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The Dragon of the North: The Supernatural Nature of Knowledge in Vǫluspá
By Elaine Machietto
Master’s Thesis, University of Iceland, 2013
Abstract: This thesis is an exploration of the mythological poem Vǫluspá and the nature of knowledge within the world presented by the text. I will argue that knowledge is a supernatural force, and that the world will ultimately be destroyed as a result of its influence.
The action of Vǫluspá revolves around the Æsir’s central domain, and throughout the course of the poem, that domain is invaded and infiltrated by supernatural forces in the shape of various types of knowledge, including awareness, prophecy, and fate. This knowledge is strongly connected to women and perceived as immoral, due to its origins outside the domain of the Æsir and the negative consequences it garners.
Vǫluspá was shaped by myriad ancient traditions, Babylonian and Judeo-Christian prominent among them. These ideas can be seen in the traces of Mother Goddess cult beliefs that exist in the poem, including creation by women and cosmological lunar imagery, and by indications of the shift to masculine societies, such as naming as a creative act and an excess of violence in the society. These traditions will be explored as a way of interpreting the text and placing it in a moral and eschatological context.
Introduction: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.” This passage, Revelation 21:1, is the first descriptor in the book of the new world that will descend from Heaven following the biblical apocalypse. It is not an unfamiliar image, and the idea of a new world emerging after the first perishes in a cataclysmic event is one that is widespread. The bible, of course, is a hugely influential text on subsequent beliefs and religions, but its images and motifs had been evolving for thousands of years prior to its manufacture. At times, the links between the biblical texts and its predecessors are unrecognizable at best, but they can still be discovered.
The mention of the sea—or rather, its exclusion—in the new world is one such link. The motif of the sea is one of the most prevalent in the creation myths of myriad traditions, Babylonian and Judeo-Christian prominently among them. In the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world is created in a void by reshaping and reappropriating the body of Tiamat, the primordial Mother Goddess. That void is represented by the sea—chaotic, dark, and uncontrollable. This representation persists, and is even present in the creation account of Genesis, as “darkness was upon the face of the deep” . This “deep,” often zoomorphically imagined as a dragon—something to be symbolically conquered— is not named in Genesis, but is so elsewhere in the Old Testament. Ralston, in his discussion of how this idea is adapted for a monotheistic tradition, explains, “The sea is primeval chaos, the waters of disorder and darkness, the home of the chaos monster….The Biblical writers remember that the monster was a great dragon, a serpent one of whose familiar names was Rahab”.