MYTHIC GEOGRAPHY AND MODERN TRANSLATIONS

by William Reaves, edited by Úlfgrim Vílmeiđson
Copyright © William Reaves

I have often contended that modern translations sometimes skew the meaning of mythic terminology, especially in regard to the mythic geography. These types of mis-translations often are made in good faith by translators who try to conform to the spirit of Snorri's text. Oftentimes, a meaning of an obscure word is repeated from translation to translation until it becomes the accepted meaning of the word. However, in some cases, it can be clearly demonstrated that the accepted meaning of the word is not the actual meaning of the word to the heathen poet who used it.

A case in point: The word Jörmungrund which occurs in the famous passage from Grimnismal 20:

Huginn ok Munin fljúga hverjan dag jörmungrund yfir;
 
"Hugin & Munin fly every day over the wide world;" (Carolyne Larrington)
"The whole earth over, every day, hover Hugin and Munin" (Lee Hollander)
"Hugin and Munin fly each day over the spacious earth" (Ben Thorpe)

The dictionaries follow suit, or perhaps the translators have referred to the dictionaries:

"Jormun-grund, immense-surface, earth (Grim. 20)" (LaForge, afterNeckel-Kuhn)
"Jörmun- a prefix, denoting something huge, vast, superhuman; -grund, the earth (Zoega)
"Jormun- a prefix in a few old mythical words, implying something huge, vast, superhuman, Jormungrund, the earth (Grimnismal 20)"(Clearsby-Vigfusson)

All modern translations and dictionaries render the word Jormungrund as earth, meaning a vast-ground, a huge-ground; (but can it logically also be called a superhuman ground?) They all, if they quote a source, cite Grimnismal 20, and it is one of the two occurances of this word. Strangely, the other instance of the word Jormungrund is overlooked.

Let's look at this logically. Odin has a chair called Hildskjalf which allows him to view the whole world when he sits on it. Why would he also need to send out his ravens over the "earth" to gather information? Well, perhaps they are meant to hear what he can only see. It is possible, but is it what the heathen poet meant?

Let's look at the other instance of the word Jormungrund before we decide, and please keep in mind that Jormun is a prefix which means "vast, huge, superhuman" in the other words this prefix occurs in, such as "Jormungand". The second, and only other occurance of Jormungrund in Old Norse, is in the poem Hrafnagaldr Odins, also called Forspallsljod.

Hrafnagalđr Ođins 25

Jórmungrundarí
jódyr nyrdra
undir rót ytstv
Adal ţollar
gengu til reckio
gýgjur ok ţursar
náir, dvergar
ok dökkalfar

The Benjamin Thorpe Translation:

In the northern boundry of the spacious earth, under the outmost root of the noble tree, went to their couches Gygjar, Thursear, spectres, dwarves, and Murk-elves.

Wait a minute! Does the northern root of Yggdrassil "the noble-tree" stretch to earth? Are giantesses, giants, dead men, and dark-elves typically found on the earth? Well, it is possible, but again, I ask, is this what the heathen poet meant?

Generally we look on dead-men (nair) and dark-elves as having residence in the underworld. Voluspa informs us that sinful dead-men come to the hall on the Nastronds, which lies in the north. Thursar too, especially Hrim-thursar are found in Niflheim, a northern world which predates the earth. We also know that Hvergelmir is located there, and we know that a root of the Tree stretches to Hvergelmir, one of the three wells which nourish Yggdrassil, and lastly, Grimnismal 31 informs us that one root of the Tree stretches to "Hrim-Thursar." If we put all of this together, we realize the poets probable intent with the use of Jormungrund was to depict the northernmost reaches of the Underworld, which we call Niflhel.

This realm is not the northernmost boundry of the earth. It is not part of earth's "spacious ground." Folk phrases such as "Go north and down" (Go to Hel!) indicate that is below the earth, and even the name Midgard, Middle-yard, suggests that earth lay between two other worlds, namely an upper and a lower world, the heavens and hel.

Let's look at this verse more carefully. Here is an exact rendering of this verse, made with the help of a native Icelandic speaker and Eddic scholar:

25.

Jórmungrundar At Jormungrund's
í jódyr nyrdra nothern horse-door
undir rót ytstv under the outermost root
Adal ţollar of the noble tree;
gengu til reckio go to sleep
gýgjur ok ţursar giantesses and thurses
náir, dvergar corpses, dwarves
ok dökkalfar and dark-elves

The Thorpe translation overlooked the word "jó-dyr" horse-door, probably on the grounds that it seemed nonsensical, as modern scholars make no mention of "horse-doors" found in the lower world. But, keep in mind that the sun-Sol, day-Dag, and night-Natt are all pictured as being drawn by horses across the sky. When Hermod seeks Balder in the lower world, and when Odin previously had sought news of Balder's death, they ride the 8-legged horse Sleipnir to the lower world, and Odin specifically visits "Hel's high hall."

Thus horses seem to be the usual means of travel between the upper worlds and the lower. So it is only natural that a poet speak of "horse-gates" or "horse-doors" as entrances to the lower world. Various manuscripts of Voluspa 5 also contain the word in reference to the sun.

Again we come back to the conclusion that by Jormungrund, the heathen poet probably meant the lower world, rather than the earth. This fits perfectly in the context of the final verses of Hrafnagaldr Odins, where Night and Day are depicted as being drawn by or riding horses. In the preceding verse:

24.

Delling's son Delling's son is Dag, daylight. His horse is Skinfaxi, Shining-mane.
urged on his horse
adorned with precious stones
above man-home Manhome, Midgard
the horse's mane glows
the steed draw
Dvalin's plaything
in his chariot. Dvalin's plaything, leik Dvalins, meaning Dag. To this, we should compare the expression "Dvalin's leika," Dvalin's doll, used of the sun, in Alvismal. The popular interpretation of this phrase as Dvalin's deluder, which is loosely based on the verb "leika," meaning "to play a trick on," is unlikely.

and also the following verse:

26.

The powers arose.
Alfrodull appearaed Alfrodull, the glory of elves, a designation of the sun.
Njola sought Njola, Night
the north of Niflheim
Ulfrun's son Ulfrun's son, Heimdall
Lifted up Argjöll Argjöll, the early-alarm, the Gjallarhorn

In this light, let us reconsider the meaning of Grimnismal 20:

Huginn ok Munin fljúga hverjan dag jörmungrund yfir;
 
Hugin and Munin fly every day over the vast-ground
Every day, Hugin and Munin fly over the underworld.

Imagine that the underworld is greater in expanse than Midgard which was built above it.

Odin can see the happenings on Midgard in his chair in Hildskjalf, located in Asgard. But Midgard blocks out his view of the underworld below it. He can only see what is happening there in the portions that lie outside of the shadow of Midgard. But to see that portion of the underworld which is covered by the earth (Midgard), he must send his ravens. While they are there, he cannot see where they are, thus the natural explanation of the final half of the strophe:

"I fear for Hugin that he will not come back, yet I tremble more for Munin."

If he sent them to earth ("jormungrund"), he would be able to see their flight from his chair in Hildskjalf, and would have no reason to worry about them. Symbolically, his ravens are thought and memory, and the underworld, which is the home of Mimir's well is the very source of Odin's knowledge and wisdom. This is one meaning of the strophe, yet there is another allusion operating here as well. Ravens are birds who eat carrion, and Hel is filled with dead-men. Thus Odin mainly sends his ravens to the places filled with the dead, rather than the living. It is a bit of poetic humor.

So, in regard to the translation of the word "Jormungrund," I will simply state that there is another explanation than that which is found in the mainstream scholarship . My point being, that the "scholars" and the "popular texts" do not necessarily have it correct. Eddic scholarship has only been around for about 200 years, and only a handful of serious books had been written up until recent times, and only a handful more have come out recently.

The Eddic poems themselves were not known among scholars until 1643, and the first serious studies of them did not occur until the early 1800s. Eddic scholarship simply has not been around long enough to unravel the mystery of the old poems, and in those 200 years many theories have come and gone, returned and gone again; few have consistantly survived; and some, such as the theory of Bergelmir's boat, have expanded far beyond the means to support them, while others are perpetuated because nothing has come along to challenge it.

Jormungrund is not the only mytho-geographic word that has been transformed in this manner. "Luđr" is one, Hel is another, and there are more besides.

My advice to the serious seeker: question the source. Only explanations that can stand up consistantly in the light of all the Eddic and Skaldic mythological poems should be considered valid.

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