Who Wrote ‘Hrafnagaldur Odins’ and Why

Odin’s Ravens’ are ‘thought’ and ‘memory’   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odin%27s_ravens and he was called ‘raven-god’ on account of his association with them.

“[The pre-Christian Norse concept] hugr was both ‘thought’ and ‘mind,’ and was believed to be able to liberate itself from the body and to wander about on its own… [Hastrup, p. 208]

So… ‘astral body,’ then….

“When the hugr left the body, it could take on a material shape of its own, thereby enabling the individual to change shape (hamr).  A person who could change his shape was hamrammr… This concept had roots in pre-Christian Icelandic culture, and was semantically related to a comprehensive (literary) imagery of more or less overlapping concepts.  If nothing else, this imagery testifies to an element of shamanism always present in medieval Icelandic culture.”  [Hastrup, p. 208 – 209]

“Jón lærði Guðmundsson (c. 1574 – 1658) told of a bird, hrijsehuislann (the nature of which remains obscure), which lived in the woods, and was used by the old doctors for healing… Other birds had different powers… (‘geese and swans have a pernicious spirit if their breathing hits men.’)”  [Hastrup, p. 252]

“In Old Icelandic galdr referred to a song, mainly in the sense of ‘charm’ or ‘spell.’  The corresponding verb was gala, to ‘chant,’ or ‘to cast spells.’  This linguistic derivation is an important key to the semantics of magic.  It demonstrates the most important instrument of supernatural power in Iceland – words.  Words were the means whereby man could produce history ex nihilo.  Word-actions were represented as physical forces.  Thus naturalized and empowered, words encapsulated a force which might be directed towards individuals.  In medieval Icelandic literature this is a recurrent theme…” [Hastrup, p. 200]

01.  WHEN HRAFNAGALDUR ODINS WAS WRITTEN.  A Preliminary Historical Background:

Annette Lassen has established as best as the extant evidence permits it that Hrafnagaldur was written in the years between 1638 and 1668, by someone with close links to Brynjólfur Sveinsson, then Bishop at the See of Skálholt, in Iceland.

The dating of the poem hinges in the main on two critical events:  (i) the arrival in Iceland of the proverb found in stanza 22: “Night is the time for new counsels;” [Lassen, p. 18 – 19], which could only have happened with Brynjólfur Sveinsson’s return to Iceland from Copenhagen to take up the Bishopric; and (ii), a reference in a letter by Árni Magnússon to copies of Hrafnagaldur made by Þorsteinn Eyjólfsson directly from one held by Bishop Brynjólfur.  [Lassen, p. 11] Þorsteinn finished his studies at Skálholt in 1668 and did not return there as bailiff until after Bishop Brynjólfur’s death in 1675.

Additionally, the earliest known use of the word ‘’Forspjallsljóð,’ ‘foretelling,’ in Iceland, other than in Hrafnagaldur, is from 1649.  [ibid, p. 22]   –   which doesn’t speak for a medieval authorship.  And the word larður, ‘to become weary,’ was unknown in Iceland before the seventeenth century.  [Lassen, page 18 and page 104, Note 23.3]

The writer of Hrafnagaldur was very familiar with Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, and references it extensively.  Rife with obscure expressions, and seemingly concerned solely with the Scandinavian pagan myth of Ragnarök, its artificial style and syntax resemble skaldic [court] and epic poetry far more than that used traditionally in mythological poetry.  [ibid, p. 25 – 26]

The abstruse, convoluted style in which Hrafnagaldur is written resonates very well with literary ‘cloaking’ techniques used by Cherokee sorcerers, according to Alan Kilpatrick:  “The main difficulty in translating [the language of the Cherokee magic texts] is that Cherokee traditionalists invariably employ a highly specialized vocabulary to codify their spells, one that is replete with ritualisms, archaisms, loan words and unusual verb forms…” [Kilpatrick, p. 25]

“The purpose of ‘transformational language’ in the Cherokee context appears to be twofold.  First, this specialized Cherokee vernacular is clearly designed to baffle the uninitiated reader and thus cloak the text in a protective layer of secrecy.  Second, and perhaps most importantly, conjurors use this hyperbolic language to dramatize the extraordinary nature of their intent and to focus on their thoughts.  For only when their magic has become potent, or “remade,” can the text become “alive” with supernatural power.   These two “strategies of empowerment” are employed in several ways…”  [Kilpatrick, p. 25]

(Kilpatrick’s book, The Night Has a Naked Soul: Witchcraft and Sorcery Among the Western Cherokee,’ shows a deep understanding of sorcery, in my opinion, and I recommend it highly.)

“Contrary to what some scholars have concluded, Hrafnagaldur Odins has a clear beginning, with an overview of the various classes of supernatural beings, and a clear ending, with the advent of Ragnarök.”  [Lassen, ibid, p. 23]

Annette Lassen has remarked in her book on parallels between Hrafnagaldur Odins and classical Greek and Roman myths.  According to Einar Gunnar Pétursson’s 1998 Doctoral Thesis, Jón lærði Guðmundsson, though not trained in Latin, was, nevertheless, well acquainted with the Classical mythic traditions:*

“Samantektir, a version of parts of the Prose Edda with extensive additions and annotations, and Ristingar, a commentary on Brynhildarljóð in Volsunga saga…. The first chapter of the book has a detailed account of the two pieces which are edited in the second volume, examines all available evidence for their authorship and origin, and concludes that they were both written by Jón lærði, probably for Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson. The argument is careful and convincing, and it is unlikely that anyone will find it possible to refute it. This chapter also has a detailed survey of the study of native lore in seventeenth-century Iceland and shows how this was to a large extent influenced by the historical interests of the bishops of Iceland. It is shown that Samantektir in particular was written from a Christian point of view and that the authorial attitudes are not exclusively native or pagan ones, that is, that the writer distances himself from the native and non-Christian attitudes of his sources. He shows particular interest in comparison of Norse mythology with Old Testament and classical Greek and Roman tradition (see particularly 1:43–44).”  [Faulkes [I], p. 100 – 101]

* “A new picture emerges in this work of Jón lærði himself. He was a layman and not formally educated and evidently knew little Latin (this comes out clearly in 1:347 and 372), but was far from the unlettered superstitious peasant that he has sometimes been depicted as… Though he lacked Latin and had not been educated to be a cleric, he was well read and translated various things from German and quoted from German books in his writings, and is not so very different as a writer from his contemporary the priest Magnús Ólafsson…”  [Faulkes [I], p. 101]


 The seventeenth century was kind of a crummy time to be alive in Northern Europe, nowhere more so than in Iceland.  Firmly under the thumb of Denmark during the whole of that period, Iceland was forced by royal edict to trade solely with Danish traders – and only selected ones of those, at that!  Guess who got to set the prices for Icelandic goods… [Johannesson, p. 47]  [Poole, p. 111]

Ironically, control over the Icelanders didn’t confer protection from outside assaults.  [Johannesson, p. 48]

The last Catholic bishop in Iceland, Jón Arason, was executed with his two sons in Skálholt, in 1550.  What that meant for the some 50,000 people living in Iceland [Hastrup, p. 110], was a significant reduction in such Catholic benefices as charity for the poor [Johannesson, p. 44] and hospices for those unable to care for themselves [ibid, p. 52].  The Protestant Church also abolished the separation of church and state that had existed at least in practice in Catholic Iceland [ibid, p. 44 – 45];  and its takeover of judicial matters ultimately led to 120 witchcraft trials during the seventeenth century. [Hastrup, p. 215]

An overall drop of average temperatures by one or two degrees, most probably caused by earlier-period volcanic eruptions, resulted in even colder temperatures and more ice, leading to famine and general misery for Icelanders in a fifth of the seventeenth-century years.  [Johannesson, p. 52, 54]

The one hundred or so farmers and officials who made up “the ruling class,” such as it was in Iceland, owned almost half of the 4000 packets of arable land, and the clergy owned most of the rest of it.  [ibid, p. 49]  The ‘upper crust’ also had a chokehold on education, supplied by the formerly Catholic and henceforth-Lutheran Sees, at Skálholt in the south and Hólar to the north. [ibid, p. 51]  Not that being born to the ‘rich’ and ‘educated’ was any guarantee of longevity in 17th-century Iceland.  The prevailing belief [despite all evidence to the contrary] that undiluted cow’s milk and even cream were somehow better for babies than breast milk, served, together with neonatal tetanus, to knock off more than a third of all infants.  [ibid, p. 53]

For the general public, dances and feasts helped to offset the prevailing doom and gloom.  But the clergy and ruling class managed to put an end to all of that, by the beginning of the 18th century.  [ibid, p. 45]

Iceland’s National Assembly, the Althing, had been denuded of any real legislative power, and decrees were merely announced there, by the Danish king’s men.  [Hastrup, p. 213]

A sense of helplessness against formidable outside forces engendered an inner fatalism that manifested in neglect of what knowledge the Icelanders had possessed concerning herbal remedies [Hastrup, p. 242], and the paranoia against witches that reached a pitch in the mid to late 17th century probably accelerated the loss of that herbal knowledge.  The traditional healers were also the men of magic, and both used runes in their work, as well as herbs.  [ibid, p. 229] “…sanctions on heathen magic were rarely enforced before the [Protestant] Reformation…” [ibid, p. 199]

For example, Jón lærði [‘the learned’] Guðmundsson, who “wrote a treatise on plants and their healing properties, showing how inconspicuous grasses could be put to good use, and how Icelandic aridity could be made to serve social ends” [ibid, p. 270], and who was “one of the most gifted men of the period,” [ibid, p. 218], only escaped the usual witch’s fate in the 17th century on account of his Danish friends in high places.   His Danish connections notwithstanding, he ended up in exile in 1637 to the Eastfiords, until his death in 1658 [ibid, p. 221 – 222], with none other than the Lutheran Bishop at Skálholt, Brynjólfur Sveinsson, for protector and employer. [Jucknies, p. 1 – 2] [Faulkes, p. 100 – 101]   http://www.visindavefur.is/svar.php?id=6624


Life in 17th century Iceland must have seemed to most of its inhabitants akin in a metaphorical sense to the medieval Catholic vision of Purgatory.  “With the onset of Protestantism, the Crown absorbed the ecclesiastical component of the judicial sphere, and the division between sin and crime vanished.  Fines for adultery were increased and floggings introduced… Heavy fines and floggings were then meted out [for infidelity and extramarital childbirth], with the practice continuing into the 1800s.”  [Johannesson, p. 45]

Iceland’s European neighbors, however, went even farther than that in their thinking, by and large considering her Mount Hekla (or Hecla) to be the physical entrance to a literal waiting room for the dear departed.  And that belief persisted “well into the eighteenth century.”  [Hastrup, p. 215]

‘‘Mercators Iceland with Mount Hekla inscription’ ‘Tabula Islandiae’ from Mercator Atlas, courtesy of http://www.raremaps.com/index.html ; My source for the quote from Mercator’s Atlas is ‘Supernatural Environments in Shakespeare’s England: Spaces of Demonism, Divinity, and Drama’ by Kirsten Poole, p. 118

“Far from being forgotten in either Shakespeare’s England or Hamlet’s Denmark, purgatory was very much on people’s minds, whether as a source of pamphlet humor or as part of an ongoing theological debate.” [Poole, p. 131]

“Mount Hecla was a flashpoint in the discussions about the reality of purgatory and its purported geographical existence.  Under Danish rule, Iceland had officially become Protestant in 1538.  For subsequent Protestant bishops, the prominent existence of a volcano that was a reputed portal to purgatory or hell was an embarrassment.”  [Poole, p. 113 – 115]

In her book, ‘‘Supernatural Environments in Shakespeare’s England,’ Kirsten Poole details a carefully reasoned argument that Hekla is “the geographical locus of purgatory, the prison of Hamlet’s father’s ghost” [Poole, p. 96], repeatedly referenced in Shakespeare’s play through a “network of allusions” [ibid, p. 30] that both highlight a politically dangerous analogy and, paradoxically, serve to mask it at the same time from Protestant reformers and officials “wary of perceived Catholic sympathizers.”  [ibid, p. 130]

The sightings of Old Hamlet’s ghost are “folded into an account of earthly territorial conflicts.  The war over land provides a logical explanation for the ghost’s appearance; the underworld and the earthly world appear to be part of one political continuum.”  [ibid, p. 108]

“Hamlet dramatizes a supernatural environment which doesn’t consider eschatological spaces as carefully distinct and bounded from chthonic ones:  in the graveyard scene, Hamlet and Laertes are fleetingly in purgatory just as much as they are in Denmark.”  [Poole, p. 134]

‘Hekla eruption 2000’ by http://www.trekearth.com/members/mdetay/ ; Russian actors Vasili Kachalov and Olga Knipper as Hamlet and Gertrude in Edward Gordon Craig and Constantin Stanislavski’s production of Hamlet (1911). courtesy wikimedia.org, public domain; the quote is from Hamlet. 

Within the 17th century home of Hekla, too, there was “was no sharp distinction between the natural and the supernatural environment of the people;” “glaciers and hidden people were equally real.”  [Hastrup, p. 268]  Spirits, such as the nikur, ‘water horse,’ haunted Iceland’s lakes and rivers [ibid, 249 – 250].  “No clear boundary was drawn between fish and other sea-beings.”  [Hastrup, p. 253] Elves, ‘the hidden people’ [ibid, p. 262], peeked out from knolls and rocks in the immediate vicinity of the farmsteads; trolls hid out in the rocks and mountains, sharing the thoroughly wild spaces with ‘out-lying men’ [ibid, p. 264]; that is to say, outlaws and other people who had chosen for one reason or another to live apart from other people.

“In 1281 it was decreed that it was illegal to ‘wake up trolls or landspirits in the waterfalls or in the mounds.’” [Hastrup, p. 210 – 211]

If outlyers formed the hidden natural dimension of human existence in pre-Industrial Iceland, ghosts were their supernatural counterpart.    There were two kinds of ghosts:  those who were unable to rest easy after death for one reason or another, and those who were raised from the dead by fjölkyngismenn (‘men of much knowledge’).  It was said that one did not want to meet up with the second kind, under any circumstances.  [Hastrup, p. 259]

“The dead were in general very powerful inhabitants of ‘the wild.’  ‘Superstition’ regarding the dead had a very strong hold in Icelandic popular belief… Ghosts, draugar and afturgangar played an important role in the folk-tales; they seem to have been a feature mainly of early medieval and of post-Reformation concepts of reality, and to have been of less moment in Catholic times… Contrary to the explicit wish to weed out heresy and superstition, the Reformation apparently brought about some degree of ‘heathen’ motifs, including the ghosts…” [Hastrup, p. 211]

The ‘hippocampus’ from the Percy Jackson film sequel greatly resembles the ‘nikur’ of medieval Icelandic beliefs.  gif by http://galaxysorceress.blogspot.ca/

Their grim external conditions and the rise of political absolutism in their Danish overlords brought about in Icelanders an ever-increasing sense of helplessness as regards control of their own lives and destinies, during the seventeenth century.  Summer huts began to disappear, “shrinking the social space.  Later, even the fences disintegrated, allowing nature to creep far into the domesticated area.  Barns disappeared as well, allowing the rain to destroy the hay.  Tufts sprouted in the infields and erosion spoiled the outfields.  The outside encroached itself on to the inside from all directions; from above, from below, and from across the fence, the wild approached.”  [ibid, p. 276]

“‘History’ itself became split into two:  an external uncontrolled succession of movements and an internal repetition of values traditional.”  [Hastrup, p. 291]   Icelanders retreated mentally into a world view “focused in another time, on another history…”  [ibid, p. 294]  “Creative effort was directed towards recollection and a continuation of ‘proper’ history, at the expense of a comprehension of present realities.”  [Hastrup, p. 291]

Rather than defining a new reality and shaping it in language, they defined their present in terms of a past of which only the language remained real.” [ibid, 291]

“As we have seen, the ruling class of monarchy, clergy, officials and land-owners favored conservatism and the status quo, and that attitude seems to have permeated the general population.  During the eighteenth century, for instance, the scholar and the poet Eggert Ólafsson complained of an aversion to progress in the country, an almost ingrown inertia in Icelanders, strengthened by their fatalism, admiration of a long-gone glorious age, and a feeling of helplessness against a hostile nature and remote rulers.” [Johannesson, p.57]

At the turn of the 17th century, the best known collection of writings on Iceland’s mythicized past was that of Snorri Sturluson’s [1179 – 1241]:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snorri_Sturluson  His ‘Prose Edda’ addressed the old Norse myths and art of skaldic [court] poetry, and his ‘History of Kings’ is still famous today.  Snorri also probably wrote ‘Egil’s Saga,’  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egil%27s_saga as well as other works no longer extant.   Snorri had studied at the school established by the semi-legendary Icelandic priest Sæmundur the Learned [1056–1133] in Oddi and was raised by the latter’s grandson.  The word ‘edda’ probably means something along the lines of ‘collection of poetic writings.’  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edda#Etymology

In his writings, Snorri referred to sources long disappeared by the turn of the seventeenth century.  According to Einar G. Petursson, it was Jón Guðmundsson lærði (‘the learned’) who, in 1623, is first recorded to have mentioned the existence of a collection of Snorri’s sources, attributed by Jón lærði to the priest Sæmundur.   http://www.germanicmythology.com/works/CODEXREGIUS.html

The next the world was to hear of the matter was in 1643, when that collection of writings alleged at the time to be Sæmundur’s somehow came into the hands of the Lutheran Bishop at Skálholt, Brynjólfur Sveinsson, in 1643.  Bishop Brynjólfur believed his find had been written by the priest Sæmundur and so it was termed Sæmundar Edda for centuries, until modern scholarship determined that no part of it could have been written by the “larger-than-life” priest.

Bishop Brynjólfur’s lucky find would get a new name in 1662, when he presented it as a gift to King Frederick III of Denmark.  Thereafter it would be known as Codex Regius, ‘King’s Book.’  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex_Regius

The 1000 kroner note showing Brynjólfur Sveinsson (1605-1675), Bishop of Skálholt;  picture by http://www.flickr.com/people/18378655@N00   via  de.wikipedia.org, creative attribution, share-alike license

The best known, most-translated and most-discussed poem in Codex Regius is the first one in the manuscript, Völuspá, ‘Song of the seeress.’  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%B6lusp%C3%A1

The poem Völuspá “is composed in a sophisticated form, not elsewhere recorded in Germanic, representing an idealized performance of a heathen völva.”  [Dronke [I], p. 64]

“[Mircea] Eliade [points out that the] shamanic ecstasy… is the trance state by which the shaman’s soul is believed to leave his/her body and travel/ascend to the upperworld or descend to the lowerworld [where] it encounters spirits…, souls of the dead, and lost souls… he notes that the shaman differs from a possessed person in that he/she controls his/her spirits, and in that the shaman is a human being who “is able to communicate with the dead, demons, and nature spirits, without thereby becoming their instrument.”” [Smith, p. 12]

Völuspá has everything to do with Hrafnagaldur Odins.  For starters, the final stanza of Hrafnagaldur clearly picks up where Völuspá leaves off, in terms of overall context.  Völuspá is the response of a [dead?] seeress to Odin, Norse god of battles, magic and Valhalla, where those who died in battle get to go, when he consults her regarding the ultimate fate of gods, humans and everyone else in the medieval Norse cosmogony.  That fate, Ragnarök, is pending in Völuspá but not imminent, whereas the final scene in Hrafnagaldur is the prelude to Ragnarök, which is now imminent.

Here is an excellent online translation of Völuspá:  http://www.voluspa.org/voluspa.htm


03.  My Model of Who Wrote Hrafnagaldur Odins and Why

The model I propose answers the questions ‘who wrote Hrafnagaldur Odins and why;’ in addition, it provides an elegant and internally consistent resolution of three problems with respect to the ‘poem:’

(i)    Its relationship to the eddic poem ‘Völuspá;

(ii)   The specific aspect of 17th century Icelandic culture it was intended to address;

(iii)  The answer to the question of why ‘Iðunn’ in the poem failed to answer Heimdall’s questions.

The Model:

1.  That Hrafnagaldur was written by the sorcerer Jón lærði ‘the learned’ Guðmundsson (c. 1574 – 1658), after his second conviction for sorcery in 1637 and subsequent exile to the East Fiords in Iceland.

2.  That Hrafnagaldur, which has the subtitle ’Forspjallsljóð,’ ‘foretelling,’ in every copy of it [Lassen, p. 22], is itself a preface – to the Eddic poem Völuspá – right up to the very last stanza, which then closes the Eddic poem.

We can easily see this relationship, if we consider the significance of the respective contents of the two poems, in connection with Idunn’s refusal to answer “the scion of gods and his companions” in Hrafnagaldur’s stanza 12.

Who were the “scion of gods and his  companions?  Heimdall, with the deified poet Bragi – and Loki.  Loki, who, the Eddic poem has told us, will guide the forces of darkness into attack against the gods at Ragnarök, “the final destiny of the gods:”

What will signal the start of Ragnarök, according to Völuspá?  It will be Heimdall’s act of sounding his horn:  “fate’s measure is lit at the clarion call of Gjallarhorn” [Stanza 45/46]. He doesn’t actually do this in Völuspá.   On the contrary, it’s clear to me that the prophecy in Völuspá compasses a supernaturally large ‘Present Moment,’ containing what for us humans would normally be experienced as ‘past,’ ‘present’ and ‘what will be.’  The start of Ragnarök is clearly no more present by the end of Völuspá than Odinn’s death in it is, or the prophesied subsequent ‘dawn of a new age,’ in my opinion.

The poem Hrafnagaldur, by contrast, explicitly ends with Heimdall’s actual act of taking up his horn – the unmistakeable herald of the start of Ragnarök.

So, why would Odin send Heimdall off to the underworld to query the mysterious disir Iðunn on the fate of all things, if he already knew the answer to that from the seeress who speaks in Völuspá?  Well, obviously, he wouldn’t.  Nor would the goddesses be likely to chat up the traitor who’s going to help bring about their downfall, not knowingly anyway.  “Stanza 20:  Of many things inquired, when the meal was over, the high gods of Heimdall, the goddesses of Loki; – whether the maid had uttered divinations or wise words?- From noon until twilight’s advent.”  [Thorpe]

However, the connection between the two events, the journey of Heimdall, and the journey of Odin, both to seek out prophecy, becomes clear when we look at Iðunn’s refusal in Hrafnagaldur to talk to Heimdall and his companions, from the perspective of the writer of the poem, who was “was very familiar with Snorri Sturluson’s Edda” [Lassen, p. 25], and who, therefore, knew very well what Loki’s role would be in the ‘doom of the gods,’ according to Völuspá.  Assuming she had anything useful to tell the gods, why wouldn’t Iðunn want to tell them?  She certainly doesn’t seem to be pleased about being unable to say anything.  In fact, she seems to be greatly distressed. So, if she had anything useful to relate, why wouldn’t she?  It’s not some nobody who’s asking her.  It’s Heimdall, “the scion of gods.”  And Heimdall is there, presumably, because the gods were confident of Idunn’s ability to tell them something of what was going to happen, or what the ominous signs in the world portended.  And maybe she could have, but, Loki was standing right there, right next to Heimdall, staring at her.  Loki, who will kill Heimdall and be killed by him in the final battle between the forces of darkness and the old gods, according to Snorri’s Edda:  http://www.germanicmythology.com/ProseEdda/BRODEURPrologeandGylfaginning.html    [See chap. 51]

With respect to line 45/12 of Völuspá, “and the giant slips free,” Ursula Dronke points out that “this must be Loki, changed into an agent of the world’s destruction.  Only he and the wolf are in bonds, which both will break.” [Dronke [I], p. 146]

As soon as we answer the question “why didn’t Iðunn answer Heimdall?” with the response, based on knowledge of Snorri’s Edda, “because of Loki,” then an elegant and meaningful relationship in space and time between the Eddic poem and the 17th century one glides into view.

And the author of Hrafnagaldur was very familiar indeed with Snorri’s Edda:  “Most of the figures or places from the Norse mythological world that are used in kennings in Hrafnagaldur are mentioned in Snorri’s Edda, as is shown in the notes to the text below. Moreover, there is a number of names in Hrafnagaldur that are otherwise only known from Snorri’s Edda or later texts. These are: 1) Niflheimr, 2) Døkkálfar, 3) Bifrǫst (only in the form Bilrƒst in eddic poems), 4) Jóln/ Jólnar (apparently only recorded in Snorri’s Edda and a stanza (16 or 13) of Háleygjatal that is only transmitted in manuscripts of Snorri’s Edda), 5) Nál, 6) Vingólf, 7) Hangatýr. In addition, there is the noun ‘díar’, which is found in both Snorri’s Edda and Heimskringla, and finally ‘man(n)heim(a)r’, which is only recorded in Ynglinga saga in Heimskringla. The number of names and forms of names that are only known from Snorri’s Edda shows that the poet must have known this work extremely well, and also the poem is really downright incompre-hensible without the use of Snorri’s Edda as a reference book while it is read.” [Lassen, p. 25 – 26]

“Twenty-eight stanzas from Völuspá are cited, wholly or in part, in the text of Gylfaginning in the Snorra Edda.”  [Dronke [I], p. 61]

“Snorri also occasionally gives a prose paraphrase of verses he cites, or of other verses which he has chosen not to cite.”  [ibid, p. 62]

The first clue as to why Hrafnagaldur was written is in the poem’s subtitle, ’Forspjallsljóð,’ ‘foretelling,’ “found in every copy of Hrafnagaldur.”  [Lassen, p. 22]

Lassen states:  “All manuscripts that contain Hrafnagaldur include the subtitle ‘Forspjallsljóð’, sometimes preceded by ‘al.’ or ‘eþur’. The use of the noun ‘forspjall’ shows that the subtitle cannot stem from the Middle Ages. Fritzner’s Ordbog does not include the word forspjall, but gives the meaning ‘Tale, Fortælling’ for the noun spjall. Forspjall is not included in ONP’s word list either (http://dataonp.hum.ku.dk/index.html). The earliest example that is given in Orðabók Háskólans is from 1649, in a verse in the Ævidrápa of Jón lærði Guðmundsson (1574–1658): ‘Forspjall lítið | framan til ljóða | fyrir lesandann | eg læt hér vera’. The first twenty stanzas in his Ævidrápa comprise an introductory poem of a more general character than the decidedly autobiographical stanzas that follow. ‘Forspjall’ (‘preface’) is used by Jón lærði in a sense that seems identical to that of the Latin ‘prologus’, of which it is probably a translation. Jón belonged to the learned circle around Brynjólfur Sveinsson and was one of the Icelanders who copied medieval manuscripts and compiled commentaries on the ancient literature of Iceland, among other things making a copy of the Codex Upsaliensis of Snorri’s Edda and writing notes on Vƒluspá and Hávamál (see Faulkes 1977, 77, 89; Einar G. Pétursson 1998, 133–134). The context in which Jón Guðmundsson used the word forspjall is similar to that in Hrafnagaldur, but perhaps in the latter it applies particularly to the first stanza, in which the poet gives an overview of the status of various beings. Thus Hallgrímur Scheving (1837, 7) in fact suggested that the title ‘Forspjallsljóð’, which can mean a preface in verse, applied exclusively to st. 1 of Hrafnagaldur.” [Lassen, p. 22]

I suggest that Hrafnagaldur was intended by its 17th century author, the sorcerer Jón lærði ‘the learned’ Guðmundsson, to be itself a kind of preface to Völuspá, with which Jón lærði was well familiar, via Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda.  [Faulkes [I], p. 103]  As a preface, Hrafnagaldur Odins addresses the question:  ‘Just how was contact made by Odin with a clearly non-human seeress?’ In other words, it is, I maintain, an elliptical 17th century Icelandic lesson in the banned art of seiðr, i.e. ‘sitting out’ (at night) to commune with ‘the hidden folk’ for the purposes of magic-working or divination.

Hrafnagaldur remains a preface to Völuspá until the end of its stanza 25:  “Trollwives and giants, corpses, dwarves and dark-elves went to bed further north on the edge of the mighty earth under the outermost root of the foremost tree.”

And then, Völuspá kicks in.  Now Odin personally pays a visit to another seeress.  From her, he learns the reason why the seeress, Iðunn,* of Hrafnagaldur was either unable or unwilling to answer Heimdall’s questions.  Loki.  Loki had been standing right there with Heimdall; and Iðunn, from her position in what must be either the underworld of the dead or that of the giants, had learned that Loki would betray the gods.

* For, as such, Heimdall and his companions had hoped she would prove to be on that journey.

It’s clear that right up until the end of Hrafnagaldur, the gods are unaware of the role Loki will play in Ragnarök.  He is welcomed back into Odin’s hall together with Heimdall and Bragi.  The goddesses question him over dinner about the trip down below to see their lost Iðunn.  And yet, the very end of Hrafnagaldur is clearly the beginning of Ragnarök – when Loki will lead the forces in war against the gods; because the last stanza explicitly states that Heimdall took up his horn – which, according to Völuspá, is the signal for the gods that Ragnarök has begun.

So, when, then, did the gods learn about the role Loki would play?  It must have been after that feast in Hrafnagaldur, and before the final verse, wherein Heimdall took up his horn to sound the start of Ragnarök.   “Night is the time for new counsels.”  (Hrafnagaldur, stanza 22)  It’s also the time when sorcerers sat out to commune with spirits, including those of the dead.

And Völuspá is clearly such an act of seiðr, or ‘sitting out in séance:’  “Alone she sat out, when the old man came, terror’s son of the Æsir, and looked into her eyes.  “What are you asking me? Why are you testing me?” (Stanza 28)    http://www.voluspa.org/voluspa.htm   Völuspá concludes with the ending of the séance, and, perhaps, with the sinking of the clearly unfriendly, and evidently non-human seeress, and not with the actual start of battle.

Ursula Dronke translates line 28/1 of Völuspá thusly:  “Alone she held séance out in the night,” and says that ‘to sit out’ in Old Norse “implied ‘to sit out of doors to listen for, contact, spirits,’ and occupation of wizards and witches – and völur – condemned by the Church.  Norwegian laws (NGL 1. 19, 182) prohibit ‘sitting out to wake up a troll to perform heathenism by means of it.’”  [Dronke [I], p. 135]

The whole event of pre-battle divination is only concluded in the last stanza of Hrafnagaldur, which, unlike the ending of Völuspá, clearly signals the start of Ragnarök, “the final destiny of the gods.”  Lassen’s translation of stanza 26 clearly delineates what has actually happened by the end of the poem:

The gods rose up, Álfröðull (the sun) rose, Njóla (darkness, i.e. night) went  north to Niflheimur;  early Úlfrún’s son (Heimdallur), ruler of Himinbjörg, began the sound of the horn with Gjöll (Gjallarhorn).  [Lassen,  p. 94]

The model of Hrafnagaldur as a specialized form of what we could today describe by means of the categories of a séance, or as a specialized act of lucid dreaming, or dreaming in the Castaneda tradition, provides a rationale for its obscure style.  “Rife with obscure expressions, and seemingly concerned solely with the Scandinavian pagan myth of Ragnarök, its artificial style and syntax resemble skaldic [court] and epic poetry far more than that used traditionally in mythological poetry.”  [Lassen, p. 25 – 26]   It is quite in keeping with magic-worker traditions operating in conditions that necessitate secrecy to hide their workings from all but the initiated.  Alan Kilpatrick articulates the methodology of and the rationale for hiding spells in plain sight, so to speak:  “The main difficulty in translating [the language of the Cherokee magic texts] is that Cherokee traditionalists invariably employ a highly specialized vocabulary to codify their spells, one that is replete with ritualisms, archaisms, loan words and unusual verb forms…”  A “secret language whose meanings can only be deciphered by those who have the key and thus are initiated into the code,”this specialized Cherokee vernacular is clearly designed to baffle the uninitiated reader and thus cloak the text in a protective layer of secrecy…”  [Kilpatrick, p. 25]

Not only was the sorcerer Jón lærði very well acquainted with Snorri’s Edda [Faulkes [I], he was also notable for his frequent use of unusual words in his writings [Faulkes, [I], p. 105].

Jón lærði Guðmundsson made the Edda his own, locating its figures and features within his own world-view.”  [Wawn, p. 232]

Annette Lassen has established that one of the key identifying markers in Hrafnagaldur is its use in stanza 22, as “a high point in the poem,” of what appears to be a Latin proverb [Lassen, p. 20].  Jón lærði evidently did not know Latin and therefore could not have read the proverb in what was likely to have been the sole source for it at that time, namely Bishop Brynjólfur’s copy of Erasmus’s Adagia.  [Lassen, p. 20]   However, the Bishop had begun commissioning the sorcerer to do manuscript illustrations for him by 1641, and, by 1644, the Bishop and the sorcerer were tighthttp://www.visindavefur.is/svar.php?id=6790  ….  It doesn’t take a want of scepticism to think the Bishop might well have quoted the proverb at some point to his new scribe.  The Latin proverb is hardly a stumbling block to a non-speaker of Latin having written it into the poem.

The first verse in Hrafnagaldur suggests that the poem has an esoteric meaning:  the powers ascribed in the stanza to supernatural beings are also powers possessed by human souls.  On the surface of it, though, stanza 1 sets out classes of beings and behaviors by which those beings may be recognized.

Stanza 1:  “All-father exerts power [Lassen]; 2.  Elves understand [Björnsson and Reaves, and Lassen]; 3. Vanir know [all the translators] 4. Norns reveal [Björnsson and Reaves]    5. the Ividia brings forth [Thorpe] 6. men endure [Björnsson and Reaves, Thorpe]   7. Thurses crave [Kodratoff] 8. Valkyries yearn [Björnsson and Reaves]”

“The ancient Germanic peoples had a complex and well-developed structure for these psychic aspects of the human being. We can know this to a fairly exact degree because they had such a well developed set of technical terms for the psyche. In heathen times this body-soul structure could have been described as having (1) a physical body (ON Uk), (2) a shape or semiphysical body image (ON hamr), (3) a faculty of inspiration (ON 6dhr), (4) a vital breath (ON lind), (5) a volitive/cognitive/perceptive faculty (ON hugr), (6) a reflective faculty (ON minni), (7) a “shade” or afterdeath image (ON sal or, figuratively, skuggi, shadow), (8) a permanent magical soul, or fetch (ON fylgja), and (9) a dynamistic empowering substance that gives luck, protection, and the ability to shape-shift (ON hamingja).4”  [Flowers, p. 55]

“In our Galdrabaekur we only have the bare remnants of a fragmented system. What is clear, however, is that the Icelandic magicians preserved some of the technical lore in the ways they believed magic worked. It seems fairly clear that even in the period in which those spells were being used* the magicians realized (1) an animating or vital principle, (2) a personal image, and (3) a separable power entity by which “sendings” (Ice. sendingar) were sent, and (4) an essential core faculty of “heart and mind” (ON hugr).”  [Flowers, p. 55]

*  Flowers dated the ‘Galdrabok’ he is discussing above to the period between 1550 and 1650.  [ibid, p. 7]

Stanzas two through four tell us of a problem, for the solution of which, those powers listed in stanza one will be required; logic and inspiration have failed to resolve the situation; and the need to do so is critical, because the situation is worsening.

Stanza 2The forebodings the Æsir suspected to be evil; treacherous Vættar had the runes confounded.  [Thorpe] Óðhrærir had to look after Urður [fate]; he could not protect [her] from the greater part [of the plan].”  [Lassen]

The annals provide evidence that more visions, apparitions, and natural auguries were experienced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than ever before. We should, however, remember that this period was also the heyday of annalist writing.”  [Hastrup, p. 215]

Stanza 3:  “Hug [‘thought] then goes forth, explores the heavens; the powers fear disaster from delay[Thorpe]  Þráinn’s [‘threatening’] thought is an oppressive dream, Dáinn’s [‘dead’ or ‘died’] dream was thought enigmatic.”  [Björnsson and Reaves]”

“Among no people in Europe is the cult of dreams so deeply rooted [as it was, and still is, in Iceland]. In no literature are dream-symbols more sophisticated, nor their interpretation more subtle and intricate.” [Hole, p. 30]

“The idea of dreams as omens of the future has been one of the most persistent elements in the popular culture of Iceland… Dreams concerned fate; they tended to foretell the more sinister events of life, although they might equally help a fisherman to seek out the best fishing grounds… Generally, dreams were interpreted as counsels for action… in [the time before the 18th century], the dream counsel seems to have been conceptually related to the wanderings of the hugr.” [Hastrup, p. 208]

Stanza 4:   “Among the dwarfs virtue decays; [Thorpe] Worlds dwindle away, they sink down to the darkness of Ginnungur [‘yawning void’].  Alsviður [‘All-wise’] (Óðinn?) often fells from above and often gathers up the fallen again.”  [Lassen]

About Ginnungr, Ursula Dronke says in her notes on the Völuspá text:   “ginnunga presents a tortuous problem; it has no straightforward linguistic interpretation in terms of ON.  I set out some assumptions which I find useful and which the meagre evidence seems to allow: 

1.  That Vp 3/7 [gap var ginnunga] is based on a reversal of the two components in the mythical place-name Ginnungagap, without influence of other origin:  i.e. ginnunga had no meaning or usage in ON that was not ultimately dependent on the place-name [‘gap, ‘opening’ a place-name element in Norway but not in Iceland though vb. ‘gapa’ to gape with open mouth’ is common] (which may have made it easier to reverse).

2.  That Ginnungagap is a tautology, comparable to a phrase such as ‘the gap of Chaos,’ in which the associated terms derive from the same root and originally had the same significance, namely, ‘wide opening,’ ‘chasm.’  If Ginnunga had, like Chaos, become a specific name for the primordial void and the descriptive element in the name was no longer kept alive by current usage, then ‘gap’ would act as a gloss for the archaic name.’

3.  That ginnunga is not in origin an ON word, but a pre-literary borrowing of OHG ginnunga, ‘hiatus,’ ‘rictus’ (of a cavernous opening in the ground – caecus hiatus – or the jaws of a beast or demon, found frequently in glosses…. I suggest that OHG Ginunga may have been a term for the heathen Gmc Chaos borrowed by the Norsemen together with Muspell.. with a change of stem from gin- to ginn by association with the ON stem ginn- … In 13 c. ON prose texts a vb ‘ginnna,’ ‘to deceive,’ ‘to bewitch,’ and ginning, ‘deception,’ ‘befooling,’ first appear.  De Vries sees the origin of Ginnunga in this vb, arguing that the magical connotations of ginna point to the essential significance of Ginnungagap, namely, ‘primordial realm of space filled with magical powers…’ But, as ginna, with its magical associations, occurs so late in the ON record, in contexts of no dignity (and does not occur in in any other Gmc language), I think it more probable that in Vsp ginnunga retains its original etymological sense of ‘yawning emptiness,’ from whose unimaginable magnitude the ‘magic’ of the supernatural powers would emerge.”  [Dronke, p. 112 – 113]

And that would also be the interpretation of ginnunga as given by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur:  “a yawning gap.”  [Gylfaginning 4]   http://www.germanicmythology.com/ProseEdda/BRODEURPrologeandGylfaginning.html

Anthony Faulkes, on the other hand, manages to compass both the meaning of ‘gap’ and the suggestion of power in his translation of the same passage:  “the mighty gap.”    http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Uppsala%20Edda.pdf  [p. 15]

In this stanza is the first real hint of what the poem is all about, namely, seidhr‘All-wise’ often fells from above and often gathers up the fallen again.’   Relevant to this line are Kirsten Hastrup’s remarks on what ‘communing with spirits’ had come to mean by the 17th century in Iceland:  “When heathen imagery was being increasingly suppressed (and as the Christian idea of the resurrection was presumably gaining hold), the ‘waking up of the spirits’ came to be associated with the ‘raising of the dead.’  Well before the ‘age of witchcraft’ (that is, the seventeenth century), the supernatural beings that could be invoked by the sorcerers were associated with the ghosts of the dead, or draugar and afturgangar. Whether they were landvaettir or ghosts, the conjured spirits rose from the earth; they were associated with a ‘below,’ in contrast to the (Christian) Heaven, ‘above….’ To approach the spirits of the nether world, or to acquire the powers of the dead, the Icelanders would sometimes disinter the bones of dead persons and keep them as magical instruments, efficacious for divination and healing purposes…” [Hastrup, p. 211]

‘to wake up a ghost,’ courtesy of the Strandagaldur Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft:  http://www.galdrasyning.is/  via their press kit:  http://www.galdrasyning.is/press/

“Seiðr was a professional exercise of psychic or ‘magical’ powers, designed to learn the unknown, control conditions and events, by communication with spirits and by the exploration of their world.  Seiðr bears resemblance to forms of shamanism in these general aims as well as in its techniques of trance and the use of intoxicants for the purpose of ecstasy.  Seiðr comprised also the power to cast spells:  the greatest spell being that which brought the spirit of the dead or dying back to life…”  [Dronke [I], p. 133]

To my mind, the whole of Stanza 4 suggests a massive shift in consciousness.  With respect to the poem’s overt discussion of an intensified problem, however, the glimmer of where a solution might profitably be sought appears in Stanza 5:  “Stand no longer shall earth or sun. The stream of air with corruption laden shall not cease. Hidden is in Mim’s limpid well men’s certain knowledge. Understand ye yet, or what?”  [Thorpe]  The stanza, however, refers to “men” not gods in connection with “certain knowledge.”  And then it asks, “do you understand?’  The question spins the thrice-repeated refrain in Völuspá: “do you know yet or what?” underscoring the critical difference between knowing something and understanding it (i.e. being able to use that knowledge).

According to Snorri’s Edda, Mimir’s well is under one of the world tree’s three roots, in the direction of the frost giants’ home, where the yawning void of Ginnungap used to be.   [Faulkes [II] p. 29/164]

“In two Eddic texts the roots of the (world) tree are directly associated with the realm of the dead and with giants.  [Grim 31 and in] Skm 35 the tree’s roots are below ‘the pens of corpses’ within the giant Hrimgrimnir’s domain.”  [Dronke [I], p. 110]

“Yggdrasill has beneath it three realms on its three roots:  one is for the dead, Hel; one is for the frost giants; and one is for men, who live on the face of the earth.”  [Dronke [II], p. 131]

Rudolph Simek states that the form ‘Mimir’ “probably means ‘the rememberer, the wise one…’”  [Simek, p. 216].  John Lindow points out that the form ‘Mim’ references both stanza 45 (or 46) in Völuspá:  “Óðinn consults with Mím’s head” and also stanza 14 in the Eddic poem ‘Sigrdrífumál:  “Then Mím’s head spoke wisely the first word, and told true staves.”  [Lindow, p. 231]

Stanza 6 of Hrafnagaldur makes it pretty clear that the solution to their difficulties is anticipated by the gods to be found in the use of divinatory capabilities: “ In the dales dwells the prescient* Dis, from Yggdrasil’s  ash sunk down, of alfen race, Idun by name, the youngest of Ivaldi’s elder children.” [Thorpe]  Rudolph Simek points out that “… The disir are frequently mentioned in Old Norse prose literature, mostly in the meaning of fetch-like women who appear in dreams.”  And the term also appears in reference to Valkyries, as well as “simply as a term for ‘woman…’”  [Simek, p. 61]

Idun was a goddess in heathen times, strongly associated with the gods’ power of self-renewal.  I stated in my other page on Hrafnagaldur that, on a metaphysical level, this would mean Idun represents the power of religious faith.  It is faith that keeps a religion alive.

However, while that is also true in Hrafnagaldur, there is something more, therein, to the use of Idunn as a motif.  Hrafnagaldur goes on in its stanzas 7 and 8 to describe a fall that is more reminiscent of a Biblical Eve than of anything known about Idun from Old Norse sources.

Stanza 7: “Ill she endured the fall from above, under the hoar-tree’s trunk confined; disliked staying, at Nörvi’s [kin], [in Jötunheimr] used to better abodes back home.”  [Björnsson and Reaves, except for ‘kundar,’ ‘kin.’]

Andrew Wawn’s remarks in his review of Viðar Hreinsson’s essay resonate with my model of Jóns Guðmundssonar lærði as being the author of Hrafnagaldur Odins:

“A“Viðar Hreinsson’s ‘Tvær heimsmyndir á 17. öld. Snorra Edda í túlkun Jóns Guðmundssonar lærða (1574–1658)’ draws attention to a singular Snorra Edda scholar whose insights are far removed from the traditions of forensic and systematic investigation encouraged in seventeenth century European academies. Outlawed early in his life for witchcraft, opposed in a University of Copenhagen appeal case by the learned Ole Worm, Jón lærði Guðmundsson made the Edda his own, locating its figures and features within his own world-view. This sought to reconcile the old northern gods with biblical history, Icelandic geography and local folklore. Like some fleet-footed Swedenborgian allegorist he finds parallels between moral decay in pre-Ragnarök Ásgarðr and post-Reformation Iceland.”  [Emphasis, mine.]  And also:  “With the publication of Einar G. Pétursson’s Eddurit Jóns Guðmundssonar lærða (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, Rit 46, 2 vols 1998), the time has surely come for Icelanders and foreign scholars alike to learn more about the scholarship of Jón lærði.”  [Wawn, p. 232]

Stanza 8 makes it clear the author is not talking about the famous tale where the trickster Loki inveigles Idunn into a trap, so that the giant Thjazi can steal her.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idun  … By contrast to that eddic tale, the fall down the tree into giant-land or thereabouts suffered by Idunn in Hrafnagaldur was an intentional exile, brought about by the “victorious gods.”

Stanza 8:  “The triumphant gods saw Nanna sorrowing in earth’s deep sanctuaries; a wolf’s skin they gave her,  in which herself she clad, changed her feelings, practiced guile, alter’d her aspect.”  [Thorpe]

The mythic and saga connections between wolves and outlaws went far and wide in heathen Northern European history, even in Iceland, which had never seen a wolf.  “In fact, the Germanic peoples used the term vargr [‘wolf’] for outlaws, those who had forfeited their rights to participate in human society.21 “  [Guðmundsdóttir, p. 282 – 283, and N. 21]  “The Icelandic terms for wolf are vargr and úlfr—terms that are also used for what we now call varúlfur (werewolf).”  [ibid, p. 280]

The label of ‘wolf’ “was also the label originally given to outlaws.”  [Hastrup, p. 252]

It was the representative in Iceland of the ruling Danish powers who had both Jón lærði and Jón’s son, the priest Guðmundur, hauled up before the Althing [legal assembly] in 1631 on charges of witchcraft, in revenge for Guðmundur’s own accusation against him of (sexual) impropriety.  The sentence of outlawry was confirmed in 1637, after an appeal that left Jón lærði too penniless to leave Iceland; so, he was banished to the Eastfiords until his death in 1658.  [Hastrup, p. 221 – 222]

“Jón’s career as a [man of magic songs] shows us how traditional means of exorcism, used for the benefit of people and gratefully acknowledged, could suddenly be translated into witchcraft.  Under particular circumstances and due to a series of accidents, entirely external to the case itself, the work of the [‘power scald’] was deemed black magic, and the [man of magic] convicted as a witch.  At another level Jón’s case is instructive because it shows us how the [man of mystic knowledge] was a source of admiration and fear.  Jón lærði, in particular, had an ambiguous position.  He drew on all poles in the system of magical powers [cf. p. 207]  He had a clerical education, he was learned in natural science, he was a skilled exorcist, and certainly a distinguished [power-scald].  At a certain time, a multi-faceted learning like Jón’s could be fatal.”  [Hastrup, p. 222]

One can see how the man who was perhaps most renowned in his own time for his “successful driving away of a ‘Turkish’ slave-raider ship, where his only weapons were the words” [Hastrup, p. 202] might have been feeling just a tad bitter about his banishment.

A representation of Jon ‘the learned’ in the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft, courtesy of http://www.galdrasyning.is/press/ ; Photographer: Sigurður Atlason , who has a youtube channel with video tours of the museum and environs:  http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLDD8C478E4F5CDAAB  Interesting guy….

According to Kirsten Hastrup, it was the victorious powers of the Protestant Reformation, moreover, that set up the “historical precondition” for the seventeenth-century witchcraft trials in Iceland, by “sharpening the categories of right and wrong,” and redrawing the social boundaries to exclude magic practitioners and possessors of occult knowledge.  “…sanctions on heathen magic were rarely enforced before the Reformation…”  [Hastrup, p. 199]  Sorcerers and seeresses became ‘outlyers,’ “associated with forces living and ruling beyond society,” namely, with trolls, spirits and ghosts, “a prominent target for rulers who wanted to clean ‘wild’ elements from the categories of ‘the social.’” [Hastrup, p. 226]

Stanza 9:  “Vidrir selected Bifröst´s guardian, of the Giöll-sun’s keeper to inquire all that she knew of every world; Bragi and Lopt should witness bear.”  [Thorpe]

Bifröst´s guardian is Heimdall, of whom Snorri says in Gylfaginning:  “There is one called Heimdallr. He is known as the white Áss. He is great and holy. Nine maidens bore him as their son, all of them sisters. He is also called Hjálmskíði and Gullintanni. His teeth were of gold. His horse is called Gulltoppr. He lives in a place called Himinbjǫrg by Bifrǫst. He is the gods’ watchman and sits there at the end of the world to guard the bridge against mountain giants. He needs less sleep than a bird. He can see, just as well by night as by day, a distance of a hundred leagues. He can also hear grass growing on the earth and wool on sheep and everything that makes a sound. He has a trumpet called Gjallarhorn and its blast can be heard in all worlds. So it says: There is a place called Himinbjǫrg, and there Heimdallr dwells, they say he controls the guardianship for the holy places of the gods. He drinks in the pleasant hall, merry, the good mead.

And moreover he says in Heimdallargaldr ‘Offspring of nine maidens am I, of nine sisters am I the son.’” [Faulkes [II], p. 45]

What’s interesting about that section of Snorri’s Edda is that it directly references three of the people at that meeting in Hrafnagaldur under ye olde ash tree:  Bragi, Idunn and Heimdall, one right after another; and it indirectly references Loki in its mention of the other story about Idunn, the one where Loki sets a trap for her.  See chapters 26 and 27 here:    http://www.germanicmythology.com/ProseEdda/BRODEURPrologeandGylfaginning.html

In her note 9.3–4, Annette Lassen remarks that: “Giöll (genitive gjallar) is found as the first element in the name of Heimdallr’s horn, Gjallarhorn, and also as the name of a river that must be crossed on the road to Hel (Grímnismál 28; Gylfaginning ch. 49, SnE I 47/8–10). It is the latter meaning that is relevant here. The sun of a river is a kenning for gold…”  The point being that ‘keeper of the sun on the river to Hel’ would be a kenning for ‘woman.’ [Lassen, p. 99]

About ‘Loptr’ as a name for Loki, Snorri Sturluson had this to say:  “His name is Loki or Loptr, son of the giant Fárbauti. His mother is called Laufey or Nál. His brothers are called Býleiptr and Helblindi.”  [Faulkes [II] p. 47]

Stanza 10:  “Sorcery they sang, wolves they rode, Rögnir and Reginn, against the world’s house; Óðinn listens in Hliðskjálf; watched the travellers’ distant journey.”  [Björnsson and Reaves]

regin:  related to terms of ‘ruling,’ ‘judgment…’  in ON used only in divine or supernatural sovereignty…”  [Dronke [I], p. 117]

Rögnir og regin gólu galdur, riðu göndum að rann heimis; Lassen translates this as ” Rögnir (Óðinn) and the gods chanted spells, rode on magic poles to the dwelling place (or roof) of the world;”  [Lassen, p. 86].  In her note to the verse, 10.2 on p. 99, she explains that:  “10.2: ‘gandr’ has sometimes been taken to mean ‘wolf’, but here is more likely to mean something analogous to a witch’s broomstick. Cf. gandreið in Njáls saga ch. 125 and the poem Gandreið by Jón Daðason (1606–1676).

Perhaps the ‘gandr’ was a spinning distaff:                                                                                “At first glance, many of the staffs from archaeological contexts seemingly have nothing magical about them at all. They simply look like ordinary, everyday tools. Working with seiðr, however, meant dealing with another kind of reality — an elaborate world of thought which had the capacity to change the ordinary into the supernatural. The search for seiðr is thus a search for details and subtleties which are all hidden within even the most banal objects. Finally, we must realize that the iron staff became a tool for sorcery only when its bearer decided to use it in such a manner and when other participants of the ritual believed in her (or his) power and the magic with which the seiðr paraphernalia were enchanted. It was all ‘real’ because the minds of Viking-Age peoples considered it real. Additionally, the atmosphere of the place, the time of the day, costumes, and words and songs chanted by the performers all no doubt enriched the spiritual experience.”  [Gardela, p. 54]

“As mentioned above, the staffs of sorcery from archaeological contexts clearly reflect the form of distaffs.19   A seeress bearing such an item signifies her skills in spinning and shaping the threads of human fate, as well as her high social status, and a divine element which she herself embodies. In this reading, her staff is also an item closely connected to a number of other domestic practices — from shearing the sheep to the process of spinning and the act of weaving cloth on a loom. All those actions are a part of a greater process of premeditated ‘creation’ — that is, making something according to a strictly defined scheme or procedure.”  [ibid, p. 57]

“The material presented in this section suggests that the staff of sorcery (whatever its form might be) was a visible, distinctive attribute of the power and high social status of its bearer. It was also a miniaturized form of the axis mundi — in this case, the ash tree Yggdrasill. The fact that the staff was held by a seeress or a sorcerer signified her or his unique ability to travel within the worlds that were set upon it” [ibid, p. 61]

In her 2009 paper  ‘Border Crossings:  Landscape and the Other World in the Fornaldarsögur,’  Helen Leslie, a Doctoral Fellow at The Centre for Medieval Studies in the University of Bergen, Norway, points out that in the late 13th century saga Þorsteins þáttr bæjarmagns [Thorstein’s Mansion-might], an elf-boy “must undertake a gandreið to meet those in the underworld.”  [Leslie, p. 122]

“The most prominent vehicle of magic or galdur in Iceland was unquestionably the word, spoken or written.  The magical genres were poetry, runes, staves and prayers, each with their individual saliency yet closely interconnected…. only those words that were uttered out of knowledge were powerful.  The native term for a person versed in magic of some kind was fjölkyngi (‘of much knowledge.’)… The notion of kunnáttumaður (‘man of knowledge’) had similar connotations.”  [Hastrup, p. 206]

See also the paper ‘Spinning Seiðr’ by Eldar Heide, in  Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives,’ pages 164 – 170,’ or, it’s also available on his web-site as a free download here:  http://eldar-heide.net/Publikasjonar%20til%20heimesida/Spinning%20seidr,%20Lund%20conf%20Heide.pdf

‘Spinning Seiðr by http://essencejota.deviantart.com/

Stanza 11:  “The wise one asked the server of mead, scion of gods and his road-companions, if she knew the origin, duration, and end of heaven, of hel, of the world.” [Björnsson and Reaves]

Stanza 12:  “Nor will speak Nor speech could Gefjun perform, nor noisy joyous noises; Tears off appeared, from the round shields of the frozen brain, the (she-)powerful was deprived of redness.”  [Kodratoff]

Stanza 13:  “As from the East, out of Élivágar, comes a thorn from the field of the rime-cold giant, with which Dáinn smites all men of glorious Midgard every night.”  [Björnsson and Reaves]

See my extended remarks on this and other stanzas, on my page, https://marnietunay2.wordpress.com/hrafnagaldur-odins-odins-raven-magic-song/

Stanza 14:  “Actions are numbed, the arms slump, a swoon hovers over the white god’s sword; stupor dispels the wind of the giantess, the mind’s workings of all mankind.”  [Björnsson and Reaves]

wind of the giantess.  kenning for ‘passion’  [‘Skaldskaparmal,’ chap. LXX in Brodeur’s translation]:  http://www.germanicmythology.com/ProseEdda/BRODEURSkaldskaparmal.html

“Spells intended to put people into a deep slumber from which they can be awakened only by the magical will of the sorcerer are common in the Icelandic books, but the signs used and given the name svefnthorn [‘sleep-thorn’] are numerous.”    [Flowers, p. 49]

Stanza 15:  “Just so seemed Jórunn to the gods to be affected, swollen with sorrows,  when they could not get a reply; they sought the more in that they were faced with refusal;  a lot of talking, however, helped much less.”  [Lassen]

Jórunn is yet another epithet for Idunn.

Stanza 16:  “He travelled, the leader asker of ways, shepherd for Herjan of the Gjallarhorn; [= Gjallarhorn’s keeper for Óðinn] Of Nál the nephew took as follower the poet of Grímnir the field marked off.”  [Kodratoff]

Heimdall is the subject of the first line of the stanza; ‘Nál’s nephew’ refers to Loki; and ‘the poet of Grimnir’ is the god Bragi.

Neil Price’s essay ‘Mythic Acts,’ is of great interest in connection with this stanza:  …..in the late 1980s a striking discovery was made of great relevance to my theme here:  in studying the picture stones of particular districts [in Gotland, Sweden], of the form erected at property boundaries, Anders Andrén noticed that the lower panel of images on one stone was repeated at the top of the next stone as one moved around the limits of estate.  Furthermore, when taken together and ‘read’ from to top and from one stone to the next, he was able to conclusively identify the story of Sigurðr, the famous hero of Norse legend who killed the dragon Fafnir, and a popular subject for early medieval iconography.”  [Price, p. 32]   [In connection with Price’s remarks, see]:     http://spinnet.eu/images/2010-12/gunnell_folklore_in_iceland.pdf

http://www.nat.is/travelguideeng/plofin_farm_kaldadarnes.htm     ]

The implications are literally dramatic.  First, Andrén established a proven link between stories and monuments to the dead…. The stones’ ‘keyhole’ shape also resembles the doors preserved in later wooden stave churches, and it has been argued that the memorials may have symbolized or even been thought to actually represent doorways to the other world beyond.   This incidentally calls to mind the door-like structure in Ibn Fadlan’s account, and the door ritual related in the Völsaþáttr fragment.  Thus we have people living on their farms, marking their possession with memorials to past landowners of the clan, each one merging into the family story as the property is ringed with points of entry to the realm of the dead….” [Price, p. 33]

Stanza 17:  “Vingolf reached Vidur’s ministers, both borne by Forniots kin. They entered, and the Æsir forthwith saluted, at Ygg’s convivial meeting.”  [Thorpe]

Vingolf is one of the halls of the gods.   Forniot’s kin = the winds.  [But see also the remarks concerning stanza 17 on my page ‘Hrafnagaldur Odins, (Odin’s Raven Magic-Song]  Ygg.  ‘the terrible one.’  One of Odin’s names.

Stanza 18:  “They wished Hangatýr (Óðinn), the most fortunate of gods, happiness as he ruled over the high seat ale, [they wished] the gods good luck as they sat at the feast, forever to enjoy pleasure with Yggjungur (Óðinn).”  [Lassen]

Stanza 19“Seated on benches at Bölverk’s bidding the tribe of gods were with Sæhrímnir sated; Skögul, at the tables, with horns meted out Mímir’s mead from Hnikar’s vat.”  [Björnsson and Reaves]

Stanza 20“Of many things inquired, when the meal was over, the high gods of Heimdall, the goddesses of Loki; – whether the maid had uttered divinations or wise words? – From noon until twilight’s advent.”   [Thorpe]

Here it becomes explicit that the goal of the visit to Idunn was connected with seidhr and wisdom obtainable therefrom.

Stanza 22“Omi [‘Resounding one,’ Odin] answered; all listened; “Night is the time for new counsels; till the morrow let reflect each one competent to give advice helpful to the Æsir.“”  [Lassen]

The proverb, ‘Night is the time for new counsels,’ resonates strongly with the thinking in the Cherokee “magical text” provided by Alan Kilpatrick, the “primary purpose” of which, “appears to be to assist apprentice conjurors in learning their craft… 

““If you want to learn, if you want the wizards to tell you something, you have to go through it at night.  If something is in vain [your magic is turned back], you have to go through it.  You have to do it at night.  It is written this way.””  [Kilpatrick, p. 13 – 14]

Hrafnagaldur’s stanza 22 suggests to me that Jón lærði Guðmundsson may well have been tipping off Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson as to who had written this poem – and for whom, namely, Jón lærði’s best friend in the world, possibly his only friend after his banishment, the person who valued his voice and ideas, gave him a new purpose, and enabled his continued survival.

“The Icelandic bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson also tried to preserve the national written treasures. He employed scribes like Jón Guðmundsson lærði or Björn Jónsson á Skarðsá who would copy sagas, Eddic poetry and the old law texts which proved that Iceland had a long tradition of its own jurisprudence. In addition, he urged them to write down their own thoughts about Icelandic literature and history.4 Brynjólfur held a lively correspondence with learned people in, for example, Denmark, too, and was quite generous in giving precious manuscripts to Danish scholars like Ole Worm or Stephan Stephanius and to the Danish king. It was him [sic] who gave King Fredrik III the famous Codex Regius of the Elder Edda as well as Flateyjarbók.”  [Jucknies, p. 1 – 2]

As we have seen in the historical overview, the 17th century saw Iceland along with the rest of Northern Europe preoccupied with the question of what happened to dead people, and the Bishop was probably just as concerned as any, on both a theological as well as a personal level.

Gleaned from a translation by google from http://skalholt.is/frodleikur/biskupar/brynjolfur_sveinsson/  :  “Brynjolf Sveinsson (1605-1675) was Bishop of Skálholt for the years 1639-1674.  Provost at the Latin School in Roskilde 1632-1638 and reluctant to abandon it and take to the bishopric.  In the seventeenth century there were over twenty men and one woman burned for alleged magic, but Bishop Brynjolf is said to have taken measures to limit witchcraft persecutions in the South, the area under his sway as Bishop.  He was the first Bishop in Skálholt to decline the honor of being buried in the church – which in his case, would have been the new church he personally built to replace the dilapidated old one – opting instead for burial in the cemetery with his children and wife, who had all predeceased him.”

Moreover, according to this online article on Einar Gunnar Pétursson’s 1998 doctoral thesis, the good Bishop was indeed keenly interested in the topics of ghosts and elves:  http://www.mbl.is/greinasafn/grein/463510/

‘Communing with spirits’ in 17th century Iceland meant ‘communing with the dead,’ according to Kirsten Hastrup.  [p. 211]

Stanza 23“Ran along the eddies of Rindur’s plains the wolf’s tired food supply [Björnsson and Reaves];   the deities said farewell to Hroptur [Óðinn] and Frigg, who went with Hrímfaxi [night].”  [Lassen]

Stanza 24“and Dellingur’s son [Dagur, ‘day’] drove forward his steed, adorned with precious jewels; the horse’s mane shines from it across the world of men,  his charger drew Dvalinn’s plaything [the sun] in a chariot.”  [Lassen]

Stanza 25:  “Trollwives and giants, corpses, dwarves and dark-elves went to bed further north on the edge of the mighty earth under the outermost root of the foremost tree (Yggdrasill).”  [Lassen]

And it is after this stanza in Hrafnagaldur, stanza 25,  that the ‘Prophecy the [other] Seeress,’ namely, Völuspá, most elegantly slides into place, in my opinion:  http://www.voluspa.org/voluspa.htm

Stanza 26:    “Rose the Gods, ran the Elf-sun, North, towards Niflheimr Night proceeds; Up takes Árgjõll of Úlfrún the descendant, master of the horn’s noise, in Himinbjõrg.” [Kodratoff]

I like Kodratoff’s translation for its elegance, but Lassen’s gives a more accurate reading of the tenses, which are important for understanding the semantic relationship between Hrafnagaldur and Völuspá:

The gods rose up, Álfröðull (the sun) rose, Njóla (darkness, i.e. night) went  north to Niflheimur;  early Úlfrún’s son (Heimdallur), ruler of Himinbjörg, began the sound of the horn with Gjöll (Gjallarhorn).

Árgjõll.  apparently a variant-name for Heimdall’s horn.  Úlfrún’s descendant.  Heimdall.



Perhaps Jón lærði wrote Hrafnagaldur Odins as a covert guide to communing with the dead for a grieving friend. On a rather more pragmatic level, he certainly needed money, and he got paid by the page.  Whatever his other reasons may have been, he was no doubt also hoping for a kind of immortality in Hrafnagaldur and in his other writings, as if he was saying to future generations:

‘I lived.  I knew something.  Here’s what I learned, in my time on this earth.’

original black and white sketch of Odin by Victor villalobos: http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Victor_villalobos&action=edit&redlink=1, creative attribution, share-alike license


Andrén, Anders et al ed., ‘Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives,’  Nordic Academic Press, 2006

Clunies Ross, Margaret, ‘Skáldskaparmál.‘ Odense University Press, 1987

Dronke, Ursula. [1] ‘The Poetic Edda. Vol. 2, Mythological Poems.’ editor, commentator and translator, pub. 1997

Dronke, Ursula. [II] ‘The Poetic Edda. Volume III, Mythological Poems II.’  editor, commentator and translator, pub. 2011

Ellison, Ruth.  ‘A Prophet Without Honour:  The Brief Career of Erlender Ormasson.‘ pub. in Sagabook XXIV, 1997, a Viking Society for Northern Research publication:   http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Saga-Book%20XXIV.pdf

Faulkes, Anthony. [I]   Book Review of Einar Gunnar Pétursson’s 1998 Doctoral Thesis:  Eddurit Jóns Guðmundssonar lærða: “Samantektir um skilning á Eddu” og “Að fornu í þeirri gömlu norrænu kölluðust rúnir bæði ristingar og skrifelsi.” published, Þættir úr fræðasögu 17. aldar. Volume 1, Inngangur. Volume 2, Texti. Rit 46. Reykjavík:Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi.  Faulke’s Review was published in Alvíssmál 9 (1999): 100–106:   http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~alvismal/9einar.pdf  [Dr. Anthony Faulkes was at that time Senior Lecturer in Icelandic at the University of Birmingham]:

Faulkes, Anthony. [II] transl. The Uppsala Edda.’ pub. 2012:  http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Uppsala%20Edda.pdf

Flowers, Stephen E. The Galdrab6k : an Icelandic grimoire.’ published in 1989

Gardela, Leszek,  ‘Into Viking Minds:  Reinterpreting the Staffs of Sorcery and Unravelling Seiðr,’ 2008 paper pub. in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 4, 45-84.

Guðmundsdóttir, Aðalheiður. ‘The Werewolf in Medieval Icelandic Literature,’ 2007 paper, published in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol.106:3 (2007):  http://uni.hi.is/adalh/files/2010/04/Werewolf.pdf

Hastrup, Kirsten. Nature and Policy in Iceland 1400-1800: An Anthropological Analysis of History and Mentality.’ pub. 1999

Hole, Christina. ‘Dreams in Icelandic Tradition,’ included in ‘Nine Norse Studies,’ edited by G. Turville-Petre and P. G. Foote and published by the Viking Society for Northern Research in 1972, in ‘Text Series,’ Vol. V.   http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Text%20Series/Nine%20norse%20studies.pdf

Johannesson, Gudni Thorlacius.  ‘The History of Iceland by, pub. 2013

Jucknies,  Regina. ‘The Export of Islandica in the 17th Century,’ 2004 paper published in ‘Skandinavistik’ by Universität Kiel. Nordisches Institut Vol. 34. Verlag JJ Augustin., 2004.  http://tobias-lib.uni-tuebingen.de/volltexte/2004/1077/pdf/24_reg~2.pdf

Kilpatrick, Alan. The Night Has a Naked Soul: Witchcraft and Sorcery Among the Western Cherokee. pub. 1998 paperback edition

Lassen, Annette. Hrafnagaldur Odins.  pub. 2011 and translated into English by Anthony Faulkes:  http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Text%20Series/Hrafnagaldur%20Odins.pdf

Leslie, Helen F. ‘Border Crossings:  Landscape and the Other World in the Fornaldarsögur,’ University of Bergen, Norway, from the 14th International Saga Conference 2009  http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:436601/FULLTEXT01.pdf

Lönnroth, Lars. ‘Old Norse text as performance,’ paper from the 14th International Saga Conference 2009  http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:436601/FULLTEXT01.pdf

McKinnell, John. [I] ‘On Heiðr,’ 2001 article pub. in ‘Saga-Book of the Viking Society 25 (4)’: http://www.heathengods.com/library/viking_society/2001_XXV_4.pdf

McKinnell, John. [2] Book Review of ‘The Poetic Edda. Vol. 2, Mythological Poems,’ edited and translated by Ursula Dronke,’  published in ‘Alvíssmál’ 10 (2001): 116–28:  http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~alvismal/10ursula.pdf

Poole, Kirsten. ‘Supernatural Environments in Shakespeare’s England: Spaces of Demonism, Divinity, and Drama.’ pub. 2011

Price, Neil.  ‘Mythic Acts,’ published in ‘More than Mythology:  Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandianvian Religions.’ published in 2012

Raudevere, Catharina. and Schjødt,  Jens Peter.  ‘More than Mythology: Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions.’ pub. 2012

Simek, Rudolph.  ‘Dictionary of Northern Mythology.’  translated by Angela Hall, reprinted in 2007

Smith, C. Michael. Jung and Shamanism in Dialogue: Retrieving the Soul / Retrieving the Sacred.pub. 2014

Wawn, Andrew. Review of Viðar Hreinsson’s essay, ‘Tvær heimsmyndir á 17. öld. Snorra Edda í túlkun Jóns Guðmundssonar lærða (1574–1658)’ published in Sagabook XXIV, 1998 – 2001:   http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Saga-Book%20XXV.pdf

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