Logo weiterlesen.de
Myths of the Norsemen

Myths of Creation

Although the Aryan inhabitants of Northern Europe are supposed by some authorities to have come originally from the plateau of Iran, in the heart of Asia, the climate and scenery of the countries where they finally settled had great influence in shaping their early religious beliefs, as well as in ordering their mode of living.

The grand and rugged landscapes of Northern Europe, the midnight sun, the flashing rays of the aurora borealis, the ocean continually lashing itself into fury against the great cliffs and icebergs of the Arctic Circle, could not but impress the people as vividly as the almost miraculous vegetation, the perpetual light, and the blue seas and skies of their brief summer season. It is no great wonder, therefore, that the Icelanders, for instance, to whom we owe the most perfect records of this belief, fancied in looking about them that the world was originally created from a strange mixture of fire and ice.

Northern mythology is grand and tragical. Its principal theme is the perpetual struggle of the beneficent forces of Nature against the injurious, and hence it is not graceful and idyllic in character, like the religion of the sunny South, where the people could bask in perpetual sunshine, and the fruits of the earth grew ready to their hand.

It was very natural that the dangers incurred in hunting and fishing under these inclement skies, and the suffering entailed by the long cold winters when the sun never shines, made our ancestors contemplate cold and ice as malevolent spirits; and it was with equal reason that they invoked with special fervour the beneficent influences of heat and light.

When questioned concerning the creation of the world, the Northern scalds, or poets, whose songs are preserved in the Eddas and Sagas, declared that in the beginning, when there was as yet no earth, nor sea, nor air, when darkness rested over all, there existed a powerful being called Allfather, whom they dimly conceived as uncreated as well as unseen, and that whatever he willed came to pass.

In the centre of space there was, in the morning of time, a great abyss called Ginnunga-gap, the cleft of clefts, the yawning gulf, whose depths no eye could fathom, as it was enveloped in perpetual twilight. North of this abode was a space or world known as Nifl-heim, the home of mist and darkness, in the centre of which bubbled the exhaustless spring Hvergelmir, the seething cauldron, whose waters supplied twelve great streams known as the Elivagar. As the water of these streams flowed swiftly away from its source and encountered the cold blasts from the yawning gulf, it soon hardened into huge blocks of ice, which rolled downward into the immeasurable depths of the great abyss with a continual roar like thunder.

South of this dark chasm, and directly opposite Nifl-heim, the realm of mist, was another world called Muspells-heim, the home of elemental fire, where all was warmth and brightness, and whose frontiers were continually guarded by Surtr, the flame giant. This giant fiercely brandished his flashing sword, and continually sent forth great showers of sparks, which fell with a hissing sound upon the ice-blocks in the bottom of the abyss, and partly melted them by their heat.

"Great Surtur, with his burning sword, Southward at Muspel's gate kept ward, And flashes of celestial flame, Life-giving, from the fire-world came."

Valhalla (J. C. Jones).



Ymir and Audhumla

As the steam rose in clouds it again encountered the prevailing cold, and was changed into rime or hoarfrost, which, layer by layer, filled up the great central space. Thus by the continual action of cold and heat, and also probably by the will of the uncreated and unseen, a gigantic creature called Ymir or Orgelmir (seething clay), the personification of the frozen ocean, came to life amid the ice-blocks in the abyss, and as he was born of rime he was called a Hrim-thurs, or ice-giant.

"In early times, When Ymir lived, Was sand, nor sea, Nor cooling wave; No earth was found, Nor heaven above; One chaos all, And nowhere grass."

Sæmund's Edda (Henderson's tr.).

Groping about in the gloom in search of something to eat, Ymir perceived a gigantic cow called Audhumla (the nourisher), which had been created by the same agency as himself, and out of the same materials. Hastening towards her, Ymir noticed with pleasure that from her udder flowed four great streams of milk, which would supply ample nourishment.

All his wants were thus satisfied; but the cow, looking about her for food in her turn, began to lick the salt off a neighbouring ice-block with her rough tongue. This she continued to do until first the hair of a god appeared and then the whole head emerged from its icy envelope, until by-and-by Buri (the producer) stepped forth entirely free.

While the cow had been thus engaged, Ymir, the giant, had fallen asleep, and as he slept a son and daughter were born from the perspiration under his armpit, and his feet produced the six-headed giant Thrudgelmir, who, shortly after his birth, brought forth in his turn the giant Bergelmir, from whom all the evil frost giants are descended.

"Under the armpit grew, 'Tis said of Hrim-thurs, A girl and boy together; Foot with foot begat, Of that wise Jötun, A six-headed son."

Sæmund's Edda (Thorpe's tr.).



Odin, Vili, and Ve

When these giants became aware of the existence of the god Buri, and of his son Börr (born), whom he had immediately produced, they began waging war against them, for as the gods and giants represented the opposite forces of good and evil, there was no hope of their living together in peace. The struggle continued evidently for ages, neither party gaining a decided advantage, until Börr married the giantess Bestla, daughter of Bolthorn (the thorn of evil), who bore him three powerful sons, Odin (spirit), Vili (will), and Ve (holy). These three sons immediately joined their father in his struggle against the hostile frost-giants, and finally succeeded in slaying their deadliest foe, the great Ymir. As he sank down lifeless the blood gushed from his wounds in such floods that it produced a great deluge, in which all his race perished, with the exception of Bergelmir, who escaped in a boat and went with his wife to the confines of the world.

"And all the race of Ymir thou didst drown, Save one, Bergelmer: he on shipboard fled Thy deluge, and from him the giants sprang."

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).

Here he took up his abode, calling the place Jötunheim (the home of the giants), and here he begat a new race of frost-giants, who inherited his dislikes, continued the feud, and were always ready to sally forth from their desolate country and raid the territory of the gods.

The gods, in Northern mythology called Æsir (pillars and supporters of the world), having thus triumphed over their foes, and being no longer engaged in perpetual warfare, now began to look about them, with intent to improve the desolate aspect of things and fashion a habitable world. After due consideration Börr's sons rolled Ymir's great corpse into the yawning abyss, and began to create the world out of its various component parts.



The Creation of the Earth

Out of the flesh they fashioned Midgard (middle garden), as the earth was called. This was placed in the exact centre of the vast space, and hedged all round with Ymir's eyebrows for bulwarks or ramparts. The solid portion of Midgard was surrounded by the giant's blood or sweat, which formed the ocean, while his bones made the hills, his flat teeth the cliffs, and his curly hair the trees and all vegetation.

Well pleased with the result of their first efforts at creation, the gods now took the giant's unwieldy skull and poised it skilfully as the vaulted heavens above earth and sea; then scattering his brains throughout the expanse beneath they fashioned from them the fleecy clouds.

"Of Ymir's flesh Was earth created, Of his blood the sea, Of his bones the hills, Of his hair trees and plants, Of his skull the heavens, And of his brows The gentle powers Formed Midgard for the sons of men; But of his brain The heavy clouds are All created."

Norse Mythology (R. B. Anderson).

To support the heavenly vault, the gods stationed the strong dwarfs, Nordri, Sudri, Austri, Westri, at its four corners, bidding them sustain it upon their shoulders, and from them the four points of the compass received their present names of North, South, East, and West. To give light to the world thus created, the gods studded the heavenly vault with sparks secured from Muspells-heim, points of light which shone steadily through the gloom like brilliant stars. The most vivid of these sparks, however, were reserved for the manufacture of the sun and moon, which were placed in beautiful golden chariots.

"And from the flaming world, where Muspel reigns, Thou sent'st and fetched'st fire, and madest lights: Sun, moon, and stars, which thou hast hung in heaven, Dividing clear the paths of night and day."

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).

When all these preparations had been finished, and the steeds Arvakr (the early waker) and Alsvin (the rapid goer) were harnessed to the sun-chariot, the gods, fearing lest the animals should suffer from their proximity to the ardent sphere, placed under their withers great skins filled with air or with some refrigerant substance. They also fashioned the shield Svalin (the cooler), and placed it in front of the car to shelter them from the sun's direct rays, which would else have burned them and the earth to a cinder. The moon-car was, similarly, provided with a fleet steed called Alsvider (the all-swift); but no shield was required to protect him from the mild rays of the moon.



Mani and Sol

The chariots were ready, the steeds harnessed and impatient to begin what was to be their daily round, but who should guide them along the right road? The gods looked about them, and their attention was attracted to the two beautiful offspring of the giant Mundilfari. He was very proud of his children, and had named them after the newly created orbs, Mani (the moon) and Sol (the sun). Sol, the Sun-maid, was the spouse of Glaur (glow), who was probably one of Surtr's sons.

The names proved to be happily bestowed, as the brother and sister were given the direction of the steeds of their bright namesakes. After receiving due counsel from the gods, they were transferred to the sky, and day by day they fulfilled their appointed duties and guided their steeds along the heavenly paths.

"Know that Mundilfær is hight Father to the moon and sun; Age on age shall roll away, While they mark the months and days."

Hávamál (W. Taylor's tr.).

The gods next summoned Nott (night), a daughter of Norvi, one of the giants, and entrusted to her care a dark chariot, drawn by a sable steed, Hrim-faxi (frost mane), from whose waving mane the dew and hoarfrost dropped down upon the earth.

"Hrim-faxi is the sable steed, From the east who brings the night, Fraught with the showering joys of love: As he champs the foamy bit, Drops of dew are scattered round To adorn the vales of earth."

Vafthrudni's-mal (W. Taylor's tr.).

The goddess of night had thrice been married, and by her first husband, Naglfari, she had had a son named Aud; by her second, Annar, a daughter Jörd (earth); and by her third, the god Dellinger (dawn), another son, of radiant beauty, was now born to her, and he was given the name of Dag (day).

As soon as the gods became aware of this beautiful being's existence they provided a chariot for him also, drawn by the resplendent white steed Skin-faxi (shining mane), from whose mane bright beams of light shone forth in every direction, illuminating all the world, and bringing light and gladness to all.

"Forth from the east, up the ascent of heaven, Day drove his courser with the shining mane."

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).



The Wolves Sköll and Hati

But as evil always treads close upon the footsteps of good, hoping to destroy it, the ancient inhabitants of the Northern regions imagined that both Sun and Moon were incessantly pursued by the fierce wolves Sköll (repulsion) and Hati (hatred), whose sole aim was to overtake and swallow the brilliant objects before them, so that the world might again be enveloped in its primeval darkness.

"Sköll the wolf is named That the fair-faced goddess To the ocean chases; Another Hati hight He is Hrodvitnir's son; He the bright maid of heaven shall precede."

Sæmuna's Edda (Thorpe's tr.).

At times, they said, the wolves overtook and tried to swallow their prey, thus producing an eclipse of the radiant orbs. Then the terrified people raised such a deafening clamour that the wolves, frightened by the noise, hastily dropped them. Thus rescued, Sun and Moon resumed their course, fleeing more rapidly than before, the hungry monsters rushing along in their wake, lusting for the time when their efforts would prevail and the end of the world would come. For the Northern nations believed that as their gods had sprung from an alliance between the divine element (Börr) and the mortal (Bestla), they were finite, and doomed to perish with the world they had made.

"But even in this early morn Faintly foreshadowed was the dawn Of that fierce struggle, deadly shock, Which yet should end in Ragnarok; When Good and Evil, Death and Life, Beginning now, end then their strife."

Valhalla (J. C. Jones).

Mani was accompanied also by Hiuki, the waxing, and Bil, the waning, moon, two children whom he had snatched from earth, where a cruel father forced them to carry water all night. Our ancestors fancied they saw these children, the original "Jack and Jill," with their pail, darkly outlined upon the moon.

The gods not only appointed Sun, Moon, Day, and Night to mark the procession of the year, but also called Evening, Midnight, Morning, Forenoon, Noon, and Afternoon to share their duties, making Summer and Winter the rulers of the seasons. Summer, a direct descendant of Svasud (the mild and lovely), inherited his sire's gentle disposition, and was loved by all except Winter, his deadly enemy, the son of Vindsual, himself a son of the disagreeable god Vasud, the personification of the icy wind.

"Vindsual is the name of him Who begat the winter's god; Summer from Suasuthur sprang: Both shall walk the way of years, Till the twilight of the gods."

Vafthrudni's-mal (W. Taylor's tr.).

The cold winds continually swept down from the north, chilling all the earth, and the Northmen imagined that these were set in motion by the great giant Hræ-svelgr (the corpse-swallower), who, clad in eagle plumes, sat at the extreme northern verge of the heavens, and that when he raised his arms or wings the cold blasts darted forth and swept ruthlessly over the face of the earth, blighting all things with their icy breath.

"Hræ-svelger is the name of him Who sits beyond the end of heaven, And winnows wide his eagle-wings, Whence the sweeping blasts have birth."

Vafthrudni's-mal (W. Taylor's tr.).



Dwarfs and Elves

While the gods were occupied in creating the earth and providing for its illumination, a whole host of maggot-like creatures had been breeding in Ymir's flesh. These uncouth beings now attracted divine attention. Summoning them into their presence, the gods first gave them forms and endowed them with superhuman intelligence, and then divided them into two large classes. Those which were dark, treacherous, and cunning by nature were banished to Svart-alfa-heim, the home of the black dwarfs, situated underground, whence they were never allowed to come forth during the day, under penalty of being turned into stone. They were called Dwarfs, Trolls, Gnomes, or Kobolds, and spent all their time and energy in exploring the secret recesses of the earth. They collected gold, silver, and precious stones, which they stowed away in secret crevices, whence they could withdraw them at will. The remainder of these small creatures, including all that were fair, good, and useful, the gods called Fairies and Elves, and they sent them to dwell in the airy realm of Alf-heim (home of the light-elves), situated between heaven and earth, whence they could flit downward whenever they pleased, to attend to the plants and flowers, sport with the birds and butterflies, or dance in the silvery moonlight on the green.

Odin, who had been the leading spirit in all these undertakings, now bade the gods, his descendants, follow him to the broad plain called Idawold, far above the earth, on the other side of the great stream Ifing, whose waters never froze.

"Ifing's deep and murky wave Parts the ancient sons of earth From the dwelling of the Goths: Open flows the mighty flood, Nor shall ice arrest its course While the wheel of Ages rolls."

Vafthrudni's-mal (W. Taylor's tr.).

In the centre of the sacred space, which from the beginning of the world had been reserved for their own abode and called Asgard (home of the gods), the twelve Æsir (gods) and twenty-four Asynjur (goddesses) all assembled at the bidding of Odin. Then was held a great council, at which it was decreed that no blood should be shed within the limits of their realm, or peace-stead, but that harmony should reign there for ever. As a further result of the conference the gods set up a forge where they fashioned all their weapons and the tools required to build the magnificent palaces of precious metals, in which they lived for many long years in a state of such perfect happiness that this period has been called the Golden Age.



The Creation of Man

Although the gods had from the beginning designed Midgard, or Mana-heim, as the abode of man, there were at first no human beings to inhabit it. One day Odin, Vili, and Ve, according to some authorities, or Odin, Hoenir (the bright one), and Lodur, or Loki (fire), started out together and walked along the seashore, where they found either two trees, the ash, Ask, and the elm, Embla, or two blocks of wood, hewn into rude semblances of the human form. The gods gazed at first upon the inanimate wood in silent wonder; then, perceiving the use it could be put to, Odin gave these logs souls, Hoenir bestowed motion and senses, and Lodur contributed blood and blooming complexions.

Thus endowed with speech and thought, and with power to love and to hope and to work, and with life and death, the newly created man and woman were left to rule Midgard at will. They gradually peopled it with their descendants, while the gods, remembering they had called them into life, took a special interest in all they did, watched over them, and often vouchsafed their aid and protection.



The Tree Yggdrasil

Allfather next created a huge ash called Yggdrasil, the tree of the universe, of time, or of life, which filled all the world, taking root not only in the remotest depths of Nifl-heim, where bubbled the spring Hvergelmir, but also in Midgard, near Mimir's well (the ocean), and in Asgard, near the Urdar fountain.

From its three great roots the tree attained such a marvellous height that its topmost bough, called Lerad (the peace-giver), overshadowed Odin's hall, while the other wide-spreading branches towered over the other worlds. An eagle was perched on the bough Lerad, and between his eyes sat the falcon Vedfolnir, sending his piercing glances down into heaven, earth, and Nifl-heim, and reporting all that he saw.

As the tree Yggdrasil was ever green, its leaves never withering, it served as pasture-ground not only for Odin's goat Heidrun, which supplied the heavenly mead, the drink of the gods, but also for the stags Dain, Dvalin, Duneyr, and Durathor, from whose horns honey-dew dropped down upon the earth and furnished the water for all the rivers in the world.

In the seething cauldron Hvergelmir, close by the great tree, a horrible dragon, called Nidhug, continually gnawed the roots, and was helped in his work of destruction by countless worms, whose aim it was to kill the tree, knowing that its death would be the signal for the downfall of the gods.

"Through all our life a tempter prowls malignant, The cruel Nidhug from the world below. He hates that asa-light whose rays benignant On th' hero's brow and glitt'ring sword bright glow."

Viking Tales of the North (R. B. Anderson).

Scampering continually up and down the branches and trunk of the tree, the squirrel Ratatosk (branch-borer), the typical busybody and tale-bearer, passed its time repeating to the dragon below the remarks of the eagle above, and vice versa, in the hope of stirring up strife between them.



The Bridge Bifröst

It was, of course, essential that the tree Yggdrasil should be maintained in a perfectly healthy condition, and this duty was performed by the Norns, or Fates, who daily sprinkled it with the holy waters from the Urdar fountain. This water, as it trickled down to earth through branches and leaves, supplied the bees with honey.

From either edge of Nifl-heim, arching high above Midgard, rose the sacred bridge, Bifröst (Asabru, the rainbow), built of fire, water, and air, whose quivering and changing hues it retained, and over which the gods travelled to and fro to the earth or to the Urdar well, at the foot of the ash Yggdrasil, where they daily assembled in council.

"The gods arose And took their horses, and set forth to ride O'er the bridge Bifrost, where is Heimdall's watch, To the ash Igdrasil, and Ida's plain. Thor came on foot, the rest on horseback rode."

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).

Of all the gods Thor only, the god of thunder, never passed over the bridge, for fear lest his heavy tread or the heat of his lightnings would destroy it. The god Heimdall kept watch and ward there night and day. He was armed with a trenchant sword, and carried a trumpet called Giallar-horn, upon which he generally blew a soft note to announce the coming or going of the gods, but upon which a terrible blast would be sounded when Ragnarok should come, and the frost-giants and Surtr combined to destroy the world.

"Surt from the south comes With flickering flame; Shines from his sword The Val-god's sun. The stony hills are dashed together, The giantesses totter; Men tread the path of Hel, And heaven is cloven."

Sæmund's Edda (Thorpe's tr.).



The Vanas

Now although the original inhabitants of heaven were the Æsir, they were not the sole divinities of the Northern races, who also recognised the power of the sea- and wind-gods, the Vanas, dwelling in Vana-heim and ruling their realms as they pleased. In early times, before the golden palaces in Asgard were built, a dispute arose between the Æsir and Vanas, and they resorted to arms, using rocks, mountains, and icebergs as missiles in the fray. But discovering ere long that in unity alone lay strength, they composed their differences and made peace, and to ratify the treaty they exchanged hostages.

It was thus that the Van, Niörd, came to dwell in Asgard with his two children, Frey and Freya, while the Asa, Hoenir, Odin's own brother, took up his abode in Vana-heim.

The Father of Gods and Men

Odin, Wuotan, or Woden was the highest and holiest god of the Northern races. He was the all-pervading spirit of the universe, the personification of the air, the god of universal wisdom and victory, and the leader and protector of princes and heroes. As all the gods were supposed to be descended from him, he was surnamed Allfather, and as eldest and chief among them he occupied the highest seat in Asgard. Known by the name of Hlidskialf, this chair was not only an exalted throne, but also a mighty watch-tower, from whence he could overlook the whole world and see at a glance all that was happening among gods, giants, elves, dwarfs, and men.

"From the hall of Heaven he rode away To Lidskialf, and sate upon his throne, The mount, from whence his eye surveys the world. And far from Heaven he turned his shining orbs To look on Midgard, and the earth, and men."

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).



Odin's Personal Appearance

None but Odin and his wife and queen Frigga were privileged to use this seat, and when they occupied it they generally gazed towards the south and west, the goal of all the hopes and excursions of the Northern nations. Odin was generally represented as a tall, vigorous man, about fifty years of age, either with dark curling hair or with a long grey beard and bald head. He was clad in a suit of grey, with a blue hood, and his muscular body was enveloped in a wide blue mantle flecked with grey--an emblem of the sky with its fleecy clouds. In his hand Odin generally carried the infallible spear Gungnir, which was so sacred that an oath sworn upon its point could never be broken, and on his finger or arm he wore the marvellous ring, Draupnir, the emblem of fruitfulness, precious beyond compare. When seated upon his throne or armed for the fray, to mingle in which he would often descend to earth, Odin wore his eagle helmet; but when he wandered peacefully about the earth in human guise, to see what men were doing, he generally donned a broad-brimmed hat, drawn low over his forehead to conceal the fact that he possessed but one eye.

Two ravens, Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory), perched upon his shoulders as he sat upon his throne, and these he sent out into the wide world every morning, anxiously watching for their return at nightfall, when they whispered into his ears news of all they had seen and heard. Thus he was kept well informed about everything that was happening on earth.

"Hugin and Munin Fly each day Over the spacious earth. I fear for Hugin That he come not back, Yet more anxious am I for Munin."

Norse Mythology (R. B. Anderson).

At his feet crouched two wolves or hunting hounds, Geri and Freki, animals which were therefore considered sacred to him, and of good omen if met by the way. Odin always fed these wolves with his own hands from meat set before him. He required no food at all for himself, and seldom tasted anything except the sacred mead.

"Geri and Freki The war-wont sates, The triumphant sire of hosts; But on wine only The famed in arms Odin, ever lives."

Lay of Grimnir (Thorpe's tr.).

When seated in state upon his throne, Odin rested his feet upon a footstool of gold, the work of the gods, all of whose furniture and utensils were fashioned either of that precious metal or of silver.

Besides the magnificent hall Glads-heim, where stood the twelve seats occupied by the gods when they met in council, and Valaskialf, where his throne, Hlidskialf, was placed, Odin had a third palace in Asgard, situated in the midst of the marvellous grove Glasir, whose shimmering leaves were of red gold.



Valhalla

This palace, called Valhalla (the hall of the chosen slain), had five hundred and forty doors, wide enough to allow the passage of eight hundred warriors abreast, and above the principal gate were a boar's head and an eagle whose piercing glance penetrated to the far corners of the world. The walls of this marvellous building were fashioned of glittering spears, so highly polished that they illuminated the hall. The roof was of golden shields, and the benches were decorated with fine armour, the god's gifts to his guests. Here long tables afforded ample accommodation for the Einheriar, warriors fallen in battle, who were specially favoured by Odin.

"Easily to be known is, By those who to Odin come, The mansion by its aspect. Its roof with spears is laid, Its hall with shields is decked, With corselets are its benches strewed."

Lay of Grimnir (Thorpe's tr.).

The ancient Northern nations, who deemed warfare the most honourable of occupations, and considered courage the greatest virtue, worshipped Odin principally as god of battle and victory. They believed that whenever a fight was impending he sent out his special attendants, the shield-, battle-, or wish-maidens, called Valkyrs (choosers of the slain), who selected from the dead warriors one-half of their number, whom they bore on their fleet steeds over the quivering rainbow bridge, Bifröst, into Valhalla. Welcomed by Odin's sons, Hermod and Bragi, the heroes were conducted to the foot of Odin's throne, where they received the praise due to their valour. When some special favourite of the god was thus brought into Asgard, Valfather (father of the slain), as Odin was called when he presided over the warriors, would sometimes rise from his throne and in person bid him welcome at the great entrance gate.



The Feast of the Heroes

Besides the glory of such distinction, and the enjoyment of Odin's beloved presence day after day, other more material pleasures awaited the warriors in Valhalla. Generous entertainment was provided for them at the long tables, where the beautiful white-armed virgins, the Valkyrs, having laid aside their armour and clad themselves in pure white robes, waited upon them with assiduous attention. These maidens, nine in number according to some authorities, brought the heroes great horns full of delicious mead, and set before them huge portions of boar's flesh, upon which they feasted heartily. The usual Northern drink was beer or ale, but our ancestors fancied this beverage too coarse for the heavenly sphere. They therefore imagined that Valfather kept his table liberally supplied with mead or hydromel, which was daily furnished in great abundance by his she-goat Heidrun, who continually browsed on the tender leaves and twigs on Lerad, Yggdrasil's topmost branch.

"Rash war and perilous battle, their delight; And immature, and red with glorious wounds, Unpeaceful death their choice: deriving thence A right to feast and drain immortal bowls, In Odin's hall; whose blazing roof resounds The genial uproar of those shades who fall In desperate fight, or by some brave attempt."

Liberty (James Thomson).

The meat upon which the Einheriar feasted was the flesh of the divine boar Sæhrimnir, a marvellous beast, daily slain by the cook Andhrimnir, and boiled in the great cauldron Eldhrimnir; but although Odin's guests had true Northern appetites and gorged themselves to the full, there was always plenty of meat for all.

"Andhrimnir cooks In Eldhrimnir Sæhrimnir; 'Tis the best of flesh; But few know What the einherjes eat."

Lay of Grimnir (Anderson's version).

Moreover, the supply was exhaustless, for the boar always came to life again before the time of the next meal. This miraculous renewal of supplies in the larder was not the only wonderful occurrence in Valhalla, for it is related that the warriors, after having eaten and drunk to satiety, always called for their weapons, armed themselves, and rode out into the great courtyard, where they fought against one another, repeating the feats of arms for which they were famed on earth, and recklessly dealing terrible wounds, which, however, were miraculously and completely healed as soon as the dinner horn sounded.

"All the chosen guests of Odin Daily ply the trade of war; From the fields of festal fight Swift they ride in gleaming arms, And gaily, at the board of gods, Quaff the cup of sparkling ale And eat Sæhrimni's vaunted flesh."

Vafthrudni's-mal (W. Taylor's tr.).

Whole and happy at the sound of the horn, and bearing one another no grudge for cruel thrusts given and received, the Einheriar would ride gaily back to Valhalla to renew their feasts in Odin's beloved presence, while the white-armed Valkyrs, with flying hair, glided gracefully about, constantly filling their horns or their favourite drinking vessels, the skulls of their enemies, while the scalds sang of war and of stirring Viking forays.

"And all day long they there are hack'd and hewn 'Mid dust, and groans, and limbs lopped off, and blood; But all at night return to Odin's hall Woundless and fresh: such lot is theirs in heaven."

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).

Fighting and feasting thus, the heroes were said to spend their days in perfect bliss, while Odin delighted in their strength and number, which, however, he foresaw would not avail to prevent his downfall when the day of the last battle should dawn.

As such pleasures were the highest a Northern warrior's fancy could paint, it was very natural that all fighting men should love Odin, and early in life should dedicate themselves to his service. They vowed to die arms in hand, if possible, and even wounded themselves with their own spears when death drew near, if they had been unfortunate enough to escape death on the battlefield and were threatened with "straw death," as they called decease from old age or sickness.

"To Odin then true-fast Carves he fair runics,-- Death-runes cut deep on his arm and his breast."

Viking Tales of the North (R. B. Anderson).

In reward for this devotion Odin watched with special care over his favourites, giving them gifts, a magic sword, a spear, or a horse, and making them invincible until their last hour had come, when he himself appeared to claim or destroy the gift he had bestowed, and the Valkyrs bore the heroes to Valhalla.

"He gave to Hermod A helm and corselet, And from him Sigmund A sword received."

Lay of Hyndla (Thorpe's tr.).



Sleipnir

When Odin took an active part in war, he generally rode his eight-footed grey steed, Sleipnir, and bore a white shield. His glittering spear flung over the heads of the combatants was the signal for the fray to commence, and he would dash into the midst of the ranks shouting his warcry: "Odin has you all!"

"And Odin donned His dazzling corslet and his helm of gold, And led the way on Sleipnir."

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).

At times he used his magic bow, from which he would shoot ten arrows at once, every one invariably bringing down a foe. Odin was also supposed to inspire his favourite warriors with the renowned "Berserker rage" (bare sark or shirt), which enabled them, although naked, weaponless, and sore beset, to perform unheard-of feats of valour and strength, and move about as with charmed lives.

As Odin's characteristics, like the all-pervading elements, were multitudinous, so also were his names, of which he had no less than two hundred, almost all descriptive of some phase of his activities. He was considered the ancient god of seamen and of the wind.

"Mighty Odin, Norsemen hearts we bend to thee! Steer our barks, all-potent Woden, O'er the surging Baltic Sea."

Vail.



The Wild Hunt

Odin, as wind-god, was pictured as rushing through mid-air on his eight-footed steed, from which originated the oldest Northern riddle, which runs as follows: "Who are the two who ride to the Thing? Three eyes have they together, ten feet, and one tail: and thus they travel through the lands." And as the souls of the dead were supposed to be wafted away on the wings of the storm, Odin was worshipped as the leader of all disembodied spirits. In this character he was most generally known as the Wild Huntsman, and when people heard the rush and roar of the wind they cried aloud in superstitious fear, fancying they heard and saw him ride past with his train, all mounted on snorting steeds, and accompanied by baying hounds. And the passing of the Wild Hunt, known as Woden's Hunt, the Raging Host, Gabriel's Hounds, or Asgardreia, was also considered a presage of such misfortune as pestilence or war.

"The Rhine flows bright; but its waves ere long Must hear a voice of war, And a clash of spears our hills among, And a trumpet from afar; And the brave on a bloody turf must lie, For the Huntsman hath gone by!"

The Wild Huntsman (Mrs. Hemans).

It was further thought that if any were so sacrilegious as to join in the wild halloo in mockery, they would be immediately snatched up and whirled away with the vanishing host, while those who joined in the halloo with implicit good faith would be rewarded by the sudden gift of a horse's leg, hurled at them from above, which, if carefully kept until the morrow, would be changed into a lump of gold.

Even after the introduction of Christianity the ignorant Northern folk still dreaded the on-coming storm, declaring that it was the Wild Hunt sweeping across the sky.

"And ofttimes will start, For overhead are sweeping Gabriel's hounds, Doomed with their impious lord the flying hart To chase forever on aëreal grounds."

Sonnet (Wordsworth).

Sometimes it left behind a small black dog, which, cowering and whining upon a neighbouring hearth, had to be kept for a whole year and carefully tended unless it could be exorcised or frightened away. The usual recipe, the same as for the riddance of changelings, was to brew beer in egg-shells, and this performance was supposed so to startle the spectral dog that he would fly with his tail between his legs, exclaiming that, although as old as the Behmer, or Bohemian forest, he had never before beheld such an uncanny sight.

"I am as old As the Behmer wold, And have in my life Such a brewing not seen."

Old Saying (Thorpe's tr.)

The object of this phantom hunt varied greatly, and was either a visonary boar or wild horse, white-breasted maidens who were caught and borne away bound only once in seven years, or the wood nymphs, called Moss Maidens, who were thought to represent the autumn leaves torn from the trees and whirled away by the wintry gale.

In the middle ages, when the belief in the old heathen deities was partly forgotten, the leader of the Wild Hunt was no longer Odin, but Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa, King Arthur, or some Sabbath-breaker, like the Squire of Rodenstein or Hans von Hackelberg, who, in punishment for his sins, was condemned to hunt for ever through the realms of air.

As the winds blew fiercest in autumn and winter, Odin was supposed to prefer hunting during that season, especially during the time between Christmas and Twelfth-night, and the peasants were always careful to leave the last sheaf or measure of grain out in the fields to serve as food for his horse.

This hunt was of course known by various names in the different countries of Northern Europe; but as the tales told about it are all alike, they evidently originated in the same old heathen belief, and to this day ignorant people of the North fancy that the baying of a hound on a stormy night is an infallible presage of death.

"Still, still shall last the dreadful chase, Till time itself shall have an end; By day, they scour earth's cavern'd space, At midnight's witching hour, ascend.

"This is the horn, and hound, and horse That oft the lated peasant hears; Appall'd, he signs the frequent cross, When the wild din invades his ears.

"The wakeful priest oft drops a tear For human pride, for human woe, When, at his midnight mass, he hears The infernal cry of 'Holla, ho!'"

Sir Walter Scott.

The Wild Hunt, or Raging Host of Germany, was called Herlathing in England, from the mythical king Herla, its supposed leader; in Northern France it bore the name of Mesnée d'Hellequin, from Hel, goddess of death; and in the middle ages it was known as Cain's Hunt or Herod's Hunt, these latter names being given because the leaders were supposed to be unable to find rest on account of the iniquitous murders of Abel, of John the Baptist, and of the Holy Innocents.

In Central France the Wild Huntsman, whom we have already seen in other countries as Odin, Charlemagne, Barbarossa, Rodenstein, von Hackelberg, King Arthur, Hel, one of the Swedish kings, Gabriel, Cain, or Herod, is also called the Great Huntsman of Fontainebleau (le Grand Veneur de Fontainebleau), and people declare that on the eve of Henry IV.'s murder, and also just before the outbreak of the great French Revolution, his shouts were distinctly heard as he swept across the sky.

It was generally believed among the Northern nations that the soul escaped from the body in the shape of a mouse, which crept out of a corpse's mouth and ran away, and it was also said to creep in and out of the mouths of people in a trance. While the soul was absent, no effort or remedy could recall the patient to life; but as soon as it had come back animation returned.



The Pied Piper

As Odin was the leader of all disembodied spirits, he was identified in the middle ages with the Pied Piper of Hamelin. According to mediæval legends, Hamelin was so infested by rats that life became unbearable, and a large reward was offered to any who would rid the town of these rodents. A piper, in parti-coloured garments, offered to undertake the commission, and the terms being accepted, he commenced to play through the streets in such wise that, one and all, the rats were beguiled out of their holes until they formed a vast procession. There was that in the strains which compelled them to follow, until at last the river Weser was reached, and all were drowned in its tide.

"And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered, You heard as if an army muttered; And the muttering grew to a grumbling; And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling; And out of the houses the rats came tumbling. Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats, Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats, Grave old plodders, gay young friskers, Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins, Cocking tails and pricking whiskers, Families by tens and dozens, Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives-- Followed the Piper for their lives. From street to street he piped advancing, And step for step they followed dancing, Until they came to the river Weser, Wherein all plunged and perished!"

Robert Browning.

As the rats were all dead, and there was no chance of their returning to plague them, the people of Hamelin refused to pay the reward, and they bade the piper do his worst. He took them at their word, and a few moments later the weird strains of the magic flute again arose, and this time it was the children who swarmed out of the houses and merrily followed the piper.

"There was a rustling that seemed like a bustling Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling; Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering, Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering, And, like fowls in a farmyard when barley is scattering, Out came all the children running. All the little boys and girls, With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls, And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls, Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after The wonderful music with shouting and laughter."

Robert Browning.

The burghers were powerless to prevent the tragedy, and as they stood spellbound the piper led the children out of the town to the Koppelberg, a hill on the confines of the town, which miraculously opened to receive the procession, and only closed again when the last child had passed out of sight. This legend probably originated the adage "to pay the piper." The children were never seen in Hamelin again, and in commemoration of this public calamity all official decrees have since been dated so many years after the Pied Piper's visit.

"They made a decree that lawyers never Should think their records dated duly If, after the day of the month and year, These words did not as well appear, 'And so long after what happened here On the Twenty-second of July, Thirteen hundred and seventy-six:' And the better in memory to fix The place of the children's last retreat, They called it the Pied Piper Street-- Where any one playing on pipe or tabor Was sure for the future to lose his labour."

Robert Browning.

In this myth Odin is the piper, the shrill tones of the flute are emblematic of the whistling wind, the rats represent the souls of the dead, which cheerfully follow him, and the hollow mountain into which he leads the children is typical of the grave.



Bishop Hatto

Another German legend which owes its existence to this belief is the story of Bishop Hatto, the miserly prelate, who, annoyed by the clamours of the poor during a time of famine, had them burned alive in a deserted barn, like the rats whom he declared they resembled, rather than give them some of the precious grain which he had laid up for himself.

"'I' faith, 'tis an excellent bonfire!' quoth he, 'And the country is greatly obliged to me For ridding it in these times forlorn Of rats that only consume the corn.'"

Robert Southey.

Soon after this terrible crime had been accomplished the bishop's retainers reported the approach of a vast swarm of rats. These, it appears, were the souls of the murdered peasants, which had assumed the forms of the rats to which the bishop had likened them. His efforts to escape were vain, and the rats pursued him even into the middle of the Rhine, to a stone tower in which he took refuge from their fangs. They swam to the tower, gnawed their way through the stone walls, and, pouring in on all sides at once, they found the bishop and devoured him alive.

"And in at the windows, and in at the door, And through the walls, helter-skelter they pour, And down from the ceiling, and up through the floor, From the right and the left, from behind and before, From within and without, from above and below, And all at once to the Bishop they go. They have whetted their teeth against the stones; And now they pick the Bishop's bones; They gnaw'd the flesh from every limb, For they were sent to do judgment on him!"

Robert Southey.

The red glow of the sunset above the Rat Tower near Bingen on the Rhine is supposed to be the reflection of the hell fire in which the wicked bishop is slowly roasting in punishment for his heinous crime.



Irmin

In some parts of Germany Odin was considered to be identical with the Saxon god Irmin, whose statue, the Irminsul, near Paderborn, was destroyed by Charlemagne in 772. Irmin was said to possess a ponderous brazen chariot, in which he rode across the sky along the path which we know as the Milky Way, but which the ancient Germans designated as Irmin's Way. This chariot, whose rumbling sound occasionally became perceptible to mortal ears as thunder, never left the sky, where it can still be seen in the constellation of the Great Bear, which is also known in the North as Odin's, or Charles's, Wain.

"The Wain, who wheels on high His circling course, and on Orion waits; Sole star that never bathes in the Ocean wave."

Homer's Iliad (Derby's tr.).



Mimir's Well

To obtain the great wisdom for which he is so famous, Odin, in the morn of time, visited Mimir's (Memor, memory) spring, "the fountain of all wit and wisdom," in whose liquid depths even the future was clearly mirrored, and besought the old man who guarded it to let him have a draught. But Mimir, who well knew the value of such a favour (for his spring was considered the source or headwater of memory), refused the boon unless Odin would consent to give one of his eyes in exchange.

The god did not hesitate, so highly did he prize the draught, but immediately plucked out one of his eyes, which Mimir kept in pledge, sinking it deep down into his fountain, where it shone with mild lustre, leaving Odin with but one eye, which is considered emblematic of the sun.

"Through our whole lives we strive towards the sun; That burning forehead is the eye of Odin. His second eye, the moon, shines not so bright; It has he placed in pledge in Mimer's fountain, That he may fetch the healing waters thence, Each morning, for the strengthening of this eye."

Oehlenschläger (Howitt's tr.).

Drinking deeply of Mimir's fount, Odin gained the knowledge he coveted, and he never regretted the sacrifice he had made, but as further memorial of that day broke off a branch of the sacred tree Yggdrasil, which overshadowed the spring, and fashioned from it his beloved spear Gungnir.

"A dauntless god Drew for drink to its gleam, Where he left in endless Payment the light of an eye. From the world-ash Ere Wotan went he broke a bough; For a spear the staff He split with strength from the stem."

Dusk of the Gods, Wagner (Forman's tr.).

But although Odin was now all-wise, he was sad and oppressed, for he had gained an insight into futurity, and had become aware of the transitory nature of all things, and even of the fate of the gods, who were doomed to pass away. This knowledge so affected his spirits that he ever after wore a melancholy and contemplative expression.

To test the value of the wisdom he had thus obtained, Odin went to visit the most learned of all the giants, Vafthrudnir, and entered with him into a contest of wit, in which the stake was nothing less than the loser's head.

"Odin rose with speed, and went To contend in runic lore With the wise and crafty Jute. To Vafthrudni's royal hall Came the mighty king of spells."

Vafthrudni's-mal (W. Taylor's tr.).



Odin and Vafthrudnir

On this occasion Odin had disguised himself as a Wanderer, by Frigga's advice, and when asked his name declared it was Gangrad. The contest of wit immediately began, Vafthrudnir questioning his guest concerning the horses which carried Day and Night across the sky, the river Ifing separating Jötun-heim from Asgard, and also about Vigrid, the field where the last battle was to be fought.

All these questions were minutely answered by Odin, who, when Vafthrudnir had ended, began the interrogatory in his turn, and received equally explicit answers about the origin of heaven and earth, the creation of the gods, their quarrel with the Vanas, the occupations of the heroes in Valhalla, the offices of the Norns, and the rulers who were to replace the Æsir when they had all perished with the world they had created. But when, in conclusion, Odin bent near the giant and softly inquired what words Allfather whispered to his dead son Balder as he lay upon his funeral pyre, Vafthrudnir suddenly recognised his divine visitor. Starting back in dismay, he declared that no one but Odin himself could answer that question, and that it was now quite plain to him that he had madly striven in a contest of wisdom and wit with the king of the gods, and fully deserved the penalty of failure, the loss of his head.

"Not the man of mortal race Knows the words which thou hast spoken To thy son in days of yore. I hear the coming tread of death; He soon shall raze the runic lore, And knowledge of the rise of gods, From his ill-fated soul who strove With Odin's self the strife of wit, Wisest of the wise that breathe: Our stake was life, and thou hast won."

Vafthrudni's-mal (W. Taylor's tr.).

As is the case with so many of the Northern myths, which are often fragmentary and obscure, this one ends here, and none of the scalds informs us whether Odin really slew his rival, nor what was the answer to his last question; but mythologists have hazarded the suggestion that the word whispered by Odin in Balder's ear, to console him for his untimely death, must have been "resurrection."



Invention of Runes

Besides being god of wisdom, Odin was god and inventor of runes, the earliest alphabet used by Northern nations, which characters, signifying mystery, were at first used for divination, although in later times they served for inscriptions and records. Just as wisdom could only be obtained at the cost of sacrifice, Odin himself relates that he hung nine days and nights from the sacred tree Yggdrasil, gazing down into the immeasurable depths of Nifl-heim, plunged in deep thought, and self-wounded with his spear, ere he won the knowledge he sought.

"I know that I hung On a wind-rocked tree Nine whole nights, With a spear wounded, And to Odin offered Myself to myself; On that tree Of which no one knows From what root it springs."

Odin's Rune-Song (Thorpe's tr.).

When he had fully mastered this knowledge, Odin cut magic runes upon his spear Gungnir, upon the teeth of his horse Sleipnir, upon the claws of the bear, and upon countless other animate and inanimate things. And because he had thus hung over the abyss for such a long space of time, he was ever after considered the patron divinity of all who were condemned to be hanged or who perished by the noose.

After obtaining the gift of wisdom and runes, which gave him power over all things, Odin also coveted the gift of eloquence and poetry, which he acquired in a manner which we shall relate in a subsequent chapter.

Geirrod and Agnar.

Odin, as has already been stated, took great interest in the affairs of mortals, and, we are told, was specially fond of watching King Hrauding's handsome little sons, Geirrod and Agnar, when they were about eight and ten years of age respectively. One day these little lads went fishing, and a storm suddenly arose which blew their boat far out to sea, where it finally stranded upon an island, upon which dwelt a seeming old couple, who in reality were Odin and Frigga in disguise. They had assumed these forms in order to indulge a sudden passion for the close society of their protégés. The lads were warmly welcomed and kindly treated, Odin choosing Geirrod as his favourite, and teaching him the use of arms, while Frigga petted and made much of little Agnar. The boys tarried on the island with their kind protectors during the long, cold winter season; but when spring came, and the skies were blue, and the sea calm, they embarked in a boat which Odin provided, and set out for their native shore. Favoured by gentle breezes, they were soon wafted thither; but as the boat neared the strand Geirrod quickly sprang out and pushed it far back into the water, bidding his brother sail away into the evil spirit's power. At that self-same moment the wind veered, and Agnar was indeed carried away, while his brother hastened to his father's palace with a lying tale as to what had happened to his brother. He was joyfully received as one from the dead, and in due time he succeeded his father upon the throne.

Years passed by, during which the attention of Odin had been claimed by other high considerations, when one day, while the divine couple were seated on the throne Hlidskialf, Odin suddenly remembered the winter's sojourn on the desert island, and he bade his wife notice how powerful his pupil had become, and taunted her because her favourite Agnar had married a giantess and had remained poor and of no consequence. Frigga quietly replied that it was better to be poor than hardhearted, and accused Geirrod of lack of hospitality--one of the most heinous crimes in the eyes of a Northman. She even went so far as to declare that in spite of all his wealth he often ill-treated his guests.

When Odin heard this accusation he declared that he would prove the falsity of the charge by assuming the guise of a Wanderer and testing Geirrod's generosity. Wrapped in his cloud-hued raiment, with slouch hat and pilgrim staff,--

"Wanderer calls me the world, Far have I carried my feet, On the back of the earth I have boundlessly been,"--

Wagner (Forman's tr.).

Odin immediately set out by a roundabout way, while Frigga, to outwit him, immediately despatched a swift messenger to warn Geirrod to beware of a man in wide mantle and broad-brimmed hat, as he was a wicked enchanter who would work him ill.

When, therefore, Odin presented himself before the king's palace he was dragged into Geirrod's presence and questioned roughly. He gave his name as Grimnir, but refused to tell whence he came or what he wanted, so as this reticence confirmed the suspicion suggested to the mind of Geirrod, he allowed his love of cruelty full play, and commanded that the stranger should be bound between two fires, in such wise that the flames played around him without quite touching him, and he remained thus eight days and nights, in obstinate silence, without food. Now Agnar had returned secretly to his brother's palace, where he occupied a menial position, and one night when all was still, in pity for the suffering of the unfortunate captive, he conveyed to his lips a horn of ale. But for this Odin would have had nothing to drink--the most serious of all trials to the god.

At the end of the eighth day, while Geirrod, seated upon his throne, was gloating over his prisoner's sufferings, Odin began to sing--softly at first, then louder and louder, until the hall re-echoed with his triumphant notes--a prophecy that the king, who had so long enjoyed the god's favour, would soon perish by his own sword.

"The fallen by the sword Ygg shall now have; Thy life is now run out: Wroth with thee are the Dísir: Odin thou now shalt see: Draw near to me if thou canst."

Sæmund's Edda (Thorpe's tr.).

As the last notes died away the chains dropped from his hands, the flames flickered and went out, and Odin stood in the midst of the hall, no longer in human form, but in all the power and beauty of a god.

On hearing the ominous prophecy Geirrod hastily drew his sword, intending to slay the insolent singer; but when he beheld the sudden transformation he started in dismay, tripped, fell upon the sharp blade, and perished as Odin had just foretold. Turning to Agnar, who, according to some accounts, was the king's son, and not his brother, for these old stories are ...

Would you like to know how the story ends?

Buy "Myths of the Norsemen" in your preferred e-book store and continue reading:

Amazon

Apple iBookstore

ebook.de

Thalia

Weltbild

Enjoy your reading!



Kaufen






Teilen