Is Odin as Bölverkr an Evil-worker or a Farm-worker?

One of the alternative names for “Odin” is “Bölverkr” (Gylfaginning: 20; Skaldskaparmal: 6; Havamal: 109; Grimnismal: 47). It is the habit of most translators to interpret “Bölverkr” as “Evil-worker” or “Worker-of-evil” or some variation thereof (e.g. Jean Young, The Prose Edda, pg. 49; “Evil-doer”—Larrington, The Poetic Edda, pg. 326; “Bale-Worker”—Hollander, Grimnismal: 48, note 82). Therefore, other sources follow, such as, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Mythica, etcetera. That translation is almost universal. The result is honest people relying on that translation conclude that Odin is “evil.” So, why would anyone follow a blatantly “evil-god”?

If “Böl” only means “evil,” then so be it. However, “Böl,” does not just mean “evil.” In the Cleasby/Vigfusson Icelandic to English Lexicon (Hereafter, cited as “Cleasby”), two more definitions are just as legitimate. Cleasby states “Böl” or its alternative spelling, “Ból,” can mean “to build” as in “a farm” or “a-bed” (Cleasby: BÓL). Cleasby explains in the same place, “böl and böll are very freq. in Dan. local names, and even mark the line of Scandin. settlements] :– ‘built,’ i.e. reclaimed and cultivated land, a farm” (emphasis in the original). Notice it says, “böl,” is “very frequently” used in Danish local names, and even mark the line of Scandinavian settlements. Therefore, “evil” is not the dominate meaning of “böl” in every case, but it can “very frequently” mean “farm” or even “bed.”

If “Böl” can frequently mean, “farm” or even “bed,” then “Farm-worker” or even “Bed-worker” are acceptable alternatives. In that case, it is a defamation if not an insult to call “Odin,” the god of wisdom and poetry, an “Evil-worker.” The word “god” itself is the Old English root for the modern English word “good” (see Webster’s Dictionary, etymology: good). So, it is a contradiction in terms, if not oxymoronic, to say, “Evil-god,” because there is no such thing, logically, as “evil-good.” That, by itself, should have given translators cause for pause to look for an alternative translation of, “Böl,” other than “evil.” Considering whether “Böl” means “Evil” or “Farm,” the way to determine which alternative is the most likely meaning is to look to the context of how the word is used by the original author. That is the way translating is done.

Take, for example, the English word “wind.” In writing it can mean “wind” as in the movement of air or it can mean “wind” as in twisting a thread of flax around a spindle or distaff or even “winding” a clock. The words are spelled exactly the same in English. The only way to determine what the person writing the word means is to look at the context of the sentence or expression in which they are using it. The same is true for “wound.” It can be the past tense of “wind” as in having “wound” something up or “wound” can mean some gaping damage to flesh. They are spelled exactly the same in writing. These problems are solved in speaking, because they sound different when expressed vocally, but not in writing. Only by the context the writer is using them in determines the appropriate translation.
So, let us consider the context of where “Bölverkr” is used to determine if the writer meant “Evil-worker” or “Farm-worker.” Two of the uses of “Bölverkr” are in the list of names for Odin in Gylfaginning 20 and Grimnismal 47. Consequently, there is no context. We only have the context of the two stories found in Skaldskaparmal 6 and Havamal 109 regarding “Bölverkr.”

For the first example, let us consider the story in the Skaldskaparmal. In this story, Odin is searching for Kvasir who he discovers has been killed and Kvasir’s blood made into Poetic Mead by mixing it with honey. Odin wants to recover the Poetic Mead. He has been informed that a giant named, Suttung, was in possession of it. In his search for Suttung and the mead, Odin goes to Suttung’s brother, Baugi. Baugi is a farmer. He has nine thralls harvesting his fields. Odin offers the nine thralls to sharpen their scythes with a whetstone. When the thralls saw how much better their scythes cut, they killed each other trying to get the whetstone from Odin. Notice, Odin did not kill them. They killed each other out of greed. Immediately after that event, the lore states:

“Odin sought a night’s lodging with the giant who is called Baugi, Suttungr’s brother. Baugi bewailed his husbandry, saying that his nine thralls had killed one another, and declared that he had no hope of workmen (verkmanna). Odin called himself Bölverkr in Baugi’s presence; he offered to undertake nine men’s work for Baugi, and demanded for his wages one drink of Suttungr’s Mead. Baugi declared that he had no control whatever over the mead, and said that Suttungr was determined to have it to himself, but promised to go with Bölverkr and try if they might get the mead. During the summer Bölverkr accomplished nine men’s work for Baugi, but when winter came he asked Baugi for his hire. Then they both set out for Suttungr’s. Baugi told Suttungr his brother of his bargain with Bölverkr…” (Skaldskaparmal: 6, Brodeur translation).

Clearly, the context is “farm work.” That is, harvesting the giant’s fields on his farm. Odin introduces himself to the farmer as “Bölverkr” to increase his chances of getting hired to do—farm work. Therefore, “farm-worker” would be the most sensible translation as opposed to “evil-worker.” I mean, who would hire a guy who called himself an “evil-worker”? Even taking the negative aspects of “O. Nrs. böl : Slav. ból” to mean “pain” (Bosworth/Toller, Germanic Lexicon Project). Therefore, “painful-worker,” would simply mean “hard-worker” in English, because “hard work” is “painful work.” Yet, we can be sure, Odin was not introducing himself as “Worker-of-evil” or “wicked-worker” to get a job doing farm work. Let the reader decide.

The second example is in the story of how Odin went to Suttung’s hall to obtain the Poetic Mead from his daughter, Gunnlöð, who was guarding it (Havamal: 103-110). In this version, Odin proposes to court Suttung’s daughter for marriage. That is indicated by Odin sitting “on a golden stool” as guest of honor (Havamal: 106). He had already been introduced by Baugi, Suttung’s brother, as “Bölverkr” (See the last line in the long quote above, “Baugi told Suttungr his brother of his bargain with Bölverkr”). So, if “Bölverkr” meant “farm-worker” to Baugi, surely, he would have conveyed the same meaning to his brother Suttung. A man seeking a maiden’s hand in marriage would arouse suspicion if not alarm in a potential father-in-law, if not the Bride herself, if the suiter was introduced as “Worker-of-evil.” Imagine it and the option goes straight out the window of consideration.

In the context, it could be tenuously argued that “Bölverkr” meant, “Bed-worker.” For indeed, Odin did “bed” Gunnlöð. As the story goes, “Bölverkr proceeded to the place where Gunnlöd was, and lay with her three nights; and then she gave him leave to drink three draughts of the mead” (Skaldskaparmal: 6, cf. Havamal: 108). However, Odin states in introduction of his encounter with Suttung and Gunnlöð:

Glad in his home, to his guest cheerful,
yet shrewd should one be;
Wise and weighty be the word of his mouth,
if wise he would be thought.
A ninny is he who naught can say,
For such is the way of the witless. (Hollander, Voluspa: 103)

Here we see in Odin’s own words, he would not be considered “shrewd,” nor “wise and weighty be the word of his mouth,” in fact, he would be thought a “ninny” and “witless,” if he introduced himself as a “Bed-worker” to the father of a potential bride (Hollander, Havamal: 103). Therefore, the most compelling translation again would be “Farm-worker.”

This conclusion seems so obvious in both cases, it makes me suspicious why translators would choose the least likely translation, “Worker-of-evil” for “Bölverkr,” especially when pertaining to a god. That is, unless they did not personally believe Odin was a god or “good” at all. I’ve had trouble with critics citing “Bölverkr” as one of the names of Odin, then citing the author’s translation of it as “Evil-worker.” Then they ask, “Why would you follow a god who is an Evil-Worker?” Well, the answer is I don’t. Those authors are just bad translators, or just bad people with an agenda to try and degrade a good god in favor of their own.

By Andrew Webb © 12/31/2018

Leave a reply