Monday, February 1, 2016

Scandinavian Superstitions by William Chambers 1842

Scandinavian Superstitions by William & Robert Chambers 1842

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The superstitions of the European Northmen, or Scandinavians—under which term are included the early inhabitants of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland —were of a kind remarkably accordant with the cold and stern character of the regions which they occupied. Like the ancient Greeks, the Scandinavians had seats of the gods and of the blest, which they called Asgard and Walhalla (or Valhalla), and these bore the same relation in their character to the Olympus and Elysium of the Greeks, that the countries of the north, with their stormy climes, their icy mountains, and perilous waters, bore to the perfumed and verdant plains of Hellas, and the fair blue skies overhanging the smooth Ionian Sea. Nothing could afford better proof of the utterly fanciful nature of all these mythologies, than the fact that they were thus modelled and modified in every case by the earthly habits, likings, territorial position, and ignorance of geography and astronomy, of the individual tribes among whom they respectively originated.

The deification of one or more great princes or rulers seems to have constituted the basis of the Scandinavian as well as of every other pagan mythology. Odin, the supreme deity of the Scandinavians, and the ruler of heaven and earth, appears, like the Hellenic Jupiter, to have been a distinguished chief and warrior of early times. Although it is asserted by some that a divinity of the name of Odin was worshipped from the most remote ages, there is reason to believe that the worship of this personage, in the north at least, had its real origin a few centuries before the commencement of the Christian era, when a powerful chieftain of the name was driven by the Romans from his dominions between the Euxine and Caspian, and took refuge in Scandinavia, the whole of which he subjected to his sway. Like Mahomet, this chief appears to have established a new religion, of which he himself assumed to be the earthly head, as the servant or minister of a divine being of the same name. In the course of time, however, this distinction was entirely lost, and the persons and acts of the divine and earthly Odin became inextricably blended in the mythology and traditions of the north. The great records of the religious and legendary knowledge of the Scandinavians, are the Eddas and Sagas of Iceland, partly written in poetry and partly in prose. The oldest of the Eddas, a series of poetical fragments, was collected from oral tradition in the eleventh century, and the others are of later date. The acts of the deities and heroes of the north, the creation of the world, and prophetic revelations, form the general subject of these pieces.

The Scandinavians, like the Greeks, believed that the universe was originally a chaos, or mass of confused vapours, peopled by a race of Rimthursar, or evil spirits of gigantic bulk. A being of nobler nature sprang up among these, named Bure, from whom were descended Odin and his two brothers Vile and Ve. These younger divinities followed exactly the same course with the northern giants, that was pursued by Jupiter and his brothers with regard to the Titans, or older and gigantic deities of Greece. Odin began to war with the Rimthursar, and having at last overcome their great chief Ymer, he created the world out of that giant's body. His flesh became the mould, his bones the rocks, his hair the vegetable tribes, his blood the ocean, and his skull the heavens, at the four corners of which were placed certain dwarfs, called North, South, East, and West, whose duty it was to sustain the celestial dome. After this, the luminaries of the sky were set in their places, and the order of the seasons appointed. Natt (night) wedded one of the Aser, or celestial family of Odin, and gave birth to Dag (day). These deities travel alternately round the world in cars, drawn by single horses. Every great body, as in the Grecian mythology, was represented by a divinity. Frigga, or the earth, was the daughter of Odin, and also became his wife. The inhabitants of the earth, or mankind, were created by Odin and his brothers. Two pieces of wood, the one of ash and the other of elm, formed the materials of the first pair of mortals, who were distinguished for personal beauty and intellectual ability.

The race of deities inhabited Asgard, a place supposed by some to have been the city in Asia whence the real or mortal Odin was expatriated. The fabulous Asgard was pictured as containing numerous palaces and halls, the largest of which was the Mansion of Joy, where Allfader (Odin) sat on his throne amid his divine family. This throne was named Lidskialfa, or the Terror of Nations, and from it he could overlook the whole earth. Two ravens, Hugin (Spirit) and Muninn (Memory), sat always at his ear, and communicated to him intelligence of all things that were going on in the universe. Among the deities who dwelt in Asgard, one of the most important was Thor, or Asathor, son of Odin by Frigga, and the Mars, or warrior-god, of the Scandinavians.

Thor is described as the god of thunder, and the strongest of beings, earthly or heavenly. He is the son of Odin and Frigga, or, in other words, of the Sun and the Earth. When he moves, the earth trembles. He holds in his hand a powerful hammer, called the Crusher (miolner), with which he annihilates all who oppose him, and who offend the gods. In battle Thor is always girt with a magic girdle, which has the power of inspiring him with a divine fury, and redoubling his strength. On his right hand he wears an iron gauntlet, with which he grasps and wields the formidable crusher. This latter instrument was forged by a dwarf, named Sindri, the prototype of the deformed blacksmith-deities of the Greeks, Vulcan and his Cyclops. The hammer possesses the wonderful power of never missing its aim, and when launched at any object, returns to the hand of Thor, after having destroyed his foe. Thor is sometimes called Aukistor, or Thor of the Car, from his riding on a chariot, drawn by two powerful he-goats, named Sangniostr and Taugrisner. This deity has a spouse named Sipia, famous for her beautiful hair.

After Odin, Thor was the most cherished deity of Scandinavia, and had statues and temples erected to him every where. The statues of him were usually formed of clay, and represented a tall figure, with a red-painted beard, indicative of the lightning which he was supposed to wield. Bread and meat were supplied daily to the god by his worshippers, and at stated times libations were poured out in his honour.

Balder, the second son of Odin, was the most beautiful and amiable of the Aser or gods. Unlike the rest of his brethren, he was fond of peace, and had the power of allaying tempests, and acting as a mediator, to avert divine wrath. His decrees were irrevocable. In some points he resembled the Apollo of the Greeks, but the general qualities of that personage found a closer representative in Braga or Bragi, the god of eloquence and poetry. Niord, the god of the sea, and his son Freys, the god of rain, were also important deities of the north. Every element, or important natural phenomenon, was under the guidance, in like manner, of some celestial personage. Frigga, the Scandinavian Juno, was the bestower of fertility and plenty. Freia, or Freya, the daughter of Niord, was the Venus of Asgard and the patroness of matrimony. Freia was assisted in her duties by Siona and Sofna, the first of whom made lovers faithful, while the other reconciled them when they quarrelled. Eyra was the physician of the gods. There were various other minor divinities in the Scandinavian mythology, though not nearly so many as in the Grecian roll. The deficiency was made up among the northerns by the assignment of mere multitudinous duties to the greater deities. Thus Odin, from the extent of his government, received as many as one hundred and twenty distinct names, each indicating some individual quality ascribed to him.

The great hall appointed for the reception of the spirits of the brave, when they left earth for the seat of the gods, was called Valhalla. Twelve beautiful yet terrible nymphs, named Valkyries {choosers of the slain) were the guides of the good spirits to the hall of Valhalla, and supplied them with mead. The occupation of drinking this northern nectar, and of eating the fat of the wild boar Serimner, which, after serving as the daily food of thousands, became whole again every night, filled up all those intervals of time in Valhalla that were not passed in fighting. None but those who had shown surpassing bravery on earth were admitted into this Scandinavian paradise, and when there, their daily amusement was to fight with one another till all or nearly all were cut in pieces. But little harm was done in this way, for the spiritual bodies soon reunited and enabled the warriors to appear, entire in lithe and limb, at the feasts that followed these extraordinary engagements. The skulls of enemies were the drinking cups used at the entertainments of Valhalla, and the guests are described as being almost perpetually in a state of inebriation. It was only when the cock announced the arrival of morning that these terrible heroes arose from table, to issue to the field of task through the five hundred and forty gates of Valhalla and hack each other to pieces anew. Such was the never-ending round of employment destined for the departed heroes of Scandinavia.

The mythology of the Scandinavians survived till a much later date than any other system of heathen worship in Europe. It was not abolished till eleventh century. St Olaf, King of Norway, and zealous supporter of Christianity, usually receives the credit of having overturned this most barbarous form of religion. In the course of his efforts to Christianize his subjects, he ordered a statue of Thor, and the pedestal on which it stood, to be broken in pieces, and showed the people that the meat which had been laid down for the use of the god was not eaten by him, but by a host of rats and other vermin that had formed a lodgement about the foundation of the colossal image. Whatever might have been the influence of the mythology of the Scandinavians in Britain, it disappeared shortly after its overthrow on the continent of Europe, or only lingered in a kind of traditional existence amidst the remote islands of Orkney and Shetland, till finally banished by the progress of a more general intelligence. The dread names of Odin, Thor, other deities of the north, who for centuries weighed down the human faculties, and kept up the reign of superstition, are now only perpetuated in the appellations affixed to some of the days of the week. Thus our term Wednesday is derived from Odin's or Wodin's day, that being the day of the week in which the northern Jupiter or supreme ruler of the gods was most honoured and worshipped. Thursday is from Thor, the second in dignity among these fabulous deities: as this day was called Dies Jovis by the Romans, we have here a confirmation that Thor the thunderer was equivalent either to Mars, or the thundering Jove of the Grecian mythology. Friday takes its appellation from Freya, the daughter of Niord, and corresponds with the Dies Veneris, or Venus day of of the Greeks and Romans. Saturday is derived in the same manner from the god Saeter of the Scandinavians, and Saturn of the Greeks. Tuesday, or anciently Tiesday (a pronunciation still preserved in Scotland), is supposed to be from Tisa, the wife of Thor, and the reputed goddess of Justice. Sunday and Monday were respectively named from the Sun and Moon, both by the northern and southern nations of Europe, from a remote period of time. The circumstance of there being such a marked resemblance between the characters of the deities whose names were employed to distinguish the same days of the week both by Greeks and Scandinavians, is not a little remarkable, and has never, as far as we know, been the subject of explanation by philologists or antiquaries. The fact is only certain, that the names of the days of the week now used by every civilised people, are based upon the mythological observances of either the Grecian or Scandinavian races.

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