I’m well aware it’s been well over a year since I first promised it was going to be done in “a few weeks.” But, see, here’s the thing: I was stupid, stupid, stupid, to make a promise like that, because the two (just two!!) stanzas in the some-sixty stanza-long Old Norse poem known as Vǫluspá are arguably the most difficult and among the most-debated in the poem. I thought I had a handle a year ago on the research that had been done to date; laughable! I knew nothing, nothing. I’ve since learned that, to resolve the mystery of Gullveig and Heiðr, a deep understanding of the best-known and most powerful of the Eddic poems – Vǫluspá – would be a prerequisite. If I’d known what I was in for, I would never have had the courage to start it.
But now that I’ve come this far, I’m determined to be the one to resolve the many hundreds of years-old mystery.
Just so my loyal readers can rest assured I haven’t spent the entire summer lolling on a lawn chair eating bonbons, here’s something of what you can expect to learn from my post when I have finished it:
- The word ‘Gullveig’ was intended by the poet to be a symbol, and as such, it can never have a final meaning. However, scholars such as John McKinnell and Sigurður Nordal have limited the meanings that can be discerned, by insisting that the first part of this made-up name, ‘Gull,’ ‘gold,’ can only mean the literal metal ‘gold,’ and it cannot mean ‘golden.’ I believe I can prove that this is not the case. Moreover, the meaning of ‘brew,’ ‘liquid intoxicant,’ is better attested in Eddic sources than any other suggested meaning, such as McKinnell’s ‘woman,’ or ‘power;’ and moreover, there is a West Saxon cognate word with the meanings of ‘liquid,’ ‘river,’ which nobody else has mentioned, although Nordal cites other borrowings from West Saxon in the poem.
- The idea promulgated by a number of scholars that the burning of Gullveig is situated in a tradition of burning people for witchcraft is just nonsense. Nordal and Ursula Dronke make a good case for the poem’s having been written in Iceland – where nobody was burned for witchcraft until several hundred years after Vǫluspá had been written! There were other punishments for witches who crossed the wrong person, and the only story told of burning witches in accounts roughly contemporary with that of Vǫluspá is that of the burning of witches, not for being witches, but for being male witches; and that account is from Norway: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%B6lva#Male_practitioners not from Iceland, which at that time was still possessed of a wary independence from Norway.
- There are numerous striking parallels between the figure of Heiðr the witch in Vǫluspá and that of the figure of Hildr in the eerie Scandinavian legend of Hjaðningavíg the “battle of the Heodenings.” Although several scholars such as Ursula Dronke have commented on some of those parallels, I propose to go into them more deeply.
- Additionally, I will address the connection between the 14th cent. version of the “battle of the Heodenings,” namely, Sörla þáttr and that of the somewhat later Icelandic ‘rimur’ known as Skíðaríma and I will provide evidence to show that, contrary to scholarly assumptions about the latter poem being intended to “disrespect” the Old Norse pagan religion, in fact Skíðaríma is best understood as a satirical response to the Christian attempt by means of Sörla þáttr to destroy the legend of ‘the eternal battle’ and the power of the old gods once and for all. Understood as such, Skíðaríma is an absolute scream.
- I will look at other interpretations that have been made of the three mysterious figures from Vǫluspá: Gullveig, Heiðr and the seeress into whose mouth the entire recital of the poem has been placed, as well as the oft-debated questions of: whether or not the seeress is dead or alive, and whether or not she is human. Of course it’s one thing to say one’s opinion, and another thing to support one’s opinion with evidence that will stand up to a careful inspection by people with many letters after their name. And it is impossible to do the job well without really knowing very well everything else that has been written and thought about in connection with those stanzas (at least, everything for which I can find an English-language text or translation).
- I can assure you that if I don’t die or otherwise become seriously incapacitated, I will finish the work. To paraphrase Gurdjieff’s Anatolian Turk says in “Beelzebub’s tales,” “Have I not spent all my money for this pepper that I thought was a delicious fruit? I will go on eating it if it kills me!” lol So, too, having begun and spent rather a lot on the research, both of time and money, I intend to finish it, to do it well, and to make an original contribution to the knowledge of this subject. Off to eat bonbons now. :-p