Ancient German Mythology and the Christian Cross by Karl Blind 1874
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No special plea is surely required for occupying ourselves with the religious beliefs of our forefathers, when we remember—-in the words of the Rev. Isaac Taylor—-that “day by day, as the weeks run round, we have obtruded upon our notice the names of the deities” who were once worshipped by the heathen Saxons, Angles, Frisians, Scandinavians, and the Germanic race in general. Strange enough, however, our very familiarity with the names of those deities is such that the great mass of men use them without thinking of, or even knowing, their origin and meaning.
The words alluded to refer, of course, to the names given to the days of the week. In “Sunday” and “Monday” we get a glimpse of that worship of the Sun and the Moon which prevailed among our ancestors from the immemorial time when they yet dwelt on the pasture--grounds of Central Asia, as a simple tribe of herdsmen and hunters, down to the days when Caesar met the fierce warriors of Ariovist between the Rhone and the Rhine. Star and Fire-worshippers our forefathers were, as Caesar relates. Hence they could—-even as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans did—-give to those days the appellation of Sunday and Monday.
In the word “Tuesday,” we meet with the name and worship of Tyr, Tiu, or Ziu, the Germanic God of War. In “Wednesday,” we find Wodan (Odin), the supreme deity, or All-father. In “Thursday” is contained the name of Thunar, or Thor, the God of Thunder. In “Friday,” that of Freia, the Goddess of Love and Domestic Wirtue. In “Saturday,” which some think is the Germanized form of the Roman day of Saturnus, there is, in the opinion of Grimm, a god “Saetere” hidden-—a malicious deity, whose name is but an alias for Loki, of whom it is recorded that once, at a great banquet, he so insulted all the heavenly rulers that they chained him down, Prometheus-like, to a rock, and made a serpent trickle down its venom upon his face. His faithful wife, Sigyn, held a cup over him to prevent the venom from reaching his face; but whenever she turned away to empty the cup, his convulsive pains were such that the earth shook and trembled. So it is stated in the Edda, the text-book of the Germanic pagans, in that famous song, “The Banquet of Oegir,” which is a Titanic satire upon the dwellers in Asgard. I believe we can see in that fable some poetical attempt at explaining earthquakes by the action of subterranean fire-—for Saetere-Loki is a Fire-god. But, no doubt, few people now-a-days, when pronouncing the simple word “Saturday,” think or know of this weird and pathetic myth which must have exercised a similar spell upon the Teutonic race of old, as did a kindred legend upon the Hellenic mind.
Even as the days of the week are primed with the mythology of our forefathers, so it is the case also with the names of many towns and villages, and hills, all over Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, England, and Scotland. When we travel to Athens, we easily think of the Greek goddess Athene; when we go to Rome, we are reminded of Romulus, its mythic founder. But when we go to Dewerstone, in Devonshire; to Dewsbury, in Yorkshire; to Tewesley, in Surrey; to Great Tew, in Oxfordshire; to Tewin, in Hertfordshire—-have a great many even an inkling that these are places once sacred to Tiu, the Saxon Mars? When we go to Wednesbury; to Wanborough; to Woodnesborough; to Wembury; to Wanstrow; to Wansdike; to Woden Hill, we visit localities where the Great Spirit, Wodan, was once worshipped. So also we meet with the name of the God of Thunder in Thundersfield; Thundersleigh; Thursleigh; Thurscross; Thursby, and Thurso. The German Venus, Freia, is traceable in Fridaythorpe and Frathorpe; in Fraisthorpe, and Freasley. Her son was Baldur, also called Phol or Pol, the sweet god of peace and light. His name comes out in Balderby; Balderton; Polbrook; Polstead, and Polsden. Loki, or Saetere, is probably hidden in Satterleigh and Satterthwaithe. Ostara, or Eostre, the Easter Goddess of Spring, appears in two Essex parishes, Good Easter and High Easter; in Easterford; Easterlake, and Eastermear. Again, Hel, the gloomy mistress of the underworld, has given her name to Hellifield; Hellathyrne; Helwith; Healeys, and Helagh-all places in Yorkshire, where people seem to have had a particular fancy for that dark and grimy deity. Then, we have Asgardby and Aysgarth, places reminding us of Asgard, the celestial garden, or castle, of the Aesir—-in other words, the Germanic Olympus.
The instances just given might be multiplied by the hundred: so full is England, to this day, of the vestiges of Germanic mythology. Far more important, however, is the fact that in this country, as in Germany, we still find a great deal of current folk-lore and fairytales, of either a charming or a ghastly character, as well as a mass of quaint customs and superstitious beliefs affecting the daily life and even the happiness of men, which, on closer investigation, can be shown to be the remnants of a “strange and savage faith of mightiest power,” as Southey called it. To go even lower down: the very nursery tales, and children's games and rhymes, in Germany, England, and other countries where the people of Teutonic stock dwell, are imbued with the lingering spirit of that ancient creed. There are German children's games that are the poor remnants of religious ceremonies and rude dramatic representations once performed by Pagan priests. There are children's dances and lullabies in which may be recognized the last faint echoes of sacred dances and hymns, formerly danced and sung in the primaeval forests of Northern Europe, or, earlier still, on the green hills between the Caspian Sea and the Punjaub. A rhyme apparently so bereft of sense, like
“Lady-bird, lady-bird, fly away home !
Thy house is on fire!
Thy children at home!”
can be proved to refer to a belief of our forefathers in the coming downfall of the Universe by a great conflagration. The Lady-bird has its name from having been sacred to Our Lady Freia, the Germanic Venus. The words addressed to the insect were once an incantation—-an appeal to the goddess for the protection of the souls of the Unborn, over whom, in her heavenly abode, she was supposed to keep watch and ward, and whom she is asked to shield from the fire which consumes the world.
Everyone knows of Grimm's Tales. They were collected, from the lips of the people, by one of the greatest authorities on German language, literature, and mythology. Now, a writer who, besides his own deep researches, has worked successfully to render the labours of Continental authorities accessible to the English public, says, with the felicity of expression that is peculiar to him —“It might seem strange, indeed, that so great a scholar as Grimm should have spent so much of his precious time in collecting his Märchen, or Tales, if those tales had only been intended for the amusement of children. When we see a Lyell or Owen pick up pretty shells and stones, we may be sure that, however much little girls may admire these pretty things, this was not the object which those wise collectors had in view. Like the blue and green and rosy sands which children play with in the Isle of Wight, these tales of the people, which Grimm was the first to discover and collect, are the detritus of many an ancient stratum of thought and language, buried deep in the past. They have a scientific interest.”
And they have a scientific interest in more than one respect: Surprising thoughts of generations long gone by may often be read in mythic tales. Fanciful and odd as their imagery appears, a grain of sense, even of science, can frequently be discovered in their fantastic shell. In olden times, even as now, there were men of science; and there were others who wanted to hide science under a bushel, or to keep it to themselves. Hence, mythological systems were generally erected over a substratum of philosophical thought; the priest keeping to himself the latter as a private knowledge, only to be talked of in the innermost recess of the sanctuary, where no profane gaze could penetrate, whilst the mass of the people were spoken to in highly coloured tales which they were asked to accept as a revelation. But the tale itself—-formed, as it were, in the shape of a riddle—-mostly contained some deeper meaning, which was only walled in by the flowery, or sometimes prickly, language of fiction, and requiring a key, or some opening pass-word, to unlock its secret.
In the case of that young peasant I found that, unwittingly, he was the possessor of a very remarkable chip of Teutonic mythology which contained a presentiment, in a very crude and mystic form, but still a presentiment, or early conception, of that Germ Theory which traces all living things, and their fatally foreshadowed form, from an “egg”—-a theory now held by a majority of scientific men. Even all the minor accessories of the peasant's tale explained themselves by-and-by. Easter Sunday had to be chosen for his piece of witchcraft because Easter was originally a Germanic festival in honour of the Goddess of Spring, who is to this day remembered by the people in Germany and other Continental countries, as well as by the peasantry of some of the northern and eastern counties in England, in the well-known custom of presenting coloured eggs to children. The “going out backwards from church" was, according to the orientalizing system of Christian edifices, practically an obeisance before the Goddess, who was supposed to dwell in the East, in the region of the rising sun, whose orb is the great agency for awakening life out of the sleeping germs. The “sign of disrespect” that had to be made before leaving church was meant as an abrenunciation to the Christian creed; the soothsayer returning for the nonce to the heathen belief—-and thereby, it was thought, endangering his soul. Even the “laughter” which had to be indulged in found its explanation. At Pagan festivals, about Easter time, a laughing chorus once typified the smile of re-awakening Nature. Many centuries after the overthrow of Paganism, the priest, on Easter Sunday, had first to tell his congregation a merry tale, and then to break out into what was called an “Easter-laughter”!
Thus, in that young peasant's mind, a very important piece of Teutonic mythology had stuck fast, of which he could not get rid, in spite of the proficiency he had obtained in the mechanical repetition of his catechism. And the more one enters into those matters, the more one must become convinced that it is no use fighting against superstitions by simply calling them “rubbish” and “nonsense;” for somehow the untutored mind clings to them as if, in its vague yearning for something higher than the prosaic every-day life, it felt that there is a poetical treasure concealed in those myths, which only required a magic wand to come forth and charm the craving heart. Nor will these superstitions be entirely rooted out until a full scientific treatment of them has taken place—until they shall be universally known to be the last remnants of heathen creation-stories, of ancient attempts at a philosophical or physical explanation of this wondrous world, of religious systems built thereon, or of glorious hero-sagas which have arisen out of these systems, and then been transformed, broken up, or degenerated, into rustic tales.
It would be idle, no doubt, to look for great depth of meaning in all the shallows of mythological systems-—and some of them are very shallow. But this much is clear, that if we will wean men from crude notions that haunt them, and yet promote the enjoyment of fancies which serve as embellishing garlands for the stern realities of life, we cannot do better than to spread a fuller scientific knowledge of that circle of ideas in which those moved who moulded our very speech. From an artistic point of view, the spread of such knowledge is also desirable. We feel delight in the conceptions of the Greek Olympus. We store in our museums the statues of Jupiter, Juno, Mars, and Venus. Painters and poets still go back to that old fountain of fancy. Why, then, should we not seek for similar delight in studying the figures of the Germanic Pantheon, and the rich folk-lore connected with them? Why should that powerful Bible of the Norse religion, which contains such a wealth of striking ideas and descriptions in language the most picturesque, not be as much perused as is the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the AEneid? Or is it too much to say that many even of those who know of the Koran, of the precepts of Kon-fu-tse, and of Buddha, of the Zendavesta, and of the Vedas, have but the dimmest notion of that grand Germanic Scripture?
No doubt, Mannhardt is right when saying that the Teutonic divinities have not the perfect harmony and quiet plasticity of the Olympian ideals. Still, to resume a description before given: Can it be said that there is a lack of poetical conception in the figure of Wodan, or Odin, the hoary ruler of the winds and the clouds, who, clad in a flowing mantle, careers through the sky on a milk-white horse from whose nostrils fire issues, and who is followed at night by a retinue of heroic warriors whom he leads into the golden, shield-adorned Walhalla? Is there a want of artistic delineation in Freia, an Aphrodite and Juno combined, who changes darkness into light wherever she appears—-the goddess with the streaming golden locks and the siren voice, who hovers in her snow-white robe between heaven and earth, making flowers sprout along her path, and planting irresistible longings in the hearts of men? Do we not see in bold and well-marked outlines the figure of the red-bearded, steel-handed Thor who rolls along the sky in his goat-drawn car, and who smites the mountain giants with his magic hammer? Are these dwellers in the Germanic Olympus mere spectres, without distinct contour! And if their strength often verges upon wildness; if their charms are sometimes allied to cruel sorcery—-are they not, even in their uncouth passions, the representatives of a primitive race, in which the pulse throbs with youthful freshness? Or need I allude to that fantastical throng of minor deities, of fairies, and wood-women, and elfin, and mixes, and cobolds, that have been evolved out of all the forces of Nature by the Teutonic mind, and before whose bustling crowd even Hellenic imagination pales?
Then, what a dramatic power the mythology of our forefathers has! The gods of classic antiquity have been compared to so many statues ranged along a stately edifice; no idea of action, of tragic conflict, arising out of the whole. How different the Germanic view of the Universe! There, all is action, struggle, dramatic contest—-with a deep, dark background of inevitable Fate that controls alike gods and men. The battle-spirit and the terrible earnestness of our ancestors reflects itself in this creed. The religion which a race produces is generally an image of its character. “In his deities,” Schiller says, “man depicts himself.” At the end of time—-the Germanic tribes believed—-Odin is to be devoured by the wolf Fenrir; Thor to be destroyed by the Serpent's poison; the heavens and the earth stand in a lurid blaze; the abodes of gods and heroes are doomed to destruction; and only after this terrible catastrophe shall have ended, will there be introduced a new and peaceful reign, with eternal bliss.
So, on the score of dramatic and pictorial interest, the creed of the Teutons has something to show. But it is a subject much neglected by both poets and artists. Whilst the eternal classic figures, Madonnas, and threadbare subjects from Italy and Spain never cease to be treated, the old Germanic deities, in spite of the poetical halo which surrounds them, are mostly left to wander about disembodied, waiting for the gifted hand that will mould them into form. The artist who has attempted or who will do this, is assuredly not placed in a worse position than his Hellenic predecessors who also had to make their selection from a number of floating mythological conceptions, which it was their merit to have wrought into a harmonious figure.
It is a characteristic of the mythology of all nations that changes are continually being at work within the most elaborate systems. Hence, any one dealing in a general way with the ancient Germanic creed will have to make a cross-cut, so to say, through the vast material before him. In this way, he may be able to show some of the chief strata of a bygone religion, as well as some incongruous layers which seem to lie confusedly between and athwart them, and which may have been forced across the original structure by heathen theological commotions that are beyond the ken of history. A mere glance at the sources of Germanic mythology is sufficient to give an idea of the many changes which must necessarily have occurred in its contents through the lapse of time, during which, whilst the main substance of sagas may remain the same, the ever-weaving hand of fiction continually seeks for new garnish, with which to edge, lace, and border out the familiar garment.
If we begin with Herodotus' account of the Thracian and Getic people who, according to modern research, are supposed to have been a Gothic, Germanic race; and if we follow our sources through Roman, Greek, German, and Norse literature, ending with the two Eddas which were written down when the Odin religion collapsed in her last northern stronghold, we have already gone over a period of not less than 1600 years. Besides this, there are supplementary sources in the still current popular tales, as well as in the records of the Witch Trials. Within the 1600 years mentioned, the sources at first flow very scantily. They are more or less pure; not seldom they cease altogether. At other times, they are contradictory; even each particular source sometimes contradictory in itself—-as is the case in well-nigh all religious systems. The Brahminic creed is no longer to-day what it was of old: the hundred sects within it have points of contact, but also points of decided divergence. Under the official Greek religion, there continued, for a long time, an undercurrent of Orphic rites; and the divinities of Homer and Hesiod were not exactly those of Aeschylus and Sophokles. The Hebrew Church, some 1800 years ago, was divided into fiercely contending parties whose representatives, differing on cardinal points, yet sat side by side in the Temple. It is scarcely necessary to supply more recent examples. In the same way, it is not to be expected that the ancient Teutonic religion should present features of an immutable fixity. At different periods, or among different tribes, it had its gradual changes, like all other creeds. Most probably also it had its sects. A stiff and fixed uniformity is the less to be expected in it, because the Germanic tribes, unlike in this, as in other respects, to the Gauls, had no fully formed priestly caste. The Germanic creed may therefore have least presented “that angularity which drives sharp points into people's ribs”—to borrow an expression from Professor Blackie.
There are indications that, among the earliest forms of Teutonic worship, there was, besides the worship of Light and Fire, a cultus of water-deities. It is stated that, after a great struggle between the two contending divine circles, the Vana gods “received admission into Asgard,”—in other words, that the rival creeds were merged into each other, even as the Greeks worked the Tree and Serpent worship of subject races into their own religion; or as the Brahminic religion has, from a similar reason, been gradually overlaid with forms and figures originally foreign to it. Few are the passages from which we can get a glimpse, at this distance of time, of the Vana creed, which seems to have preceded, or been in opposition to, the Odin religion. But we know that Odin's own consort, the Germanic Queen of the Heavens, originally came, with her brother Freyr, the refulgent god of the sun, from this Vana circle. This combination of the two different and opposing creeds in the two chief representatives of the victorious religion has perhaps its counterpart in the mediaeval Madonna cultus, which has in a large measure arisen out of the Venus and Freia worship of preceding systems of belief.
In accounting for the origin of the world, the Teutonic doctrine knows-—like Buddhism-—of no personal creator. There are several striking resemblances between certain Buddhistic and Wodanic tenets; and some writers have endeavoured to trace that similarity between the very names of Woden, or Boden, and Buddha. Yet, as Mr. Fergusson has rightly remarked in his book on Tree and Serpent Worship —“There are not perhaps in the whole world two religions so diametrically opposed to one another as Buddhism and Wodenism, nor two persons so different as the gentle Sakya Muni, who left a kingdom, family, and friends, to devote fifty years of his blameless life to the attempt to alleviate the sufferings of mankind, and Odin, ‘the terrible and severe god, the Father of Slaughter; he who giveth victory and reviveth courage in the conflict; who nameth those that are to be slain.'”
In the beginning of things, there is, in the grand and impressive words of the Edda, only a deep and dreary chasm:
“Once was the age
when all was not;
nor sand, nor sea,
nor salty waves;
nor earth there was, nor sky above;-
only yawning abyss, and grass nowhere."
Ere the world comes into shapely existence, a chaos was assumed, in which an Abode of Darkness and of icy cold, and an Abode of Fire were marked off at opposite poles. But this Chaos had already the principle of Life in it; for out of the meeting of Fire and Ice came a giant form, Oergelmir, whose name signifies Fermenting Matter. We here see a combination of those Neptunic and Volcanic theories by which geologists have endeavoured to explain the formation of the surface of the earth.
After the appearance of Fermenting Matter, it was said, there rose in course of time—-even as in Greek mythology-—first a half-human, half-divine race of Giants, and then a race of Gods. The Gods had to wage war against the Giants, and finally vanquished them. Evidently, the Giants represent a torpid, barren state of things in nature; whilst the Gods signify the sap and fulness of life, which struggles into distinct and beautiful form. There was a custom, among the Germanic tribes, of celebrating this victory over the uncouth Titans by a festival, when a gigantic doll was carried round in Guy Fawkes' manner, and at last burnt. To this day there are traces of this heathen practice. In some parts of northern Europe, so-called “Judas-fires” are lighted about Easter time, which have their origin in the burning of the doll that represented the giants, or jotun. In some places, owing to another perversion of the original meaning of things and words, the people run about, on that fete day, shouting: “Burn the old Jew burn the old Jew!”. The jötun was, in fact, converted, when Christianity came in, first into a Judas, and then into a Jew; a transition to which the similarity of the sound of words easily lent itself: and so a Pagan superstition, or religious notion, which at any rate had some basis of meaning, serves even now, in a Christian age, for the maintenance of an unjust prejudice against an inoffensive class of fellow-citizens. Out of such errors of the ear, new mythological conceptions often arise; whilst old prejudices maintain or fortify themselves by slipping into the cast-off garments of a vanquished creed, and puzzling men by this strange travesty.
The origin of man, in Teutonic cosmogony, leads us back to kindred classic myths. Man and woman, in the Eddaic conception, were supposed to have grown out of the trees, though they were fashioned into form, and gifted with a soul, by a divine act. Among the Greeks there were similar legends of the rise of mankind both from stones and trees; that is, from all kinds of matter, inorganic and organic. Perhaps we have in both the Germanic and the Greek tale a pantheistic notion, or a notion of the affinity of all things and beings, which again comes near the results of modern science. It is supposed by Simrock and other authorities that even that well-known German children's rhyme, which mothers and nurses sing when dandling a child on the knee: “Jetzt reiten wir mach Sachsen, wo die schönen Mädchen auf den Baumen wachsen” (“Now we ride into Saxony, where the pretty girls grow on a tree”), is by no means a senseless doggerel, but a last echo of an ancient cosmogonic view. The very word “Sachsen,” being derived from a word signifying “stone,” brings this ditty into close connection with the Greek tale. It is only of late, I may say in passing, that this apparently childish lore has been more fully investigated in a systematic form all over Germany; and the most curious vestiges of ancient Pagan notions, rites, and incantation songs, have already been discovered in them-—the results, in some cases, being truly astounding, and of the highest interest to the archaeologist. It is as if a costly vase had been shattered into a thousand fragments, showing no trace of their original connection, and one were able, by dint of persevering labour, to collect them once more, and reconstruct the noble contour of that antique vase.
The idea of the immortality of the soul was strong with the Teutonic races. Whilst in Buddhistic doctrine-—unless Professor Max Müller's contrary reading be accepted—-there is nirwana, or an entire extinction of the soul, so that in Buddhism we have the extraordinary spectacle of a religious system without a personal creator, without a future state, but with high moral precepts, the energetic individualism of the Teutons was loath to conceive the possibility of entire personal annihilation. They believed in a paradise of warriors, where the blessed heroes while away the time with fights, giving and receiving wounds; wounds that heal every night, when the warriors joyously sit down in the glittering banquet hall. With Wodan, in Walhalla, the departed leaders of men were supposed to dwell; with Thor, the common folk; others with Freyr, the God of Light; others, again, with his sister Freia. The notions about the future life were, however, not so clearly fixed as some writers appear to have imagined. At the side of the loftier conceptions of immortality, there was another line of thought, indicating a change of the dead into flowers. It seems to be an etherealized refinement of the idea of the origin of mankind from the world of vegetation. In the song of “Fair Margaret,” in Bishop Percy's Manuscript, there is a last faint echo of this flowery creed. “Out of her breast there sprang a rose; and out of his a briar.” So also, a vine and a rose-tree sprout forth on the grave of Tristan and Isolt; and a violet on the tomb of Ophelia.
In connection with the Germanic idea of a future state, there was a belief in a Fountain of Rejuvenescence, to which the aged return, to be gifted with new powers of life. There is some resemblance, here, to the Platonic idea of pre-existence, and of a never-ending regeneration. This notion re-appears in the character of Hel, who is half dark, or livid, and half of the hue of the human skin—-a Goddess of Death, as well as a Mother of Life, working with hidden powers beneath the soil. The place where she resided, and which has furnished the word for the later “Hell,” was only a shadowy place of concealment for those who had died otherwise than in battle—-from age or from illness; ingloriously. Hehlen, in German, means, in fact, “to conceal,” and still has the same meaning in some English dialects. When, however, the origin of the name of this sheltering deity became lost, her appellation was used to torment mankind with the idea of unutterable horrors. This transmutation is the more surprising because the Germanic races had known of no hellish fire, nor of any Satanic Prince of this World. Though Loki was an evil-doing god, they did not conceive him as an arch-fiend; they did not assume a Principle of Evil; and long after they had been converted to Christianity, they felt a remarkable repugnance against the belief in a Satan. The Church introduced this belief with some degree of difficulty; and when at last the notion of a demoniacal arch-fiend was accepted, popular fancy twisted him into all manner of shapes, monstrous and grotesque, in which we can sometimes detect a remnant of that wild humour which attaches to some of the doings of Loki, as well as of his gigantic counterpart, Utgard-Loki, to whom he stands about in the relation in which Hephaistos did to Pluton.
For the sake of correctness it must be added that in the Edda, which, like other sacred Scriptures, is not throughout of a homogeneous mould, some passages occur, mentioning a place of punishment, as well as a personal creator. These passages are apparently borrowed from a foreign religious system. One of them is almost Dantesque in its ghastly imagery. Of the Prophetess Wala it is said:—
“She saw a hall standing
far from the Sun,
on the Dead-land’s shore;
its doors are northwards turned.
Venom drops fall
in through the holes;
entwined is that hall
with serpents' backs.
She there saw wading
the sluggish streams,
bloodthirsty men, and perjurers...
There the Serpent sucks
the corpse of the dead;
the Wolf tears men.”
Very powerful, and very hideous withal! Upon the whole, Germanic Mythology is not disfigured by many such conceptions, though the sombre sky and scenery of Northern climes has left a deep imprint upon it, and clothed not a few of its forms with an aspect of terror.
I now come to some facts which at first sight appear rather startling.
The Germanic races—like many others, from Assyria to Mexico–-had the tradition of a great flood. They had the ceremony of baptism. They had the sign of the Cross. They had a Queen of the Heavens, whose Son, destined to suffer death, was called “the blood-covered God.” They believed in twelve divine personages amongst whom a thirteenth played the traitor. They had a God of Peace, who died through that traitor. They spoke of the Supreme Being as hanging in the flesh on a tree—-wounded by a spear—-suffering thirst—-and “offering himself to himself.” They believed that the God who had been slain by treachery would come back at the end of time, when a Golden Age would follow. Of Odin, who appears in various incarnations, several miracles are recorded. It was said that he could raise men from death, and make the wind cease, and still the tempest of the sea, and prevent the waves from swamping the ship. In the ninth incantation of the “Runic Song,” Odin says:—
“For the ninth I know:
if I stand in need
my bark on the water to save,
I can the wind
and the waves allay,
and still the sea.”
In the same song, Odin says of himself:-
“I know that I hung
on a wind-beaten tree,
nine whole nights,
with a spear pierced,
and to Odin offered
myself to myself;—
on the branch of that tree
of which none knows
from what root it springs.
Bread no one gave me
nor a horn of drink;
downward I peered,
to runes applied myself;
then fell down thence.”
The End of the World is said, in the Norse Scripture, to be preceded by a time of horror:—
“An axe-age, a sword-age—
shields will be cloven;
a wind-age, a wolf-age,
ere the world sinks.
Brothers shall fight,
and slay each other,
the bonds of kinship
be ruthlessly broken.”
Even as in St. Mark it is said:—“The brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son, and children shall rise up against their parents, and shall cause them to be put to death.” Again, the “Song of the Prophetess,” when describing how the very powers in Heaven shall be shaken and dissolved, says:
“The sun darkens;
Earth into Ocean sinks.
From Heaven fall
the bright stars—”
a passage that comes remarkably close to St. Mark —“The sun shall be darkened . . . and the stars of Heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in Heaven shall be shaken.”
At last, after the world has been consumed, and the great struggle with the Wolf-Beast has been fought out, a Golden Age begins:—
the fields bring forth,
all evil be amended.
Baldur shall come:–
Hödur and Baldur, the heavenly gods,
Odin's glorious dwellings shall inhabit.
A hall is standing,
brighter than the Sun,
with gold bedecked,
There shall the righteous
and for evermore
Then comes the Mighty One
to the Great Judgment,
the Powerful from Above,
who rules over All.
He shall dooms pronounce,
and strifes allay,
holy peace establish,
which shall for ever last.”
This, again, comes surprisingly near the last but one chapter in St. John's Revelation. I am compelled to point out these extraordinary similarities, in order to make it more clearly understood how the early Christian missionaries, on setting to work to supplant the Germanic creed, could sometimes make use of the contents of the latter. There is a letter, written by Pope Gregory in the sixth century, which refers to the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, and which has served as a guide, in not a few instances, for the missionary labour among the heathens in Germany. In this letter it is laid down as a maxim that the sacred places of the Pagans should not be destroyed, but be sprinkled over with consecrated water, and then changed into Christian churches, so that the people should be gradually induced, in the places dear to them through old custom, to devote themselves to the service of the true God. The sacrificial meals in honour of the Pagan divinities, the Pope added, should be changed into repasts in honour of the holy martyrs; and so-forth. It is easy to see that, under such a system, unless a missionary was of a peculiarly unbending character, every apparent point of contact between the two creeds was frequently rendered available for the purposes of conversion.
There is a theory—-Mr. Gladstone, amongst others, has given utterance to it-—which, instead of explaining these similarities and points of contact in a simple and natural way, declares that all the creeds before Christianity prophetically point to the coming of the Messiah. But with every due respect for the great English statesman who has shown but recently, by his letter on the Evolution Theory, that he is at any rate sensitive about the opinion of independent thinkers, I believe all scientific inquirers will agree that his is an impossible thesis. None can doubt, for instance, that the Cross has been used as a religious symbol for thousands of years before the Christian era. On Scandinavian runic-stones the Cross is found before the time when the Northmen were converted. The hammer of the Germanic God of Thunder had the shape of one of the numerous forms of the cross. The sign of Thor's hammer was made over the drinking-cups at sacrificial meals. Crosses are to be seen in the rock-hewn caves and temples of India, and of Central America—nay, in the very wilds of Asia, among groups of cairns, dolmen, and cromlechs, where it is supposed they were erected by an aboriginal race which had been driven there by the first Aryan invasion—-ages before Christ. The Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Chinese, the Etruscans, the Keltic races, the Aztecs, had various forms of the cross. In the British Museum there are some statues from an island in the Pacific which have Crosses of the simplest form—in the shape of a T-engraven on their backs.
Now, shall we say that from the beginning of times the Cross cast its prophetic “Shadow of Death” over the world? Or is it not more reasonable to think that a religious symbol which is found at the earliest times easily came to be introduced into a later form of creed?
We live in an age in which the human mind endeavours to trace all things and ideas to some early germ, or root. It is done in language, in literature, in physiology, in religion. We take pleasure—-though it is not unmixed with pain for the poetic temperament and for the profound but melancholy disposition-—in showing how, out of some poor root, or cell of speech, a language arises which serves as a garb for the master-works and master-thoughts of a Sophokles and a Shakespeare; of a Bacon, Descartes, and Kant; of a Lessing, Göthe, and Schiller. We look for the connecting links between physical forms which, at first sight, strike us rather by their dissimilarity than by any resemblance; and at last, men like Lamarck, Geoffroy St. Hilaire, Darwin, and Haeckel, succeed in tracing out some original type from which the present structures have gradually branched out. We take up some great epic poem like our Nibelungen-Lied, which is the Iliad of Germany's heroic age. It dates from the Christian era—-from the twelfth century. To the general reader, the Nibelungen-Song may appear as the product of a single bard, who, out of the furnace of his own fiery soul, created, all by himself, those mighty figures of Brunhild and Kriemhild, of Siegfried, Hagen, and Dietrich. But any one who drank deeper at the well of ancient Germanic poetry, soon becomes aware that the Nibelungen-Lied similar in this to the Homeric poems—has been gradually evolved out of a number of heroic ballads whose authors are lost in the night of ages, but which, in their main substance, can be traced back to that same Edda wherein the heathen theology of our forefathers is preserved. Were that collection of songs still extant which Karl the Great had ordered to be made, but which, until now, has not yet been recovered, we would probably possess the missing link between our mediaeval epic and the ancient Wodanic religion. In the Edda itself, the careful student will find the vestiges of different authors as well as of different developments of creed. Beyond the Edda, we have at present but a few passages in early Roman and other writers to go back to. Still, in spite of that lack of further material, we may, even by the aid of those scanty data, establish a clear connection between the mythology of our Germanic ancestors and that of the Aryan stock in India, at the time when the Vedas were composed-—that is, probably, thousands of years before Christ.
Again, to take quite a recent instance, some man, learned in cuneiform inscriptions, alights, by good chance, upon an old clay tablet, and by a second good chance picks up, on the spot where once the palaces of the Assyrian rulers stood, another bit of inscribed clay which fits in to the former. The result is, that the Biblical account of the Great Flood is shown to be derived from a tale older than the Mosaic one by, perhaps, thousands of years. The main substance of the legend is in both cases alike. There is the ark, and the raven, and the dove, and the mountain which appears when the waters subside; and the altar on which the sacrifice is offered after the deliverance from danger. The language also is in some passages nearly identical. The names, however, are different: the half-divine Sisit is changed into a human being, Noah; and altogether the description is worked out in a somewhat different manner. Now, could it be said, with any show of reason, that the Assyrian clay tablet prophetically points to the flood described in the First Book of Genesis? Or is it not rather clear that the Hebrew text has been evolved from some previous Assyrian or Chaldean poetry, in the same way as the Song of the Niblungs was evolved from the old Norse mythology? On all sides, then, we get into some kind of Evolution, or gradual development. I would not assume, on philosophical grounds, that we can, by pushing this theory to its farthest ends, penetrate at last the great domain of what has been called the “Unknowable.” Resolve language indeed, as you will, into its roots or earliest sounds; trace back all living forms to some original cell; show how Mind, in its first feeble flickerings, darts forth from Matter: the Great Secret remains the same. Unless human thought changes its very conditions of existence, I cannot see how we shall ever comprehend Eternity and Infinity, which yet we are driven to assume; or how we shall bridge over the immense gulf that separates an incomprehensible state of absolute void from one filled with the essence of life. No; that deep darkness which surrounds the bright sphere of thousands and myriads of conceivable worlds, will not leave us--let the telescope sweep ever so far through the immensity of the star-lit heavens!
But one thing we can do through Science—-and that is, light up the space which more immediately surrounds us, and destroy the terrors which are but the projections of the infant spirit, or the wilful fabrications of interested deceivers. Science-—the Science of Religion—-can show how out of a few germs of mythology, which were the product of early races, a forest of legends has grown up and spread through ages over all parts of the world. In this way we learn to understand how religions apparently the most diversified often exhibit such striking similarities. But if, after all these careful inquiries, there are still men, even men of genius, who will regard as realities, or as miraculous occurrences, those mythic fancies which have come down to us in a multitude of shapes, independent thinkers must surely ask to be excused from sharing their view. Science will go its way unmoved. It will know how to appreciate the wonderful play of the imagination which is so highly developed in the Indian, the Egyptian, the Hellenic, and the Germanic systems of creed. It will readily point to all that there is of philosophical speculation, of beauty, or of rugged grandeur in them. But neither will it shrink from proving how mythological notions which are still upheld as articles of faith to-day, have been developed from heathen tenets older by thousands of years; and thus Science, by pouring a flood of light on the gloomy world of superstition, will aid in removing some of the worst impediments of human progress. KARL BLIND.