Short-short pre-summary: Óthin hears of the wisdom of the giant Vafthrúthnir and goes to see him in his hall against his anxious wife’s wishes. The giant begins to test Óthin’s wisdom before realizing who he is, then urges him to occupy the high-seat to continue their contest with the loser’s head at stake. Óthin asks an unanswerable question and Vafthrúthnir then realizes who he is.
It starts with Óthin announcing to Frigg that he is about to leave to go see Vafthrúthnir. She asks him to stay, but he assures her that he will be alright. Frigg then allows him to leave while wishing for his safe return.
Óthin walks into Vafthrúthnir’s hall and is straightaway told he won’t be allowed to leave alive if his lore skills are lacking. Óthin introduces himself as Gagnráth (= “Giving Good Counsel”) and Vafthrúthnir invites him to sit down. Óthin declines and Vafthrúthnir begins asking him questions.
Vafthrúthnir first asks for the name of the horse that brings the dawn every day. Óthin correctly answers Skínfaxi and adds that the horse’s mane “glisters like gold”.
Óthin is then questioned as to the name of the horse that brings the night, which he correctly answers to be Hrímfaxi.
He is then asked for the name of the flood “which flows between the garth of the gods and the etins”. Óthin answers Ifing and adds that it never has ice on it.
Vafthrúthnir lastly asks for the name of the field where Surt (the god of fire) and the sacred gods will meet as foes. Óthin rightly states that it is called Vígríth, and further mentions that it is a hundred leagues long.
Vafthrúthnir is quite impressed at this point and again invites Óthin to sit on the bench, while their heads will be at stake and the one with the greater wisdom will be the victor.
Óthin then proceeds to ask eighteen questions (I’ll go over those briefly later), the last of which was what he whispered in his son’s ear “ere Baldr on bale was laid” (referring to himself in third person while asking the question).
Vafthrúthnir realizes at this point who his guest is and tells Óthin that no one on earth knows what he said in the ear of his son. He then admits that Óthin is the wisest being ever born. The lay ends here, but we can assume that Óthin cut off his host’s head since that was what was at stake.
Quick Q’s & A’s:
1: Where did the heavens and the earth come from?
From Ymir’s flesh, bones, skull and blood.
2: Where did the moon and sun come from?
Mundilferi is the father of the Moon and Sun. (Kind of…)
3: From where do the day and night come?
Day’s father is one named Delling (= “The Shining”) who was a god who engendered the son Dagr (= “Day”) with Nótt. The Night was born to Nor.
4: In the beginning for the gods, where did winter and summer come from?
Winter’s father is Vindsval (who was born to Vásuth) and Summer is the son of Svásuth. All are giants. Their names in order mean “Wind-Cold”, “the Wet and Cold One”, and “the Mild One”. So Wind-Cold was the offspring of the Wet and Cold One and Summer is the son of the Mild One.
5: In the world’s first days, who was the oldest etin of Ymir’s kin?
Bergelmir was around ages before the earth was made. That thurs’ father was Thrúthgelmir, but the oldest of them all was Aurgelmir.
6: From where did Aurgelmir and his “sib” come?
Élivágar (= “Stormy Rivers”, “imagined as ‘venom-cold’ rivers in the far North”) spurted venom drops which waxed until there was an etin.
7: How did the grim etin beget children when there was no misshapen she-thurs?
A girl and a boy grew under his arms, “one with the other”, and “the wise etin’s shanks begat a six-headed son.”
8: What is or was the oldest “the earth above”?
Bergelmir came to be ages before the earth was made.
9: From where does the wind come?
There is one named Hræsvelg (= “Corpse-Gulper”) which is an etin in the shape of an eagle that sits “at heaven’s end” and beats its wings, creating the wind.
10: From where came the wise Njorth (originally a fertility god, but rules over the wind and sea in Norse mythology, additionally: he “was not begot among gods”)?
Vanir begat him in Vanaheim (= “The Home of the Vanir”) and gave him to the gods as a hostage. The hostage sent in return by the Æsir was Mímir.
11: Where do slain men go to drain goblets together after being slain and faring from battle?
All the einherjar (= “Single Combatants”(?)) drain goblets in Óthin’s garth (open space / garden) after being slain in battle and being gathered by valkyries.
12: What is the fate of the sacred gods?
In short: death.
13: Who will be left after the fimbulvetr (= “Chief of Winters”, said to precede the end of the world and consisting of three winters with no summer between them)?
Líf (= “Life”(?)) and Lífthrásir (= “Longing for Life”(?)) will survive, hiding in the leaves of the tree Hoddmímir (which may be the world-tree Yggdrasil). Their meat will be the morning dews and they will rear the races of men.
14: How will the sun soar on the smooth heavens after being “snatched by Fenrir’s fangs”?
A daughter orb was born to Alfrothul (= “Alf-Beam”, a kenning for the sun) before the latter was snatched by Fenrir’s fangs, and that daughter sun will go on the path of the then-gone sun at the time of the fall of the gods.
15: What wise maidens swiftly fare over the wide sea?
There are three throngs of norns of etins’ kin who assist at childbirth who “throw themselves” over “Mogthrásir’s thorp” (“Mogthrásir” meaning “Desirous of Sons” being a symbolic designation for mankind, “Mogthrásir’s thorp” = the world).
16: “Who will wield the sway when Surt’s fire is slaked?”
Víthar and Váli. Mjolnir will be inherited by Thor’s sons Móthi and Magni (“the Courageous” and “the Strong” respectively). “Other divinities inhabit Itha Field.”
17: Who will kill Óthin?
The Fenris-Wolf (a.k.a. Fenrir) will swallow Óthin. He will be avenged by Víthar.
18: What did Óthin whisper in his son’s ear “ere Baldr on bale was laid”?
No one knows. I even checked the end of Hávamál just to be sure (unless this is like that time with the Norwegian record store when I somehow managed to miss the totally obvious answer to my own question… Never mind that, though. It was only one time. We’ll just assume no one knows). 🙂