Muspilli is an Old High German poem known in incomplete form (just over 100 lines) from a ninth-century Bavarian manuscript. Its subject is the fate of the soul immediately after death and at the Last Judgment. Many aspects of the interpretation of the poem, including its title, remain controversial among scholars.
The text is extant in a single ninth-century manuscript, Clm 14098 of the Bavarian State Library, Munich. The bulk of the manuscript contains a Latin theological text presented between 821 and 827 by Adalram, bishop of Salzburg, to the young Louis the German (ca. 810-876). Into this orderly written manuscript, the text of the Muspilli was untidily entered, with numerous scribal errors, using blank pages, lower margins and even the dedication page.
Though in Carolingian minuscules, the handwriting is not that of a trained scribe. The language is essentially Bavarian dialect of the middle or late 9th century. The poem's beginning and ending are missing: they were probably written on the manuscript's outer leaves, which have since been lost. Legibility has always been a problem with this text, and some early editors used reagents which have left permanent stains. There are many conjectural readings, some of them crucial to modern interpretation of the work.
Most of the poem is in alliterative verse of very uneven quality. Some lines contain rhymes, using a poetic form pioneered in the ninth century by Otfrid of Weissenburg (ca. 790-875). This formal unevenness has often led scholars to regard the surviving text as a composite made up of older material and younger accretions--an impression reinforced by the poem's thematic and stylistic diversity. But it is also possible that a single poet deliberately chose to vary the verse forms in this way.
In 1832 the first editor, Johann Andreas Schmeller, proposed as the poem's provisional title what seemed to be a key word in line 57: dar nimac denne mak andremo helfan uora demo muspille ('there no kinsman is able to help another before the muspilli). This is the sole occurrence of this word in Old High German. Its immediate context is the destruction of the world by fire, but it is unclear whether the word denotes a person or some other entity. Distinctively, Kolb (1964, 5f. and 32) took uora as a local preposition ('in front of'), with muspilli signifying the Last Judgment itself, or perhaps its location or its presiding Judge.
Related forms are found in two other Germanic languages. The Old Saxon Christian poem Heliand (early or mid 9th century) presents (and perhaps personifies) mudspelli (mutspelli) as a destructive force, coming as a thief in the night, and associated with the end of the world. In Old Norse, Muspellr occurs as a proper name, apparently that of the progenitor or leader of a band of fighters ('Muspellr's sons'), who are led by fiery Surtr against the gods at Ragnarök (a series of events heralding the death of major deities, including Odin, Thor, Týr, Freyr and Loki). The oldest known occurrences are in the Poetic Edda: Völuspá 51 (Muspells lýþir) and Lokasenna 42 (Muspells synir) (originals 10th century, manuscripts from about 1270). More elaborate detail on Ragnarök is supplied in the Prose Edda (attributed to Snorri Sturluson, compiled round 1220, manuscripts from about 1300), and here the section known as Gylfaginning (chapters 4, 13 and 51) has references to Muspell(i), Muspells megir, Muspells synir and Muspells heimr.
Muspilli is usually analysed as a two-part compound, with well over 20 different etymologies proposed, depending on whether the word is seen as a survival from old Germanic, pagan times, or as a newly coined Christian term originating within the German-speaking area. Only a few examples can be mentioned here. As possible meanings, Bostock, King and McLintock (137ff.) favoured 'pronouncement about (the fate of ) the world' or 'destruction (or destroyer) of the earth'. Like Hans Sperber and Willy Krogmann, Heinz Finger (1977, 122-173) argued that the word originated in Old Saxon as a synonym for Christ, 'He who slays with the word of His mouth' (as in 2 Thessalonians 2, 8 and Apocalypse 19, 15). Finger also contended that the word was imported into Norway (not Iceland) under Christian influence, and that the Old Norse texts (though themselves touched by Christianity) show no deeper understanding of its meaning. Hans Jeske (2006) also regarded the word as a Christian coinage, deriving its first syllable from Latin mundus 'world' and -spill- (more conventionally) from a Germanic root meaning 'destruction'.
Scholarly consensus on the word's origin and meaning is unsettled. There is, however, agreement that as a title it fails to match the poem's principal theme: the fate of souls after death.
Elias von Steinmeyer described the Muspilli in 1892 as "this most exasperating piece of Old High German literature", a verdict frequently echoed in 20th-century research. On many issues, agreement is still lacking. Its reception by scholars is significant in its own right, and as a study in evolving critical paradigms. Already by 1900, this (literally) marginal work had come to be monumentalised alongside other medieval texts against a background of German nation-building, but also in keeping with the powerful, Europe-wide interest in national antiquities and their philological investigation.
Early researchers were keen to trace the work's theological and mythological sources, to reconstruct its antecedents and genesis, and to identify its oldest, pre-Christian elements. Apart from the Bible, no single work has come to light which could have functioned as a unique source for our poem. For Gustav Neckel (1918), Muspilli was patently a Christian poem, but with vestiges still of pagan culture. Seeking analogues, Neckel was struck, for example, by similarities between the role of Elias in our poem and the Norse god Freyr, killed by Surtr, who is linked with Muspellr and his sons.
Apocalyptic speculation was a common Hebrew-Christian heritage, and interesting parallels exist in some early Jewish pseudepigrapha. For the work's Christian elements, many correspondences have been cited from the Early Church Fathers (Greek and Latin), apocryphal writings, Sibylline Oracles, including in Book VIII the Sibylline Acrostic (third century?), and works by or attributed to Ephrem the Syrian,Bede, Adso of Montier-en-Der and others. Georg Baesecke (1948-50, 210ff.) posited a firm relationship with the Old English Christ III. In Finger's view (1977, 183-191), the Muspilli poet probably knew and used the Old English poem.
Many of the correspondences proposed are too slight to carry conviction. Conceding that the 'hunt for parallels' was passing into discredit, Hermann Schneider (1936, 9) was nonetheless insistent that, until all potential Christian sources had been exhausted, we should not assume that anything still left unexplained must be of pagan Germanic origin or the poet's own invention. Schneider himself saw the poem as solidly Christian, apart from the mysterious word muspille (32).
Commentators have long been troubled by breaks in the poem's thematic sequence, especially between lines 36 and 37, where the Mighty King's summons to Final Judgment is followed by an episode in which Elias fights with the Antichrist. Guided by spelling, style and metre, Baesecke claimed in 1918 that lines 37-62 (labelled by him as 'Muspilli II') had been adapted from an old poem on the destruction of the world and inserted into the main body of the work ('Muspilli I', which had another old poem as its source). Baesecke later (1948-50) linked 'Muspilli II' genetically in a highly conjectural stemma with Christ III, Heliand and other poems. Schneider (1936, 6 and 28f.) rejected Baesecke's radical dissections, but still considered the work a composite, with its pristine poetic integrity repeatedly disrupted (in lines 18ff., 63ff. and 97ff.) by the 'mediocre' moralising of a 'garrulous preacher'.
In contrast, Gustav Ehrismann (1918) respected the work's integrity: he saw no need to assume interpolations, nor any pagan Germanic features apart from possible echoes in the word muspille. Elias von Steinmeyer (1916, 77) also regarded the existing text as a unity. Though he found the transition from line 36 to 37 'hart und abrupt', he attributed it to the author's own limitations, which in his view also included poor vocabulary, monotonous phraseology, and incompetence in alliterative technique.
Verdicts such as these left critics hovering somewhere between two extremes: a technically faltering composition by a single author, or a conglomerate of chronologically separate redactions of varying quality and diverse function.
The second of these approaches culminated in Cola Minis's startlingly bold monograph of 1966. Minis stripped away the sermonising passages, discarded lines containing rhymes and inferior alliteration, and assumed that small portions of text had been lost at the beginning and in the middle of the poem. These procedures left him with an 'Urtext' of 15 strophes, varying in length from 5 to 7 lines and forming a symmetrical pattern rich in number symbolism. The result of this drastic surgery was certainly a more unified work of art, alliterative in form and narrative or epic in content. But reviewers (e.g. Steinhoff 1968; Seiffert 1969) soon detected serious flaws in Minis's reasoning. Though interpolated text remains a tantalising possibility, later scholars have favoured a far more conservative treatment.
Increasingly, the aim has been to approach the Muspilli as a complex, but functionally adequate, work, and to interpret it in its 9th-century Christian context, whilst also questioning or rejecting its allegedly pagan elements. Herbert Kolb (1964, 16f.) felt that to demand an unbroken narrative sequence is to misunderstand the work's pastoral function as an admonitory sermon. Publishing in 1977 views which he had formulated some 20 years earlier, Wolfgang Mohr saw older poetic material here being re-worked with interpolations, as a warning to all, but especially the rich and powerful. Walter Haug (1977) analysed the surviving text on a new methodological basis. Characterising it as a montage and a 'somewhat fortuitous' constellation (55f.), he focused on its very discontinuities, its 'open form', viewing it as an expression of the fragmented order of its time, and as an invective, aimed at correcting some aspects of that fragmentation.
In a landmark dissertation of the same year, Heinz Finger saw no further need to search for survivals from pagan mythology, since even the most problematic portions of the Muspilli contain nothing that is alien to patristic thought. Equally illuminating was Finger's placement of the work against a differentiated legal background (see below).
Categorising the Muspilli as a sermon or homily, Brian Murdoch (1983, 69ff.) saw in it these same two 'basic strains': theological and juridical. In recent decades the theological content has again been studied by Carola Gottzmann and Martin Kuhnert. There has also been renewed attention to sources, textual issues, and the word muspilli (Jeske 2006).
Looking back from 2009, Valentine Pakis reported on two 'peculiar trends'. Recent German literary histories either ignore the Muspilli altogether, or they 'reinstate the old bias towards mythological interpretations'. Pakis's personal plea is for a new recognition of the Muspilli in all its complexity, as 'a locus of polyvocality and interpretive tensions' (56).
As an exemplar of Christian eschatology, much of the Muspilli is theologically conventional, and remarkable mainly for its vivid presentation of Christian themes in a vernacular language at such an early date. With biblical support and backed by established dogma, the poet evidently saw no difficulty in juxtaposing the particular judgment (lines 1-30, with souls consigned immediately (sar) to Heaven or Hell) and the general judgment on the Last Day (31-36 and 50ff.). Most of the poem's Christian features are an amalgam of elements from the Bible. Key passages in the Gospels (particularly Matthew 24, 29ff., 25, 31ff. and Luke 21, 5ff.) predict calamities and signs, including a darkening of sun and moon, the stars falling from the heavens and a loud trumpet, followed by Christ's Second Coming and the Last Judgment. The Second Epistle of Peter, chapter 3, foretells the 'Day of the Lord' and its all-consuming fire. Many significant signs are described in 2 (4) Esdras 5, and in non-canonical works such as the Apocalypse of Thomas, in a tradition later formalised as the Fifteen Signs before Doomsday.
A further biblical source was the canonical Book of Revelation with its visions of monsters, battles, fire and blood. The Muspilli shows greater freedom in its handling of these elements. Chapter 11, 3ff. of the Apocalypse tells how two witnesses (Greek martyres, Latin testes), empowered by God, will be killed by a beast, but then revived by the Spirit of Life and taken up into Heaven. These witnesses were traditionally identified with Enoch (Genesis 5, 24) and Elijah (received into Heaven in 2 Kings 2, 11). The Antichrist is most closely identifiable with one or other of the beasts described in Apocalypse 13, though the term itself is used elsewhere (1 John 2, 18) to denote apostates, false Christs, whose coming will signal the 'last days'. The Muspilli makes no mention of Enoch, and so the Antichrist faces Elias in single combat. Both are presented as strong champions in a dispute of great importance: khenfun sint so kreftic, diu kosa ist so mihhil (line 40). Comparisons have sometimes been made with the Old High German Hildebrandslied, which depicts in a secular setting a fatal encounter between two champions, father and son. But in the Muspilli the contest between Elias and the Antichrist is presented in much plainer terms. Opinions are divided as to whether our poet suppressed the role of Enoch in order to present the duel as a judicially significant ordeal by combat.
Lines 37-49 are often understood as reflecting two opposing contemporary views. In this reading, the uueroltrehtuuîson ('men wise in worldly law'?) expect Elias to prevail in this judicial contest, since he has God's support. And unlike the beast of the biblical Apocalypse, which temporarily kills God's two witnesses, the Antichrist (with Satan at his side) will be brought down and denied victory. However, our poet continues, (many?) gotmann- ('men of God', 'theologians'?) believe that Elias will be wounded (or slain?) (the verb aruuartit is ambiguous). In Kolb's interpretation (1964, 21ff.), it is Elias's defeat which makes the final conflagration inevitable. Finger (26ff. and 44ff.) preferred the reading 'wounded' and saw nothing contrary to apocalyptic tradition in this encounter, though references to Enoch and Elijah as victors are very unusual. Perhaps the poet was deliberately using ambiguity to accommodate a range of opinions. But the obscure three-part compound uueroltrehtuuîson has also been glossed as 'people of the right faith' (Haug, 41) or 'learned men' (Finger, 56f.)--in which case no polar opposition between them and the 'men of God' is implied here.
Another troublesome issue was eventually resolved. The traditional reading of lines 48-51 was that Elias's blood, dripping down onto the earth, would directly set it aflame. For decades, scholars could only point to geographically and chronologically distant parallels in Russian texts and folklore. As the manuscript is defective at this point, Bostock, King & McLintock (143) suggested a syntactic break between lines 50 and 51, which 'would remove the non-biblical notion that the fire is immediately consequent upon, or even caused by, the shedding of Elias' blood.' That causal connection was also dismissed by Kolb (1964, 17ff.) and Finger (26), but affirmed by Mohr (1977, 14). Good support for a firm linkage came at last in 1980 from Arthur Groos and Thomas D. Hill, who reported on a close Christian analogue, hitherto unknown, from an 8th-century Spanish formulary, predicting that on Judgment Day an all-consuming flame will rise up from the blood of Enoch and Elijah.
Describing Judgment Day, the poet used terms and concepts drawn from secular law. Some examples are highlighted in the Synopsis, above. Most strikingly, the King of Heaven issues His summons (kipannit daz mahal), using a technical expression rooted in Germanic law, but relevant also to contemporary politics (Finger, 90ff.). Comparisons have also been made with the roles of co-jurors and champions as laid down in the Lex Baiuwariorum, an 8th-century collection of laws: Et si maior pecunia furata fuerit, ... et negare voluerit, cum XII sacramentalibus iuret de leuda sua, vel duo campiones propter hoc pugnent ('And if a larger sum of money shall have been stolen, ... and if he wishes to deny the accusation, let him take an oath in company with twelve others from his people, or let two champions fight together on that account'). According to Kolb (1964, 13f. and 33), the poet aimed to prevent listeners from approaching God's Judgment with expectations derived from secular law, informing them that the King of Heaven's summons cannot be ignored (31ff.), that the Heavenly Judge is incorruptible, and that bribery is itself a sin which must be revealed on Judgment Day (63ff.). In Kolb's view, the difference between earthly and Heavenly justice was most explicitly stated in line 57: your kinsfolk may give you legal support as oath-helpers in this world, but they are powerless to help you before the muspilli. Rejecting this interpretation, Finger (73ff.) saw no legal implications whatever in this line: Bavarian legal sources offer no proof of regular oath-taking by kinsmen, and in the passage quoted above, leuda (a Frankish form) means 'tribe' or 'people' (not precisely 'kin').
Lines 63-72 are directly critical of the judiciary, specifically the taking of bribes. The wording here closely matches the Capitulare missorum generale (802), Charlemagne's instructions to his itinerant officials. Corrupt judges were frequently censured, and there was much pressure for judicial reform. The Muspilli emerges from Finger's study as strongly partisan--critical of popular law as practised in county courts (Grafsgerichte), and supportive of Carolingian legal reforms, to the extent of using concepts and terms typical of Frankish royal court procedures in its depiction of the Last Judgment. Finger concluded that the author was probably a cleric in Louis the German's entourage.
Murdoch placed the emphasis differently (1983, 70ff.). Though the Muspilli seems to be 'directed toward the noblemen who would be entrusted with the business of law', the work's legal significance should not be exaggerated. A corrupt judiciary was not the author's main target, despite his pointed criticism. His true concerns lay elsewhere, in warning all mortals of the 'absolute necessity of right behavior on earth' (72).
The poem is starkly dualistic, dominated by antagonisms: God and Satan, angels and devils, Heaven and Hell, Elias and the Antichrist. Our text breaks off in narrative mode, on a seemingly conciliatory note: preceded by the Cross, Christ displays at this Second Coming His stigmata, the bodily wounds which He suffered for love of humankind, duruh desse mancunnes minna (103). For Minis, renaming his reconstructed 'original' as 'The Way to Eternal Salvation', this climactic vision was closure enough (1966, 103). Through Christ's sacrifice, Divine justice gives penitents hope for mercy. But in many accounts the sight of the Cross and of Christ's wounds also had a negative effect, as a terrible reminder to sinners of their ingratitude. In any case, the outcome of the Final Judgment has yet to be depicted. The 'tension between the roles of Christ as Judge and as Saviour has surely reached its climax, but not yet its dénouement and resolution' (Seiffert 1969, 208). We should not assume that in the lost ending the poet moderated his awesome narrative, nor that the moralising commentator withheld an uncompromisingly didactic conclusion.
Muspilli was used in 1900 as the title of a novel by the Austrian writer Arnold Hagenauer (1871-1918). Muspilli is here invoked as a destructive fire, along with motifs from Germanic mythology such as Loki and the Midgard serpent.
Since the 1970s, the Muspilli has been set to music as a sacred work. Its apocalyptic theme and mythological associations have also won it something of a following in modern popular culture.
Musical compositions include:
Muspilli has featured variously in popular culture: