How to name your baby

So!  I’ve started revising the translation I mentioned a couple of posts ago, and I thought I’d give a little update about how it’s going.

First things first; what should it be called?

The literal translation, if you’re going by Geir Zoega’s Dictionary of Old Icelandic, is “the prophecy of the witch/prophetess.”  For what it’s worth, the witch herself is giantkin and possibly raised from the dead by Odin to tell the past, and after having thereby established her credibility, the grisly future. She does not do so particularly willingly, and I seem to catch a mocking tone at times in her address to Odin.

Let’s look at a few examples of those who have gone before.

Lee Hollander and Carolyne Larrington, in their versions of the Poetic Edda, are straightforward and similar in their naming: “The Prophecy of the Seeress”
and “The Seeress’s Prophecy,” respectively.

Realistically, there’s probably not a heck of a lot to find fault with here.  People can read that title and know what the poem’s all about.  It’s precise.   But neither word would be my choice.  “Seeress” is a little bit tame and sterile to my ears; it doesn’t really capture any of the menace that we see and hear in Odin’s interlocutor, and therefore my preference is “witch.”  Even with its blackhat greennose baggage, it reaches all the way back into the Anglo-Saxon past for its heft.  Maybe I am just a sensationalist.  It has been said.

“Prophecy,” to me, and maybe it is only me, has too much of the must of the Old Testament about it.  Enough time around the Jesuits has told me enough about prophets to feel that she’s not one.  I’m also not sure it has just the right sound to it, if that’s something we care about.  The etymology is at least 7 inches long on the OED Online, and confusing as all get out, but I’m pretty sure the original root is Greek.

When I was doing this back in college, I spent a lot of time consulting W.H. Auden (!) and P.B. Taylor’s translation, which has some things to recommend it.  It’s not as accurate in all cases, but in general, it’s got more music in it, although there are a few choices that get me riled.  One of those is the title: “The Song of the Sybil.”  This, I humbly submit, is just a terrible move.  Going with “song” instead of “prophecy” muddies the waters without adding menace; you definitely don’t pick that poem up expecting Ragnarok.

And the choice of “Sybil” (def. 1 in the OED Online: One or other of certain women of antiquity who were reputed to possess powers of prophecy and divination. In later times the number of these was usually set down as ten, flourishing at different times and places in Asia, Africa, Greece, and Italy.) is totally mindboggling to me.  If there’s a quicker way to wrench this poem out of its Germanic setting and classicize the sinew right out of it, I sure can’t think of it.  Sure, it can refer more generally to a prophetess, but it’s just so redolent of the Aeneid, of the gassed maid of Delphi, of “I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die.”

Perhaps Auden was trying slyly to canonize a new Sibyl, a rough hag of the North to join her classical sisters; maybe he was just trying to give Odoacer the fasces, as it were.  I am more inclined to believe the opposite, however; that he was trying to squeeze her foot into their sandal.

I just gnashed four teeth over this picture!

I just gnashed four teeth over this picture!

Okay, so what am I calling it then, you’d probably like to know?

I got pretty excited back in 2002 about The Witch’s Tidings.  I already explained “witch”; and “tidings” just had the perfect sound, so far as I was concerned.  You could literally be walking around in Anglo-Saxon England and hear those syllables, although if you did, you should probably run.  The tradeoff from “prophecy” to “tidings” is the loss of any supernatural element, but I figured having a witch around makes up for that; it’s not like the poem’s going to be just an account of the gossip she heard when she was over by Gudrun’s longhouse.

So my advisor, who is not only a towering figure in her field but is also just THE BEST LADY whom I can’t say enough good things about, made the extremely cogent point that she would see my “tidings” and raise me a “spell.” In one sense, it means exactly the same thing as “tidings”; think of the etymology of “Gospel.”  Secondly, it’s got that magical sense that “tidings” loses.  Third, it can just mean “discourse, speech, or story,” although that meaning’s a little archaic.  And finally, it’s also an upstanding Old English/Old Norse word.  Basically, it has “tidings” absolutely dead to rights.  “The Witch’s Spell” basically folds the entire poem into itself — it is a beautiful, elegant, poetic solution.

I went with “The Witch’s Tidings” anyway.  I cannot tell you precisely why, but I suspect youthful stubbornness and inability to recognize a finely-crafted gift were at play.  I’m humbler now, my sideburns are shorter, and “The Witch’s Spell” it is.



  1. mordicai said,

    October 26, 2009 at 3:53 am

    I like the shorted sideburn’d pick better myself. The Witch’s Spell, right on.

  2. ihatedanger said,

    October 26, 2009 at 10:32 am

    I know that I just read all about translation and words and I love all of that, and the Waste Land reference was rad (HELLO MODERNISM CLASS), but what about calling Roberta Frank THE BEST LADY? Maybe you should’ve married her, instead!

    Just kidding. I’m a little loopy right now; I have no beef with Prof. Frank. Tell your wife to chill out before she goes to teach a bunch of college kids about how revision ain’t editing (or proofreading).


    • ihatedanger said,

      October 26, 2009 at 10:34 am

      P.S. Was titling this post “How to Name Your Baby” a ploy to get parents-to-be to come to your Old Norse blog?

      • October 26, 2009 at 10:51 am

        Well, it’s like dressing real nice. It’s appropriate purely of itself, because it’s good to dress nice. But sometimes it has the pleasant side effect of getting pretty girls to smile at you.

    • October 26, 2009 at 10:53 am

      She’s already married to another outstanding scholar. F’reals though, when I think of Yale days, I guess I don’t really think of us as fellow and lady, just as relatively small folks. So the thought that my lady charts might be conflicting never even crossed my mind.

  3. November 10, 2009 at 12:54 am

    […] because of that propinquity that he wouldn’t work.  Not only did I disagree with some of his choices, but I was actively trying to distinguish myself from what he’d done; otherwise, what’s […]

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