Popular Tales From the Norse
friend began addressing himself to the stars, but I was rather in a mood to
sing or to count them; and when I turned to look at him, lo! he had already
stripped himself and laid down his clothes near him. My heart was in my nostrils,
and I stood like a dead man; but he 'circumminxit vestimenta,' and on
a sudden became a. wolf. Do not think I jest; I would not lie for any man's
estate. But to return to what I was saying. When he became a wolf, he began
howling, and fled into the woods. At first I hardly knew where I was, and afterwards,
when I went to take up his clothes, they were turned into stone. Who then died
with fear but I? Yet I drew my sword, and went cutting the air right and left,
till I reached the villa of my sweetheart. I entered the courtyard. I almost
breathed my last, the sweat ran down my neck, my eyes were dim, and I thought
I should never recover myself. My Melissa wondered why I was out so late, and
said to me,--'Had you come sooner you might at least have helped us, for a wolf
has entered the farm, and worried all our cattle; but he had not the best of
the joke, for all he escaped, for our slave ran a lance through his neck.' When
I heard this, I could not doubt how it was, and, as it was clear daylight, ran
home as fast as a robbed innkeeper. When I came to the spot where the clothes
had been turned into stone, I could find nothing except blood. But when I got
home, I found my friend the soldier in bed, bleeding at the neck like an ox,
and a doctor dressing his wound. I then knew he was a turnskin; nor would I
ever have broke bread with him again; no, not if you had killed me." 1
1. See Grimm's D. M., 1047 fol.; and for this translation from Petronius, a very interesting letter prefixed to Madden's ed. of the old English Romance of "William and the Werewolf," 1832, one of the Roxburghe Club Publications. This p. cxli letter, which was by the hand of Mr. Herbert of Petworth, contains all that was known on this subject before Grimm; but when Grimm came he was, compared with all who had treated the subject, as a sober man amongst drunkards.
A man who had such a gift or greed was also called lycanthropus, a man-wolf or wolf-man, which term the Anglo-Saxons translated literally in Canute's Laws verevulf, and the early English werewolf. In Old French he was loupgarou, which means the same thing; except that garou means man-wolf in itself without the antecedent loup, so that, as Madden observes, the whole word is one of those reduplications of which we have an example in lukewarm. In Brittany he was bleizgarou and denvleiz, formed respectively from bleiz, wolf, and den, man; garou is merely a distorted form of wer or vere, man and loup. In later French the word became waroul, whence the Scotch wroul, wurl, and worlin. 1
It was not likely that a belief so widely spread should not have extended
itself to the North; and the grave assertions of Olaus Magnus in the sixteenth
century, in his Treatise de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, shew how common
the belief in were-wolves was in Sweden so late as the time of Gustavus Vasa.
In mythical times the Volsunga Saga 2 expressly states of Sigmund
and Sinfjötli that they became were-wolves,--which, we may remark, were
Odin's sacred beasts,--just in the same way as Brynhildr and the Valkyries,
or corse-choosers, who followed the
1. Bisclavaret in the Lais of Marie de France, i. 178, seems to be a corruption of Bleizgarou, as the Norman garwal is of garwolf. See also Jamieson's Dict. under warwolf.
2 Fornald Sög., i. 130, 131.
god of battles to the field, and chose the dead for Valhalla when the fight was done, became swan-maidens, and took the shape of swans. In either case, the wolf's skin or the swan's feathery covering was assumed and laid aside at pleasure, though the Völundr Quidr, in the Edda, and the stories of "The Fair Melusina," and other medieval swan-maidens, shew that any one who seized that shape while thus laid aside, had power over its wearer. In later times, when this old heroic belief degenerated into the notion of sorcery, it was supposed that a girdle of wolfskin thrown over the body, or even a slap on the face with a wolfskin glove, would transform the person upon whom the sorcerer practised into the shape of a ravening wolf, which fled at once to the woods, where he remained in that shape for a period which varied in popular belief for nine days, three, seven, or nine years. While in this state he was especially ravenous after young children, whom he carried off as the were-wolf carried off William in the old romance, though all were-wolves did not treat their prey with the same tenderness as that were-wolf treated William.
But the favourite beast for Norse transformations in historic times, if we may judge from the evidence afforded by the Sagas, was the bear, the king of all their beasts, whose strength and sagacity made him an object of great respect. 1
This old belief, then, might be expected to be found in these Norse Tales,
and accordingly we find men formed in them into various beasts. Of old these
1. See Landnama in many places. Egil's Sag. Hrolf Krak. Sag.
as we have already stated, were active, if we may use the expression, as well as passive. A man who possessed the gift frequently assumed the shape of a beast at his own will and pleasure, like the soldier in Petronius, Even now in Norway, it is matter of popular belief that Finns and Lapps, who from time immemorial have passed for the most skilful witches and wizards in the world, can at will assume the shape of bears; and it is a common thing to say of one of those beasts, when be gets unusually savage and daring, "that can be no Christian bear." On such a bear, in the parish of Oföden, after he had worried to death more than sixty horses and six men, it is said that a girdle of bearskin, the infallible mark of a man thus transformed, was found when he was at last tracked and slain. The tale called "Farmer Weathersky," in this collection (p. 285), shews that the belief of these spontaneous transformations still exists in popular tradition, where it is easy to see that Farmer Weathersky is only one of the ancient gods degraded into a demon's shape. His sudden departure through the air, horse, sledge, and lad, and all, and his answer, "I'm at home, alike north, and south, and east, and west"; his name itself, and his distant abode, surrounded with the corpses of the slain, sufficiently betray the divinity in disguise. His transformation, too, into a hawk answers exactly to, that of Odin when he flew away from the Frost Giant in the shape of that bird. But in these Tales such transformations are for the most part passive; they occur not at the will of the person transformed, but through sorcery practised on them by some one else. Thus the White Bear in the beautiful story of "East o' the Sun and West
o' the Moon," p. 22, is a Prince transformed by his stepmother, just as it is the stepmother who plays the same part in the romance of William and the Were-wolf. So the horse in "The Widow's Son," p. 311, is a Prince over whom a king has cast that shape. 1 So also in "Lord Peter," p. 295, which is the full story of what we have only hitherto known in part as "Puss in Boots," the cat is a Princess bewitched by the Troll who had robbed her of her lands; so also in "The Seven Foals," p. 302, and "The Twelve Wild Ducks," p. 51, the Foals and the Ducks are Princes over whom that fate has come by the power of a witch or a Troll, to whom an unwary promise had been given. Thoroughly mythic is the trait in "The Twelve Wild Ducks," where the youngest brother reappears with a wild duck's wing instead of his left arm, because his sister had no time to finish that portion of the shirt, upon the completion of which his retransformation depended.
But we should ill understand the spirit of the Norsemen, if we supposed that
these transformations into beasts were all that the national heart has to tell
of beasts and their doings, or that, when they appear, they do so merely as
men-beasts, without any power or virtue of their own. From the earliest times,
side by side with those productions of the human mind which speak of the dealings
of men with men, there has grown up a stock of traditions about animals and
their relations with one another, which forms a true Beast Epic, and is full
of the liveliest traits of nature.
1. Troldham, at kaste ham paa. Comp. the Old Norse hamr, hamför, hammadr, hamrammr, which occur repeatedly in the same sense.
Here, too, it was reserved for Grimm to restore these traditions to their
true place in the history of the human mind, and to shew that the poetry which
treats of them is neither satirical nor didactic, though it may contain touches
of both these artificial kinds of composition, but, on the contrary, purely
and intensely natural. It is Epic, in short, springing out of that deep love
of nature and close observation of the habits of animals which is only possible
in an early and simple stage of society. It used to be the fashion, when these
Beast traditions were noticed, to point to Æsop as their original, but
Grimm has sufficiently proved 1 that what we see in Æsop
is only the remains of a great world-old cycle of such traditions which had
already, in Æsop's day, been subjected by the Greek mind to that critical
process which a late state of society brings to bear on popular traditions;
that they were then already worn and washed out and moralised. He has also shewn
how the same process went on till in Phædrus nothing but the dry bones
of the traditions, with a drier moral, are served up to the reader; and he has
done justice on La Fontaine, who wrote with all the wanton licentiousness of
his day, and frittered away the whole nature of his fables by the frivolity
of his allusions to the artificial society of his time. Nor has he spared Lessing
who, though he saw through the poverty of Phædrus as compared with Æsop,
and was alive to the weakness of La Fontaine, still wandered about in the classical
mist which hung heavy over the learning of the eighteenth century, and saw in
the Greek form the perfection of all fable, when in Æsop
1. Reinhart Fuchs, Introduction.
it really appears in a state of degeneracy and decay. Here too, as in so many other things, we have a proof that the world is older than we think it. The Beast-Fables in the Pantcha-Tantra and the Hitopadesa, the Indian parallels to Æsop, reveal, in the connection in which they occur, and in the moral use to which they are put, a state of society long past that simple early time in which such fictions arise. They must have sprung up in the East in the very dawn of time; and thence travelling in all directions, we find them after many centuries in various shapes, which admit of no mistake as to their first origin, at the very ends of the earth, in countries as opposite as the Poles to each other; in New Zealand and Norway, in Central Africa and Servia, in the West Indies and in Mongolia; all separated by immense tracts of land or sea from their common centre.
To the earnest inquirer, to one who believes that many dark things may yet be solved, it is very satisfactory to see that even Grimm, in his "Reynard the Fox," is at a loss to understand why the North, properly so called, had none of the traditions which the Middle Age moulded into that famous Beast Epic. But since then the North, as the Great Master himself confesses in his later works, has amply avenged herself for the slight thus cast upon her by mistake. In the year 1834, when Grimm thus expressed his surprise on this point, the North had no such traditions to shew in books indeed, but she kept them stored up in her heart in an abundance with which no other land perhaps can vie. This book at least shews how natural it seems to the Norse mind now, and how much more natural of course it seemed in earlier times, when
sense went for so much and reflection for so little, that beasts should talk;
and how truly and faithfully it has listened and looked for the accents and
character of each. The Bear is still the King of Beasts, in which character
he appears in "True and Untrue," p. 1, but here, as
in Germany, he is no match for the Fox in wit. Thus Reynard plays him a trick
which condemns him for ever to a stumpy tail in No. XXIII. (p. 172).
He cheats him out of his share of a firkin of butter in No. LVII. (p.
409). He, is preferred as Herdsman, in No. X. (p. 69), before
either Bear or Wolf, by the old wife who wants some one to tend her flock. Yet
all the while he professes immense respect for the Bear, and calls him "Lord,"
even when in the very act of outwitting him. In the tale called "Well Done
and Ill Paid," p. 266, the crafty fox puts a finish to his
misbehaviour to his "Lord Bruin," by handing him over, bound hand
and foot, to the peasant, and by causing his death outright. Here, too, we have
an example, which we shall see repeated in the case of the giants, that strength
and stature are not always wise, and that wit and wisdom never fail to carry
the day against mere brute force. Another tale, however, restores the bear to
his true place as the king of beasts, endowed not only with strength, but with
something divine and terrible about him which the Trolls cannot withstand. This
is "The Cat on the Dovrefell," p. 90, in connection
with which it should be remembered that the same tradition existed in the thirteenth
century in Germany, 1 that the bear is called familiarly grandfather
in the North, and that the Lapps reckon him
1. Grimm, Irisch. Elfenm., 114-19, and D. M., 447.