Poetic Heathenry – Vǫlospá

I want to talk about poetry. Every Heathen knows the importance of poetry to the reconstruction of our religion; Eddic and skaldic verse from Scandinavia, as well as the charm-verses and epic poetry of the West Germanic literatures provide a wealth of material that shapes our understanding of what Germanic religion was, guiding us to an experience of it today. These poems are rightly valued for the lore that can be gleaned from them.

However, our ancestors did not experience these poems solely as chunks of religious, historical, or otherwise cultural information, but also – even primarily – as art. Specifically, in a primarily oral culture, they experienced these poems aurally; their internal structures, their rhythms, their assonances (primarily – but not exclusively – alliteration), gives each of these works of art its own character and texture beyond the meaning of the words. And that doesn’t even cover elements of performance such as whether the poems were declaimed, chanted, or sung, nor what melodies they might have had if sung – this is a somewhat debated topic that I want to go into in a later post.

So, having had a great desire to understand these works of art from a more originary point of view, I began to study everything I could find on the Germanic poetic tradition, as well as the wider Indo-European poetic tradition in which it occurs; I then studied what I could find on the pronunciation of early Germanic languages, and began to memorize poetry. I am still working on this project, but I feel that it is time to share some of what I have gained, including recordings of early Germanic poetry in the pronunciation that is as close as careful linguistic reconstruction can get to the sound of these languages at the time of the composition of the poems. So, two things remain to be said:

A Note on Pronunciation: I have based my pronunciation in each of the works in this series on that reconstructed in Early Germanic Grammar by Joseph Voyles. For Old Norse mythological poetry for instance, I am assuming a pronunciation of around 1000 CE, when the shift of /w/ to /v/ had not yet occurred; when long vowels had nasal variants for historical reasons; and when the consonants /l/, /r/, /m/, and /n/ had voiceless variants for other historical reasons. The occurrence of nasal vowels and voiceless sonorant consonants is an important aspect of spoken Old Norse that is not, however, reflected in the writing system (except for oral ár and nasal áss in the Younger Futhark). For instance, the word spelled hár has four different pronunciations, each with it’s own meaning:
/ha:r/ “hair”
/ha:ṛ/ “high”
/hã:r/ “tholing pin”
/hã:ṛ/ “shark”

A Note on Text: Some of these poems have more than one version. Many Eddic poems, for instance, occur both in the Hauksbók manuscript as well as in the Codex Regius manuscript; these versions can vary quite a bit, much as one might expect from poems in an oral tradition. Rather than trying to parse between the versions and come up with an Urtext, I take an additive approach: I don’t want to leave anything from any version out, and therefore I include it all. I think of this as an “Oral Omnibus” approach.

So, what follows is a recording of the Vǫlospá, performed in a declamative, sometimes chanting style. I encourage you to seclude yourself somewhere without other distractions, and just listen to the sounds of the Old Norse language, woven deftly together by a master skald more than a thousand years ago.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Analysis (to be read after listening)

An important part of oral poetry is the use of repeated phrases or structures to link different parts of the poem; this gives the poem an internal structure. It seems that there are two kinds of repetition at work in the Vǫlospá: the first is a repetition of particular half-lines, full lines, or full strophes, such as:

Þá gengo regin ǫll· á rǫkstóla ginnheilǫg goð· ok um þat gættusk


… vitoð ér enn eða hvat?


Geyr (nú) Garmr mjǫk· fyr Gnipahelli, etc.


Þá kømr…

This kind of repetition seems to have the purpose of cueing the listener to the section of the poem that they are listening to: the strophes beginning with “Þá gengo regin ǫll” do not overlap those ending with “vitoð ér enn eða hvat?”, for instance. These seem to be two distinct sections, the latter of which has a subsection within it: the series of strophes set off by repetition of the strophe beginning “Geyr (nú) Garmr mjǫk…”. So, we might see the first section as a recounting of what has happened up to the moment of Óðinn questioning the vǫlva, and the second section as being her predictions of what is to come, with a subset of that – Ragnarǫk – being intensely highlighted by the triple repetition of an entire strophe at the beginning, middle, and end of that section. The strophes beginning with “Þá kømr” seem to begin with the response of the gods to the events of Ragnarǫk, and extend past the end of the world to what happens after.

The second use of repetition seems to be used to draw parallels between specific strophes far distant from each other in the poem, as though to provide a sense of symmetry between earlier and later events. One subtle example is that both of the main sections mentioned above begin with a mention of Heimdallr and hljóðr, which latter term means “listening, hearing” (something for which Heimdallr was renowned) or even “silence”, presumably silence for the purpose of listening:

Hljóðs bið ek allar· helgar kindir meiri ok minni· mǫgo Heimdallar


Veit hon Heimdallar· hljóð um folgit

Other examples are the parallels between the strophes beginning:

Þá kná Vála· vígbǫnd snúa…


Þá kná Hœnir· hlautvið kjósa…

As well as between the strophes beginning:

Sal sá hon standa· sólo fjarri…


Sal sá hon standa· sólo fegra…

So, we learn something about the craft of poetry from this analysis, over and above the skillful use of alliteration and meter that is on display. We also learn that periodic repetition of parts of verse, from phrases to strophes, can signal the existence of a sub-unit within a longer poem, parallel to how a musical phrase can define a movement in a piece of classical music. Similarly, specific combinations of words, or phrases within a line can set up parallels between verses in different sections, as indications of symmetry. A further study of early Germanic poetry will doubtlessly reveal new depths to the art of poetry, which I hope will inspire scops and skalds to come.