Popular Tales From the Norse
tap which, as soon as it was turned, poured out the best of mead and wine, we have plainly another form of Frodi's wishing-quern,--another recollection of those things of choice about which the old mythology has so much to tell. Of the same kind are the tablecloth, the ram, and the stick in "The Lad who went to the North Wind," p. 228, and the rings in "The Three Princesses of White land," p. 181, and in "Soria Moria Castle," p. 396. In the first of those stories, too, we find those "three brothers" who have stood on a moor "these hundred years fighting about a hat, a cloak, and a pair of boots," which had the virtue of making him who wore them invisible; choice things which will again remind the reader of the Nibelungen Lied, of the way in which Siegfried became possessed of the famous hoard of gold, and how he got that "cap of darkness" which was so useful to him in his remaining exploits. So again in "The Blue Belt," p. 155, what is that belt which, when the boy girded it on, "he fell as strong as if he could lift the whole hill," but Thor's "choice-belt;" and what is the daring boy himself, who overcomes the Troll, but Thor himself, as engaged in one of his adventures with the Giants? So, too, in "Little Annie the Goose-girl," p. 414, the stone which tells the Prince all the secrets of his brides is plainly the old Oskastein, or "wishing-stone." These instances will suffice to shew the prolonged faith in "Wish," and his choice things; a belief which, though so deeply rooted in the North, we have already traced to its home in the East, whence it stretches itself from pole to pole, and reappears in every race. We recognise it in the wishing-cap of Fortunatus, which is a Celtic legend; in the cornucopia of the Romans;
in the goat Amalthea among, the Greeks; in the wishing-cow and wishing-tree of the Hindoos; in the pumpkin-tree of the West Indian Ananzi stories; in the cow of the Servian legends, who spins yarn out of her ear; in the Sampo of the Finns; and in all those stories of cups, and glasses, and horns, and rings, and swords, seized by some hold spirit in the midst of a fairy revel, or earned by some kind deed rendered by mortal hand to one of the" good folk" in her hour of need, and with which the "luck" 1 of that mortal's house was ever afterwards bound up; stories with which the local traditions of all lands are full, but which all pay unconscious homage to the worship of that great God, to whom so many heathen hearts so often turned as the divine realiser of their prayers, and the giver of all good things, until they came at last to make an idol out of their hopes and prayers, and to immortalise the very "Wish" itself.
Again, of all beliefs, that in which man has, at all times of his history,
been most prone to set faith, is that of a golden age of peace and plenty, which
had passed away, but which might be expected to return. Such a period was looked
for when Augustus closed the temple of Janus, and peace, though perhaps not
plenty, reigned over what the proud Roman called the habitable world. Such a
period the early Christian expected when the Saviour was born, in the reign
of that very Augustus; and such a period, some, whose thoughts are more set
on earth than heaven, have hoped for ever since, with a hope which, though deferred
for eighteen centuries, has not made their hearts
1. See the well-known story of the "Luck of Eden Hall."
sick. Such a period of peace and plenty, such a golden time, the Norseman
could tell of in his mythic Frodi's reign, when gold or Frodi's meal,
as it was called, was so plentiful that golden armlets lay untouched from year's
end to year's end on the king's highway, and the fields bore crops unsown. Here,
in England, the Anglo-Saxon Bede 1 knew how to tell the same story
of Edwin, the Northumbrian king, and when Alfred came to be mythic, the same
legend was passed on from Edwin to the West Saxon monarch. The remembrance of
"the bountiful Frodi" echoed in the songs of German poets long after
the story which made him so bountiful had been forgotten; but the Norse Skalds
could tell not only the story of Frodi's wealth and bounty, but also of his
downfall and ruin. In Frodi's house were two maidens of that old giant race,
Fenja and Menja. These daughters of the giant he had bought as slaves, and he
made them grind his quern or hand-mill, Grotti, out of which he used to grind
peace and gold. Even in that golden age one sees there were slaves, and Frodi,
however bountiful to his thanes and people, was a hard taskmaster to his giant
handmaidens. He kept them to the mill, nor gave them longer rest than the cuckoo's
note lasted, or they could sing a song. But that quern was such that it ground
anything that the grinder chose, though until then it had ground nothing but
gold and peace. So the maidens ground and ground, and one sang their piteous
tale in a strain worthy of Æschylus as the other worked--they prayed for
rest and pity, but Frodi was deaf. Then they turned in giant mood, and
1. Hist. ii. 16.
ground no longer peace and plenty, but fire and war. Then the quern went fast and furious, and that very night came Mysing the Sea-rover, and slew Frodi and all his men, and carried off the quern; and so Frodi's peace ended. The maidens the Sea-rover took with him, and when he got on the high seas he bade them grind salt. So they ground; and at midnight they asked if he had not salt enough, but he bade them still grind on. So they ground till the ship was full and sank, Mysing, maids, and mill, and all, and that's why the sea is salt. 1 Perhaps of all the tales in this volume, none could be selected as better proving the toughness of a traditional belief than No. ii., p. 8, which tells "Why the Sea is Salt."
The notion of the Arch-enemy of God and man, of a fallen angel, to whom power
was permitted at certain times for an all-wise purpose by the Great Ruler of
the universe, was as foreign to the heathendom of our ancestors as his name
was outlandish and strange to their tongue. This notion Christianity brought
with it from the East; and though it is a plant which has struck deep roots,
grown distorted and awry, and borne a bitter crop of superstition, it required
all the authority of the Church to prepare the soil at first for its reception.
To the notion of good necessarily follows that of evil. The Eastern mind, with
its Ormuzd and Ahriman, is full of such dualism, and from that hour, when a
more than mortal eye saw Satan falling like lightning from heaven, 2 the kingdom of darkness, the abode of Satan and his bad spirits, was
1. Snor. Ed. Skaldsk. ch. 43.
2. St. Luke x. 18.
established in direct opposition to the kingdom of the Saviour and his angels.
The North had its own notion on this point. Its mythology was not without its
own dark powers; but though they too were ejected and dispossessed, they, according
to that mythology, had rights of their own. To them belonged all the universe
that had not been seized and reclaimed by the younger race of Odin and Æsir;
and though this upstart dynasty, as the Frost Giants in Promethean phrase would
have called it, well knew that Hel, one of this giant progeny, was fated to
do them all mischief, and to outlive them, they took her and made her queen
of Niflheim, and mistress over nine worlds. There, in a bitterly cold place,
she received the souls of all who died of sickness or old age; care was her
bed, hunger her dish, starvation her knife. Her walls were high and strong,
and her bolts and bars huge; "Half blue was her skin, and half the colour
of human flesh. A goddess easy to know, and in all things very stern and grim." 1 But though severe, she was not an evil spirit. She only received
those who died as no Norseman wished to die. For those who fell on the gory
battle-field, or sank beneath the waves, Valhalla was prepared, and endless
mirth and bliss with Odin. Those went to Hel, who were rather unfortunate than
wicked, who died before they could be killed. But when Christianity came in
and ejected Odin and his crew of false divinities, declaring them to be lying
gods and demons, then Hel fell with the rest; but fulfil ling her fate, outlived
them. From a person she became a place, and all the Northern nations, from the
1. Snor. Edda, ch. 34, Engl. Transl.
the Norseman, agreed in believing Hell to be the abode of the devil and his wicked spirits, the place prepared from the beginning for the everlasting torments of the damned. One curious fact connected with this explanation of Hell's origin will not escape the reader's attention. The Christian notion of Hell is that of a place of heat, for in the East, whence Christianity came, heat is often an intolerable torment, and cold, on the other hand, everything that is pleasant and delightful. But to the dweller in the North, heat brings with it sensations of joy and comfort, and life without fire has a dreary outlook; so their Hel ruled in a cold region over those who were cowards by implication, while the mead-cup went round, and huge logs blazed and crackled in Valhalla, for the brave and beautiful who had dared to die on the field of battle. But under Christianity the extremes of heat and cold have met, and Hel, the cold uncomfortable goddess, is now our Hell, where flames and fire abound, and where the devils abide in everlasting flame.
Still, popular tradition is tough, and even after centuries of Christian teaching, the Norse peasant, in his popular tales, can still tell of Hell as a place where firewood is wanted at Christmas, and over which a certain air of comfort breathes, though, as in the Goddess Hel's halls, meat is scarce. The following passage from "Why the Sea is Salt," p. 8, will sufficiently prove this:--
"Well, here is the flitch," said the rich brother, "and now go straight to Hell."
"What I have given my word to do, I must stick to," said the other; so he took the flitch and set off. He walked
the whole day, and at dusk he came to a place where he saw a very bright light.
"Maybe this is the place," said the man to himself. So he turned aside, and the first thing he saw was an old, old man, with a long white beard, who stood in an outhouse, hewing wood for the Christmas fire.
"Good even," said the man with the flitch.
"The same to you; whither are you going so late?" said the man.
"Oh! I'm going to Hell, if I only knew the right way," answered the poor man.
"Well, you're not far wrong, for this is Hell," said the old man. "When you get inside they will be all for buying your flitch, for meat is scarce in Hell; but mind you don't sell it unless you get the hand-quern which stands behind the door for it. When you come out, I'll teach you how to handle the quern, for it's good to grind almost anything."
This, too, is the proper place to explain the conclusion of that intensely heathen tale, "The Master-Smith," p. 105. We have already seen how the Saviour and St. Peter supply, in its beginning, the place of Odin and some other heathen god. But when the Smith sets out with the feeling that he has done a silly thing, in quarrelling with the Devil, having already lost his hope of heaven, this tale assumes a still more heathen shape. According to the old notion, those who were not Odin's guests went either to Thor's house, who had all the thralls, or to Freyja, who even claimed a third part of the slain on every battlefield with Odin, or to Hel, the cold comfortless goddess already mentioned, who was still no tormentor, though she ruled over nine worlds, and though her walls were high,
and her bolts and bars huge; traits which come out in "The Master-Smith," p. 105, when the Devil, who here assumes Hel's place, orders the watch to go back and lock up all the nine locks on the gates of Hell--a lock for each of the goddesses' nine worlds--and to put a padlock on besides. In the twilight between heathendom and Christianity, in that half-Christian half-heathen consciousness which this tale reveals, heaven is the preferable abode, as Valhalla was of yore, but rather than be without a house to one's head after death, Hell was not to be despised; though, having behaved ill to the ruler of one, and actually quarrelled with the master of the other, the Smith was naturally anxious on the matter. This notion of different abodes in another world, not necessarily places of torment, comes out too in "Not a Pin to choose between them," p. 173. where Peter, the second husband of the silly Goody, goes about begging from house to house in Paradise.
For the rest, whenever the Devil appears in these tales, it is not at all as the Arch-enemy, as the subtle spirit of the Christian's faith, but rather as one of the old Giants, supernatural and hostile indeed to man, but simple and easily deceived by a cunning reprobate, whose superior intelligence he learns to dread, for whom he feels himself no match, and whom, finally, he will receive in Hell at no price. We shall have to notice some other characteristics of this race of giants a little further on, but certainly no greater proof can be given of the small hold which the Christian Devil has taken of the Norse mind, than the heathen aspect under which he constantly appears, and the ludicrous way in which he is always outwitted.