A Study Guide 
[Index to Svipdagsmál 
Gróugaldur and Fjölsvinnsmál

Parallels to Svipdagsmál
by E. B. (2001)

Apart from the Svejdal Ballad, many parallels of the Svipdag myth have been noted. The closest one seems to be The Saga of Hjálmþér and Ölvir which contains many suggestive passages. The variant found in the Saga of Hervör is remarkable, since here the protagonist is a woman (dressed as a man), calling her father from the dead in order to recover a sword. Book Eight of Saxo's History contains an intriguing account of an underworld journey, which in some aspects parallels Svipdag's (and Svejdal's) journey, hinted at in Groa's nine spells (see commentary to stanza 16 of Gróugaldur). Falk also includes Himinbjargar saga, the Celtic Tale of Kulhwch and Olwen, and various Grail Myths, which he compares to Eireks saga Víðförla, Konráðs saga, and Duggals Leiðsla. Rydberg also pointed out many parallels found in Saxo Grammaticus, particularly the tale of Otharus and Siritha (Book VII), the tale of Hotherus (Book III), and the tale of Ericus Disertus (Book V). (Various additional parallels are described in Rydberg's Teutonic Mythology, see especially Chapter 107: Reminiscences of the Svipdag Myth.) More recently, Gísli Sigurðsson has pointed out an additional Celtic parallel, The Story of Art, Son of Conn.

It may be seen as a rash undertaking, but below I have attempted to correlate the various sources, in the hope that such a correlation may throw some light upon the mythic tale underlying the story told in Svipdagsmál. I do not intend to prove anything by such a correlation, merely offering it here to the interested reader, to show the extent to which a single myth can vary across time and space.

The following abbreviations will be used to refer to the sources:

Art, Son of Conn
Duggals Leiðsla
Eireks Saga Víðförla
Hervarar Saga
Himinbjargar Saga
Hjálmþés Saga
Konráðs Saga
Kulhwch and Olwen
Otharus and Siritha
Svejdal Ballad

Svipdag's father is a king, and none of the sources tell us much about him. His mother is an obscure figure as well. In K, she loses her senses during her pregnancy, and wanders in the wilderness, where her son is born at a swine-herd's farm and raised there, away from the king's palace. In Hj, the prince lives in a castle in the woods, away from the court. In He, Hervor (not to be confused with her namesake in Hj) runs wild in the woods, until her father captures her and forces her to stay in the palace. In G, the king is presumably dead, and the stepmother's enmity towards Svipdag implies that he was somehow set apart from the court. In A, he is banished by the stepmother.

The queen, Svipdag's mother, dies. All the relevant sources agree on this (K, S, Hj, Hi, G). In He, the father dies (but here the sexes are reversed). The mother is buried in a mound (G, Hj, Hi, He), which is replaced by a mountain in S. The king mourns (Hj, Hi). In Hj, the prince asks his father to stop grieving, but is ignored, and grows angry at his father. In Hi, the prince mourns his mother, lying upon her grave night and day, wherupon she grows angry at him. Here the roles of the mother and the stepmother are reversed.

The stepmother is present in most of the sources. In K, the king abducts her and her daughter. In Hj, she is obviously an evil sorceress, who arrives in a boat. In Hi, she steps out of the sky, like a valkyrie. In G, S, Hj, she lays a curse upon Svipdag, while in Hi, she gives the hero good advice (see above reversal of the roles of mother and stepmother).

Svipdag is very young, "ungur afi", "mögur" (G, F). In K, he is seven years old when his stepmother suggests that he marry her daughter. He blushes, and tells her that he is too young to marry. In S, the young Svejdal, playing with a ball, enters the ladies' chambers, where his stepmother curses him. He, too, blushes. S further refers to him as a "small boy, dressed in white", implying his virginity. In Hj, the stepmother attempts to seduce him, comparing his young attractive body to the old and impotent body of his father. A blush is implied. In A, the stepmother secretly lusts after her stepson.

The ball-game of S is parallel to the chess-game of A, which is again implied in G.

The stepmother lays a curse upon Svipdag. He must seek out a maiden, and will never rest until he has found her. In K, after the hero has refused to marry the stepmother's daughter, she tells him that he will never have a wife, until he finds Olwen. In S, the maiden is not named, but said to reside in a foreign land. In Hj, the hero will never rest, until he has found Hervor. In Hi, he must free a princess, who has been turned into a giantess by sorcerous means (cp. Vargeisa, below). In G, Svipdag must seek Menglad who, according to F, resides in a distant walled city.

Most of the sources agree that the hero has never seen the maiden (K, S; implied in Hi, Hj). G may be seen as implying this, but the evidence of F indicates otherwise, since there Svipdag is not seeing Menglad for the first time, but is returning to her embrace after a long absence (see commentaries). Such an interpretation offers two possibilites: (1) Svipdag knew Menglad before the events described in G, and had despaired of ever meeting her again, until his stepmother forced him to seek her; (2) Svipdag found Menglad after the events described in G, subsequently lost her, and in F attempts to rejoin her. Rydberg saw O as supplying the missing link.

In G, Svipdag visits his mother's burial mound, and calls her back from the dead. In S, the mound is a mountain, which rips open. In He, the burial mound opens wide with unearthly fires burning all around. In G and S, the dead mother complains that her final rest has been disturbed, although in G she requested that her son do so, if ever he needed her advice. The dead rest in peace in the underworld, but the journey back to the burial mound is long and arduous one (S). In He, where the sexes are reversed, the mother is replaced with the father and his brothers. In Hi, where the roles of the mother and stepmother are reversed, the mother rises from the dead and curses her son.

In G, Svipdag receives from his mother nine spells, which are supposed to assist him during his arduous quest. In S, the spells have been transformed into valuable gifts, which will aid him. Among them is a magnificent sword. In K, these gifts take the form of guides, who will accompany the hero on his quest. Each guide has a special ability or spell. In He, the maiden hero seeks the advice of her mother Svafa, before she escapes from her grandfather's palace. After she has raised her dead father, and claimed the sword, she is given much good advice. In Hj, the dead mother is absent, but the hero receives good advice from two giantesses, Skinnhúfa and Vargeisa. The latter, who is obviously the same creature as Sinmara (F), gives him a great sword.

The Sword is found in all relevant sources. In F, it appears as Hævateinn (Lævateinn), the sword which Svipdag needs in order to enter Asgard, a sword feared by the gods. In Ho, it is said to be able to kill even Baldur. The same sword will reappear during Ragnarok, glowing like the sun, wielded by the fire-giant Surt (see commentaries). In S, the sword is simply one of the mother's gifts, whereas in F, Svipdag must fetch it from the Underworld, where it is closely guarded by the giantess Sinmara. In Ho, it is guarded by Mimungus (Mímir). In S, the sword shines like a fire in the night, and in He, Tyrfing, the most famous of all swords, shines like a ray of the sun. In Hj, the sword Snarvendill/Mímungur is given to the hero by a terrible creature called Vargeisa, identical to Sinmara in F. In K, the hero carries a most magnificent sword, made of gold, which shines like ligthning. In He, the sword was made by Dvalinn, the greatest of dwarven smiths, while in F, it was made by an enemy of the gods named Loftur, probably identical with Volund, the greatest of elven smiths.

In S, the hero receives various gifts from his dead mother. Apart from the Sword, he receives a horse (which can run on the sea as well as the land); a tablecloth and a horn (which will supply food and drink); and a ship with golden masts and silken sails. In Hi, in addition to good advice from Blakapa, his stepmother's sister, he receives two magical gifts, a cloak of invisibility (cp. K) and a pair of strength-inducing gloves.

In G, F and S, Svipdag apparently performs his quest alone. One version of S however does speak of companions, who sail with him on the ship, provided by his mother. In K, the hero is accompanied by a number of guides, who are basically equivalent to Groa's spells. In Hj, the hero sets out with five ships and many warriors, but after an encounter with nine giantesses, only three men survive. In He, the heroine travels with a band of vikings, but after she calls upon the dead, they abandon her.

The details of Svipdag's quest (his "long road"), which takes place during the lacuna between G and F, can only be guessed at from the clues offered by Groa's spells (see my commentary to Gróugaldur 16), and the parallel sources. S mentions a journey across a great ocean, green woods, a wild ocean, dark woods, and a beach of white sand (see my commentary to Fjölsvinnsmál 28). The travels of Hjalmther have been described in detail above (The Ring of Seasons). In He, the heroine, having been abandoned by her band of vikings, heads straight towards the Underworld. In my commentaries, I have suggested that Svipdag's journey led him to the underworld, where he saw the great plains where the dead live; the wonderful palace of those known as Ásmegir; and where he visited Mimir, the lord of the Lower world, and Sinmara, the guardian of the sword Hævateinn-Lævateinn. Such an Underworld journey is described in great detail by Saxo in Book VIII of his History (see commentary to Gróugaldur 16), and confirmed by descriptions found in E, K, D. The bridge, mentioned in many of the sources, may be identical with Bifrost, the great bridge of the Aesir, which led up to Asgard. If my interpretation is correct, this is the final part of Svipdag's journey, before he meets Fjolsvith (Odin) in front of the gates of Asgard in Fjölsvinnsmál.


Before correlating the various sources which pertain to Fjölsvinnsmál, it is important to differentiate between the two "otherworlds", on one hand the Underworld (Jörmungrund), on the other hand Asgard. Rydberg has clearly shown that the two were diametrically opposite, and that Snorri was ignorant of the true nature of the Underworld (which he identified with the Christian Hell).

The Underworld is the oldest of worlds. The three wells that nourish the three roots of the World-Tree (Yggdrasil) are situated there. Hvergelmir is the northern well. Mimir resides near the central well. Urd and her sisters dwell near the southern well. The World Tree, rising from these three Wells, grows upwards towards heaven. At the very top, among the branches of its crown, we find Asgard. Midgard, the home of men, also rests upon the Tree's branches, midway between the Underworld and Asgard, the world of the gods.

Mimir's and Urd's kingdom is properly called Hel. There we find Idavellir, the green plains where the gods enjoyed their carefree existence, before the upper worlds were created (Völuspá 7-8). Here is Okolnir (Never-cold), the vast and pleasant plain where righteous men spend their afterlife. After death each human being descends to the Underworld to be judged at Urd's great court near Urd's well. A chosen few, the noble warriors, are appointed to Valhall, where they join the band of Einherjar. Out of the remaining majority, the blameless are allowed to join their ancestors in the glittering plains, ruled over by Mimir and Urd. In this blessed place, we also find the castle of the Ásmegir (Lif, Lifthrasir, Baldur et al.), where no evil can enter.

Those who have committed mortal sins are directed to Niflhel, a dark and cold realm, situated in the northernmost part of the Underworld. This realm is separated from Hel by a vast range of mountains called Nidafjoll. Niflhel, a world of terror and torture, is the home of the Rime-Giants, and various other evil creatures.

The bridge Bifrost extends from the northernmost edge of the Underworld (where Heimdall resides) up to Asgard, and down again to the southernmost edge of the Underworld (where Surt resides).

The reader, who is unfamiliar with these ideas, should consult two schematic maps (below), which depict the basic features of the world-picture described above:

  MAP 1 (Rydberg's)  MAP 2 (mine)  

In E, the Underworld traveller reaches the castle of the Ásmegir. His guardian angel (who is one of the angels guarding the gates of Paradise) informs him that he has reached Odainsakur ("the field of the never-dying"), also called "the earth of living men". This place, however, is not the same as Paradise, which can only be entered by spirits.

In one version of S, where young Svejdal is standing outside the gate, guarded by the Lion and the Bear, he is told that "no living man can enter, except for young Svejdal".

My interpretation of Svipdagsmál assumes that, in Fjölsvinnsmál, Svipdag has reached Asgard, after having performed a quest in the Underworld, where he saw the wonderful castle of the Ásmegir. As shown by many sources, it was possible (although difficult) for living men to visit the Underworld. However, no living man could possible enter Asgard, the home of the gods. The only men allowed there were the spirits of the chosen ones, the Einherjar. This idea may be supported by the above-quoted passage in S.

According to Rydberg's interpretation of the ancient world-picture, the only way to reach Asgard (the world of gods) from Midgard (the world of men) first entails descending into the Underworld, and then ascending the Bifrost bridge, whose bridgeheads are located in the Underworld. This was no mean feat. To reach the Underworld, according to Saxo (and others), it was necessary to sail over tempestuous oceans towards the north, where terrible cold and darkness reigned. At the end of the journey lay a pleasant place with a bridge, which spanned a river dividing the mortal realm from the supernatural. In one version of S, such a journey is implied. On his horse, young Svejdal rides over the the wide sea (the northern ocean) and the green plains (the green realm of Mimir and Urd). He then rides over a tempestuous ocean and through dark woods, before he reaches the maiden's palace. The dark woods (Myrkviður, Járnviður) may be identical with Niflhel, which needed to be crossed in order to reach the northern bridge-head of Bifrost. The raging ocean is probably equivalent to the atmospheric one, which Bifrost spanned. A bridge crossing the sky surely invites the image of the sky being referred to as a river, or an ocean.

It is not only likely, but practically certain, that these two "otherworlds" were confused in later times, as the mythology grew vague in the memories of men, converted to a religion which taught nothing of a peaceful, green realm in the Underworld. Thus the Underworld, where the souls of the dead resided in bliss, in an analogy with the new religion, was confused with Asgard, the splendid world of the gods, where dead warriors mingled with the Æsir. The castle of the Asmegir was confused with Valhall. Delling, the doorkeeper of the Underworld, was confused with Fjolsvith-Odin, the doorkeeper of Asgard. The Bifrost bridge was equated with an Underworld bridge crossing an Underworld river. The various sources show increasing signs of Christianization the further they are removed from the heathen era.

At the beginning of F, Svipdag reaches the top of the Bifrost bridge, after his travels in the Underworld. The first person he meets is Fjolsvith (Odin), the doorkeeper, who is reluctant to let the visitor enter. In S, he meets a shepherd, who offers no resistance - Svejdal can enter as soon as he has revealed his identity. In E, Erik's guardian angel is a guard at the gates of Paradise. In Ku, we find both scenarios: King Arthur's porter, who won't allow Kulhwch inside, and a friendly shepherd outside Olwen's gates. Both are related to the hero: Arthur is an uncle, and the shepherd's wife is sister to Kulhwch's mother. In Hj, no resistance to entry is offered. However, the hero must perform a series of quests, in order to satisfy the maiden's father. Thus also, in Ku, the hero must perform similar tasks. Here we are also told that Olwen's father will die, as soon as she marries. In S, it is implied that Svejdal will become king of the land, as soon as he marries the maiden.

In F, we learn that Svipdag has travelled "wet ways" and "cold ways", "driven by winds". He also names himself Wind-Cold. If, indeed, he has crossed the northern span of Bifrost from the Underworld, through the wet, cold, and windy sky, all the way up to Asgard, these references become clear. In Ku, King Arthur tells the porter, who has refused to admit the hero, that such a great man should not be left outside in the wind and the rain.

In my commentaries I have shown that Fjolsvith's two wolves are literally identical to Odin's, and figuratively to the two wolves that chase the Sun and the Moon. One sleeps by Day, the other by Night. They are opposites complementing one another, and perhaps represented in Ku by the two hounds which run in front of the hero, alternating between left and right. In Ku, we also find the shepherd attended by a great mastiff. In S, the wolves have been transformed into a Lion and a Polar Bear. The juxtaposition of the Fiery Lion and the Icy Bear are parallel to the opposites of Sun/Moon, Day/Night. In E and Ko, the animal guardians at the top of the celestial bridge become a Dragon, who awaits the hero at the far end of a bridge which must be crossed.

In F, the impregnable wall is glowing, enveloped with "wavering-flames". In S, it is made of iron. In other sources we find a multi-colored wall studded with gems (e.g. Ko).

In F, Svipdag sees a golden mansion within the walls of Asgard. Hj knows a mansion made of red gold; Ko golden towers. In S, the maiden's house is near a green grove, beneath a tree with golden leaves.

In S, the gate in the wall is also golden; it is made of white whalebones and steel, and its locks open for Svejdal. In F, the gate fetters anyone who tries to enter uninvited, but opens wide as soon as Svipdag reveals himself.

In F, Svipdag sees a great tree, named Mimameidur, inside the walls. This should be compared to D, where a huge tree forms a canopy of branches above Paradise. In S, a tree with golden leaves is also present. When Svejdal enters the gate, the tree's boughs bend to him, while the animal guardians lie peacefully at his feet.

The tree's fruit, apart from F, are only mentioned in D, where the tree's branches are heavy with fruit. In my commentaries I have suggested that the "apples" of the tree are intimately connected with Freyja and her maidens, and their functions of childbirth and the healing of feminine maladies. Ku offers a mysterious, but intriguing parallel here: When Kulhwch is refused entrance by King Arthur's porter, he utters a threat: "I will shout three times at this gate, and my shouts will be deadly. All the women in the palace that are pregnant shall lose their offspring; and those who are not pregnant, shall be afflicted with an illness, so that they will never bear children."

The cock Vidofnir is unique to F. A cock, whose crow can frighten lions, is mentioned in Ko. In D, the tree is inhabited by a multitude of birds.

The wonderful castle of the Asmegir, described in F (see commentaries to stanzas 33 and 34) is identical to the house, where Hjalmther spends a whole winter in Hj (after being locked inside), the tower of E guarded by a gate-keeper of Paradise, and the mysterious castle of Ko. In D, Duggal is also accompanied by a guardian angel, who allows him to enter the realm of Paradise.

The sources' descriptions of the blessed regions of the Underworld are remarkably similar. In E, the two companions "saw before them a great plain lit up by the sun and covered with flowers. There flowed rivers of honey, the air was still, but just above the ground were felt breezes that conveyed the fragrance of the flowers. It is never dark in this country, and objects cast no shadow." In D, "they saw a great plain, grown with beautiful flowers. They saw flocks of souls, and great happiness. There was no night, because the sun shone eternally. They saw the well of living water; whoever drinks thereof shall live forever, and never thirst."

As early as 1835, Jacob Grimm equated Menglad with Freyja, the Goddess of Love, who wears the mystical Brisingamen necklace. In K, Olwen too wears a magnificent necklace, and her description does justice to Freyja: "She was dressed in a flame-coloured cloak, wearing a necklace of red gold, studded with marvellous gems. Her hair was yellow, her skin whiter than the ocean's foam, her hands and fingers more beautiful than the anemone. Her gaze was brighter than that of the hawk and the falcon, and her bosom was whiter than the swan's breast, her cheeks redder than the reddest rose. All who saw her were filled with love. White four-leaf clovers sprang forth wherever she stepped." The description of Hervor in Hj is similar: "Her beauty astounded them. Her hair was like gold, and her face was white as snow, her skin as bright as the lily, her eyes the color of carbuncle, her cheeks red as roses."

In F, Menglad-Freyja sits on a mount, surrounded by nine maidens. No other source offer a direct parallel except D, which mentions the mansion of the holy virgin, surrounded by the nine orders of angels. Hi speaks of Ingigerd and her maidens, who have all been turned into birds by sorcery.

According to S, the maiden is in a near-death state. She is in a coma, lying upon a bier. In O, she is apathetic and indifferent, never raising her eyes from the ground. In F, she simply waits (crying red golden tears, according to Snorri), and when Svipdag arrives, she greets him with a kiss. The death-like sleep of the maiden in S has survived in fairy tales. In the tale of Snow White, the STEPMOTHER gives the maiden a poisoned APPLE, which induces a deadly sleep. A kiss from the prince breaks the spell. In the tale of SLEEPING BEAUTY (German Dornröschen, Icel. Þyrnirós "thorn rose"), the maiden pricks her finger on a spindle, or is stung by a norn. She falls asleep inside a magical palace, until the prince awakens her with a kiss. This suggests that the Svejdal ballad is closer to being a folk-tale than the other sources, and is probably the youngest of them all, even though it has preserved authentic remnants of the original myth.

Only F suggests that Svipdag is RETURNING to his wife, and that they are being reunited. I believe this is an original aspect of the underlying myth. Most of the later parallels depict the hero falling in love with a maiden he has never seen. I see this as a later stage of the tale, after it became mixed up with other fairy-tale motifs related to the evil stepmother, and the youngest son. Rydberg argued that evidence of the lovers' first encounter is preserved in O.

The original myth, upon which all the above sources are based, is best expressed in the Svipdagsmál. This is the oldest source, and therefore the most reliable one. Unfortunately it contains gaps, but these can be tentatively filled in by comparing it with later, derivative sources. Fortunately Svipdagsmál is a rich source of evidence regarding the world-picture of the Old Norse imagination, and can therefore be compared with various other Eddaic sources. In my commentaries, I have tried to investigate and explain these parallels. 

Svipdagsmál (2001)
(click on verse numbers for commentaries)
Svipdag and Menglad
by John Bauer (1907)
Colorized by Guddipoland
[Index to Svipdagsmál