Category: Narrative/Verbal Art

The Nordic Apocalypse: Approaches to Völuspa and Nordic Days of Judgement

Edited by Terry Gunnell and Annette Lassen. 2013. Brepols Publishers. 240 pages. ISBN: 978-2-503-54182-2 (hard cover).

Reviewed by David Elton Gay, Indiana University

[Review length: 597 words • Review posted on February 11, 2015]

The Nordic Apocalypse had its origins in a two-day conference in Iceland on the Old Icelandic poem Völuspá (The Prophecy of the Seeress), one of the great apocalyptic poems of the Middle Ages. The essays examine from both pagan and Christian perspectives, and they offer an intriguing look at this extraordinary poem.

Part I of the book contains a single essay by Annette Lassen on the early reception and study of Völuspá. As she shows, scholars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did some impressive work on it, though this work is little known today.

Part II of the book, “Völuspá and the Pre-Christian World,” examines the pre-Christian background and meanings of Völuspá. In the first essay in this part Vésteinn Ólasson looks at the essential element of time in Völuspá. As a poem concerned with the end of the world and the signs of its impending doom, time is in fact one of its dominant concepts, and thus of central importance in understanding the poem. The second essay in this section, Gísli Sigurðsson’s essay “Völuspá as the Product of an Oral Culture: What Does that Entail?” is a careful consideration of just what is implied when we assume that Völuspá, a poem known and knowable only through literary texts, is a product of medieval Icelandic or Scandinavian oral tradition, and study it as such, rather than studying the poem as the product of the well-known Old Icelandic literary traditions. Terry Gunnell’s essay on “Völuspá in Performance” examines the evidence, both internal to the poem and external to it, that Völuspá was a performed poem. The section concludes with John McKinnell’s survey of heathenism in Völuspá.

Although the essays in Part I and Part II are excellent, Part III is perhaps the more original part of the book, as it presents decisive evidence for Christian influences on, and contexts for, Völuspá. The idea that Völuspá is the product of a Christian tradition is not a new one, though it has not been the usual approach taken to the poem; instead, Völuspá is usually imagined as a great statement of heathen Norse ideas about the end of the world, which has little, if any, Christian influence. The four essays in this part—by Kees Samplonius, Gro Steinsland, Karl G. Johansson, and Pétur Pétursson—all focus on a Christian apocryphal text called The Sibylline Prophecies, which was well-known in the Middle Ages, presenting convincing arguments that Völuspá has been directly influenced by this apocryphal text. The similarities of language, style, imagery, and formulas that they adduce are decisive in demonstrating that Völuspá was the product of a Christian culture—as they show, Völuspá’s author drew on specifically Christian language, images, and concepts. But the culture of his time was one in which the use of materials from the pagan past was tolerated by the Christian authorities, and thus the author was free to make use of the pagan poetic traditions that were highly valued even in the Christian period of medieval Scandinavia to create this extraordinary vision of the end of the world.

The book concludes with two essays on the panels illustrating the apocalypse that have been preserved from the medieval church at Hólar, a church that has otherwise been lost.

This is an excellent book. The essays all move away from an automatic acceptance of Völuspá as a pagan poem to a more nuanced view of the poem as a product of the Christian Middle Ages in Iceland. That they are able to do this with Völuspá, long considered the epitome of medieval pagan Scandinavian poetry, is no small accomplishment.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.