Völuspá and the Feast of Easter

Völuspá and the Feast of Easter

By John McKinnell

Alvíssmál, Vol. 12 (2008)

Introduction: It is generally agreed that Völuspá has been influenced by Christian ideas to some extent, but the nature of that influence has been debated. Of course it is true, as Daniel Sävborg has pointed out, that all the Old Norse poetry that survives comes from a time when Christianity was already to some extent influential in northern Europe. But there is a difference between the adoption of commonplace Christian expressions (such as calling Óðinn Alföðr ‘Father of all’, cf. Latin Pater omnium) or general ideas (e.g. that some beings will be resurrected after Ragnarök) on the one hand, and on the other the suggestion that specific Christian texts have been used as source material for Völuspá. This paper will address only the latter type of influence, and will consider what criteria should be used in evaluating whether any particular claimed source is probable or not. I shall then go on to make a suggestion of my own.

It is first necessary to consider whether Völuspá is genuinely pre-Christian or not. In polytheistic cultures, the measure of acceptance of a monotheistic religion is not whether its god is accepted, for a religious system with many gods can usually find room for a new one without any basic alteration of itself. The real measure of conversion has to be the rejection of all gods except that of the monotheistic religion. We have several examples in Germanic sources of polytheists who also worshipped Christ—men such as the East Anglian king Rædwald or the Icelandic settler Helgi inn magri - but they are not real Christians. Despite Rædwald’s temporal success and patronage of King Edwin, Bede dismisses his deeds as ignoble:

Indeed his father Rædwald had long before been initiated into the mysteries of the Christian faith in Kent, but in vain; for on his return home, he was seduced by his wife and by certain evil teachers and perverted from the sincerity of his faith, so that his last state was worse than his first. After the manner of the ancient Samaritans, he seemed to be serving both Christ and the gods whom he had previously served; in the same temple he had one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another small altar on which to offer victims to devils.

For the “real” Christian, all heathen gods must be rejected as either the personifications of natural objects or forces, as historical human beings who persuaded others to worship them, or as devils. Good examples of all three attitudes can be found in Ælfric’s De falsis diis, which dates from around the same time as the most probable date of Völuspá (Ælfric died ca. 1010). Ælfric says that the error of regarding the sun, moon, stars, or elements as gods arose after Noah’s flood; he dismisses Þór and Óðon as distorted versions of Mars and Mercury, whom he describes as wicked human beings; and a statue of Apollo which is mastered by Bishop Gregory is said to have been inhabited by a devil who pretended to be the god. Ælfric is here adapting or expanding material from two of his major sources, the De correctione rusticorum of Martin of Braga and the Historia ecclesiastica of Rufinus but the same tradition continued after his time, and an adaptation of De falsis diis in Icelandic survives in Hauksbók.

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