belated Myth Monday (oops): The Lay of Vafthrudnir

* As mentioned last week, I am beginning the series on the Poetic Edda starting with this entry. I’ll be going through the poems as I come to them as I did with the stories and chapters in the Prose. The exception being Voluspa and Havamal which will be getting their own individual study. So, we’ll start here with The Lay of Vafhruthnir (or Vafthruthnismol). I will be doing the usual summarizing and direct quotes in italics, with the addition of the translator name in parenthesis. 

This poem is one that instead of telling a typical tale, the main story is sharing of lore and the history of the gods and creation. It starts in the first stanza with Odin wanting to go to have a battle of wisdom with the wise old giant Vafthruthnir and asking Frigg’s counsel on the matter. She tells him she thinks he should stay home because she says “no Jotun is, I believe, so mighty as is Vafthrudnir” (Thorpe). But Odin replies that he has traveled many places and experienced many things and he now wants to know how it is a Vafthruthnir’s hall. Hearing this, Frigg wishes him safety on his journey and also, according to the Bellows translation, says to him “let thy mind be keen when speech with the giant thou seekest”. Thorpe’s translation says “thy wit avail thee” when you speak with him. So, it’s clear that the concern here is this battle of wits and what may happen if Odin loses. This proves to be a valid fear as these contests and wagers in the lore are often very high stakes. So, after this blessing from Frigg, Odin went on his journey. When he arrived “He found the hall of the father of Im, and in forthwith went Ygg” (Bellows). When Odin walks in he greets Vafthrudnir and, straight to the point, asked him if he is wise and knowing. Vafthrudnir then asks Odin who is standing in his hall asking him this and tells him he will not leave this hall unless he proves to be wiser than Vafthrudnir himself. So Odin, giving an alternate name as he often does in these travels, says his name is Gagnrad and has come thirsty from a long journey seeking drink and hospitality. At this Vafthrudnir asks “why stand and speak from the floor, have a seat and we’ll see who is wiser, ‘the guest or sage’s gray” (Bellows). Thorpe’s translation states it as “the guest or the ancient talker”. In either translation, Vafthrudnir is letting Gagnrad (Odin) know that he is an ancient being and therefore safe to assume he is extremely wise. Odin says that a poor man who comes to a rich man should either speak wisely or hold his tongue because overtalking could cause him more harm than good. So Vafthrudnir starts to question Odin where he stands to prove his knowledge by answering questions about creation and the world. He starts asking him who is the horse that each morning draws the day over humankind. Odin replies that Skinfaxi is the name of the horse that draws the day, and that he is the finest of horses and light shines from his mane. Next he asked who is the horse that draws the night each evening over the gods. Odin says that Hrimfaxi is this one’s name and that saliva drips from its bit as it travels and this is what makes the dew. The next question he asked him is the name of the river that lies between the land of the gods and the land of the giants. Again, Odin answers correctly and with additional information saying the river is called Ifing and that it will run for all time and no ice will form on it. Finally, Vafthrudnir asked Odin the name of the field where Surt and the gods will meet for battle at Ragnarok. Odin replies that the field is Vigrid and that it is a hundred miles on every side. At this being yet another correct answer, Vafthrudnir exclaims “You are wise! Come sit at my bench to talk more, and we’ll wager our heads on who is wiser”. So now we can see one of the reasons Frigg may have been concerned about Odin going on this journey. And, it does seem that wagering your head was a rather common theme in the lore. At this point, Odin agrees to the wager and takes a seat to begin questioning Vafthrudnir. The first question he asked was where the earth and sky came from. Vafthrudnir responds “From Ymir’s flesh the earth was formed, and from his bones the hills, the heaven from the skull of that ice-cold giant, and from his blood the sea” (Thorpe). Then Odin asked where the moon and sun come from. Vafthrudnir says that Mundilfoeri is the father of the moon and sun and that each day they move across the sky to keep time and count the years for humans. Then Odin asked where day came from and night with the moons. Vafthrudnir answers, Delling is the father of Day and Night was begotten by Nor, and the waning moons the gods created to count years for men. The next question asked by Odin was where the summer and winter come from. And the answer given is that the father of Winter is Vindsval and Svasud the father of Summer. But then the questions start going into the history of the giants and the Aesir themselves. Odin asked who was first formed of all the gods or giants saying “What giant first was fashioned of old, and the eldest of Ymir’s kin?” (Bellows). Vafthrudnir says here that many years before the earth was formed is when Bergelmir was born, and he was the grandson of Aurgelmir. So Odin asked where Augelmir and his kin came from. Vafthrudnir explains that from Elivagar, venom drops grew until they became a giant. In Thorpe’s translation it goes on to say how sparks flew from “the south-world” (Muspelheim) and melted the ice to bring out the giant. So then the next question was how Ymir had children when he had no giantess around. And he’s told of the male and female born from under Ymir’s armpitand the six-headed son born from his feet rubbing together. Bellows’ translation has Vafthrudnir describe it by saying “foot with foot, did the wise one fashion a son that six heads bore”. I find it interesting that in at least this translation, there is reference to Ymir being wise as opposed to just simply lying around or even being completely evil like it does in the Prose Edda. Further, in both translations, Odin ask about Ymir’s sons and when Vafthrudnir responds, he calls him Aurgelmir, which is the name we are told elsewhere that the giants called him. After that, Odin refers to him by that name as well. I somewhat wonder if he changed over to Aurgelmir to be respectful since that’s what Vafthrudnir called him, or if it was him realizing that the difference in name could give away that he was actually Aesir. Or did the writer simply do this to be fair, so to speak, in using both names? But we’ll move on. Next, Odin asked Vafthrudnir what is the farthest back he can remember. At this Vafthrudnir replies, in Bellows translation, that he can remember when Belgemir was borne in a boat. Thorpe’s translation says was lain in an ark, which some say was meaning a coffin. But there is also the tale of how Belgemir escaped the flooding from Ymir’s death by floating to safety on an ark or tree. So one can speculate whether Vafthrudnir is saying he was there when Ymir was killed or was there at Belgemir’s funeral. But in either case he was clearly alive while Belgemir was still alive and therefore revealing how ancient he truly is. After this, he asked about where the wind comes from and he replies correctly again by telling of the Jotun in eagle form named Hraesvelg who makes the wind by flapping his wings. From there, the questioning goes on to the topic of the Aesir and their place in everything. Odin ask Vafthrudnir, if he is wise, to tell where Njord came from since he has many temples and yet not being born of the Aesir. Vafthrudnir says that Njord came to the Aesir as a hostage after he was created by the Vanir, and that at Ragnarok he will return to the Vanir. Odin asked of the heroes in Valhalla and the Valkyrie and what they do. Again, Vafthrudnir answers accurately about how the heroes go out to battle each day and come back into the hall in the evening where they are made healthy again and given drink by the Valkyrie. So Odin asked Vafthrudnir if he could tell of the runes or secrets of the giants and gods, and Vafthrudnir tells him he could indeed tell such things because he has traveled all the nine worlds even into Niflhel where the dead are. Then Odin ask about what mortals will live after Ragnarok, and how the sun will still be in the sky after Fenrir has devoured it. Again, he is told the answer clearly; that Lif And Lifthrasir will come out from their hiding in Hoddmimir’s holt where they had survived by feeding on dew, and the current sun gives birth to a daughter before she is devoured that will rise and take her mothers path after Ragnarok. The next question leads to the maidens that travel over the sea, who come from Mogthrasir’s hill and protect those on earth even though they are Jotun. After this Vafthrudnir is asked what Aesir will rule after Ragnarok and he says that Vidar and Vali will come to rule and Modi and Magni will carry Mjolnir and strive to end all war. Here, Odin (still using the name of Gagnrad) ask what will cause Odin’s death. Vafthrudnir again, rightly answers. “The wolf shall fell the father of men, and this shall Vithar avenge” (Bellows).  At this point, Odin asked the one question that no one could possibly know. “What said Odin in his son’s ear, ere he on the pile was laid?” (Thorpe). At this Vafthrudnir says “No one can know what you said in your son’s ear”. Then, knowing they had wagered their heads he said to Odin “With dying mouth”… “With Odin I have contended in the wise utterances: of men thou ever art the wisest” (Thorpe). So here we see that by saying dying, fated, or doomed mouth; Vafthrudnir is acknowledging that losing the wager means death. It doesn’t tell us beyond this and describe the gruesome payment being made, but it does show by that wording that we can safely assume what’s about to happen. And this is where the poem ends.

Now, for the theoretical discussion, why is wagering your head such a common theme? Or any death for that matter over a bet? Is it some brutish way of showing superiority? Is it because the head is connected to thought? Is it something added in by Snorri and others based on things they knew of in their lifetimes?   Secondly, in what way can we actually say that Odin truly was wiser based on how he won? He won by asking about his own secret that no one but he would know. It is very likely that Vafthrudnir himself could have had at least one personal secret that Odin wouldn’t have known. There’s nothing indicating that Odin went around reading minds. And aside from that question, when it came to knowledge of facts/lore, they both fared pretty equally. So is Odin wiser because he knew something Vafthrudnir didn’t? Or is he proven wiser by being cunning enough to ask a question of that nature when Vafthrudnir didn’t think to ask that type of question? What do you think? What other thoughts or questions do you have on this tale? Feel free to comment as always and I will respond as able. That’s all for now. See you soon.

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