The thirteen stanzas edited here (Anon Vǫlsa 1-13), all of which are in irregular fornyrðislag metre except for st. 3, form a coherent set within Vǫlsa þáttr (Vǫlsa) in Flat and are preserved principally in ms. Flat. Using perfect and preterite verb forms, st. 1 introduces a family living á andnesi einhverju ‘on a certain headland’; sts 2-3, using direct speech and verbs in the present tense, introduce the horse-phallus Vǫlsi and three guests at the farmstead. Stanzas 4-13 follow, forming a sequence. In each stanza, a speaker – the farmer, members of his household, and the three guests – makes a comment, recites þiggi Maurnir þetta blæti ‘may Maurnir receive this offering’ and addresses another person as they pass Vǫlsi from hand to hand, until the dénouement is reached in sts 12-13. The farmer and the members of his household who speak sts 2-9 remain unnamed, while the guests are addressed as Grímr (st. 9/8), Grímr (st. 10/7) and Aðalgrímr (st. 11/7), also konungr ‘king’ (st. 3/5) and Óláfr (st. 3/6). The prose narrative identifies the guests as Finnr Árnason, Þormóðr Kolbrúnarskáld (ÞormV) and King Óláfr Haraldsson (Ólhelg, and see ‘Ruler biographies’ in Introduction to this volume). It attributes sts 10, 11 and 12 to them, respectively, but this can hardly be other than an amusing fiction (see further below on the question of authenticity).
The story of Vǫlsi survives in Flat (ms. Flat, c. 1387-95) as an inorganic insertion in ÓH as well as in a number of later paper copies related to it, which are not routinely used in the present edition: Thott 1768 4°ˣ (1675-1700), AM 761 b 4°x (c. 1700), Lbs 460 4°ˣ (c. 1830-50), Lbs 1569 4°ˣ (1832), Lbs 1573 4°ˣ (c. 1850-1900), ÍB 582 8°ˣ (1859), ÍBR 8 4°x (1801-16). In addition, Vǫlsa is included in AM 292 4°ˣ (292ˣ), the remains of a composite ms. from the last quarter of the seventeenth century, written by Síra Ólafur Gíslason at Hof í Vopnafirði (c. 1646-1714), and readings from this are included below. Since Flat had already made its way to Copenhagen as a gift to the Danish king in 1662, 292ˣ could not be a direct descendant, but only by way of a copy, which could well have been accessible to Ólafur Gíslason as the foster-son of Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson. Until 1674 he was in the service of his foster-father as a teacher and priest at the cathedral church of Skálholt (Loth 1960b, 122-4, 138-9; Düwel 1971, 147-8). However, we cannot exclude the possibility that the texts in 292ˣ and Flat both go back to a common source, because there are a few cases of divergence in which it cannot be determined whether Ólafur had changed the text of Flat, or whether he was working from a different version of the text. Considering other cases of close correspondence between the two texts, we can certainly exclude the possibility of a totally independent, parallel textual transmission. A copy of 292ˣ survives in NKS 1159 folˣ (c. 1650-1700). The Icelandic folk tale of Ásmundur flagðagæfa ‘Ogresses’ Luck’, which Eyjólfur Jónsson heard in his youth and wrote down c. 1700 (AM 569 c 4°ˣ; Jón Árnason 1862-4, I, 171-9), should also be mentioned in this context. Its close, often verbatim, correspondences with Vǫlsa speak against an independent tradition.
The ordering of the Vǫlsa stanzas is relatively unproblematic, and this edition follows the witness of Flat (see Notes to st. 3 [All] and st. 13/9-12 for minor departures proposed by previous editors).
Among the numerous þættir of Old Norse literature there are only a few that have attracted as much scholarly attention as Vǫlsa. However, the question of the literary qualities of the text (cf. Heusler 1903, 37) has rarely been addressed. The lack of a clear definition of the literary genre of the text is well reflected in the varying terminology applied, ranging from ‘story’ and ‘anecdote’ to ‘novella’, ‘burlesque’, ‘comic tale’, ‘satire’, and ‘legend’. Scholarly discussion has focused instead on the status of the Vǫlsa stanzas as a unique documentation of fertility rites in the context of a pre-Christian private or household cult, the significance of which has never been questioned by scholars of religion either in terms of source criticism or textual criticism (cf. Rosén 1919, 7-11; Johansson 1917, 119-123; Schröder 1924, 40-2; Olrik and Ellekilde 1926-51, I, 166-9; Schomerus 1936, 120; Grönbech 2002, II, 236-7, 330; F. Ström 1954, 22-31; Lehmann 1955, 166; ARG II, 206-8; Turville-Petre 1964, 256-8; F. Ström 1967, 87-9; Düwel 1971, 145-209; Herbert 1972; Å. Ström and Biezais 1975, 145-7; Steinsland and Vogt 1981; Heizmann 1992; Steinsland 1997, 88-91; Näsström 2002, 147-53; Tolley 2009). According to Heusler (1903, 32), it is the only surviving Old Norse text that preserves an ‘authentic ritual formula of a heathen sacrificial offering’, in the refrain þiggi Maurnir þetta blæti ‘may Maurnir receive this offering’.
The þáttr has played a particularly important role in the scholarship on the runic inscriptions of Fløksand (RäF I, 37) and Gjersvík (RäF I, 38) because of the fact that the words lín ‘flax’ and laukr ‘leek’ occur in both sources (Olsen and Schetelig 1909; Olsen 1914-15, 14-18; Olsen 1917, IIb, 640-76; Eitrem 1924, 93-4; Schröder 1924, 41; Olrik and Ellekilde 1926-51, I, 167; Lehmann 1955, 164-5; ARG II, 207; RäF 85-6; Ström 1967, 88; Steinsland and Vogt 1981, 93; Heizmann 1992; Heizmann 1995; Näsström 2002, 151). Only a few have argued against the assumption that there is a connection between these texts (Düwel 1971, 200-9).
The relationship between the prose and verse of Vǫlsa and their dating have also been a focus of special interest. The prose narrative refers to an older poem: Eftir þui sem j æinu fornu kuæde visar til ‘as is indicated in an old poem’; sem j upphafui kuædissins segir ok suo hefr ‘as it says in the beginning of the poem, starting thus’ (preceding st. 1); eftir þui sem fornnskalldin visa til ‘as the ancient skalds indicate’ (preceding st. 2). However, it is impossible to tell whether the sole purpose of such naming of sources was to lend an archaic patina to the text. The prose part of the text has most often been assigned a late date, hardly any older than the ms. dating of Flat at the end of the fourteenth century, while, apart from a few exceptions (LH II, 163; Schomerus 1936, 120; Almqvist 1965-74, I, 173; Düwel 1971), at least a few of the stanzas have been acknowledged to be of an early date, or even a very early date (Olrik and Ellekilde 1926-51, I, 166, 169; ARG II, 207; Steinsland and Vogt 1981, 88; Steinsland 1997, 88; Näsström 2002, 150). As both the prose and the verse of Vǫlsa involve King Óláfr Haraldsson and two of his retainers, at least some of the stanzas could theoretically be placed in the early eleventh century (see further the Context to st. 1, and subsequent stanzas and Contexts). However, this assumption is highly problematic. There is no proof at all that any of stanzas are authentic and it is not possible to reconstruct the complex history of the transmission of Vǫlsa with any certainty. There are no definite metrical indicators of date, though the metre generally resembles that found in Skaufhalabálkr (Svart SkaufVIII) and some of the fornaldarsǫgur, and would be compatible with the late thirteenth or fourteenth century. Without more conclusive evidence, one should rather refrain from distinguishing between early and late, authentic and inauthentic. The present edition, therefore, prefers a normalisation of the stanzas which takes the orthography of Flat (the only known fact) as a guideline. This is not wholly consistent, but is essentially conservative for its time, with spellings such as þer (normalised þér) rather than þier, ek rather than eg (though þig rather than þik) and <o> or <o᷎> (normalised <ǫ>) rather than <ö>. Hence a normalisation based on this yields a text compatible with a range of putative dates.
Independent of the problems surrounding the dating and transmission of the text, the question arises whether the content of Vǫlsa is the pure invention of a fourteenth-century author, in the best case based on a vague knowledge of folk traditions, or whether elements of a private cult of heathen times have indeed left their traces in the text. Several arguments can be brought to bear in favour of the latter assumption: (1) Ethnological comparative material such as the ritual union of horse and woman in the Old Indian aśvamedha ritual (Johansson 1917, 108-123; Schröder 1924, 42-3; F. Ström 1954, 27-8; ARG II, 207). (2) Various details of ancient cults and mysteries, such as pulling a phallus covered in linen cloth out of a container, or the dominant role of women, using dirty language and telling obscene jokes, mockery and comedy, reciting songs of the phallus, addressing the phallus as a god, etc. (cf. Rosén 1919, 18-22; Eitrem 1924, 87 n. 1; Vanggaard 1969, 78; Heizmann 1992, 386-7). (3) The evidence of the runic inscriptions of Fløksand and Gjersvik (Heizmann 1992, 388-90; Heizmann 1995, 219-20, though cf. Düwel 1971, 208-9; Seebold 2003, 808). (4) More recent rural folk customs involving the genitals or symbolically related parts (tail) of animals for slaughter, such as a Faroese wedding-ritual, in the course of which an animal’s tail decorated with ribbons (Faroese drunnur) is passed along among the guests during the festive dinner, and each guest has to recite a stanza about it (Hammershaimb and Jakobsen 1891, I, 410, II, 45; Heusler 1903, 29-30; Olsen 1917, IIb, 654; Johansson 1917, 122; Coffey 1989). The same custom may also lie behind the enigmatic and fragmentary Grettisfærsla from the fifteenth century (Ólafur Halldórsson 1960, 73-7; Heslop 2006b).
In the edition below, previous modern editions of the Vǫlsa stanzas are listed for each stanza, and are of three main types: standard skaldic editions (Skj and Skald, supported for some stanzas by NN); the standard edition of Flat (1860-8); and editions of the stanzas by Guðbrandur Vigfússon (1860), Guðbrandur Vigfússon and F. York Powell in CPB (1883), Heusler and Ranisch in Edd. Min. (1903), and Schröder (1933). Other works containing comment on the poetry are cited as appropriate in the Notes.