Word of the Week

Week four: VOLUSPA (probability 21166), by David Sutton

VOLUSPA is defined in Chambers as 'a siblyl or prophetess', but this meaning comes from a slight misunderstanding on the part of Sir Walter Scott, who should be honoured for his antiquarian enthusiasms but sometimes got things wrong. In the original Old Norse VOLUSPA does not denote a person but is the title of one of the main poems of the collection known as the Elder Edda, and is to be translated 'the prophesy (spa) of the wise woman (volva)'. The second element survives in our word list as the Scots SPAE, to prophesy, with its derivatives SPAER, SPAEMAN and SPAEWIFE.

The VOLUSPA as a poem deals with the beginning and ending of the world and the doom of the AESIR or Norse gods, and is a rather fine piece. SKALDIC (or SCALDIC) poetry, the production of SKALDS or professional court poets, was renownedly difficult even in its day, due in part to its heavy use of KENNINGS, or poetic circumlocutions: for example, the sea might be referred to as 'the whale's road', though many kennings were far more elaborate than that and relied on a detailed knowledge of obscure episodes in Norse myth for their full understanding. But Eddic poetry is far more direct, and still accessible to anyone with a modest knowledge of Old Norse, and many of its lines echo on in our own language. Here, for example, is the description of Heimdall, the watchman of the gods, summoning the AESIR as he sees their foes approaching for Ragnarok, the final showdown. 'Hatt blaess Heimdall/horn er a lopti' (high blows Heimdall, his horn aloft).

Other words playable from Norse myth are VALKYR (or VALKYRIE) and JOTUN (or JOTUNN). VALKYR means 'chooser of the slain' and the VALKYRS were minor goddesses who hovered over the battlefield looking for likely lads to cart off to Valhalla, the home of the gods, there to fight on the side of the gods in the last battle. A JOTUN was a giant, one of the sworn enemies of the gods.

And that's all for this week from your SAGAMAN.


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