The Northern Way

Popular Tales From the Norse

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him springs poetry and song; from her legend and tradition. Nor should it ever be forgotten that the footsteps of Providence are always onward, even when they seem taken in the dark, and that their rude faith was the first in which that veneration for women arose, which the Western nations may well claim as the brightest jewel in their crown of civilisation; that while she was a slave in the East, a toy to the Greeks, and a housewife to the Romans, she was a helpmeet to the Teuton, and that those stern warriors recognised something divine in her nature, and bowed before her clearer insight into heavenly mysteries. The worship of the Vin gin Mary was gradually developed out of this conception of woman's character, and would have been a thing absurd and impossible had Christianity clung for ever to Eastern soil. And now to proceed, after thus turning aside to compare the mythology of the Greek with the faith of the Norseman. The mistake is to favour one or the other exclusively instead of respecting and admiring both; but it is a mistake which those only can fall into, whose souls are narrow and confined, who would say this thing and this person you shall love, and none other; this form and feature you shall worship and adore, and this alone; when in fact the whole promised land of thought and life lies before us at our feet, our nature encourages us to go in and possess it, and every step we make in this new world of knowledge brings us to fresh prospects of beauty, and to new pastures of delight.

Such were the gods, and such the heroes of the Norseman; who, like his own gods, went smiling to death under the weight of an inevitable destiny. But that fate never fell on their gods. Before this subjective mythological

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dream of the Norsemen could be fulfilled, the religious mist in which they walked was scattered by the sunbeams of Christianity. A new state and condition of society arose, and the creed which had satisfied a race of heathen warriors, who externally were at war with all the world, became in time an object of horror and aversion to the converted Christian. This is not the place to describe the long struggle between the new and the old faith in the North; how kings and queens became the foster-fathers and nursing-mothers of the Church; how the great chiefs, each a little king in himself, scorned and derided the whole scheme as altogether weak and effeminate; how the bulk of the people were sullen and suspicious, and often broke out into heathen mutiny; how kings rose and kings fell, just as they took one or the other side; and how, finally, after a contest which had lasted altogether more than three centuries, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden--we run them over in the order of conversion--became faithful to Christianity, as preached by the missionaries of the Church of Rome. One fact, however, we must insist on, which might be inferred, indeed, both from the nature of the struggle itself, and the character of Rome; and that is, that throughout there was something in the process of conversion of the nature of a compromise--of what we may call the great principle of "give and take." In all Christian churches, indeed, and in none so much as the Church of Rome, nothing is so austere, so elevating and so grand, as the uncompromising tone in which the great dogmas of the Faith are enunciated and proclaimed. Nothing is more magnificent, in short, than the theory of Christianity; but nothing is more mean

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and miserable than the time-serving way in which those dogmas are dragged down to the dull level of daily life, and that sublime theory reduced to ordinary practice. At Rome, it was true, that the Pope could congratulate the faithful that whole nations in the barbarous and frozen North had been added to the true fold, and that Odin's grim champions now universally believed in the gospel of peace and love. It is so easy to dispose of a doubtful struggle in a single sentence, and so tempting to believe it when once written. But in the North, the state of things, and the manner of proceeding were entirely different. There the dogma was proclaimed, indeed; but the manner of preaching it was not in that mild spirit with which the Saviour rebuked the disciple when he said, "Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." There the sword was used to bring converts to the font, and the baptism was often one rather of blood than of water. There the new converts perpetually relapsed, chased away the missionaries and the kings who sheltered them, and only yielded at last to the overwhelming weight of Christian opinion in the Western world. St. Olof, king and martyr, martyred in pitched battle by his mutinous allodial freemen, because he tried to drive rather than to lead them to the cross; and another Olof, greater than he, Olof Tryggvason, who fell in battle against the heathen Swedes, were men of blood rather than peace; but to them the introduction of the new faith into Norway is mainly owing. So also Charlemagne, at an earlier period, had dealt with the Saxons at the Main Bridge, when his ultimatum was, "Christianity or death." So also the first

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missionary to Iceland--who met, indeed, with a sorry reception--was followed about by a stout champion named Thangbrand, who, whenever there was what we should now call a missionary meeting challenged any impugner of the new doctrines to mortal combat on the spot. No wonder that, after having killed several opponents in the little tour which he made with his missionary friend through the island, it became too hot to hold him, and he, and the missionary, and the new creed, were forced to take ship and sail back to Norway.

"Precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, and there a little," was the motto of Rome in her dealings with the heathen Norsemen, and if she suited herself at first rather to their habits and temper than to those of more enlightened nations, she had an excuse in St. Paul's maxim of making herself "all things to all men." Thus, when a second attempt to Christianise Iceland proved more successful--for in the meantime, King Olof Tryggvason, a zealous Christian, had seized as hostages all the Icelanders of family and fame who happened to be in Norway, and thus worked on the feelings of the chiefs of those families at home, who in their turn bribed the lawman who presided over the Great Assembly to pronounce in favour of the new Faith--even then the adherents of the old religion, were allowed to perform its rites in secret, and two old heathen practices only were expressly prohibited, the exposure of infants and the eating of horseflesh, for horses were sacred animals, and the heathen ate their flesh after they had been solemnly sacrificed to the gods. As a matter of fact, it is far easier to change a form of religion than to extirpate a faith. The first indeed

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is no easy matter, as those students of history well know, who are acquainted with the tenacity with which a large proportion of the English nation clung to the Church of Rome, long after the State had declared for the Reformation. But to change the faith of a whole nation in block and bulk on the instant, was a thing contrary to the ordinary working of Providence, and unknown even in the days of miracles, though the days of miracles had long ceased when Rome advanced against the North. There it was more politic to raise a cross in the grove where the Sacred Tree had once stood, and to point to the sacred emblem which had supplanted the old object of national adoration, when the populace came at certain seasons with songs and dances to perform their heathen rites. Near the cross soon rose a church; and both were girt by a cemetery, the soil of which was doubly sacred as a heathen fane and a Christian sanctuary, and where alone the bodies of the faithful could repose in peace. But the songs and dances, and processions in the churchyard round the cross, continued long after Christianity had become dominant. So also the worship of wells and spring was christianised when it was found impossible to prevent it. Great churches arose over or near them, as at Walsingham, where an abbey, the holiest place in England, after the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury, threw its majestic shade over the heathen wishing-well, and the worshippers of Odin and the Nornir were gradually converted into votaries of the Virgin Mary. Such practices form a subject of constant remonstrance and reproof in the treatises and penitential epistles of medieval divines, and in some few

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places and churches, even in England, such rites are still yearly celebrated. 1

So, too, again with the ancient gods. They were cast down from honour, but not from power. They lost their genial kindly influence as the protectors of men and the origin of all things good; but their existence was tolerated; they became powerful for ill, and degenerated into malignant demons. Thus the worshippers of Odin had supposed that at certain times and rare intervals the good powers shewed themselves in bodily shape to mortal eye, passing through the land in divine progress, bringing blessings in their train, and receiving in return the offerings and homage of their grateful votaries. But these were naturally only exceptional instances; on ordinary occasions the pious heathen recognised his gods sweeping through the air in cloud and storm, riding on the wings of the wind, and speaking in awful accents, as the tempest howled and roared, and the sea shook his white mane and crest. Nor did he fail to see them in the dust and din of battle, when Odin appeared with his terrible helm, succouring his own, striking fear into their foes, and turning the day in many a doubtful fight; or in the hurry and uproar of the chase, where the mighty huntsman on his swift steed, seen in glimpses among the trees, took up the hunt where weary mortals laid it down, outstripped them all, and brought the noble quarry to the ground. Looking up to the stars and heaven, they saw the footsteps of the gods

1. See Anecd. and Trad., Camd. Soc. 1839, pp. 92 fol. See also the passages from Anglo-Saxon laws against "well-waking," which Grimm has collected, D. M., p. 550.

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marked out in the bright path of the Milky Way; and in the Bear they hailed the war-chariot of the warrior's god. The great goddesses too, Frigga and Freyja, were thoroughly old-fashioned domestic divinities. They help women in their greatest need, they spin themselves, they teach the maids to spin, and punish them if the wool remains upon their spindle. They are kind, and good, and bright, for Holda, Bertha, are the epithets given to them. And so, too, this mythology which, in its aspect to the stranger and the external world, was so ruthless and terrible, when looked at from within and at home, was genial, and kindly, and hearty, and affords another proof that men, in all ages and climes, are not so bad as they seem; that after all, peace and not war is the proper state for man, and that a nation may make war on others and exist; but that unless it has peace within, and industry at home, it must perish from the face of the earth. But when Christianity came the whole character of this goodly array of divinities was soured and spoilt. Instead of the stately procession of the God, which the intensely sensuous eye of man in that early time connected with all the phenomena of nature, the people were led to believe in a ghastly grisly band of ghosts, who followed an infernal warrior or huntsman in hideous tumult through the midnight air. No doubt, as Grimm rightly remarks, 1 the heathen had fondly fancied that the spirits of those who had gone to Odin followed him in his triumphant progress either visibly or invisibly; that they rode with him in the whirlwind, just as they followed him to battle, and feasted

1. D. M., p. 900. Wütendes heer.

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with him in Valhalla; but now the Christian belief, when it had degraded the mighty god into a demon huntsman, who pursued his nightly round in chase of human souls, saw in the train of the infernal master of the hunt only the spectres of suicides, drunkards, and ruffians; and, with all the uncharitableness of a dogmatic faith, the spirits of children who died unbaptized, whose hard fate had thrown them into such evil company. This was the way in which that widespread superstition arose, which sees in the phantoms of the clouds the shapes of the Wild Huntsman and his accursed crew, and bears, in spring and autumn nights, when sea-fowl take the wing to fly either south or north, the strange accents and uncouth yells with which the chase is pressed on in upper air. Thus, in Sweden it is still Odin who passes by; in Denmark it is King Waldemar's Hunt; in Norway it is Aaskereida, that is Asgard's Car; in Germany it is Wode, Woden, or Hackelberend, or Dieterich of Bern; in France it is Hellequin, or King Hugo, or Charles the Fifth, or, dropping a name altogether, it is Le Grand Veneur who ranges at night through the Forest of Fontainebleau. Nor was England without her Wild Huntsman and his ghastly following. Gervase of Tilbury, in the twelfth century, could tell it of King Arthur, round whose mighty name the superstition settled itself, for he had heard from the foresters how, "on alternate days, about the full of the moon, one day at noon the next at midnight when the moon shone bright, a mighty train of hunters on horses was seen, with baying hounds and blast of horns; and when those hunters were asked of whose company and household they were, they replied 'of Arthur's.'"

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