A summary of what the Norse and Anglo-Saxon texts tell us about this rune


Mannaz is the rune of people, more precisely the one of humanity.

In contrast to racism, humanity embraces anyone who communicates with other humans and takes pleasure in it. No one is excluded from the status of being human but some can exclude themselves from humanity when they choose to scorn others. To some extent, Mannaz declares that the true Untermensch (the ‘under-humans’) are those who believe to be Übermensch (‘over-humans’). It is important to notice that my translation leads to thinking that the idiots, whom the Saying of Hár often makes fun of, are not at all excluded from humanity. It is arrogance which excludes, not intellectual deficit. Those who want to use the rune Mannaz should think it over, using it without deep humility might well be self-cursing.


In opposition to the rune Wunjo which represents the sensual pleasures, possibly taken at the expense of others, mutual pleasure experienced under the sign of Mannaz is the pleasure of communicating and sharing, regardless of whether or not their relation is based on carnal love. The student of Shiatsu is consistently urged to give the patient a form of ‘universal love’, well symbolized by Mannaz: instead of feeling tarnished by disease, the patient should feel appreciated for being human, accepted as a full member of humanity.

As opposed to our modern beliefs, death does not immediately exclude us from humanity: We still need to honor the promises made and the pledges sworn during our life. This appears absurd in view of our concept of time, divisible in separate chunks. This is not absurd at all in view of the teachings of the rune Naudiz, which teaches us that what we call ‘future’ is completely included in what we call ‘past’. Humans are responsible for their future, and death adds nothing to this fact. In modern terms, everyone must anticipate what may eventually happen, including one’s death, and never betray those to whom oath has been lent.

All versions of the Nordic myths concur with the idea that the Ćsir Gods brought humans their own destiny, force, breath, senses and color of life. Only the rune poems and the Völuspá, however, suggest a different version from the traditional statement that humans were created from trees found on a beach. The Völuspá specifies that Dwarfs worked human bodies out of soil. I would not insist so much on this detail if it had not led me to understand the Norse rune poem as a description of our destiny. We are all created out of soil but not at all returned to earth at death; at death, we will not turn over to the ground, as is so strongly stated by the Christians, since the deserving ones are carried in Ódhinn’s “hawk’s broad claws” towards Freyja’s or Ódhinn’s halls. This rune poem tells us that Mannaz is the rune showing the way towards deserving such an honor.




Cognates:          English, man and human; German, der Mensch (the human being), der Mann (the man), and Old Norse (ON) mađr. Note that, while describing this rune, I will always use ‘man/woman’ to speak of a human of the male/female sex.


The ON name of this rune is especially interesting. Mađr is a masculine noun meaning ‘human being’ or even ‘the folk’. It can be used to speak of a woman as in composed words such as kvennmađr, and it needs a qualifier to speak of a male such as in karlmađr. Its older form is mannr, the nominative form of which has been changed over time into mađr because ‘nnr’ was pronounced as ‘đr’. Its declension forms, as accusative mann, or genitive manns etc. keep the ‘nn’. When speaking of Wunjo and Ihwaz, we already met the word man. This neuter noun would have been at first used to speak of a war prisoner sold as a slave. Its meaning passed then to ‘slave woman’, then ‘serving maid’ and even ‘mistress’. It can even mean ‘love’ as it happens with the love-runes, manrúnar. All this underlines that rune Mannaz is not linked to man, as Wunjo is, but to mannr or mađr, the human being.


This rune kept the form madr in all the versions of the ancient Futhark we are studying here and the English Futhark. In the 16 runes Norse Futhark, its shape changes completely and becomes the same as ancient Futhark's Algiz:mannazVik.


Norse rune poem:


madrNorv er moldar auki

mikil er grćip á hauki.

madrNorv is still more earths [clays or molds].

The hawk grasps much [w. for w.: ‘much it grasps in hawk’].


Wimmer gives to this rune the name madhr (mađr, human) and translates moldar by ‘dust’, followed by most scholars. It is true that Old English molde means ‘sand, dust, mold, earth’, from which come the various meanings of English mold or mould. This certainly influenced the translations and dictionaries which refer to the English meanings. This poem is obviously not written in Old English but in Old Norse and, in this language, it means ‘earth’ [Note 1], with both the meaning of the planet Earth and that of earth as in clay, humus. The word used in the poem, moldar, is a plural and I therefore translate what the skald said, that is ‘soils’.


Analysis of the first line


Many lines associated with Mannaz are very difficult to interpret. In the present case, Wimmer and scholars who have followed him, obviously influenced by their own culture and also perhaps by Ţrideilur Rúna, have translated moldar by dust, alluding to destiny as “dust, will go back to dust,” as Christians state. In order to put this verse back into its Heathen context, let us recall at first the prevailing Nordic myth relative to humanity’s origin. Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning states that “Bor’s sons who were wandering on the seashore fundu ţeir tré tvau ok tóku upp trén ok sköpuđu af menn (found two trees, and clutched their wood and fashioned humans out of it).”

I am convinced that this myth has become the official version at Snorri’s time. It follows the claim that this human couple’s name concurs with this origin: the man is called Ask and the woman Embla. It is true that the word askr means ‘ash-tree’ but, in spite of extensive academic efforts to associate embla to a tree name, the meaning of this word is still mysterious. It is also odd that the poem Völuspá did not at all allude to such an origin. It even seems to provide a different version, the one of bodies molded out of soil. The second half of verse 10 of this poem of primary importance says: ţeir mannlícon / mörg um gorđo, / ór iörđo, / sem Durinn sagđi. (‘they human-bodies / many made / the dwarves, out of earth, / as Durinn has said’ = the dwarves made many human bodies with soil, as prescribed by Durinn).

A large part of the misunderstanding of this verse comes from the way mannlícon is translated (I reject the grammatical and bibliographic details in [Note 2]). For instance, Ursula Dronke translates it by “figurines” hiding the human shape of these figurines; in French, Boyer translates by “beings in human shape”; in German, Genzmer, by “vaguely human shapes”; in English, Hollander, chooses to look at these verses as independent from the rest of the poem, then called Dvergatal, an editorial invention. He translates by “molded many         manlike bodies / the dwarfs under the earth,          as Durinn bade them.” It follows that the bodies are made under the earth rather than made out of earth.

All this illustrates the contradiction with Snorri’s version, a fact seemingly hard to acknowledge. We must know that the word lícon (or líkon or líkun depending on the editor) can find its root in the word lík meaning a living body or a corpse, or in the word líki meaning a body or a shape. The meaning primarily hinted at is the one of ‘body’ and of ‘human body’ for mannlícon, as I translated it. As I did for the ON word mold, I suspect English speakers have let the meaning of ‘like’ to take the better on ON lík and thus translated mannlícon by ‘manlike’.

Please do not conclude from this reasoning that Snorri’s myth, the creation of humans out of trees could be a fake. It seems obvious that the two concurrent myths exist. The other one is older but is only hinted at by the völva who describes the creation, and then the destruction of our world, in the Völuspá. She says in verse 10 that these mannlíkon have been fashioned by Dwarves and the next six verses provide a long list of Dwarves’ names. In other words, we can say that verse 17 almost immediately follows verse 10. In verse 17, the völva says: “Unz ţrír kvámu / ór ţví liđi / … ćsir … / fundo á landi / … / Asc oc Emblo …” (Until three came / out of this group / Ćsir …/ they found on the land / Ask and Embla …). These few words are worthy of a detailed discussion which will support my hypothesis that the völva states that Ask and Embla, two mannlíkon shaped out of soil by the Dwarves, have been given life by the Ćsir.

Firstly, the word land means ‘country, land’ as opposed to the sea. The word used by Snorri, sćvarströnd (sćvar-strönd), clearly points to the seaside, the beach, not the land. Thus, the poem underlines that three Ćsir, coming from a group of Dwarves, have been involved. They found Ask and Embla on the land rather than the seaside. Note that Snorri’s trees could have also been found on the land that did not lack trees in this time. Since Snorri spoke of seaside, the myth has changed over time: the völva and Snorri, obviously, refer to different versions of the same myth.

Secondly, the word liđi (dative neutral of ‘group, troop, people’) is used in accordance with the pronoun ţví (‘from it’ or ‘from this one’). Thus, ţví liđi clearly means ‘this very group’, but which group is spoken of? The answer is given by verse 14, describing the Dwarves as belonging to Dvalinn’s group (í Dvalins liđi). The skald speaks of the group of Dvalinn in verse 14, pervade verses 14-16 with Dwarves’ names, and then says in verse 17 that three Ćsir come from ‘this’ group. It is then obvious that he speaks of the same group. What is a bit mysterious is what could be doing these Ćsir within a group of Dwarves? The völva provides no hint to the answer of this question [Note 3] but this is no reason to refuse to read what is unambiguously written in the poem.


Analysis of the second line


With the classical neo-christian understanding of the first line, the second line seems to be artificially added here. In contrast, my interpretation of the first line describing the beginning of life instead of its end, will show how much these two lines harmoniously act jointly to make up the whole of a Heathen life and death. The classical interpretation sees the first line as “humans are dust (and thus will go back to dust).” One might believe that I give a parallel understanding such as “humans are clay (and thus will go back to clay).” These lines indeed describe the harsh destiny of humans, but the skald claims none of these two meanings. In order to understand the skald, let us first recall that a classical kenning for Ódhinn’s two ravens is “Ódhinn’s hawks.” Thus, the hawk the second line mentions may be any of the vultures – raven or eagle – that feed off the battlefield, grasping pieces of the corpses in their large claws. In our modern imagination, it would be a disgrace to leave a corpse for the vulture. In the ancient Northern thinking, however, these birds carry the ‘soul’ of the dead warriors to the places reserved for these who died while fighting.

To summarize, the Norse poem tells us: “Human, you were made out of soil (clay molded by Dwarves and, as said by the völva, three Ćsir gave you life [Note 3]); you will then die on the battlefield, and be shred to bits by vultures (meaning: thus earning a welcome in Freyja’s or Ódhinn’s dwellings).” This Northern view of human fate obviously comprises life and death. The description given here alludes to a dwarf and an Ćsir based creation, followed by a bold life, ending in a glorious death.

The second line of the Icelandic rune poem gives the same kind of image, and the other lines provide two images that are more positive.


Icelandic rune poem:

madrNorv er manns gaman

ok moldar auki

ok skipa skreytir.

madrNorv is human’s pleasure,

and even more soils [or clay, plural]

and who decorates the ships.

homo (human)       mildingr (generous man )


Commentaries on my translation of the Icelandic rune poem


I said earlier that moldar is the plural of ‘earth, clay, compost’.

The word gaman, most often translated by ‘joy’, holds less mystical meaning. For instance, the locution gamanvísa is a comical vísa (a poem). Gaman is in fact ‘pleasure, enjoyment’ together with their unavoidable enlargement in the direction of sexual pleasure.

Wimmer’s translation (as well as mine) can mean that human workers manufacture the decoration of the ships or, as well, that the mere human presence adorns the ships. The word skreytir comes from the verb skreyta meaning ‘to dress fine, to decorate’ and may be the adornments themselves or who creates the adornments. The text is ambiguous here.


Analysis of the first line of the Icelandic rune poem:


This first line cannot be better explained than by the famous verse 47 of Hár Sayings:

Ungr var ek forđum,

fór ek einn saman:

ţá varđ ek villr vega;

Young I have been,

I would walk alone my own way,

And this made a wilder of me.

[the verb vega evokes the use of a lever: a possible approximate translation could be: “from this I used a lever in order to raise my wilderness.”]

auđigr ţóttumk,

er ek annan fann;

Mađr er manns gaman.

Wealthy we felt to be,

When I met another one;

The human is the pleasure of the human.

Official translations give “I felt myself” for ţóttumk , that is a singular reflexive form, because a plural would seem nonsensical to the scholars. The ending ‘-umk’ clearly points to a plural, and I strongly feel that the singular is real nonsense! Why the skald would claim that he alone felt wealthy, when it is obvious that two people are needed to start sharing? It does not preclude the skald from being the active person who finds another human being, however they need to be two of them in order to share. This small error in translation is a striking image of the individualistic prejudices of our modern civilization: the others are here to be taken pleasure from, not to share pleasure with.

The last line of verse 47 is the same as the first one of the Icelandic rune poem. We can understand that the first three lines of verse 47 put into context the terse form of the Icelandic poem. In this context, pleasure connotes friendly exchanges among humans, as a means to fight loneliness rather than experiencing mystical or sensual pleasures.



Analysis of the third line of the Icelandic rune poem 


The double meaning of “humans decorate ships” is not clear to us because we are used to looking at a ship as an object. In a nautical civilization, this is not so true. It is not strange that a mariner could look at himself as being an object serving a ship that behaves so much like a being endowed with an independent will. This attitude so full of humility recalls how respectful of the horse are the myths associated to rune Ehwaz: humans are not as important as they would like to be. This double meaning is underlined by the late interpretation of the third line in the Ţrideilur Rúna. In Old Norse, this version is: “Mađúr (est) skipa skreitir (read skreytir or skrautir)”(the human being (is) decoration to the ships ). Its Latin interpretation is:Mađúr (est) púppiúm pigmentariús” (the human being is relative to the color of the sterns) that is: the human being gives its color to the ships’ sterns. In these late interpretations, the human is the object, and the ship the living being. I suggest understanding both meanings: “humans produce the ships’ decoration and they themselves serve as decoration.”


Ţrideilur Rúna


The Latin version is as follows:

Mađúr. homo hominem oblectat (the human being takes pleasure in company the human being) púlveris additamentúm (addition of dust), púppiúm pigmentariús (relative to the color of the sterns).


The first and third statements have already been commented. The second one opposes clearly my choice of translating moldar by ‘soils’ or ‘muds’. Obviously, I never claimed that the translation by ‘dust’ was absurd: I only state that it is an unusual denotation of the word moldar and that this denotation hints at a Christian influence, as would be expected for a text that has already translated ‘Tyr’ by ‘daemon’.


OERP (rune man):


madr man (human) is pleasure for is beloved relatives;

he will however have to betray each of them,

when the Lord will judge to hand the miserable flesh over the earth.


The first line, speaking of the pleasure to entertain one’s family, speaks again of the ‘pleasure in friendly relationships’ hinted at by verse 47 of Hár Sayings.


The second line contains once more a Christian version of the brittleness of human life, while I try to give a Heathen version. This version introduces also a new concept underlining the fact that death is a kind of treason, in the sense that all oaths brutally become empty at this time. This poem, by insisting upon this idea, recalls that the dead one was once a member of humankind and that a bond is cut by this departure, which is felt as treason by those who remain. We live now in a world where the word given, the oath to behave according to a contract, has to be enforced by law because they have become much less important than personal considerations of suitability. Conversely, the old Germanic world so dearly carries the concept of respect the given word that the expression ‘word given’ is as significant as ‘noble born’, and that it should even be honored beyond death. In this spirit, we find an interesting example of the failure to keep an oath in the first part of the saga of the People of Varfadardal (Svardćla saga). In this particular case, the hero, Thorolf, although very wise and careful, loves his young brother Thorstein so much, that he utters oaths that, in the future, will reveal themselves to be contradictory. Thorstein guesses his brother will be forced to break his word in some way and he will die for it. Thorstein duly warns his brother that his destiny will now be driven by these contradictory vows. Thus, rather achieving his destiny without being informed (as in the case of Oedipus, for example), the hero freely chooses his fate; he knows that failure to keep his word will lead to his death; he thus utters his vows with a full knowledge of the dramatic consequences. Insofar as Thorstein and Thorolf had analyzed the situation, and accepted the consequences, Thorolf then does not feel betrayed by the death of his brother and he buries him with the greatest of honors.

The moral values underlying this story and suggested by the OERP are becoming more and more obsolete in our civilization. The problem of keeping, or not, our word, of accepting, or not, the consequences of our decisions is not considered as essential in todays’ way of life. Instead of feeling responsible for our destiny, we always rely more on various social mechanisms to keep the many small and large contracts in place that our human relationships are based on. When people betray their word, it undoubtedly comes from a feeling that they can no longer carry on with a contradiction they are no longer able tolerate. They feel betrayed by fate and they try to put the responsibility of their distress on others rather than taking upon themselves the causes and the consequences of that contradiction. This saga and the OERP advocate for the opposite kind of behavior based on three points. First is that betraying your word is always a shame for which you should feel responsible and should never forget. Second is that when you are truly facing something impossible to hold, for example when two vows turn out to be contradictory, then you must analyze the causes of your betrayal and accept the full consequences of this betrayal. The third and most unusual point is that you are a traitor unless you can respect your vows whuic go beyond your death. This means that when making a promise, you have to think of its consequences to come after your death. In other words, survival is not a goal in itself. Your survival must be motivated by the effort, until death, to make sure that your commitments will hold after your death. You may think it is an impossible goal. Without going into a long digression on old people’s obsessions, what do you believe the elderly we call ‘crazy’, and who are actually disoriented, are carrying out? Psychologists call this behavior “trying to reconcile with one’s past” but this necessary work should not lead to insanity. They seem crazy because they realize that some of their past decisions are now beyond repair, that it is now too late to change their past betrayals and the promises given will forever stay unfulfilled after their death.

All this leads me to consider that the twenty-ninth last rune described in the OERP, the rune of the earth viewed as ground, is an extension of Mannaz. This, obviously, coincides with the assumption that humankind was created out of the ground in this mythology.


OERP (rune ear):

ear: (Earth) [or corn ear, or ocean, the meaning ‘earth, soil’ seems to be the most probable] is loathsome to each nobleman,

when flesh firmly tries to choose the ground,

fallen fruits as bedmates, joy vanishes,

man turns traitor.


These lines are somewhat difficult to understand because of their peculiar wording. The sentence, “fallen fruits as bedmates,” visibly insist on the fact that rotten flesh becomes your bedmate.

The meaning of this poem becomes clear, if we understand that when “the flesh firmly tries to choose the ground,” then “man turns traitor” carries a meaning similar to the one we just commented with the rune man, the remaining survivors’ feeling of being betrayed. The importance of the respect of the sworn word, even beyond death, is still stressed.

The general direction of these lines is clear: Earth, which could have been considered as a provider of riches, is seen as shroud, without the happiness factors found in Madhr and Man.


Fourteenth verse of Ljóđatal:


The Old Nose original reads as:

Ţat kann ek it fjögurtánda,

ef ek skal fyrđa liđi

telja tíva fyrir:

ása ok alfa

ek kann allra skil;

fár kann ósnotr svá.


Its usual translation, for instance (English) Hollander’s, (German) Genzmer’s or (French) Boyer’s is as follows:

I know a fourteenth

If I go towards (or I come from) the warriors’ crowd

Tell in front of [or convince] the Gods,

Of the Ćsir and the Elves

I am able to analyze [or to understand, or to part] them all;

Very little knows the silly one.


This translation is indeed a correct one. The second and third lines are even so well known that Cleasby-Vigfusson quotes them in the infinitive and translates “to tell stories of gods in front of the men.”

I will however propose four different translations of these two lines. The grammatical arguments that I use are a little complicated and I have pushed them back to [Note 5].

Hereby my personal translation:

I know a fourteenth,

If I stand [implying: motionless] in front of the warriors’ crowd

Giving an analysis of the deities:


If I go to meet the deities

(and) I speak of the warriors’ crowd:


If I steer a course [= I easily move] carried forward by the warriors’ crowd (toward) the deity:


If I steer a course [= I easily move] carried forward by the deity (toward) the warriors’ crowd:]

Of the Ćsir and the Elves

I am able to analyze them all;

Very little knows the silly one.


I claim again that several meanings are coexisting, and were all understood by the reader of that time when these poems had been created. If Ódhinn speaks to the warriors, he then belongs to humanity. If he speaks to the Gods, he is a deity. The ambiguous complex form used by the skald enables us to understand that Ódhinn claims he is a link between humankind and the Gods, that he is able to speak to both. The two interpretations in which he moves towards the humans/Gods under the push of the Gods/humans expresses and ‘proves’ this role of messenger. For a better understanding of the bond between speech and the membership of a clan, I will now use stanza 57 of Hár Sayings, which clearly describes this concept.

Hár Sayings


Verse 57


Brandr af brandi

brenn, unz brunninn er,

funi kveikisk af funa;

mađr af manni

verđr at máli kuđr

en til dćlskr af dul.




Word for word:


Brand by brand

burns, until exhaustion,

flame fuels itself with flame ;

human to human

becomes known by speech

however, the envious [or grumpy] by self-conceit.

[ON dul means either concealment or arrogance, not ‘idiocy’]


In other words:


A brand catches fire from another brand

Before exhausting itself;

Flame fuels another flame;

A human being acknowledges another human being

by their speech,

We recognize the envious

by their arrogant words.


Speech goes from one human being to another and this creates humanity (people) as the flame goes from one tree to another, creating a forest fire.

The babies’ first screams quiet down when they hear their parents speak because they are thus accepted as members of humanity – as long as the parents also belong to it.



At first, I wish to explain why I do not translate the last word of this stanza, dul, by ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ or ‘dull’ like the other translators. Hár Saying (Hávamál) is a long poem often describing the difference between imbecile and intelligent attitudes. This is testified by a repeatedly used word expressing knowledge and intelligence: snotr. This word is used 12 times to indicate sharp intelligence (snotr), 3 times to speak of an average intelligence (in međal-snotr) and 7 times to indicate idiocy (in ó-snotr). I insist on this in order to underline the fact that a 23rd use would not be surprising and that in the last one line, en til dćlskr af dul, the skald did not use the words dćlskr and dul without reason. The word dćlskr evokes dissimulation, lack of sincerity, unpleasant behavior. The word dul evokes also dissimulation but with the connotations of envy and arrogance. These words obviously are not directly related to lack of intelligence but flaws in personality. This choice stresses the importance of actions in the Scandinavian civilization where actions rather than words reveal personality. This beautiful and celebrated stanza describes speech as the media by which humankind moves from human to human, creating humankind as fire propagating from tree to tree, creates a forest fire. Note at first that it does not define a kind of Untermensch (sub-human), as the Nazis did, but it acknowledges that some individuals are not able to join the great fraternity of humankind. Note also that being excluded from humankind is not based on racial criteria but on cultural relational ones, by the rejected one’s vanity and arrogance. The skald could not foresee the idiotic definitions of the future but the God Ódhinn expresses Himself in these verses and He timelessly defines what He calls a member of humankind.

We still need to understand why it is important to stress that the brand is completely burned, as is stated by the second line. To this end, let us first note that Hár Saying alludes twice to the fact that the dead ones have to be burned:


 Hár Saying, s. 71


blindr er betri

en brenndr séi

… blind is better

than being burned …

                                   [that is:            Better being blind than being burned (dead) …]


Hár Saying, s. 81


At kveldi skal dag leyfa,

konu, er brennd er,

… When it tends, will the day be praised,

the woman, when she is burned, …

                          [that is:            Praise a day after it is ended,

Praise a woman after she is burned (dead) …]

The poem announces therefore the ‘complete death’ of the firebrand when it is consumed in order to recall that, in a similar way, humans leave humankind by being burned. This points out one of the constant concerns of primitive civilizations, specifically that the dead ones have to definitively leave the clan, that their soul must not remain to prowl the living’s dwelling. As you know, one of the major roles of the shamans is to drive the souls of the dead to their own dwelling. What seems obvious to us nowadays, as asserted by rationalism and dominant religions, is the fact that the deceased leave humankind, what was not obvious in the ancient society. Hár Saying subtly points out this fact. It says that, in the old Scandinavian civilization, fire is the way by which the dead leave the place they once had within humankind. It is well known that this belief had already disappeared in ancient Iceland when this poem was written, but this shows us that Hár Saying refers to ancient customs habits, anyhow existing before the 9th century.


This means that Mannaz is the rune of humankind as a whole, more than the one of each individual human. As I already said, the Old Norse names of Mannaz, mađr, means also ‘the folk’: the whole set of texts relative to mađr is relative to this meaning as well. Speech signifies more than just a communication media among humans; it creates humanity, as a forest fire is more than just a burning tree.






[Note 1] I suspect that modern Icelandic tongue received a strong influence from the English language. For instance, the very British Cleasby-Vigfusson’s Icelandic-English dictionary proposes the two meanings ‘mould, earth’. In contrast, the German language speaks of dust with the word Staub that can hardly be influenced by English ‘mold’. Therefore, de Vries’s altnordisches Wörterbuch or Kock und Meissner’s Skaldisches Lesebuch give to mold only one meaning: Erde (earth). Hugo Gering’s Glossar zu den Liedern der Edda provides an exhaustive list of the words used in the Eddic poems and he also gives the meaning Erde for mold, including composed words such as moldvegr and moldţinur. This last word is translated by ‘the belt of the Earth’ which is a kenning found in verse 60 of Völuspá to designate Jörmungandr, the huge snake that encircles our Midhgardhr.


[Note 2] The misunderstandings relative to this verse must date back to the scribes themselves. The versions differ from each other and are be hard to decipher. Of some ten various editions I own, from Rask’s (1818) to Dronke’s (1997), all of them give slightly different versions. Aside from the details which I will skip here, the problem is to obtain a ‘correct’ translation of ţeir mannlícon … gorđo dvergar ór iörđo. It is found in two excellent original versions of the Völuspá; I followed here Codex Regius that gives dvergar, a nominative plural; another version found in the Hauksbók gives dverga, an accusative plural.

If you choose to follow the Hauksbók, then the correct translation is “they built dwarves made of soil, mannlícon …” This implies that dwarves made of soil have existed, and this describes a perfectly imaginable dwarf’s asexual reproduction. Moreover these ‘soil-made dwarves’ could well have had a “vaguely human shape” as said by Genzmer. This creation, however, seems to be of no further consequence. This is why, in the text, I analyze in detail what follows this verse, and it shows a greater coherence with the other hypothesis, the one found in the Codex Regius. Choosing Hauksbók’s version gave rise to a more or less ‘well-known’ legend of these ‘earth-made dwarves’. I find it obvious that at Snorri’s time, the official version was the one in the Hauksbók. This would explain that he did not feel any contradiction between the Völuspá and his version of Ask and Embla’s creation. A small detail, however, shows that he gives his own version of the original myth. He calls the man Askr, a nominative meaning ‘ash-tree’ while the Völuspá calls him Ask, which can be an accusative of askr, but cannot be a nominative. As proof that the skald could not make this confusion, we find the two forms in the Völuspá: nominative askr and accusative ask.

If you choose to follow the Codex Regius, as I did, then the correct translation is “they, the dwarves, built some mannlícon out of soil …”

Scholars have refused to follow a slightly unclear Völuspá’s text that would oppose Snorri’s very neat statement. The goal of all the explanations I have now provided is to underline why I strongly oppose the generally accepted scholarly version, and why I, nevertheless, do not need to declare a mistake in translation was made.


[Note 3] I presume that the scholars failed not understand what the Ćsir could be doing within a group of dwarves and they therefore concluded that the poem was unintelligible on this point. They thus have chosen to omit the apparently obscure link between Ask and Embla and the Dwarves’ mannlíkon. Inversely, my interpretation suggests that the Ćsir, knowing that the Dwarves were about to fashion human bodies, joined the Dwarves at this time to see how the job was being carried out. This being both obvious and quite mundane, the völva did not need to speak of it.

I apologize for the following introspective sequence: I have spent 45 years of my life as an academic researcher and I can say that the academics’ thinking in this circumstance resembles what I call ‘academic idiocy’ –I unfortunately often practice it myself. Viz., we are so much on the intellectual side that we tend to refuse to see simple things that oppose our theory of life. It took me a lot of effort to accept what the völva was obviously stating.


[Note 4] Remember that I described this myth in chapter 2. Völuspá and Gylfaginning agree to state that the Ćsir gave humans their vitality. These texts give the names of the Gods who provided breath, senses, and life hue, but they do not give explicit names as to who provided strength and fate.



[Note 5] Here is the basic grammatical information necessary to understand the various meanings which I propose for these two lines: ef ek skal fyrđa liđi / telja tíva to fyrir.

 fyrir is a preposition that means ‘in front of’. It is followed by a dative when it expresses a static position (‘in front and motionless’), it is followed by the accusative when it expresses a movement (‘to go in front of’). Cleasby-Vigfusson presents 100 composed words containing it, which shows that fyrir takes about all the possible meanings of ‘in front of’, such as fyrirbending, a forecast, a vision, fyrirkona, a woman of distinction, fyrirvari, a precaution. This is why I can propose an alternate translation to fyrir tíva by ‘to go in front of the Gods’ to clarify the move included in fyrir + accusative.

telja means ‘to tell, count, number’. In modern words, this corresponds to what we call an ‘analysis’, that is, a reasoning which breaks up into parts the studied topic, as opposed to synthesis which shows the bonds between the parts of the studied topic. This is why I translate it by ‘to analyze’, ‘I give an analysis’.

skilja has a very close meaning except that it does not include the use of speech, it means ‘to count, number, understand’. One could also translate it by ‘to analyze’ without communicating the result of this analysis, this is why I translate it by ‘to be able to analyze’.

líđi can mean two very different things. If it stems from the neutral word líđ meaning ` ‘the folk, the crowd’ then líđi is the singular dative of this word. If it results from the verb líđa, to slip (like a ship on water), it is a subjunctive, ‘that he may slip’. As the experts, I will consider only the case where líđi results from líđ.

fyrđa: comes from a masculine word found only as a plural, fyrđar, meaning ‘the warriors’. Therefore, the form fyrđa can only be a genitive or an accusative plural. In the following, I will make the assumption, like the experts, that it is a genitive plural (I will not explore the assumption of the accusative).

tíva: results from the word tívi (the deity) which is a ‘weak’ masculine form. It can do, its genitive and accusative plurals in tíva, as do the ‘strong’ masculine forms of the first declension. However, it makes also its genitive, dative, accusative singular in tíva. Considering the traditional translation of these two lines, the experts are obviously satisfied to make the assumption of the accusative plural. I will also make the assumption of a singular dative (of which Cleasby-Vigfusson reports an instance known in poetry). This assumption is not at all eccentric owing to the fact that there is a fixed way of saying in nautical vocabulary: telja fyrir vindi: w. for w., ‘to tell in front of the wind’ (vindi is the singular dative of vindr, the wind) that means to sail before the wind. This expression is actually met only in the past tense, tölđu fyrir vindi (‘they sailed before the wind’) but it seems reasonable to me to assume that all Scandinavians, a people of sailors, knew it, and often used this expression so that, even in the present tense, a pun is obvious, that is: telja to fyrir + a word-in-dative-singular-form was to mean ‘to sail before a word-with-dative-singular-form. Thus, telja fyrir líđi can mean to move easily while being pushed by crowd, and (if is a singular dative form) telja fyrir tíva can mean to move easily while being pushed by the deity.


To conclude, here are the four translations that I propose. To each of them I associate the Old Norse words in the same order as in the English translation.


Traditional translation:

ef ek skal to fyrir líđi (dative singular) fyrđa (genitive plural) telja tíva (plural accusative):

If I stand [implying: motionless] in front of the warriors’ crowd, giving an analysis of the deities:


Alternative form where to fyrir a movement indicates

ef ek skal to fyrir telja tíva (accusative plural) líđi fyrđa:

If I go to meet the deities (and) I speak of the warriors’ crowd:


Alternative forms where tíva is a dative singular:

ef ek skal telja to fyrir líđi fyrđa tíva (singular dative):

If I steer a course [= I easily move] carried forward by the warriors’ crowd (toward) the deity:


ef ek skal telja to fyrir tíva (singular dative) líđi (singular dative) fyrđa:

If I steer a course [= I easily move] carried forward by the deity (toward) the warriors’ crowd: