The Religion of the Northmen
Chapter 1 (page 2)
His design was first carried into execution in the year 1760, when the Arna-Magnæan Commission was established and began its labors in the spirit of its founder. It worked on with indifferent success in the beginning; its first publication (Knytlinga Saga) was a failure, and the Institution seemed likely not to realize the promised results, until 1772, when Luxdorf, Suhm, Langebek, and Eiríksson were placed at its head. Under their direction it went forward with new life. First appeared "Kristni Saga," and others followed at intervals, until finally, in the year 1787, the long-expected First Part of the Older Edda was published. (13) This was an important event to the antiquarian scholar. It was now possible for every one who had not access to the manuscript to see the Old-Scandinavian religion in its primitive self-created form, and the learned of other lands were enabled to examine it for themselves. The Edda of Resenius, hitherto the mythological canon, was now thrown in the background. This Institution continued to flourish, and since the latter part of the last century it has been the central life by which the multifarious labors in Northern Antiquities and Mythology have been sustained.
Among the contemporary works in this department, many of which reflect great honor upon the Danish literati of that time, we may mention Langebek's Collection of Danish Historians, Schöning's edition of the Heimskringla, and the diversified labors of Suhm. The latter not only did much himself for the restoration of Icelandic literature, but he encouraged and assisted the labors of others with princely liberality. A number of Sagas (14) were published, either directly by him or through his agency, and at his expense. In the same field and with like zeal labored Mallet, Thorkelin, Sandvig, the elder Thorlacius, and others. Mallet was a learned Frenchman who devoted his attention to Scandinavian lore, and by his writings contributed to enlarge the field of mythic studies, and give a more systematic and tangible form to Northern Mythology. His co-laborer was a celebrated Icelander named Eiríksson, to whom he was greatly indebted for the fullness and accuracy of his works. His "Monuments of Celtic and Scandinavian Mythology and Poetry," (15) is a classic work. He began a History of Denmark, of which, however, he completed only the "Introduction," embracing the field of Northern Mythology. This "Introduction," with the supplementary "Monuments" was translated into English by Biship Percy---compiler of the "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry"---and published in London, in 1770, under the title of "Northern Antiquities; or, a Description of the Manners, Customs, Religion, and Laws of the Ancient Danes and other Northern Nations, with a Translation of the Edda," &c. Percy greatly enhanced the value of this book, by a preface of "Proofs that Teutonic and Celtic Nations were, ab origine, two distinct People." (16)
In the meantime the Icelanders had not been idle. Silently and diligently they had labored on from the first, so that the presses of Skalholt and Holar were kept in constant activity. As early as 1688 the celebrated impression of the Flateyja-bók was begun: in 1756 appeared Markússon's Collection of the Sagas.
So much may be said of the department in which Arnas Magnæus labored. On the other hand, it was Torfæus (17) who gave the form and method to Northern Archæology, especially the Mythology, which distinguished it in the eighteenth century. It was he who first subjected the whole Icelandic literature to a searching criticism, and arranged and sifted the confused mass of knowledge which had been collected in this field before him; and it was he, also, who introduced and sactioned the purely historical view of the myths, a view which was afterwards accepted as an axiom, and cultivated by his followers and adorers with unmeaning prolixity and foolish sagacity to the highest perversion. This was by no means designed nor expressed by him, but it was determined by the drift of his writings. After him it was taken for granted that Odin and the Æsir were men, and the mythology only history in disguise. There was much written during the century by his followers, but only to dilute his system; no new thoughts were presented; everywhere the same ideas, the same perversions; only new hypotheses and new dogmatisms. Thousands treated on the Northern Mythology during this period, all driving his system to the extreme. Only in the field of criticism some progress was made by Ihre. It would be impossible to name all the books of the time in which the Æsir were mishandled. There is not a history of Denmark, Sweden, or Norway of that period which does not begin with Odin and the Æsir as the introducers of civilization, while they and all other mythic forms are made into human beings. Such, to take only the most prominent examples, was the treatment of the mythos in the Swedish Histories of Dalin (18) and Lagerbring, (19) and so was it to the highest extreme in the historical writings of Schöning (20) and Suhm. (21)
The latter was efficient in carrying forward the labors of Arnas Magnæus and Torfæus, and he concentrated all the labors of the century in the field of Northern Archæology, which he carried to the farthest extreme of systematic representation. His "Odin" is the "Atlantica" of the eighteenth century; like it the result of preceding researches; like it comprehensive, strange, even nonsensical, yet not fantastic. This work is the most learned and complete system of Northern Mythology of that age, although it will not bear the test of scientific and mythological criticism any more that its predecessors.
Towards the last quarter of the century, a mass of antiquarian matter was produced, especially in the decennium from 1769 to 1779, when "Edda" and "Odin" and "Northern Mythology" became the whole order of the day. Eiríksson wrote some smaller works of merit; Bishop Finn Jónsson treated of the early inhabitants of Iceland in an excellent work, "Historia Ecclesiastica Islandiæ," in 1772; Ihre published his "Lexicon Sviogothicum" and "Letters to Lagerbring;" and amid the mass of writings by which the mythological literature was materially increased, it gained the most, in a scientific view, from the works of Thorkelin (22) and Thorlacius. (23) Amid all this exuberant growth of dry material in the mythological field, we find a most beautiful ornament in "Baldur's Death," by Evld (1774), a striking evidence of what the myths of the ancients may become in the hands of the inspired poet;---and in the Rector Hálfdán Einarsson's "Sciagraphia Historiæ Islandicæ" (Hafn. 1787), we have a useful cycolpedia of Icelandic Literature.
By this time the subject had reached other lands and begun to awaken attention, especially in Germany. Hitherto, but a few Germans had ventured on the Northern Mythology, as Arnkiel in his "Heathen Religion of the Cimbrians," in 1691,---a work prepared with more diligence and zeal than taste and criticism---Westphalen in his "Monuments," 1745, and Schütz, in several works of a tedious and diffuse character, (24) yet containing much good.
An acquaintance with the poems of Ossian, which began in the year 1760, was an important introduction to these studies. Ossian seized like a flash of lightning upon the fantasy of the German poets, and as they knew not the distinction between Celt and German, he passed for an Old-German bard. Counterparts to these poems were believed to be found in the Icelandic lays, and the latter were actually studied by many for the sake of drawing from them explanations of the Ossianic images and names;---they were studied, and the Northern Mythology became known and admired in Germany. The "Edda" of Resenius and Bartholin's "Antiquities" had been published; Mallet's work was translated in 1765, and in 1766 Gerstenberg's "Letters on the Curiosities of Literature" and "Poems of a Skald" introduced the gods of the Old-North into German Literature. Then the so-called "Bardic School" took possession of them, and gave to the literature a new direction, as Klopstock, in his "Hermannschlacht" (1769), and the "Bardic Odes" (1772), and Kretschmann, as the "Barde Rhingulph." Denis attempted the translation of some of the Eddaic poems, but Herder first successfully opened the way by his translation of the "Vegtamskviða" and "Völuspá," in 1773, and the "Runic Chapter," in 1779. After Herder, Gräter appeared as the chief apostle of the Northern Gods, and labored in their cause with great zeal, but without deep insight. On the other hand, there arose a band of skeptics with Schlözer at their head. He denied the genuineness of the mythologic sources, declared their contents worthless fictions. After him came Adelung, who declared "the whole Old-Scandinavian religion to be an imitation of Christianity, more or less obscured by monstrous images and unknown allusions, and decorated with Grecian or Roman ideas." But Adelung, though a distinguished philologist for his time, was inexperienced in this field of learning, and still more so was Delius, who repeated him, and wrote against the Edda without having read it. Rühs stood higher than both, and, besides, did much to spread the study of Northern literature in Germany. In his arguments against it he not only declared the Icelandic poetry and mythology to be monkish fictions, but traced them in a very positive manner to the Anglo-Saxons.
As it usually happens in such matters, these negations had a positive effect, and served only to call attention to the Eddas and other productions of the Icelanders, and in proportion as the real character and contents of these works became known, the apparent evidence against their genuiness disappeared. The study of Northern Antiquities became freed from the one-sided views of its commentators---of the historical believer, the mythic interpreter, or the skeptic,---and under the impartial spirit of the Nineteenth century, it rose to importance as an independent department of learning. It opened a wide field of research, which the philosophic spirit of the age has entered upon and found to be rich and productive. Philology was enriched by the ample materials here presented, and in return the new progress made in philology threw much light on the researches of antiquaries. The Old-Norse language was more thoroughly examined, its nature and properties became better known, and its relation to the Swedish and Danish, as well as the Germanic languages generally, was more critically established. In this field the name of Rask stands preëminent. His great learning, his zeal and energy, and the multitude and variety of his labors, are too well known to be enlarged upon here.
Another means by which these antiquarian studies were enlightened, was a thorough, judicious, and comprehensive criticism of the sources of mythic learning, with regard to age and intrinsic value. The honor of applying a thoroughly historical criticism of this kind to the mythologic and historic literature of Iceland belongs to P. E. Müller. By his critical investigations into the origin and genuineness of the old manuscripts, he decided upon the antiquity and authenticity of the Eddas, ascertained and established the time of writing and the reliability of the Sagas, some of them with irrefutable certainty, some with great probability, and lastly, he thoroughly examined the sources from which the two great historical writers drew their materials, and thus fixed the significance and value of their works. (25)
These researches were also greatly facilitated by the continued publication, translation, and explanation of original matter, which, by means of the philosophic agencies above-mentioned, became more certain, speedy, and extensive, and in every respect more universal. The efforts of antiquaries were now directed more especially to the publication of all the sources of Northern Mythology, as well as a complete collection of the Old-Icelandic literature. In this department the labor was carried forward by Nyerup, Adlerbeth, Werlauff, the younger Thorlacius, and somewhat later by Rask, Afzelius, Liljegren, and others. The Arna-Magnæan Commission also continued to labor on successfully, but a new era was begun in this respect, by the formation of the "Society of Northern Antiquaries."
The foundation of this Society was laid in 1824, by a number of the friends of Icelandic literature, who united together for the purpose of securing the publication of the yet unprinted manuscripts. The Society was to publish annually a threefold volume, namely: in the original text; in a Latin translation, with critical notes and explanations for the use of philologists and antiquaries; and a Danish translation for the common reader. The undertaking met with general approbation, many learned men promised their coöperation, and by the 1st of January, 182, a permanent "Society of Northern Antiquaries" (Norræna Fornfræða Felag), consisting of fifty-nine members, was established.
The Society undertook, in the first place, a complete edition of the Sagas, to be collected under three different heads, viz.: 1. "Fornmanna Sögur," or the Historical Sagas recording events out of Iceland; 2. "Íslendínga Sögur," or the Sagas recording events in Iceland; and 3. "Fornaldar Sögur," containing all the mythico-historical Sagas recording events of the period before the colonization of Iceland; the latter to embrace "Fornald. S. Norðrlanda," or those relating to the North; "Fornald. S. Suðrlanda," or those relating to Southern lands; and "Kappa Sögur ok Riddara," or Heroic and Chivalric Legends. At the same time they established a "Journal of Historical and Philological Transactions."
This was the most important step that has been taken in Northern Archæology. The Society has continued to flourish, and has accomplished much by its labors. It is in friendly coöperation with the Arna-Magnæan Commission, and through their joint labors all the important literature of the Old-North will doubtless be brought before the world.
The great success of this Society incarrying forward th objects of its formation, especially in the publication of the old literature in the original text and in translations, has been mainly owing to the indefatigable labors of its learned Secretary, Professor C. C. Rafn, who, with enthusiastic love of Scandinavian Antiquity, devotes his energies to the restoration of its literary monuments.
In the mean time, as the study of Northern Antiquities was extended, a countless number and variety of works appeared on the subject, both in Germany and in the North. The mythic and heroic Sagas were treated of and variously explained, numerous journals appeared, which were wholly or partially devoted to subjects of Archæology, and the material of the Eddas and Sagas were seized upon by poets and artistically wrought out into beautiful and attractive forms. Thus a knowledge of the heathen gods became impressed upon the people, and the name of Odin was again heard as far and as frequently as in former days, when pronounced by the lips of his worshipers.
Among the mythological works of this period, we may mention Creutzer's "Symbolik," Görres' "Mythic History," (26) Kanne's "Pantheon," Mone's "History of Heathendom in Northern Europe," (27) and others in Germany and in Denmark. Finn Magnusen's great work, "The Eddaic Doctrines and their Origin," (28) wades through a labyrinth of speculations in his attempts to explain the Eddaic doctrines by the phenomena of nature. Yet with all its extravagances this work displays great research, and is a great addition to the list of mythological books. Finn Magnusen was a profound scholar, and he made many valuable contributions to antiquarian knowledge. An excellent work of that time, is an "Introduction to the Icelandic Literature and its History in the Middle Ages," by A. O. Lindfors, (29) a handbook which presents a faithful view of the whole Icelandic literature. Handbooks on all subjects began to prevail with the close of the last century; and in time handbooks, or compendiums of such, were not wanting on the Mythology of the North. In Denmark appeared Grundtvig's "Northern Mythology," (30) which is celebrated especially for its poetic tinge; in Sweden, Geijer's "Primitive History of Sweden," (31) which, in its presentation of the Mythic Lays, treats the subject in a learned and dispassionate manner. Nyerup and Finn Magnusen produced Mythological Lexicons, the former a brief summary, (32) the latter a comprehensive Thesaurus. (33) Nyerup's "Sketch of the History of Mthological Studies," (34) an Introduction to his Lexicon, is an excellent guide to that history. (35)
The subjects of old Myths and Sagas have been a prolific theme for the pen of the modern poets of the North, but to take note of the numerous versions of them theat have appeared, would carry us beyond the limits of a simple sketch of the Restoration of the Old-Icelandic literature. We shall merely refer, in passing, to the names of the two highest representatives of this department of modern literature, that of Oehlenschläger, in Denmark, and of Tegnér, in Sweden, whose works are an illustration of the rich fruits that have been gathered by the modern muse from the fields of Mythic History. Through the prolific pen of the one, the "Gods of the North" have been re-animated, and they come forth to breathe a new and higher life than they knew of old, even as the destinies had foretold of them in the morning of Time, while the other stands as the High-priest of Baldur at the entrance of his Sacred Grove, and in his glorious song pours forth the genial inspiration of the "Beautiful God." We shall conclude this chapter with a brief sketch of the movements of the present day in the department of Northern Antiquities, together with the names of some of the works accessible to the general reader. The Antiquarian Society of Copenhagen has been mentioned, with a brief allusion to its plans. Similar associations exist in the other countries of Scandinavia. The Swedish Antiquarian Society of Stockholm, under the direction of Arwidsson, Hyltén-Cavallius, Geo. Stevens, Esq., and others, began in 1844 the publication of a series of the Middle-age legends in the Old-Swedish branch of the language, of which about twenty numbers have appeared, and in Christiania an association of learned men, with Professors Munch, Keyser, and Unger at its head, has produced, within a few years, some valuable publications, such as the Edda, the Saga of Olaf the Saint, and others, in the original text. One of these, the "King's Mirror," is interesting as the most important Old-Norse work written in Norway. An excellent translation of the Heimskringla has appeared, and many other works of great value to the antiquarian and philologist. Professor Munch is now engaged on a History of Norway, a work displaying profound ethnological research in the numbers already published, which treat upon the primitive history of the North.
13. "Edda Sæmundar hinns Fróða. Edda rythmica seu antiquor, vulgo Sæmundina dicta, &c." Hafn. 1787. Vol. 1, 4to. This first volume contains the mythological poems (except those published by Resenius), with Introduction, Commentary, Translation, and Glossary, in Latin. The second volume appeared in 1818, the third, and last, in 1828. The former contains the Epic lays, the latter, the Völuspá, Hávamál, and Rígsmál, together with a Mythological Lexicon, and a Calender of the Old-Scandinavians by Finn Magnusen. [Back]
14. Landnáma-bók, Orkneyínga Saga, Hervarar Saga, Eyrbyggia Saga, and others. [Back]
15. "Monumens de la Mythologie et de la Poesie des Celts et particulièrement des anciens Scandinaves." Copenhague, 1756. 4to. [Back]
16. A new edition of this work, revised and enlarged, has appeared in a popular form in "Bohn's Antiquarian Library." London, 1847. [Back]
17. Þormód Torfason, born 1636, in Iceland, died 1719, as Royal Historiographer, in Copenhagen. His principal works are: "Antiquitates septemtr, seu Series Regum et Dynastarum Danæ" (from Skjöld to Gorm the Old), Hafn. 1702; "Historia Rerum Norvegicarum" (to the Union of Calmar), Ib. 1711, 4 vols. fol. ; a Continuation of the "Series Regum Daniæ" to Svend; "Hrolfi Krakii Historia;" Orkades, Vinlandia Antiqua, Greenlandia Ant., &c. The publication of "Torfæana" (a Supplement to the Ser. Rer. Dan.) was attended to by Suhm, in 1777. [Back]
18. "Svea-Rikes Historie," 1747. [Back]
19. "Svea-Rikes Historie," Stockh., 1769. [Back]
20. "Om de Norskes, og endeel andre nordiske Folks Oprindelse," 1769. [Back]
21. Pet. Fred. v. Suhm, b. 1728, d. 1799, as Royal Danish Historiographer and Chamberlain, was an enthusiastic scholar. His works in this department are unsurpassed for learning and diligent research, but in regard to mythology, they contain only the distorted notions of the age, which he was wrought up into the most pompous and extravagant caricatures. Besides his "History of Denmark," and "Critical History of Denmark," his works bearing on this subject are: "Forbedringer i den gamle danske og norske Historie," Kjöbenhavn, 1767. "Om de nordiske Folks ældste Oprindelse," Ib. 1773, 2 vols.; and more especially: "Om Odin og den hedenske Gudelære," &c., 1775. [Back]
22. "Vafthrudnismál, sive Odarum Eddæ Sæmundinæ una, etc." Hafniæ, 1779. [Back]
23. "Antiquitat, boreal. observationes Spec.;" a series of articles in which the richest treasures of Eddaic lore and Icelandic learning are presented. [Back]
24. 1. "Abhandlung von den Freidenkern unter den alten deutschen und nordischen Völkern." Leipsig, 1748, 8vo. 2. "Exercitationum ad Germaniam sacram gentilem facientium sylloge." Ib., 8vo. 3. "Lehrbegriff der alten deutschen und nordischen Völker von dem Zustande der Seelen nach dem Tode." Ib., 1750, 8vo. 4. "Schutzschriften für die alten nordischen und deutschen Völker, 2ten Bandes 1ste Sammlung." Ib., 1752. This work contains a chapter of "Proofs that the Ancient Northern and Germanic People had far more Reasonable Principles in their Religion than the Greeks and Romans." [Back]
25. In his "Asalære," "Sagabibliothek," 1817, "Critiske Undersögelse af Danmarks og Norges Sagnhistorie," 1823, &c., &c., He died in 1834, as Bishop of Sealand. [Back]
26. "Mythengeschichte der alten Welt," 1810. [Back]
27. "Geschichte des Heidenthums im nördlichen Europa," 2 vols., 1822, a work of great research, but which distorts the Eddaic Mythology by its interpretations. [Back]
28. "Eddalæren og dens Oprindelse," 4 Bd. Kjbnh. 1824-26. [Back]
29. "Inledning till Isländska Litteraturen och dess Historia under Medeltiden," af And. Otto Lindfors. Lund. 1824. [Back]
30. "Nordens Mythologi, eller Udsigt over Eddalæren." [Back]
31. "Svea-Rikes Häfder." [Back]
32. "Wörterbuch der Scandinavischen Mythologie." Kopenh. 1816. [Back]
33. "Priscæ veterum Borealium Mythologiæ Lexicon." Hafniæ, 1828. [Back]
34. "Uebersicht der Geschichte des Studiums der Scandinavischen Mythologie." [Back]
35. Innumberable Compendiums appeared in Germany also, such as: Scheller's "Mythologie der Nordischen u. a. Deutschen Völker" Regensb. 1816; Bergner's "Nord. Mythol. nach d. Quellen,", Leipz. 1826; Vulpius' "Handwörterbuch der Mythol. der Deutsch. en u. verwandten Nord. Völker," Lpzg. 1826; Tkány's "Deutsche Mythol. Lexicon." Znaim. 1827; Hachmeister's "Nord. Mythol." Hannover, 1832, and others. [Back]