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The mythology of Germany, Great Britain, Scandinavia, and the other northern nations is as extraordinary as that of Greece and Rome. Every race and nation under the heavens were at one time steeped in superstition to such an extent as to make people, living in enlightened ages, wonder that creatures endowed with reasoning powers should ever have given themselves over to such vile delusions as some of our forefathers seem to have done. The adventures of the Scandinavian gods, giants, and elves were not behind those of the gods and supernatural beings in the south and east. In the beginning of time, we are informed, a world existed in the north called Niflheim, in the centre of which was a well from which sprang twelve rivers. In the south was another world, Muspelheim—a light, warm, radiant world, the boundary of which was guarded by Surt with a flaming sword. From Niflheim flowed cold streams called Elivaager, which, hardening into ice, formed one icy layer upon the other, within the abyss of abysses that faced the north. From the south there streamed forth the sparkling heat of Muspelheim; and as the heat and cold met, the melting ice-drops became possessed of life, and produced, through the power of him who had sent forth heat, Ymir, the sire of the frost giants. Ymir obtained his nourishment from four milky streams that escaped from the udders of the cow Aedhumla—a creature formed from the melting frost. From Ymir there came forth offspring while he slept, viz. a man and woman, who emerged from under his left arm, and sons from his feet. Thus was produced the race of the frost giants. Meantime, as the cow Aedhumla licked the frost-covered stones, there came forth the first day a man's hair, a head the second day, and a man, complete in all his parts, the third day. This man, Buri, had a son named Bor, who married Beltsa, one of the giant race, by whom he had three sons, Odin, Vili, and Ve.
Odin became the chief god, and ruled heaven and earth, and was omniscient. As ruler of heaven, his seat was Valaskjalf, from whence he sent two black ravens, daily, to gather tidings of all that was being done throughout the world. As god of war, he held his court in Valhalla, whither brave warriors went after death to revel in the tumultuous joys in which they took pleasure when on earth. Odin had different names and characters, as many of the gods had. By drinking from Mimir's fountain, he became the wisest of gods and men. He was the greatest of sorcerers, and imparted a knowledge of his wondrous art to his favourites. Frigga was his queen, and the mother of Baldur, the Scandinavian Apollo; but he had other wives and favourites, and a numerous progeny of sons and daughters. All over Scandinavian lands, but particularly in Denmark, the people imagine that they hear his voice in the storm.
The other two brothers were less famous, but they were gods, and assisted Odin to slay Ymir, and carry his body into the middle of Ginnungagap, and formed from it the earth and heavens. Of his blood the brothers made all the seas and waters, taking the gore that flowed from his body to form the impassable ocean which is supposed to encircle the earth. Of his bones they made the mountains, using the broken splinters and his teeth for the stones and pebbles. From his skull they made the heavens, at each of the four corners of which was stationed a dwarf, of whom we shall hear more by-and-bye. Of Ymir's brains clouds were formed, of his hair plants and herbs, and of his eyebrows a wall of defence was made against the giants round Midgard, the central garden or place of abode of the sons of men. The work of the celebrated brothers was not ended by these achievements; for they took the sparks that were cast out of the world Muspelheim, and, throwing them over the face of the heavens, produced the sun, moon, stars, and fiery meteors, and so arranged them in their places and courses, that days, months, and years followed. Allfader placed chariots and horses in heaven, where Night rode round the earth with her horse Hrimfaxi, from whose bit fell the rime-drops that every morning bedewed the earth. After her course followed her son Day, with his horse Skinfaxi, from whose shining mane light beamed. Mani directed the course of the moon, and Sol drove the chariot of the sun. They were followed by a wolf, which was of the giant race, and that will in the end of time swallow, or assist to swallow, up the moon, darken the sun's brightness, let loose the boisterous winds, and drink the blood of every dying man.
Three beautiful but evil-disposed maidens arrived at Asgard from the giants' world, Jotunheim, by whom confusion and ill-will were spread over the world. Then the gods determined to create new beings to people the universe. They gave human bodies and understanding to dwarfs, who had been generated within the dead body of Ymir, and who took up their abodes in the bowels of the earth, in rocks, in stones, and in trees and flowers. Then Odin, with two companions, went forth on an excursion to the earth, and created a man and woman; and from this pair, whose abode was at Midgard, the human race sprang. A bridge of various colours, known to men as the rainbow, connected Midgard with Asgard, and over this the gods rode daily to a sacred fountain. This fountain lay at one of the three roots of the ash Yggdrasil, whose branches spread over the whole earth and reached above the heavens. Under one of these roots was the abode of Hel, the goddess of the dead, under another that of the frost giants, and under the third was the dwelling of human beings.
Baldur dreamt evil dreams of threatened danger to his life. He related them to the gods, who endeavoured to protect him from injury. Frigga made fire, water, iron, and all metals, stones, earth, plants, beasts, birds, serpents, poison, and all diseases, swear that they would not hurt Baldur. Loki was displeased at this. He changed himself into the form of an old woman, and, inquiring the cause of Baldur's invulnerability, was told by Frigga that all things, animate and inanimate, had sworn not to harm him, with the exception of one little shrub, the misletoe. Loki, rejoicing at the information he had received, procured this little shrub, and hastened with it to an assembly of the gods, where he placed it in the hands of the blind Hoder, the god of war, who cast it at Baldur, and pierced him to the heart. Hermoder, the son of Odin, offered to proceed to Hel to release Baldur; and Hel, on hearing the request made, consented to let him go, on condition that all things would weep for Baldur. All men, all living beings, and all things wept except the witch Thock, who refused to mourn for the departed god. Baldur was therefore compelled to remain in Hel, where he will be to the end of the world.
Loki was beautiful, and possessed of great knowledge and cunning. He often brought the gods into trouble, from which, however, through his craft he extricated them. Hence he was regarded as the Evil Spirit. Sometimes he was called Asa-Loki, to distinguish him from Utgarda-Loki, a king of the giants, whose kingdom lay at the uttermost limits of the earth.
Hel, who dwelt under one of the three roots of the sacred ash Yggdrasil, was the daughter of the wicked Loki. Hel, together with her brother, the wolf Fenrir, and the serpent Jormundgand, was brought up in the giants' home of Jotunheim, where she remained until, at the request of the gods, Allfader sent for her and her brothers to destroy them, as it was known that by their origin they would prove the instruments of calamity. After casting the serpent that surrounded all lands into the deep ocean, he hurled Hel into Niflheim, and gave her authority over nine worlds, in which she was to assign places to all who died of sickness and old age. Her abode was surrounded by a high enclosure and massive gates. She was of fierce aspect, was inexorable, and would set no one at liberty who had once entered her domain. Her dish was hunger, her knife starvation, her servants slow-moving, her bed sickness, and her curtains wide-spread misery.
With Ymir perished all the giants except Bergelmir. It was a popular belief that, through the power of giants, mountains and islands were raised, and that, by these monsters, mountains and rocks were hurled from their original sites. Notwithstanding the huge bulk and the number of heads and arms that many of the giants had, they were supposed to be ignorant monsters, unable to cope with ordinary human beings.
The Dwarfs, of whom an account is given in the Eddas, were cunning and crafty elves, and skilled in magic. Some gave them a place between men and giants. It was believed that the dwarfs appeared under the forms of elves, brownies, and fairies. They used charms, and possessed all the skill of witches. It was in their power to raise storms, kill people by their diabolical art, fly away with children, and even with grown-up persons, through the air, or imprison them in caverns within the earth. They assisted men to discover the precious metals, of which they (the dwarfs) were very fond. Occasionally they were seen through an aperture of a hill, in their underground retreat, in palaces with jasper columns, surrounded with vast treasures of gold and silver.
The Scandinavian gods were worshipped in spacious temples, or on stone heaps or altars. These sacred places were always near a consecrated grove or tree and a sacred fountain. Human sacrifices were not uncommon at times of public calamities, such as war, disease, or famine. Three great festivals were held every year, the first of which was celebrated at the new year, in the Yule-month. On these occasions offerings were made to Odin for success in war, and to Freyr for a peaceful year. The chief victim was a hog, which was sacrificed to the latter god, on account of swine having first instructed man to plough the soil. Feasting and games occupied the whole month, therefore it was called the Merry Month. Yule continues to be observed in several places at the present time, and points to the custom of sun worship and the adoration of the early gods of the north. The frumenty eaten on Christmas eve or morning in England, and the sowans in Scotland, seem to be imitations of the offerings paid to Hulda or Berchta, to whom the people looked for new stores of grain. The second festival was in mid-winter, and the third in spring, when Odin was chiefly invoked for prosperity and victory.
The mythology of the Scandinavians and our ancestors was in many respects similar. It was from the principal gods of the northern nations that the names of the days of our week were taken, as will appear under the observations we shall make on the Calendar. But in addition to the chief gods there were inferior deities, who were supposed to have been translated to heaven for their great deeds, and whose greatest happiness consisted in drinking ale out of the skulls of their enemies in the hall of Wodin. The Norsemen delight to recount the exploits of their ancient gods and goddesses and celebrated mythical persons. The Volsung Tale is often referred to with pleasure. Volsung, a descendant of Odin, was taken from his mother's womb by a surgical operation, after six years' bearing. In his hall grew an oak, whose branches spread out in every direction. In that hall, when Volsung's daughter was to be given away to Siggeir, king of Gothland, in came an old guest with one eye. In his hand he held a sword, which at one stroke he drove up to the hilt in the oak. "Let him," said he, "of this company who can pull it out, bear it, and none shall say he bore a better blade." Having said this, he disappeared, and was seen no more. Many tried to possess himself of the sword, but none could draw it from the oak, till Sigmund, the bravest of Volsung's sons, laid his hand upon its hilt. At his touch, it freed itself from the mighty oak; and the sword turned out to be the celebrated blade Gram, of which every Norseman has heard. Sigmund was armed with this weapon when he went out to battle against his brother-in-law, who quarrelled with him about this very sword; for every one who knew its virtues was anxious to become its possessor. All perished in the fight except Sigmund, who was saved by his sister Signy. Sigmund, after taking vengeance against his brother-in-law, took possession of the kingdom, which was his by inheritance. When Sigmund was stricken in years, he went out to fight against the sons of King Hunding. Just as he was about to prove victorious, a one-eyed warrior, of more than mortal might, rushed at him with spear in hand. At the outstretched spear Sigmund struck with his hitherto trusty blade, when it snapped in two. In the one-eyed warrior's features he discovered the giver of the sword, who was no less famous a personage than Odin. Sigmund then knew that his good fortune had departed from him, and he sank down on the battle-field and died.
There is a legend of Odin, Loki, and Hænir in one of their many wanderings coming to a river side, where they saw an otter with a salmon in its mouth. Loki killed the otter with a stone. Then the Æsir passed on, and came at night to Reidmar's house to seek shelter. They showed the otter and salmon to him, on which he cried to his sons to seize and bind them, for they had slain their brother, Otter. To make compensation for what they had done, they agreed to pay any sum Reidmar might name. Otter was flayed, and Reidmar commanded the Æsir to fill the skin with gold, and cover it without that not a hair could be seen. Odin sent Loki down to the dwellings of the black elves to obtain the precious metal. The cunning god caught Andvari, the dwarf, and compelled him to surrender all the gold he had accumulated. The dwarf begged and prayed that he might be permitted to retain one ring, for it was the source of all his wealth, as ring after ring dropped from it. Loki was inexorable; not a penny-worth would he leave with the dwarf. Seeing he could not retain the ring, the dwarf laid a curse on it, and said it would prove a bane to every one into whose possession it might pass. Reidmar having all the gold except the ring laid at his feet, filled the skin with the yellow ore, and set it up on end. Odin poured gold over it until it was covered up. Reidmar carefully looked at the skin, and declared that he saw a grey hair, and desired them to cover it also. Odin reluctantly drew out the ring, which he would fain have kept for himself, and laid it over the grey hair. Before the Æsir departed, Loki repeated the curse which Andvari had laid upon the ring. The curse began to take effect. Regin, one of Reidmar's sons, asked for a share of the gold, but his father refused to give him any. This undutiful son and his brother Fafnir conspired against their sire, slew him, and took possession of the gold. Fafnir being the stronger brother, determined to keep the whole treasure to himself; and not only that, but he threatened that unless Regin went off he would share his father's fate. Regin fled for his life, and his brother assumed the form of a dragon, in which shape he lay on the Glistening Heath, coiled round his store of gold and precious things.
Sigurd requested Regin, who was the best of smiths, to forge him a sword. Two were made, but both broke at the first stroke. The broken pieces of Gram were then obtained, and out of them Regin forged a blade that clave the anvil in the smithy, and cut a lock of wool borne down to it by a stream. Armed with Gram, and mounted on Gran, his steed, which Odin had instructed him to choose, Sigurd rode to the Glistening Heath, dug a pit in the dragon's path, and slew him as he passed over him on his way to drink at the river. Sigurd roasted the heart of Fafnir; and while it was being cooked, he tried it with one of his fingers to see if it were soft. The hot roast burned his finger, which caused him to put it to his mouth. He tasted the dragon's blood, and instantly he understood the songs of birds. Sigurd slew Regin, ate the heart, rode on Gran to Fafnir's lair, took the spoil, and escaped with it.
On and on he rode, till on a lone fell he saw a flame; and when he reached it, it blazed all around a house. No horse but Gran could pass through that flame, and no man but Sigurd could guide him in his fiery path. Brynhildr, Atli's sister, who in consequence of giving victory on the wrong side had the thorn of sleep thrust into her cloak by Odin, lay in the house in a deep sleep. She was under a curse to slumber there until a man bold enough to ride through the fire came to liberate her, and win her for his bride. Dashing onward to where the fair maiden lay, his first touch wakened her from the long sleep to which the cruel god had consigned her. They swore with a mighty oath to love each other, and she taught him runes and wisdom.
Sigurd's mission was not yet accomplished; so on he rode to King Giuki's hall, king of Frankland, whose queen was Grimhildr, who had two sons named Gunnar and Hogni, and a step-son called Guttorm, and whose daughter was the lovely Gudrun. Sigurd, greatly attached to his lovely bride at the lone fell, purposed going back for her; but Grimhildr, who was skilled in the black arts, longed for the brave Volsung for her own daughter, and therefore prepared for him the philter of forgetfulness. He quaffed it off, forgot Brynhildr, fraternised with Gunnar and Hogni, and married Gudrun. Giuki now wanted a wife for Gunnar, and the brothers with their bosom friend set out to woo. They chose Brynhildr, whom they found still sitting on the fell, waiting for Sigurd to come back. She had made it known, that whoever could pass that flame should have her for his wife; so, when Gunnar and Hogni reached the spot, the former rode at the flame, but his horse swerved from the fierce fire; then, by Grimhildr's magic arts, Sigurd and Gunnar changed shapes and arms, and Sigurd mounted Gran, and the noble steed carried him through the flame. Thus Brynhildr was wooed and compelled to yield. That evening they were united in wedlock; but when they retired to rest Sigurd unsheathed Gram, and laid it between them. Next morning, when he arose, he took the ring which Andvari had laid under a curse, and which was among Fafnir's treasures, and gave it to Brynhildr as a gift, and she gave him another ring in return. Then Sigurd returned to his companions in his own shape; and Gunnar went and claimed Brynhildr as his bride, and carried her home. No sooner was Gunnar wedded than the power of the philter ceased to operate: he remembered all that had passed, and the oath he had sworn to the fair Brynhildr. When she discovered that she had been deceived, she engaged Gunnar to revenge her wrong. By charms and prayers the two brothers set on Guttorm, their half-brother, to take vengeance, and the hero was pierced through with a sword while he lay in Gudrun's white arms. Though Sigurd turned and writhed in agony, he had strength left to hurl Gram after the treacherous Guttorm as he fled. The keen blade cut him asunder, and his head rolled out of the room. Brynhildr's love returned; and when Sigurd, who expired of his wound, was laid upon the pile, her heart broke. She in song predicted woes that were to come, made them lay her side by side with Sigurd, with Gram between them, and so went to Valhalla with her old lover. Andvari's curse was thus fulfilled.
The worshippers of Odin believed that at certain times the gracious powers showed themselves in bodily shape, passing through the land, and bringing blessings with them. On other occasions the gods were supposed to ride through the air on clouds and storms, and speaking in awful voice as the tempest howled and the sea raged. They were also supposed to be present in battle, fighting for votaries, and defeating the wicked. The goddesses assisted women in times of peril; they taught the maids to spin, and punished them if the wool remained long on the spindles. It was supposed that Odin had a band of followers who accompanied him in the whirlwind. The wanderings of the gods are mentioned in the Odyssey, and the sanctity of the rites of hospitality, and the dread of turning a wanderer from the door, originated lest the stranger should be a disguised being of exalted character. Goddesses as well as gods were supposed to wander up and down among men, telling them what was to happen. Freyja, the goddess of love and plenty, who presided over marriages, was one of these, and the three moons, Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld, who determined the fate of gods and men, were also among the number.
We are informed that in Frodi's house were two maidens of the old giant race, whom he had bought as slaves, and he made them grind his quern Grotti, out of which peace and gold were produced. He kept them at the mill, not giving them any longer rest than the time the cuckoo's note lasted. That quern turned out anything that the grinder chose, though formerly it had ground nothing but peace and gold. The maidens ground and ground without ceasing. As Frodi was deaf to their cries for rest, they caused the quern to grind fire and war. While the quern went on making these evils, Mysing, the sea rover, came at night and slew Frodi and all his men, and carried away the hand-mill, maidens and all. When at sea, the rover caused the maidens to grind salt; and they performed their task until they ground as much as has kept the sea salt ever since that time.
Thor was the chief god of the Laplanders. They had also subordinate deities, one of which was Storjunkarr, their household god. Wirchu Archa was a female deity worshipped by them. She was the goddess of old women. These deities were represented under the figure of unsculptured stones. Spirits, angels, and devils were worshipped by those people. Souls of departed relations were also prayed to by the more superstitious of the people. Magic was a famous art among them. When sacrificing to Thor, they smeared the head of his image with the victim's blood; and when they made an offering to Storjunkarr, a thread was run through the right ear of the victim. When it was a reindeer that was sacrificed, the horns, head, and other parts were carried to a mountain devoted to Storjunkarr, and deposited there, the animal's tail being tied to one of the horns, and a red thread to the other.
The Laplanders used to sacrifice reindeers to the sun. In this ceremony a white thread was put through the victim's right ear. In sacrificing to the sun, willows were used, but in their other sacrifices birch trees were employed. Many of their superstitions were similar to those of the Greeks, Romans, and Tartars.
So much were the Laplanders given to superstition, that they worshipped the first object that presented itself in the morning. Every house and family had a deity. They had magical drums, which were consulted in a particular manner on important occasions; and when they engaged in battle, these drums were carried to the scene of action. In consequence of their supposed virtue, writers have said that drums were originally implements of superstition in our armies rather than instruments of music. Brass and copper rings, together with a hammer, were appended to a drum. A woman was not allowed to touch a sacred drum, nor was she permitted to go over the same road that it was carried, within three days of its removal.
Laplanders and Norwegians sold favourable winds to sailors and travellers. A rope with three knots was given to the buyer, who, when he wanted a gentle breeze, untied one of the knots; when he wished a fresh strong wind, he undid another; and when he desired storms and tempests, he unfastened the third. The first two descriptions of wind were generally obtained for good purposes, but the third through wicked motives. By the unloosing of the third knot, many a shipwreck was caused to bring about the death of a hated individual, and for the purpose of securing wreck cast ashore by the sea. Magicians could, the moment they were born, control the winds that blew. In this way one magician had power over the east wind, another of the south, a third of the west, and a fourth of the north. Magical shafts, which went through the air unseen, were thrown at enemies, and distempers were caused by charms. Gans or demons were enticed by secret art to perform acts of malice and deeds of revenge.
The Laplanders had their lucky and unlucky days. They thought it was unlucky to meet a woman when they were going out to hunt. When a Laplander died, the house was deserted by the family, because it was supposed the soul of the deceased remained near the inanimate body. When they buried their dead, they, like the ancient Danes, Saxons, and others, deposited a hatchet, warlike implements, a steel, flint, and tinder-box with each body, under the impression that they would be useful to the deceased in another world. Their witches—and they had many—who were born in winter, were supposed to be able to make that season cold, or comparatively mild, as they pleased.