The Earliest English
Translations of Individual Poems
of the Poetic Edda

[Historic Translations of Individual Eddic Poems]

1798 Anonymous
Monthly Magazine or British Register
Vol. 6, no. 39, p. 451-453

The Author is William Taylor, as acknowledged in his
Historic Survey of German Poetry (1830),
where the poem is reprinted with additional notes
and retitled The Lay of Vafthrudni

MR. Cottle's Icelandic Poetry is by this time in the hands of every, lover of wild imagery and harmonious verse. It is a rimed paraphrase of the Latin version of Sœmund's Edda, published in 1787, at Copenhagen. As this interpretation departs widely from the text, it may not appear superfluous to the curious in antiquity, to attempt a less free translation of the first and most curious of these sagas, which unfolds the Gothic cosmogony.

The Runic alphabet is of uncertain origin; but as most of the inscriptions in this character which have been discovered on the Scandinavian rocks, record the fortunes of some soldier who had been in the service of the* Greek emperor, it may be presumed, that the art of writing was derived by the Goths from Constantinople. Antiquaries, however, have ascribed to far** earlier periods the literary firstlings of the north, and consider the sagas, or mythic songs, which constitute the Edda, as productions contemporary with the heroes whom they celebrate. The age and history of Odin is again liable to controversy. Schöning and Suhm incline to distinguish between Woden the god of war, and Odin chief of the Asæ; and suppose the apotheosis of the former to have long preceded that of the latter, who perhaps was merely the conductor of the first colony of Goths "which ventured to forsake the southern stores of the Baltic and to take up its abode in Scandinavia.”  Gibbon (i. 294) inclines to the speculation which makes the enterprises of the northern Mahomet co-æval with those of Pompey. Gräter, struck with a resemblance between the cosmogony of the Edda and that of Melissus of Samos, as described by Diogenes Laertius, has attempted to prove from a passage in the Ægisdrecka (Str. 24.), that Odin visited the island of Samos (Sams-egio), and derived his doctrines from this Grecian philosopher, who flourished in the eighty-fourth, Olympiad. In confirmation of a theory which assigns to this earlier æra the exploits of the northern divinities, it might be pleaded that Herodotus mentions (Melpomene LXXXI.) an immense brewing-copper, in high estimation among the Scythians, the acquisition of which by Thor, appears to be celebrated in the Hymis-Quida. The, identity of the elder Anscharsis, and of Odin, may one day not seem indefensible.

*Schlötter's Nordische Geschichte, p. 550.
**The Runic alphabet expresses, only the long vowels a, o, and u: it has but one character for b and p;  but one for  d and t, but one for g and t, and in all sixteen letters. This structure countenances the hypothesis of an Oriental origin. The Phœnicians, as appears from the Auscultationes mirabiles ascribed to Aristotle, came to fish on the coasts of Thule (probably, Norway), salted there the Thynnus which they caught, and carried it to the Mediterranean. From them, perhaps, the Runes.

But at whatever period those persons flourished, whose actions form the themes of the Edda: whether their deeds and their doctrines were chronicled in verse by the Scalds* of their own times; or were preserved by tradition merely, until the northern dawn of literature broke forth over Iceland; the sagas which preserve these transactions, are equally interesting. They are, and must remain the earliest monuments of Gothic intellect. They are, and must remain the first fruits of that noble stem of language, whose spreading branches yet overshadow Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain. They are the childhood stammerings of those nations who, have created a school of poetry superior to the Greek. They will acquire an increasing interest among all the descendants from the Gothic flock. They are supplying to new poets the outlines of an original mythology: and they will afford a favourite text for commentary to all the antiquaries who shall in future busy themselves with arctic paleosophy.

*Klopstock erroneously ascribes bards to the Gothic nations on the faith of a false reading in Tacitus: this word is Cimbric, or Welsh, and includes both the civil and ecclesiastical magistracy. Milton, with learned accuracy, notices the steep, "Where our old bards, the famous druids lie."

The poetical value of the elder northern reliques is far inferior to that of the fanciful stories which compose the new Edda: no metaphors equally hold, no adventures equally prodigious, no descriptions equally romantic here startle and reward the curiosity. In their stead occur definite allegories, which throw much light on the manner in which rude nations endeavour to account to themselves for the origin of things, and in which moral facts assume in their minds a mythic form. Much information too is afforded concerning the different tribes into which the Goths and the contiguous nomade nations were divided, and concerning the geographical. allotment of their respective territory. But it is time to pass from prosing, to scanning.

[Note to the web edition]: The spelling and punctuation have not been altered. The poem was originally printed in two columns per page. The footnotes were indicated by a variety of symbols placed at the front of the word or passage annotated, and appeared at the bottom of each column.  Here, relevant footnotes appear after the associated verse. Verse numbers have been added in brackets for convenience, and the name “Vafthruni”, indicating the speaker, has been spelled out. In the original it was sometimes abbreviated as “Vaf.” [verses 9-18] and “Vaft.” [beginning with verse 19]. Notes not found in the original text are hightlighted in red.


[1.] Odin. Friga, counsel thy lord,
Whose unquiet bosom broods
A journey to Vafthruni’s hall
With the wise and crafty Jute,
To contend in Runic lore.
[2.] Friga. Father of a hero-race
In the dwelling place of Goths,
Let me counsel thee to stay;
For to none among the Jutes*,
Is Vafthruni’s wisdom given.


*The Danish interpreters should not always be followed in the use of the words god and giant. The Goths and the Jutes were contiguous nations, part of whom ultimately became stationary in Gothland and Jutland. From the name of the later, by coalescence with the article, is formed the demonination Teutones, Deutch. (Thus the French call Antinous le L’autin instead of l’Amin, and the English say a newt, instead of an ewt, using in fact a double article. These nations were hostile. Lucian (in his letter to Philo on history-writing) alludes to some account of a war between the Goths and the Jutes: and the Edda abounds with traces of habitual rivalry, Vafthruni was king of the Jutes.


[3.] Odin. Far I’ve wander’d, much soujourn’d
In the kingdoms of the earth;
But Vafthruni’s royal hall
I have still the wish to know.
[4.] Friga. Safe departure, safe return,
May the fatal sisters grant!
The father of the years that roll,
Shield my darling traveller’s head!

[Verse 5, which informs the listener that Odin fared to the hall of 'Im's father' and entered in, has been omitted.]

[6.] Odin. Hail Vafthruni, king of men,
To thy lofty hall I come,
Beckon’d by thy wisdom’s fame.
Art thou, I aspire to learn,
First of Jutes in Runic lore?
[7.] Vafthruni. Who art thou? Whose darling
Doubts Vafthrni’s just renown?
Know that to thy parting step
Never shall these doors unfold,
If thy tongue excel not mine
In the strife of mystic lore.
[8.] Odin. Gangrath*, monarch, is my name.
Needing hospitality,
To thy palace-gate I come;
Long and rugged is the way
Which my weary feet have trodden.


*Gangrath means seek-advice. If this was the travelling name of Odin, it would easily assume in Greek the form Anacharsis


[9.] Vafthruni. Gangrath, on the stool beneath
Let thy loitering limbs repose:
Then begin our strife of speech.
[10.] Odin. When a son of meanness comes
To the presence of the great,
Let him speak the needful word;
But forbear each idle phrase,
If he seek a listening ear.
[11.] Vafthruni. Since upon thy lowly seat,
Still thou court the learned strife—
Tell me how is nam’d the steed,
On whose *back the morning comes?


*In the Grecian mythology, the gods of day are charioteers; but in the Gothic, notwithstanding Goranson, they seem to have been cavaliers.


[12.] Odin. Skin-faxi* is the skiey steed
Who bears aloft the smiling day
To all the regions of mankind:
His the ever-shining mane.


*Skin-faxi means shiny-locks; but to this horse is never ascribed the superacy among horses. On the contrary, the saga quoted in Percy’s edition of “Mallet’s Northern Antiquities,” vol. ii. p. 109, expressly says: “The ash Ygdrasil is the first of trees; Sleipnir, of horses; Bifrost, of bridges,” &c.

  [13.] Vafthruni. Since upon thy lowly seat,
Still thou court the learned strife—
Tell me how is nam’d the steed,
From the east who bears the night.
Fraught with showering joys of love?
[14.] Odin. Hrimfax is the sable steed,
From the east who brings the night
*Fraught with showering joys of love;
As he champs the foamy bit,
Drops of dew are scatter’d round
To adorn the vales of earth.

*The line Nott oc nyt reginn, literally night eke bliss showers, is misrendered by the Danish interpreter. It is only capable of the sense here given, as will appear by consulting the word Nyt in the vocabulary of the Edda Sæmundar.


[15.] Vafthruni. Since upon thy lowly seat,
Still thou court the lowly strife—
Tell me how is nam’d the flood,
From the dwellings of the Jutes
That divides the haunt of Goths?
[16.] Odin. Ifing’s* deep and murky wave,
Parts the ancient sons of earth
From the dwellings of the Goths,
Open flows the mighty flood,
Nor shall ice arrest its course
While the wheel of ages rolls.

*The river Ifing was in Polish Prussia.

[17.] Vafthruni. Since &c.
Tell how is nam’d the field
Where the Goths shall strive in vain,
With the flame-clad *Surtur’s might?


*The last day of the week was consecrated to Surtur, and named after him.


[18.] Odin. *Vigirth is the fatal field
Where the Goths to Surtur bend.
He who rides a hundred leagues
Has not crost the ample plain.


*Vigrith seemingly means drunkenness and Surtur the funeral flame: The allegory in this case intimates that a loss of the faculties is the harbinger of death. Gräter however translates it by noise of battle, hurly-burly: and is perhaps in the right. It might however be sought in real geography.


[19.] Vafthruni. Gangrath, truly thou art wise;
Mount the footstep of my throne,
And on equal cushion plac’d
Thence renew the strife of tongues,
Big with danger, big with death.


Part II*

*The former half of this Saga exhibits symptoms of a higher antiquity, more allusions to local nature, and a mythology less evolved.

[20.] Odin. First, if thou can tell, declare
Whence the earth and whence the sky?
[21.] Vafthruni. Ymir’s* flesh produced the earth
Ymer’s bone, its rocky ribs;
Ymer’s skull, the skiey vault;
Ymer’s teeth, the mountain-ice;
Ymer’s sweat, the ocean-salt. 


*Ymer answers to chaos: it means ever or eternity.


[22.] Odin. Next, if thou can tell, declare
Who was the parent of the moon
That shines upon the sleep of man?
And who is parent of the sun?
[23.] Vafthruni. Know that Mundilfær* is hight
Father to the moon and sun:
Age on age shall roll away
While they mark the months and years.


*Mundilfær means gift-bestowing. The allegory therefore describes beneficence as producing the sun and moon. 


[24.] Odin. If so far thy wisdom reach,
Tell me whence arose the day,
That smiles upon the toil of man?
And who is parent of the night?
[25.] Vafthruni. Delling* is the sire of day
But from Naurvi sprang the night,
Fraught with showering joys of love,
Who bids the moon to wax and wane,
Marking months and years to man.


*Delling, twilight; Nauvi, north;


[26.] Odin. If so far thy wisdom reach,
Tell me whence the winter comes?
Whence the soothing summer’s birth
Showers of fruitage who bestows?
[27.] Vafthruni. Vindsaul* is the name of him
Who begot the winter’s god;
Summer from Suasuthur sprang:
Both shall walk the way of years
Till the twilight of the Gods. 


*Vindsual, wind-swell; Suasuthur, much-soothing


[28.] Odin. Once again—if thou can tell,
Name the first of Ymer’s sons
Eldest of the Asa-race?
[29.] Vafthruni. While the yet unshapen earth
Lay conceal’d in wintry womb,
Bergelmer had long been born:
He from Thrudgelmer descends,
Aurgelmer’s unbrother’d son


*Bergelmer, old man of the mountain; Thrudgelmir, old man of the deep; Aurgelmer, original old man.


[30.] Odin. Once again—if thou can tell,
Whence, the first of all the Jutes,
Father Aurgelmer sprung?
[31.] Vafthruni. From the arm of Vagom* fell
The curdled drops of teeming blood
That grew and form’d the first of Jutes.
Sparks that spurted from the South
Inform’d with life the crimson dew.


*vagom, waves, ocean. (the waves, the subjects of Niord, the sea-god, are often personified in Scaldic song; and are called Vanes and Vauns in Percy’s Mallet. For what reason two words have been contracted into one to form the proper name Elivagi appears not: yet Goranson and all the authorities countenance Mr. Cottle’s interpretation of this passage.


[32.] Odin. Yet a seventh time declare,
If so far thy wisdom reach,
How the Jute begat his brood
Tho’ denied a female’s love?
[33.] Vafthruni. Within the hollow of his hands,
To the water-giant grew
Both a male and female seed:
Also foot with foot begat
A son in whom the Jute might joy.
[34.] Odin. I conjure thee, tell me now,
What within the bounds of space
First befell of all that’s known?
[35.] Vafthruni. While the yet unshapen earth
Lay concealed in win’try womb,
Bergelmer had long been born:
First of all recorded things,
Is that his gigantic length
Floated on the ocean-wave.
[36.] Odin. Once again, if thou can say
And so far thy wisdom reach,
Tell me whence proceeds the wind
O’er the earth and o’er the sea
That journeys viewless to mankind?
[37.] Vafthruni. Hræfvelger* is the name of him
Who sits beyond the ends of heaven,
And winnows wide his eagle wings,
Whence the sweeping blasts have birth.


*Hræfvelger, corse-greedy [likely a typo for ‘corpse-greedy]


[38.] Odin. If thy all-embracing mind
Know the whole lineage of the gods,
Tell me whence is Niord sprung?
Holy hills and halls hath he
Tho’ not born of the Asa-race.
[39.] Vafthruni. For him the deftly delving showers
In Vaunhome scop’d a wat’ry home
And pledg’ed it to the Upper gods:
But when the smoak of ages climbs
He with his Vauns shall stride abroad,
Nor spare the long-respected shore.
[40.] Odin. If thy all-embracing mind
Know the whole of mystic lore,
Tell me now how the chosen heroes*
Live in Odin’s shield-deck’d hall
Till the rush of ruin’d gods


*The Danish interpreters render Einheriar by Monoheroes, whereas it seems rather to answer to the Teutonic Anberr, partriarch, ancestor, forefather. What idea should be annexed to this newly minted term monohero? That of Champion, perhaps of a warrior, who, by solitary exploits and without co-operation, attains the heroic rank: In this case it were a fit epithet for but few of the inmates of Valhalla. For Stakrader, indeed, the Samson or Herkules of the north..


[41.] Vafthruni. All the chosen guests of Odin
Daily ply the trade of war:
From the fields of festal fight
Swift they ride in gleaming arms,
And gaily at the board of gods
Quaff the cup of sparkling ale,
And eat Sæhrimni’s vaunted flesh.
[42.] Odin. Twelfthly, tell me, king of Jutes,
What of all thy Runic lore
Is most certain, sure, and true?
[43.] Vafthruni. I am vers’d in Runic lore
And the counsels of the gods’;
For I’ve wander’d far and wide,
Nine the nations I have known;
And in all that overarch
The murky* mists and chills of hell,
Men are daily seen to ride.


*The Niflhel of the text is probably an erroneous reading for Niflheim, home of mists, which was the favourite epithet of the Goths for the nether world. Does Vafthruni mean by the nine nations, the nine regions subject to Hela?


[44.] Odin. Far I’ve wander’d much sojourn’d
In the kingdoms of the earth;
But I’ve still a wish to know
How the sons of men shall live,
When the iron winter comes?
[45.] Vafthruni. Life and warmth shall hidden lie
In the well-head that Mimis* feeds
With dews of morn and thaws of eve:
These again shall wake mankind. 


*The giant Mimis, and the spring which he has in custody, are mentioned in the eighth fable of the newer Edda: to this fountain-head the words hod mimis seem to allude. Gräter translates— “Life and warmth shall lie hidden in the flesh of the earth.” See Nordishe Blumen, p. 141.


[46.] Odin. Far I’ve wander’d much sojourn’d
In the kingdoms of the earth;
But I’ve still a wish to know
Whence, to deck the empty skies,
Shall another sun be drawn,
When the jaws of Fenir ope
To engorge the lamp of day?
[47.] Vafthruni. Ere the throat of Fenrir yawn
Shall the sun* a daughter bear,
Who in spite of shower and sleet,
Rides the roads her mother rode.


*The Goths make the sun feminine, and the moon masculine. This is natural in a cold climate. Among savages every male is a foe, every female a friend. Displeasing and unwelcome objects therefore are in their languages masculine, pleasing and welcome objects feminine. In hot countries where the night is more welcome than the day, an opposite allotment of gender takes place.


[48.] Odin. I have a wish to know
Who the guardian maidens are
That hover round the haunts of men?
[49.] Vafthruni. Races three of elfin maids
Wander through the peopled earth
One to guard the hours of love:
One to haunt the homely hearth,
One to cheer the festal board.
[50.] Odin. I have still a wish to know
Who shall sway the Asa-realms,
When the flame of Surtur fades?
[51.] Vafthruni. Vali's then and Vithar's* force
Heirs the empty realm of gods:
Mothi's then and Magni's might
Sways the massy mallet's weight,
Won from Thor, when Thor must fall.


*Vali and Vithar are apparently the gods of death & sleep. Mothi signifies mould, corruption; and Magni nobody: so that these allegories obviously describe the state of the departed.


[52.] Odin. I have yet the wish to know
Who shall end the life of Odin
When the gods to ruin rush ?
[53.] Vafthruni. Fenrir shall with impious tooth
Slay the sire of rolling years:
Vithar shall avenge his fall,
And struggling with the shaggy wolf*
Shall cleave his cold and gory jaw.    
[54.] Odin. Lastly, monarch, I enquire
What did Odin's lip pronounce
To his Balder's hearkening ear.
When he climb'd the pyre of death?
[55.] Vafthruni. Not the man of mortal race
Knows the words which thou hast spoken
To thy son in days of yore.
I hear the coming tread of death,
He soon, shall raze the Runic lore
And knowledge of the rise of Gods,
From his ill-fated foul who strove
With Odin's self the strife of wit.
Wisest of the wise that breathe,
Our stake was life and thou hast won. 


*Vitnis, wolf, is here mistaken for a proper name by the Danish interpreter and for a name of Odin by the English poet.

Additonal notes to the poem are found in William Taylor's Historic Survey of German Poetry (1830).