7 AUGUST 1852, Page 16


THORPE'S SCANDINAVIAN MYTHOLOGY AND POPULAR TRADITIONS.* SEVERAL efforts have been made to popularize the ancient litera- ture of the North, but without much success. This may in part be owing to inherent causes, in part to the circumstance that the success of something nearer than the North was the object really at heart This last is not the case with the work before us; which

is distinguished by mastery of the subject and thorough digestion of materials. Mr. Thorpe has not studied the subject to write a book, but written a book because he has studied the subject. These circumstances cannot endow the themes, especially the Northern mythology, with attractions they do not possess. The names will still be uncouth; the gods and demigods unnatural in bulk and shape; the persons almost without exception coarse and barbarous ; and the stories, independently of extravagance, often incomplete or resultless. But the rejection of non-essential mat- ter, the absence of all attempt in expositional parts at doing more than expound, with a consequent clearness and closeness, render Mr. Thorpe's accounts of the mythology of the Scandinavians and ancient _Germans, and their popular traditions, more readable than some literary endeavours to popularize. The author modestly styles his work a compilation. Inasmuch as it is mostly drawn from the remains of ancient Northern litera- ture and the commentaries upon it, the term is correct; but the wide and varied reading, the length of time which has been given to the task, and the independent judgment exercised upon the au- thorities, raise it above the kind of book which is generally under- stood by the term. Mr. Thorpe, moreover, has brought his own travelling experience of many of the scenes and localities to bear upon the stories, and referred to original communications and ori- ginal documents. The closest approach to the notion of compila- tion is, that some sections of the book have been handled by anti- quarians in the form of distinct treatises.

The matter is arranged into tliive leading divisions. The first

contains an exposition of the mythology of the ancient Scandina- vians, unmingled so far as can be ascertained with any Christian opinions, and a brief exposition of the religion of the ancient Ger- mans, a subject far more obscure from the absence of national do- cuments. The second division, the popular superstitions and tra- ditions of the Scandinavians, is classed under the heads of -Nor- wegirm, Swedish, and Danish. The last part contains similar mat- ter relating to North Germany and the Netherlands. An intro- duction precedes the different classes ; the exposition of Scandi- navian mythology is followed by critical illustrations, in which an endeavour is made to classify the myths, and to explain the cosmogony and natural philosophy which many of them evidently or apparently embody. It may be said that each of the three divisions is contained in a single volume. It is perhaps necessary to overrate almost every pursuit in order

to attain excellence. " Reason the card, but passion is the gale " ; our progress in many studies would be slow if the student weighed their value coldly and critically. Mr. Thorpd is not devoid of this natural feeling: we think he overrates the merits of the ancient sagas considered as compositions, and discovers more allegorical philosophy in the mythology than the different myths really con- tained, at least to the Scandinavians themselves,— " As learned commentators view

In Homer more than Homer knew."

Art is hardly to be found in the theories and embodied tales of the Northern mythology; the traces of great uncultivated genius seem to us rare; and we suspect that later writers and modern commentators have infused into the myths that pretty complete " system of nature " which they are alleged to ex- hibit. Certain broad principles of cosmogony are of course ob- vious. As soon as the mind considers the nature around ns, the beginning of the present order of the world and its previous con- dition necessarily excite attention. Hence, in most mytholo- gies a chaos and a creation. These may all have some general resemblance, as they may have originated in some common tradi- tion; but where the mythology is aboriginal or not bodily trans- planted, it will derive its matter and its form from the features of the country and the climate where the people dwell. The rather refined allegories which some discover in the mythic stories of the Bcandinavians may have been brought with them from Asia. The images of the following extract seem clearly to originate in the nature of their climate, and the alternate heat and cold, arising from their short summer where daylight hardly ceases, and their long winter,—their glaciers or icebergs, their long narrow arms of the sea, their rushing streams, their leaping cataracts, their waste tracts, their barren mountains, and the striking features of a country whose boundaries are ice and ocean.

" In the beginning of time a world existed in the North called Niflheim, (Niflheimr,) in the middle of which was a well called Hvergelmir, from which flowed twelve rivers. In the South part there was another world, Mumpellheim, (Muspellzheimr,) a light and hot, a flaming and radiant world, the boundary of which was guarded by Sur (Surtr,) with a flaming sword. Cold and heat contended with each other. From Niflheim flowed the poison- ous cold streams called Elivfigar, which became hardened into ice, so that one layer of ice was piled on another in Ginnunga-gap, or the abyss of abysses, which faced the North; but from the South issued heat from Mus- pellheim, and the sparks glittered so that the South part of Ginnunga-gap

• Northern Mythology; comprising the principal Popular Traditions and Supersti- tions of Scandinavia, l■lorth Germany, and the Netherlands. Compiled from Origi- nal and other Sources, by Benjamin Thorpe, Member of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Munich. In three volumes. Published by Lumley.

was as light as the purest air. The heat met the ice, which melted and dripped ; the drops then, through his power who sent forth the heat, re- ceived life, and a human form was produced called Ymir, the progenitor of the Frost-giants, (firfrnimrsar,) who by the Frost-giants is also called Aur- gelmir, that is, the ancient mass or chaos. He was not a god, but was evil, together with all his race. As yet there was neither sand nor sea nor cool waves, neither earth nor grass nor vaulted heaven, but only Ginnunga-gap, the abyss of abysses. Ymir was nourished from four streams of milk, which flowed from the udder of the cow Audhumla, (Audhumla,) a being that came into existence by the power of Suit. From Ymir there came forth offspring while he slept; for having fallen into a sweat, from under his left arm there grew a man and a woman, and one of his feet begat a son by the other. At this time, before heaven and earth existed, the Universal Father (Alfotr) was among the Hrimthursar, or Frost-giants."

But though the interpretation of the myths, even of a civilized people, is very often fanciful, and is made to contain more philoso- phy than the most learned of the nation ever knew, the ideas the myths display of a future state and of the attributes of the gods are valuable as evidence of the intellectual advancement, moral state, and national character of a people. We have just re- marked that a mythical cosmogony really aboriginal is founded on the climate and physical features of the country. The future state of man will be drawn from the same sources, and, like the charac- ters of the gods, display the characteristics of the people. The Hindoo, whose climate indisposes to exertion, and whose nature disposes to a dreamy reflection, places his happiness in abstract meditation, by dint of which he thinks he will be incorporated with the Deity. To the stalwart and hardy Northman, compelled by nature to endure a severe climate, driven by necessity and custom to encounter the stormy tempests and whirlpool seas of an icy ocean, rejoicing in battle, careless of death, and seeking his pleasure in the possession of excellent arms and the enjoyment of the wild carouse, the heaven of the Budhist would not be worth having. If we judge from their own stories, the Scandinavians had not the chastity which Tacitus ascribes to the Germans ; but their habits unfitted them for the Paradise with which Mehemet tempted the Syrians and the parched Arabs—indeed, the Northmen could scarcely comprehend the charm of cool shades and colder water. As little could the luxurious Asiastic or the ascetic Hin- doo relish a heaven where the day began with a bloody fight, the evening passed in a riotous carouse, and a miracle was worked to enable the heroic inhabitants to begin their enjoyment on the mor- row with cured wounds and clear heads. It is a stale remark, that when we find the gods engaged in the most fraudulent and licen- tious actions, we cannot imagine that their worshipers are very honest or very chaste,—although men are often better, not than the principles of their religion, but of their religion corrupted and. interpreted by their priests. It is true, however, that the kind and manner of the celestial vices will argue the kind of vices prevalent in the nation, and show the greater coarseness or refinement of the popular taste. Measured by this standard, the Northmen were gross in conduct and extravagant in their imagi- nations. We have often thought, that if you abstract from the English churl, especially of the more Northern parts, the Romish and Celtic blood that accidental crossing may have given him, you would have a very fair specimen of the general class of the ancient Scandinavian : sensual in his tastes, stolid in his understanding, yet when once set agoing running wild through the world of fancy and superstition ; at the sank time he is tenacious, enduring, brave, and when well led, enterprising. The opinions expressed in these remarks cannot be exhibited in any single myth or story, but must be deduced from a perusal of the whole. The following will exhibit some of the literary characteristics of the mythology, while it illustrates a striking feature in Scandinavian life, the prominence given to a capacious appetite, and the importance at-

tached to the means of gratifying it. ..

" The gods visited the giant Oegir, the god of the sea; buthe was in want of a kettle to brew beer in for them, and not one among them knew how to procure one, until T, said to Thor, that his father Hymn., who dwelt to the East of Elivfigar, at the end of heaven, had a very capacious kettle, a mile deep. Thereupon Thor and Ti' went to Hymir's dwelling ; where the first person they met with was Ti's grandmother, a horrible giantess with nine hundred heads; but afterwards there came forth another woman, radiant with gold and light-browed. This was Ty's mother ; who proffered them drink, and wished to hide them under the kettles in the hall, on account of Hymir, who often received his guests with grudge, and was given to anger. Hymir returned late from the chase, and came into the hall : the icebergs resounded with his steps, and a hard frozen wood stood on his cheek. The woman announced to him that his son, whose coming they had long wished for, was arrived, but accompanied by their declared enemy, and that they were standing concealed behind a pillar in the hall. At a glance from the giant the pillar burst asunder, and the cross-beam was snapped in two, so that eight kettles fell down, 'of which one only was so firmly fabricated that it remained whole. Both guests now came forth, and Hyniir eyed Thor with a suspicions look ; he anticipated no good when be saw the giants' enemy stand,ingpn his floor. In the meanwhile three oxen were cooked, of which Thor alone ate two. At Thor's inordinate voracity Hymir naturally felt alarmed, and very plainly told him that the three must another evening be content with living on what they could catch ; so the next day they rowed out to fish, Thor providing the bait, as we have seen in the foregoing nar- rative. They rowed to the, spot where Hymir was accustomed to catch whales, but Thor rowed out' still farther. Hymir caught two whales at one haul, but the Midgard's serpent took Thor's bait. Having drawn the venom- ous monster up to the boat's edge, he struck its mountain-high head with his hammer ; whereupon the rocks burst, it thundered through the caverns, old mother earth all shrank, even the fishes sought the bottom of the ocean ; but the serpent sank back into the sea. 111 at ease and silent, Hymir returned home ; and Thor carried the boat, together with the water it had shipped, bucket and oars, on his shoulders, back to the hall. The giant continued in his sullen mood, and said to Thor, that though he could row well, he had not strength enough to break his cup. Thor took the cup in his hand, and cast it against an upright stone, but the stone was shattered in pieces ; he dashed it against the pillars of the hall, but the cup was entire when brought back to Hymir. The beautiful woman then whispered good advice in Thor's ear : Cast it against Hymir's own forehead, which is harder than any cup: Thor then, raising himself on his knee,assumed his divine strength, and hurled the vessel against the giant's forehead. The old man's forehead sound as before, but the wine-cup was shivered in pieces. Well done !' exclaimed Hymir ; thou must now try whether thou coast carry the beer-vessel out of my hall.' TS. made two attempts to lift it, but the kettle remained stationary. Thor then grasped it by the rim, his feet stamped through the floor of the hall, he lifted the kettle on his head, and its rings rang at his feet. He then started off with the kettle ; and they journeyed long before he looked back, when he saw a host of many-headed giants swarming forth from the caverns with Hymir. Lifting then the kettle from his head, he swang Miolnir, and crushed all the mountain-giants. Thus did the stout Thor bring to the assembly of the gods Hymir's kettle; so that they can now hold their feast with Oegir at flax-harvest."

The germ of that part of literature which is called the belles lettres is found in the rudest state of society ; because its ele- ments are those of society and of man. In the most savage tribe there are the notions of territory and clanship ; there are some public events and some public men—that is, history. In private, there are remarkable incidents and marked characters connected with a continuous story—which forms the tale or prose fiction. The expression of deep feeling whether of joy or sorrow, and the per- sonification of inanimate objects natural to a mind excited by pas- sion, constitute the germ of poetry, and indeed poetry itself. In an advanced stage of society, the drama is amongst the most diffi- cult achievements : a great tragedy ranks among the highest pro- ductions of human genius. Yet the drama seems to be that branch of literature which presents itself the first in a tangible artistic form : even the low-caste Australian throws a narrative into a dramatic shape • he exhibits an incident by action, personification, and discourse, ihough he himself may be the only actor. These germs of the belles lettres, found everywhere, eventuallk take-three predominant forms—the popular, the artistic, 9d*the cal ; though two and sometimes the three classes may blend together. The philosophical has no place in the early stages of a people. Thucydides, Sallust, and Hume, Lucretius, Horace, and Pope, are the product of a long and very advanced civilization. Popular literature is the product of a very early stage, perhaps before so- ciety has fairly passed from the tribe to the people, from the feeling of nationality to the actual nation. Mental ability is requisite to produce this national literature ; but the quality of a story-teller is not perhaps so rare as we suppose, when the mind is given fair play, and the man recites what he has seen or heard, and believes the facts or wonders he recites. Genius undoubtedly. may be requisite, but not genius of the highest order ; and be it remembered, that popular literature is the production of many minds working on the same subject. Art, in a rigorous sense, cannot alter the nature of the material; it can only improve it, by lopping redundancies, strengthening weaknesses, removing the offen- sive, completing the imperfect, and presenting the subject in the best way it admits of. In actual productions, art, of course, may more or less consist with genius. With the highest genius is generally combined the highest art; but art as a substantive quality is often found without any great amount of mental origi-

nality and vigour; it is spontaneously developed only amid Eastern or Southern peoples. At least there was very little of it among the Scandinavians and ancient Germans. Whether the myth is an unintelligible crudity or an evident allegory—whether the story is long or short—whether it concerns gods, men or giants —there is almost ever a coarse extravagance in the incidents and the persons, as well as a want of end or purpose in the action. A great poetic genius was never produced among the old Northmen or Teutons, and art was never reached. Their literature, whether mythological or popular, is of great value for its curious pictures of human superstition, its indications of the state of society among a people who have had so great an influence upon the modern world, and the strong resemblance which their superstition and tales often bear to those of other peoples ; it also furnishes a rich store of raw materials to the poet and romancer : but as a whole, we think its popular interest is overrated by its admirers ; although, no doubt, much amusement may be found in many of the stories, especially of the later ages. Some of them, however, are well known, either from their own merit or from forming part of the popular literature of other countries ; perhaps some of them have been improved by the literary antiquarians who collected them. To exemplify these opinions respecting the literature of the Northern nations, would require a larger space than we can spare. Our extracts from the popular traditions will regard variety with an eye to cognate superstitions at home. The barrier which certain natural objects offer to supernatural beings is illustrated in " Tam O'Shanter,' where the witches are stopped by running water. The Rorth has the same idea, and extended to other things.


A land proprietor in Norway was betrothed to a very pretty young woman, who, although a farmer's daughter, went out with the cattle to their summer pasture, where she employed herself in weaving a piece of drill. Being, however unable to finish her work by the time when the cattle should return home, she resolved to stay behind till she had accomplished her task : but no sooner had her lover received intelligence of her design, than he set out for the pasture, justly thinking it hazardous to leave the damsel alone exposed to the attempts of Huldres, and other subterranean beings. He reached the spot in the nick of time, for he found the cattle-house surrounded by black horses ready saddled. Suspecting, therefore, that there was some- thing wrong in the wind, he stole into the pasture, and peeping through a little window in the hut, saw his intended sitting in a bridal dress with a golden crown on her head, and by her side an old red-eyed Huldre- man. Seising his pistol, which he had wisely loaded with a silver bullet, he fired over the head of the girl, before the witchery could be dissolved, rushed into the hut, seized her, placed her behind him on his horse, and rode off, followed by the whole company of Trolls. One of these held out. to

him a well-filled golden horn, to retard his flight: he took the horn, but cast the liquor it contained behind his horse, and galloped off with both horn and girl. At length he reached a steep mountain near his dwel- ling, in which some subterranean folk had their abode, who were on terms of hostility with his pursuers, and who cried to him, " Ride on the rough, and not on the smooth." He followed their advice, and rode through a rye-field, where the Trolls were unable to follow him, but in their ex- asperation cried after him, " The red cock shall crow over thy dwelling !" And behold! his house stood in a blaze.

The following is a curious superstition ; but the attraction is in the blossoming staff. The Romanists have the same idea applied to a less Christian purpose : the Mahometans, if we remember rightly, have a similar instance, and equally charitable with the Swedish.


The Neck appears sometimes in the form of a grown man, and is particu- larly dangerous to haughty and pert damsels ; sometimes in that of a comely youth, with his lower extremities like those of a horse ; sometimes like an old man with a long beard ; and occasionally as a handsome youth, with yellow locks flowing over his shoulders, and a red cap, sitting in a summer evening on the surface of the water, with a golden harp in his hand. If any one wishes to learn music of him, the most welcome remuneration that can be offered to him is a black lamb, especially if the hope of his salvation—which the Neck has greatly at heart—be at the same time expressed to him. Hence, when two boys once said to a Neck, " What good do you get by sitting here and playing ? zou will enjoy enjoy eternal happiness,' he began to weep

bitterly.. • .

A priest riding one evening over a bridge, heard the most delightful tones of a stringed instrument, and, on looking round, saw a young man, naked to the waist, sitting on the surface of the water, with a red cap and yellow locks as already described. He saw that it was the Neck, and in his zeal addressed him thus—" Why dost thou so joyously strike thy harp ? Sooner shall this dried cane. that I hold in my hand grow green and flower, than thoulahalt obtain salvatipn." Thereupon the unhappy musician cast down tis harp, and sat bitterly weeping on the water. The priest then turned his horse, and continued his course. But lo ! before he had ridden far, he observed that green shoots and leaves, mingled with most beautiful flowers, had sprung from his old staff. This seemed to him a sign from heaven, di- recting him to preach the consoling doctrine of redemption after another fashion. He therefore hastened back to the mournful Neck, showed him the green, flowery staff, and said, "Behold ! now my old staff is grown green and flowery like a young branch in a rose-garden • so likewise may hope bloom in the hearts of all created beings, for their Redeemer liveth."

The miseries of life expanded beyond its natural term has not escaped the Northern moralists ; but they heighten the melancholy picture by bodily decay.

"There once dwelt on the island of Faster a lady of rank, who was extremely rich, but had neither son nor daughter to inherit her wealth. She therefore resolved to make a pious use of it, and caused a church to be built that was both spacious and magnificent. When the church was finish- ed, she caused altar-candles to be lighted ; and going through the quire to the altar, she cast herself on her knees and prayed to God, that, in reward for her pious gift, he would add as many years to her life as the church should stand. Then from time to time her relations and servants died ; but she who had preferred so foolish a prayer continued to live. At length she had no longer a friend or relation to converse with, and saw children grow up, become aged and die, and their children again grow old, while she her- self was wasting through extreme age, so that she gradually. lost the use of all her senses. Sometimes, however, she recovered her voice, though for one hour only at midnight every Christmas. On one of these nights she de- sired to be laid in an oaken coffin and placed in the church, that she might there die ; but that the priest should attend her every Christmas night to re- ceive her commands. From that time her coffin has stood in the church, but she has not yet been permitted to die. Every Christmas night the priest comes to her, lifts the lid of the coffin, and as he gradually raises it, she rises slowly up. When sitting up, she asks, 'Is my church yet standing ? ' and when the priest answers 'Yes,' she sighs and says- ' Ak ! give Gud, at min Kirke var brrendt;

Thi da er First al rain Jammer fuldendt

' Ah ! God grant that my church were burnt;

For then only would my affliction be ended.'

She then sinks back again into the coffin, the priest lets the lid fall, and does not come again until the next Christmas night."

Outwitting the Evil One is a popular notion in all countries, and forms a singular contrast to the penetration and powers with which he is at the same time endowed. The Northern peoples have it in several forms : here are two.

"In Jutland there was once a priest who knew more than his paternoster. One evening there came a message to him from the manor-house, requiring his attendance there with the least delay possible, his aid being quite indis- pensable. The fact was, that the proprietor, in order to attain his vast riches, had sold himself to the Devil, who was already there to fetch him, his time being expired. The priest, who arrived at the house just at the moment when the fiend was about to depart with the master, endeavoured to prevail on him to grant a further delay—first a year, then a month, a week, a day; but not even an hour would the fiend grant him. There stood on the table a little stump of wax candle nearly burnt out, pointing to which the priest said, 'Thou wilt surely let him live as long as the stump lasts?' To this the fiend assented, but at the same moment the priest seizing the light, blew

i it out and put it into his pocket; so that for the present the fiend was ob- liged to leave the proprietor in peace, but who from that hour so amended his life that the Devil got him not." • • • •

" The house of a peasant in Eiderstedt was burnt to the ground. The man, sorely.. afflicted, was walking about his field, when he was accosted by a little man in a grey coat and with a horse's foot, who inquired the cause of his sadness. The man told him of his misfortune, and that he was without the means of rebuilding his house ; whereupon the little man promised to build him one with a hundred windows, and to have it ready in one night, before the first cock-crowing, if the man would promise him his soul. The peasant agreed to the condition; and in the night the Devil began to build. The house was soon all but finished, the windows alone remaining to be put in. While the Devil was busy about the last window, the man began to crow and clap with his hands; at which the Devil laughed. But the cock in the stable had heard the crowing, and answered it just as the Devil was fitting in the last pane. Finding himself thus outwitted, the Arch-fiend took his departure, though not till he had wrung the neck of the cock. No one has ever been able to put in the pane, nor will any furniture remain in the apartment' where it is wanting ; all flies out. The room requires no cleaning, being al- ways as neat as broom could make it