Prophecy of the Völva (Seeress)

Bang, Bugge, and Rydberg
Völuspá and the Sibylline Oracles


1992 Ursula Dronke

"Völuspá and the Sibylline Traditions" in

Latin Culture and Medieval Germanic Europe, ed. Richard North and T. Hofstra, 1992

Reprinted in her book Myth and Fiction in Early Norse Lands


      "In 1879 the theological A.C. Bang argued that Völuspá was a 'Norse Christian Sibylline Oracle': a Norse Christian poet's imitation of Greek sibylline texts— the only sibylline texts then known to Bang— in which the Norse poet has substituted his native mythological and religious themes for the classical and Biblical themes of the learned sibylline tradition. Bang asserted that, by following the Norse poem step by step, at virtually every point he had found parallels with the Greek Oracles; a two-fold structure ('All Sibylline Oracles of any  significance fall into two main parts, the one concerned with the past, the  other with the future'); a climax prophesying the world's future; an oracular ambiguity of style; alternation of factual and ecstatic statement, reflecting the sibyl's own psychic changes; the combining of Christian and pagan elements, and the use of the pagan sibyl as the chosen instrument of Christian revelation.'I believe,' Bang concludes 'that it is quite unthinkable that likenesses of such a kind and extent could have arisen unless the author of Völuspá had had the Oracles as source and model.' And he makes a wide-reaching inference: 'I believe that Völuspá is wholly unfit to serve as evidence that Norse heathenism was capable of producing deep insights and elevated thoughts.'
     Bang's thesis was warmly accepted by some scholars. Hugo Gering, for instance, declared that as a result of Bang's discovery of the dependence of Völuspá upon the Sibylline Oracles, the Norse poem 'naturally loses all its value as a source for our knowledge of ancient Germanic mythology'. Clearly, much is at stake in the solving of this problem. 
     Fortunately, Viktor Ryderg knew the sibylline texts better than Bang. In 1881, he replied to Bang's arguments with over one hundred pages (as against Bang's twenty-three!) of marvellously intelligent, masterly criticism of the errors, imprecise thinking and failure of scholarly imagination that underlay Bang's claim, and while Bang concentrated on the likenesses between Völuspá and the Greek Sibylline Oracles, Rydberg demonstrated what was dissimilar in all the parallels that Bang had drawn.  Above all, he sharply derided Bang's notion that the ill-put-together Orlacles could have inspired the structure of Völuspá: this is no more likely than 'an aesthetically and practically well-ordered home should have as its model a chaotic auction-room.'
      As to the likenesses that Bang had emphasized, Rydberg was content to suppose them of very archaic origin: 'That an age-old kinship should be found between concepts in Aryan myth and comparable concepts in Biblical tradition is wholly probable."



Further Reading: Classical Influence on Early Norse Literature



1882 Samuel Crocker, editor
The Literary World Vol. 13




"Viktor Rydberg is, as has been said, a controversialist. Two recent works from his pen serve to indicate a field in which he has won distinction. About eighteen months ago, a Norwegian scholar, Dr. Anthon Christian Bang, published a small pamphlet entitled Völuspaa og de Sibyllinska Orakler (The Vala's Prophecy and the Sibylline Oracles), in which he attempted to show that the Völuspa poem in the Old Norse Elder Edda was a plagiarism from the Sibylline oracles of the middle ages. The little pamphlet made quite a sensation, largely, however, because of general ignorance concerning the Sibylline oracles, while Mr. Bang was understood to have the support of Norway's greatest mythologist, Sophus Bugge. Subsequently Mr. Bugge defined his position, and is now publishing a work on the origin of Norse mythology, in which he tries to show that, during the last centuries of the viking heathendom, the Christian religion exercised a pronounced influence upon the primitive religion of the North. He claims that Christian and classic traditions were found in the British Isles by the Scandinavian bards, blended with their original religion, and that from this union came the mythology described in the Eddas. Mr. Bugge claims that Balder of the Edda is Christ; that the blind Hoder, who throws the mistletoe at Balder, is the blind Roman soldier Longinus, who, according to the Christian Hebrew legend, pierced Christ with his lance; that Luke is Lucifer, and so on. Doubtless he is right in claiming that Teutonic traditions have been more or less colored by South-European legendary lore, but his conclusions are too definite to pass unchallenged. In reply to Dr. Bang, Viktor Rydberg has published a small work called Sibyllinerna och Voluspa (The Sibylline Oracles and Voluspa), in which he shows on how weak a foundation the hypothesis was based; nay, he shows that there was no foundation whatever for Mr. Bang to build upon. It was this clever work that forced Professor Bugge to renounce Dr. Bang, and tell the world that he did not share his opinion that Völuspá was a Christian oracle based on the Sibylline books. In the 80 octavo pages of his book Rydberg argues conclusively that the author of Völuspá did not use the Asiatic-Egyptian Sibylline oracles as his source and model; that Bang's characterization of the Sibylline books is not trustworthy ; and that Voluspa is not a Norse-Christian oracle. Dr. Bang, in spite of all the stir he made with his little pamphlet, may now be considered out of the saga. But Professor Bugge, in renouncing Bang's hypothesis, raised another question, the settlement of which he conceives to be of great importance to his theory: "Has the Völuspá been influenced by any of the Christian prophecies which were produced in the middle ages and circulated as Sibylline oracles?" He thinks he has found evidence that these later prophecies were modified indirectly by the Asiatic-Egyptian Sibylline oracles, and that in this manner the Christian oracles may have transmitted some of their borrowed Asiatic-Egyptian color to the Völuspá. In support of this hypothesis, Professor Bugge cites the prophecies of Merlin in the Appendix to the Chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth, in which are described the great signs which are to appear in heaven and in the earth when the fate of England is foretold. Among these are several parallels to the description of the war among the stars, at the close of the fifth book of the Asiatic-Egyptian Sibylline oracles. One of these parallels is so striking that Professor Bugge does not hesitate to maintain that Geoffrey must have utilized in some way at least a portion of those oracles. Now, all that the West of Europe, during the middle ages, knew of these Sibylline oracles was contributed by Lactantius and Augustinus. But, as these church-fathers do not give a single extract in regard to the war of the stars, and as Geoffrey's Prophecy of Merlin does contain a parallel thereto, Geoffrey must, according to Bugge, be an exception to the accepted laws of Sibylline investigations. Hence he assumes that the knowledge which the Welsh enchanter appar ently shows of that fifth book must have come to him by way of Byzantium in a comparatively modern time. To this hypothesis Viktor Rydberg has just published a reply: Astrologien och Merlin (Astrology and Merlin), in which he demonstrates that Geoffrey was familiar with Lucanus. All the astrological elements in Merlin's prophecies are found in the Roman poets, particularly in the Pharsalia of Lucanus. The work closes with a detailed history and interpretation of the astronomy and astrology of the ancients. We are authorized to announce that a third work from Rydberg on this interesting subject will appear shortly. It will be a large work on Völuspá, containing a synopsis and interpretation of the poem; a discussion on the character of the Vala, or Prophetess; the texts in the Codex Regius, Hauks-bók, and the Upsala manuscripts; the restored text; text-criticism; the history of the text; and an estimate of the age of the poem. Chapters will be added on the age of the Balder myth, and on other questions germane to an exhaustive treatise on the Völuspá. It will unquestionably be a work of great importance to all students of mythology and of Norse literature."




   1973 Völuspá, edited by Sigurður Nordal.

Translated by B.S. Benedikt and John McKinnell

Saga Book of the Viking Society for Northern Research  

Volume 18


 "Bang's essay attracted great attention and many good scholars agreed with him. Some have followed and his footsteps and traced the material of Norse mythology back to southern European and Christian writings of the Roman Empire and later years.     

         The most prominent of these was Bugge, especially in his first volume of the Studier over de nordiske Gude- og Heltesagns Oprindelse. Bugge's views have been considered extreme by many (though he did not lack followers, especially in the early days) and the time of his greatest influence is now over. But there is always much to be learned from his works, even for those who differ from his basic principles. And Bugge is moderate in comparison with the German mythologist E. H. Meyer, who edited Völuspá with a commentary in 1889 and traced all its matter to mediaeval Christian writings. For in this large book (300 pages) I have not found a single observation which I thought worth mentioning in my commentary. It is from beginning to end a scholarly fable by a man whose learning had made him mad.

             Many came forward to oppose this line of research. Victor Rydberg attacked Bang, while Bugge defended him, and this resulted in Rydberg's producing his great work  Undersökningar i Germanisk Mytologi. This is written with great learning and eloquence. Its chief fault is that the author makes it clear neither to himself nor to his reader where the learning stops and the eloquence begins."



The full texts of the arguments:

1879 Anton Christian Bang, Vøluspaa og de Sibyllinske Orakler

1880 J.M. Hart, "Keltic and Germanic" in American Journal of Philology, Volume 1

1881 Viktor Rydberg: Sibyllinerna och Völuspa      


1881 Sophus Bugge: Nogle bemærkninger om sibyllinerne og Völuspá       


1881 Viktor Rydberg Astrologien och Merlin