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Gunnell, Terry and Annette Lassen, eds, The Nordic Apocalypse: Approaches to 'Voluspa' and Nordic Days of Judgement.

Gunnell, Terry and Annette Lassen, eds, The Nordic Apocalypse: Approaches to 'Voluspa and Nordic Days of Judgement (Acta Scandinavica, 2), Turnhout, Brepols, 2013; hardback; pp. xvii, 238; 6 color, 3 b/w illustrations, 2 b/w tables; R.R.P. [euro]75.00; ISBN 9782503541822.

This collection of essays is the result of a conference, held in Reykjavik in May 2008, that took a multi-disciplinary approach to Voluspa, arguably the most famous medieval poem from Iceland, situating it in the context of material culture. The two most significant material items were a twelfth-century wooden image of the Last Judgement from Holar Cathedral, the fragmentary remains of which had recently been the subject of an exhibition at the National Museum, and the 'huge stained-glass windows' that the artist Leifur Breiofjoro had created for 'the new reception area of Grand Hotel Reykjavik in 2007' (p. xv). The volume has eleven illustrations, including color images of the windows, and reconstructed drawings of the situation of the Holar image, which, it is argued, has Byzantine antecedents.

After the brief 'Introduction' by Petur Petursson, Annette Lassen's opening chapter sketches the reception history of Voluspa from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century. She draws attention to the fact that the oldest manuscript of the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson (which comments on Voluspa) is about fifty years older than the first manuscript of the Poetic Edda, and describes the Codex Regius (c. 1270) and the two younger manuscripts AM 748 I a 4 to and Hauksbok in some detail. Lassen locates the beginning of the study of the Eddic poems to around 1643 when Brynjolfur Sveinsson (1605-1675), the Lutheran Bishop of Skalholt, acquired the Codex Regius. This historical context situates the subsequent three sections, focused on oral, written, and visual traditions. The first of these opens up the vexed question of the dating of Voluspa and whether or not it was only slightly influenced by Christianity (in the process of shifting from oral to written form) or heavily influenced by Christianity and thus preserving little or no pre-Christian religious material.

In 'Voluspa and Time', Vesteinn Olason concludes that 'in essence it may be a poem composed around or possibly a little before 1000 and partly based on older material, a poem which has kept its structure (in the Codex Regius) but over time in oral tradition has attracted material of Christian origin inviting a more Christian interpretation' (p. 41). John McKinnell's 'Heathenism in Voluspa: a Preliminary Survey' tackles this vexed scholarly question by an investigation of what can be known of the composer of the poem (the poet), given that the versions preserved in manuscripts are quite different, and the scribes are clearly not the authors. McKinnell reinforces the scholarly consensus that 'the bulk of the text shows a consistent and original poetic sensibility, one characterized by acute observation of nature, a capacity for encapsulating mythological scenes in brief, memorable images, an apocalyptic outlook, and a tendency to combine words and motifs in new and striking ways' (p. 95). Above all, he concentrates on what type of heathen material a thirteenth-century Christian scribe might deem usable, which is a useful approach.

The second section considers the relationship of Voluspa to Christianity through the textual tradition, and features chapters by Kees Samplonius, Gro Steinsland, Karl G. Johannson, and Petur Petursson. These chapters traverse issues like the cultural background of the poem, its relationship to the Sibylline oracles, the Apocalypse, and overt Christian themes in the text. The final section on visual traditions is focused on the Judgement Day panels from Holar, with chapters on their original position in the Cathedral, and their later preservation history.

The essays in this volume are lively and interesting; the illustrations are attractive and enrich the reader's appreciation of the material. It will be of interest to all scholars and students of medieval Scandinavian culture and is highly recommended.

Carole M. Cusack, The University of Sydney
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Author:Cusack, Carole M.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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