The Earliest English
Translations of Individual Poems
of the Poetic Edda
Historic Translations of Individual Eddic Poems
Völuspá: A Study Guide

"Northern Literature:The Eddas"
from the French of Xavier Marmier
in The Knickerbocker Vol. 30
, p.295-296
THE word Edda, as applied to the collection of songs by Sæmund, signifies ancient, and may possibly have been derived from Odda, the pleasant retreat to which the poet brought the results of his many travels, and where he passed his life in philosophic meditation.

The Edda poems are divided into two classes, Mythological and Historical. The first contains the cosmogony and theogonic dogmas of the Scandinavians, while the second belongs to the popular era of the Kæmper-viser, and the ballads of the Niebelungen. The former presents the life of the gods, the latter recounts the exploits of heroes. The one is filled with incessant struggles between the principles of good and evil, the other with bloody combats and implacable revenge. In short, one is the dramatic representation of Valhalla, the other that of the world. It is thus that the Eddas embrace in their extended range the whole circle of ancient mysteries, from the thrones of the giants to the grottoes of the fairies; from the dark abodes of Hella to the splendid halls attended by the Valkyrias.
It is impossible to assign the precise date at which these poems were compiled; but they were undoubtedly composed at various times and places. Their peculiar versification, striking metaphors, and a few words gathered here and there, furnish the sole guide to the curious, as regards their origin. It is known, however, that they are the productions of the SCALDS, and were chanted in the presence of ancient kings, as well as at national feasts and popular assemblies. Judged by their phraseology alone, one would place their origin in the eighth century; while a critical examination of their structure, and especially of the ideas conveyed, will carry them back still farther; and, indeed, to the emigration of the Asiatics to the North. The first in order of the chants which compose the ancient Edda, is the Voluspa; a poem of a strange, solemn and mysterious character, at once sad, eloquent, and obscure. It is throughout enigmatical and broken, like the responses of an oracle. It is, in fact, the prophetic mutterings of the sybil.

At the entrance of one of those interminable pine forests, so common to Scandinavia, with the mysterious ravens hovering above her head, and surrounded by crowds of howling wolves, the prophetess is seated on her tripod, and seeks from the palpitating hearts of her victims the responses of the god. Entranced by the celestial presence, her whole countenance changes its appearance. Her fearful gaze wanders anxiously around, surveying the images she has invoked, as she commences her wild chant of chaos, the birth of the frostgiants, and the combats of the gods. Ever and anon an imperative voice is heard demanding: ‘Is the vision yet complete?’ when the prophetess apparently revives, and sings of the origin of death, the abodes of the condemned, the final struggle of evil spirits, and the destruction of the world :

‘AT the birth of Time, nothing existed. There was neither sea, nor sand, nor wind. Earth and sky were not apparent, nor did the least vegetation clothe the mighty abyss.'

‘The sun appeared in the south, and the moon for the first time opened the Gates of Night; but the sun knew not his route, nor the moon her true position, nor had the stars a place assigned them.

‘Then the gods ascended their high thrones, and met in council. They gave a name to night and twilight; they regulated the morning hours and mid-day, and parcelled out the years.

‘And the prophetess knows where stands the tree Ygdrasil, that mighty ash, whose white roots embrace the world. From it falls dew, covering the earth, and its leaves are clothed in perpetual verdure.

‘From the bosom of the waters come the three daughters of Wisdom, and advance beneath this tree. And the name of the first is URD, of the second, VERDANDI, of the third, SKULD. These are those who regulate man’s destiny.

‘She knows too where the trumpet of HEIMDAL is concealed amid the branches of the celestial tree, and she beholds the foaming waters of the River of Wisdom rolling swiftly on beneath the glance of ALLFADER.

‘One day she was seated at the entrance of her abode, and behold approach the mightiest of the gods, who gazed fixedly upon her. She exclaimed: ‘What do you demand from me? I know that thou art ODIN, he whose eye is daily plunged in the Well of Mimer, fed by the Stream of Wisdom.’

‘And the sovereign of the gods gave her mystic rings and Runic staves, with the farther gift of prophecy. Her sight was purified, and embraced the world.

‘She saw the cruel fate reserved for BALDER, the son of ODIN. The branch of the tree increased, and though small, was beautiful. It became a murderous sword, and was borne by HANDER.

‘Soon arose the son of ODIN, destined to avenge his brother, BALDER. In one night be attained to manhood, nor washed he his face or painted his hair until he reaped full vengeance on the murderer.

‘ And the voice cried: ‘ See you aught else?  and the prophetess answered:

‘The wolves howl in the caves of Gnipa. Their chains are broken, and the wolves are free. The prophetess has seen from afar the decline of the Empire of Heaven, and the fall of all the gods.

‘Brothers combat with each other, parents forget the bonds which bind them to their children, and the marriage-tie is rent asunder. The bucklers of the warriors are broken. The war-time has come; the season of wolves and tempests!

‘Again the wolves howl in the caves of Gnipa. Their chains are broken, and the wolves are free. On one side advances Hrnm. The sea is agitated, and the serpent: swell with wrath. The eagle screams with joy over the dead bodies it tears in pieces, and the ship Nagelfar* floats out upon the waters.

*This ship was constructed from the nails of dead men. Its completion heralded the destruction of the world. — TR.

‘It approaches from the south. The sons of MUSPEL are upon it, and LOKI at the helm. The race of monsters have associated with the wolves, and LOKI is their leader.

‘Alas I what fate is reserved for the race of the Asers! What will be the destiny of the Elves!

The world of the giants is filled with tumult. The Asers assemble, and the dwarfs of the mountain groan at the entrance of their caverns.

‘SURTUR comes from the south, and brings Conflagration with him. His burning sword flashes in the air, and the rocks are rent asunder. The TROLLS wander about anxiously, and men hasten along the path of death.

‘Tribulation seizes the heart of HYLNA when ODIN advances to meet the mighty wolf. The conqueror of BELI combats with SURTUR. But the husband of FRIGGA is vanquished in the battle.

‘Then advances the son of the God of Victory, the powerful VIDAR, to struggle with the wolf. With one hand he holds him fast, while the other plunges a sword into his heart.

‘THOR, too, approaches, the son of ODIN. He attacks the serpent Midgard, and destroys him; but falling back nine paces, dies himself by the venom of the monster.

'The sun is clothed in darkness, and the reeling earth sinks beneath the waters. The stars shoot from the firmament, and the flames mount even to the skies.

‘And the prophetess beholds a new earth, beautiful and pleasant, rising from the bosom of the waters. The waves retire within their boundaries, and the eagle that has taken fish from the meadows flies away forever.

‘The Asers reassemble in the vales of Ida, and talk concerning the destruction of the world. They recall the heroic deeds of the past, and the lessons of the sovereign god.

‘They find also upon the green shores of the new world the wonderful tablets of gold which the first of the gods and the race of FJOLNER possessed before the birth of time.

‘The fields are covered with fruits, which spring up spontaneously. Disease is banished from the earth; and BALDER. returning, dwells with his brother HANDER in the palaces of ODIN.

‘And the prophetess beholds the halls of Gimla, covered with gold, and more brilliant than the stars. The just and good live there, and their happiness extends forever.

‘From the lowest abyss of darkness rises the dragon NIDHUG, bearing with him the bodies of the dead. He holds his course across the vallies, falls, and disappears.’