14.09.29, Gunnell and Lassen, eds., The Nordic Apocalypse

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Kevin J. Wanner

The Medieval Review 14.09.29

Gunnell, Terry and Annette Lassen. The Nordic Apocalypse: Approaches to Völuspá and Nordic Days of Judgement. Acta Scandinavica, 2. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. xviii, 240. ISBN: 9782503541822 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Kevin J. Wanner
Western Michigan University

The Nordic Apocalypse is an essay collection that, quoting Pétur Pétursson's Introduction, "is designed to offer...insight into the 'state of the art' of Völuspá discussion at the start of the twenty-first century," and which "has its roots in...papers given at a two-day conference held at...the National Museum of Iceland...[in] May 2008" (xiv). It was the organizers' hope that "focusing a symposium on a single Eddic poem rather than a wider genre might be a fruitful step forward in the field of Eddic studies" (xiv), thus suggesting that this volume supplements or improves on earlier collections that have considered either the subset of "mythological" or "heroic" eddic poems. [1] Given that Völuspá is the most famous and studied of the eddic poems--anonymous, vernacular compositions that focus on gods and legendary heroes, and that are largely narrative, didactic, and/or dialogic in form--it is doubtlessly the member of this genre best poised to generate the interest needed to fuel a conference and essay collection. While individual eddic poems cannot be dated precisely, they are generally regarded as products of the ninth through thirteenth centuries, which means that as a group and in some cases as single works they bridge the pre-Christian and Christian eras. Völuspá has for a long while been dated to around the year 1000, the approximate date of Iceland's conversion, though this estimation (or its significance) is challenged by some of this volume's contributors. It is the first poem in the principal manuscript of eddic poetry, the Codex Regius or Konungsbók, which was compiled in Iceland ca. 1270. Two other Icelandic sources for Völuspá are Snorri Sturluson's Edda, a guide to poetry and myth produced probably in the 1220s that quotes close to half of its stanzas, and the fourteenth-century Hauksbók, which contains a version with significant differences from that of the Codex Regius. In terms of content, Völuspá, or the "Prophecy (spá) of the Seeress (völva)," offers a synopsis, if one that is patchy and allusive, of the span of Norse mythic history, from the shaping of the present world to its cataclysmic end, and on into the emergence of a new one.

Following the introduction, the book is divided into four unequally sized parts: "The Reception of Völuspá," contains a single essay by Annette Lassen that reviews "The Early Scholarly Reception of Völuspá from Snorri Sturluson to Árni Magnússon"; "Völuspá and the Pre-Christian World: The Oral Tradition," contains five essays; "Völuspá and Christianity: The Written Tradition," has four; and "The Hólar Judgment Day Images: The Visual Tradition," features two. The first three parts' contributors are all prominent (or well on their way to being such) scholars of medieval Norse culture, and both contributors to part four are affiliated with Iceland's National Museum.

The volume overall has been well and carefully edited. There are occasional typos (e.g., the misspelling "propheresses" on p. 170, and the repeated words "holy men too" on p. 225, both in quotations) and grammatical infelicities. There also some inconsistencies in citations (e.g., cf. citations of Boyer 1983 on pp. 42 and 59), and there are some works in "Works Cited" lists that aren't actually cited (e.g., the entries for McGinn and Johansson 2010 in Johansson's essay). The scholarship is on the whole sound, though there are a few factual errors: for example, Gro Steinsland mistakenly suggests that material from Revelation 12 can be taken to refer to John the Baptist (157), John McKinnell wrongly suggests that Heimskingla's Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar identifies Óðinn with the Devil (97 note 9; this identification is made in Oddr Snorrason's saga of Óláfr Tryggvason), and Karl G. Johansson writes that the Tiburtine Sibyl's "frame story ends [with]...the creation of a new world, a new sea and a new sky," whereas the quotation he provides from this text states: "And a new sky and new earth [God]...made to last forever, but there is no sea..." (172-173).

While this book aims to treat Völuspá largely apart from other eddic poems, an impetus of the conference from which it grew was to see with what results it might be situated within an alternative genre of "Nordic apocalypse." More precisely, as the title "A Nordic Apocalypse: The Hólar Judgement Day and Völuspá" (xvi) indicates, the conference was intended as an occasion to consider how two specific artifacts might illuminate one another, namely the eddic poem and a reconstructed installation at the National Museum of "fragments of a...wooden Icelandic image...believed to...have belonged to an ancient Christian iconic tradition with roots in the Byzantine church...[, and that may] originally [have been] nailed to the western wall of the cathedral at Hólar in northern Iceland at the beginning of the twelfth century" (xiv-xv). While I do not know how things panned out at the conference, [2] joint discussion of these artifacts is only minimally present in this volume. Of the twelve essays that follow the introduction, Pétur Pétursson's alone tries to relate the Hólar image to Völuspá. Of the nine essays that deal principally with Völuspá, only those by Vésteinn Ólason and Gísli Sigurðsson briefly acknowledge Pétur's hypothesis that images such as Hólar's may have inspired the poem, if only immediately to dismiss it as--both use the same words--"difficult to prove" (27 note 2, and 54). Conversely, the essays in part four that focus on the Hólar image do not mention Völuspá at all.

Given that the conference's paired foci are hardly related to one another in the essays culled from it, it is understandable that the volume gets a different title. The new title, however, strikes me as potentially confusing to prospective readers. It is not clear what precisely is denoted by "Nordic Days of Judgment" in the subtitle; the phrase seems to require some additional term(s) specifying the objects of analysis, e.g., "Representations" or "Images and Texts." Yet the book does not really deal with multiple such representations. While it includes at its front a number of color illustrations of medieval and modern artworks that at least arguably depict apocalyptic concepts, these receive, the Hólar image aside, at best passing mentions in one or two essays. As for the book's main title, it seems to suggest an unwarranted identity of subject matter of the artifacts discussed, few as they are: nothing in the book really argues for the existence of a single "Nordic Apocalypse."

While this volume aspires to present the cutting edge of Völuspá research, there are few surprises in store for readers familiar with its contributors' prior work. Most who address Völuspá use this opportunity to re-present past arguments (though sometimes for the first time in English, and thus to a broader audience) and to retrench themselves in established positions and preferred approaches. Thus, Lassen offers a non-essentializing reception history, Vésteinn Ólason performs a commonsensical analysis based on close reading that seeks to cut through accreted scholarly presuppositions, Pétur Péturson is preoccupied with connections between textual and visual culture, Gísli Sigurðsson is concerned with the implications of treating the poem as an oral product, Steinsland reiterates her longstanding hypothesis that Heimdallr is the future, Christlike ruler who appears in a stanza in Hauksbók's Völuspá, Terry Gunnell speculates about ritual drama, and so on. And as the introduction notes, with perhaps a hint of resignation, many of the contributors "return...to the old much-disputed issue of the degree to which the poem can be considered Christian or 'pagan,'" with "differences in opinion largely stemming from ideas about the intrinsic nature of the work and...its background" (xvi); in other words, conclusions derive from presuppositions.

Those who do call for novel approaches and questions admit that these mostly revive long neglected interpretations. As Lassen writes, "the scholarly world of the seventeenth century...in many ways echo[es] medieval ideas...[S]ome of the theses of this period...[are perhaps coming back into vogue because] the ideology and education of that period was more akin to medieval learning and thought than that of our own time and because scholars today are increasingly attempting to read the works of the Middle Ages in their proper context" (19-20). Chief among these reinvigorated lines of interpretation is the view expressed in its essentials in Snorri's Edda that Norse mythology is, in all of its essentials, a reflection/distortion of Christian concepts, with the difference that the latter are not explicitly identified by today's scholars with revealed truth. Another older interpretation revived by contributors like Steinsland and Johansson is Anton Christian Bang's late nineteenth-century theory of the influence of Sybilline oracles on Völuspá.

Yet even if the overall impression left by these essays is that, when it comes to Völuspá scholarship, there is little new under the doomed-to-be-swallowed-by-a-wolf-at-ragnarök sun, there is much of value and use in them. Lassen provides as clear, concise, and thorough an account of the probable sources for Völuspá and of its history of copying and commentary by medieval and early modern intellectuals as one could hope for, and Vésteinn, in "Völuspá and Time," performs a sound and illuminating analysis of the poem, with a focus on how its temporal framework and scheme should be understood. Henning Kure provides a likewise valuable account of how Snorri "make[s]...strophes of Völuspá more similar to Revelation than they actually are" so as to demonstrate that the religion of the Æsir, that is, of the Trojan invaders who came to be regarded as gods in the North, was a "limited and faulty" but "still a well-meant, intuitive approach to the true faith" (84). Kure also offers a genuinely novel interpretation of the significance of the dragon who appears at the end of Völuspá, and is one of the few contributors to argue for a reading of at least some stanzas of the poem that does not "assume a Christian influence" (89). Gísli Sigurðsson also offers an original interpretation--though one that is recycled from earlier presentations--of the encounter between Óðinn and a völva narrated around the poem's midpoint: his suggestion that Óðinn offers rather than seeks knowledge from this seeress significantly impacts how the poem's frame needs to be understood (51-52). I suspect, though, that many would want to reverse Gísli's contentions that there was such volatility or fluidity in the transmission of eddic poems that we ought resist treating their texts as any older than their recorded versions, but much stability in the maintenance of cultural worldviews (46, 49).

As for those essays that return to the hoary question of Völuspá's dependence upon Christian conceptions, the demonstrations for or against this often seem subjective and/or strained. For example, McKinnell seeks to evaluate elements of Völuspá as a medieval Christian would have, with the purpose of determining which of these likely pre-date Christianity. His classifications seem ill suited to this end, however. For instance, he suggests that the description of the cosmic tree Yggdrasill and "well of Fate" over which it stands would have been regarded "by early editors and scribes as historically true or at least credible" because a "similar sacred tree and well at Uppsala" existed, while the poem's account of dwarves would have been regarded "as entertaining fabulæ...since dwarfs are mythical creatures anyway, [and so] this story does not materially contradict the account of the Creation in Genesis"; conversely, the shaping of the world's parts out of the slain giant Ymir's body would have been seen to "contradict Christian scripture" (99, 100, 103). Aside from raising many questions (Why would heathen cultic use of a tree and well make their mythic counterparts any more or less credible to Christians? How do we know that thirteenth-century Icelanders didn't believe in dwarves?), I cannot see how classifying these elements in this way makes it more or less likely that any of them are genuinely pre-Christian.

While the point of McKinnell's exercise seems to be to preserve elements of the poem for heathenism, the results of those aiming at the opposite end are similarly challengeable. For example, Kees Samplonius's assertion that there is a "lack of any sign" of "apocalyptic notions exist[ing] in Germanic societies prior to their exposure to Christian influences" (117) is quixotic, since, as he himself notes, such influence can be pushed all the way back to "the second and third centuries AD" (132). Furthermore, his argument that a wolf would hardly appear "among the terrors of ragnarök had it not been for the way in which the animal was portrayed in Christian preaching" unwarrantedly assumes priority of imported over local ideas, and of texts over experience: after all, it's not as if wolves were exotic creatures whose habits and dangers Norse people had to learn about through representations. And even if some might be persuaded by Pétur Pétursson that Völuspá stanza 61 "expresses the same thought" as 2 Corinthians 5.18-19, his insistence that the eagle catching a fish in a waterfall in the post-ragnarök world in stanza 57 symbolizes (inspired, apparently, by Romans 6.1-11 and Psalms 139.9) Hœnir/God lifting up the soul of the völva/reborn Christian through the rite of baptism, will likely strike many as a bridge too far (194, 198).

A more important criticism, perhaps, than quibbles over specific arguments about influences of one cultural tradition on another, is that the present volume does not address the question of why such arguments matter in the first place. As historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith has suggested, in the absence of an explicit analytic justification, what tends to direct enterprises of cultural comparison, in practice if not intention, "is an overwhelming concern for assigning value, rather than intellectual significance, to the results"; by contrast, academic "comparison...brings differences together within the space of the scholar's mind for the scholar's own intellectual reasons. It is the scholar who makes their cohabitation--their 'sameness'--possible, not 'natural' affinities or processes of history." [3] While I do not suspect any of this volume's contributors of pursuing an apologetic agenda, the impression that many of them nevertheless leave is of a stable, coherent, and original Christianity, measured against which paganism or heathenism (a preferred term is never really established) is found wanting. Failing to ensure that comparisons do more than establish lines of influence and relations of priority means that we may not be as far as might be hoped from the kinds of "limited nationalistic [i.e., identity-based] interpretations" that this book rightly decries (xvi).



1. The most obvious examples are the volumes edited by Paul Acker and Carolyne Larrington, The Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Mythology (New York: Routledge, 2002), and Revisiting the Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Heroic Legend (New York: Routledge, 2013).

2. Its program remains available online at the time of this review’s publication at: http://www.arnastofnun.is/page/vidburdasafn_vidburdur_en&detail=1014130.

3. Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 46 and 51.

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Kevin J. Wanner

Western Michigan University