14.03.19, Lassen, ed., Hrafnagaldur Óðins

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Jonas Wellendorf

The Medieval Review 14.03.19

Lassen, Annette. Hrafnagaldur Óðins (Forspjallsljóð). London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011. Pp. 120. ISBN: 9780903521819.

Reviewed by:
Jonas Wellendorf
University of California, Berkeley

This short but fascinating volume contains an edition and a translation of the relatively unknown Icelandic poem Hrafnagaldur Óðins as well as an introduction and a commentary to the text. The 26-stanza poem is composed in the meter and style of the better known poems of the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, and Hrafnagaldur Óðins was once held to belong to this group of poems; for this reason, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century editions and translations of Eddic poems often included this poem. Although Sophus Bugge also included Hrafnagaldur Óðins in his classic edition of Eddic poetry in 1867, he argued in his introduction that the poem was probably not a medieval poem but was rather composed by a learned Icelander in the seventeenth century, and that it should be excluded from future collections of Old Norse poetry in the Eddic style. [1] Subsequent editors have accepted Bugge's arguments for a post-medieval date, and consequently not much attention has been devoted to this strange and difficult poem since Bugge's days. This has changed in the last decade.

A 2002 article in the weekend edition of the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið by Jónas Kristjánsson [2] has elicited in a number of scholarly articles on the poem. Jónas Kristjánsson argued that the poem was indeed a medieval one and that it should be readmitted into the Eddic corpus in a strict sense. Lassen herself also made a case for a medieval date in 2006, but this goes unmentioned in the present volume, where she argues--I would say conclusively--that the poem is of post-medieval date and that it is probably a product of the milieu around Bryjnólfur Sveinsson, bishop of Skálholt (r. 1639-1674), Iceland. Her main argument is the presence in stanza 22 of what appears to be an Icelandic version of a proverb that first became widely known in Western Europe through Erasmus of Rotterdam's Adagia (first published in 1500). A precondition for Lassen's argument is that the text of Hrafnagaldur Óðins is a stable text and that the proverb has not found its way into the text at some point in time after its original composition, but that seems to be a safe assumption in this case. This dating has been independently supported by Haukur Þorgeirsson who, in an article published around the same time as Lassen's edition, discusses various features of the metrics of the poem, and on this basis dates it to the first part of the seventeenth century. [3]

According to Lassen, the main title of the poem "seems to be a misunderstanding" (21), but she also suggests, somewhat obliquely, that the poem is uttered by Óðinn's ravens. This is a very reasonable suggestion that agrees well with the poem's bird's-eye view of the events in all the mythological worlds. If one accepts this, the title should then be understood as "Óðinn's ravens' song," rather than "Óðinn's raven-song." However, if this is the case, the ravens report their observations to us, the audience of the poem, rather than to Óðinn, who features among the actors in the poem. The alternative title of the poem, Forspjallsljóð, is more difficult to make sense of, but Lassen follows Bugge and others in suggesting that it should be taken to mean "Introductory poem." That title, she argues, might be connected with the fact that in many cases Hrafnagaldur Óðins occurs among the first poems in the manuscripts in which it appears, which are usually collections of Eddic poetry.

The main part of Lassen's introduction (26-81) is taken up by a relatively detailed description of the thirty-seven manuscripts known to transmit the poem and an analysis of the filiation of these manuscripts. Five manuscripts are singled out as having "independent textual value (28)." This long discussion is handily concluded by a section in which Lassen explains the significance of the manuscript transmission for the reception of Eddic poetry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Hrafnagaldur Óðins is primarily transmitted in manuscripts that aspire to contain all known Eddic poetry. In older manuscripts it is often placed near the beginning of the codex, while it gets demoted in later manuscripts. This downgrade reflects the growing realization among scholars that the poem should be considered a rather late addition to the Eddic corpus.

Lassen's edition consists of a diplomatic transcription of one of the five manuscripts with independent value (Stockholm papp. 8vo nr 15, from the second half of the seventeenth century, but before 1681). Punctuation has been added, proper names have been capitalized, and variant readings are given from the remaining four manuscripts with independent textual value. When necessary, the main text is emended with the help of these four manuscripts, and emendations divined by earlier editors have occasionally been adopted. The word order of the poem is in many cases more complex than in the other poems in Eddic style, and below each stanza Lassen has given the text in prose word order, as is often done in editions of skaldic poetry. Finally, each stanza is translated. At the end of the edition (95-106), a commentary has been added in small print. Despite these efforts at rendering the Icelandic text comprehensible, it is not an easy read. The overall plot is difficult to follow and many points of detail are obscure and will probably remain so. This, however, is due to no fault of the editor's.

Specialists on the learned textual culture of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Iceland are few (but not necessarily far between), and their scholarship is not always easily accessible. Lassen's efforts therefore deserve the highest praise. In comparison with the great reward that awaits the readers of the volume, my points of criticism are minor and focus on details only. Although Lassen has found convincing solutions to many problems of interpretation, her suggestions are occasionally open to discussion. I give three examples below:

I found the suggestion that the Alföður, "All-father," mentioned in stanza 1 should be understood as the Christian God unfounded. The author's reliance on Snorra Edda (underlined by Lassen on p. 26) in combination with the poet's general avoidance of explicit Christian imagery and notions make it more likely that Alföður primarily should be understood as the Alfǫðr that appears in Snorra Edda.

Stanza 4 tells that "Allsviður (Óðinn?) often fells (fellir) from above and often gathers up the fallen again (83)." An object of the verb fella is not given, but Lassen takes the object to be "warriors" and sees this as a reference to Óðinn's massing of warriors in Valhǫll. However, in the context of the poem, it would make more sense if the implicit object of the verb was blótspánn, "chip used in divination," and fella blótspán is indeed a collocation found elsewhere in the corpus. Óðinn (or whoever is doing the felling) would then be depicted as trying in vain to figure out what fate has in store for the gods.

Stanza 5 tells that "the wise being hides itself in Mímir's renowned spring" (84). "The wise being" is a translation of vissa vera and the commentary suggests the alternative interpretation "certain/secure existence" (98). In both instances vera is understood as a noun and vissa as an adjective. It is also possible to take vissa as a noun meaning "certain knowledge" and vera as a genitive plural of the noun verr "man, being." In this case, the sentence might translate "certain knowledge of men is hidden in Mímir's renowned spring."

Given that the non-canonical narrative poetry not included in the standard editions of the Eddic poems will be relatively unfamiliar territory for many readers, it would have been helpful if the long manuscript descriptions had been supplemented with a few lines introducing the other poems also found in such manuscripts. Readers who need to be told that Yggr, Hangatýr and Hroptr are names of Óðinn (cf. the commentary to stanzas 17.7, 18.1, and 23.7) would probably be grateful for some hints concerning the nature and contents of texts such as Brísingamen, Gunnarsslagur, Gullkársljóð, and Taflkvæði. I also wondered why it was thought necessary to translate the Danish quotations from Bugge's edition of the Eddic poems but not quotations in Latin, Greek, or early modern Icelandic. On a more pedantic note, I will also mention that Lassen appears to have misunderstood Bugge's remark on hveim (11n.5) and that there are typographic errors in the Greek words (18-19).

However, these points of criticism are negligible and they do not detract from my very positive impression of the volume. Many readers in the past have given up when trying to make sense of Hrafnagaldur Óðins, but, thanks to Lassen's efforts and determination, future readers of the poem now get a head start. Her edition will be the obvious starting point for any scholarly examination of the poem in foreseeable future. The Viking Society for Northern Research should be commended for producing such a fine-looking volume and also for making their publications freely available online a few years after publication. The present volume was published in 2011 and can already be downloaded free of charge from http://vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/. The book has been translated into English by Anthony Faulkes.



1. Bugge, Sophus, ed. 1867. Norrœn fornkvæði, reprinted by Universitetsforlaget (Oslo, 1965), at pp. xlvi–xlvii. Elsewhere in his edition, Bugge argues that Hrafnagaldur Óðins is from the Late Middle Ages (idem p. 140).

2 Jónas Kristjánsson, ed. "Hrafnagaldur Óðins--Forspjallsljóð: Fornkvæði reist úr ösku," Lesbók Morgunblaðsins April 27 (2002), 4-6.

3 "Gullkársljóð og Hrafnagaldur: Framlag til sögu fornyrðislags," Gripla 21 (2010), 299

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Author Biography

Jonas Wellendorf

University of California, Berkeley