Popular Tales From the Norse
And now, in the second place, for that particular branch of the Aryan race, in which this peculiar development of the common tradition has arisen, which we are to consider as "Norse Popular Tales."
Whatever disputes may have existed as to the mythology of other branches of the Teutonic subdivision of the Aryan race--whatever discussions may have arisen as to the position of this or that divinity among the Franks, the Anglo-Saxons, or the Goths-about the Norsemen there can be no dispute or doubt. From a variety of circumstances, but two before all the rest--the one their settlement in Iceland, which preserved their language and its literary treasures incorrupt; the other their late conversion
to Christianity--their cosmogony and mythology stands before us in full flower,
and we have not, as elsewhere, to pick up and piece together the wretched fragments
of a faith, the articles of which its own priests had forgotten to commit to
writing, and which those of another creed had dashed to pieces and destroyed,
wherever their zealous hands could reach. In the two Eddas, therefore, in the
early Sagas, in Saxo's stilted Latin, which barely conceals the popular songs
and legends from which the historian drew his materials, we are enabled to form
a perfect conception of the creed of the heathen Norsemen. We are enabled to
trace, as has been traced by the same hand in another place, 1 the natural and rational development of that creed from a simple worship of
nature and her powers, first to monotheism, and then to a polytheistic system.
The tertiary system of Polytheism is the soil out of which the mythology of
the Eddas sprang, though through it each of the older formations crops out in
huge masses which admit of no mistake as to its origin. in the Eddas the natural
powers have been partly subdued, partly thrust on one side, for a time, by Odin
and Æsir, by the Great Father and his children, by One Supreme and twelve
subordinate gods, who rule for all appointed time, and over whom hangs an impending
fate, which imparts a charm of melancholy to this creed, which has clung to
the race who once believed in it long after the creed itself has vanished before
the light of Christianity. According to this creed, the Æsir and Odin
had their abode in Asgard, a lofty hill in the centre of the habitable
1. Oxford Essays for 1858: "The Norsemen in Iceland."
earth, in the midst of Midgard, that middle earth which we hear of in early English poetry, the abode of gods and men. Round that earth, which was fenced in against the attacks of ancient and inveterate foes by a natural fortification of hills, flowed the great sea in a ring, and beyond that sea was Utgard, the outlying world, the abode of Frost Giants, and Monsters, those old-natural powers who had been dispossessed by Odin and the Æsir when the new order of the universe arose, and between whom and the new gods a feud as inveterate as that cherished by the Titans against Jupiter was necessarily kept alive. It is true indeed that this feud was broken by intervals of truce during which the Æsir and the Giants visit each other, and appear on more or less friendly terms, but the true relation between them was war; pretty much as the Norseman was at war with all the rest of the world. Nor was this struggle between two rival races or powers confined to the gods in Asgard alone. Just as their ancient foes were the Giants of Frost and Snow, so between the race of men and the race of Trolls was there a perpetual feud. As the gods were men magnified and exaggerated, so were the Trolls diminished Frost Giants; far superior to man in strength and stature but inferior to man in wit and invention. Like the Frost Giants, they inhabit the rough and rugged places of the earth, and, historically speaking in all probability represent the old aboriginal races who retired into the mountainous fastnesses of the land, and whose strength was exaggerated, because the intercourse between the races was small. In almost every respect they stand in the same relations to men as the Frost Giants stand to the Gods.
There is nothing perhaps, more characteristic of a true, as compared with a false religion, than the restlessness of the one when brought face to face with the quiet dignity and majesty of the other. Under the Christian dispensation, our blessed Lord, his awful sacrifice once performed, "ascended up on high," having "led captivity captive," and expects the hour that shall make his foes "his footstool"; but false gods, Jupiter, Vishnu, Odin, Thor, must constantly keep themselves, as it were, before the eyes of men, lest they should lose respect. Such gods being invariably what the philosophers call subjective, that is to say, having no existence except in the minds of those who believe in them, having been created by man in his own image, with his own desires and passions, stand in constant need of being re-created. They change as the habits and temper of the race which adores them alter; they are ever bound to do something fresh, lest man should forget them, and new divinities usurp their place. Hence came endless avatars in Hindoo mythology, reproducing all the dreamy monstrosities of that passive Indian mind. Hence came Jove's adventures, tinged with all the lust and guile which the wickedness of the natural man planted on a hot-bed of iniquity is capable of conceiving. Hence bloody Moloch, and the foul abominations of Chemosh and Milcom. Hence, too, Odin's countless adventures, his journeys into all parts of the world, his constant trials of wit and strength, with his ancient foes the Frost Giants, his hairbreadth escapes. Hence Thor's labours and toils, his passages beyond the sea, girt with his strength-belt, wearing his iron gloves, and grasping his hammer, which split the skulls of so many of the Giant's kith and kin.
In the Norse gods, then, we see the Norseman himself, sublimed and elevated beyond man's nature, but bearing about with him all his bravery and endurance, all his dash and spirit of adventure, all his fortitude and resolution to struggle against a certainty of doom which, sooner or later, must; overtake him on that dread day, the "twilight of the gods," when the wolf was to break loose, when the great snake that lay coiled round the world should lash himself into wrath, and the whole race of the Æsirs and their antagonists were to perish in internecine strife.
Such were the gods in whom the Norseman believed,--exaggerations of himself, of all his good and all his bad qualities. Their might and their adventures, their domestic quarrels and certain doom, were sung in venerable lays, now collected in what we call the Elder, or Poetic Edda; simple majestic songs, whose mellow accents go straight to the heart through the ear, and whose simple severity never suffers us to mistake their meaning. But, besides these gods, there were heroes of the race whose fame and glory were in every man's memory, and whose mighty deeds were in every minstrel's mouth: Helgi, Sigmund, Sinfjötli, Sigurd, Signy, Brynhildr, Gudrun; champions and shield-maidens, henchmen and corse-choosers, now dead and gone, who sat round Odin's board in Valhalla; women whose beauty, woes, and sufferings were beyond those of all women; men whose prowess had never found an equal. Between these, love and hate; all that can foster passion or beget revenge. Ill-assorted marriages; the right man to the wrong woman, and the wrong man to the right woman; envyings, jealousies,
hatred, murders, all the works of the natural man, combine together to form that marvellous story which begins with a curse--the curse of ill-gotten gold;--and ends with a curse, a widow's curse, which drags down all on whom it falls, and even her own flesh and blood, to certain doom. Such was the theme of the wondrous Volsung Tale, the far older, simpler, and grander original of that Nibelungen Need of the thirteenth century, a tale which begins with the slaughter of Fafnir by Sigurd, and ends with Hermanaric, "that fierce faith-breaker," as the Anglo-Saxon minstrel calls him, when he is describing, in rapid touches, the mythic glories of the Teutonic race.
This was the story of the Volsungs. They traced themselves back, like all heroes, to Odin, the great father of gods and men. From him sprung Sigi, from him Rerir, from him Volsung, ripped from his mother's womb after a six years bearing, to become the Eponymus of that famous race. In the centre of his hall grew an oak, the tall trunk of which passed through the roof, and its boughs spread far and wide in upper air. Into that hall, on a high feast day, when Signy, Volsung's daughter, was to be given away to Siggeir, King of Gothland, strode an old one-eyed guest. His feet were bare, his hose were of knitted linen, he wore a great striped cloak, and a broad flapping hat. In his hand he bore a sword, which, at one stroke, he drove up to the hilt in the oak trunk. "There," said he, "let him of all this company bear this sword who is man enough to pull it out. I give it him, and none shall say he ever bore a better blade." With these words be passed out of the hall, and was seen no more. Many tried, for that sword was plainly a thing of price, but none
could stir it, till Sigmund, the best and bravest of Volsung's sons, tried his hand, and, lo! the weapon yielded itself at once. This was that famous blade Gram, of which we shall hear again. Sigmund bore it in battle against his brother-in-law, who quarrelled with him about this very sword, when Volsung fell, and Sigmund and his ten brothers were taken and bound. All perished but Sigmund, who was saved by his sister Signy, and bidden in a wood till he could revenge his father and brethren. Here with Sinfjötli, who was at once his son and nephew, he ran as a were-wolf through the forest, and wrought many wild deeds. When Sinfjötli was of age to help him, they proceed to vengeance, and burn the treacherous brother-in-law alive, with all his followers. Sigmund then regains his father's kingdom, and in extreme old age dies in battle against the sons of King Hunding. Just as he was about to turn the fight, a warrior of more than mortal might, a one-eyed man in a blue cloak, with a flapping hat, rose up against him spear in hand. At that outstretched spear Sigmund smites with his trusty sword. It snaps in twain. Then he knows that his luck is gone; he sees in his foe Odin the giver of the sword, sinks down on the gory battle-field, and dies in the arms of Hjordis, his young wife, refusing all leechcraft, and bowing his head to Odin's will. By the fortune of war, Hjordis, bearing a babe under her girdle, came into the hands of King Hialprek of Denmark; there she bore a son to Sigmund, Sigurd, the darling of Teutonic song and story. Regin, the king's smith, was his foster-father, and as the boy grew up the fairest and stoutest of all the Volsungs, Regin, who was of the dwarf race, urged him
day by day to do a doughty deed, and slay Fafnir the Dragon. For Fafnir, Regin, and Otter had been brothers, sons of Reidmar. In one of their many wanderings, Odin, Loki, and Hænir came to a river and a force. There, on the bank under the force, they saw an otter with a salmon in its mouth, which it ate greedily with its eyes shut. Loki took a stone, threw it, and killed the beast, and boasted how he had got both fish and flesh at one throw. Then the Æsir passed on and came at night to Reidmar's house, asked a lodging, got it, and shewed their spoil. "Seize and bind them, lads," cried Reidmar; "for they have slain your brother Otter." So they were seized and bound by Regin and Fafnir, and offered an atonement to buy off the feud, and Reidmar was to name the sum. Then Otter was flayed, and the Æsir were to fill the skin with red gold, and cover it without, that not a hair could be seen. To fetch the gold Odin sent Loki down to the abodes of the Black Elves; there in a stream he caught Andvari the Dwarf, and made him give up all the gold which he had hoarded up in the stony rock. In vain the Dwarf begged and prayed that he might keep one ring, for it was the source of all his wealth, and ring after ring dropped from it. "No; not a penny should he have," said Loki. Then the Dwarf laid a curse on the ring, and said it should be every man's bane who owned it. "So much the better," said Loki, and when he got back, Odin saw the ring how fair it was, and kept it to himself, but gave the gold to Reidmar. So Reidmar filled the skin with gold as full as he could, and set it up on end, and Odin poured gold over it, and covered it up. But when Reidmar looked at it be saw still one grey hair, and bade
them cover that too, else the atonement was at an end. Then Odin drew forth the ring and laid it over the grey hair. So the Æsir was set free, but before they went, Loki repeated the curse which Andvari had laid upon the ring and gold. It soon began to work. First, Regin asked for some of the gold, but not a penny would Reidmar give. So the two brothers laid their heads together and slew their sire. Then Regin begged Fafnir to share the gold with him. But, "no," Fafnir was stronger, and said he should keep it all himself, and Regin had best be off, unless he wished to fare the same way as Reidmar. So Regin had to fly, but Fafnir took a dragon's shape; "and there," said Regin, "he lies on the 'Glistening Heath,' coiled round his store of gold and precious things, and that's why I wish you to kill him." Sigurd told Regin, who was the best of smiths, to forge him a sword. Two are made, but both snap asunder at the first stroke. "Untrue are they, like you and all your race," cries Sigurd. Then he went to his mother and begged the broken bits of Gram, and out of them Regin forged a new blade, that clove the anvil in the smithy, and cut a lock of wool borne down upon it by a running stream. "Now, slay me, Fafnir," said Regin; but Sigurd must first find out King Hunding's sons, and avenge his father Sigmund's death. King Hialprek lends him force; by Odin's guidance he finds them out, routs their army, and slays all those brothers. On his return, his foster-father still eggs him on to slay the Dragon, and thus to shew that there was still a Volsung left. So, armed with Gram, and mounted on Gran, his good steed, whom Odin had taught him how to choose, Sigurd rode to the "Glistening Heath,"