The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 14

Chapter 14: Condition of the Gods

(Page 1)

Now that we have collected all that could be found concerning the several divinities of our distant past, I will endeavour to survey their nature as a whole; in doing which however, we must be allowed to take more frequent notice of foreign and especially Greek mythology, than we have done in other sections of this work: it is the only way we can find connecting points for many a thread that otherwise hangs loose.

All nations have clothed their gods in human shape, and only by way of exception in those of animals; on this fact are founded both their appearances to men, or incarnation, their twofold sex, their intermarrying with mankind, and also the deification of certain men, i.e., their adoption into the circle of the gods. It follows moreover, that gods are begotten and born, experience pain and sorrow, are subject to sleep, sickness and even death, that like men they speak a language, feel passions, transact affairs, are clothed and armed, possess dwellings and utensils. The only difference is, that to these attributes and states there is attached a higher scale than the human, that all the advantages of the gods are more perfect and abiding, all their ills more slight or transient.

This appears to me a fundamental feature in the faith of the heathen, that they allowed to their gods not an unlimited and unconditional duration, but only a term of life far exceeding that of men. All that is born must also die, and as the omnipotence of gods is checked by a fate standing higher than even they, so their eternal dominion is liable at last to termination. And this reveals itself not only by single incidents in the lives of gods, but in the general notion of a coming and inevitable ruin, which the Edda expresses quite distinctly, and which the Greek system has in the background: the day will come when Zeus's reign shall end. But this opinion, firmly held even by the Stoics, (1) finds utterance only now and then, particularly in the story of Prometheus, which I have compared to the Norse ragnarökr, p. 245-6.

In the common way of thinking, the gods are supposed to be immortal and eternal. They are called qeoi aien eontej, Il. 1, 290. 494, aieigenetai 2, 400, aqanatoi 2, 814, aqanatoj Zeuj 14, 434; and therefore makarej 1, 339. 599 in contrast to mortal man. They have a special right to the name ambrotoi immortales, while men are brotoi mortales; ambrotoj is explained by the Sansk. amrita immortalis, the negative of mrita mortalis (conf. Pers. merd, homo mortalis); in fact both amrita and ambrosioj, next neighbour to ambrotoj, contain a reference to the food, by partaking of which the gods keep up their immortality. They taste not the fruits of the earth, whereby the brotoj live, oi arourhj karpon edousin, Il. 6, 142. With brotoj again is connected brotoj thick mortal blood, whereas in the veins of the gods flow icwr (Il. 5, 340. 416), a light thin liquid, in virtue of which they seem to be called abrotoi = ambrotoi.
       Indian legend gives a full account of the way amrita, the elixer of immortality, was brewed out of water clear of milk, the juice of herbs, liquid gold and dissolved precious-stones; (2) no Greek poem tells us the ingredients of ambrosia, but it was an ambrosih trofh (food), and there was a divine drink besides, gluku nektar, Il. 1, 598, of a red colour 19, 38, its name being derived from nh and ktasqai, or better from nek-tar necem avertens. Where men take bread and wine, the gods take ambrosia and nectar, Od. 5, 195, and hence comes the

ambroton aima qeoio, icwr, oioj per te reei makaressi qeoisin ou gar siton edous, ou pinous aiqopa oinon tounek anaimonej eisi kai aqanatoi kaleontai. ---Il. 5, 339.

Theirs is no thick glutinous aima (conf. our seim, ON. seimr, slime), nor according to the Indians do they sweat; and this anaimwn (bloodless) agrees with the above explanation of abrotoj. The adjectives abrotoj, ambrotoj, ambrosioj, nektareoj are passed on from the food to other divine things (3) (see Suppl.). Plainly then the gods were not immortal by their nature, they only acquired and secured this quality by abstaining from the food and drink of men, and feasting on heavenly fare. And hence the idea of death is not always nor as a matter of course kept at a distance from them; Kronos used to kill his new born children, no doubt before nectar and ambrosia had been given them, (4) and Zeus alone could be saved from him by being brought up secretly. Another way in which the mortality of certain gods is expressed is, that they fall a prey to Hades, whose meaning borders on that of death, e.g., Persephone.

If a belief in the eternity of the gods is the dominant one among the Greeks, and only scattered hints are introduced of their final overthrow; with our ancestors on the contrary, the thought of the gods being immortal seems to retire into the background. The Edda never calls them eylifir or ôdauðligir, and their death is spoken of without disguise: þâ er regin deyja, Sæm. 37ª, or more frequently: regin riufaz (solvuntur), 36b 40ª 108b. One of the finest and oldest myths describes the death of Balder, the burning of his body, and his entrance into the lower world, like that of Proserpine; Oðin's destined fall is mentioned in the Völuspâ 9ª, Oðins bani (bane), Sn. 73, where also Thôrr falls dead on the ground; Hrûngnir, a giant, threatens to slay all the gods (drepa guð öll), Sn. 107. Yet at the same time we can point to clear traces of that prolongation of life by particular kinds of food and drink. While the einherjar admitted into Valhöll feast on the boiled flesh of a boar, we are nowhere told of the Ases sharing in such diets (Sæm. 36. 42. Sn. 42); it is even said expressly, that Oðinn needs no food (önga vist þarf hann), and only drinks wine (vîn er honum bæði dryckr ok matr, both meat and drink); with the viands set before him he feeds his two wolves Geri and Freki. Við vîn eitt vâpngöfugr Oðinn æ lifir (vino solo armipotens semper vivit), Sæm. 42b; æ lifir can be rendered 'semper vescitur, nutritur,' or 'immortalitatem nanciscitur,' and then the cause of his immortality would be found in his partaking of the wine. Evidently this wine of the Norse gods is to the beer and ale (ölr) of men, what the nectar of the Greek gods was to the wine of mortals. Other passages are not so particular about their language; (5) in Sæm. 59 the gods at Oegir's hall have ale set before them, conf. öl giöra, 68b; Heimdall gladly drinks the good mead, 41b; verðar nema oc sumbl (cibum capere et symposium) 52, leaves the exact nature of the food undefined, but earthly fare is often ascribed to the gods in so many words. (6) But may not the costly Oðhrœris dreckr, compounded of the divine Qvâsir's blood and honey, be likened to amrita and ambrosia? (7) Dwarfs and giants get hold of it first, as amrita fell into the hands of the giants; at last the gods take possession of both. Oðhrœris dreckr confers the gift of poetry, and by that very fact immortality: Oðinn and Saga, goddess of poetic art, have surely drunk it out of golden goblets, gladly and evermore (um alla daga, Sæm. 41ª). We must also take into account the creation of the wise Qvâsir (conf. Slav. kvas, convivium, potus); that at the making of a covenant between Aesir and Vanir, he was formed out of their spittle (hraki); the refining of his blood into a drink for gods seems a very ancient and far- reaching myth. But beside this drink, we have also notices of a special food for gods: Iðunn has in her keeping certain apples, by eating of which the aging gods make themselves young again (er goðin skulo âbîta, þâ er þau eldaz, oc verða þâ allir ungir, Sn. 30ª). This reminds one of the apples of Paradise and the Hesperides, of the guarded golden apples in the Kindermärchen no. 57, of the apples in the stories of the Fortunatus and of Merlin, on the eating or biting of which depend life, death and metamorphosis, as elsewhere on a draught of holy water. According to the Eddic view, the gods have a means, it is true, of preserving perpetual freshness and youth, but, for all that, they are regarded as subject to the encroachments of age, so that there are always some young and some old gods; in particular, Odinn or Wuotan is pictured everywhere as an old greybeard (conf. the old god, p. 21), Thôrr as in the full strength of manhood, Balder as a blooming youth. The gods grow hârir ok gamlir (hoar and old), Sn. 81. Freyr has 'at tannfê' (tooth-fee) presented him at his teething, he is therefore imagined as growing up. In the like manner Uranos and Kronos appear as old, Zeus (like our Donar) and Poseidon as middle aged, Apollo, Hermes and Ares as in the bloom of youth. Growth and age, the increase and decline of a power, exclude the notion of a strictly eternal, immutable, immortal being; and mortality, the termination, however long delayed, of gods with such attributes, is a necessity (see Suppl.).


1. Atque omnes pariter deos perdet mors aliqua et chaos. Seneca in Herc. 1014.  (back)

2. Cleopatra had costly pearls melted in her wine, and it is said to be still a custom with Indian princes; conf. Sueton. Calig. 37.  (back)

3. Both nectar and ambrosia, like the holy grail of the Mid. Ages, have miraculous powers: poured into the nose of a corpse, they prevent decay, Il. 19, 38; they ward off hunger, Il. 19, 347. 353.  (back)

4. As human infants may only be exposed before milk and honey have moistened their lips, conf. RA. pp. 458-9. When Zeus first receives in the assembly of the gods the son whom Leto bore him, he hands him nectar in a golden bowl: by this act he recognised him for his child.  (back)

5. As Homer too makes Ganymede oinocoeuein, Il. 20, 234, and of Hebe it is even said, nektar ewnocoei 4, 3.  (back)

6. Zeus goes to banquet (kata daita) with the Ethiopians, Il. 1, 423; otan proj daita kai epi qoinhn iwsi, Plato's Phædr. 247, as Thôrr does with the Norwegians; even when disguised as a bride, he does not refuse the giant's dishes, Sæm. 73b; and the Ases boiled an ox on their journey, Sn. 80.  (back)

7. In Sanskrit, sudha nectar is distinguished from amrita ambrosia. Everywhere there is an eagle in the business: Garuda is called sudhâhara, or amritâharana, nectar-thief or ambrosia-thief (Pott, forsch. 2, 451); it is in the shape of an eagle that Oðinn carries off Oðhrœrir, and Zeus his cupbearer Ganymede (see ch. XXXV and XXX, Path-crossing and Poetry).  (back)

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