Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Voluspa in Very Plain English...1-8, 17-18

Sometimes the poetic language and archaic words used in translation of the Voluspa can be a barrier preventing young children (and many adults as well) from truly enjoying and understanding the beautiful imagery and meaning of the poem.  What I've done below is provide very plain English "tellings" of each stanza.  You can copy and paste this and print it out to share with your children (or an adult friend who could benefit from it).  It is best to read the actual stanza first, then read the plain English version, and then go back and read the actual stanza again.  It can be helpful to then discuss the stanza with your child, and have them put into their own words what it means.

I've used Hollander's translation below.  Stanzas 9-16 are about the Dwarves, and Hollander puts these stanzas into an Appendix at the back of his book, because he feels they were a later addition and not an original part of the poem.  I've followed his lead, and left stanzas 9-16 out as well.

I do not translate Old Norse myself, and I will fully admit that 10 different people could come up with 10 different plain English versions of each of these stanzas.  I tried to keep this very basic, and had my 9-year-old in mind when I wrote my plain English versions.  So, with that disclaimer you will have to excuse anything you disagree with here.  If someone else wants to give this a try, and they do it better, I won't be upset at all.  Please feel free to give suggestions regarding the wording of the very plain English version and the notes sections.  I will actually be incorporating good suggestions.

VOLUSPÁ - The Prophecy of the Seeress

Before the poem begins, Odin has travelled to Hel (where the dead go), and he has used magic to bring a dead giant-woman up out of her grave.  This dead giant-woman is a Seeress or Volva, which is someone who can use magic to see the future.  The dead giant woman is very old, and Odin wants her to use her magic to tell him what will happen in the future.  But, to prove she is indeed magical and knows a lot of stuff, she first tells Odin about the beginning of the world.   A lot of this poem is the dead giant woman speaking, and telling Odin things.  So, it is the Volva speaking beginning with this first stanza.
Stanza 1
Hear me, all ye hallowed beings,
Both high and low of Heimdall's children:
Thou wilt, Valfather, that I well set forth
The fates of the world which as first I recall.
Plain English 1
Everybody listen to what I have to say,
whether you are rich and powerful, or poor and weak.
Odin, you have asked me to tell you about the world.
I'm very old, so I remember and know many things.
NOTE 1:  The dead giant-woman is a Volva, and she is very very old.  Odin has asked her to tell him things, and so this poem represents the Volva telling Odin about the beginning of the world, things the Gods have done, and she finishes out her story to Odin by telling him how the world will end...and then be reborn.  Odin, with his magic, is making her tell him these things.
Stanza 2
I call to mind the kin of etins
Which long ago did give me life.
Nine worlds I know, the nine abodes
Of the glorious world-tree the ground beneath.
Plain English 2
First, I remember the giants..all the giants.
I am very old, and was born a giant myself.
I know all about the nine worlds,
Which are in the branches of Yggdrasil, the world-tree
NOTE 2:  The Volva tells Odin very clearly here that she is a giant.  Our ancestors called giants "Jotuns" or "Etins," among other names for them.  In this stanza the Volva is bragging about all the things that she knows, and mentions the nine worlds and the world-tree Yggdrasil.  Our ancestors envisioned that there were nine worlds, and that these nine worlds were in the branches of a huge tree...called Yggdrasil.  "Yggdrasil" means, "Odin's Horse."  It was called "Odin's Horse," because Odin once hung himself on Yggdrasil for nine days...and in the process was able to learn about the runes.  It is just one example of Odin doing amazing and very brave things so that he could grow in wisdom in knowledge.

CLICK HERE to continue to the rest of the Stanzas...

Stanza 3
In earliest times did Ymir live:
Was not sea nor land nor salty waves,
Neither earth was there nor upper heaven,
But a gaping nothing, and green things nowhere.
Plain English 3
At the begining of all things, there was a huge giant named Ymir.
Back then, there was no ocean or land.
There was no earth or sky or plants.
There was just a big gaping empty hole.
NOTE 3:  The Volva is describing the very beginning of all things.  Basically...there was no earth or ocean, no sky or plants.  There was really nothing...just a big gaping hole and this enormous giant named Ymir.  The big gaping empty hole is called "Ginnungagap."  That's a really big word and sort of fun to say, but it basically means "mighty gap."
Stanza 4
Was the land then lifted aloft by Bur's sons
Who made Mithgarth, the matchless earth;
Shone from the south the sun on dry land,
On the ground then grew the greensward soft.
Plain English 4
Then Odin and his two brothers lifted up the land.
Odin and his two brothers made our amazing earth.
Then the sun was shining,
And plants began to grow on the earth.
NOTE 4:  While the poem does not go into detail, Odin and his two brothers killed the giant Ymir, and used his body to make the earth.  His blood became the rivers and oceans.  His bones and teeth became the mountains and rocks.  His hair became the trees and plants.  Odin and his two brothers built the earth and created everything we know, from the body of Ymir.
Stanza 5
From the south the sun, by the side of the moon,
Heaved his right hand over heaven's rim;
The sun knew not what seat he had,
The stars knew not what stead they held,
The moon knew not what might she had.
Plain English 5
The sun and the moon rose up into the sky.
The sun had no idea where she was supposed to go.
The stars were wandering around confused,
The moon had no idea what to do or where to go.
NOTE 5:  This stanza is suggesting that the sun, the stars, and the moon had not been told what to do yet by the Gods.  They were just sort of wandering around with no rules as to what they were supposed to do.  You can imagine the stars just sort of wandering about in the night sky...and the sun and the moon having no idea when to rise or to set, and not knowing which direction to travel throught the sky or what to do.  Hollander, for some unknown reason, makes the sun masculine and the moon feminine in his translation. Our ancestors saw the sun (Sunna) as feminine and the moon (Mani) as masculine. So, I corrected him for the very plain English version.
Stanza 6
Then gathered together the gods for counsel,
The holy hosts, and held converse;
To night and new moon their names they gave,
The morning named, and midday also,
Forenoon and evening, to order the year.
Plain English 6
So, our Gods all got together,
and started talking about what to do.
They named the night, and morning, and afternoon, and evening,
And this let the sun, and stars, and moon know
what they were supposed to do and where to go.
The sun, and stars, and moon weren't confused anymore.
NOTE 6:  Here the Gods get together and basically tell the sun, the stars, and the moon when to rise and when to set.  They establish daytime and nighttime, and they decide how long the sun will be up and how long it will be down.  In doing this, they give the sun, the stars, and the moon rules...and they basically fix a very confusing messy situation.  This organizes things, and establishes day and night, as well as Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring.
Stanza 7
On Itha Plain met the mighty gods;
Shrines and temples they timbered high,
They founded forges to fashion gold,
Tongs they did shape and tools they made;
Plain English 7
Our Gods met on Itha Plain, which is where they lived.
They built shrines, and temples, and important buildings.
They made forges, so they could make a bunch of gold.
They made tongs and tools,
so they could make whatever they wanted.
NOTE 7:  The Gods now start building their own homes and making things that they want.  They do this on Itha Plain, which is also called Idavoll Fields.
Stanza 8
Played at draughts in the garth: right glad they were,
Nor aught lacked they of lustrous gold --
Till maidens three from the thurses came,
Awful in might from etin-home.
Plain English 8
The Gods played games in their yard, and were really happy.
They had all the gold they could ever want.
Then three really powerful giant women showed up.
These were the Norns.
NOTE 8:  "Thurses" is another word for giants, or jotuns, or etins.  This is a good time to talk to your children about the Norns.  You can read up on them beforehand if you want to.  But, once the Norns showed up, the Gods didn't have such an easy time of it.  They couldn't just do everything they wanted or make anything they wanted without their being consequences to their actions.  The Norns know the past, watch the present, and know things that should happen in the future.  The Norns decide certain events that will very likely happen in everyone's lives.   The Norns do not decide our fates, but we learn later in this poem that they "mark men's lives," which means they play a role in deciding many of the things that will happen in our lives.  We are not powerless though.  We make decisions about how to deal with those things that happen in our lives.  But, just like with the Gods, the Norns make sure that there are consequences for everything humans do, sometimes good and sometimes bad.
Stanza 17
To the coast then came, kind and mighty,
From the gathered gods three great Æsir;
On land they found, of little strength,
Ask and Embla, unfated yet.
Plain English 17
Odin and his two brothers were kind and powerful Gods.
One day they came to a beach or coastline.
And there they found a weak man and a weak woman,
The man and woman had not done anything yet.
NOTE 17:  Ask and Embla are believed to mean Ash and Elm, and are often pictured as being trees or driftwood on the beach.  When Odin and his two brothers find Ask and Embla, they really aren't alive yet.  They are just sort of empty...or blank.  They don't really have a past or a future yet.
Stanza 18
Sense they possessed not, soul they had not,
Being nor bearing, nor blooming hue;
Soul gave Óthin, sense gave Hönir,
Being, Lóthur, and blooming hue.
Plain English 18
The man and woman could not think and had no soul.
They didn't know who they were, or where they were, and they didn't look alive.
Odin gave the man and woman a soul or spirit.
Odin's brother, Honir, gave the man and woman thoughts.
Odin's brother Lothur let the man and woman know who they were, and gave them the appearance of being alive.
NOTE 18:  We said in the stanza before this one, that Ask and Embla were "blank," sort of like a blank piece of paper.  They don't think...they aren't really alive yet...they don't know who they are or where they are, and they don't even look alive.  But Odin gives them a soul and makes them alive.  Odin's brother Honir gives them the ability to think and know things.  And Odin's brother Lothur shows them who they are and gives them the appearance of life.  Many people describe these gifts that Odin and his two brothers gave to Ask and Embla in different ways.  But the main point to remember, is that Odin and his two brothers essentially make the first humans. They shape what they look like, they give them life, and they give them the ability to think, and see, and walk about as living beings.  That is quite a gift they gave us.
I will continue this process of writing very plain English versions for the remaining stanzas of the Voluspa, as time allows.
To access 5 different English translations of the Voluspa for free, follow this link:
Mark Ludwig Stinson
Jotun's Bane Kindred
Temple of Our Heathen Gods

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