highly different meanings in different times in different areas among different social groups – and presumably also by men and women…. But with sources as scarce as the Old Norse ones it is frequently hard to maintain an animated image that gives the full flavour of complexity.” [Raudevere, p. 79]
Now I think we are ready to take a look at those elements most critical for understanding the poem, by-passing, however, the inept ‘introductory’ prose, which, as John McKinnell as shown, was added by a later scribe, probably the compiler of the Codex Regius, who struggled to comprehend significant Anglo-Saxon elements in the poem.
Stanza 1. “1. Meyjar flugu sunnan myrkvið í gögnum, alvitr unga, örlög drýgja; þær á sævarströnd settusk at hvílask drósir suðrænar, dýrt lín spunnu.”
“Maids from the south | through Myrkwood flew, foreign beings, young, | their fate to follow; On the shore of the sea | to rest them they sat, The maids of the south, | precious linen they spun.”
alvitr: Ursula Dronke: “…The linguistic complexities that arise in any attempt to identify the origins of alvitr suggest that in Vkv it derives from an adaptation of a well-understood OE. term for ‘otherworld being,’ and that it was assimilated into Norse before the workings of analogy had removed such forms as al-, ‘other-‘, and vítt-, ‘being,’ from the ON oral vocabulary…” [Dronke (1), p. 304]
John McKinnell points out that Vkv is the oldest extant use of the phrase alvitr unga(r), and that the “corresponding Old English word ælwit only appears in Beowulf 1500, where it means ‘alien creatures’ and refers to the monsters swimming in Grendel’s mere;4 but the form of the second element of alvitr corresponds to OE wiht rather than OE vættr, and consequently the prose editor [of Vkv] took it to mean ‘All-wise’* and interpreted it as a proper name. No cognate word survives in Old Saxon.” [McKinnell (1), p. 222]. [For more on the Beowulf reference, see my note 5.]
*An error of interpretation perhaps picked up by Alfred the Great and passed on when he translated Boethius and Theodoric and substituted a mention of Völundr for Fabricus the smith, in Book II, s. XIX, [See page 66 in your PDF browser here: http://lfoll.s3.amazonaws.com/titles/1178/Boethius_0543_EBk_v6.0.pdf ]
myrkvið: Ursula Dronke gives her best description of this word in her commentary to the eddic heroic poem Atlakviða: “3/4 Myrkvið: the archetypal ‘Black Forest,’ on the edges of habitation, beyond which lay the lands of alien peoples. A messenger riding from the Danube to the Rhine would, in fact, have to cross the great mountainous forests of central Europe, part of which, the Erzgebirge, was still called Miriquidui in the eleventh century… In Norse poetic tradition, ‘crossing Mirkwood’ comes to signify penetrating the barriers not merely between one land and another, but between one world and another: so Muspell’s sons at Ragnarøk will ride Myrkvið yfir (Lokasenna 42/2), and the swan-wives of Völundr and his brothers fly Myrkvið í gögnum before they find their human mates (Vkv 1/2 , 3/8).” [Dronke (3), p. 47 – 48]
Stanza 3. “Sáto síðan sjau vetr at þat, en inn átta allan þráðo, en inn níunda nauðr of skilði. meyjar fýstusk á myrkvan við, Alvitr unga[r], örlög drýgja.”
“There they stayed seven winters through; but all the eighth were with longing seized; and in the ninth fate parted them. The maidens yearned for the murky wood, the young Alvit, fate to fulfil.”
nauðr: “3/6 nauðr, ‘oppressive, unavoidable, necessity,’ coercion,’ ‘lack of freedom,’ ‘slavery…’ [Dronke (1), p. 307]
Karen Bek-Pedersen discusses the “apparently close connection between nornir and nauð” which “seems to emphasise that these supernatural females were thought of primarily in relation to issues of distress…” on page 34 of her book ‘The Norns in Old Norse Mythology.’
That strong eddic connection between nauðr and the Norns, ‘shapers of fate’ [Note 6], is undoubtedly what made Benjamin Thorpe translate ‘nauðr’ as ‘fate’ in Vkv.
Stanza 5. (or 6, depending on which translator did the arrangement of the verses]: “Hann sló gull rautt við gim fastan, lukði hann alla lindbauga vel. Svá beið hann sinnar ljós[s]ar kvánar, ef hánum koma gerði.”
“Red gold he fashioned | with fairest gems, And rings he strung | on linden bæst ;
So for his wife | he waited long, If the fair one home | might come to him.”
“Völundr’s detachment from human society is accounted for in the poem (a) by his absorption in his past, and (b) by his belonging to a different society, not human, but supernatural. Three times he is called ‘lord, or commander, of elves’ (11/3, 14/4, 32/2). How are we to understand these phrases? The álfar, revered family spirits, do not seem relevant here: how could Völundr be their prince? Völundr’s álfar must be spirits who practice the same skills of smith and craftsman, and whom, by his incomparable art, he excels and masters. There are only two pieces of evidence that support this interpretation of álfar in Völundarkviða. In Snorri’s telling of the myth of Sif’s hair (SnE 122 – 4), there is a clear reference to álfar as smiths, making magical treasures of gold, iron, and wood: Sif’s golden hair that grows to her shorn head; Óðinn’s spear that never fails to kill; Freyr’s boat that brings its breeze with it and folds like a cloth when not wanted. Völundr’s legendary creations rank with these: the translucent gems made from eyes, the sword so sharp and hard that nothing can resist it, the artful wings he can fly with.” [Dronke (1), p. 261]
Tilia cordata, the small-leafed ‘lime’ or linden tree, was an important cultural element in Anglo-Saxon Yorkshire and is still valued there today: http://blog.bettys.co.uk/nature-notes-the-sweet-scent-of-the-linden-tree/
In Northern medieval times, the linden tree as well as certain other trees could stand in as a poetic metaphor or ‘kenning,’ for a woman:
“And as Wrind is Earth, the later poets will use all the synonyms of earth to swell out their verse, calling their mistresses the ground of gems, the field of gold or of the veil or linen (if married, for Northern matrons, like English ones, ‘ went under the linen,’ and covered their heads after the bridal). From the other class of women came the terms, ‘ the nymph or goddess — Thrud, Freyia, Gefn, Hlokk, etc., of the horn or beaker or cup, or wine, or ale, or mead,’ and the like. That once-found word ‘ lauka- lind,” leech-lady, may refer to the office of nurse to the wounded, and the leek-broth and leech-craft, which women occasionally at all events exercised, as the Kings’ Lives testify. The latter half of the ‘ kenning’ — the nymph’s name — might be replaced by the name of any feminine tree, ‘ linden, oak, fir-sapling, birch,’ and so on. These frigid and pedantic metaphors are even used in the few genuine love-verses that remain.” [Vigfússon/Powell, p.476]
One of the best-known verses from the Old Icelandic sagas is that in ch. 72:48 of the early-13th century ‘Egil’s Saga,’ (which may have been written by the Icelandic scholar and politician, Snorri Sturluson); the verse ties a use of ‘linden tree’ as a kenning for ‘woman,’ with rune magic, in this case, healing magic, whereby the sorcerer-poet Egil Skallagrimsson reverses a spell-gone-wrong. Afterwards, he says: “No man should carve runes unless he can read them well; many a man goes astray around those dark letters. On the whalebone I saw ten secret letters carved, from them the linden tree took her long harm.” [Egil’s, p. 141]
leaves and flowers of lime tree (tilia cordata) picture by https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:N_p_holmes , creative attribution, share-alike license; quote is from ‘charm for a sudden stitch, found in the late 10th century [Alaric Hall, p. 109 – 110] Anglo Saxon manuscript Wið færstice
“Вæst, es; ml ni The inner bark of a tree, of which ropes were made; tilia:—Baest vel lind tilia. Lye. [Pía!. Dut. bast, m, bark: О. Dut. bast, m. signifies the bark of a tree and also a rope ; because the inner part of the linden or lime-tree was mostly used for making ropes : Ger. M.H.Ger. bast, m. bark: O.H.Ger. past, m : Dan. bast, m: Swed. bast, и : O. Nrs. bast, n. The word is probably to be derived from bindan to bind, v. Grm. Wrtbch. i. 1 148.” [Toller, p. 67]
The Anglo-Saxons were the first to institute the custom of wedding rings: “Wedding rings did not obtain in the Christian Marriage Service until the ninth century. The Anglo-Saxons established the custom of wearing plain gold rings, and these have been worn by married women ever since. There is no rubric on the subject; a ring is all the Church stipulates for. Consequently, we sometimes hear of a bride being married with the ring of the church-door key, in the absence of the more desirable article.” [Wagner, p. 97]
From Grimm: p. 1233: “…. What sounds more significant is a Scotch tradition I take out of Chambers’ Fireside Stories, Edinburgh 1812, p. 37: ‘When a person has received a sprain, it is customary to apply to an individual practiced in casting the wresting thread. This is a thread spun from black wool, on which are cast nine knots, and tied round a sprained leg or arm. During the time the operator is putting the thread round the affected limb, he says but in such a tone of voice as not to be heard by the bystanders or even by the person operated upon:
The Lord rade, set joint to joint
and the foal slade; bone to bone,
he lighted, and sinew to sinew.
and he righted, Heal in the Holy Ghost’s Name!’
Here the spell [second Merseburg formula] serves for sprains even in the human body, though it is set out with the sliding of the foal; and to the whispered words is added a ligature of woolen wool in nine knots.” Teutonic mythology. Jacob Grimm. 2nd edition 1844 vol. III
In his 2004 paper, ‘Spinning Seiðr,’ Eldar Heide makes a persuasive case [Heide, p. 164 passim] that the “easiest etymology of seiðr, ‘string, cord, snare, halter’, is fully compatible with seiðr as an ecstatic kind of sorcery, with the sending forth of the sorcerer’s mind, because it seems that the mind can be sent forth in the shape of a thread or function as a thread or rope.” [ibid, p. 166]
However, the act of winding rings on linden ropes initiates a chain of events unforeseen by Völund, which culminates in his dramatic capture.
From stanzas 7 through 9, roughly:
“Stigu ór söðlum at salar gafli, gengu inn þaðan endlangan sal; sáu þeir á bast bauga dregna, sjau hundroð allra, er sá seggr átti. Ok þeir af tóko ok þeir á léto, fyr einn útan, er þeir af léto.
“From their saddles the gable | wall they sought, And in they went | at the end of the hall; Rings they saw there | on ropes of bast, Seven hundred | that man had. Off they took them, | but all they left Save one alone | which they bore away.”
Now, a perspicacious listener in any historical period should be thinking: ‘Wait, whaat?? They left 699 gold rings behind and took only one ring away with them? To where? And why?”
Without reply, the action in the poem immediately swings back to Völund: “Kom þar af veiði veðreygr skyti, Völundr, líðandi um langan veg…. Sat á berfjalli, bauga talði, – alfa ljóði – eins saknaði; Hugði hann at hefði Hlöðvés dóttir, – alvitr- unga, væri hon aptr komin.”
“Völund home | from his hunting came, From a weary way, | the weather-wise bowman… On the bearskin he rested, | and counted the rings, The master of elves, | but one he missed; That Hlothver’s daughter | had it he thought, And the all-wise maid | had come once more.”
Here is the first time that the poet refers to Völund as being an elf; translations vary as to whether or not he is a citizen or leader or prince of the elves, but, as John McKinnell says, “what is undeniable is that Völund is of elvish origin” .
And where does the poet elect to announce that Völund is an elf? It is right in the middle of an activity involving those 700 rings on the linden ropes. “He counted the rings – the master of elves – but one he missed.”
Clearly, we can’t understand the point of the poem without understanding what Völundr was doing with the rings.
From: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/eieol/norol-BF-X.html an online Old Norse dictionary courtesy of the University of Texas, we learn that the word <telja (talða)> meant: “reckon, count; trace; number, enumerate; recount; declare and that it apparently was derived from IE 1. del– IE to tell, count, calculate” [ see: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/ielex/PokornyMaster-X.html#P0329 ]
and: “tǫlðu — verb; 3rd plural past of <telja (talða)> reckon, count; trace; number, enumerate; recount; declare – traced” in http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/eieol/norol-2-X.html#L474
as well as ** “talða — past participle; accusative plural masculine of <telja (talða)> reckon, count; trace; number, enumerate; recount; declare – reckoned” here: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/eieol/norol-9-X.html#L371
as well as: “telia — verb; infinitive of <telja (talða)> reckon, count; trace; number, enumerate; recount; declare — to tally” in here: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/eieol/norol-9-X.html#L412
Tolley (1): p. 555 – 556: “The ring [in Völundarkviða]…. the poet may be intending a general allusion in his reference to eating bear meat, alongside mention of a ring, to magical means of tracking someone down as practiced by the Sámi. Völundr uses a ring in an attempt to get back his supernatural wife. The ring plays an important part in various broadly shamanic activities… In view of the part played by the rings in Sámi bear rites, and in their divinatory shamanism, the coincidence of bear-skin and rings in Völundarkviða may be more than accidental, and intended to recall these Sámi practices. The counting of the rings appears to be a divinatory activity to determine the return of Völundr’s wife, and he carries out this task as he sits on the skin; the complex of bear-skin and rings may thus fulfil a vaguely shamanic role. The poet, however, has humanised the scene into one of absorbed, doting loneliness, and it is clearly unsuccessful in bringing back the swan-maiden wife – unlike (we may assume) the shamanic acts which may be alluded to. The poem also tells us that Völundr sat so long that he fell asleep and woke viljalauss, ‘joyless:” this, again, may be a humanised version of the ritual trance of the Sámi shaman, who would awake utterly exhausted after searching in far regions for the knowledge he desired…”
About the possibility of the ring activity involving magic, John McKinnell observes that: “…Völundr spends his time perfecting rings, whose completion seems to function as a symbol of female sexuality, as well as creating the idea of a chain magically binding the characters to each other…” [McKinnell (1), p. 237]
Eldar Heide argues that etymological equivalents to the word seiðr from Old High German and Old English include the words “cord, string’ and ‘snare, cord, halter,’” and that these concepts are linked with seiðr, because “because it appears that the sorcerer’s mind emissary could be regarded as something spun: a thread or rope;” and seiðr was largely about attracting things. “In perhaps half of the prose sources, the effect of seiðr is that desired objects, persons or resources, like fish, are drawn to the sorcerer. The clearest example is Saxo’s version of the seiðr séance in Hrólfs saga kraka. The prophetess’s task is to see where two boys are hiding, and Saxo says that they are “drawn out of their recess by the weird potency of the enchantress’s [sic] spells and pulled under her very gaze” (Fisher and Davidson 979–80 I:202). In Icelandic seiðr tradition, from recent times, attraction dominates and most of the sources have the fixed expression seiða til sín ‘attract by seiðr’(Jón Þorkelsson 956; Jón Árnason 958–6 [862–64]). In some of the sources, it is as if the victim is pulled by an invisible rope (cf. Almqvist 2000:263). As far as this kind of seiðr is concerned, the etymology ‘cord’ makes very good sense…” [Heide, p. 164]
The issue of seiðr: Tolley (I) says on p. 221: “The word ælfsiden occurs in three Old English remedies in Bald’s Leechbook III, S41, and Lacnunga S29 (hall 2007: 119; texts in Cockayne 1864: II, 334, and III, 10). The contexts provide little help in offering an interpretation, but siden is likely to be related to Old Norse seiðr (see Hall 2007: 119 for the etymology and further references.) A further related word in Old English is the noun sīdsa, also found in an ælf-remedy in Bald’s Leechbook II $65…. [see ref.] Hence a type of magic related to that found in Norse sources is here associated with ælfe; just as in Norse, seiðr is particularly associated with the close counterparts of the ælfe, the Vanir (Hall 2007: 155).”
Alaric Hall, A states on p. 96: “…Falling between these manuscipts in date is BL Royal 12 D. xvii, which contains the collections known as Bald’s Leechbook (in two books) and Leechbook III. The manuscript is handsome if plain, written by the scribe who entered the batch of annals for 925–55 into the Parker Chronicle.(3) (3) See C. E. Wright (ed.), Bald’s Leechbook: British Museum, Royal Manuscript 12 D. xvii, Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile, 5 (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1955), 12–27; cf. Ker, Catalogue, 332–3 [no. 264]; A. L. Meaney, ‘Variant Versions of Old English Medical Remedies and the Compilation of Bald’s Leechbook’, Anglo-Saxon England, 13 (1984), 235–68, at 250–1; Cameron, Anglo-Saxon Medicine, 30–1.”
Hall, A. p. 131: “Linguistically, seiðr had deep roots in Germanic-speaking cultures, and indeed it now seems clear that its medieval Norwegian reflex was itself later borrowed into the Sámi languages, as *sejda, apparently denoting places where prophecy was sought from gods.38 The senses of seiðr may still have been influenced by contact with Sámi culture later; but if we find correlations between the meanings of seiðr and ælfsīden, there is no reason not to accept them to reflect the words’ shared etymology. It is also worth noting that although we cannot link them lexically with sīden, we have evidence for three concepts in Anglo-Saxon culture which are prominent in our prose accounts of seiðr: the capacity for the soul to wander apart from the body; the use of magic wands; and the practice of working magic from a high place.39”
Hall, A. p. 130: “Seiðr has been discussed extensively in recent years, but not in an Anglo- Saxon context.33 The main intentions behind conducting seiðr seem to have been divination and the manipulation of targets’ states of mind to cause them harm or to facilitate their seduction.34 It has pejorative connotations throughout our evidence, and these should be explained purely as the result of Christianisation only with caution.35”
ELVES AND THE CHURCH: “The phrase Satanæ diabulus ælfæ (‘devil of the elf Satan’) from an eighth-century Worcester prayer-book shows that ‘elf’ could be used as an epithet of Satan.43… Demonic possession and its cause are the subject of a remedy in The Christian Ritual against Elves (in Lacnunga, following an Irish incantation against venom)*…. [North (2) p. 54]
Alaric Hall observes that: “However, we do have one Anglo-Saxon text which explicitly situates ælfe [= ‘elves’] in a wider discourse on the relationships between men and monsters in the world: Beowulf. Moreover, this source is probably relatively early, dating from the eighth or ninth centuries.75 As Neville has emphasised regarding Old English poetry, Anglo-Saxon literature offers little in the way of explicit cosmography; what there is, is directly based on Christian theology.76 Beowulf, however, is rich in implicit cosmology, which corroborates, elaborates and complicates my lexically based reconstruction of the relationships between men and monsters in sixth-century Anglo-Saxon culture. There is one (certain) attestation of ælf in Beowulf, in the explanation of the origins of Grendel in lines 102–14, at the end of fitt I: wæs se grimma gæ¯ st grendel hāten mæ¯ re mēarcstapa sē þe mōras hēold fen ond fæsten fīfelcynnes eard wonsæ¯ li wer weardode hwīle siþðan him scyppend forscrifen hæfde in cāines cynne þone cwealm gewræc ēce drihten þæs þe hē ābel slōg · Ne gefeah hē þæ¯ re fæ¯ hðe ac hē hine feorwræc metod for þy¯ māne mancynne fram þanon unty¯ dras ealle onwōcon eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas swylce gīgantas þā wið gode wunnon lange þrāge hē him ðæs lēan forgeald ·77 “as called Grendel, the famed border-walker, he who occupied waste-lands, the fen and the fastness, the homeland of the giant-race – the ill-blessed man inhabited them for a time, after the Creator had condemned him; the eternal Lord avenged that killing on the kin of Cain, because he [Cain] slew Abel. He did not profit from that feud, but the Measurer banished him for that crime, from humankind. Thence all misbegotten beings spang forth, eotenas and ælfe and orcneas, likewise gīgantas, which struggled against God for a long while. He gave them repayment for that.” [Hall, A., 59 – 60]
Alaric Hall concludes on p. 130 that: “Like other assaults on the health by ælfe, ælfsīden is associated but not synonymous with diabolical tribulations, attesting again to the uneasy, incomplete alignment of ælfe with demons in ninth- to tenth century Anglo-Saxon clerical culture.”
Associations of elves and sorcery [seiðr] in early medieval Scandinavia include: Hrólfs saga kraka, the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, “a fornaldarsaga [legendary saga] from around 1400, but it is based on earlier versions and has analogues in other sources such as Saxo…” [Tolley (2), p.148]
In the preface to his translation of chapter 32, ‘The Battle With Skuld,’ Stephen Flowers states that “Skuld is of the greatest of magical-kind [galdrakind] and descended from [af álfum] on her mother’s side.”* Flowers goes on to translate the section involving elves and magic thusly:** “At this time Skuld gathered to herself all the greatest men and also all the rabble of the nearby districts. This betrayal was kept secret so that King Hrólfr, was not aware of any of it, nor did his retinue have any inkling about it, because the greatest magic [galdrar] and workings [gerningar] were used. Skuld employed the strongest sorcery [seiðr] to overcome Hrólfr, her brother, so that in her army were elves [álfar], norns [nornir], and an untold number of other vile things such that human power [náttura] could not stand up to it…” [Flowers et al, p. 14] *for more on Skuld see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skuld_(princess)#Hr.C3.B3lfr_Kraki.27s_saga
**The bracketed Old Icelandic inclusions in the above translation are Dr. Flowers’, not mine.
Clive Tolley points out that in Kormák’s saga ch.22, the spákona [seeress] Þórdís “performs an act of ritual magic healing, involving sacrificing to the álfar…” [Tolley (1), p. 136). About the age of the saga, Tolley states: “Kormák’s saga is from the early thirteenth century, though the verse in it is, at least in part, much older…” [Tolley (2), p. 153]
In his section ‘Norse notions of spirits,’ Tolley remarks that in addition to probably being evoked “as helping spirits by magical practitioners,” the álfar also apparently practiced magic…” [Tolley (1), p. 208]
Evidence that seið, ‘sorcery,’ was likely to have still been a living practice in 10th century Norway: Heimskringla, the compilation of Scandinavian kings’ sagas that was likely to have been written by Snorri Sturluson, is not older than the 13th century. However, in his preface to his translation of the same, Lee Hollander remarks on “Snorri’s cool impartiality… The opponents of King Saint Óláf have their day in court as well as the hero and his followers. We are given to understand how ill will accumulates against him, how his harsh justice alienates more and more of his former friends. Snorri does not moralize, he is “objective,” and is content to let facts speak for themselves…” [Heimskringla, p. xxiii]. And in his own preface, the reputed author of Heimskringla says has this to say about his sources: “Now when Harald Fairhair was king of Norway, Iceland was settled. At the court of King Harald there were skalds, and men still remember their poems and the poems about all the kings who have since his time ruled in Norway; and we gathered most of our information from what we are told in those poems which were recited before the chieftains themselves or their sons. We regard all that to be true which is found in those poems about their expeditions and battles. It is [to be sure] the habit of poets to give highest praise to those princes in whose presence they are; but no one would have dared to tell them to their faces about deeds which all who listened, as well as the prince himself, knew were only falsehoods and fabrications. That would have been mockery, not praise.” [Heimskringla, p. 4]
What the foregoing indicates is, that Snorri Sturluson likely wrote the saga of King Harald Fairhair, and he likely believed he was speaking the truth therein, about the historical presence of seiðmaður, ‘sorcerers,’ during the 10th century reign of Harald Fairhair over Norway.
From chapter 34 of the Saga of Herald Fairhair, translated by Stephen Flowers and James Chisholm, with bracketed Old Norse inclusions by Flowers: “Rognvald Rettilbeini had Hathaland. He learned magic [fjölkyngi] and made himself a sorcerer [seiðmaður]. King Haraldr thought badly of sorcerers [seiðmenn]. In Hordaland there was a sorcerer [seiðmaður] named Vitgeir. The king sent word to him and asked him to stop the sorcery [seið]. He answered saying : It harms little that we use sorcery [vér síðím] we farmers’ children and old women. Since Rognvald does, Rettilbeini, high-born Harldsson in Hathaland.” But when King Haraldr heard this spoken, Erik-Bloodaxe with his consent proceeded to the Uppland district and to Hathaland. He burned his brother Rognvaldr along with eighty sorcerers [seiðmenn] in his hall, and people praised this deed greatly.” [Flowers, p. 4]
Fun people, those Vikings.
At the very least, the preceding section of Heimskringla speaks to Snorri’s belief that his own readers in 13th century Iceland were still going to know exactly what seið was, and that they would consider his account of its continued existence in 9th century Norway to be at least plausible.
And in his book, ‘Heathen Gods in Old English Literature,’ Richard North presents data indicating that “there appear to have been analogues of seiðmenn in Anglo-Saxon paganism,” citing, for instance Bede’s “admiring” 8th century account of Æthelfrith’s slaughter of “that heretical nation” of Welsh monks for “calling on their God against us, though they bear no arms, they still fight us by pursuing us with hostile prayers.” [North (2), p. 50 – 51]. As North goes on to remark, “Bede thus presents Æthelfrith as if this pagan king was regarding the Bangor monks as wizards whose magic could disarm his warriors…” [ibid, p. 51]
From the foregoing, we can see it’s quite likely that 10th century listeners; both in Anglo-Saxon England and in Scandinavia, to the poem Völundarkviða would have readily made a connection between the poet’s epithet ‘prince of elves’ for its protagonist and northern traditions of sorcery. They would not have needed to have been hit over the head with the idea to get it. The very fact that armed men evidently on a shanghai mission took one ring out of seven hundred and left the others behind on their first foray into the elf-man’s turf, would have put the expectation into most medieval listeners’ heads, that ‘the Song of Völund was going to figure sorcery as a prominent theme.
Stanzas 11 through 16, roughly, (again, depending on which edition and translator you’re reading), deal with Völund’s capture. Thorpe’s translation of these passages is nice and terse:
“So long he sat until he slept; and he awoke of joy bereft: on his hands he felt heavy constraints, and round his feet fetters clasped.
“Who are the men that on the rings’ possessor have laid bonds? and me have bound?”
“Then cried Nidud, the Niarars’ lord: “Whence gottest thou, Völund! Alfars´chief! our gold, in Ulfdal? No gold was here in Grani’s path, far I thought our land from the hills of Rhine.””
This last sentence is sometimes attributed to Völund, which is not reasonable, in my opinion. The speaker is clearly surprised at the fact of the gold in the dark woods, and that could not possibly be the feeling of the owner of that gold, namely, Völund.
““[Völund says]: “I mind me that we more treasures possessed, when, a whole family, we were at home. Hladgud and Hervör were of Hlödver born; know was Ölrún, Kiar´s daughter.””
This last phrase of Völund’s is often considered to be interpolated, but people in shock often go a little funny mentally; in my opinion, the sentence supports the idea that Völund was in shock and temporarily divorced from the reality of what had happened to him and his surroundings.
Based on the data I have presented in the section preceding this one, with respect to the historical context, namely, that medieval listeners would have already made a connection between the poem, sorcery and elves by this point, it is reasonable to think that the king does not actually think at this point that Völund is an elf. Clearly, the latter resembles a man in appearance, except, perhaps, for his ‘radiant’ skin. As I have shown in the preceding section, at the time of the poem’s composition, elves were still considered to be a real supernatural danger, both in England and in Scandinavia.
Therefore, in the minds of medieval audiences, what king in his right mind would have knowingly mocked a dangerous supernatural being? Therefore, it seems clear to me that epithet ‘prince of elves’ is given again as mockery, to introduce a dramatic tension, between (1) the ‘reality’ of the situation as given by the poet, who has already clearly stated that Völund is indeed an elf – in fact, ‘the prince of elves! – and what that would have meant to the medieval mind in terms of a significant supernatural threat; and (2) the mockery and massive disrespect now being shown to that supernatural being by an earthly king.
I like Bellows’ translation of the next passage but not the bracketed interpolation that he as well as other scholars (though not Thorpe) insist on ‘borrowing’ from a later passage; the interpolation spoils the dramatic effect, in my opinion, and as I hope to show a little bit later…
“And in she came | from the end of the hall; On the floor she stood, | and softly spoke: “Not kind does he look | who comes from the wood.”
Clearly, there has been a change of scene not spelled out in either the poem or in the running prose commentary (which McKinnell has shown was probably added by a later scribe). It’s dazing and disorienting, not unlike what the protagonist must have been feeling. “She” has not yet been identified; it is perhaps given to us to understand that at first the elf-man doesn’t know who the female speaker is, in relation to the king who has had him kidnapped and chained, perhaps with the other 699 of his very own rings and their linden ropes. Nor do we yet know why one the kidnappers made off with just one of Völund’s gold rings – before, evidently, returning to jack the other 699 rings as well as the elf-man himself.
The queen continues to speak, and the intervening prose, which was added later by someone other than the poet, isn’t really necessary; we can get what happened in the next three verses, stanzas 16 through 18, approximately:
“His teeth he shows, when the sword he sees, and Bödvild´s ring he recognizes: threatening are his eyes as a glistening serpent’s: let be severed his sinews’ strength; and set him then in Sævarstad.”
The queen still hasn’t been named as such by the poet, but now, the listeners as well as Völund himself, who is evidently present during that speech, can understand who the female figure must be, if she’s practically giving orders to the king. And now he knows who’s responsible for his savage maiming: the ruthless consort of the king.
With respect to the poet’s likening of Völund’s eyes to those of serpents: In her article, ‘Skaldic verse in Scandinavian England,’ Judith Jesch quotes the description of the 9th century York ruler, Eiríkr Haraldsson* given in Egil’s saga, ch. 78: “… where, under the helmet of terror, the omnipotent ruler, advancer of his people, presided [lit. ‘sat’] over the land; the king governed the wet shores in York with a firm mind. It was not safe, or without terror, to look at the light of the moons of Eiríkr’s brows** [eyes], when the forehead-moon,** keen as a serpent, of the omnipotent ruler, shone with fearsome rays.” [Jesch, p. 321]
*For more on Eiríkr see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Bloodaxe
** ‘light of the moons of Eiríkr’s brows’ and ‘forehead-moon’ are both kennings [poetic circumlocutions] for ‘eyes.’
Jesch goes on to remark of this description that: “The seated, helmeted leader with fearsome staring eyes, and associated with serpentine forms, is just the sort of impression we get from the warrior portraits of the Anglo-Scandinavian sculpture of Middleton in North Yorkshire (Lang 1991, Figs. 676 – 81, 686 – 9].” [ibid]
‘The legendary king Regner Lodbrog (Regnar Lodbrog, Ragnar Lodbrok, Ragnar Loðbrók), relief in Frederiksborg Castle, Hillerød, Denmark.’ Photo by https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Orf3us , creative attribution, share-alike license
The intervening prose between the forgoing section of the poem and the next one that I will look at really shows up the incompetence of the prose writer: “So was it done: the sinews in his knee-joints were cut, and he was set in an island which was near the mainland, and was called Sævarstath. There he smithied for the king all kinds of precious things. No man dared to go to him, save only the king himself.”
‘No man dared to go to Völund except for the king.’ And yet it’s clear from later passages in the poem that even the king’s children were traipsing off to see the hamstrung elf-prince – and unaccompanied by a chaperon, to boot! ************
Stanza 17/18, roughly: “Skínn Níðaði [skyggt] sverð á linda, þat er ek hvesta, sem ek hagast kunna, ok ek herðak, sem mér hoegst þótti. Sá er mér frán[n] mækir æ fjarri borinnsékka ek þann Völundi til smiðju borinn. Nú berr Böðvildr brúðar minnarbíðka ek þess bót – bauga rauða.”
“At Nithuth’s girdle | gleams the sword That I sharpened keen | with cunningest craft, (And hardened the steel | with highest skill;) The bright blade far | forever is borne, (Nor back shall I see it | borne to my smithy;) Now Bothvild gets | the golden ring (That was once my bride’s,– | ne’er well shall it be.)”
‘Volund the smith’ by Franz Stassen (1869-1949), courtesy of: http://germanicmythology.com/works/WOLOZOGENART1920.html
Bellows’ translation of bauga rauða, ‘red-gold ring’ is the most accurate; other scholars, including Ursula Dronke, have pointed out that the singular ‘bauga,’ ‘ring,’is known to have stood in for the plural ‘baugar’ in other writings, and, in the interests of making the elf-prince look less grimly selfish, prefer to emphasise that all of his rings were jacked, not just the one.
However, in my opinion, another interpretation is possible, that doesn’t involve changing the wording of the poem:
The ring that was taken from Völund in the beginning, before he was kidnapped and enslaved, is the ring that was given to the king’s daughter. This ring had been worn beforetimes by Völund’s other-worldly wife. It wasn’t just another one of the gold rings; it was the wedding-ring that Völund’s wife had left behind when she took off on him.
‘At Nithuth’s girdle | gleams the sword That I sharpened keen | with cunningest craft.’
‘with cunningest craft.’ It’s time to talk about the semantics of the word ‘cunning’ in both early medieval Norse as well as in early medieval Anglo-Saxon society.
The use of the word for ‘cunning’ in the poem and its significance:
ON the use of the word ‘kunnig” in Völundarkviða:
Hall, A. p. 29: “The distribution of words for supernatural beings in kennings for men is paralleled by other sorts of early Old Norse lexical evidence. Compounds ending in Old Norse -kunnr and -kunnigr (variant forms of the same word, cognate with English kin, not to be confused with the homophonous kunnigr ‘knowledgeable’, cognate with cunning)…”
The Icelandic Dictionary discusses cognates with ‘cunning’ in some detail on page 357 in connection with witchcraft and sorcery.
Catharina Raudvere also discusses the semantics of trolldómr and semantics of ‘kunna’ including ‘kunnig,’ ”
- 87: “Trolldómr is chosen here as an umbrella term to indicate the notions, rituals and social interactions in the Old Norse traditions relating to conceptions about the influence certain persons had – by innate qualities or through skill – on the world around them. Trolldómr covered an extensive filed and complex combination of abstractions and ideas as well as ritual practices. Conceptions of trolldómr were always related to ideas about power and the experience of the balance of power. The stories are always well integrated into a social setting. The target for the activities can be a person, an animal, the landscape of a certain vicinity or more abstract entities like prosperity and fortune. Focused as they are on actions committed, no text gives any formal definitions of trolldómr. It covers a wide field of assumed abilities to change the visible reality by means invisible and unreachable to ordinary people. … In Old Norse tradition, trolldómr was first of all a way of explaining the hardships of life – misfortune, illness, theft, unexpected death, etc. (Hastrup 1990a: 197ff.; 1992b; Flowers 1993; Mitchell 1998). It served as a diagnosis of an uncontrollable situation. As no established terminology existed, a rich variety of terms to describe the extraordinary capabilities was used, many of them with the connotations of traditional ancient learning and knowledge.”
and on p. 88 Raudvere says: “Troll is the name of a rather vaguely defined group of supernatural beings in Old Norse mythology (Halvorsen 1982a, b; Lindow 1993). They are demonic beings, sometimes acting as individual characters but mostly spoken of as a harmful collective. However, the term is also used to characterize humans with special capabilities, and is even associated with giants, jǫtnar, or related to the dead. The word is also frequently used in early Scandinavian Christian literature as an equivalent of devils, demons, monsters etc. But mostly troll refers to the enemies of the Æsir and as a threat to the harmony of Miðgarðr (Hastrup 1981, 1990a, 1992b; Clunies Ross 1994).
“Words associated with trolldómr could point in several directions, particularly those concerning knowledge and speaking out loud. There was a rich variety in terms relating to knowledge and knowing, and persons affiliated with trolldómr in Old Norse texts were generally described as knowledgeable. The verb kunna, meaning both ‘to know, to understand, to know by heart,’ as well as ‘to have insight in the old traditions and lore,’ and ‘to behave properly,’ is at the core of this semantic field. When ‘know’ or ‘knowledge’ are used in an Old Norse context the words have a far more elaborate signification than is usual in modern English…” [ibid]
More on Seiðr and trolldómr: Raudvere, p. 90: “With the exception of seiðr no activity is more closely connected to trolldómr than the art of carving runes with the aim of cursing or healing… Most of the stone inscriptions were memorials of individuals and their deeds, but in the sagas scenes with the carving of runes were also a way of telling of people who made use of their trolldómr knowledge. The runic alphabet was not just an ordinary writing system used for straightforward communication, but to a large extent associated with the carver’s special abilities… When a phrase like ‘carving runes’ appears in the texts it can also connote performing trolldómr in a more general sense….”
With respect to the power of words in trolldómr: Raudvere says, p. 90 – 91: “The most important terms connected to trolldómr either refer to knowledge or to the spoken word. The importance of the latter in Old Norse literature is well documented (Boyer 1986; Hastrup 1990a: 197ff.; Pálsson (1991). The importance of words was recognized to have a tremendous influence over the concerns of life. The impact of a sentence uttered aloud could not be questioned, and could never be taken back – as if it had become somehow physical. Strong and powerful words reappear throughout the sagas. Many of the deeds of cunning people were not necessarily done but spoken. The formulaic elements were supposedly vital when performing trolldómr. Therefore, the verb gala, ‘to say, speak out loud, utter, sing, is the focus in this context…”
Raudvere adds on p. 89 that: “The multiplicity of meanings is a crucial feature of the trolldómr texts and a key to understanding them…”
From stanza 24 or 25, roughly: “Sneið af höfuð húna þeira ok und fen fjöturs foetr um lagði. En þær skálar, er und skörum vóro, sveip hann útan silfri, seldi Níðaði. En ór augom jarknasteina sendi hann kunnigri kono Níðaðar, en ór tönnom tveggja þeira sló hann brjóstkringlor sendi Böðvildi.”
“He smote off their heads, | and their feet he hid Under the sooty | straps of the bellows. Their skulls, once hid | by their hair, he took, Set them in silver | and sent them to Nithuth; Gems full fair | from their eyes he fashioned, To Nithuth’s wife | so wise he gave them. And from the teeth | of the twain he wrought A brooch for the breast, | to Bothvild he sent it;”
It’s just nonsense to talk, as some scholars have, of this poem as being about a ‘shamanic transformation’ for the king’s sons, or some kind of ‘redemption’ for anyone in the poem. The king’s sons are murdered; their ‘being’ goes down into a lower order of existence, into thing-hood, not ‘up’ into a higher form of existence. Moreover, the poet knows it: twice as a refrain in the lead-up to the murders he assesses what is going to happen as being ‘evil’ – “open lay evil.”
However the word ‘kunnigri’ is translated in reference to the queen – ‘wily’ by Thorpe, ‘so wise’ by Bellows,’ ‘wise’ by Dronke, the fact is, as we have seen in the preceding section, that ‘kunnigr’ had definite connections in the minds of medieval listeners with magic-workers, sorcerers and witches. The implication here is that both the elf-man and the queen are sorcerers, and old Norse sagas feature several other stories of sorceress-queens.
The epithet is in any case given in this section to the queen as mockery: ‘so wise! so cunning!’ a queen who was sharp-eyed enough to see the elf-prince’s reaction to the loss of his sword and his wife’s ring – but not perspicacious enough to figure out that pay-back was coming ‘round the bend for her.
And the elf-prince sends the queen the eyes of her sons. “The eyes of the knowledgeable* is a recurring theme in Old Norse literature, but it is the fear of their gaze that is emphasized in other texts…” [Raudvere, p. 124]
*By ‘knowledgeable’ Raudvere means ‘workers of trolldómr,’ which is the main subject of her essay.
St. 26: Böðvildr and the broken ring:
As Kaaren Grimstad says: “The second act of revenge begins abruptly; stanza 26 reveals Böðvildr at the smithy with her broken ring, which she asks Völundr to repair. Again the audience is reminded of the extraordinary skill of the craftsman, for he replies that he can repair the ring so that it will seem more beautiful… Unlike the slaying of the princes, the rape of the princess is not expressly stated in the poem…” [Grimstad, p. 190]
Nor is it expressly stated that the ring was broken as a result of any carelessness on the part of the princess. In fact, the elf-prince had either cursed the ring, I suggest, or at least predicted its breakage, in an earlier section, wherein he says: “Now Böðvildr wears my bride’s red ring – never well shall it be!” [Bellows’ translation]
If the ring was a symbol of his marriage, he may well have been predicting that its appearance on another woman was a sign his marriage to the swan-maiden was truly finished.
I think the poet meant to suggest that the ring had magic in it, intended to bring back Völund’s bride. But instead of the bride he was expecting and hoping for, he got the king’s daughter.
Stanza 28: the seduction of Böðvildr: “28. Bar hann hana bjóri, þvíat hann betr kunni svá at hon í sessi of sofnaði. “Nú hef ek hefnt harma minna allra né einna íviðgjrna.”
“Beer he brought, | he was better in cunning, Until in her seat | full soon she slept. Völund spake:
“Now vengeance I have | for all my hurts, Save one alone, | on the evil woman.”
Again, the elf-prince’s connection with magic is highlighted with the poet’s repeated use of the word ‘cunning.’ Both Völund and the queen may well be suspected by medieval audiences to have engaged in some form of sorcery in this little drama. Völund is often said by scholars to have raped the princess, but, as she is later in the poem said to have “cried” to see her “lover” go, and he then refers to her as his “wife,” I’m sceptical that ‘rape’ is the right word for what happened.
I will talk about the second part of the second section of stanza 28: “Now vengeance I have | for all my hurts, Save one alone, | on the evil woman.” a little bit later, when I discuss the king’s final words in the poem to his wife, the queen.
Völund’s Recovery from his maiming: “Vel [á] ek,” kvað Völundr- “verða ek á fitjom, þeim er mik Níðaðar námo rekkar!” Hlæjandi Völundr hófz at lopti.”
“Quoth Völund: “Would | that well were the sinews Maimed in my feet | by Nithuth’s men.” Laughing Völund | rose aloft,”
‘Volund takes flight,’ drawing by Franz Stassen (1869-1949), courtesy of: http://germanicmythology.com/works/WOLOZOGENART1920.html
Again, there is a probable connection in the minds of medieval listeners, with the traditions of seið and with Völund’s physical regeneration. For instance, there’s the referral in the best-known of the eddic poems, Völuspá, to an evident link between witchcraft and regeneration: “21. The war I remember, | the first in the world, When the gods with spears | had smitten Gollveig, And in the hall | of Hor had burned her, Three times burned, | and three times born, Oft and again, | yet ever she lives. 22. Heith they named her | who sought their home, The wide-seeing witch, | in magic wise; Minds she bewitched | that were moved by her magic, To evil women | a joy she was.”* Heid, or Heith, was by far the name most frequently given to witches, prophetesses and sorceresses, in Old Icelandic literature. Richard North gives other citations in support of a connection between sorcery and regeneration, and concludes that “The sum of this Norse evidence suggests that the seiðr-magic of the Vanir**was regarded from the earliest time as instrumental in the regeneration and subsequent deification of kings who fell in battle.” [North (2), p. 108]
** one of the two classes of Old Norse deities, to which the witch-goddess Freyja belonged, and of which only she is mentioned in the extant sources to have practiced sorcery. **********
The culmination of Völund’s revenge: “Úti stendr kunnig kván Níðaðar, ok hon inn of gekk endlangan sal,- en hann á salgarð settiz at hvílaz -: “Vakir þú, Níðuðr Níara dróttinn?” “Vaki ek ávallt viljalauss.
Sofna ek minnzt sízt mína sono dauða; kell mik í höfuð, -köld ero mér ráð þín. Vilnomk ek þess nú, at ek við Völund doema. Seg þú mér þat, Völundr -vísi alfaaf heilum hvat varð húnum mínom.”
“Stood without, Nidud’s wily wife; then she went in through the hall; but he on the enclosure sat down to rest. “Art thou awake Niarars’ lord!” “Ever am I awake, joyless I lie to rest, when I call to mind my children’s death: my head is chilled, cold are to me thy counsels. Now with Völund I desire to speak. “Tell me, Völund, Alfars’ chief! of my brave boys what is become?”” [Bellows’ translation]
Henry Adams Bellows believed, and so do I, that Völund’s revenge upon the queen wasn’t complete until she saw he’d cost her the thing in life most important to her: her influence over her husband. “Now vengeance I have | for all my hurts, Save one alone, | on the evil woman.”
Benjamin Thorpe’s translation of the same lead-up to the end-game is along the same lines but is much more tentative: “26. He then brought her beer, that he might succeed the better, as on her seat she fell asleep. “Now have I my wrongs avenged, all save one in the wood perpetrated.”
However, Ursula Dronke translates that same verse as being: “28. He bemused her with beer, for he was more knowing than she, so that on the couch she fell asleep. ‘Now have I avenged my injuries – not one, but all of the envious snares!” [Dronke (1), p. 250 – 251] In her notes to the verse, Dronke argues that “in order to accept [a translation resembling Thorpe’s of the last two lines] we need to feel satisfied that Völundr’s escape, together with the crushing níð [black-magic mockery] of his disclosures, could constitute a form of hefnd, ‘revenge…’ [ibid, p. 321]
In my opinion, Dronke shows a startlingly blind spot as regards the position of the king’s consort in medieval times. We can see what the worst of Völund revenge against the queen actually was, as it plays out in somewhere in stanzas 28 – 31, depending on what translation you use.
I like Thorpe’s, for its terseness, which parallels the original, and I like his use of the word ‘wily’ for the queen, rather than ‘wise,’ which I have already discussed as a separate issue. “28. Stood without Nidud’s wily wife; then she went in through the hall; but he on the enclosure sat down to rest. “Art thou awake Niarars’ lord!”
“29. “Ever am I awake, joyless I lie to rest, when I call to mind my children’s death: my head is chilled, cold are to me thy counsels. Now with Völund I desire to speak.”
And Ursula Dronke was well aware of the significance of the king’s words to his wife:
“30. Outside stands the wise wife of Níðuðr and in she walked down the length of the hall, while he by the hall garden settled to rest himself. Are you awake, Níðuðr, lord of the Níarar?”
“31. I lie awake ceaselessly, without joy. I sleep not at all since my sons died. My head is icy – your counsels are cold to me. I long now to speak with Völundr.” [Dronke (1), p. 251]
Wow. What a comedown for the queen who had been ruling through her husband up to that point, what a comedown for the queen who had managed to persuade her husband to maim and enslave the prince of elves. Her humiliation is clear – even without knowing the special significance in Northern medieval culture that this sentence would have had to any woman: “Your counsels are cold to me.” [Dronke (1), p. 251]
Ursula Dronke knew the significance of the words ‘cold counsel’ in Old Norse society, although for some reason she signally failed to apply her knowledge in her analysis of what constituted Völund ’s mightiest revenge against the queen who’d got him hamstrung. In her notes to verse 31, Dronke says: “31/6 köld … ráð, ‘hostile,’ ‘evil-bringing’ counsel, cf Lks 51/6. For the deadly implications of kaldr, ‘cold,’ see commentary to Akv 2/6. That it is ‘coldly fatal’ to follow women’s advice is a proverbial piece of anti-feminism common to ON and ME, earliest record – after the allusion in Vkv – in the Proverbs of Alfred (c. 1150) 122 line 336: cold red is queen red, ‘women’s counsel is cold counsel…’” [ibid, p. 325]
In that reference above to the Eddic poem Atlakaviða, Dronke states: “2/6 kaldri röddo [‘with cold voice’]: the same phrase occurs in the bitter address of the soul to the rotting body in OE Soul and Body 15… [see (ll. 15-21) here: https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/soul-body/ ] ‘Cold’ as an epithet for speech or counsel has the connotations ‘sinister,’ ‘hostile,’ ‘fate-bringing’ in ON… as in OE and ME…” [Dronke (3) p. 47]
John McKinnell notes the “bitterly appropriate” punishment of the queen with this “loss of her ability to have her advice listened to,” [McKinnell (1) p. 239], and sums up the queen’s ‘appropriate’ punishments, the “ironic gifts made from eyes for the observant woman;” “loss of influence over her husband which she has misused;” and the “loss of her sons because of her part in the symbolic castration of Völund, in suggesting his mutilation” [ibid, p. 241], without, however, remarking on the significance of the poet’s line: “köld eru mér ráð þín” ‘cold was your counsel,’ in conjunction with the line: “”Nú hef ek hefnt harma minna allra nema einna íviðgjarna” ‘“Now have I my wrongs avenged, all save one…” [Thorpe] ********
[I will probably continue to update this post in the near future; for example, as I write this, a newer version of the Cleasby-Vigfusson Icelandic Dictionary is on its way to me, and may have an impact on what I’ve written so far about the semantics of the word ‘cunning’ for Northern medieval listeners.]
 ‘seggr’ 8. Stigu ór söðlum at salar gafli, gengu inn þaðan endlangan sal; sáu þeir á bast bauga dregna,sjau hundroð allra, er sá seggr átti. “8. Got down from their saddles| at the hall gable, strode in from there | down the length of the hall.| They saw on the rope of bast rings threaded, seven hundred in all,| which that man ownedg.” [Dronke (1), p. 245 – 246] “seggr, m., pl. seggir, [A. S. säcg; from segja?]:—poët. a man, prop. a messenger, which sense can still be seen in Akv. 1, 2, 6, as also in the allit. seggr and segja; at þú mér, seggr, né segir, Skm. 5; seggir segja mér hvártveggja, Hallfred. 2. gener. a man, Vkv. 7, 21; nóttum fóru seggir, 6; sénir vóru seggir (strangers) und hjálmum, Hðm. 20; seggja dróttinn, Bkv. 5: the word remains in mod. usage in such phrases as, grimdar-seggr, a cruel man; óróa-seggr, a rioter. segg-fjöld, f. a host of men, Lex. Poët.” http://norse.ulver.com/dct/cleasby/s.html
 On the Hávamál stanza regarding witches apparently flying, [see for ex. Thorpe: “157. For the tenth I know, if I see troll-wives sporting in air, I can so operate that they will forsake their own forms, and their own minds.”], Clive Tolley says: “Hamr* and hug** are found together in Hávamál 155 (72). The speaker proclaims his power over túnriður19 , sending them villar, “astray,” as they leika, “play, go into ecstasy,” up in the air; its allusion to efficatory magic is enforced by the use of charm-metre, galdralag, in the concluding lines \sinna heimhama, sinna heimhuga\ “from their home shapes, from their home souls.” This stanza is difficult to interpret… but the essential meaning must be that the speaker has the capability to prevent witches’ hugir, which are playing up in the air… from returning to their bodies.
“*hamr “The basic meaning of hamr is concrete: it is an animal or bird pelt… Hamr need not imply the existence of a physical pelt at all, but may exhibit a sense of “the outward form assumed by a being,” which certain people were able to change, assuming the forms of animals… People (or anthropomorphic beings) changing hamr almost always take on animal form, but the word is sometimes used of people exchanging their outward appearance with each other…” [Tolley (1) p. 189 – 190]
“**hugr “The basic meaning of hugr and its cognates is “thought, mind, intention.” [Tolley (I) p. 186]
19 Túnriður is glossed as “fence-rider” in Cleasby and Vigfússon. However, tún does not mean “fence” in Old Norse, but rather the farm buildings and yards; the natural way to understand the word would therefore be that the witches are riding on the rooftops of the buildings, just as Glámr does in Grettis saga ch. 32. This suggestion, made by B. Olsen (1916: 71), is rejected by Evans (1986, comm. Hávamál 155) on the grounds that tún cannot mean simply the farm building, and in any case it is only ghosts that ride on rooftops; the latter point seems to carry little weight (witches and ghosts may be viewed as belonging to the same class of being, but there does seem to be a degree of unsatisfactoriness in the tún as an object to ride upon. However, the word is almost certainly borrowed from German, and understood just as “witch” without reference to the lexical elements contained within it; in German a term (without linguistic ambiguity) was zúnrite, “fence rider” (it occurs, no doubt as a traditional term, in the fourteenth-century Münchener Nachtsegen line 14 in the form \zcunriten\ (dat. pl.), which can be either feminine or masculine; in Middle Low German túnride occurs as a plant name: von Grienberger (1897: 347); this illustrates clearly how witches were conceived to operate liminally, on the boundary between the physical and spiritual worlds, a notion which is found in Norse too: cf. the Swedish law (73), where the witch sits on a kvígrindr (cattle fence) when day and night are equal, i.e. she works at a dividing point both in space and time. The same liminality is evident in the terms kveldiða, “evening rider,” (for example Hallfreðr, Óláfsdrápa 6, Skj B, 149) and myrkriða, “murk-rider” Hárbarðsljóð 20.)” [Tolley (I) p. 189 – 190]
Tolley adds that “Hamhleypa was a term for “witch,” derived from the ability to “shift hamr,” as the word indicates. An instance of a hamhleypa turning into a bird and clucking all night at the window is found in the case of Gunnhíldr in Egils saga ch. 60.” [Tolley (I) p. 196]
 Ursula Dronke on the Franks Casket: “The earliest testimony to the content of the legend does not come from Germany, but from Anglo-Saxon England, in the carvings on two panels of the whalebone casket from Northumbria, the Franks Casket, usually dated to the early decades of the eighth century… On the front panel Weland is depicted in his smithy; a bent leg may signify his lameness; under his forge lies a headless body. In one hand he holds an object resembling a narrow cup, which is probably better identified as a signet-style ring seen in profile. (32) In the other hand he holds tongs which grip a (boy’s) head. A woman – Beadohild – holds out her hand to him – it is empty – signifying that she has given him the ring. Behind her stands a woman carrying a flask in a basket; presumably the maid, with a gift of beer for the smith. To the right of this woman, in a separate scene, a man is grasping the long necks of large aquatic birds… All of these details can be identified as relating to incidents in one or other version of the story. On the top panel of the Casket is a vivid scene of armed men attacking a bowman at the entrance to a house in which a woman is sitting. Above the bowman Ægili is carved in runes. It would seem to record an incident in the career of the brother of Weland, Egill in Old Norse tradition, which is not elsewhere recorded… The Weland scene [on the front panel] is the only scene on the Casket which has no inscription identifying it or its hero. It must have been better known than [the facing-inscription on the left side of the Magi], who are identified.” [Dronke (1), p. 270]
[But see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franks_Casket#Lid for other interpretations of the Ægili-bowman.]
 “In Beowulf the hero dives into the waters of a haunted lake in pursuit of Grendel’s mother. The suggestion that this lake is a gateway to the Other World is strengthened by the close verbal resemblance between the description of it in the poem and that of the region where wicked souls are tormented after death in a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon sermon in the Blickling Homilies… In both cases frost-covered trees hang down from grey rocks above the water, and strange sea creatures haunt the lake. Moreover when Beowulf dived under the waves the impression given is that his journey to the hall of the giants was a long one; not until late in the day, we are told, did he reach the bottom, when he was seized by Grendel’s mother, the ‘she-wolf of the mere’, and carried into a hall where he could see a fire burning (1495-1517)…” [Ellis Davidson, p. 155]
 On the Norns as shapers of fate, see, for example, stanza 20 of the eddic poem Völuspá: “Thence come the maidens | mighty in wisdom, Three from the dwelling | down ‘neath the tree; Urth is one named, | Verthandi the next,– On the wood they scored,– | and Skuld the third. Laws they made there, and life allotted To the sons of men, and set their fates.
the original of this picture is ‘The Norns’ by Franz Stassen courtesy of http://www.germanicmythology.com/works/IMAGES4/Stassen3.jpg
 “….What is unavoidable, however, is the tradition that Volundr is of elvish origin, and this is elsewhere found only in Middle English, in Lajamon’s Brut 10,544-5 (1963-78, II 550-1), where Arthur’s mail-shirt has been made by an elvish smith called Wygar, father of Widia; the son’s name shows that the father was once WeIand, the traditional father of Widia (see e.g. Waldere II, 4, 9)…” [McKinnell (2), p. 3]
 For another view on what ‘ergi’ meant with respect to male practitioners of seiðr, see Gardela, p. 48
 For a very useful, non-magical and step-by-step explanation of how such a field can be created, see Creative Thinking by JG Bennett, Bennett Books, 1998