EDDAS AND SAGAS
En sång om strålende Valhalla,
Om Gudar och Gudinnar alla.
A song of Vallhall's bright abodes,
Of all the goddesses and gods.
THE ancient religion of Scandinavia, and probably of the whole Gotho-German race, consisted, like all other systems devised by man, in personifications of the various powers of nature and faculties of mind. Of this system in its fulness and perfection we possess no record. It is only from the poems of the elder or poetic Edda, [a] from the narratives of the later or prose Edda and the various Sagas or histories written in the Icelandic language, [b] that we can obtain any knowledge of it.
The poetic or Saemund's Edda was, as is generally believed, collected about the end of the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century by an Icelander named Saemund, and styled Hinns Fròda, or The Wise. It consists of a number of mythological and historical songs, the production of the ancient Scalds or poets, all, or the greater part, composed before the introduction of Christianity into the north. The measure of these venerable songs is alliterative rime, and they present not unfrequently poetic beauties of a high and striking character. [c]
The prose Edda is supposed to have been compiled in the thirteenth century by Snorro Sturleson, the celebrated historian of Norway. It is a history of the gods and their actions formed from the songs of the poetic Edda, and from other ancient poems, several stanzas of which are incorporated in it. Beside the preface and conclusion, it consists of two principal parts, the first consisting of the Gylfaginning (Gylfa's Deception), or Hárs Lygi (Har's i.e. Odin's Fiction), and the Braga-raedur (Braga's Narrative), each of which is divided into several Daemi-sagas or Illustrative Stories; and the second named the Kenningar or list of poetic names and periphrases. [d]
The Gylfa-ginning narrates that Gylfa king of Sweden, struck with the wisdom and power of the Aeser, [e] as Odin and his followers were called, journeyed in the likeness of an old man, and under the assumed name of Ganglar, to Asgard their chief residence, to inquire into and fathom their wisdom. Aware of his design, the Aeser by their magic art caused to arise before him a lofty and splendid palace, roofed with golden shields. At the gate he found a man who was throwing up and catching swords, seven of which were in the air at one time. This man inquires the name of the strange; whom he leads into the palace, where Ganglar sees a number of persons drinking and playing, and three thrones, each set higher than the other. On the thrones sat Har (High), Jafnhar (Equal-high), and Thridi (Third). Ganglar asks if there is any one there wise and learned. Har replies that he will not depart in safety if he knows more than they [f]. Ganglar then commences his interrogations, which embrace a variety of recondite subjects, and extend from the creation to the end of all things. To each he receives a satisfactory reply. At the last reply Ganglar hears a loud rush and noise: the magic illusion suddenly vanishes, and he finds himself alone on an extensive plain.
The Braga-raedur is the discourse of Braga to Aegir, the god of the sea, at the banquet of the Immortals. This part contains many tales of gods and heroes old, whose adventures had been sung by Skalds, of high renown and lofty genius.
Though both the Eddas were compiled by Christians, there appears to be very little reason for suspecting the compilers of having falsified or interpolated the mythology of their forefathers. Saemund's Edda may be regarded as an Anthology of ancient Scandinavian poetry; and the author of the prose Edda (who it is plain did not always understand the true meaning of the tales he related) wrote it as a northern Pantheon and Gradus ad Parnassum, to supply poets with incidents, ornaments, and epithets. Fortunately they did so, or impenetrable darkness had involved the ancient religion of the Gothic stock!
Beside the Eddas, much information is to be derived from the various Sagas or northern histories. These Sagas, at times transmitting true historical events, at other times containing the wildest fictions of romance, preserve much valuable mythic lore, and the Ynglinga, Volsunga, Hervarar, and other Sagas, will furnish many important traits of northern mythology.
It is not intended here to attempt sounding the depths of Eddaic mythology, a subject so obscure, and concerning which so many and various opinions occur in the works of those who have occupied themselves with it. Suffice it to observe that it goes back to the most remote ages, and that two essential parts of it are the Alfar (Alfs or Elves) and the Duergar (Dwarfs), two classes of beings whose names continue to the present day in all the languages of the nations descended from the Gotho-German race.
"Our heathen forefathers," says Thorlacius, [g] "believed, like the Pythagoreans, and the farther back in antiquity the more firmly, that the whole world was filled with spirits of various kinds, to whom they ascribed in general the same nature and properties as the Greeks did to their Daemons. These were divided into the Celestial and the Terrestrial, from their places of abode. The former were, according to the ideas of those times, of a good and elevated nature, and of a friendly disposition toward men, whence they also received the name of White or Light Alfs or Spirits. The latter, on the contrary, who were classified after their abodes in air, sea, and earth, were not regarded in so favourable a light. It was believed that they, particularly the land ones, the δαίμονες έπιχθόνιοι of the Greeks, constantly and on all occasions sought to torment or injure mankind, and that they had their dwelling partly on the earth in great thick woods, whence came the name Skovtrolde [h] (Wood Trolls), or in other desert and lonely places, partly in and under the ground, or in rocks and hills; these last were called Bjerg-Trolde (Hill Trolls): to the first, on account of their different nature, was given the name of Dverge (Dwarf's), and Alve, whence the word Ellefolk, which is still in the Danish language. These Daemons, particularly the underground ones, were called Svartálfar, that is Black Spirits, and inasmuch as they did mischief, Trolls."
This very nearly coincides with what is to be found in the Edda, except that there would appear to be some foundation for a distinction between the Dwarfs and the Dark Alfs. [i]
[a] Edda signifies grandmother. Some regard it as the feminine of othr, or odr, wisdom.
[b] This language is so called because still spoken in Iceland. Its proper name is the Norraena Tunga (northern tongue). It was the common language of the whole North.
[c] see Tales and Popular Fictions, chap. ix.
[d] It was first published by Resenius in 1665.
[e] By the Aeser are understood the Asiatics, who with Odin brought their arts and religion into Scandinavia. This derivation of the word, however, is rather dubious. Though possibly the population and religion of Scandinavia came originally from Asia there seems to be no reason whatever for putting any faith in the legend of Odin. It is not unlikely that the name of their gods, Aeser, gave birth to the whole theory. It is remarkable that the ancient Etrurians also should have called the gods Aesar.
[f] So the lötunn or Giant Vafthrudnir to Odin in the Vafthrudninual--Strophe vii.
[g] Thorlacius, Noget om Thor og hans Hammer, in the Skandinavisk Museum for 1803.
[h] Thorlacius, ut supra, says the thundering Thor was regarded as particularly inimical to the Skovtrolda, against whom be continually employed his mighty weapon. He thinks that the Bidental of the Romans, and the rites connected with it, seem to suppose a similar superstition, and that in the well-known passage of Horace,
Tu parum castis inimica mittes
the words parum castis lucis may mean groves or parts of woods, the haunt of unclean spirits or Skovtrolds, satyri lascivi et salaces. The word Trold will be explained below.
[i] The Dark Alfs were probably different from the Duergar, yet the language of the prose Edda is in some places such as to lead to a confusion of them. The following passage, however, seems to be decisive;
Hrafna-Galdr Othins, xxiv. 7.
And Dark Alfs.
Yet the Scandinavian llterati appear unanimous in regarding them as the same. Grimm, however, agrees with us in viewing the Döck-Alfar as distinct from the Duergar. As the abode of these last is named Svartálfaheimr, lie thinks that the Svartálfar and the Duergar were the same.--Deutsche Mythologie, p. 413, seq. See below, Isle of Rűgen.