Voluspa Study: Gullveig and the Vanir war

*This entry has two different translations shown for this section of the poem that will be discussed. Whereas I usually show Bellows Translation alone and only mention Thorpe or others as needed, in this case, the two poems have separate information with Thorpe having extra stanzas not included in Bellows translation. So, this one is quite a bit longer than usual but I tried to narrow it down as much as I could. Enjoy.

21. The war I remember, the first in the world,

When the gods with spears had smitten Gollveig,

And in the hall of Hor had burned her,

Three times burned, and three times born,

Oft and again, yet ever she lives. 

22. Heith they named her who sought their home,

The wide-seeing witch, in magic wise;

Minds she bewitched that were moved by her magic,

To evil women a joy she was.

23. On the host his spear did Othin hurl,

Then in the world did war first come;

The wall that girdled the gods was broken,

And the field by the warlike Wanes was trodden. 

Thorpe Translation

21. Alone she sat without, 

when come that ancient dread Aesir’s prince’ 

and in his eye she gazed.

22. “Of what wouldst thou ask me?

Why tempest thou me? Odin, I know all,

Where thou thine ey didst sink in the pure well of Mim”

Mim drinks mead each morn from Valfather’s pledge.
Understand ye yet, or what? 

23. The chief of hosts gave her rings

And necklaces, useful discourse, and a divining spirit:

Wide and far she saw o’er every world.

24. She the Valkyriur saw from afar coming,

Ready to ride to the gods’ people:

Skuld held a shield, Skogul was second,

Then Gunn, Hild Gondul, and Geirskogul.

Now are enumerated Herians maidens,

The Valkyriur, ready over the earth to ride.

25. She that war remembers, the first on earth, 

When Gullveig they with lances pierced,

And in the high one’s hall burnt,

Thrice burnt, and thrice brought her forth, off not seldom;

Yet she still lives. 

26. Heidi they called her, withersoe’r she came,

The well-foreseeing Vala:

Wolves she tamed, magic arts she knew,

Magic arts practised;

Ever was she the joy of evil people.

27. Then went the powers all to their judgment-seats, 

the all-holy gods, And thereon held council, 

whether the Aesir should avenge the crime,

Or all the gods receive atonement.

28. Broken was the outer wall of the Aesir’s brugh.

The Vanir, forseeing conflict, tramp o’re the plains.

Odin cast his spear, and mid the people hurled it:

That was the first warfare in the world. 

This passage is focused on the death of the “witch”, Gullveig, and the world’s first war which followed. While we know the war was between the Aesir and the Vanir, there has been quite a lot of debate about which specific characters were involved and what exactly started it. A big part of the discussion revolves around the questions of who was Gullveig, was she actually guilty, what was the real reason for the war, and who started it. One reason for this is variations in the translations including injection and omission of details between them. For example, as seen above, Bellows’ translation has a lot less information than is in Thorpe’s translation. In Bellows’ translation the poem goes straight from the Norns to this first war and Gullveig being burned. The way it plays out with Gullveig being speared and then saying Odin speared the host, many interpret this as one spearing, and solely Gullveig. However, Thorpe’s translation adds that the Aesir were discussing whether to avenge the crime or just get atonement for it, when the Vanir rushed in. What stands out to me here, is the way it says that the Vanir did this after “foreseeing conflict”. We know from other references that the Vanir were at times said to be able to foresee future events, and Freyja (who is also of the Vanir) is well known for that ability as well. So with that considered, it seems the Aesir were planning to attack and “avenge the crime” but the Vanir simply attacked first to stop them. It is also worth mentioning that though it is hinted about Gullveig bewitching people, the myths don’t say for certain if that is what happened or, if so, how she bewitched them. In other sources, it says that the Aesir became greedy in gaining things from her magic, and they assumed she had bewitched them to make them greedy. So though there are different views on who actually started the war and why, the lore doesn’t actually tell us enough to know definitively. 

One of the biggest questions people have about this tale is who Gullveig actually is. The two most often assumed to be Gullveig are Freyja and Angrboda. As mentioned earlier Freyja is from the race of the Vanir and is well known for seeing the future and strong magic. Thorpe’s translation of Voluspa (as seen above) mentions that Gullveig or Heidi was very widely known for those skills. Because of this, many believe that Gullveig may have been Freyja and that the war came from her being speared. However, others point out that Freyja came to be with the Aesir as part of the hostage exchange after the war and is very much alive whereas Gullveig was burned three times and died. In other sources we’re told that after she was burned, Loki ate the heart that was left and from that gave birth to the “witches” or trollwives. Because of this, some speculate that Gullveig may be some variation of Angrboda and that Angrboda as we know her could have been a rebirth of Gullveig spawning from this event. And while Freyja could be another incarnation or version of Gullveig as well, there isn’t an account in the lore of how exactly that could have happened. The poem also states that this woman tamed wolves. That is something we also know that was done by Angrboda as she was also the mother of wolves. However, once again we have the problem of the lore not telling us enough information to know for certain. It could be neither Freyja or Angrboda. She may have been her own person and that is simply the end of it. It is one of those mysteries that, unless we discover more writings or artifacts, it is left up to one’s own interpretation and UPG to decide. So that is where we leave this section. What are your thoughts on this? What really caused the war? Who was Gullveig? Feel free to share your thoughts and discuss in comments. That’s all for now. See you soon.

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