The Northern Way

Popular Tales From the Norse

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We have seen how our Lord and the saints succeeded to Odin and his children in the stories which told of their wanderings on earth to warn the wicked, or to help the good; we have seen how the kindliness and helpfulness of the ancient goddesses fell like a royal mantle round the form of the Virgin Mary. We have seen, too, on the other hand, how the procession of the Almighty God degenerated into the infernal midnight hunt. We have now to see what became of the rest of the power of the goddesses, of all that might which was not absorbed into the glory of the blessed Virgin. We shall not have far to seek. No reader of early medieval chronicles and sermons can fail to have been struck with many passages which ascribe majesty and power to beings of woman's sex. Now it is a heathen goddess as Diana; now some half-historical character as Bertha; now a mythical being as Holda; now Herodias; now Satia; now Domina Abundia, or Dame Habonde. 1 A very short investigation will serve

1. Here are a few of these passages which might be much extended:--Burchard of Worms, p. 194, a. "credidisti ut aliqua femina sit quæ hoc facere possit quod quædam a diabolo deceptæ se affirmant necessario et ex præcepto facere debere; id est cum dæmonum turbâ in similitudinem mulierum transformatâ, quam vulgaris stultitia Holdam vocat, certis noctibus equitare debere super quasdam bestias, et in eorum se consortio annumeratam esse.

"Illud etiam non omittendum, quod quædam sceleratæ mulieres retro post Sathanam conversæ, dæmonum illusionibus et phantasmatibus seductæ credunt se et profitentur nocturnis horis cum Dianâ paganorum dea, vel cum Herodiade et innumera multitudine mulierum equitare super quasdam bestias, p. cxxv et multa terrarum spatia intempestæ noctis silentio pertransire, ejusque jussionibus velut Dominæ obedire et certis noctibus ad ejus servitium evocari."--Burchard of Worms, 10, 1.

"Quale est, quod noctilucam quandam, vel Herodiadem, vel præsidem noctis Dominam concilia et conventus de nocte asserunt convocare, varia celebrari convivia, etc."--Joh. Sarisberiensis Polycrat., 2, 17, died 1182.

"Herodiam illam baptistæ Christi interfectricem, quasi reginam, immo deam proponant, asserentes tertiam totius mundi partem illi traditam."--Rather. Cambrens., died 974.
"Sic et dæmon qui prætextu mulieris cum aliis de nocte, domos et cellaria dicitur frequentare, et vocant eam Satiam a p. cxxvi satietate, et Dominam Abundiam, pro abundantia, quam eam præstare dicunt domibus quas frequentaverit; hujusmodi etiam dæmones quas dominas vocant, vetulæ penes quas error iste remansit et a quibus solis creditur et somniatur."--

Guilielmus Alvernus, i. 1036, died 1248.

So also the Roman de Rou (Méon, line 18,622)--
Qui les cinc sons ainsinc deçoit
Par les fantosmes, qu'il reçoit,
Dont maintes gens par lor folie
Cuident estre par nuit estries,
Errans aveques Dame Habonde;
Et dient, que par tout le monde
Li tiers enfant de nacion
Sunt de ceste condicion."

And again, line 18,686--

"Dautre part, que li tiers du monde
Aille ainsinc avec Dame Habonde."

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to identify the two ancient goddesses Frigga and Freyja with all these leaders of a midnight host. Just as Odin was banished from day to darkness, so the two great heathen goddesses, fused into one "uncanny" shape, were supposed to ride the air at night. Medieval chroniclers, writing in bastard Latin, and following the example of classical authors, when they had to find a name for this demon-goddess, chose, of course, Diana the heathen huntress; the moon-goddess; and the ruler of the night. In the same way, when they threw Odin's name into a Latin shape, he, the god of wit and will, as well as power and victory, became Mercury. As for Herodias--not the mother, but the daughter who danced--she must have made a deep impression on the mind of the early Middle Age, for she was supposed to have been cursed after the beheading of John the Baptist, and to have gone on dancing for ever. When heathendom fell, she became confounded with the ancient Goddesses, and thus we find

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her, sometimes among the crew of the Wild Huntsman; sometimes, as we see in the passages below, in company with, or in the place of Diana, Holda, Satia, and Abundia, at the head of a bevy of women, who met at certain places to celebrate unholy rites and mysteries. As for Holda, Satia, and Abundia, "the kind," "the satisfying," and "the abundant," they are plainly names of good rather than evil powers; they are ancient epithets drawn from the bounty of the "Good Lady," and attest the feeling of respect which still clung to them in the popular mind. As was the case whenever Christianity was brought in, the country folk, always averse to change, as compared with the more lively and intelligent dwellers in towns,

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still remained more or less heathen, 1 and to this day they preserve unconsciously many superstitions which can be traced up in lineal descent to their old belief. In many ways does the old divinity peep out under the new superstition--the long train, the midnight feast, "the good lady" who presides, the bounty and abundance which her votaries fancied would follow in her footsteps, all belong to the ancient Goddess. Most curious of all is the way in which all these traditions from different countries insist on the third part of the earth, the third child born, the third soul as belonging to the "good lady" who leads the revel; for this right of a third, or even of a half, was one which Freyja possessed. "But Freyja is most famous of the Asynjor. She has that bower in heaven hight Fólkvángr, and whithersoever she rideth to the battle, then hath she one-half of the slain, but Odin the other half." Again "when she fares abroad, she drives two cats and sits in a car, and she lends an easy ear to the prayers of men." 2

We have got then the ancient goddesses identified as evil influences, and as the leader of a midnight band of women, who practised secret and unholy rites. This leads us at once to witchcraft. In all ages and in all races this belief in sorcery has existed. Men and women practised it alike, but in all times female sorcerers have predominated. 3 This was natural enough. In those days women

1. See the derivation of pagan from 'paganus,' one who lived in the country, as opposed to 'urbanus,' a townsman.
2. Snorro's Edda, Dasent's Trans. pp. 29, Stockholm 1842.
3. Keisersberg Omeiss, 46 b., quoted by Grimm, D. M., p. 991, says--
"Wen man ein man verbrent, so brent man wol zehen frauen."

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were priestesses; they collected drugs and simples; Women alone knew the virtues of plants. Those soft hands spun linen, made lint, and bound wounds. Women, in the earliest times with which we are acquainted with our forefathers, alone knew how to read and write, they only could carve the mystic runes, they only could chant the charms so potent to allay the wounded warrior's smart and pain. The men were busy out of doors with ploughing hunting, barter, and war. In such an age the sex which possessed by natural right book-learning, physic, soothsaying, and incantation, even when they used these mysteries for good purposes, were but a step from sin. The same soft white hand that bound the wound and scraped the lint; the same gentle voice that sung the mystic rune, that helped the child-bearing woman, or drew the arrow-head from the dying champion's breast; the same bright eye that gazed up to heaven in ecstasy through the sacred rove and read the will of the Gods when the mystic tablets and rune-carved lots were cast--all these, if the will were had, if the soothsayer passed into the false prophetess, the leech into a poisoner, and the priestess into a witch, were as potent and terrible for ill as they had once been powerful for good. In all the Indo-European tribes, therefore, women, and especially old women, have practised witchcraft from the earliest times, and Christianity found them wherever it advanced. But Christianity, as it placed mankind upon a higher platform of civilisation, increased the evil which it found, and when it expelled the ancient goddesses, and confounded them as demons with Diana and Herodias, it added them and their votaries to the old class of malevolent sorcerers. There was but one step, but a simple act of the will, between

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the Norn and the hag, even before Christianity came in. As soon as it came, down went Goddess, Valkyrie, Norn, priestess, and soothsayer, into that unholy deep where the heathen hags and witches had their being; and, as Christianity gathered strength, developed its dogmas, and worked out its faith, fancy, tradition, leechcraft, poverty, and idleness, produced that unhappy class, the medieval witch, the persecution of which is one of the darkest pages in religious history.

It is curious indeed to trace the belief in witches through the Middle Age, and to mark how it increases in intensity and absurdity. At first, as we have seen in the passages quoted, the superstition seemed comparatively harmless, and though the witches themselves may have believed in their unholy power, there were not wanting divines who took a common-sense view of the matter, and put the absurdity of their pretensions to a practical proof. Such was that good parish priest who asked, when an old woman of his flock insisted that she had been in his house with the company of "the Good Lady," and had seen him naked and covered him up, "How, then, did you get in when all the doors were locked?" "We can get in," she said, "even if the doors are locked." Then the priest took her into the chancel of the church, locked the door, and gave her a sound thrashing with the pastoral staff, calling out, "Out with you, lady witch." But as she could not, he sent her home, saying, "See now how foolish you are to believe in such empty dreams." 1 But as the Church

1. See the passage from Vincent, Bellov. Spec. Mor. iii. 2, 27, quoted in Grimm, D. M., pp. 1012-13.

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increased in strength, as heresies arose, and consequent persecution, then the secret meetings of these sectarians, as we should now call them, were identified by the hierarchy with the rites of sorcery and magic, and with the relies of the worship of the old gods. By the time, too, that the hierarchy was established, that belief in the fallen angel, the Arch-Fiend, the Devil, originally so foreign to the nations of the West, had become thoroughly ingrafted on the popular mind, and a new element of wickedness and superstition was introduced at those unholy festivals. About the middle of the thirteenth century, we find the mania for persecuting heretics invading the tribes of Teutonic race from France and Italy, backed by all the power of the Pope. Like jealousy, persecution too often makes the meat it feeds on, and many silly, if not harmless, superstitions were rapidly put under the ban of the Church. Now the "Good Lady" and her train begin to recede; they only fill up the background, while the Prince of Darkness steps, dark and terrible, in front, and soon draws after him the following of the ancient goddess. Now we hear stories of demoniac possession; now the witches adore a demon of the other sex. With the male element, and its harsher, sterner nature, the sinfulness of these unholy assemblies is infinitely increased; folly becomes guilt, and guilt crime. 1

1. The following passage from "The Fortalice of Faith" of Alphonso Spina, written about the year 1458, will suffice to show how disgustingly the Devil, in the form of a goat, had supplanted the "Good Lady:"--"Quia nimium abundant tales perversæ mulieres in Delphinatu et Guasconia, ubi se asserunt concurrere de nocte in quâdam planitie deserta ubi p. cxxxi est caper quidam in rupe, qui vulgariter dicitur el boch de Biterne, et quod ibi conveniunt cum candelis accepsis et adorant illum caprum osculantes cum in ano suo. Ideo captæ plures earum, ab inquisitoribus fidei et convictæ ignibus comburuntur."

About the same time, too, began to spread the notion of formal written agreements between the Fiend and men who were to be his after a certain time, during which he was to help them to all earthly goods. This, too, came with Christianity from the East. The first instance was Theophilus, vicedominus of the Bishop of Adana, whose fall and conversion form the original of all the Faust Legends. See Grimm, D. M., 969, and "Theophilus in Icelandic, Low German, and other tongues, by G. W. Dasent, Stockholm, 1845," where a complete account of the literature of the legend may be found. In almost all these early cases the Fiend is outwitted by the help of the Virgin or some other saint, and in this way the reader is reminded of the Norse Devil, the successor of the Giants, who always makes bad bargains. When the story was applied to Faust in the sixteenth century, the terrible Middle Age Devil was paramount, and knew how to exact his due.

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