The World War Its Cause The Murder Of Gullveig-heidr

: Teutonic Mythology

Thus the peace of the world and the order of nature might seem secured.

But it is not long before a new war breaks out, to which the former may

be regarded as simply the prelude. The feud, which had its origin in the

judgment passed by the gods on Thjasse's gifts, and which ended in the

marriage of Svipdag and Freyja, was waged for the purpose of securing

again for settlement and culture the ancient domain and Svithiod, where

Heimdal had founded the first community. It was confined within the

limits of the North Teutonic peninsula, and in it the united powers of

Asgard supported the other Teutonic tribes fighting under Halfdan. But

the new conflict rages at the same time in heaven and in earth, between

the divine clans of the Asas and the Vans, and between all the Teutonic

tribes led into war with each other by Halfdan's sons. From the

standpoint of Teutonic mythology it is a world war; and Voeluspa calls it

the first great war in the world--folcvig fyrst i heimi (str. 21, 25).

Loke was the cause of the former prelusive war. His feminine counterpart

and ally Gullveig-Heidr, who gradually is blended, so to speak, into

one with him, causes the other. This is apparent from the following

Voeluspa strophes:

Str. 21. That man hon folcvig

fyrst i heimi

er Gullveig

geirum studdu

oc i haull Hars

hana brendo.

Str. 22. Thrysvar brendo

thrysvar borna

opt osialdan

tho hon en lifir.

Str. 23. Heida hana heto

hvars til husa com

volo velspa

vitti hon ganda

seid hon kuni

seid hon Leikin,

e var hon angan

illrar brudar.

Str. 24. Tha gengo regin oll

a raukstola

ginheilog god

oc um that gettuz

hvart scyldo esir

afrad gialda

etha scyldo godin aull

gildi eiga.

Str. 25. Fleygde Odin

oc i folc um scaut

that var en folcvig

fyrst i heimi.

Brotin var bordvegr

borgar asa

knatto vanir vigspa

vollo sporna.

The first thing to be established in the interpretation of these

strophes is the fact that they, in the order in which they are found in

Codex Regius, and in which I have given them, all belong together and

refer to the same mythic event--that is, to the origin of the great

world war. This is evident from a comparison of strophe 21 with 25, the

first and last of those quoted. Both speak of the war, which is called

folkvig fyrst i heimi. The former strophe informs us that it occurred

as a result of, and in connection with, the murder of Gulveig, a murder

committed in Valhal itself, in the hall of the Asa-father, beneath the

roof where the gods of the Asa-clan are gathered around their father.

The latter strophe tells that the first great war in the world produced

a separation between the two god-clans, the Asas and Vans, a division

caused by the fact that Odin, hurling his spear, interrupted a

discussion between them; and the strophe also explains the result of the

war: the bulwark around Asgard was broken, and the Vans got possession

of the power of the Asas. The discussion or council is explained in

strophe 24. It is there expressly emphasised that all the gods, the Asas

and Vans, regin oll, godin aull, solemnly assemble and seat themselves

on their raukstola to counsel together concerning the murder of

Gullveig-Heidr. Strophe 23 has already described who Gulveig is, and

thus given at least one reason for the hatred of the Asas towards her,

and for the treatment she receives in Odin's hall. It is evident that

she was in Asgard under the name Gulveig, since Gulveig was killed and

burnt in Valhal; but Midgard, the abode of man, has also been the scene

of her activity. There she has roamed about under the name Heidr,

practising the evil arts of black sorcery (see No. 27) and encouraging

the evil passions of mankind: ae var hon angan illrar brudar. Hence

Gulveig suffers the punishment which from time immemorial was

established among the Aryans for the practice of the black art: she was

burnt. And her mysteriously terrible and magic nature is revealed by

the fact that the flames, though kindled by divine hands, do not have

the power over her that they have over other agents of sorcery. The gods

burn her thrice; they pierce the body of the witch with their spears,

and hold her over the flames of the fire. All is in vain. They cannot

prevent her return and regeneration. Thrice burned and thrice born, she

still lives.

After Voeluspa has given an account of the vala who in Asgard was called

Gullveig and on earth Heidr, the poem speaks, in strophe 24, of the

dispute which arose among the gods on account of her murder. The gods

assembled on and around the judgment-seats are divided into two parties,

of which the Asas constitute the one. The fact that the treatment

received by Gulveig can become a question of dispute which ends in

enmity between the gods is a proof that only one of the god-clans has

committed the murder; and since this took place, not in Njord's, or

Frey's, or Freyja's halls, but in Valhal, where Odin rules and is

surrounded by his sons, it follows that the Asas must have committed the

murder. Of course, Vans who were guests in Odin's hall might have been

the perpetrators of the murder; but, on the one hand, the poem would

scarcely have indicated Odin's hall as the place where Gulveig was to be

punished, unless it wished thereby to point out the Asas as the doers of

the deed, and, on the other hand, we cannot conceive the murder as

possible, as described in Voeluspa, if the Vans were the ones who

committed it, and the Asas were Gulveig's protectors; for then the

latter, who were the lords in Valhal, would certainly not have

permitted the Vans quietly and peaceably to subject Gulveig to the long

torture there described, in which she is spitted on spears and held over

the flames to be burnt to ashes.

That the Asas committed the murder is also corroborated by Voeluspa's

account of the question in dispute. One of the views prevailing in the

consultation and discussion in regard to the matter is that the Asas

ought to afrad gjalda in reference to the murder committed. In this

afrad gjalda we meet with a phrase which is echoed in the laws of

Iceland, and in the old codes of Norway and Sweden. There can be no

doubt that the phrase has found its way into the language of the law

from the popular vernacular, and that its legal significance was simply

more definite and precise than its use in the vernacular. The common

popular meaning of the phrase is to pay compensation. The compensation

may be of any kind whatsoever. It may be rent for the use of another's

field, or it may be taxes for the enjoyment of social rights, or it may

be death and wounds for having waged war. In the present instance, it

must mean compensation to be paid by the Asas for the slaying of

Gullveig-Heidr. As such a demand could not be made by the Asas

themselves, it must have been made by the Vans and their supporters in

the discussion. Against this demand we have the proposition from the

Asas that all the gods should gildi eiga. In regard to this disputed

phrase at least so much is clear, that it must contain either an

absolute or a partial counter-proposition to the demand of the Vans, and

its purpose must be that the Asas ought not--at least, not alone--to

pay the compensation for the murder, but that the crime should be

regarded as one in reference to which all the gods, the Asas and the

Vans, were alike guilty, and as one for which they all together should

assume the responsibility.

The discussion does not lead to a friendly settlement. Something must

have been said at which Odin has become deeply offended, for the

Asa-father, distinguished for his wisdom and calmness, hurls his spear

into the midst of those deliberating--a token that the contest of reason

against reason is at an end, and that it is to be followed by a contest

with weapons.

The myth concerning this deliberation between Asas and Vans was well

known to Saxo, and what he has to say about it (Hist., 126 ff.),

turning myth as usual into history, should be compared with Voeluspa's

account, for both these sources complement each other.

The first thing that strikes us in Saxo's narrative is that sorcery, the

black art, plays, as in Voeluspa, the chief part in the chain of events.

His account is taken from a mythic circumstance, mentioned by the

heathen skald Kormak (seid Y ggr til Rindar--Younger Edda, i. 236),

according to which Odin, forced by extreme need, sought the favour of

Rind, and gained his point by sorcery and witchcraft, as he could not

gain it otherwise. According to Saxo, Odin touched Rind with a piece of

bark on which he had inscribed magic songs, and the result was that she

became insane (Rinda ... quam Othinus cortice carminibus adnotato

contingens lymphanti similem reddidit). In immediate connection

herewith it is related that the gods held a council, in which it was

claimed that Odin had stained his divine honour, and ought to be deposed

from his royal dignity (dii ... Othinum variis majestatis detrimentis

divinitatis gloriam maculasse cernentes, collegio suo submovendum

duxerunt--Hist., 129). Among the deeds of which his opponents in this

council accused him was, as it appears from Saxo, at least one of which

he ought to take the consequences, but for which all the gods ought not

to be held responsible ( ... ne vel ipsi, alieno crimine implicati,

insontes nocentis crimine punirentur--Hist., 129; in omnium caput unius

culpam recidere putares, Hist., 130). The result of the deliberation of

the gods is, in Saxo as in Voeluspa, that Odin is banished, and that

another clan of gods than his holds the power for some time. Thereupon

he is, with the consent of the reigning gods, recalled to the throne,

which he henceforth occupies in a brilliant manner. But one of his first

acts after his return is to banish the black art and its agents from

heaven and from earth (Hist., 44).

Thus the chain of events in Saxo both begins and ends with sorcery. It

is the background on which both in Saxo and in Voeluspa those events

occur which are connected with the dispute between the Asas and Vans. In

both the documents the gods meet in council before the breaking out of

the enmity. In both the question turns on a deed done by Odin, for which

certain gods do not wish to take the responsibility. Saxo indicates this

by the words: Ne vel ipsi, alieno crimine implicati innocentes nocentis

crimine punirentur. Voeluspa indicates it by letting the Vans present,

against the proposition that godin oell skyldu gildi eiga, the claim

that Odin's own clan, and it alone, should afrad gjalda. And while

Voeluspa makes Odin suddenly interrupt the deliberations and hurl his

spear among the deliberators, Saxo gives us the explanation of his

sudden wrath. He and his clan had slain and burnt Gulveig-Heid because

she practised sorcery and other evil arts of witchcraft. And as he

refuses to make compensation for the murder and demands that all the

gods take the consequences and share the blame, the Vans have replied in

council, that he too once practised sorcery on the occasion when he

visited Rind, and that, if Gulveig was justly burnt for this crime, then

he ought justly to be deposed from his dignity stained by the same crime

as the ruler of all the gods. Thus Voeluspa's and Saxo's accounts

supplement and illustrate each other.

One dark point remains, however. Why have the Vans objected to the

killing of Gulveig-Heid? Should this clan of gods, celebrated in song as

benevolent, useful, and pure, be kindly disposed toward the evil and

corrupting arts of witchcraft? This cannot have been the meaning of the

myth. As shall be shown, the evil plans of Gulveig-Heid have

particularly been directed against those very Vana-gods who in the

council demand compensation for her death. In this regard Saxo has in

perfect faithfulness toward his mythic source represented Odin on the

one hand, and his opponents among the gods on the other, as alike

hostile to the black art. Odin, who on one occasion and under peculiar

circumstances, which I shall discuss in connection with the Balder myth,

was guilty of the practise of sorcery, is nevertheless the declared

enemy of witchcraft, and Saxo makes him take pains to forbid and

persecute it. The Vans likewise look upon it with horror, and it is this

horror which adds strength to their words when they attack and depose

Odin, because he has himself practised that for which he has punished


The explanation of the fact is, as shall be shown below, that Frey, on

account of a passion of which he is the victim (probably through

sorcery), was driven to marry the giant maid Gerd, whose kin in that way

became friends of the Vans. Frey is obliged to demand satisfaction for a

murder perpetrated on a kinswoman of his wife. The kinship of blood

demands its sacred right, and according to Teutonic ideas of law, the

Vans must act as they do regardless of the moral character of Gulveig.