The Edge of Words

28 March 2014

Professor Terry Gunnell, University of Iceland

Performance of Völuspá (The Old Norse Vision of the Seeress): Words in Space; Words as Music; Words Performed.

This seminar is run in conjunction with Scandinavian Studies and Celtic and Scottish Studies.


The Old Icelandic poem Völuspá, recorded in the thirteenth century Codex Regius manuscript contains perhaps the most famous vision of the old Norse apocalypse, ragnarök.

Views about the background of the poem vary, some suggesting it is essentially a Christian work composed under the influences of the Sybilline Verses, Doomsday icons, or the Christian Easter mass, while other argue that its roots lie in Old Norse beliefs which were passed on orally over a period of around 300 years.

This lecture examines the poem from two standpoints: first of all, from the viewpoint that, whatever view we take, we must remember that the work was performed orally, and received in that form in a particular space, by living audiences; and that its composer(s) were well aware of this fact, and made good use of it when they composed it.

In short, we need to consider the fact that this work was not a work of literature (as we see it today), but more a mixture of music and theatre (it is presented in first person) which was probably received in a hall by an audience that brought their own worldview to bear on the message of the poem. In short, one should regard (and deal with) Völuspá essentially as a multi-media work meant to interact with its audiences.

Secondly, if we examine the poem in terms of the information that it contains about the expected audience that who inhabited the halls in question, it is interesting to note that they seem to have been essentially male, military and Óðinn-orientated, in short, an audience for whom the idea of ragnarök was natural.

This points to Völuspá as actually having roots outside Iceland, in the halls of military rulers that the Icelandic poets worked for, rather than amongst the Icelandic farmers who believed in Þórr.

This has further implications with regard to the question of whether the beliefs in ragnarök and Valhöll were widespread or focussed around a particular class of people.