The Religion of the Northmen
EXPOSITION OF THE ASA DOCTRINE
OF THE INTERPRETATION OF THE ASA DOCTRINE IN GENERAL
Concerning the origin and significance of the Asa doctrine, there has been, and still is, a great variety of opinions.
Taken as a whole, some regard it as a monotheistic system in the beginning, which degenerated into polytheism by the extravagant fancies of the human understanding. They look for its first basis either in an immediate divine revelation, imparted to mankind in the beginning, and consequently common to all nations and all religions;---or else in a purer religion, which in a remote antiquity was peculiar to the first progenitors of the Iranic or Indo-European race, and which, under many corruptions and deteriorations, was transmitted through the various branches of the race, so that the fundamental principles are more or less distinctly seen in the religious systems of all the heathen tribes descended from them; but how this purer primitive Iranic religion originated---whether by immediate revelation or by the continual development of the human soul---is not taken into consideration. Others assume that the Asa doctrine, as an independent whole, was developed among the Germanic classes from the very lowest point of polytheism into a religious system in which polytheism was inclining to yield before monotheistic ideas, which the clearer heads among the poeple had gradually risen up to by their own strength of mind and by the natural progress of polytheism.
In regard to the real object of the Asa myths,---some have sought it in the history of the Germanic race, especially of the Norræna branch, others in the general phenomena of Nature, others again in man's peculiar nature, especially in a moral point of view. There has thus been developed a historical, a physical, and an ethical interpretation; but seldom has any interpreter followed one of these directions exclusively, the greater number have united them, with one or another of them the predominant.
Finally, in regard to the outer form of the Asa doctrine, some consider it a complete allegory, whose images, even in the minutest particulars, they strive to trace back to reality, while others seek only to unravel the prominent ideas of the myths from their poetic dress, believing it in vain to attempt to trace the images through all the mazes of fantasy.
As to the first theory, we find a certain fundamental idea pervading all the known religious systems belonging to the people of the Iranic race, which points towards a common origin for them. The Asa doctrine of the origin of the gods and the world, of the strife between Good and Evil, of the destruction and regeneration of the world and the gods, if we do not too closely follow the figures by which it is expressed, has an unmistakable similarity to the ancient Indian and Median myths concerning the same subject,---a similarity which we cannot well explain satisfactorily except by their origin in a common source. We may therefore assume that the Germanic race, when it separated from kindred races as an independent whole, had already conceived---although indistinctly---those ideas which it afterward expressed and farther developed in accordance with its peculiar character, and connected with a mythology built upon its own notions of the world, which gradually obscured the monotheistic ideas---at least with the mass---and set them in the background for polytheism. The Asa doctrine, in its peculiarity, seems thus to have sprung up with the Germanic race from certain fundamental religious ideas common to the whole Iranic family.
Concerning the second theory it may be said that the historical interpretation of the Asa doctrine is very ancient. The assumption of a historical Odin and historical Æsir, of an earthly Ásgard on the plains of the Tanaïs, &c., had doubtless its first basis in the efforts of the Northmen and the Icelanders to impart to the Asa doctrine---which was so important to their Skaldic minstrelsy---such a turn that, without offence to Christianity, it might be kept in remembrance and made use of by the Skalds. Snorri Sturlason's influence opened the way for this interpretation among the historians of the eighteenth century, who did not, however, content themselves with one historical Odin, but assumed three or four successive ones, and considered the Æsir sometimes as a tribe of people, sometimes as an order of priesthood, who wandered into the North from the banks of the Tanaïs. A stricter criticism of the sources of our ancient history has, in latter times, revealed these errors and thereby given a death-blow to the purely historical interpretation of the Asa doctrine. In its stead, the physical interpretation of the Asa myths has become the prevailing one, and it seems indeed to present itself to every unprejudiced mind. Even the mythic names point distinctly in this direction. The Asa doctrine expresses the conception which a powerful and imaginative, though uncultivated people formed of divinity through its diversified activity in Nature,---its conception of the supersensual in a bodily and human form.
Finally, as to the third theory: it seems to lie in the character of a greater part of the Asa myths, that they are not allegories representing ideas clear to the mind which first set them forth, and were clothed in a dress perceptible to the senses merely to be made intelligible to the mass; ---consequently we cannot pursue the figure to the utmost in order to seek in it a real significance. The figure may here in most cases be assumed as co-existent with the idea itself, and to be almost as real as it. It thus went on continually producing of itself new figures, often bearing no relation to the original idea, and to which we may apply our skill in vain, in the attempt to find a deeper meaning.
On these views of the Asa Faith in general, are based on the following interpretations of its most prominent myths.