And now, in the second place, for that particular branch of the Aryan race, in which this peculiar development of the common tradition has arisen, which we are to consider as “Norse Popular Tales.”
Whatever disputes may have existed as to the mythology of other branches of the Teutonic subdivision of the Aryan race—whatever discussions may have arisen as to the position of this or that divinity among the Franks, the Anglo-Saxons, or the Goths-about the Norsemen there can be no dispute or doubt. From a variety of circumstances, but two before all the rest—the one their settlement in Iceland, which preserved their language and its literary treasures incorrupt; the other their late conversion to Christianity—their cosmogony and mythology stands before us in full flower, and we have not, as elsewhere, to pick up and piece together the wretched fragments of a faith, the articles of which its own priests had forgotten to commit to writing, and which those of another creed had dashed to pieces and destroyed, wherever their zealous hands could reach. In the two Eddas, therefore, in the early Sagas, in Saxo’s stilted Latin, which barely conceals the popular songs and legends from which the historian drew his materials, we are enabled to form a perfect conception of the creed of the heathen Norsemen. We are enabled to trace, as has been traced by the same hand in another place, 1 the natural and rational development of that creed from a simple worship of nature and her powers, first to monotheism, and then to a polytheistic system. The tertiary system of Polytheism is the soil out of which the mythology of the Eddas sprang, though through it each of the older formations crops out in huge masses which admit of no mistake as to its origin. in the Eddas the natural powers have been partly subdued, partly thrust on one side, for a time, by Odin and Æsir, by the Great Father and his children, by One Supreme and twelve subordinate gods, who rule for all appointed time, and over whom hangs an impending fate, which imparts a charm of melancholy to this creed, which has clung to the race who once believed in it long after the creed itself has vanished before the light of Christianity. According to this creed, the Æsir and Odin had their abode in Asgard, a lofty hill in the centre of the habitable earth, in the midst of Midgard, that middle earth which we hear of in early English poetry, the abode of gods and men. Round that earth, which was fenced in against the attacks of ancient and inveterate foes by a natural fortification of hills, flowed the great sea in a ring, and beyond that sea was Utgard, the outlying world, the abode of Frost Giants, and Monsters, those old-natural powers who had been dispossessed by Odin and the Æsir when the new order of the universe arose, and between whom and the new gods a feud as inveterate as that cherished by the Titans against Jupiter was necessarily kept alive. It is true indeed that this feud was broken by intervals of truce during which the Æsir and the Giants visit each other, and appear on more or less friendly terms, but the true relation between them was war; pretty much as the Norseman was at war with all the rest of the world. Nor was this struggle between two rival races or powers confined to the gods in Asgard alone. Just as their ancient foes were the Giants of Frost and Snow, so between the race of men and the race of Trolls was there a perpetual feud. As the gods were men magnified and exaggerated, so were the Trolls diminished Frost Giants; far superior to man in strength and stature but inferior to man in wit and invention. Like the Frost Giants, they inhabit the rough and rugged places of the earth, and, historically speaking in all probability represent the old aboriginal races who retired into the mountainous fastnesses of the land, and whose strength was exaggerated, because the intercourse between the races was small. In almost every respect they stand in the same relations to men as the Frost Giants stand to the Gods.
There is nothing perhaps, more characteristic of a true, as compared with a false religion, than the restlessness of the one when brought face to face with the quiet dignity and majesty of the other. Under the Christian dispensation, our blessed Lord, his awful sacrifice once performed, “ascended up on high,” having “led captivity captive,” and expects the hour that shall make his foes “his footstool”; but false gods, Jupiter, Vishnu, Odin, Thor, must constantly keep themselves, as it were, before the eyes of men, lest they should lose respect. Such gods being invariably what the philosophers call subjective, that is to say, having no existence except in the minds of those who believe in them, having been created by man in his own image, with his own desires and passions, stand in constant need of being re-created. They change as the habits and temper of the race which adores them alter; they are ever bound to do something fresh, lest man should forget them, and new divinities usurp their place. Hence came endless avatars in Hindoo mythology, reproducing all the dreamy monstrosities of that passive Indian mind. Hence came Jove’s adventures, tinged with all the lust and guile which the wickedness of the natural man planted on a hot-bed of iniquity is capable of conceiving. Hence bloody Moloch, and the foul abominations of Chemosh and Milcom. Hence, too, Odin’s countless adventures, his journeys into all parts of the world, his constant trials of wit and strength, with his ancient foes the Frost Giants, his hairbreadth escapes. Hence Thor’s labours and toils, his passages beyond the sea, girt with his strength-belt, wearing his iron gloves, and grasping his hammer, which split the skulls of so many of the Giant’s kith and kin. In the Norse gods, then, we see the Norseman himself, sublimed and elevated beyond man’s nature, but bearing about with him all his bravery and endurance, all his dash and spirit of adventure, all his fortitude and resolution to struggle against a certainty of doom which, sooner or later, must; overtake him on that dread day, the “twilight of the gods,” when the wolf was to break loose, when the great snake that lay coiled round the world should lash himself into wrath, and the whole race of the Æsirs and their antagonists were to perish in internecine strife.
Such were the gods in whom the Norseman believed,—exaggerations of himself, of all his good and all his bad qualities. Their might and their adventures, their domestic quarrels and certain doom, were sung in venerable lays, now collected in what we call the Elder, or Poetic Edda; simple majestic songs, whose mellow accents go straight to the heart through the ear, and whose simple severity never suffers us to mistake their meaning. But, besides these gods, there were heroes of the race whose fame and glory were in every man’s memory, and whose mighty deeds were in every minstrel’s mouth: Helgi, Sigmund, Sinfjötli, Sigurd, Signy, Brynhildr, Gudrun; champions and shield-maidens, henchmen and corse-choosers, now dead and gone, who sat round Odin’s board in Valhalla; women whose beauty, woes, and sufferings were beyond those of all women; men whose prowess had never found an equal. Between these, love and hate; all that can foster passion or beget revenge. Ill-assorted marriages; the right man to the wrong woman, and the wrong man to the right woman; envyings, jealousies, hatred, murders, all the works of the natural man, combine together to form that marvellous story which begins with a curse—the curse of ill-gotten gold;—and ends with a curse, a widow’s curse, which drags down all on whom it falls, and even her own flesh and blood, to certain doom. Such was the theme of the wondrous Volsung Tale, the far older, simpler, and grander original of that Nibelungen Need of the thirteenth century, a tale which begins with the slaughter of Fafnir by Sigurd, and ends with Hermanaric, “that fierce faith-breaker,” as the Anglo-Saxon minstrel calls him, when he is describing, in rapid touches, the mythic glories of the Teutonic race.
This was the story of the Volsungs. They traced themselves back, like all heroes, to Odin, the great father of gods and men. From him sprung Sigi, from him Rerir, from him Volsung, ripped from his mother’s womb after a six years bearing, to become the Eponymus of that famous race. In the centre of his hall grew an oak, the tall trunk of which passed through the roof, and its boughs spread far and wide in upper air. Into that hall, on a high feast day, when Signy, Volsung’s daughter, was to be given away to Siggeir, King of Gothland, strode an old one-eyed guest. His feet were bare, his hose were of knitted linen, he wore a great striped cloak, and a broad flapping hat. In his hand he bore a sword, which, at one stroke, he drove up to the hilt in the oak trunk. “There,” said he, “let him of all this company bear this sword who is man enough to pull it out. I give it him, and none shall say he ever bore a better blade.” With these words be passed out of the hall, and was seen no more. Many tried, for that sword was plainly a thing of price, but none could stir it, till Sigmund, the best and bravest of Volsung’s sons, tried his hand, and, lo! the weapon yielded itself at once. This was that famous blade Gram, of which we shall hear again. Sigmund bore it in battle against his brother-in-law, who quarrelled with him about this very sword, when Volsung fell, and Sigmund and his ten brothers were taken and bound. All perished but Sigmund, who was saved by his sister Signy, and bidden in a wood till he could revenge his father and brethren. Here with Sinfjötli, who was at once his son and nephew, he ran as a were-wolf through the forest, and wrought many wild deeds. When Sinfjötli was of age to help him, they proceed to vengeance, and burn the treacherous brother-in-law alive, with all his followers. Sigmund then regains his father’s kingdom, and in extreme old age dies in battle against the sons of King Hunding. Just as he was about to turn the fight, a warrior of more than mortal might, a one-eyed man in a blue cloak, with a flapping hat, rose up against him spear in hand. At that outstretched spear Sigmund smites with his trusty sword. It snaps in twain. Then he knows that his luck is gone; he sees in his foe Odin the giver of the sword, sinks down on the gory battle-field, and dies in the arms of Hjordis, his young wife, refusing all leechcraft, and bowing his head to Odin’s will. By the fortune of war, Hjordis, bearing a babe under her girdle, came into the hands of King Hialprek of Denmark; there she bore a son to Sigmund, Sigurd, the darling of Teutonic song and story. Regin, the king’s smith, was his foster-father, and as the boy grew up the fairest and stoutest of all the Volsungs, Regin, who was of the dwarf race, urged him day by day to do a doughty deed, and slay Fafnir the Dragon. For Fafnir, Regin, and Otter had been brothers, sons of Reidmar. In one of their many wanderings, Odin, Loki, and Hænir came to a river and a force. There, on the bank under the force, they saw an otter with a salmon in its mouth, which it ate greedily with its eyes shut. Loki took a stone, threw it, and killed the beast, and boasted how he had got both fish and flesh at one throw. Then the Æsir passed on and came at night to Reidmar’s house, asked a lodging, got it, and shewed their spoil. “Seize and bind them, lads,” cried Reidmar; “for they have slain your brother Otter.” So they were seized and bound by Regin and Fafnir, and offered an atonement to buy off the feud, and Reidmar was to name the sum. Then Otter was flayed, and the Æsir were to fill the skin with red gold, and cover it without, that not a hair could be seen. To fetch the gold Odin sent Loki down to the abodes of the Black Elves; there in a stream he caught Andvari the Dwarf, and made him give up all the gold which he had hoarded up in the stony rock. In vain the Dwarf begged and prayed that he might keep one ring, for it was the source of all his wealth, and ring after ring dropped from it. “No; not a penny should he have,” said Loki. Then the Dwarf laid a curse on the ring, and said it should be every man’s bane who owned it. “So much the better,” said Loki, and when he got back, Odin saw the ring how fair it was, and kept it to himself, but gave the gold to Reidmar. So Reidmar filled the skin with gold as full as he could, and set it up on end, and Odin poured gold over it, and covered it up. But when Reidmar looked at it be saw still one grey hair, and bade them cover that too, else the atonement was at an end. Then Odin drew forth the ring and laid it over the grey hair. So the Æsir was set free, but before they went, Loki repeated the curse which Andvari had laid upon the ring and gold. It soon began to work. First, Regin asked for some of the gold, but not a penny would Reidmar give. So the two brothers laid their heads together and slew their sire. Then Regin begged Fafnir to share the gold with him. But, “no,” Fafnir was stronger, and said he should keep it all himself, and Regin had best be off, unless he wished to fare the same way as Reidmar. So Regin had to fly, but Fafnir took a dragon’s shape; “and there,” said Regin, “he lies on the ‘Glistening Heath,’ coiled round his store of gold and precious things, and that’s why I wish you to kill him.” Sigurd told Regin, who was the best of smiths, to forge him a sword. Two are made, but both snap asunder at the first stroke. “Untrue are they, like you and all your race,” cries Sigurd. Then he went to his mother and begged the broken bits of Gram, and out of them Regin forged a new blade, that clove the anvil in the smithy, and cut a lock of wool borne down upon it by a running stream. “Now, slay me, Fafnir,” said Regin; but Sigurd must first find out King Hunding’s sons, and avenge his father Sigmund’s death. King Hialprek lends him force; by Odin’s guidance he finds them out, routs their army, and slays all those brothers. On his return, his foster-father still eggs him on to slay the Dragon, and thus to shew that there was still a Volsung left. So, armed with Gram, and mounted on Gran, his good steed, whom Odin had taught him how to choose, Sigurd rode to the “Glistening Heath,” dug a pit in the Dragon’s path, and slew him as he passed over him down to drink at the river. Then Regin came up, and the old feeling of vengeance for a brother’s blood grew strong, and as an atonement, Sigurd was to roast Fafnir’s heart, and carry it to Regin, who swilled his full of the Dragon’s blood, and lay down to sleep. But as Sigurd roasted the heart, and wondered if it would soon be done, he tried it with his finger to see if it were soft. The hot roast burned his finger, and he put it into his mouth, and tasted the life-blood of the Dragon. Then in a moment he understood the song of birds, and beard how the swallows over his head said one to the other, “There thou sittest, Sigurd, roasting Fafnir’s heart. Eat it thyself, and become the wisest of men.” Then another said, “There lies Regin, and means to cheat him who trusts him.” Then a third said, “Let Sigurd cut off his head then, and so own all the gold himself.” Then Sigurd went to Regin and slew him, and ate the heart, and rode on Gran to Fafnir’s lair, and took the spoil and loaded his good steed with it, and rode away.
And now Sigurd was the most famous of men. All the songs and stories of the North make him the darling of that age. They dwell on his soft hair, which fell in great locks of golden brown, on his bushy beard of auburn hue, his straight features, his ruddy cheeks, his broad brow, his bright and piercing eye, of which few dared to meet the gaze, his taper limbs and well-knit joints, his broad shoulders, and towering height. “So tall he was, that as he strode through the full-grown rye, girt with Gram the tip of the scabbard just touched the ears of corn.” Ready of tongue too, and full of forethought. His great pleasure was to help other men, and to do daring deeds; to spoil .his foes, and give largely to his friends. The bravest man alive, and one that never knew fear. On and on he rode, till on a lone fell he saw a flickering flame, and when he reached it, there it flamed and blazed all round a house. No horse but Gran could ride that flame; no man alive but Sigurd sit him while be leaped through it. Inside the house lay a fair maiden, armed from head to foot, in a deep sleep. Brynhildr, Atli’s sister, was her name, a Valkyrie, a corse-chooser; but out of wilfulness she had given the victory to the wrong side, and Odin in his wrath had thrust the thorn of sleep into her cloak, and laid her under a curse to slumber there till a man bold enough to ride through that flame came to set her free, and win her for his bride. So then she woke up, and taught him all runes and wisdom, and they swore to love each other with a mighty oath, and then Sigurd left her and rode on.
So on he rode to King Giuki’s hall, Giuki the Niflung, King of Frankland, whose wife was Grimhildr, whose sons were Gunnar and Hogni, whose stepson was Guttorm, and whose daughter was the fair Gudrun. Here at first he was full of Brynhildr, and all for going back to fetch his lovely bride from the lone fell. But Grimhildr was given to dark arts; she longed for the brave Volsung for her own daughter, she brewed him the philtre of forgetfulness, he drained it off, forgot Brynhildr, swore a brother’s friendship with Gunnar and Hogni, and wedded the fair Gudrun. But now Giuki wanted a wife for Gunnar, and so off set the brothers and their bosom friend to woo, but whom should they choose but Brynhildr, Atli’s sister, who sat there still upon the fell, waiting for the man who was bold enough to ride through the flickering flame. She knew but one could do it, and waited for that one to come back. So she had given out whoever could ride that flame should have her to wife. So when Gunnar and Hogni reached it, Gunnar rode at it, but his horse, good though it was, swerved from the fierce flame. Then by Grimhildr’s magic arts, Sigurd and Gunnar changed shapes and arms, and Sigurd leapt up on Gran’s back, and the good steed bore him bravely through the flame. So Brynhildr the proud maiden was won and forced to yield. That evening was their wedding; but when they lay down to rest, Sigurd unsheathed his keen sword Gram, and laid it naked between them. Next morning when he arose, he took the ring which Andvari had laid under the curse, and which was among Fafnir’s treasures, and gave it to Brynhildr as a “morning gift,” and she gave him another ring as a pledge. Then Sigurd rode back to his companions, and took his own shape again, and then Gunnar went and claimed Brynhildr, and carried her home as his bride. But no sooner was Gunnar wedded than Sigurd’s eyes were opened, the power of the philtre passed away, he remembered all that had passed, and the oath he had sworn to Brynhildr. All this came back upon him when it was too late, but he was wise and said nothing about it.
Well, so things went on, till one day Brynhildr and Gudrun went down to the river to wash their hair. Then Brynhildr waded out into the stream as far as she could, and said she wouldn’t have on her head the water that streamed from Gudrun’s; for hers was the braver husband. So Gudrun waded out after her, and said the water ought to come on her hair first, because her husband bore away the palm from Gunnar, and every other man alive, for he slew Fafnir and Re-in, and took their inheritance. “Ay,” said Brynhildr, “but it was a worthier deed when Gunnar rode through the flame, but Sigurd dared not try.” Then Gudrun laughed, and said, “Thinkst thou that Gunnar really rode the flame? I trow he went to bed with thee that night, who gave me this gold ring. And as for that ring yonder which you have on your finger, and which you got as your ‘morning gift,’ its name is Andvari’s spoil, and that I don’t think Gunnar sought on the Glistening Heath.’ Then Brynhildr held her peace and went home, and her love for Sigurd came back, but it was turned to hate, for she felt herself betrayed. Then she egged on Gunnar to revenge her wrong. At last the brothers yield to her entreaties, but they were sworn brothers to Sigurd, and to break that oath by deed was a thing unheard of. Still they broke it in spirit; by charms and prayers they set on Guttorm their half-brother, and so at dead of night, while Gudrun held the bravest man alive fast locked in her white arms, the murderer stole to the bedside and drove a sword through the hero. Then Sigurd turned and writhed, and as Guttorm fled he hurled Gram after him, and the keen blade took him asunder at the waist, and his head fell out of the room and his heels in, and that was the end of Guttorm. But with revenge Brynhildr’s love returned, and when Sigurd was laid upon the pile her heart broke; she burst forth into a prophetic song of the woes that were still to come, made them lay her by his side with Gram between them, and so went to Valhalla with her old lover. Thus Andvari’s curse was fulfilled.
Gudrun, the weary widow, wandered away. After a while, she accepts atonement from her brothers for her husband’s loss, and marries Atli, the Hun king, Brynhildr’s brother. He cherished a grudge against Giuki’s sons for the guile they had practised against their brother-in-law, which had broken his sister’s heart, and besides be claimed, in right of Gudrun, all the gold which Sigurd won from the Dragon, but which the Niflung Princes had seized when he was slain. It was in vain to attack them in fair fight, so he sent them a friendly message, and invited them to a banquet; they go, and are overpowered. Hogni’s heart is cut out of him alive, but he still smiles; Gunnar is cast into a pit full of snakes, but even then charms them to sleep with his harp, all but one, that flies at his heart and stings him to death. With them perished the secret of the Dragon’s hoard, which they had thrown into the Rhine as they crossed it on the way to Hun-land. Now comes horror on horror. Revenge for her brothers now belongs to Gudrun; she slays with her own hand her two sons by Atli, makes him eat their flesh, and drink their blood out of their skulls, and, while the king slept sound, slew him in his bed by the help of her brother Hogni’s son. Then she set the hall ablaze, and burnt all that were in it. After that she went to the sea-shore, and threw herself in to drown. But the deep will not have her, the billows bear her over to King Jonakr’s land. He marries her, and has three sons by her, Saurli, Hamdir, and Erp, black-haired as ravens, like all the Niflungs. Svanhild, her daughter by Sigurd, who had her father’s bright and terrible eyes, she has still with her, now grown up to be the fairest of women. So when Hermanaric the Mighty, the great Gothic king, heard of Svanhild’s beauty, he sent his son Randver to woo her for him, but Bikki the False said to the youth, “Better far were this maiden for thee than for thy old father”; and the maiden and the prince thought it good advice. Then Bikki went and told the king, and Hermanaric bade them take and hang Randver at once. So on his way to the gallows, the prince took his hawk and plucked off all its feathers, and sent it to his father. But when his sire saw it, he knew at once that, as the hawk was featherless and unable to fly, so was his realm defenceless under an old and sonless king. Too late he sent to stop the hanging; his son was already dead. So one day as he rode back from hunting, he saw fair Svanhild washing her golden locks, and it came into his heart how there she sat, the cause of all his woe; and he and his men rode at her and over her, and their steeds trampled her to death. But when Gudrun heard this, she set on her three Niflung sons to avenge their sister. Byrnies and helms she gave them so true that no sword would bite on them. They were to steal on Hermanaric as he slept; Saurli was to cut off his hands, Hamdir his feet, and Erp his head. So as the three went along, the two asked Erp what help he would give them when they got to Hermanaric. “Such as hand lends to foot,” he said. “No help at all,” they cried; and passing from words to blows, and because their mother loved Erp best, they slew him. A little further on Saurli stumbled and fell forward, but saved himself with one hand, and said, “Here hand helps foot; better were it that Erp lived.” So they came on Hermanaric as he slept, and Saurli hewed off his hands, and Hamdir his feet, but he awoke and called for his men. Then said Hamdir—”Were Erp alive, the head would be off, and he couldn’t call out.” Then Hermanaric’s men arose and took the twain, and when they found that no steel would touch them, an old one-eyed man gave them advice to stone them to death. Thus fell Saurli and Hamdir, and soon after Gudrun died too, and with her ends the Volsung and the Niflung tale.
And here it is worth while to say, since some minds are so narrowly moulded as to be incapable of containing more than one idea, that because it has seemed a duty to describe in its true light the old faith of our forefathers, it by no means follows that the same eyes are blind to the glorious beauty of Greek Mythology. That had the rare advantage of running its course free and unfettered until it fell rather by natural decay than before the weapon of a new belief. The Greeks were Atheists before they became Christian. Their faith had passed through every stage. We can contemplate it as it springs out of the dim mis-shapen symbol, during that phase when men’s eyes are fixed more on meaning and reality than on beauty and form, we can mark how it gradually looks more to symmetry and shape, how it is transfigured in the Arts, until, under that pure air and bright sky, the glowing radiant figures of Apollo and Aphrodite, of Zeus and Athene,—of perfect man-worship and woman-worship,—stand out clear and round in the foreground against the misty distance of ancient times. Out of that misty distance the Norseman’s faith never emerged. What that early phase of faith might have become, had it been once wedded to the Muses, and learned to cultivate the Arts, it is impossible to say. As it is, its career was cut short in mid-course. It carried about with it that melancholy presentiment of dissolution which has come to be so characteristic of modern life, but of which scarce a trace exists in ancient times, and this feeling would always have made it different from that cheerful carelessness which so attracts us in the Greeks; but even that downcast brooding heart was capable of conceiving great and heroic thoughts, which it might have clothed in noble shapes and forms, had not the axe of Providence cut down the stately sapling in the North before it grew to be a tree, while it spared the pines of Delphi and Dodona’s sacred oaks, until they had attained a green old age. And so this faith remained rude and rough; but even rudeness has a simplicity of its own, and it is better to be rough and true-hearted than polished and false. In all the feelings of natural affection, that faith need fear no comparison with any other upon earth. In these respects it is firm and steadfast as a rock, and pure and bright as a living spring. The highest God is a father, who protects his children; who gives them glory and victory while they live, and when they die takes them to himself; to those fatherly abodes Death was a happy return, a glorious going home. By the side of this great father stands a venerable goddess, dazzling with beauty, the great mother of gods and men. Hand in hand this divine pair traverse the land; he teaching the men the use of arms and all the arts of war,—for war was then as now a noble calling, and to handle arms an honourable, nay necessary, profession. To the women she teaches domestic duties and the arts of peace; from her they learn to weave, and sew, and spin; from her, too, the husbandman learns to till his fields. From him springs poetry and song; from her legend and tradition. Nor should it ever be forgotten that the footsteps of Providence are always onward, even when they seem taken in the dark, and that their rude faith was the first in which that veneration for women arose, which the Western nations may well claim as the brightest jewel in their crown of civilisation; that while she was a slave in the East, a toy to the Greeks, and a housewife to the Romans, she was a helpmeet to the Teuton, and that those stern warriors recognised something divine in her nature, and bowed before her clearer insight into heavenly mysteries. The worship of the Vin gin Mary was gradually developed out of this conception of woman’s character, and would have been a thing absurd and impossible had Christianity clung for ever to Eastern soil. And now to proceed, after thus turning aside to compare the mythology of the Greek with the faith of the Norseman. The mistake is to favour one or the other exclusively instead of respecting and admiring both; but it is a mistake which those only can fall into, whose souls are narrow and confined, who would say this thing and this person you shall love, and none other; this form and feature you shall worship and adore, and this alone; when in fact the whole promised land of thought and life lies before us at our feet, our nature encourages us to go in and possess it, and every step we make in this new world of knowledge brings us to fresh prospects of beauty, and to new pastures of delight.
Such were the gods, and such the heroes of the Norseman; who, like his own gods, went smiling to death under the weight of an inevitable destiny. But that fate never fell on their gods. Before this subjective mythological dream of the Norsemen could be fulfilled, the religious mist in which they walked was scattered by the sunbeams of Christianity. A new state and condition of society arose, and the creed which had satisfied a race of heathen warriors, who externally were at war with all the world, became in time an object of horror and aversion to the converted Christian. This is not the place to describe the long struggle between the new and the old faith in the North; how kings and queens became the foster-fathers and nursing-mothers of the Church; how the great chiefs, each a little king in himself, scorned and derided the whole scheme as altogether weak and effeminate; how the bulk of the people were sullen and suspicious, and often broke out into heathen mutiny; how kings rose and kings fell, just as they took one or the other side; and how, finally, after a contest which had lasted altogether more than three centuries, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden—we run them over in the order of conversion—became faithful to Christianity, as preached by the missionaries of the Church of Rome. One fact, however, we must insist on, which might be inferred, indeed, both from the nature of the struggle itself, and the character of Rome; and that is, that throughout there was something in the process of conversion of the nature of a compromise—of what we may call the great principle of “give and take.” In all Christian churches, indeed, and in none so much as the Church of Rome, nothing is so austere, so elevating and so grand, as the uncompromising tone in which the great dogmas of the Faith are enunciated and proclaimed. Nothing is more magnificent, in short, than the theory of Christianity; but nothing is more mean and miserable than the time-serving way in which those dogmas are dragged down to the dull level of daily life, and that sublime theory reduced to ordinary practice. At Rome, it was true, that the Pope could congratulate the faithful that whole nations in the barbarous and frozen North had been added to the true fold, and that Odin’s grim champions now universally believed in the gospel of peace and love. It is so easy to dispose of a doubtful struggle in a single sentence, and so tempting to believe it when once written. But in the North, the state of things, and the manner of proceeding were entirely different. There the dogma was proclaimed, indeed; but the manner of preaching it was not in that mild spirit with which the Saviour rebuked the disciple when he said, “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” There the sword was used to bring converts to the font, and the baptism was often one rather of blood than of water. There the new converts perpetually relapsed, chased away the missionaries and the kings who sheltered them, and only yielded at last to the overwhelming weight of Christian opinion in the Western world. St. Olof, king and martyr, martyred in pitched battle by his mutinous allodial freemen, because he tried to drive rather than to lead them to the cross; and another Olof, greater than he, Olof Tryggvason, who fell in battle against the heathen Swedes, were men of blood rather than peace; but to them the introduction of the new faith into Norway is mainly owing. So also Charlemagne, at an earlier period, had dealt with the Saxons at the Main Bridge, when his ultimatum was, “Christianity or death.” So also the first missionary to Iceland—who met, indeed, with a sorry reception—was followed about by a stout champion named Thangbrand, who, whenever there was what we should now call a missionary meeting challenged any impugner of the new doctrines to mortal combat on the spot. No wonder that, after having killed several opponents in the little tour which he made with his missionary friend through the island, it became too hot to hold him, and he, and the missionary, and the new creed, were forced to take ship and sail back to Norway.
“Precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, and there a little,” was the motto of Rome in her dealings with the heathen Norsemen, and if she suited herself at first rather to their habits and temper than to those of more enlightened nations, she had an excuse in St. Paul’s maxim of making herself “all things to all men.” Thus, when a second attempt to Christianise Iceland proved more successful—for in the meantime, King Olof Tryggvason, a zealous Christian, had seized as hostages all the Icelanders of family and fame who happened to be in Norway, and thus worked on the feelings of the chiefs of those families at home, who in their turn bribed the lawman who presided over the Great Assembly to pronounce in favour of the new Faith—even then the adherents of the old religion, were allowed to perform its rites in secret, and two old heathen practices only were expressly prohibited, the exposure of infants and the eating of horseflesh, for horses were sacred animals, and the heathen ate their flesh after they had been solemnly sacrificed to the gods. As a matter of fact, it is far easier to change a form of religion than to extirpate a faith. The first indeed is no easy matter, as those students of history well know, who are acquainted with the tenacity with which a large proportion of the English nation clung to the Church of Rome, long after the State had declared for the Reformation. But to change the faith of a whole nation in block and bulk on the instant, was a thing contrary to the ordinary working of Providence, and unknown even in the days of miracles, though the days of miracles had long ceased when Rome advanced against the North. There it was more politic to raise a cross in the grove where the Sacred Tree had once stood, and to point to the sacred emblem which had supplanted the old object of national adoration, when the populace came at certain seasons with songs and dances to perform their heathen rites. Near the cross soon rose a church; and both were girt by a cemetery, the soil of which was doubly sacred as a heathen fane and a Christian sanctuary, and where alone the bodies of the faithful could repose in peace. But the songs and dances, and processions in the churchyard round the cross, continued long after Christianity had become dominant. So also the worship of wells and spring was christianised when it was found impossible to prevent it. Great churches arose over or near them, as at Walsingham, where an abbey, the holiest place in England, after the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury, threw its majestic shade over the heathen wishing-well, and the worshippers of Odin and the Nornir were gradually converted into votaries of the Virgin Mary. Such practices form a subject of constant remonstrance and reproof in the treatises and penitential epistles of medieval divines, and in some few places and churches, even in England, such rites are still yearly celebrated. 1
So, too, again with the ancient gods. They were cast down from honour, but not from power. They lost their genial kindly influence as the protectors of men and the origin of all things good; but their existence was tolerated; they became powerful for ill, and degenerated into malignant demons. Thus the worshippers of Odin had supposed that at certain times and rare intervals the good powers shewed themselves in bodily shape to mortal eye, passing through the land in divine progress, bringing blessings in their train, and receiving in return the offerings and homage of their grateful votaries. But these were naturally only exceptional instances; on ordinary occasions the pious heathen recognised his gods sweeping through the air in cloud and storm, riding on the wings of the wind, and speaking in awful accents, as the tempest howled and roared, and the sea shook his white mane and crest. Nor did he fail to see them in the dust and din of battle, when Odin appeared with his terrible helm, succouring his own, striking fear into their foes, and turning the day in many a doubtful fight; or in the hurry and uproar of the chase, where the mighty huntsman on his swift steed, seen in glimpses among the trees, took up the hunt where weary mortals laid it down, outstripped them all, and brought the noble quarry to the ground. Looking up to the stars and heaven, they saw the footsteps of the gods marked out in the bright path of the Milky Way; and in the Bear they hailed the war-chariot of the warrior’s god. The great goddesses too, Frigga and Freyja, were thoroughly old-fashioned domestic divinities. They help women in their greatest need, they spin themselves, they teach the maids to spin, and punish them if the wool remains upon their spindle. They are kind, and good, and bright, for Holda, Bertha, are the epithets given to them. And so, too, this mythology which, in its aspect to the stranger and the external world, was so ruthless and terrible, when looked at from within and at home, was genial, and kindly, and hearty, and affords another proof that men, in all ages and climes, are not so bad as they seem; that after all, peace and not war is the proper state for man, and that a nation may make war on others and exist; but that unless it has peace within, and industry at home, it must perish from the face of the earth. But when Christianity came the whole character of this goodly array of divinities was soured and spoilt. Instead of the stately procession of the God, which the intensely sensuous eye of man in that early time connected with all the phenomena of nature, the people were led to believe in a ghastly grisly band of ghosts, who followed an infernal warrior or huntsman in hideous tumult through the midnight air. No doubt, as Grimm rightly remarks, 1 the heathen had fondly fancied that the spirits of those who had gone to Odin followed him in his triumphant progress either visibly or invisibly; that they rode with him in the whirlwind, just as they followed him to battle, and feasted with him in Valhalla; but now the Christian belief, when it had degraded the mighty god into a demon huntsman, who pursued his nightly round in chase of human souls, saw in the train of the infernal master of the hunt only the spectres of suicides, drunkards, and ruffians; and, with all the uncharitableness of a dogmatic faith, the spirits of children who died unbaptized, whose hard fate had thrown them into such evil company. This was the way in which that widespread superstition arose, which sees in the phantoms of the clouds the shapes of the Wild Huntsman and his accursed crew, and bears, in spring and autumn nights, when sea-fowl take the wing to fly either south or north, the strange accents and uncouth yells with which the chase is pressed on in upper air. Thus, in Sweden it is still Odin who passes by; in Denmark it is King Waldemar’s Hunt; in Norway it is Aaskereida, that is Asgard’s Car; in Germany it is Wode, Woden, or Hackelberend, or Dieterich of Bern; in France it is Hellequin, or King Hugo, or Charles the Fifth, or, dropping a name altogether, it is Le Grand Veneur who ranges at night through the Forest of Fontainebleau. Nor was England without her Wild Huntsman and his ghastly following. Gervase of Tilbury, in the twelfth century, could tell it of King Arthur, round whose mighty name the superstition settled itself, for he had heard from the foresters how, “on alternate days, about the full of the moon, one day at noon the next at midnight when the moon shone bright, a mighty train of hunters on horses was seen, with baying hounds and blast of horns; and when those hunters were asked of whose company and household they were, they replied ‘of Arthur’s.'” We hear of him again in “The Complaynt of Scotland,” that curious composition attributed by some to Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount in Fife, and of Gilmerton in East Lothian, pp. 97, 98, where he says—
Arthur knycht, he raid on nycht,
With gyldin spur and candil lycht.”
Nor should we forget, when considering this legend, that story of Herne the Hunter, who,
“Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the trees, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.” 1
And even yet, in various parts of England, the story of some great man, generally a member of one of the county families, who drives about the country at night, is common. Thus, in Warwickshire, it is the “One-handed Boughton,” who drives about in his coach and six, and makes the benighted traveller hold gates open for him; or it is “Lady Skipwith,” who passes through the country at night in the same manner, This subject might be pursued to much greater length, for popular tradition is full of such stories; but enough has been said to show bow the awful presence of a glorious God can be converted into a gloomy superstition; and, at the same time, how the majesty of the old belief strives to rescue itself by clinging, in the popular consciousness, to some king or hero, as Arthur or Waldemar, or, failing that, to some squire’s family, as Hackelberend, or the “one-handed Boughton,” or even to the Keeper Herne.
Odin and the Æsir then were dispossessed and degraded by our Saviour and his Apostles, just as they had of old thrown out the Frost Giants, and the two are mingled together, in mediæval Norse tradition, as Trolls and Giants, hostile alike to Christianity and man. Christianity had taken possession” indeed, but it was beyond her power to kill. To this half-result the swift corruption of the Church of Rome lent no small aid. Her doctrines, as taught by Augustine and Boniface, by Anschar and Sigfrid, were comparatively mild and pure; but she had scarce swallowed the heathendom of the North, much in the same way as the Wolf was to swallow Odin at the “Twilight of the Gods,” than she fell into a deadly lethargy of faith, which put it out of her power to digest her meal. Gregory the Seventh, elected Pope in 1073, tore the clergy from the ties of domestic life with a grasp that wounded every fibre of natural affection, and made it bleed to the very root. With the celibacy of the clergy he established the hierarchy of the Church, but her labours as a missionary church were over. Henceforth she worked not by missionaries and apostles, but by crusades and bulls. Now she raised mighty armaments to recover the barren soil of the Holy Sepulchre, or to annihilate heretic Albigenses. Now she established great orders, Templars and Hospitallers, whose pride and luxury and pomp brought swift destruction on one at least of those fraternities. Now she became feudal—she owned land instead of hearts, and forgot that the true patrimony of St. Peter was the souls of men. No wonder that, with the barbarism of the times, she soon fulfilled the Apostle’s words, “She that liveth in luxury is dead while she liveth,” and became filled with idle superstitions and vain beliefs. No wonder, then, that instead of completing her conquest over the heathen, and carrying out their conversion, she became half heathen herself; that she adopted the tales and traditions of the old mythology, which she had never been able to extirpate, and related them of our Lord and his Apostles. No wonder, then, that having abandoned her mission of being the first power of intelligence on earth, she fell like Lucifer when the mist of medieval feudalism rolled away, and the light of learning and education returned—fell before the indignation of enlightened men, working upon popular opinion. Since which day, though she has changed her plans, and remodelled her superstitions to suit the times, she has never regained the supremacy which, if she had been wise in a true sense, she seemed destined to hold for ever.
Popular Tales from the Norse, by George Webbe Dasent,