AN INSIGHT into the nature of religious experience was not what I was expecting when I entered the Story Museum in Oxford for an evening of Old Norse poetry. Old Norse was the language spoken in Iceland and Scandinavia until the 15th century. I was expecting something cerebral. But what I encountered was something that telegraphed itself like a bolt of lightning deep into the psyche.
A curtain was pulled aside, and a young woman entered the room. Barefoot, she wore a black robe with heavily embossed edging. Her eyes were made up to look sunken and mournful. In her hand, she carried a staff of twisted ash. She walked slowly across the floor, scanning the audience as if to make eye contact with each one of us.
As she fixed our attention, medieval instruments fed through a synthesised computer by the Nordic musician Kjell Braaten, offered a haunting accompaniment that was at once ancient and modern.
Poetry played an important part in the social and religious world of the Viking peoples. So much so that it is described as the drink of the raven-god Odin. Clare Mulley, a poet and a doctoral student of the influence of Old Norse sagas on the poetry of women since the 1950s, was about to deliver Völuspá, the prophecy of the völva — a mythical seeress summoned from the grave by the Nordic god Odin, “chief of battle-slain”, to tell him stories of the past which only she can tell.
She answers him by speaking of the nine worlds that make up the universe, of the primordial ash-tree Yggdrasil, and the giant Ymir, out of whose body — ripped open by his own sons, ravaging him like wolves — the universe was made.
I remember nine giantesses/ogresses
who raised me
their breasts mountainsides
canyons between their thighs
Nine worlds I have seen
below the ground
I have seen the ash tree
by which all is measured. . .
From it come the ones who know all things;
Women of the waters beneath the world’s ash.
It is a creation tale, in which “the self-hewn gods” shape the world, name it, and pass the “arithmetic of years” in a land of green and gold, where “everything was in order”, until the arrival of “three fatal women, troll queens”. Then, “the soil seethed”, and dwarfs rose to the surface, “maggots from Ymir’s dead flesh”. Yet apocalypse is followed by renewal.
The language, Mulley’s own translation, spoke of another epoch. Vigorous, authoritative, with nothing Latinate or embroidered, her words reminded me of Ted Hughes. Words chiselled out of bare rock, which fall like hammer blows.
The audience could not be spectators. Repeatedly, the völva turned to us, in Odin’s stead, and asked: “Shall I go on? Do you want to know? Do I need to tell you? Do you know yet?” But then, from that direct engagement, she returned, over and again, to interact with the mythic past, as if in some altered state of consciousness.
It was an extraordinary, electrifying performance, which fathomed momentarily the deep wells of the soul. “No more now. She is sinking. . . Let her sink,” trailed off the voice of the prophetess. And then came the voice of the poet: “She’s gone.”