Teutonic Myth and Legend, by Donald A. Mackenzie, , at sacred-texts.com
"Teutonic Myth and Legend" applies to the ancient religious conceptions and traditional tales of the "non-Celtic" northern peoples, whom Continental scholars prefer to call "Germanic" in the widest sense of the term. The myths varied in different districts and at different periods. It is doubtful if there ever was in any particular age complete uniformity of religious belief over a wide area of separated States. In fact, there are indications that sects and creeds were at least as numerous among Teutonic peoples in early times as at the present day. Stories repeated orally were also subject to change; they were influenced by popular taste, and rendered more effective by the introduction of local colouring.
Teutonic Mythology survives in its most concrete form in Scandinavian literature. On that account it has to be considered from the northern point of view, although much of it is clearly not of northern origin. Our principal sources of knowledge of this great Pagan religious system are the two Eddas of Iceland.
These Eddas are collections of mythical and heroic poems and stories. One is called the Elder or Poetic Edda; the other, Snorri's or the Prose Edda. The latter was discovered first; it came into the possession of appreciative scholars in the seventeenth century, by whom it was studied and carefully preserved.
The Prose Edda is a synopsis of Northern Mythology, with poetic quotations from lost poems and references to an earlier work. It was partly written and partly compiled by the great Icelandic scholar, Snorri Sturlason. He was born some time between 1179 and 1181, and was the son of a chief. Adopted by the learned Jon Loptsson, grandson of Saemund the Wise, he passed his early years at Oddi, where his literary tendencies were fostered and cultivated. He married a wealthy heiress, and settled in 1206 at Reykjaholt, where he lived in comparative luxury. Nominally a Christian, he was in reality an educated Pagan. He was a poet and historian, a lawyer and a politician; he combined great ambition with want of courage, and avarice with "aversion from effort"; he was also of loose morals. In 1215 he became President of Iceland, and afterwards resided for a time in Norway, where he was a Court poet. In 1222 he was again President of his native island. He held office for about ten years, and exercised his influence at every opportunity to enrich himself. He obtained a divorce from his wife, after living with her for twenty-five years, and married an heiress. It is not surprising, therefore, to find him involved in serious quarrels with his kinsmen. There were also political complications which had a tragic sequel. He was murdered by his son-in-law in 1241, at the instigation of the King of Norway.
In addition to the Prose Edda, Snorri's works included Heimskringla, or Sagas of Norse Kings, which opens with Ynglinga Saga, and the History of Olaf.
The discovery of Snorri's Edda in the seventeenth century caused a search to be made for the older collection to which it referred. Happily the quest was fruitful, and the lost manuscript came into the hands
of an Icelandic bishop, who called it for the first time the "Edda of Saemund".
Saemund was a scion of the royal house of Norway, who was born in 1056 and died in 1133. He studied in France and Germany, and was afterwards parish priest of Oddi in Iceland. According to tradition, he was the author of a prose work on mythology which unfortunately perished. It is probable, however, that Snorri was acquainted with the lost manuscript while resident at Oddi, and he may have used it when compiling the Prose Edda. At any rate, scholars are now agreed that Saemund was neither the author nor compiler of the particular Edda which was long associated with his name.
The Elder Edda is a collection of mythical and heroic poems--lays of the gods and lays of the Volsung and other heroes--by various unknown authors. They are valuable treasures of antiquity, for they throw great light on northern beliefs and manners and customs. Some survive in fragments; others are fairly complete, and are introduced by brief prose summaries. A portion of them were evidently of pre-Christian origin.
As literary productions they are of unequal merit. They are all ear-poems, composed to be sung or recited, and therefore melodious, musically vowelled, and clear, as compared with the eye-poems of many modern authors, which have more harmony than melody, and are composed for the reader. A particular group of these Eddic poems are more dramatic and imaginative than the others, and certain critics are inclined to hold that their high development was caused by Celtic influence. Iceland was peopled not only from Norway, but also from the Hebrides, where the Vikings mingled with the people and married the island maidens. Many
settlers were also of mixed Irish descent. Nor was the old English element absent, as certain borrowed words show clearly. But, when these facts are given adequate consideration, it must be borne in mind that literature, and especially poetry, owes usually more to the individual than to the race. If we knew as little of Keats as we do of the author of Beowulf, it might be held that he was a son of Greek parents who settled in England.
The survival of these Pagan Eddic poems in Christian times is suggestive of the slow extinction of old beliefs. Christianity was adopted in Iceland in 1000, a century after it had spread throughout Norway, and two hundred years before the people of Sweden can be said to have abandoned their ancient religion. It must not be inferred, however, that the Icelanders were exemplary Christians in Saemund's day or even in Snorri's. The bulk of them were, no doubt, half-Pagan, like those Ross-shire Highlanders in the vicinity of Loch Maree, who, as late as the seventeenth century, offered up sacrifices of bulls and performed other heathenish rites, to the horror of the Presbytery of Dingwall. The Icelanders must have clung, long after the introduction of Christianity, to the Pagan beliefs and practices of the great sea kings. They continued, we know, to chant the lays and recite the old traditional tales about the gods and ocean heroes of the mother country. The collectors may, indeed, have had more than a literary appreciation of oral song and haunting tradition.
When Snorri was a boy, a Danish priest named Saxo was engaged writing a history of his native land. The first nine books are like the Histories of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, for they are founded on the traditional poems and tales of the time. Saxo Grammaticus ("the Lettered") writes of Odin and the
other gods as if they were men, and when he refers to them as "gods" he takes occasion to scorn the hollowness of the claim, rarely failing to comment on the absurdity of the beliefs entertained by ignorant people. His history is a quarry of folklore and romance. To it we owe our Shakespeare's Hamlet, for the story which is retold in these pages from the Danish priest's immortal work, was the original source of our great poet's inspiration.
This "history" is indispensable to students of Scandinavian religion. Rydberg, the poet and folklorist of Sweden, is the author of a monumental work on Teutonic Mythology, 1 in which he made exhaustive and critical examination of the tales embedded in Saxo's works, showing their relation to the Eddas and Sagas and existing oral poems of the north, and making masterly endeavour by their aid to reconstruct the great mythological drama of the northern peoples. He has not escaped criticism, but his reputation has withstood much of it. On every point he has raised he cannot be regarded as conclusive, but no scholar before or since has shown greater aptitude for restoring form from mythological chaos. His intimate knowledge of his native lore gave him special equipment for his work. Not infrequently scholars, by a process of detached reasoning, miss the mark when dealing with folklore, because their early years, unlike Rydberg's, were not passed in its strange atmosphere. The theorist is never as reliable as he who was aforetime a faithful believer in giants and elves, spirit voices and awesome omens.
"No one," wrote Frederick York Powell, 2 "has
commented upon Saxo's mythology with such brilliancy, such minute consideration, and such success as the Swedish scholar, Victor Rydberg. . . . Sometimes he stumbles badly, but he has placed the whole subject on a fresh footing, and much that is to follow will be drawn from his Teutonic Mythology."
To Rydberg the writer owns his indebtedness in the present work, a portion of which is constructed according to his conclusions.
Edda is a word of uncertain origin. In a twelfth-century poem it is used to mean "great grandmother", and it is suggested that late sceptical compilers applied it to signify "old wives' tales". The theory has a somewhat modern note, for in legends, especially those of Scotland, the "old wife" is either feared or respected. The Hag, who is the terrible mother of giants, is called Cailleach Mor, "the big old wife", and the wise witch who imparts secrets and powers to men is simply "old wife".
Edda became associated in Iceland with the technical rules of verse. "Never to have seen Edda" signified a complete ignorance of poetic art, so it may be that among a mingled people the "great grandmother" was an imported Muse of a Matriarchal tribe. Saga, we know, was individualized as a maiden, and was wooed by Odin. A recent theory 1 is that Edda is derived from "Oddi", the place where Saemund preached and Snorri studied.
The Eddas are, of course, the collected folk-songs and folk-tales of the northern peoples. In addition we have also available, for purposes of study, other old manuscripts and a considerable mass of valuable lore gleaned in recent years from oral sources, as well as the renowned surviving Sagas and minor poems of the skalds (song-smiths), which abound with mythological references.
Some folk-tales are fragments of forgotten mythologies; others are part of the floating material from which mythologies were made. The two classes should therefore be studied together for purposes of elucidation, while consideration must ever be given to folk-customs which also enshrine ancient religious beliefs. The gods evolved from beliefs, and these loomed vast and vague on man's mental horizon ere they were given definite and symbolic expression. Indeed, detached stories of gods, especially Nature-gods, must have existed for indefinite periods ere they were subjected to a unifying process and embraced in a complete philosophy of life. A Mythology, therefore, must not be regarded as a spontaneous creation of a particular Age, but rather as a growth which had of necessity a history like, for instance, the Art of a finely sculptured stone, or that of the shapely and decorated Celtic bronze shield found embedded in Thames mud.
Matthew Arnold regarded poetry as a "criticism of life". That definition may, in a restricted sense, be applied to a Mythology, especially one of highly developed and complicated construction. We can conclude that it evolved from a school of thought which made critical selection of existing material when the work was undertaken of systematizing religious beliefs to suit the needs of a particular Age. As religion and law had in ancient times most intimate association, an official religion was ever a necessity in a well-organized State, and especially in one composed of mingled peoples. A Mythology, therefore, was probably the product of a national movement, and closely connected with the process of adjusting laws and uniting tribes under a central government. In the union and classification of gods we have suggested the union of peoples and the
probable political relations of one tribe with another. No deity could be overlooked, if the interests of all sections were to be embraced, because the destinies of each were controlled by a particular god or group of gods of immemorial import. The gods of subject peoples would, of course, become subject to those of their rulers.
A Mythology was therefore not only a criticism; it was also a compromise. The lesser gods were accepted by those who imposed the greater, and new tales had to be invented to adjust their relationships one to another. Contradictory elements were thus introduced. The gods differed greatly. Some had evolved from natural phenomena; others were deified heroes. A seaside tribe showed reverence to gods which had origin in their own particular experiences and ideals, which differed to a marked degree from those, for instance, of an inland, forest-dwelling people. Settled communities and nomadic peoples professed beliefs in accordance with their particular modes of life. Between the various classes of a single social organization, even, there would exist religious conceptions which were fundamentally opposed. Invaders who formed a military aristocracy would import and perpetuate their own particular beliefs and rites, while those of the conquered people continued as aforetime. Indeed, archæological remains demonstrate to the full that different burial customs were practised simultaneously in the same district, although each had origin in religious conceptions of divergent character. Two examples may be cited--(1) the crouched burial with food vessel, associated with the belief that the spirits of the dead haunted the place of interment and had to be propitiated, and (2) the cremation burial which ensured that the spirit, like that of Patroklos, would never again return from Hades when it had received its meed of fire
[paragraph continues] (Iliad xxiii. 75). In our northern tales there are evidences of various burial customs. Balder is cremated in Asgard, but he is interred in a barrow in the heroic story from Saxo. Beowulf and Sigurd are burned, Helgi is given sepulture in a mound, and Sigmund and his son are enclosed in a chambered grave when buried alive.
But while peoples who were mingled together practised different religious rites, invaders ever showed reverence, as did the Romans, to local gods and local beliefs. In the process of time one section would be influenced by the other. A fusion of religions would result from a fusion of peoples, but every district and every community would not be similarly affected. The clash of ideas would also be productive of speculative thought, and each Age would contribute something new from its accumulated ideas and experiences. Yet in the midst of the mass of floating lore there would ever survive beliefs of remote conception, for a folk-religion is conservative in essence. A people's inherited superstitions are not readily eradicated. The past endures in the present. Even in our own day folk-beliefs and folk-customs of Pagan origin have tardy survival after many long centuries of Christian influence.
When, therefore, the thinkers and teachers of Scandinavia framed their great Mythological system, they had to select and compromise; they were not only critics but diplomatists as well. New tales had to be invented, and old tales adjusted, to instruct and convert and unite all sections. Social relationships were given a religious bearing; the gods of the common people were shown to be subject to those of their rulers. All outstanding popular beliefs had to be accounted for, with the result that heroic tales were mingled with Nature myths, and the whole was infused with ethical and political purpose.
[paragraph continues] The Mythology was thus coloured by the thought of the times and the conditions and character of the people, while it was given, of course, appropriate setting amidst local scenery.
Northern Teutonic Mythology must have had gradual growth. It appears to have attained its highest development in the Viking Age, when a united and masterful people, stirred, no doubt by well-organized political conditions, to a great awakening, spread far and wide to impose their rule and their culture upon alien peoples. When earlier migrations took place, amidst the battle storms of violent tribal fusion, the new religious system was in process of formation. The Angles and Saxons, for instance, were not greatly influenced by the Odin cult when they reached these island shores. Their deified tribal heroes were still predominant. That has been made abundantly clear by Stopford Brooke in his masterly study, History of Early English Literature.
So far as we are able to reconstruct the Mythology--nor can we expect complete agreement among the experts in this regard--it appears to have been highly developed and adjusted to the minutest detail. The official religion, of course, may not have been accepted in its completeness by all classes; sections may have still clung to favoured deities, while they recognized others unknown to their ancestors. Odin, we know, was esteemed more highly by scholarly skalds than by fighting men, who continued to exalt and worship Thor as chief or most influential god, and to repose their trust in the magical influence exercised in battle by the shadowy but ancient war-god Tyr. No doubt the teachers remained the while serenely confident that ultimately the spirit-god would be held in greater regard by thinking men than gods of physical might. But the growth of
this great Pagan mythology was arrested by the gradual advance of Christianity, and it is given popular reconstruction in these pages as it possibly existed, especially ill the north, when the influence of the new and greater religion coloured the Balder story, and the idea was interpolated of a greater All-father than Odin. The Saxo stories are drawn upon to fill gaps, although gaps may have ever existed. We may add that we call the Mythology Northern Teutonic in preference to "Germanic", because of its geographical setting, and for the pregnant reason that it has survived mainly in the form given to it by the mingled peoples of the North.
The local character of this particular mythological system is strongly emphasized in "the story of creation". Only a Northern people living in close proximity to Arctic ice-fields could have conceived of a chaos-gulf bounded on the north by a cold and darksome Nifelheim, and on the south by a warm and bright Muspelheim. Life begins to be when and where the ice-blocks are thawed. The gods and their doings are also coloured by their Scandinavian environment. "Light -battles" and fierce Nature-wars are emphasized in a land of pronounced seasonal changes. No matter whence certain deities; were imported, here in the land of long winter nights they are acclimatized and naturalized. They contend against indigenous frost-giants; they fight and then become the allies of indigenous Vana-gods; they visit a sea-folk's terrible storm-god Æger in his hall at the sea bottom; they acquire northern temperaments and become fatalists like all seafarers, ancient and modern.
Teutonic gloom overspreads Teutonic Mythology. Odin and his Asa clan live ever under the shadow of Ragnarok, "The Dusk of the gods". This gloom hangs heavily as northern storm-clouds over early "Teutonic"
literature. It haunts the Eddas and Sagas; it permeates Anglo-Saxon poetry. Dr. Clark Hall says of Beowulf, "There is undoubtedly less colour about the second part than the first, and more gloom. The habit of foreboding which is noticeable in Part I is so prominent in Part II as to give a general tone of fatalistic hopelessness to it. Sunshine and shadow no longer alternate shadow is over all." The same comment might be applied with equal force to the Nibelungenlied. Although "gloomy" and "Celtic" have become synonymous terms of late years, yet Celtic (Irish) Mythology and old Gaelic literature both in Scotland and in Ireland strike, in comparison with what is termed Teutonic, a brighter and more cheerful note. It may be that the gloom is aboriginal--pre-Celtic and pre-Teutonic--a shadow of primitive but persistent mental habits.
In Teutonic Mythology, as in Greek, there are evidences of remote race-memories. The Asiatic "broad-heads" who crossed Europe in "waves", which began to arrive in the vast periods of the late Stone Age, must have imported not only new customs and new weapons, but also fragments of immemorial myths. Superstitions survive longer than stone monuments, and they pass through language to language, and from land to land, with the buoyancy of American timber which drifts across the Atlantic to Hebridean shores. An instance may be noted in the northern "Story of Creation". The body of Ymer, the chaos-giant, is cut to pieces; his flesh and bones become soil and rocks; his skull is the sky dome; his progeny is engulfed in his blood, which is the sea. Babylonian tablets relate a similar story. In the beginning Bel-Merodach slew the chaos-giantess Tiawath; he cut up her body, and with one part he framed the earth and with the other the heavens. Her blood was forced
to flow southward by a strong north wind--it became the river which filled the sea.
Comparisons may also be drawn between Teutonic and Greek Mythologies. But these will be found to be of slighter character. Those elements, common to both, which are not Asiatic may be of early Mediterranean origin, for as ancient cities lie below ancient cities) so do ancient mythologies rest upon the wrecks of others of still greater antiquity. As Jubainville has shown in Le Cycle Mythologique Irlandais et la Mythologie Celtique, Greek and Celtic are closely related and mainly of common origin. They are children of one mother; but Scandinavian Mythology cannot be regarded as other than a distant relation.
In all three Mythologies there is a central Nature-myth tragedy. In Greek it is the slaying of Night by Dawn. Hermes, surnamed Argeiphontes, in his character as Dawn-god, slays Argus, the many-eyed, who is Night, with a round stone, which is the Sun. In Celtic (Irish) Mythology the Dawn-god, Lugh, kills Balor of the Evil-eye, who is Night, with the same round sun-stone. The myth also applies to the slaying of Winter by Summer and of Evil by Good. The tragedy of Scandinavian Mythology, on the other hand, is the slaying of Day (or Summer) by Night (or Winter). Blind Hoder shoots Balder (in his Edda character as Summer Sun-god) with the wintry mistletoe-arrow. He is prompted by Loke, the Scandinavian Mephistopheles, who plots to hasten the downfall of the gods. Light is thus overcome by Darkness, Summer by Winter, and Good by Evil.
Another broad and fundamental contrast is afforded by the conceptions of Night in the Northern and other European Mythologies. Instead of the tyrannical Balor of Ireland, or the monstrous Argus of Greece, we have
the beneficent northern Night-goddess Nat, daughter of Mimer (Wisdom) and sister of Urd (Fate). She brings to mankind refreshment and inspiration. Her lover is Delling, the red elf of dawn, and their son is Dag (Day).
Nat is evidently of eastern origin. In the Rig-veda the goddess of night (dark daughter of day) is, like Nat, both noble of aspect and character; she "increases riches". In the tenth Mandala she is thus addressed:--
Kind goddess, be propitious to thy servants
Who at thy coming straightway seek repose.
. . . . . .
Drive thou away from us, O Night, the wolf,
Drive thou away the thief, and bear us safely
Across thy borders. . . .
In Teutonic Mythology, Evil is not necessarily associated with Darkness. The tempter and plotter is handsome Loke in his character as a fire-god; he is evidently an ally of Surtur, who burns up the world at Ragnarok. Loke is corrupted by the Hag of Ironwood, the "Mother of Evil", whose evil progeny includes the fierce wolves--one of which swallows the moon, while the other devours Odin--the great Midgard Serpent, and the repulsive, torture-loving Hel. Her Babylonian counterpart is Tiawath, among whose offspring are immense serpents, fiery dragons, raging hounds, fish-men, &c. The Northern Hag's husband, Gymer, is keeper of her flock, as is also the husband, Kingu, of Tiawath's.
The World, according to northern belief, is supported by a great tree which is ever green. This conception is not peculiar to Scandinavia, but nowhere else is an ash-tree similarly exalted in dignity. At its roots are three wells, and in one is a gnawing dragon or serpent. The gods dwell under its branches; they sit in judgment upon the dead beneath the ash in the Underworld. It
trembles when Ragnarok is at hand; it is the oracle. Evidently the worship of trees and wells was so prevalent in the north, that no more popular idea could be conceived than that of a tree-supported universe. Even in our own day the superstitious reverence shown for "wishing-wells" is not uncommon, and the trees connected with them still flutter with prayer-rags. In Celtic Mythology, Dagda, the oak-god, has for wife Boann, the River Boyne. The well at the river source is one of the many celebrated in dragon-myth story. Finn Magnusen would have us regard "the world-tree" as the symbol of universal nature, but it was more probably a concession to popular belief, and dignified to accord with the general mythological scheme.
Odin would appear to have been originally an isolated tribal god--a deified martial chief, who became associated with a Nature Myth. He is a war-god and a magician; he controls battles and is the inventor of runes; he hangs on the world-ash, which bears one of his names, "Ygg's gallows" (Ygdrasil), as if he were, as he probably was, a king who was sacrificed. Yet his universal character is emphasized by his sky-dome hat and sky cloak flecked with cloud-spots. He is a one-eyed giant, a Cyclops; his lost eye sinks in Mimer's well as the sun sinks in the sea. He is also the wind-god--the Wild Huntsman in the Raging Host. As wind-god he is the "spirit-god" in accordance with the widespread association of "wind" and "breath" and "soul" (spirit, for in stance, is derived from spiro, I breathe). He gives "soul" to the logs of ash and alder which become the first man and the first woman. He is All-father, the framer of the world. Odin was probably exalted, because he was the spirit-god, by the wise men of Scandinavia, and made chief ruler in their Asgard, but his connection with the
other gods is slight and arbitrary. Thor, his son, was originally an oak-god, and, like Jupiter, is wielder of the thunderbolt. It is, however, in keeping with the sublime character of Northern Teutonic Mythology that the "spirit-god" should be supreme, and the constant friend of his kinsman Mimer (Wisdom), whose daughter is Urd (Fate).
The giant stories were constructed on a lower plane of thought. A single exception is Thor's adventure in the palace of Utgard-Loki, where he wrestles in vain with the Hag, who is Old Age, and endeavours to drink up the ocean. The mythical interpretations of the others cannot be pressed too closely, lest more be read into them than was ever intended. It is evident that the reciter's imagination was allowed to run riot, and that the narratives assumed their extended form as popular wonder-tales.
When the tribal heroes of northern peoples were glorified by story-tellers, they were invariably depicted as giant-killers. In the half-mythical history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Corineus contended successfully against the giants of Cornwall--he slew them in dozens--and after wrestling with the greatest, Goemagot, he cast him over a cliff. Siegfried, in the Nibelungenlied, and Dietrich, in his Thunor (Thor) character, are also slayers of giants. In Highland giant-lore there are several similar heroes who, like Thor, are friends of the agricultural people. The hunting-folks had their own hunting-giants, like the Highland Finn and his warrior band, who are not militiamen as in Ireland.
It has been remarked that the Northern Teutonic frost-giants are indigenous. But there is another class of giants who are as widely scattered as the drinking-cup urns of the ancient and mysterious people that settled
in the fertile districts of these islands and of Scandinavia, and have been traced through mid-Europe. These are the Mountain -giants. In the neglected archaic lore of Scotland they are called Fomors 1, but they are not the Fomors of Ireland, nor have they a necessary connection with the sea or with darkness. As river-goddesses in flight are personifications of rivers, so do these Fomors personify the hills they inhabit. Scottish mountain-giants never leave their mountains. They fight continuously one against the other, tossing boulders over wide valleys or arms of the sea. To each is allowed one throw daily: A flings his boulder against B on Monday; B retaliates on Tuesday, and so on. The Holmgang duel would therefore appear to be of hallowed antiquity. These giants sleep at night and share men's terrors in darkness. Three friendly Inverness giants throw from one to the other, each morning, a stone hammer to signify that all is well. Greater than the males are their mothers, the Hags 2, who also fight with boulders, but have power to change their shapes. There are also Thunder-cloud hags who throw fireballs, tempest-hags, firebrand-hags, sea-hags, &c. They invariably wrestle with human beings like the giants of Cornwall.
Another class of Scottish giants inhabit caves, and some of them are many-headed. They hoard and guard treasure. Heroes who fight against them are invariably assisted by dogs (dogs "which have their day"), and they are instructed by indispensable wise women 3 who possess magic wands. What appears to be the oldest Thor story belongs to this class. When Thor sets out to visit Geirrod
he has neither hammer nor belt of strength. The Hag Grid, like the Scottish "wise-woman", warns and instructs him, and gives him her belt and magic wand. In this story Thor flings a boulder and breaks the back of a giantess. He may have wielded thunder-boulders ere his iron hammer was invented.
Scottish giants, therefore, are more like the Scandinavian than the Irish variety. If it is held that they were imported by the Vikings, it might be asked why Thor was forgotten, and why the Asa-gods and the Vans were left behind? If they are classed as Irish, it should be noted that the Danann gods, who overcame the Fomors in Erin, are not found in Scotland. Call it be maintained that the Irish brought over their "gods of Night" and left behind their "gods of Day"? In Wales and Cornwall there are also giants of the Scottish type. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in fact, tells us that giants were the sole inhabitants of ancient Britain when Brute and the first men arrived.
Beyond the realms of Gaul, beneath the sunset
Lieth an island, girt about by ocean,
Guarded by ocean--erst the haunt of giants. 1
S. Evans's Trans.
It would appear that archaic giant-lore is pre-Celtic and pre-Teutonic, and therefore a common inheritance. In the wars of the Olympians and Titans, of the Irish Danann gods and the Fomors, and of the Asa-gods and the Jotuns, we may have echoes of ancient racial conflicts. The old tribal peoples attributed their successes to their gods, and remembered their battles as the battles of rival gods. For these giants are also gods of archaic conception. In Scotland certain of them are associated with the fortunes of families and tribes. On the other hand, gods
are but exalted giants; the boisterous Olympians find their counterpart in the boisterous Scandinavian Jotuns rather than in the more refined Asa-gods and Vans.
With these giants are associated the elves. In Teutonic lore, which is not necessarily wholly of Teutonic origin, the male elves predominate. In Scotland, as in Greece, elves are mainly females, who are ruled over by a queen. There are also Scottish fairy-smiths, but they are one-eyed and Cyclopean, and not always distinguishable from giants. In fact, the Fian-giants are confused with fairies in ail Inverness mound, and Thomas the Rhymer is added in the character of one of the "Seven Sleepers". Danann gods and fairies are similarly mingled in Ireland. It should be noted in this connection that Teutonic elf-smiths are allies of the giants, and they are sometimes stronger than them. When Siegfried overcame the giant doorkeeper of Nibelung, he found that the dwarf was a still more powerful opponent. Thor is friendly with the elves, but Svipdag, son of Egil, the elf, destroys the thunder-god's hammer with the "Sword of Victory".
The other class of elves--the "Light-elves"--are vaguely defined in Northern Teutonic Mythology. Frey was their ruler in his youth, which suggests that he is himself an elf exalted to a god. The wise Vans are also elfin in character, and were probably the spirit-folk of ail early seafaring people. The story of the unhappy marriage of Njord and Skade may contain a germ of historic fact-the uncongenial association of a tribe of seafarers with a tribe of huntsmen.
The female elves of the commoner type become valkyries; they are also swan-maidens who have tragic liaisons with mankind. Brynhild is a swan-maiden and a valkyrie; she is also in the Nibelungenlied a boulder
throwing hag. The Balder story, regarding which much has been written, is not, therefore, the only one that underwent radical changes in the process of Mythology-making. According to Professor Frazer in the Golden Bough, Balder was originally a tree-god whose soul was in the mistletoe. The theory is as weighty as is the reputation of that Darwin of folklore.
But perhaps the most interesting class of elves are the sons of Ivalde--Volund and his brothers. They display the attributes now of dwarfs, now of giants, and anon of star deities. It would appear that they absorbed more than one ancient personality in an older Mythology than that in which the Odin cult predominates. Rydberg shows that Volund (Wieland) and the giant Thjasse are indistinguishable. A close study of northern folklore supports that view, and an intimate acquaintance with the mental habits of fairy-and-giant-believing people assists one to appreciate it fully. Thjasse is the only giant who is winged like Volund, as Loke and Freyja are the only members of the Asa-clan who can assume bird guise. Thjasse and Volund are also symbolized as mountain wolves; they are both star deities; they are more like one another than the two Balders, and appear to be products of the same ancient welded lore of an earlier mythological system.
In the Northern "Story of Creation" these elves, or black dwarfs, are, it is evident, intentionally belittled. They have their origin, like maggots, in Ymer's flesh. Yet they provide the gods with indispensable gifts--Odin with his spear, Thor with his hammer, and Frey with his boar and wondrous ship. In Thjasse's flight to Asgard we may have a story invented purposely to account for his fall, because, like Odin, he is a spirit-god. His other names, Byrr and Gustr, signify wind and gale.
It is not possible now to reconstruct what appears to be a pre-Odin-cult Mythology, in which Ivalde and his sons predominate. The "Milky Way" is "Irmin's Way", and Irmin, invoked by old Hildebrand in the Dietrich story, is "the ruling god It is also Bil's way (Bil is Ivalde's daughter), and as "Bil-rost", according to Rydberg, is the original of Bif-rost. The Anglo-Saxons called the "Milky Way" "Watling Street". 1
Volund's brother Egil, the archer, is associated with the clouds and the sea. Sleet and rain are his arrows; his arrows are also "herrings that leap from the hands of Egil", and herrings are "arrows of the sea". 2 Egil's son, the Iceland Hamlet, is the guardian of the World-Mill; his son Svipdag, with shining sword, resembles a light-hero.
In the older moon-myth Gevar, the Gewar of the Hother-Balder story, is the ward of the moon-ship, and it is attacked and burned by Ivalde. The myth is obscure but suggestive; it survives in fragments only. The swan-maids are wooed by Ivalde's three sons, and Ivalde and Gevar have quarrelled violently as rival lovers.
This group are hunters, skee-runners, and musicians. They are also connected with an early form of the Balder story. Svipdag, as Hotherus, is the wooer of Gevar's daughter Nanna, and Balder, his rival, falls a victim to his "magic sword" in the heroic story in Saxo. If Balder, as a tree-god, was associated with the tree-well, he may have wooed Nanna of the moon by reflecting her image. In this connection it may be noted that wells sprang up in the hoof marks of Balder's horse,
and in Saxo's story he provides wells for his thirsting soldiers. His rival would thus be the light-hero Svipdag, with his shining summer sword, which was concealed for a season in the Underworld cave where lie the Seasonal "Seven Sleepers". In Northern Teutonic Mythology the popular Balder becomes the Summer Sun-god. instead of Svipdag, and the only husband of Nanna. If the original story was thus transformed by displacing or changing a hero, the process is a familiar one. The shadowy Hoder may be the original rival lover altered to fit into the new mythological system.
It is to this group of ancient tales of rival lovers and swan-maids and moon-maids that we owe the treasures of Middle Age popular romance. The Volsunga-saga and the Nibelungenlied and the Balder heroic story were developed from what Rydberg calls the "Ivalde myth". Svipdag, too, is the original of Siegfried and Sigurd. In his character as a wronged son he suggests Hamlet and Finn-mac-Coul. The latter has a hammer (Ord na Feinne) which links him with Thor, as Thor links with the other giant-killers-Sigurd, Siegfried, and Dietrich. A tribal hero invariably absorbs the attributes of his predecessors, and develops and changes to suit the tastes of audiences and minstrels in various ages and in various countries. In Scandinavia, when the Asa-gods were threatened by the advance of Christianity, Svipdag, as Eric, was exalted as a rival to Christ, and suffered the fate of being associated with the Devil, who was afterwards called "old Erik". Odin was similarly treated; as Nik he became "the old Nick" of Perdition. Finn-mac-Coul was also pictured by early Christian missionaries as an inhabitant of "the lower regions."
The Beowulf story is an interesting link between the
heroic lore of the northern Continental peoples and that of the early Britons. Beowulf, like Dietrich, may have been a historical personage, but in the poem he is a hero of the Svipdag order, yet not necessarily a "light-hero". He slays the warrior-devouring Grendel. Dietrich, in one of the poems of his cycle, also rids the neighbourhood of Attila's court of a man-eating monster. In the next part of Beowulf, which is evidently an addition, whether by the same author or another it matters not here, the hero slays Grendel's mother. Although the poet suggests that she is less formidable than her son, she proves to be a more ferocious opponent. Only by the familiar "magic sword" can she be slain. In this respect she resembles Hilde, the wife of Grim, in the Dietrich story; but she bears a closer resemblance to the British Hag, the mother of the giants. Finn-mac-Coul, when in "The Kingdom of Big Men," had similarly, after slaying sea-giants, to contend against the terrible Sea-Hag-mother. There are several similar stories in Highland giant-lore, and no doubt they were prevalent at one time throughout Britain, especially among members or descendants of the Matriarchal tribes referred to by Cæsar.
Stopford Brooke, in his History of Early English Literature, "wonders if the Grendel tale may not be a Celtic story which in very ancient times became Teutonic," and quotes the close Icelandic parallel, the Glam story. "It is a curious question," he says, "how it came to pass that the story of Beowulf and Grendel did not, like the other Sagas of the north, become a part of the north German cycle of romance. . . . I have sometimes thought that the Angles alone threw the myths and tales of it into lays, and that when the whole body of them emigrated to our island, they left the Continent naked
of the tale. . . . I conjecture that something broke the literary connection on the Continent, or that the story was developed only when the Angles got into Britain." The latter supposition, considered in the light of existing Scottish giant-lore, which was evidently at one time general in ancient Britain, is the more convincing of the two. The theory of a complete and wholesale Anglian migration is as improbable as the theory of a complete and wholesale extermination of the early Britons, which, although still surviving, has really no reliable basis. Dr. Clark Hall, the scholarly translator and editor of Beowulf, accepts the hero as "a thoroughly historical character". So was Dietrich as the Emperor Theodoric. But while, like Stopford Brooke and other rationalistic critics, he dismisses the solar-myth theory, he errs, we think, in the opposite direction. He says: "Is it not possible that besides performing many heroic deeds in war against ordinary mortals, our hero (Beowulf) had two or three mysterious encounters with wild beasts, which grew into our Grendel and dragon stories by the process of exaggeration. . . . I have myself heard, in the nineteenth century, from the lips of an ancient mariner, a passably truthful and not very imaginative man, an amazing yarn about a sea serpent which I have no doubt had some foundation in fact." 1
To the audiences who heard the Beowulf poem sung, Grendel was as real as the hero; and no doubt there were, in those ancient days, many similar tales which perished because no great poet enshrined them in enduring verse.
It is believed by scholars that Beowulf was composed in the early part of the eighth century. Whether it was the work of one man or of several is a disputed point.
[paragraph continues] There appears, however, to be general agreement that it is of Pagan origin, and that the Christian references are interpolations. The only surviving manuscript, which is in the handwriting of two copyists, is preserved in the British Museum. "There are clear indications," says Dr. Clark Hall, "that the poem was originally composed in the Anglian (probably Mercian) dialect, but it has come down to us in West Saxon, with some Kentish forms, in the part copied by the second scribe."
Scattered through the poem are older stories told by the minstrels, including the myths of Scyld and Hermod and the ancient Sigmund story, which found its highest artistic development in the Volsunga-saga and Nibelungenlied. Reference has already been made to the theory that certain lays of the Elder Edda show traces of British influence. Those students who desire to have fuller knowledge of the literature, mythology, and history of our mingled ancestors may examine with profit the conjectures of the various scholars, including Schwartz, Frazer, Bugge, Stopford Brooke, York Powell, Vigfusson, and others.
The Nibelungenlied, or "Lay of the Nibelung", dates in its united form from the latter part of the twelfth century, and is supposed to be, as a poem, of Austrian or Tyrolese origin; but on this point there is no generally accepted opinion. The versification is in Middle High German. There is a large number of existing old manuscripts. The three most important were made by copyists in the thirteenth century. When the oldest of these was discovered in 1755, it was published by a Swiss scholar. Other manuscripts were subsequently brought to light, but the first complete published edition did not attract much attention. In
fact, Frederick the Great, to whom it was dedicated, refused to have it in his library, and said it was hardly worth a charge of powder. To-day it is the pride of the Fatherland.
It is evident that the Sigurd and Siegfried stories had a common origin in an ancient nature myth of which the Svipdag legend is an early form. The stories developed as popular stories; their mythological significance was forgotten, and, in course of time, historical personages were identified with certain of the characters. Other legends, like those of Helgi in the Norse version, and of Dietrich in the German, were also attached to the original plot. Both great Sagas were coloured by the civilizations in which they developed.
How floating myths and legends gathered round the memory of a popular hero is clearly shown in the lays of the Dietrich cycle. Dietrich Von Bern is Theoderic the Great. 1 Although he was born two years after the death of Attila, Emperor of the Huns, he is found at his Court in the Nibelungenlied. Ermenerich (Hermanric) was Emperor of the Ostrogoths, and, when an old man, his dominions were overrun by fiery and savage Huns from Asia. He is believed to have died on the battlefield, where his power was shattered (about 374 A.D.). The Ostrogoths were subject to the Huns until Attila's death in 453 A.D. King Walamer defeated them in a great battle in 454 A.D., and once again the Ostrogoths were made independent. The king's two brothers were Theudemir, father of Theoderic (Dietrich) and Widemer, and they were subsidized from Rome for protecting the frontiers of the Eastern Empire. When payment was suddenly discontinued, Illyria was successfully invaded by Widemer, with the result that the treat), was renewed. Theoderic
was taken as a peace hostage to Constantinople, where he resided for ten years and received a Roman education. Theudemir succeeded his brother, and when he died, Theoderic ruled the wandering Ostrogoths.
In 480 A.D. Odoacer, a German captain of mercenaries, deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last of the Western Emperors, who was but a boy of seventeen. Eight years later Zeno, the Eastern Emperor, commissioned Theoderic to invade Italy. Odoacer was overthrown, and our Dietrich of the legends became a great and powerful king in Rome, owing nominal allegiance to the Eastern Emperor. He died in 526, and was buried in a great marble tomb at Ravenna. A fine statue of him, clad in full armour, may be seen in the church of the Franciscans at Innsbruck.
In the Dietrich story Ermenerich is confused with Odoacer, and the hero is depicted as an exile, and thus identified with his father. A mass of floating legends attached to the memory of Dietrich, including the Hildebrand story, which originated in the ancient and world-wide father-and-son conflict theme, and the myths of Thunor (Thor) the thunder-god, the slayer of giants and dwarfs. But even Thor has his human side. He may have been originally a tribal hero who was identified both with an oak-deity and the central figure of a Nature-myth. 1 He remains "the friend of man" even when elevated to Asgard. All the heroes of the minstrels of Europe link one with another as the fictional descendants of an ancient deified personage, or a
humanized deity, of a remoter and simpler mythology than that in which Odin is the chief ruler.
One of the most interesting problems associated with Teutonic Mythology refers to the story of the "Seven Sleepers". Mimer's seven sons lie in magic sleep in the Underworld, awaiting the blast of the horn at Ragnarok. This horn hangs in a cave. Thorkill, who visited Geirrod's domains with King Gorm and his company, saw the suspended horn which turned into a dragon when a man seized it greedily.
Rydberg argued that the various "Seven Sleepers" legends in Europe and North Africa originated in Scandinavia, and were distributed by the northern warriors who overran Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, and Egypt. His main argument rests on one very remarkable coincidence. The "Seven Sleepers" of Ephesus were Christians who were condemned to death by the Emperor Decius. They were given time to renounce their faith, but concealed themselves in a cave, where they lay wrapped in sleep "for 360 years". 1 During the reign of Theodosius, the Roman Emperor, a shepherd entered the cave, and the sleepers were awakened. Rydberg notes that Decius fell in battle with the Goths "who a few years later invaded Asia Minor and captured Ephesus among other places".
Seven men, who were attired like Romans, lay asleep in a cave in Western Germany. An eighth-century legend relates that a man who discovered them attempted to disrobe one, and his arm withered. In the vicinity dwelt a tribe of Skritobians (Skridfinns).
In Arabia a dog lies with "the sleepers". Mahomet made them foretell his coming, and the dog, named
[paragraph continues] Kratim, is one of the ten animals which will enter Paradise.
If the legend originated in Scandinavia, it is a curious fact that this dog should be found also in the Highland stories, with which Rydberg and others who have dealt with the legend were unfortunately unacquainted. The sleepers are found in Craig-a-howe, Black Isle; Ossian's Cave, Glencoe; and Smith's Rock, in Skye. In each case they are Fians (Fingalians), and beside Finn-mac-Coul lies his dog Bran. 1 In Tomnahurich, Inverness, the chief steeper is Thomas the Rhymer, who also reposes under the Eildon hills.
In the Scottish caves a horn hangs from the roof When it is blown three times, the sleepers will issue forth. A shepherd found the cave (it is always a shepherd) and blew two blasts on the horn. But he was so terrified by the ferocious appearance of the warriors and by a voice which cried, "If the horn is blown once again the world will be upset altogether", that he fled, leaving the warriors resting on their elbows. The Fians cried, "Alas! you have left us worse than you found us". The shepherd locked the door and threw the key into the sea. At Inverness there is a Gaelic saying, "When the horn is blown, True Thomas shall come forth".
If this Highland story was imported by the Norsemen, why should the Arabian dog be a "sleeper" also? It is possible that in Arabia and in the Highlands the tale is found in its most archaic form, and that it is part of the floating material from which Teutonic Mythology was constructed. 2
What appears to be a very old version of the legend
is found in South Uist. It was taken down from a minister thirty years ago by an Inspector of Schools, who related it to the writer as follows:--
The Fians (Féinne) were lying in a cave, each resting on his elbow, chin upon hand, self-absorbed, not asleep.
They heard the falling waters, and the storms went over them unheeded. . . . Thousands of years went past.
They were still resting there, musing, when one of them moved his elbow and said:--
"Och! och! 's mi tha sgith." (Och! och! it's me that's tired.)
Thousands of years went past. . . . They heard the falling waters, and the storms went over them unheeded.
Then a great Fian said sharply, "Mur a' sguir sibh dhe 'n chonnspoid seo, theid mi mach 's fagaidh mi an uaimh agaibh fhein." (If you do not stop this wrangling I'll go out, and leave the cave to yourselves.)
Thousands of years went past. . . . They heard the falling waters, and the storms went over them unheeded.
In various legends the movements of the "sleepers" (who do not sleep in Uist) were associated with sorrow and disaster or seasonal changes. Edward the Confessor had a vision, while sitting at a banquet in his palace at Westminster, in which he saw the Ephesian sleepers turning round. A messenger was sent to Ephesus, and it was found that they had turned from their right sides to their left. This was taken as a sign of approaching disaster, and was, in fact, associated with the miseries that Christendom endured from the Saracens. The seasonal reference survives in the St. Swithin's day belief.
Various heroes lie asleep, including Charlemagne, Frederick of Barbarossa, William Tell in Switzerland, Brian Boroimhe in Ireland, and Arthur in Wales. The warning that when the sleepers leave the cave "the world will be upset" was transformed into the popular belief that certain heroes would issue forth in the hour of their country's direst need. The French peasants believed in the coming of Napoleon, as the Swiss did in the return of William Tell. During the Russo-Japanese war the peasantry of Russia were confident that General Skobeleff would hasten to Manchuria to lead the armies to victory. To this day there are many Highlanders who remain convinced that General Sir Hector Macdonald is not dead, but is waiting his hour of return. A similar belief attached to James IV, who fell at Flodden. So do "immemorial modes of thought" survive in the twentieth century from, perhaps, that remote Stone Age period when the fair-haired and blue-eyed "long-heads" spread from North Africa over the undivided lands of ancient Europe to mingle with earlier inhabitants and later "broad-heads" from Asia.
xxi:1 An English translation by R. B. Anderson was published in London in 1889, but is out of print.
xxi:2 Introduction to English translation of Saxo Grammaticus.--Nutt.
xxii:1 Eirikr Magnusson's.
xxxiii:1 In Scottish Gaelic, Fomhair and Famhair, pronounced "foo-ar" and "faa-har". The Fomorib (men of the sea) theory has long been abandoned by Prof. Rhys.
xxxiii:2 In Gaelic, Cailleach Mor.
xxxiii:3 In pre-Christian times witches were the friends of man, and helped him to combat against hags and giants.
xxxiv:1 In Old English the giants are "eotens".
xxxvii:1 In Ireland the "Milky Way" is "Lugh's chain". Lugh is the dawn-god, and grandson of the night-god.
xxxvii:2 Saga Library, Morris and Magnusson, Vol. I, 339.
xl:1 Beowulf, Clark Hall, Introduction, lix-lx.
xlii:1 Dietrich is the High German equivalent of Theoderic. Bern is Verona.
xliii:1 The western Hittites had a storm-god, named Tarku, at the head of their pantheon. The eastern Hittites called him Teshup. This god is a warrior who holds in one hand a hammer, and in the other three wriggling flashes of lightning. The hammer is the symbol of fertility. Thor brings his goats back to life by waving his hammer over them.
xliv:1 This calculation is according to the legends.
xlv:1 See Finn and His Warrior Band.
xlv:2 The dog also figures in a "Seven Sleepers" legend in North Afghanistan.