The Religion of the Northmen
Introductory Chapters by the Translator
Chapter 1 (page 1)
The Restoration of Icelandic Literature
When the rude spirit of the Northmen was modified by the influence of Christianity and the warlike deeds of the Vikings gave way to the occupations of peaceful life, the literature of the people began to flourish more vigorously. The memories of the past still lingered with them. The deeds of their fathers had been celebrated in song, and were kept alive in cherished traditions. These songs and these traditions were full of the bold spirit of the past, and they inspired the writers of the people. Then the things which had been said became written, and the Saga literature of Iceland sprang into being. For a long time it flourished luxuriantly, but it celebrated the exploits of heathen warriors and breathed the spirit of the forsaken religion, hence it was doomed in turn to give way before the presence of that power which had supplanted the old faith and had softened the rude life of their forefathers. The literature of the Old-Northmen became neglected; it was suffered to sink into oblivion. The manuscripts in which it was preserved, became lost or forgotten, and for a long period the early history of the people of the North was but little known to themselves except through the medium of distorted tradition or the semi-fabulous accounts of Paulus Diaconus, (1) Adam of Bremen, (2) and Saxo Grammaticus. (3)
Such was the state of literature at the era when the Reformation was introduced in the North. With the new life which was then introduced, the love of learning, after a slumber of two centuries, was revived, and the various branches of science were pursued with more or less zeal. In the general progress of knowledge, the lore of antiquity began to receive special attention, and the researches of antiquarians brought to light some old manuscripts which were found in Iceland. At once a new fountain was opened from the mythological and historical learning of the past, and the stream which flowed forth has become rich and copious. From the depths of the North---from a remote and unknown island---a dawning light appeared, the harbinger of a bright day that was to enlighten the Scandinavian North for a century to come, and to extend its rays through other lands and down to later ages.
In the year 1594 was published "The Chronicles of the Danish Kings," a translation from the Old Norse into Danish, by Jens Mortensen. The appearance of this work gave a new importance to Scandinavian Mythology. The people had been told of images of the gods that stood in former days at Upsala, of sacrifices and other religious ceremonies which were there performed; they had heard of these gods being present in battle, of their wielding an influence over the destinies of men, and in all places commanding from the people the honors and worship of divine beings. But of their birth and descent, ---from whence they came, whether they were ethereal beings and gods by nature, or whether they were deified men and heroes--- of these they had but dim and doubtful ideas. This little work, of which the original author was the celebrated Icelander, Snorri Sturlason, made its appearance to give a response to all these queries.
This intelligence was followed up by renewed investigations, and a mass of mythological fragments was found and brought to light from the dark corners and smoky rooms of old habitations in Iceland. The most active and energetic among those who were engaged in these antiquarian researches, was Arngrim Jónsson, (4) who stands at the head of the Restorers of Learning in Iceland. He labored indefatigably in this field during a long life, and did much by his publications and his communications to the learned men of Denmark, to arouse the attention of northern historians to the importance of Icelandic literature.
In his footsteps followed Brynjúlf Sveinsson, (5) who did important service in the field of Northern Mythology, by his labors in the same direction. The learned Danes who corresponded with these equally erudite Icelanders, and whose labors were greatly enriched by their communications, were Stephanius, the editor of Saxo, and Olaus Wormius, (6) the father of Northern Archæology. In his department the latter had the advantage of previous labors in that direction, especially of Count Heinrich von Rantzan, Vedel, Hvitfeld, Lyschander and others, but his incredible activity and energy, and his influence, laid the first permanent foundations, and first opened the path to subsequent labors in that field.
Arngrim and Brynjúlf were still pursuing their labors in Iceland, with unabated zeal. In 1628, Arngrim discovered the prose Edda and forwarded it to Wormius, by whom it came to the library of the University at Copenhagen. Other fragments were found from time to time, and before ten years had elapsed, Brynjúlf had found fragments of both the prose and the poetic Edda. In the year 1640, he had found the poetic Edda complete. They were written on parchment, and both came to the Royal Library of Copenhagen. The finding of these manuscripts was looked upon as a most important and invaluable discovery---the crowning labor of their researches. It brought to light the Bible of the Old-Scandinavians, and was as important to the Mythology of the North as the discovery of the books of Moses, by Esdras, was to the religious faith of the Hebrews.
The zeal for antiquarian researches continued unabated, and, when Stephanius and Wormius left the field of action, Resenius entered, and after him Bartholin, who followed in the path their predecessors had opened. The same relations were kept up with Iceland, where Torfæus and Arnas Magnæus extended their researches in the field in which Arngrim and Brynjúlf had labored before them.
In 1665 the first edition of the prose Edda appeared, together with two pieces of the poetic Edda---the Völuspá and Hávamál---published by Resenius. (7) This publication was an important acquisition to antiquarian literature, and the Edda of Resenius was long a standard work of reference. In 1689, the royal antiquarian Bartholin published his "Antiquities," a classic work for the time. It contained extracts from twenty-one Eddaic poems, which gave a more complete idea of the poetic Edda than could be obtained from the two poems of Resenius. In the translation of these and other fragments, Bartholin had as amanuensis Arnas Magnæus, and Torfæus had assisted Resenius in his translation of the prose Edda.
The government also took an active interest in these antiquarian researches. In 1662 Frederick III. sent Torfæus to Iceland to collect manuscripts, and in 1685 Christian V. forbade the sale of them to any foreigner.
While the study of mythologic lore was thus zealously pursued in Denmark, the Swedish scholars were not idle in this field of learning. They received manuscripts at Upsala, directly from Iceland, as well as by the purchase of the Library of Stephanius. But while they went on collecting the sources of antiquarian learning, they were not yet so enriched thereby for want of interpreters. In supplying this deficiency they were aided by the fortunes of war. Jonas Rugman, a learned Icelander, was captured on his way to Copenhagen, during the war between Charles Gustavus and Frederick III. in 1658, and carried to Sweden. He was at once employed to introduce the study of Icelandic, which he did by teaching the language, and by his labors in connection with Iceland. He was appointed Adjunct of the Antiquarian College of Upsala, where he died in 1679. Through his agency the communication with Iceland was facilitated, and emissaries were retained there with instructions to procure everything to be found in the shape of old manuscripts. A large number were thus obtained, among them the Upsala Codex of the Edda. The Antiquarian Archives were established at Upsala as early as 1669, and in 1692 removed to Stockholm. Their object was the preservation of Runic monuments and Icelandic manuscripts.
The Swedish Antiquarians labored even more zealously than the Danes in publishing and elucidating the Sagas, and though the publications of that time are not distinguished for correctness of text nor for faithful Swedish and Latin translations, and also usually parade a prolix, barren commentary or a wonderful medly of mythologic and historic erudition, still they were for a long time the best, and in a great measure the only productions to be found of their class. The Swedes of the seventeenth century also produced some independent mythological works. Of these the most meritorious undoubtedly was Scheffer's "Upsalia," (8) although Rudbek's "Atlantica" (9) was by for the most notorious. This is a curious work, in which there is a most ostentatious display of learning, and it contains some of the most extravagant notions of mythological history. Its name is derived from the fabulous Atlantis dreamed of by Plato and the later Greeks, which he assumes to be Scandinavia in general, or more especially Sweden. Here he places the primitive home of the human family, and he not only refers to Grecian legends of the Hyperboreans and Kimmerians, and the uncertain accounts of the Scythians, Kelts,&c., to Sweden, but thither he transfers Acheron, the Elysian Fields, Olympus, and the whole fable-world of Greece. According to him, the Trojans were of Swedish origin, Hercules a native Swede, and even Plato and his followers derived the chief part of their wisdom from the songs of the Swedish skalds.
The Atlantica, with all its extravagant fantasies, was a natural result of the wild speculations which had crept into the field of Northern Mythology. It was the whole reduced to a system, if such foolishness could be called a system. All that had been dreamed, or thought, or questioned, concerning the gods and heroes of the Old-North, was brought together by Rudbeck in a most fantastic manner, with that barren erudition and total absence of criticism which characterized the learning of the seventeenth century.
This spirit exhausted itself in the Atlantica and the researches of the following age become more intelligible. Hitherto the contents of the Icelandic books had been received as literally true, and the Eddas especially had been believed in as immediate divine revelation. In the fervor of enthusiasm which those venerable relics of ancient wisdom had inspired, few had thought of doubting their genuineness and truth, and their origin was laid quite indefinitely in the remotest antiquity, even beyond the period of Hellenic culture. Sometimes, indeed, a question was raised on the age, origin, or importance of a document, but the researches were made with a simplicity and naïveté very far from serious doubt, and so much were they dazzled by the gold of the newly-discovered treasures, that all such doubts were suppressed as heresy. (10) But this ingenuousness and orthodoxy began to disappear, and they ventured to doubt, to examine, to judge; superficially indeed, but still in the spirit of true criticism. The Mythology was reduced to actual chronological history. Mythological systems were formed in accordance with various interpretations of the Sagas, and interpretation became a new and important element in antiquarian researches.
Hitherto they had reflected little upon the ancient gods and heroes. The Æsir were there, and they had taken them as they were, without any skeptical questioning of their possibility. But in the eighteenth century the understanding began to grapple with the Mythos---the one sober, dry, prosaic---the parent of all prose and acknowledging no other truth than the logically possible and the sensually apparent, the other intrinsically poetic, miraculous, and impossible,---and in the conflict between two principles so antagonistic, the understanding carried the victory. Then followed the other extreme in which the Northern Mythos was all to be explained by the understanding, and the genuine myths, which existed only in the spirit and the fantasy of the Old-Northmen, became limited to possible, actual history. The rationalism of the eighteenth century in this as in everything else when pushed to the extreme, became unintelligible from pure understanding, and foolish from exces of wisdom, and it was in the heathen theology as in the Christian, that fiction became falsehood, miracles, unmeaning stupidities, truth, a dream, and idle dreams became truth, under the treatment of mere abstract reason.
Early in the century the study of Northern Antiquities was elevated by the labors of two highly distinguished Icelanders, Thormod Torfæus and Arnas Magnæus, each of whom had a great influence in a special direction---the former as critic in the field of Archæology, the latter as restorer and publisher of Icelandic literature. Arnas Magnæus (11) also wrote several keen essays, by which he gained the reputation of a learned, circumspect and sober critic, yet it was less by his writings than by what he did for the discovery, preservation and publication of the literary monuments of Iceland, that he rendered his name immortal.
In 1702 he was sent by Frederick IV to Iceland, in order to make, with Paul Videlin, a thorough search of the island, and on this occasion he collected during ten years, all that was to be found of old manuscripts, with such diligence, that little was left to be done in this field after him. The greater part of his collection was unfortunately destroyed in the great fire of Copenhagen in 1728; the remaining MSS., 1550 in number he bequeathed to the University Library, and set apart a considerable sum of money for defraying the expense of their publication. (12)
1. Paul Warnefridsson, a Longobard who, about the end of the eighth century, wrote historical sketches of the Longobard heroes, which begin with Scandinavia. [Back]
2. A canon of Bremen, in the latter half of the eleventh century, who wrote a history of the Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen, and appended a geographical view of Denmark and the other northern countries. [Back]
3. Saxe Lange, who, from his great learning received the name of Saxo Grammaticus (the scholar), lived in the latter half of the twelfth century. At the instigation of Archbishop Absalon, he wrote the history of Denmark from the beginning to the year 1187. [Back]
4. Born 1568, d. 1648. He was a pastor in Iceland, and twice Rector of the School at Holar. [Back]
5. Born 1605, d. 1675, as Bishop of Skalholt. [Back]
6. Ole Worm, b. 1588, d. 1651, as Prof. of Medicine in Copenhagen. Among his works are "Reg. Daniæ Series," 1642; "Danicorum Monumentorum," 1643; "Specimen Lexici Runici," 1650; "Danica Literatura Antiq." 1651, &c. [Back]
7. "Edda Islandorum, conscripta per Snorrorem Sturlæ, Islandice, Danice et Latine." Ed. P. J. Resenius. Hafniæ, 1665, 4to. "Philosophia Antiquissima Norvego-Danica, dicta Woluspa, &c." "Ethica Odini, pars Edda Sæmundi, vocata Hávamál, &c." [Back]
8. In 1666. It treats of the heathen temple at ancient Upsala, of the gods and their worship. [Back]
9. "Olai Rudbeckii Atlantica sive Manheim, vera Japheti posterorum sedes ac patria, etc., etc." Lat. and Swed. Ups. 1675-1679. "Atlanticæ sive Manheimii pars secunda, in qua Solis, Lunæ, et Terræ cultus describitur, omnisq. adeo superstitionis hujusce origo parti Suenoniæ septentr. terræ puta Cimmeriorum, vindicatur, ex qua deinceps in orbem reliquum divulgata est, etc." Ups. 1689. [Back]
10. Thus Peringskjöld was formally prohibited by the Swedish Court from writing against the foolish fancies of Rudbeck. [Back]
11. Arni Magnússon, born 1663, of a distinguished family, studied in Copenhagen, and died there as Professor of History and Antiquities, in 1730. [Back]
12. In 1760, the capital amounted to 13,356 Rix Dalers; in 1794, to 18,000 Th. [Back]