§ 2. Idea of the Scandinavian Religion
Gods, Edda, World, Earth, Runes, Thor
The central idea of the Scandinavian belief was the free struggle of soul against material obstacles, the freedom of the Divine will in its conflict with the opposing forces of nature. The gods of the Scandinavians were always at war. It was a system of dualism, in which sunshine, summer, and growth were waging perpetual battle with storm, snow, winter, ocean, and terrestrial fire. As the gods, so the people. War was their business, courage their duty, fortitude their virtue. The conflict of life with death, of freedom with fate, of choice with necessity, of good with evil, made up their history and destiny.
This conflict in the natural world was especially apparent in the struggle, annually renewed, between summer and winter. Therefore the light and heat gods were their friends, those of darkness and cold their enemies. For the same reason that the burning heat of summer, Typhon, was the Satan of Egypt; so in the North the Jotuns, ice-giants, were the Scandinavian devils.
There are some virtues which are naturally associated together, such as the love of truth, the sense of justice, courage, and personal independence. There is an opposite class of virtues in like manner naturally grouped together,—sympathy, mutual helpfulness, and a tendency to social organization. The serious antagonism in the moral world is that of truth and love. Most cases of conscience which present a real difficulty resolve themselves into a conflict of truth and love. It is hard to be true without hurting the feelings of others; it is hard to sympathize with others and not yield a little of our inward truth. The same antagonism is found in the religions of the world. The religions in which truth, justice, freedom, are developed tend to isolation, coldness, and hardness. On the other hand, the religions of brotherhood and human sympathy tend to weakness, luxury, and slavery.
The religion of the German races, which was the natural growth of their organization and moral character, belonged to the first class. It was a religion in which truth, justice, self-respect, courage, freedom, were the essential elements. The gods were human, as in the Hellenic system, with moral attributes. They were finite beings and limited in their powers. They carried on a warfare with hostile and destructive agents, in which at last they were to be vanquished and destroyed, though a restoration of the world and the gods would follow that destruction.
Such was the idea in all the faith of the Teutonic race. The chief virtue of man was courage, his unpardonable sin was cowardice. "To fight a good fight," this was the way to Valhalla. Odin sent his Choosers to every battlefield to select the brave dead to become his companions in the joys of heaven.
§ 3. The Eddas and their Contents
We have observed that Iceland was settled from Norway in the ninth century. A remarkable social life grew up there, which preserved the ideas, manners, and religion of the Teutonic people in their purity for many hundred years, and whose Eddas and Sagas are the chief source of our knowledge of the race. In this ultimate and barren region of the earth, where seas of ice make thousands of square miles desolate and impenetrable, where icy masses, elsewhere glaciers, are here mountains, where volcanoes with terrible eruptions destroy whole regions of inhabited country in a few days with lava, volcanic sand, and boiling water, was developed to its highest degree the purest form of Scandinavian life.
The religion of the Scandinavians is contained in the Eddas, which are two,—the poetic, or elder Edda, consisting of thirty-seven poems, first collected and published at the end of the eleventh century; and the younger, or prose Edda, ascribed to the celebrated Snorro Sturleson, born of a distinguished Icelandic family in the twelfth century, who, after leading a turbulent and ambitious life, and being twice chosen supreme magistrate, was killed A.D. 1241. The principal part of the prose Edda is a complete synopsis of Scandinavian mythology.
The elder Edda, which is the fountain of the mythology, consists of old songs and ballads, which had come down from an immemorial past in the mouths of the people, but were first collected and committed to writing by Sæmund, a Christian priest of Iceland in the eleventh century. He was a Bard, or Scald, as well as a priest, and one of his own poems, "The Sun-Song," is in his Edda. This word "Edda" means "great-grandmother," the ancient mother of Scandinavian knowledge. Or perhaps this name was given to the legends, repeated by grandmothers to their grandchildren by the vast firesides of the old farm-houses in Iceland.
This rhythmical Edda consists of thirty-seven poems. It is in two parts,—the first containing mythical poems concerning the gods and the creation; the second, the legends of the heroes of Scandinavian history. This latter portion of the Edda has the original and ancient fragments from which the German Nibelungen-lied was afterward derived. These songs are to the German poem what the ante-Homeric ballad literature of Greece about Troy and Ulysses was to the Iliad and Odyssey as reduced to unity by Homer.
The first poem in the first part of the poetic Edda is the Voluspa, or Wisdom of Vala. The Vala was a prophetess, possessing vast supernatural knowledge. Some antiquarians consider the Vala to be the same as the Nornor, or Fates. They were dark beings, whose wisdom was fearful even to the gods, resembling in this the Greek Prometheus. The Voluspa describes the universe before the creation, in the morning of time, before the great Ymir lived, when there was neither sea nor shore nor heaven. It begins thus, Vala speaking:—
The Voluspa goes on to describe how the gods assembled on the field of Ida, and proceeded to create metals and vegetables; after that the race of dwarfs, who preside over the powers of nature and the mineral world. Then Vala narrates how the three gods, Odin, Honir, and Lodur, "the mighty and mild Aser," found Ask and Embla, the Adam and Eve of the Northern legends, lying without soul, sense, motion, or color. Odin gave them their souls, Honir their intellects, Lodur their blood and colored flesh. Then comes the description of the ash-tree Yggdrasil, of the three Norns, or sisters of destiny, who tell the Aser their doom, and the end and renewal of the world; and how, at last, one being mightier than all shall arrive:—
In the same way, in the Song of Hyndla, another of the poems of this Edda, is a prediction of one who shall come, mightier than all the gods, and put an end to the strife between Aser and the giants. The song begins:—
Hyndla sings, after describing the heroes and princes born of the gods:—
Among the poems of the elder Edda is a Book of Proverbs, like those of Solomon in their sagacious observations on human life and manners. It is called the Havamal. At first we should hardly expect to find these maxims of worldly wisdom among a people whose chief business was war. But war develops cunning as well as courage, and battles are won by craft no less than by daring. Consequently, among a warlike people, sagacity is naturally cultivated.
The Havamal contains (in its proverbial section) one hundred and ten stanzas, mostly quatrains. The following are specimens:—
Such are the proverbs of the Havamal. This sort of proverbial wisdom may have come down from the days when the ancestors of the Scandinavians left Central Asia. It is like the fables and maxims of the Hitopadesá.
Another of these poems is called Odin's Song of Runes. Runes were the Scandinavian alphabet, used for lapidary inscriptions, a thousand of which have been discovered in Sweden, and three or four hundred in Denmark and Norway, mostly on tombstones. This alphabet consists of sixteen letters, with the powers of F, U, TH, O, R, K, H, N, I, A, S, T, B, L, M, Y. The letters R, I, T, and B very nearly resemble the Roman letters of the same values. A magical power was ascribed to these Runes, and they were carved on sticks and then scraped off, and used as charms. These rune-charms were of different kinds, eighteen different sorts are mentioned in this song.
A song of Brynhilda speaks of different runes which she will teach Sigurd. "Runes of victory must those know, to conquer thine enemies. They must be carved on the blade of thy sword. Drink-Runes must thou know to make maidens love thee. Thou must carve them on thy drinking horn. Runes of freedom must thou know to deliver the captives. Storm-Runes must thou know, to make thy vessel go safely over the waves. Carve them on the mast and the rudder. Herb-Runes thou must know to cure disease. Carve them on the bark of the tree. Speech-Runes must thou know to defeat thine enemy in council of words, in the Thing. Mind-Runes must thou know to have good and wise thoughts. These are the Book-Runes, and Help-Runes, and Drink-Runes, and Power-Runes, precious for whoever can use them."
The second part of the poetic Edda contains the stories of the old heroes, especially of Sigurd, the Achilles of Northern romance. There is also the Song of Volund, the Northern Smith, the German Vulcan, able to make swords of powerful temper. These songs and ballads are all serious and grave, and sometimes tender, having in them something of the solemn tone of the old Greek tragedy.
The prose Edda, as we have said, was the work of Snorro Sturleson, born in Iceland in 1178. He probably transcribed most of it from the manuscripts in his hands, or which were accessible to him, and from the oral traditions which had been preserved in the memory of the Skalds. His other chief work was the Heimskringla, or collection of Saga concerning the history of the Scandinavians. In his preface to this last book he says he "wrote it down from old stories told by intelligent people"; or from "ancient family registers containing the pedigrees of kings," or from "old songs and ballads which our fathers had for their amusement"
The prose Edda begins with "The deluding of Gylfi," an ancient king of Sweden. He was renowned for his wisdom and love of knowledge, and determined to visit Asgard, the home of the Æsir, to learn something of the wisdom of the gods. They, however, foreseeing his coming, prepared various illusions to deceive him. Among other things, he saw three thrones raised one above another.
"He afterwards beheld three thrones raised one above another, with a man sitting on each of them. Upon his asking what the names of these lords might be, his guide answered: 'He who sits on the lowest throne is a king; his name is Har (the High or Lofty One); the second is Jafnhar (i.e. equal to the High); but he who sitteth on the highest throne is called Thridi (the Third).' Har, perceiving the stranger, asked him what his errand was, adding that he should be welcome to eat and drink without cost, as were all those who remained in Háva Hall. Gangler said he desired first to ascertain whether there was any person present renowned for his wisdom.
"'If thou art not the most knowing,' replied Har, 'I fear thou wilt hardly return safe. But go, stand there below, and propose thy questions; here sits one who will be able to answer them.'
"Gangler thus began his discourse: 'Who is the first, or eldest of the gods?'
"'In our language,' replied Har, 'he is called Alfadir (All-Father, or the Father of All); but in the old Asgard he had twelve names.'
"'Where is this God?' said Gangler; 'what is his power? and what hath he done to display his glory?'
"'He liveth,' replied Har, 'from all ages, he governeth all realms, and swayeth all things great and small.'
"'He hath formed,' added Jafnhar, 'heaven and earth, and the air, and all things thereunto belonging.'
"'And what is more,' continued Thridi, 'he hath made man, and given him a soul which shall live and never perish, though the body shall have mouldered away, or have been burnt to ashes. And all that are righteous shall dwell with him in the place called Gimli, or Vingólf; but the wicked shall go to Hel, and thence to Niflhel, which is below, in the ninth world.'"
Of the creation of the world the Eddas thus speak: In the day-spring of the ages there was neither seas nor shore nor refreshing breeze; there was neither earth below nor heaven above. The whole was only one vast abyss, without herb and without seas. The sun had no palace, the stars no place, the moon no power. After this there was a bright shining world of flame to the South, and another, a cloudy and dark one, toward the North. Torrents of venom flowed from the last into the abyss, and froze, and filled it full of ice. But the air oozed up through it in icy vapors, which were melted into living drops by a warm breath from the South; and from these came the giant Ymir. From him came a race of wicked giants. Afterward, from these same drops of fluid seeds, children of heat and cold, came the mundane cow, whose milk fed the giants. Then arose also, in a mysterious manner, Bor, the father of three sons, Odin, Vili, and Ve, who, after several adventures,—having killed the giant Ymir, and made out of his body Heaven and Earth,—proceeded to form a man and woman named Ask and Embla. Chaos having thus disappeared, Odin became the All-Father, creator of gods and men, with Earth for his wife, and the powerful Thor for his oldest son. So much for the cosmogony of the Edda.
On this cosmogony, we may remark that it belongs to the class of development, or evolution, but combined with a creation. The Hindoo, Gnostic, and Platonic theories suppose the visible world to have emanated from God, by a succession of fallings, from the most abstract spirit to the most concrete matter. The Greeks and Romans, on the contrary, suppose all things to have come by a process of evolution, or development from an original formless and chaotic matter. The resemblance between the Greek account of the origin of gods and men and that of the Scandinavians is striking. Both systems begin in materialism, and are radically opposed to the spiritualism of the other theory; and in its account of the origin of all things from nebulous vapors and heat the Edda reminds us of the modern scientific theories on the same subject.
After giving this account of the formation of the world, of the gods, and the first pair of mortals, the Edda next speaks of night and day, of the sun and moon, of the rainbow bridge from earth to heaven, and of the great Ash-tree where the gods sit in council. Night was the daughter of a giant, and, like all her race, of a dark complexion. She married one of the Æsir, or children of Odin, and their son was Day, a child light and beautiful, like its father. The Sun and Moon were two children, the Moon being the boy, and the Sun the girl; which peculiarity of gender still holds in the German language. The Edda gives them chariot and horses with which to drive daily round the heavens, and supposes their speed to be occasioned by their fear of two gigantic wolves, from Jotunheim, or the world of darkness, which pursue them. The rainbow is named Bifrost, woven of three hues, and by this, as a bridge, the gods ride up every day to heaven from the holy fountain below the earth. Near this fountain dwell three maidens, below the great Ash-tree, who decide every man's fate. These Fates, or Norns, are named Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld,—three words meaning "past," "present," and "future." From Urd comes our word "weird," and the weird sisters of Shakespeare. The red in the rainbow is burning fire, which prevents the frost-giants of Jotunheim from going up to heaven, which they otherwise might do. This region of the gods is called Asgard, and contains Valhalla, where they feast every day, with all heroes who have died in battle; drinking mead, but not out of their enemies' skulls, as has been so often said. This mistake modern scholars have attributed to a mistranslation of a word in the original, which means "curved horns," the passage being, "Soon shall we drink ale out of the curved branches of the skull," that is, of an animal. Their food is the flesh of a boar, which is renewed every day.
It is not to be supposed that Odin and the other gods lived quietly on their Olympus without adventures. Many entertaining ones are narrated in the Edda, had we room to tell them. One of these describes the death of Baldur the Good, whom all beings loved. Having been tormented with bad dreams, indicating that his life was in danger, he told them to the assembled gods, who made all creatures and things, living or dead, take an oath to do him no harm. This oath was taken by fire and water, iron and all other metals, stones, earths, diseases, poisons, beasts, birds, and creeping things. After this, they amused themselves at their meeting in setting Baldur up as a mark; some hurling darts or shooting arrows at him, and some cutting at him with swords and axes; and as nothing hurt him, it was accounted a great honor done to Baldur. But wicked Loki, or Loke, was envious at this; and, assuming the form of a woman, he inquired of the goddess who had administered the oath, whether all things had taken it. She said everything except one little shrub called mistletoe, which she thought too young and feeble to do any harm. Therefore Loki got the mistletoe, and, bringing it to one of the gods, persuaded him to throw it at Baldur, who, pierced to the heart, fell dead. The grief was immense. An especial messenger was despatched to Queen Hela, in Hell, to inquire if, on any terms, Baldur might be ransomed. For nine days and nights he rode through dark chasms till he crossed the river of Death, and entering the kingdom of Hela, made known his request. Hela replied that it should now be discovered whether Baldur was so universally loved as was represented; for that she would permit him to return to Asgard if all creatures and all things, without exception, would weep for him. The gods then despatched messengers through the world to beg all things to weep for Baldur, which they immediately did. Then you might have seen, not only crocodiles but the most ferocious beasts dissolved in tears. Fishes wept in the water, and birds in the air. Stones and trees were covered with pellucid dew-drops, and, for all we know, this general grief may have been the occasion of some of the deluges reported by geology. The messengers returned, thinking the work done, when they found an old hag sitting in a cavern, and begged her to weep Baldur out of Hell. But she declared that she could gain nothing by so doing, and that Baldur might stay where he was, like other people as good as he; planting herself apparently on the great but somewhat selfish principle of non-intervention. So Baldur remains in the halls of Hela. But this old woman did not go unpunished. She was shrewdly suspected to be Loki himself in disguise, and on inquiry so it turned out. Whereupon a hot pursuit of Loki took place, who, after changing himself into many forms, was caught, and chained under sharp-pointed rocks below the earth.
The adventures of Thor are very numerous. The pleasantest, perhaps, is the account of his journey to Jotunheim, to visit his enemies, the giants of Cold and Darkness. On his way, being obliged to pass the night in the forest, he came to a spacious hall, with an open door, reaching from one side to the other. In this he went to sleep, but being aroused by an awful earthquake, Thor and his companions crept into a chamber which opened out of the hall. When day came they found, sleeping near them, an enormous giant, so large, that, as it appeared, they had passed the night in the thumb of his glove. They travelled with him all day; and the next night Thor considered himself justified in killing this giant, who was one of their enemies. Three times he launched his mallet with fearful force at the giant's head, and three times the giant awoke to inquire whether it was a leaf or an acorn which had fallen on his face. After taking leave of their enormous and invulnerable companion, they arrived at the abodes of Jotunheim, and the city of Utgard, and entered the city of the king, Utgard Loki. This king inquired what great feat Thor and his companions could do. One professed to be a great eater; on which the king of giants called one of his servants named Logi, and placed between them a trough filled with meat. Thor's companion ate his share, but Logi ate meat and bone too, and the trough into the bargain, and was considered to have conquered. Thor's other companion was a great runner, and was set to run with a young man named Hugi, who so outstripped him that he reached the goal before the other had gone half-way. Then Thor was asked what he could do himself. He said he would engage in a drinking-match, and was presented with a large horn, and was requested to empty it at a single draught, which he expected easily to do, but on looking in the liquor seemed scarcely diminished. The second time he tried, and lowered it slightly. A third, and it was still only sunk half an inch. Whereupon he was laughed at, and called for some new feat. "We have a trifling game here," answered the king, "in which we exercise none but children. It is merely to lift my cat from the ground." Thor put forth his whole might, but could only lift up one foot, and was laughed at again. Angry at this, he called for some one to wrestle with him. "My men," said King Utgard, "would think it beneath them to wrestle with thee, but let some one call my old nurse Eld, and let Thor wrestle with her." A toothless old woman entered the hall, and after a violent struggle Thor began to lose his footing, and went home excessively mortified. But it turned out afterward that all this was illusion. The three blows of the mallet, instead of striking the giant's head, had fallen on a mountain, which he had dexterously put between, and made three deep ravines in it, which remain to this day. The triumphant eater was Fire itself, disguised as a man. The successful runner was Thought. The horn out of which Thor tried to drink was connected with the ocean, which was lowered a few inches by his tremendous draughts. The cat was the great Midgard Serpent, which goes round the world, and Thor had actually pulled the earth a little way out of its place; and the old woman was Old Age itself.
According to this mythology, there is coming a time in which the world will be destroyed by fire and afterward renewed. This will be, preceded by awful disasters; dreadful winters; wars, and desolations on earth; cruelty and deceit; the sun and moon will be devoured, the stars hurled from the sky, and the earth violently shaken. The Wolf (Fenrir), the awful Midgard Serpent, Loki, and Hela come to battle with the gods. The great Ash-tree will shake with fear. The Wolf (Fenrir) breaks loose, and opens his enormous mouth. The lower jaw reaches to the earth, and the upper to heaven. The Midgard Serpent, by the side of the Wolf, vomits forth floods of poison. Heaven is rent in twain, and Surtur and the sons of Muspell ride through the breach. These are the children of Light and Fire, who dwell in the South, and who seem to belong neither to the race of gods nor to that of giants, but to a third party, who only interfere at the close of the conflict. While the battle goes on between the gods and the giants they keep their effulgent bands apart on the field of battle. Meantime Heimdall—doorkeeper of the gods—sounds his mighty trumpet, which is heard through the whole universe, to summon the gods to conflict. The gods, or Æsir, and all the heroes of Valhalla, arm themselves and go to the field. Odin fights with the Wolf; Thor with the Midgard Serpent, whom he kills, but being suffocated with the floods of venom dies himself. The Wolf swallows Odin, but at that instant Vidar sets his foot on its lower jaw, and laying hold of the upper jaw tears it apart. He accomplishes this because he has on the famous shoe, the materials of which have been collecting for ages, it being made of the shreds of shoe-leather which are cut off in making shoes, and which, on this account, the religious Scandinavians were careful to throw away. Loki and Heimdall fight and kill each other. After this Surtur darts fire over the whole earth, and the whole universe is consumed. But then comes the restitution of all things. There will rise out of the sea a new heaven and a new earth. Two gods, Vidar and Vali, and two human beings, a man and woman, survive the conflagration, and with their descendants occupy the heavens and earth. The suns of Thor come with their father's hammer and put an end to war. Baldur, and Hodur, the blind god, come up from Hell, and the daughter of the Sun, more beautiful than its mother, occupies its place in the skies.
|Written By James Freeman Clarke|
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