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Saturday--The Day of Saturn

In the Roman calendar, Saturday was called Dies Saturni in honour of the god Saturn, whom we have already mentioned. He was the father of Jupiter, who finally overthrew him. He then made his way to the earth, and reigned over a kingdom in Italy called Latium. A great festival was held in his honour in December, as we have seen.

The Old-English name Saater-daeg, from which the word Saturday comes, seems to be a translation of the Latin name, and so suggests no god of the Angles and Saxons to us, as do the days Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. We find, however, that the day was sacred to Loki, the God of Fire, and there are some who think that

"Saeter-daeg" means "the day of Saetere", another name for Loki. The stories told of Loki show him to have been a mixture of good and evil. While willing to help the gods in their difficulties, he also played dangerous tricks on them, and more than once led them into harm. As time went on, he seems to have become the spirit of evil only, and the gods at last banished him from Asgard, and condemned him to a terrible punishment. He was chained to the side of a cave, and a snake was fastened over his head in such a way that the poison from its fangs dropped on his face. His wife, however, remained faithful to him; she made her way to the cave where Loki was imprisoned, and stayed by his side, holding up a cup to catch the poison which fell from the snake, and only leaving him in order to empty the cup when it was full. The poison which fell on Loki's face while she was absent caused him to twist and writhe with pain till he shook the earth, and thus produced earthquakes.

This punishment of Loki reminds us of the story of Prometheus, but it will be remembered that the latter suffered because he had been a friend to man, and not like Loki a source of evil. As Prometheus was rescued at last by Hercules, so Loki was destined to escape on the great day of Ragnarok, and to appear in his true colours on the side of the giants, soon afterwards meeting his death at the hands of Heimdall. The Northmen, unlike the Greeks and Romans, regarded their gods as mortal, and believed that their rule would one day come to an end. They pictured a final struggle between the gods, the forces of good, and the forces of evil represented by Loki, the frost-giants, and all the terrible monsters which they had created. Odin, in his great wisdom, knew what the future would eventually bring, and spared no effort to prolong his rule and prepare for the fateful day. For this reason he welcomed the great heroes to Valhalla, and kept the tree of life, Yggdrasil, nourished with the water of the sacred spring; for this reason the giants tried to steal Thor's hammer, the weapon they most dreaded. Many things pointed to the approach of Ragnarok. First the earth suffered from six successive winters more severe and prolonged than had ever been known before. Snow fell without ceasing, freezing winds blew from the north, and the whole earth was covered with ice. In their struggle to live under these terrible conditions, men lost their faith in the gods, and gave themselves up to evil and wrong-doing. Sin and crime were found everywhere, and as the evil-doers passed into the Underworld, they became food for the wolves which were continually pursuing the sun and moon, and endeavouring to swallow them. As their food became more plentiful, the wolves increased in strength and speed, until at last the day came when Sol and Mani found the wolves rapidly gaining on them. In spite of all their efforts, the wolves continued to overtake them, and at length seized them in their enormous jaws, and plunged the earth into darkness. The foundations of the earth shook, the stars fell from the sky, and the mountains came crashing down. As if this were a signal, Loki and the fierce wolf Fenrir put forth new strength and burst their chains, for their day of revenge had come. The dragon which lay at the foot of Yggdrasil gnawed through the root of the sacred tree. The Midgard serpent, Iormungandr, lashed and writhed till the sea rose in mighty waves, and at last breaking its bonds, the terrible monster crawled to the land. Heimdall, the keeper of the bridge, realizing that the twilight of the gods was at hand, blew a blast on his horn that was heard in every corner of the world. The gods hastily donned their armour, and marshalled the army of heroes. Now indeed Odin regretted the loss of his eye, Tin that he had sacrificed his right hand, and Frey that he had lent his sword to his servant, who was away in the lands of the North.

Meanwhile the followers of the goddess Hel were led by Loki to the plain of Vigrid, the scene of the great battle. Here they were joined by Hel herself, Garm, the fierce dog who guarded the entrance to the Underworld, and Fenrir, the monster wolf. From the misty land of the North came the army of the frost-giants, while out of the South, with a burst of light, there dashed on to the plain Surtr, the giant of the Flaming Sword.

Terrible indeed were the forces arrayed against the gods, but they, like the Northmen themselves, knew no fear on the day of battle, and assembled their armies on the plain of Vigrid, prepared to resist the powers of evil to the last.

With shouts and cries, amid fire and smoke, the armies meet. Odin and the wolf Fenrir come together with a crash, which echoes through the whole world, but not even the mighty Odin can withstand this terrible enemy. Fenrir, now fiercer and stronger than ever before, opens his vast jaws till they stretch from heaven to earth, and overwhelms the leader of gods and men. But Odin’s death is quickly avenged. His son Vidar, wearing the iron shoe, which had been kept for this day, now falls upon Fenrir, and, as had been foretold, places his iron-shod foot on the monster’s lower jaw, and then seizing the upper jaw, with a mighty wrench tears Fenrir asunder.

Meanwhile Tiu grapples with Garm, and after a fierce struggle slays him, only to fall dead beside him. Frey attacks the fire-giant Surtr, but soon falls before his flaming onslaught. Heimdall and Loki once again meet in deadly conflict, and this time Heimdall overcomes the God of Evil, but, like Tiu, falls mortally wounded by his enemy. Thor, with his hammer Miolnir, advances against the huge Midgard serpent. The struggle is long and terrible; with a mighty blow of his hammer Thor at last kills the monster, and then, as he staggers back, is overwhelmed by the flood of poison which it outpours. The heroes of Valhalla are all overthrown by the giants and followers of Hel, and there is no longer anyone of Odin’s vast host to withstand the powers of evil.

Surtr then flings his fire over the world, Asgard is consumed in roaring flames, and the earth, scorched and blackened, sinks into a boiling sea. Ragnorak has come, and the old gods have passed away.

But in the minds of the Northmen evil could have no lasting victory. The very flames which had destroyed the home of the gods and had overwhelmed the earth had purged the world of evil. A new earth rose from the sea, lit by a new sun, the daughter of Sol, and life, drawn forth by its warm rays, once more spread over the earth. Trees clothed themselves anew with leaves, and the fields became fair with flowers. From the depth of the forest, where Mimir’s spring had bubbled forth, came Lifthrasir (Desire of Life) and his wife Lif (Life), who in course of time became the rulers of a new race. To the field of Ida, where the gods had been wont to hold their games, came the survivors of the gods: two sons of Odin, Vidar, the slayer of Fenrir, and his brother Vali, who had killed Hodur to avenge the death of Balder; two sons of Thor, Magni (Strength) and Modi (Courage), who had rescued Miolnir from the battle-field and now wielded it in place of their father; and finally, Balder and Hodur, who had been set free from Hel, and who now lived together as brothers, forgetful of the past.

It seems strange to us that the Northmen should have pictured the destruction of their gods, and it is possible that the writers of the wonderful poems from which we obtain these stories knew something of Christianity, and had begun to turn from their heathen beliefs. We find, however, that many heathen peoples had similar beliefs. The idea of eternity was impossible to them; they felt that there must be an end to everything. Accordingly they imagined their gods, after a long period of peace and good rule, being overthrown by the powers of evil and destruction, and being replaced by a new heaven and earth, which in turn would also be destroyed and renewed. Among no other people do we find so complete a description of this world catastrophe as in our ancestors' story of Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods.

The Day of Ragnarok
The generations pass, the ages grow,
And bring us nearer to the final day
When from the south shall march the fiery band,
And cross the bridge of heaven, with Lok for guide,
And Fenrir at his heel with broken chain;
While from the east the giant Rymer steers
His ship, and the great serpent makes to land;
And all are marshall'd in one flaming square
Against the Gods, upon the plains of Heaven.
  *    *    *    *    *    *    *
Far to the south, beyond the blue, there spreads
Another Heaven, the boundless--no one yet
Hath reach'd it; there hereafter shall arise
The second Asgard, with another name.
Thither, when o'er this present earth and Heavens
The tempest of the latter days hath swept,
And they from sight have disappear'd, and sunk,
Shall a small remnant of the Gods repair;
There re-assembling we shall see emerge
From the bright Ocean at our feet an earth
More fresh, more verdant than the last, with fruits
Self-springing, and a seed of man preserved,
Who then shall live in peace, as now in war.
But we in Heaven shall find again with joy
The ruin'd palaces of Odin, seats
Familiar, halls where we have supp'd of old;
Re-enter them with wonder, never fill
Our eyes with gazing, and rebuild with tears.
And we shall tread once more the well-knovm plain
Of Ida, and among the grass shall find
The golden dice wherewith we played of yore;
And that will bring to mind the former life
And pastime of the Gods, the wise discourse
Of Odin, the delights of other days.
    MATTHEW ARNOLD--Balder Dead.


Next: Chapter XXI. The Meaning of the Ancient Myths