Myth Of The Norsemen

Myth Of The Norsemen

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THE prime importance of the rude fragments
ofpoetrypreserved in early Icelandic litera
ture will now be disputed by none, but there
has been until recent times an extraordinary indif
ference to the wealth of religious tradition and
mythical lore which they contain.
The long neglect of these precious records of our
heathen ancestors is not the fault of the material in
which all that survives of their religious beliefs is
enshrined, for it may safely be asserted that the
Edda is as rich in the essentials of national romance
and race-imagination, rugged though it be, as the
more gracefitl and idyllic mythology of the South.
Neither is it due to anything weak in the conception
of the deities themselves, for although they may not
rise to great spiritual heights, foremost students of
Icelandic literature agree that they stand out rude
and massive as the Scandinavian mountains. They
exhibit "a spirit of victory, superior to brute force,
superior to mere matter, a spirit that fights and
* "Even were some part of the matter
of their myths takenfrom others, yet the Norsemen
have given their gods a noble, upright, great spirit,
andplaced them upon a high level that is all their own"
 " In fact these old Norse songs have a truth
in them, an inward perennial truth and greatness.
It is a greatness not of mere body andgigantic bulk,
but a rude greatness of soul."
The introduction of Christianity into the North
brought with it the influence of the Classical races,
and this eventually supplanted the native genius, so
that the alien mythology and literature of Greece and
Rome have formed an increasing part of the mental
equipment ofthe northempeoples inproportion as the
native literature and tradition have been neglected.
Undoubtedly Northern mythology has exercised a
deep influence upon our customs, laws, and language,
and there has been, therefore, a great unconscious
inspirationflowingfrom these into English literature.
The most distinctive traits of this mythology are a
Peculiargrim humour, to be found in the religion of
no other race, and a dark thread of tragedy which
runs throughout the whole woof, and these character
istics, touching both extremes, are writ large over
English literature.
But of conscious influence, compared with the rich
draught of Hellenic inspiration, there is little to be
found, and if we turn to modern art the difference is
even more apparent.
This indifference may be attributed to many causes,
but it was due first to the fact that the religious
beliefs of ourpagan ancestors were not held with any
real tenacity. Hence the success of the more or less
consideredpolicy of the early Christian missionaries
to confuse the heathen beliefs, and merge them in the
new faith, an interesting example of which is to be
seen in the transference to the Christian festival of
Easter of the attributes of the pagan goddess Edstre,
from whom it took even the name. Northern
mythology was in this way arrested ere it hadattained
itsfull development, and the progress of Christianity
eventually relegated it to the limbo offorgotten things.
Its comprehensive and intelligent scheme, however, in
strong contrast with the disconnected mythology of
Greece and Rome, formed the basis of a more or less
rational faith which prepared the Norseman to
receive the teaching of Christianity, and so helped to
bring about its own undoing.
The religious beliefs of the North are not mirrored
with any exactitude in the Elder Edda. Indeed only
a travesty of the faith of our ancestors has been pre
served in Norse literature. The early poet loved
allegory, and his imagination rioted among the
conceptions of his fertile muse. "His eye was fixed
on the mountains till the snowypeaks assumed human
features and the giant of the rock or the ice descended
with heavy tread ; or he wouldgaze at the splendour
of the spring, or of the summerfields, tillFreya with
the gleaming necklace steppedforth, or Sif with the
flowing locks ofgold"*
We are told nothing as to sacrificial and religious
rites, and all else is omitted which does not provide
material for artistic treatment. The so-called
Northern Mythology, therefore, may be regarded as
a precious relic of the beginning of Northern poetry,
rather than as a representation of the religious beliefs
of the Scandinavians, and these literary fragments
bear many signs ofthe transitional stage wherein the
confusion of the old and newfaiths is easily apparent.
But notwithstanding the limitations imposed by
long neglect it is possible to reconstruct inpart a plan
of the ancient Norse beliefs> and the general reader
will derive much profitfrom Carlyle s illuminating
study in "Heroes and Hero-worship."A be
wildering, inextricablejungle ofdelusions, conf^t,sions,
falsehoods and absurdities, covering the whole field of
Life /"; he calls them, with all good reason. But
he goes on to show, with equal truth, that at the soul
of this criide worship of distorted nature was a
spiritiial force seeking expression. What we probe
without reverence they viewed with awe, and not
understanding it, straightway deified it, as all
children have been apt to do in all stages of the
worlds history. Truly they were hero-worshippers
after Carlyle s own heart, and scepticism had no
place in their simple philosophy.
It was the infancy of thought gazing upon a
universe filled with divinity, and believing heartily
with all sincerity. A large-heartedpeople reaching
out in the dark towards ideals which were better
than they kneiv. Ragnarok was to undo their gods
because they had stumbled from their higher standards.
We have to thank a curious phenomenon for the
preservation of so much of the old lore as we still
possess. While foreign influences were corrupting
the Norse language, it remainedpractically unaltered
in Iceland, which had been colonisedfrom the main
land by the Norsemen who had fled thither to escape
the oppression of Harold Fairhair after his crushing
victory of Hafrsfirth. These people brought with
them the poetic genius which had already manifested
itself, and it took fresh root in that barren soil.
Many of the old Norse poets were natives of Iceland,
and in the early part of the Christian era, a supreme
service was rendered to Norse literature by the
Christian priest, Scemund, who industriously brought
together a large amount ofpaganpoetry in a collection
known as the Elder Edda, which is the chieffounda
tion of our present knowledge of the religion of our
Norse ancestors. Icelandic literature remained a
sealed book, however, until the end of the eighteenth
century, and very slowly since that time it has been
winning its way in the teeth of indifference, until
there are now signs that it will eventually come into
its own. "To know the old Faith" says Carlyle,
"brings us into closer and clearer relation with the
Past with our own possessions in the Past. For
the whole Past is the possession of the Present ; the
Past had always something true^ and is a precious possession"
The weighty words of William Morris regarding
the Volsunga Saga may also be fitly quoted as an in
troduction to the whole ofthis collection of "Myths of the Norsemen"

Table of Contents
III. FRIGGA ......... 42
IV, THOR .  . , 59
V. TYR . 85
VI. BRAGI . . . * . , . . . - 95
VII. IDUN . . . . . . * . . .103
VIII. NIORD . . . . . . . . . .in
IX. FREY .117
X. FREYA . ., . . 131
XI. ULLER ... 139
XIII. HEIMDALL ......... 146
XV. VIDAR . . ..... . - . . .158
XVI. VALI . . . .... . . .162
XVII. THE NORNS . . . . . . i . .166
XVIII. THE VALKYRS . . . . , . . , .173
XIX. HEL . . . . . . . . . 180
XX. ^EGIR . . . . ...... 185
XXI. BALDER . ... . . . . .197
XXII. LOKI ........ -. 216
XXIII. THE GIANTS . . . . . . . .230
XXIV. THE DWARFS . . . . . . . .239
XXV. THE ELVES ... . . . . . . . 246
XXVI. THE SIGURD SAGA . . . . . . . 251
XXVII. THE FRITHIOF SAGA . . . . . . 298
COMPARISON . . ..-342


"This is the great story of the
North, which should be to all our race what the
Tale of Troy was to the Greeks to all our race
first, and afterwards, when the change of the world
has made our race nothing more than a name of what
has been a story too then should it be to those that
come after us no less than the Tale of Troy has been to us."