The Northern Way

Popular Tales From the Norse


The preceding observations will have given a sufficient account of the mythology of the Norsemen, and of the way in which it fell. They came from the East, and brought that common stock of tradition with them. Settled in the Scandinavian peninsula, they developed themselves through Heathenism, Romanism, and Lutheranism, in a locality little exposed to foreign influence, so that even now the Daleman in Norway or Sweden may be reckoned among the most primitive examples left of peasant life. We should expect, then, that these Popular Tales, which, for the sake of those ignorant in such matters,

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it may be remarked, had never been collected or reduced to writing till within the last few years, would present a faithful picture of the national consciousness, or, perhaps, to speak more correctly, of that half consciousness out of which the heart of any people speaks in its abundance. Besides those world-old affinities and primeval parallelisms, besides those dreamy recollections of its old home in the East, which we have already pointed out, we should expect to find its later history, after the great migration, still more distinctly reflected; to discover heathen gods masked in the garb of Christian saints; and thus to see a proof of our assertion above, that a nation more easily changes the form than the essence of its faith, and clings with a toughness which endures for centuries to what it has once learned to believe.

In all mythologies, the trait of all others which most commonly occurs, is that of the descent of the Gods to earth, where, in human form, they mix among mortals, and occupy themselves with their affairs, either out of a spirit of adventure, or to try the hearts of men. Such a conception is shocking to the Christian notion of the omnipotence and omnipresence of God; but we question if there be not times when the most pious and perfect Christian may not find comfort and relief from a fallacy which was a matter of faith in less enlightened creeds, and over which the apostle, writing to the Hebrews, throws the sanction of his authority, so for as angels are concerned. 1 Nor could he have forgotten those words of

1. Heb. xiii. 1: "Let brotherly love continue. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

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the men of Lystra,--"The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men;" and how they called "Barnabas Jupiter," and himself Mercury, "because he was the chief speaker." Classical mythology is full of such stories. These wanderings of the gods are mentioned in the Odyssey, and the sanctity of the rites of hospitality, and the dread of turning a stranger from the door, took its origin from a fear lest the wayfaring man should be a divinity in disguise. According to the Greek story, Orion owed his birth to the fact that the childless Hyrieus, his reputed father, had once received unawares Zeus, Poseidon, and Hermes, or, to call them by their Latin names, Jupiter, Neptune, and Mercury. In the beautiful story of Philemon and Baucis, Jupiter and Mercury reward the aged couple who had so hospitably received them by warning them of the approaching deluge. The fables of Phaedrus and Æsop represent Mercury and Demeter as wandering and enjoying the hospitality of men. In India it is Brahm and Vishnu who generally wander. In the Edda, Odin, Loki, and Hœnir thus roam about, or Thor, Thialfi, and Loki. Sometimes Odin appears alone as a horseman, who turns in at night to the smith's house, and gets him to shoe his horse,--a legend which reminds us at once of the Master-Smith. 1 Sometimes it is Thor with his great hammer who wanders thus alone.

Now, let us turn from heathen to Christian times, and look at some of these old legends of wandering gods in a

1. One of Odin's name, when on these adventures, was Gangradr, or Gangleri. Both mean "the Ganger, or wayfarer." We have the latter epithet in the "Gangrel carle," and "Gangrel loon," of the early Scotch ballads.

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new dress. Throughout the Middle Age, it is our blessed Lord and St. Peter that thus wander; and here we see that half-digested heathendom to which we have alluded. Those who may be shocked at such tales in this collection as "The Master-Smith" and "Gertrude's Bird," must just remember that these are almost purely heathen traditions in which the names alone are Christian; and if it be any consolation to any to know the fact, we may as well state at once that this adaptation of new names to old beliefs is not peculiar to the Norsemen, but is found in all the popular tales of Europe. Germany was full of them, and there St. Peter often appears in a snappish ludicrous guise, which reminds the reader versed in Norse mythology with the tricks and pranks of the shifty Loki. In the Norse tales he thoroughly preserves his saintly character.

Nor was it only gods that walked among men. In the Norse mythology, Frigga, Odin's wife, who knew beforehand all that was to happen, and Freyja, the goddess of love and plenty, were prominent figures, and often trod the earth; the three Norns or Fates, who sway the weirds of men, and spin their destinies at Mimirs' well of knowledge, were awful, venerable powers, to whom the heathen world looked up with love and adoration and awe. To that love and adoration and awe, throughout the Middle Age, one woman, transfigured into a divine shape, succeeded by a sort of natural right, and round the Virgin Mary's blessed head a halo of lovely tales of divine help beams with soft radiance as a crown bequeathed to her by the ancient goddesses. She appears as divine mother, spinner, and helpful virgin (vierge secourable). Flowers and plants bear her name. In England one of our commonest and

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prettiest insects is still called after her, but which belonged to Freyja, the heathen "Lady," long before the Western nations had learned to adore the name of the mother of Jesus. 1

The reader of these Tales will meet, in that of "The Lassie and her Godmother," p. 188, with the Virgin Mary in a truly mythic character, as the majestic guardian of sun, moon, and stars, combined with, that of a helpful, kindly woman, who, while she knows how to punish a fault, knows also how to reconcile and forgive.

The Norseman's god was a god of battles, and victory his greatest gift to men; but this was not the only aspect under which the Great Father was revered. Not victory in the fight alone, but every other good gift came down from him and the Æsir. Odin's supreme will was that treasure-house of bounty towards which, in one shape or the other, all mortal desires turned, and out of its abundance showers of mercy and streams of divine favour constantly poured down to refresh the weary race of men. All these blessings and mercies, nay, their very source itself, the ancient language bound up in a single word,

1. So also Orion's Belt was called by the Norsemen, Frigga's spindle or rock, Friggjar rockr. In modern Swedish, Friggerock, where the old goddess holds her own; but in Danish, Mariæ-rock, Our Lady's rock or spindle. Thus, too, Karlavagn, the "car of men," or heroes, who rode with Odin, which we call "Charles's Wain," thus keeping something, at least, of the old name, though none of its meaning, became in Scotland "Peter's-pleugh," from the Christian saint, just as Orion's sword became "Peter's-staff." But what do "Lady Landers" and "Lady Ellison" mean, as applied to the "Lady-Bird" in Scotland?

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which, however expressive it may still be, has lost much of the fulness of its meaning in its descent to these later times. This word was "Wish," which originally meant the perfect ideal, the actual fruition of all joy and desire, and not, as now, the empty longing for the object of our desires. From this original abstract meaning it was but a step to pass to the concrete, to personify the idea, to make it an immortal essence, an attribute of the divinity, another name for the greatest of all Gods himself. And so we find a host of passages in early writers, 1 in every one of which "God" or "Odin" might be substituted for "Wish" with perfect propriety. Here we read how "The Wish" has hands, feet, power, sight, toil, and art. How he works and labours, shapes and masters, inclines his ear, thinks, swears, curses, and rejoices, adopts children, and takes melt into his house; behaves, in short, as a being of boundless power and infinite free-will. Still more, he rejoices in his own works as in a child, and thus appears in a thoroughly patriarchal point of view, as the Lord of creation, glorying in his handiwork, as the father of a family in early times was glad at heart when he reckoned his children as arrows in his quiver, and beheld his house full of a long line of retainers and dependants. For this attribute of the Great Father, for Odin as the God of Wish, the Edda uses the word "Oski," which literally expresses the masculine personification of "Wish," and it passed on and added the word osk, wish, as a prefix to a number of others, to signify that they stood in a peculiar relation to the Great Giver of all good. Thus, we have oska-steinn, wishing-stone, i.e. a stone which plays the part of a divining-rod, and reveals secrets and

1. D. M., p. 126 fol., where they are cited at length.

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hidden treasure; oska-byrr, a fair wind, a wind as fair as man's heart could wish it; osk-barn and oska-barn, a child after one's own heart, an adopted child, as when the younger Edda tells us that all those who die in battle are Odin's choice-bairns, his adopted children, those on whom he has set his heart,--an expression which, in their turn, was taken by the Icelandic Christian writers to express the relation existing between God and the baptized; and, though last, not least, oska-mær, wish-maidens, another name for the Valkyries--Odin's corse-choosers,--who picked out the dead for him on the field of battle, and waited on the heroes in Valhalla. Again, the Edda is filled with "choice things," possessing some mysterious power of their own, some "virtue," as our older English would express it, which belong to this or that god, and are occasionally lent or lost. Thus, Odin himself had a spear which gave victory to those on whose side it was hurled; Thor, a hammer which destroyed the Giants, hallowed vows, and returned of itself to his hand. He had a strength-belt, too, which, when he girded it on, his god-strength waxed one-half; Freyr had a sword which wielded itself; Freyja a necklace which, like the cestus of Venus, inspired all hearts with love; Freyr, again, had a ship called Skithblathnir.

"She is so great, that all the Æsir, with their weapons and war gear, may find room on board her; and as soon as the sail is set, she has a fair wind whither she shall go; and when there is no need of faring on the sea in her, she is made of so many things, and with so much craft, that Freyr may fold her to-ether like a cloth, and keep her in his bag" 1

1. Snorro's Edda, Stockholm, 1842, translated by the writer.

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Of this kind, too, was the ring "Dropper" which Odin had, and from which twelve other rings dropped every night; the apples which Idun, one of the Goddesses, had, and of which, so soon as the Æsir ate, they became young again; the helm which Œgir, the sea giant had, which struck terror into all antagonists like the Ægis of Athene; and that wonderful mill which the mythical Frodi owned, of which we shall shortly speak.

Now, let us see what traces of this great god "Wish" and his choice-bairns and wishing-things we can find in these Tales, faint echoes of a mighty heathen voice, which once proclaimed the goodness of the great Father in the blessings which he bestowed on his chosen sons. We shall not have long to seek. In tale No. xx., p. 131, when Shortshanks meets those three old crookbacked hags who have only one eye, which he snaps up, and gets first a sword "that puts a whole army to flight, be it ever so great." We have the "one-eyed Odin," degenerated into an old hag, or rather--by no uncommon process--we have an old witch fused by popular tradition into a mixture of Odin and the three Nornir. Again, when he gets that wondrous ship "which can sail over fresh water and salt water, and over high hills and deep dales," and which is so small that he can put it into his pocket, and yet, when he came to use it, could hold five hundred men, we have plainly the Skithblathnir of the Edda to the very life. So also in "The Best Wish," p. 252, the whole groundwork of this story rests on this old belief; and when we meet that pair of old scissors which cuts all manner of fine clothes out of the air, that tablecloth which covers itself with the best dishes you could think of, as soon as it was spread out, and that

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