Popular Tales from the Norse by Sir George Webbe DasentWith a memoir by Arthur Irwin Dasent

Produced by Distributed Proofreaders POPULAR TALES FROM THE NORSE By SIR GEORGE WEBBE DASENT WITH AN INTRODUCTORY ESSAY ON THE ORIGIN AND DIFFUSION OF POPULAR TALES Notice to the Second Edition The first edition of these Tales being exhausted, and a demand having arisen for a second, the Translator has thought it right to add
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  • 1903
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Notice to the Second Edition

The first edition of these Tales being exhausted, and a demand having arisen for a second, the Translator has thought it right to add thirteen tales, which complete the translation of Asbjoernsen and Moe’s collection, and to strengthen the Introduction by working in some new matter, and by working out some points which were only slightly sketched in the first edition.

The favour with which the book was welcomed makes it almost a duty to say a word here on the many kind and able notices which have been written upon it. Duties are not always pleasant, but the fulfilment of this at least gives no pain; because, without one exception, every criticism which the Translator has seen has shown him that his prayer for ‘gentle’ readers has been fully heard. It will be forgiven him, he hopes, when he says that he has not seen good ground to change or even to modify any of the opinions as to the origin and diffusion of popular tales put forth in the first edition. Much indeed has been said by others _for_ those views; what has been urged _against_ them, with all kindness and good humour, in one or two cases, has not availed at all to weigh down mature convictions deliberately expressed after the studies of years, backed as they are by the researches and support of those who have given their lives to this branch of knowledge.

And now, before the Translator takes leave of his readers for the second time, he will follow the lead of the good godmother in one of these Tales, and forbid all good children to read the two which stand last in the book. There is this difference between him and the godmother. She found her foster-daughter out as soon as she came back. He will never know it, if any bad child has broken his behest. Still he hopes that all good children who read this book will bear in mind that there is just as much sin in breaking a commandment even though it be not found out, and so he bids them good-bye, and feels sure that no good child will dare to look into those two rooms. If, after this warning, they peep in, they may perhaps see something which will shock them.

‘Why then print them at all?’ some grown reader asks. Because this volume is meant for you as well as for children, and if you have gone ever so little into the world with open eyes, you must have seen, yes, every day, things much more shocking. Because there is nothing immoral in their spirit. Because they are intrinsically valuable, as illustrating manners and traditions, and so could not well be left out. Because they complete the number of the Norse originals, and leave none untranslated. And last, though not least, because the Translator hates family versions of anything, ‘Family Bibles’, ‘Family Shakespeares’. Those who, with so large a choice of beauty before them, would pick out and gloat over this or that coarseness or freedom of expression, are like those who, in reading the Bible, should always turn to Leviticus, or those whose Shakespeare would open of itself at Pericles Prince of Tyre. Such readers the Translator does not wish to have.

Notice to the First Edition

These translations from the _Norske Folkeeventyr_, collected with such freshness and faithfulness by MM. Asbjoernsen and Moe, have been made at various times and at long intervals during the last fifteen years; a fact which is mentioned only to account for any variations in style or tone–of which, however, the Translator is unconscious–that a critical eye may detect in this volume. One of them, _The Master Thief_, has already appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine for November 1851; from the columns of which periodical it is now reprinted, by the kind permission of the Proprietors.

The Translator is sorry that he has not been able to comply with the suggestion of some friends upon whose good-will he sets all store, who wished him to change and soften some features in these tales, which they thought likely to shock English feeling. He has, however, felt it to be out of his power to meet their wishes, for the merit of an undertaking of this kind rests entirely on its faithfulness and truth; and the man who, in such a work, wilfully changes or softens, is as guilty as he ‘who puts bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter’.

Of this guilt, at least, the Translator feels himself free; and, perhaps, if any, who may be inclined to be offended at first, will take the trouble to read the Introduction which precedes and explains the Tales, they may find, not only that the softening process would have spoilt these popular traditions for all except the most childish readers, but that the things which shocked them at the first blush, are, after all, not so very shocking.

For the rest, it ill becomes him to speak of the way in which his work has been done: but if the reader will only bear in mind that this, too, is an enchanted garden, in which whoever dares to pluck a flower, does it at the peril of his head; and if he will then read the book in a merciful and tender spirit, he will prove himself what the Translator most longs to find, ‘a gentle reader’, and both will part on the best terms.












The most careless reader can hardly fail to see that many of the Tales in this volume have the same groundwork as those with which he has been familiar from his earliest youth. They are Nursery Tales, in fact, of the days when there were tales in nurseries–old wives’ fables, which have faded away before the light of gas and the power of steam. It is long, indeed, since English nurses told these tales to English children by force of memory and word of mouth. In a written shape, we have long had some of them, at least, in English versions of the _Contes de ma Mere l’ Oye_ of Perrault, and the _Contes de Fees_ of Madame D’Aulnoy; those tight-laced, high- heeled tales of the ‘teacup times’ of Louis XIV and his successors, in which the popular tale appears to as much disadvantage as an artless country girl in the stifling atmosphere of a London theatre. From these foreign sources, after the voice of the English reciter was hushed–and it was hushed in England more than a century ago–our great-grandmothers learnt to tell of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, of Little Red Riding-hood and Blue Beard, mingled together in the _Cabinet des Fees_ with Sinbad the Sailor and Aladdin’s wondrous lamp; for that was an uncritical age, and its spirit breathed hot and cold, east and west, from all quarters of the globe at once, confusing the traditions and tales of all times and countries into one incongruous mass of fable, as much tangled and knotted as that famous pound of flax which the lassie in one of these Tales is expected to spin into an even wool within four-and-twenty hours. No poverty of invention or want of power on the part of translators could entirely destroy the innate beauty of those popular traditions; but here, in England at least, they had almost dwindled out, or at any rate had been lost sight of as home-growths. We had learnt to buy our own children back, disguised in foreign garb; and as for their being anything more than the mere pastime of an idle hour–as to their having any history or science of their own–such an absurdity was never once thought of. It had, indeed, been remarked, even in the eighteenth century–that dreary time of indifference and doubt–that some of the popular traditions of the nations north of the Alps contained striking resemblances and parallels to stories in the classical mythology. But those were the days when Greek and Latin lorded it over the other languages of the earth; and when any such resemblance or analogy was observed, it was commonly supposed that that base-born slave, the vulgar tongue, had dared to make a clumsy copy of something peculiarly belonging to the twin tyrants who ruled all the dialects of the world with a pedant’s rod.

At last, just at the close of that great war which Western Europe waged against the genius and fortune of the first Napoleon; just as the eagle–Prometheus and the eagle in one shape–was fast fettered by sheer force and strength to his rock in the Atlantic, there arose a man in Central Germany, on the old Thuringian soil, to whom it was given to assert the dignity of vernacular literature, to throw off the yoke of classical tyranny, and to claim for all the dialects of Teutonic speech a right of ancient inheritance and perfect freedom before unsuspected and unknown. It is almost needless to mention this honoured name. For the furtherance of the good work which he began nearly fifty years ago, he still lives and still labours. There is no spot on which an accent of Teutonic speech is uttered where the name of Jacob Grimm is not a ‘household word’. His General Grammar of all the Teutonic Dialects from Iceland to England has proved the equality of these tongues with their ancient classical oppressors. His Antiquities of Teutonic Law have shown that the codes of the Lombards, Franks, and Goths were not mere savage, brutal customaries, based, as had been supposed, on the absence of all law and right. His numerous treatises on early German authors have shown that the German poets of the Middle Age, Godfrey of Strasburg, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Hartman von der Aue, Walter von der Vogelweide, and the rest, can hold their own against any contemporary writers in other lands. And lastly, what rather concerns us here, his Teutonic Mythology, his Reynard the Fox, and the collection of German Popular Tales, which he and his brother William published, have thrown a flood of light on the early history of all the branches of our race, and have raised what had come to be looked on as mere nursery fictions and old wives’ fables–to a study fit for the energies of grown men, and to all the dignity of a science.

In these pages, where we have to run over a vast tract of space, the reader who wishes to learn and not to cavil–and for such alone this introduction is intended–must be content with results rather than processes and steps. To use a homely likeness, he must be satisfied with the soup that is set before him, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled. When we say, therefore, that in these latter days the philology and mythology of the East and West have met and kissed each other; that they now go hand and hand; that they lend one another mutual support; that one cannot be understood without the other,–we look to be believed. We do not expect to be put to the proof, how the labours of Grimm and his disciples on this side were first rendered possible by the linguistic discoveries of Anquetil du Perron and others in India and France, at the end of the last century; then materially assisted and furthered by the researches of Sir William Jones, Colebrooke, and others, in India and England during the early part of this century, and finally have become identical with those of Wilson, Bopp, Lassen, and Max Mueller, at the present day. The affinity which exists in a mythological and philological point of view between the Aryan or Indo-European languages on the one hand, and the Sanscrit on the other, is now the first article of a literary creed, and the man who denies it puts himself as much beyond the pale of argument as he who, in a religious discussion, should meet a grave divine of the Church of England with the strict contradictory of her first article, and loudly declare his conviction, that there was no God. In a general way, then, we may be permitted to dogmatize, and to lay it down as a law which is always in force, that the first authentic history of a nation is the history of its tongue. We can form no notion of the literature of a country apart from its language, and the consideration of its language necessarily involves the consideration of its history. Here is England, for instance, with a language, and therefore a literature, composed of Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Norse, and Romance elements. Is not this simple fact suggestive of, nay, does it not challenge us to, an inquiry into the origin and history of the races who have passed over our island, and left their mark not only on the soil, but on our speech? Again, to take a wider view, and to rise from archaeology to science, what problem has interested the world in a greater degree than the origin of man, and what toil has not been spent in tracing all races back to their common stock? The science of comparative philology–the inquiry, not into one isolated language–for nowadays it may fairly be said of a man who knows only one language that he knows none–but into all the languages of one family, and thus to reduce them to one common centre, from which they spread like the rays of the sun–if it has not solved, is in a fair way of solving, this problem. When we have done for the various members of each family what has been done of late years for the Indo- European tongues, its solution will be complete. In such an inquiry the history of a race is, in fact, the history of its language, and can be nothing else; for we have to deal with times antecedent to all history, properly so called, and the stream which in later ages may be divided into many branches, now flows in a single channel.

From the East, then, came our ancestors, in days of immemorial antiquity, in that gray dawn of time of which all early songs and lays can tell, but of which it is as impossible as it is useless to attempt to fix the date. Impossible, because no means exist for ascertaining it; useless, because it is in reality a matter of utter indifference, when, as this tell-tale crust of earth informs us, we have an infinity of ages and periods to fall back on whether this great movement, this mighty lust to change their seats, seized on the Aryan race one hundred or one thousand years sooner or later. [1] But from the East we came, and from that central plain of Asia, now commonly called Iran. Iran, the habitation of the tillers and _earers_ [2] of the earth, as opposed to Turan, the abode of restless horse-riding nomads; of Turks, in short, for in their name the root survives, and still distinguishes the great Turanian or Mongolian family, from the Aryan, Iranian, or Indo-European race. It is scarce worth while to inquire–even if inquiry could lead to any result–what cause set them in motion from their ancient seats. Whether impelled by famine or internal strife, starved out like other nationalities in recent times, or led on by adventurous chiefs, whose spirit chafed at the narrowness of home, certain it is that they left that home and began a wandering westwards, which only ceased when it reached the Atlantic and the Northern Ocean. Nor was the fate of those they left behind less strange. At some period almost as remote as, but after, that at which the wanderers for Europe started, the remaining portion of the stock, or a considerable offshoot from it, turned their faces east, and passing the Indian Caucasus, poured through the defiles of Affghanistan, crossed the plain of the Five Rivers, and descended on the fruitful plains of India. The different destiny of these stocks has been wonderful indeed. Of those who went west, we have only to enumerate the names under which they appear in history–Celts, Greeks, Romans, Teutons, Slavonians–to see and to know at once that the stream of this migration has borne on its waves all that has become most precious to man. To use the words of Max Mueller: ‘They have been the prominent actors in the great drama of history, and have carried to their fullest growth all the elements of active life with which our nature is endowed. They have perfected society and morals, and we learn from their literature and works of art the elements of science, the laws of art, and the principles of philosophy. In continual struggle with each other and with Semitic and Mongolian races, these Aryan nations have become the rulers of history, and it seems to be their mission to link all parts of the world together by the chains of civilization, commerce, and religion.’ We may add, that though by nature tough and enduring, they have not been obstinate and self-willed; they have been distinguished from all other nations, and particularly from their elder brothers whom they left behind, by their common sense, by their power of adapting themselves to all circumstances, and by making the best of their position; above all, they have been teachable, ready to receive impressions from without, and, when received, to develop them. To show the truth of this, we need only observe, that they adopted Christianity from another race, the most obstinate and stiff-necked the world has ever seen, who, trained under the Old Dispensation to preserve the worship of the one true God, were too proud to accept the further revelation of God under the New, and, rejecting their birth-right, suffered their inheritance to pass into other hands.

Such, then, has been the lot of the Western branch, of the younger brother, who, like the younger brother whom we shall meet so often in these Popular Tales, went out into the world, with nothing but his good heart and God’s blessing to guide him; and now has come to all honour and fortune, and to be a king, ruling over the world. He went out and _did_. Let us see now what became of the elder brother, who stayed at home some time after his brother went out, and then only made a short journey. Having driven out the few aboriginal inhabitants of India with little effort, and following the course of the great rivers, the Eastern Aryans gradually established themselves all over the peninsula; and then, in calm possession of a world of their own, undisturbed by conquest from without, and accepting with apathy any change of dynasty among their rulers, ignorant of the past and careless of the future, they sat down once for all and _thought_–thought not of what they had to do here, that stern lesson of every-day life which neither men nor nations can escape if they are to live with their fellows, but how they could abstract themselves entirely from their present existence, and immerse themselves wholly in dreamy speculations on the future. Whatever they may have been during their short migration and subsequent settlement, it is certain that they appear in the Vedas–perhaps the earliest collection which the world possesses–as a nation of philosophers. Well may Professor Mueller compare the Indian mind to a plant reared in a hot-house, gorgeous in colour, rich in perfume, precocious and abundant in fruit; it may be all this, ‘but will never be like the oak, growing in wind and weather, striking its roots into real earth, and stretching its branches into real air, beneath the stars and sun of Heaven’; and well does he also remark, that a people of this peculiar stamp was never destined to act a prominent part in the history of the world; nay, the exhausting atmosphere of transcendental ideas could not but exercise a detrimental influence on the active and moral character of the Hindoos. [3]

In this passive, abstract, unprogressive state, they have remained ever since. Stiffened into castes, and tongue-tied and hand-tied by absurd rites and ceremonies, they were heard of in dim legends by Herodotus; they were seen by Alexander when that bold spirit pushed his phalanx beyond the limits of the known world; they trafficked with imperial Rome, and the later empire; they were again almost lost sight of, and became fabulous in the Middle Age; they were rediscovered by the Portuguese; they have been alternately peaceful subjects and desperate rebels to us English; but they have been still the same immovable and unprogressive philosophers, though akin to Europe all the while; and though the Highlander, who drives his bayonet through the heart of a high-caste Sepoy mutineer, little knows that his pale features and sandy hair, and that dusk face with its raven locks, both come from a common ancestor away in Central Asia, many, many centuries ago.

But here arises the question, what interest can we, the descendants of the practical brother, heirs to so much historical renown, possibly take in the records of a race so historically characterless, and so sunk in reveries and mysticism? The answer is easy. Those records are written in a language closely allied to the primaeval common tongue of those two branches before they parted, and descending from a period anterior to their separation. It may, or it may not, be the very tongue itself, but it certainly is not further removed than a few steps. The speech of the emigrants to the west rapidly changed with the changing circumstances and various fortune of each of its waves, and in their intercourse with the aboriginal population they often adopted foreign elements into their language. One of these waves, it is probable, passing by way of Persia and Asia Minor, crossed the Hellespont, and following the coast, threw off a mighty rill, known in after times as Greeks; while the main stream, striking through Macedonia, either crossed the Adriatic, or, still hugging the coast, came down on Italy, to be known as Latins. Another, passing between the Caspian and the Black Sea, filled the steppes round the Crimea, and; passing on over the Balkan and the Carpathians towards the west, became that great Teutonic nationality which, under various names, but all closely akin, filled, when we first hear of them in historical times, the space between the Black Sea and the Baltic, and was then slowly but surely driving before them the great wave of the Celts which had preceded them in their wandering, and which had probably followed the same line of march as the ancestors of the Greeks and Latins. A movement which lasted until all that was left of Celtic nationality was either absorbed by the intruders, or forced aside and driven to take refuge in mountain fastnesses and outlying islands. Besides all these, there was still another wave, which is supposed to have passed between the Sea of Aral and the Caspian, and, keeping still further to the north and east, to have passed between its kindred Teutons and the Mongolian tribes, and so to have lain in the background until we find them appearing as Slavonians on the scene of history. Into so many great stocks did the Western Aryans pass, each possessing strongly-marked nationalities and languages, and these seemingly so distinct that each often asserted that the other spoke a barbarous tongue. But, for all that, each of those tongues bears about with it still, and in earlier times no doubt bore still more plainly about with it, infallible evidence of common origin, so that each dialect can be traced up to that primaeval form of speech still in the main preserved in the Sanscrit by the Southern Aryan branch, who, careless of practical life, and immersed in speculation, have clung to their ancient traditions and tongue with wonderful tenacity. It is this which has given such value to Sanscrit, a tongue of which it may be said, that if it had perished the sun would never have risen on the science of comparative philology. Before the discoveries in Sanscrit of Sir William Jones, Wilkins, Wilson, and others, the world had striven to find the common ancestor of European languages, sometimes in the classical, and sometimes in the Semitic tongues. In the one case the result was a tyranny of Greek and Latin over the non- classical tongues, and in the other the most uncritical and unphilosophical waste of learning. No doubt some striking analogies exist between the Indo-European family and the Semitic stock, just as there are remarkable analogies between the Mongolian and Indo- European families; but the ravings of Vallancy, in his effort to connect the Erse with Phoenician, are an awful warning of what unscientific inquiry, based upon casual analogy, may bring itself to believe, and even to fancy it has proved.

These general observations, then, and this rapid bird’s eye view, may suffice to show the common affinity which exists between the Eastern and Western Aryans; between the Hindoo on the one hand, and the nations of Western Europe on the other. That is the fact to keep steadily before our eyes. We all came, Greek, Latin, Celt, Teuton, Slavonian, from the East, as kith and kin, leaving kith and kin behind us; and after thousands of years the language and traditions of those who went East, and those who went West, bear such an affinity to each other, as to have established, beyond discussion or dispute, the fact of their descent from a common stock.


This general affinity established, we proceed to narrow our subject to its proper limits, and to confine it to the consideration, _first_, of Popular Tales in general, and _secondly_, of those Norse Tales in particular, which form the bulk of this volume.

In the first place, then, the fact which we remarked on setting out, that the groundwork or plot of many of these tales is common to all the nations of Europe, is more important, and of greater scientific interest, than might at first appear. They form, in fact, another link in the chain of evidence of a common origin between the East and West, and even the obstinate adherents of the old classical theory, according to which all resemblances were set down to sheer copying from Greek or Latin patterns, are now forced to confess, not only that there was no such wholesale copying at all, but that, in many cases, the despised vernacular tongues have preserved the common traditions far more faithfully than the writers of Greece and Rome. The sooner, in short, that this theory of copying, which some, even besides the classicists, have maintained, is abandoned, the better, not only for the truth, but for the literary reputation of those who put it forth. No one can, of course, imagine that during that long succession of ages when this mighty wedge of Aryan migration was driving its way through that prehistoric race, that nameless nationality, the traces of which we everywhere find underlying the intruders in their monuments and implements of bone and stone–a race akin, in all probability, to the Mongolian family, and whose miserable remnants we see pushed aside, and huddled up in the holes and corners of Europe, as Lapps, and Finns, and Basques–No one, we say, can suppose for a moment, that in that long process of contact and absorption, some traditions of either race should not have been caught up and adopted by the other. We know it to be a fact with regard to their language, from the evidence of philology, which cannot lie; and the witness borne by such a word as the Gothic Atta for _father_, where a Mongolian has been adopted in preference to an Aryan word, is irresistible on this point; but that, apart from such natural assimilation, all the thousand shades of resemblance and affinity which gleam and flicker through the whole body of popular tradition in the Aryan race, as the Aurora plays and flashes in countless rays athwart the Northern heaven, should be the result of mere servile copying of one tribe’s traditions by another, is a supposition as absurd as that of those good country-folk, who, when they see an Aurora, fancy it must be a great fire, the work of some incendiary, and send off the parish engine to put it out. No! when we find in such a story as the Master-thief traits, which are to be found in the Sanscrit _Hitopadesa_ [4], and which reminds us at once of the story of Rhampsinitus in Herodotus; which are also to be found in German, Italian, and Flemish popular tales, but told in all with such variations of character and detail, and such adaptations to time and place, as evidently show the original working of the national consciousness upon a stock of tradition common to all the race, but belonging to no tribe of that race in particular; and when we find this occurring not in one tale but in twenty, we are forced to abandon the theory of such universal copying, for fear lest we should fall into a greater difficulty than that for which we were striving to account.

To set this question in a plainer light, let us take a well-known instance; let us take the story of William Tell and his daring shot, which is said to have been made in the year 1307. It is just possible that the feat might be historical, and, no doubt, thousands believe it for the sake of the Swiss patriot, as firmly as they believe in anything; but, unfortunately, this story of the bold archer who saves his life by shooting an apple from the head of his child at the command of a tyrant, is common to the whole Aryan race. It appears in Saxo Grammaticus, who flourished in the twelfth century, where it is told of Palnatoki, King Harold Gormson’s thane and assassin. In the thirteenth century the _Wilkina Saga_ relates it of Egill, Voelundr’s–our Wayland Smith’s–younger brother. So also in the Norse Saga of _Saint Olof_, king and martyr; the king, who died in 1030, eager for the conversion of one of his heathen chiefs Eindridi, competes with him in various athletic exercises, first in swimming and then in archery. After several famous shots on either side, the king challenges Eindridi to shoot a tablet off his son’s head without hurting the child. Eindridi is ready, but declares he will revenge himself if the child is hurt. The king has the first shot, and his arrow strikes close to the tablet. Then Eindridi is to shoot, but at the prayers of his mother and sister, refuses the shot, and has to yield and be converted [_Fornm. Sog._, 2, 272]. So, also, King Harold Sigurdarson, who died 1066, backed himself against a famous marksman, Hemingr, and ordered him to shoot a hazel nut off the head of his brother Bjoern, and Hemingr performed the feat [Mueller’s _Saga Bibl._, 3, 359]. In the middle of the fourteenth century, the _Malleus Maleficarum_ refers it to Puncher, a magician of the Upper Rhine. Here in England, we have it in the old English ballad of _Adam Bell, Clym of the Clough_, and _William of Cloudesly_, where William performs the feat [see the ballad in Percy’s _Reliques_]. It is not at all of Tell in Switzerland before the year 1499, and the earlier Swiss chronicles omit it altogether. It is common to the Turks and Mongolians; and a legend of the wild Samoyeds, who never heard of Tell or saw a book in their lives, relates it, chapter and verse, of one of their famous marksmen. What shall we say then, but that the story of this bold master-shot was primaeval amongst many tribes and races, and that it only crystallized itself round the great name of Tell by that process of attraction which invariably leads a grateful people to throw such mythic wreaths, such garlands of bold deeds of precious memory, round the brow of its darling champion [5].

Nor let any pious Welshman be shocked if we venture to assert that Gellert, that famous hound upon whose last resting-place the traveller comes as he passes down the lovely vale of Gwynant, is a mythical dog, and never snuffed the fresh breeze in the forest of Snowdon, nor saved his master’s child from ravening wolf. This, too, is a primaeval story, told with many variations. Sometimes the foe is a wolf, sometimes a bear, sometimes a snake. Sometimes the faithful guardian of the child is an otter, a weasel, or a dog. It, too, came from the East. It is found in the _Pantcha-Tantra_, in the _Hitopadesa_, in Bidpai’s _Fables_, in the Arabic original of _The Seven Wise Masters_, that famous collection of stories which illustrate a stepdame’s calumny and hate, and in many mediaeval versions of those originals [6]. Thence it passed into the Latin _Gesta Romanorum_, where, as well as in the Old English version published by Sir Frederick Madden, it may be read as a service rendered by a faithful hound against a snake. This, too, like Tell’s master-shot, is as the lightning which shineth over the whole heaven at once, and can be claimed by no one tribe of the Aryan race, to the exclusion of the rest. ‘The Dog of Montargis’ is in like manner mythic, though perhaps not so widely spread. It first occurs in France, as told of Sybilla, a fabulous wife of Charlemagne; but it is at any rate as old as the time of Plutarch, who relates it as an anecdote of brute sagacity in the days of Pyrrhus.

There can be no doubt, with regard to the question of the origin of these tales, that they were common in germ at least to the Aryan tribes before their migration. We find those germs developed in the popular traditions of the Eastern Aryans, and we find them developed in a hundred forms and shapes in every one of the nations into which the Western Aryans have shaped themselves in the course of ages. We are led, therefore, irresistibly to the conclusion, that these traditions are as much a portion of the common inheritance of our ancestors, as their language unquestionably is; and that they form, along with that language, a double chain of evidence, which proves their Eastern origin. If we are to seek for a simile, or an analogy, as to the relative positions of these tales and traditions, and to the mutual resemblances which exist between them as the several branches of our race have developed them from the common stock, we may find it in one which will come home to every reader as he looks round the domestic hearth, if he should be so happy as to have one. They are like as sisters of one house are like. They have what would be called a strong family likeness; but besides this likeness, which they owe to father or mother, as the case may be, they have each their peculiarities of form, and eye, and face, and still more, their differences of intellect and mind. This may be dark, that fair; this may have gray eyes, that black; this may be open and graceful, that reserved and close; this you may love, that you can take no interest in. One may be bashful, another winning, a third worth knowing and yet hard to know. They are so like and so unlike. At first it may be, as an old English writer beautifully expresses it, ‘their father hath writ them as his own little story’, but as they grow up they throw off the copy, educate themselves for good or ill, and finally assume new forms of feeling and feature under an original development of their own.

Or shall we take another likeness, and say they are national dreams; that they are like the sleeping thoughts of many men upon one and the same thing. Suppose a hundred men to have been eye-witnesses of some event on the same day, and then to have slept and dreamt of it; we should have as many distinct representations of that event, all turning upon it and bound up with it in some way, but each preserving the personality of the sleeper, and working up the common stuff in a higher or lower degree, just as the fancy and the intellect of the sleeper was at a higher or lower level of perfection. There is, indeed, greater truth in this likeness than may at first sight appear. In the popular tale, properly so called, the national mind dreams all its history over again; in its half conscious state it takes this trait and that trait, this feature and that feature, of times and ages long past. It snatches up bits of its old beliefs, and fears, and griefs, and glory, and pieces them together with something that happened yesterday, and then holds up the distorted reflection in all its inconsequence, just as it has passed before that magic glass, as though it were genuine history, and matter for pure belief. And here it may be as well to say, that besides that old classical foe of vernacular tradition, there is another hardly less dangerous, which returns to the charge of copying, but changes what lawyers call the _venue_ of the trial from classical to Eastern lands. According to this theory, which came up when its classical predecessor was no longer tenable, the traditions and tales of Western Europe came from the East, but they were still all copies. They were supposed to have proceeded entirely from two sources; one the _Directorium Humanae Vitae_ of John of Capua, translated between 1262-78 from a Hebrew version, which again came from an Arabic version of the 8th century, which came from a Pehlvi version made by one Barzouyeh, at the command of Chosrou Noushirvan, King of Persia, in the 6th century, which again came from the _Pantcha Tantra_, a Sanscrit original of unknown antiquity. This is that famous book of _Calila and Dimna_, as the Persian version is called, attributed to Bidpai, and which was thus run to earth in India. The second source of Western tradition was held to be that still more famous collection of stories commonly known by the name of the ‘Story of the Seven Sages,’ but which, under many names–Kaiser Octavianus, Diocletianus, Dolopathos, Erastus, etc.–plays a most important part in mediaeval romance. This, too, by a similar process, has been traced to India, appearing first in Europe at the beginning of the thirteenth century in the Latin _Historia Septem Sapientum Romae_, by Dame Jehans, monk in the Abbey of Haute Selve. Here, too, we have a Hebrew, an Arabic, and a Persian version; which last came avowedly from a Sanscrit original, though that original has not yet been discovered. From these two sources of fable and tradition, according to the new copying theory, our Western fables and tales had come by direct translation from the East. Now it will be at once evident that this theory hangs on what may be called a single thread. Let us say, then, that all that can be found in _Calila and Dimna_, or the later Persian version, made A.D. 1494, of Hossein Vaez, called the _Anvari Sohaili_, ‘the Canopic Lights’–from which, when published in Paris by David Sahid of Ispahan, in the year 1644, La Fontaine drew the substance of many of his best fables.–Let us say, too, that all can be found in the _Life of the Seven Sages_, or the Book of Sendabad as it was called in Persia, after an apocryphal Indian sage–came by translation–that is to say, through the cells of Brahmins, Magians, and monks, and the labours of the learned–into the popular literature of the West. Let us give up all that, and then see where we stand. What are we to say of the many tales and fables which are to be found in neither of those famous collections, and not tales alone, but traits and features of old tradition, broken bits of fable, roots and germs of mighty growths of song and story, nay, even the very words, which exist in Western popular literature, and which modern philology has found obstinately sticking in Sanscrit, and of which fresh proofs and instances are discovered every day? What are we to say of such a remarkable resemblance as this?

The noble King Putraka fled into the Vindhya mountains in order to live apart from his unkind kinsfolk; and as he wandered about there he met two men who wrestled and fought with one another. ‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘We are the sons of Mayasara, and here lie our riches; this bowl, this staff, and these shoes; these are what we are fighting for, and whichever is stronger is to have them for his own.’

So when Putraka had heard that, he asked them with a laugh: ‘Why, what’s the good of owning these things?’ Then they answered ‘Whoever puts on these shoes gets the power to fly; whatever is pointed at with this staff rises up at once; and whatever food one wishes for in this bowl, it comes at once.’ So when Putraka had heard that he said ‘Why fight about it? Let this be the prize; whoever beats the other in a race, let him have them all’.

‘So be it’, said the two fools, and set off running, but Putraka put on the shoes at once, and flew away with the staff and bowl up into the clouds’.

Well, this is a story neither in the _Pantcha Tantra_ nor the _Hitopadesa_, the Sanscrit originals of _Calila and Dimna_. It is not in the _Directorium Humanae Vitae_, and has not passed west by that way. Nor is it in the _Book of Sendabad_, and thence come west in the _History of the Seven Sages_. Both these paths are stopped. It comes from the _Katha Sarit Sagara_, the ‘Sea of Streams of Story’ of Somadeva Bhatta of Cashmere, who, in the middle of the twelfth century of our era, worked up the tales found in an earlier collection, called the _Vrihat Katha_, ‘the lengthened story’, in order to amuse his mistress, the Queen of Cashmere. Somadeva’s collection has only been recently known and translated. But west the story certainly came long before, and in the extreme north-west we still find it in these Norse Tales in ‘The Three Princesses of Whiteland’, No. xxvi.

‘Well!’ said the man, ‘as this is so, I’ll give you a bit of advice. Hereabouts, on a moor, stand three brothers, and there they have stood these hundred years, fighting about a hat, a cloak, and a pair of boots. If any one has these three things, he can make himself invisible, and wish himself anywhere he pleases. You can tell them you wish to try the things, and after that, you’ll pass judgment between them, whose they shall be’.

Yes! the king thanked the man, and went and did as he told him.

‘What’s all this?’ he said to the brothers. ‘Why do you stand here fighting for ever and a day? Just let me try these things, and I’ll give judgment whose they shall be.’

They were very willing to do this; but as soon as he had got the hat; cloak, and boots, he said: ‘When we meet next time I’ll tell you my judgment’; and with these words he wished himself away.

Nor in the Norse tales alone. Other collections shew how thoroughly at home this story was in the East. In the Relations of _Ssidi Kur_, a Tartar tale, a Chan’s son first gets possession of a cloak which two children stand and fight for, which has the gift of making the wearer invisible, and afterwards of a pair of boots, with which one can wish one’s self to whatever place one chooses. Again, in a Wallachian tale, we read of three devils who fight for their inheritance–a club which turns everything to stone, a hat which makes the wearer invisible, and a cloak by help of which one can wish one’s self whithersoever one pleases. Again, in a Mongolian tale, the Chan’s son comes upon a group of children who fight for a hood which makes the wearer invisible; he is to be judge between them, makes them run a race for it, but meanwhile puts it on and vanishes from their sight. A little further on he meets another group, who are quarrelling for a pair of boots, the wearer of which can wish himself whithersoever he pleases, and gains possession of them in the same way.

Nor in one Norse tale alone, but in many, we find traces of these three wonderful things, or of things like them. They are very like the cloth, the ram, and the stick, which the lad got from the North Wind instead of his meal. Very like, too, the cloth, the scissors, and the tap, which will be found in No. xxxvi, ‘The Best Wish’. If we drop the number three, we find the Boots again in ‘Soria Moria Castle’, No. lvi. [Moe, Introd., xxxii-iii] Leaving the Norse Tales, we see at once that they are the seven-leagued boots of Jack the Giant Killer. In the _Nibelungen Lied_, when Siegfried finds Schilbung and Niblung, the wierd heirs of the famous ‘Hoard’, striving for the possession of that heap of red gold and gleaming stones; when they beg him to share it for them, promising him, as his meed, Balmung, best of swords; when he shares it, when they are discontent, and when in the struggle which ensues he gets possession of the ‘Tarnhut’, the ‘cloak of darkness’, which gave its wearer the strength of twelve men, and enabled him to go where he would be unseen, and which was the great prize among the treasures of the dwarfs[7]; who is there that does not see the broken fragments of that old Eastern story of the heirs struggling for their inheritance, and calling in the aid of some one of better wit or strength who ends by making the very prize for which they fight his own?

And now to return for a moment to _Calila and Dimna_ and _The Seven Sages_. Since we have seen that there are other stories, and many of them, for this is by no means the only resemblance to be found in Somadeva’s book [8] which are common to the Eastern and Western Aryans, but which did not travel to Europe by translation; let us go on to say that it is by no means certain, even when some Western story or fable is found in these Sanscrit originals and their translations, that that was the only way by which they came to Europe. A single question will prove this. How did the fables and apologues which are found in _Aesop_, and which are also found in the _Pantcha Tantya_ and the _Hitopadesa_ come West? That they came from the East is certain; but by what way, certainly not by translations or copying, for they had travelled west long before translations were thought of. How was it that Themistius, a Greek orator of the fourth century [J. Grimm, _Reinhart Fuchs_, cclxiii, Intr.] had heard of that fable of the lion, fox, and bull, which is in substance the same as that of the lion, the bull, and the two jackals in the _Pantcha Tantya_ and the _Hitopadesa_? How, but along the path of that primaeval Aryan migration, and by that deep-ground tone of tradition by which man speaks to man, nation to nation, and age to age; along which comparative philology has, in these last days, travelled back thither, listened to the accents spoken, and so found in the East the cradle of a common language and common belief.

And now, having, as we hope, finally established this Indian affinity, and disposed of mere Indian copying, let us lift our eyes and see if something more is not to be discerned on the wide horizon now open on our view. The most interesting problem for man to solve is the origin of his race. Of late years comparative philology, having accomplished her task in proving the affinity of language between Europe and the East, and so taken a mighty step towards fixing the first seat of the greatest–greatest in wit and wisdom, if not in actual numbers–portion of the human race, has pursued her inquiries into the languages of the Turanian, the Semitic, and the Chamitic or African races, with more or less successful results. In a few more years, when the African languages are better known, and the roots of Egyptian and Chinese words are more accurately detected, Science will be better able to speak as to the common affinity of all the tribes that throng the earth. In the meantime, let the testimony of tradition and popular tales be heard, which in this case have outstripped comparative philology, and lead instead of following her. It is beyond the scope of this essay, which aims at being popular and readable rather than learned and lengthy, to go over a prolonged scientific investigation step by step. We repeat it. The reader must have faith in the writer, and believe the words now written are the results of an inquiry, and not ask for the inquiry itself. In all mythologies and traditions, then, there are what may be called natural resemblances, parallelisms suggested to the senses of each race by natural objects and every-day events, and these might spring up spontaneously all over the earth as home growths, neither derived by imitation from other tribes, nor from seeds of common tradition shed from a common stock. Such resemblances have been well compared by William Grimm, [_Kinder and Hausmaerchen_, vol. 3, _3d_ edition (Goettingen, 1856) a volume worthy of the utmost attention.] to those words which are found in all languages derived from the imitation of natural sounds, or, we may add, from the first lisping accents of infancy. But the case is very different when this or that object which strikes the senses is accounted for in a way so extraordinary and peculiar, as to stamp the tradition with a character of its own. Then arises a like impression on the mind, if we find the same tradition in two tribes at the opposite ends of the earth, as is produced by meeting twin brothers, one in Africa and the other in Asia; we say at once ‘I know you are so and so’s brother, you are so like him’. Take an instance: In these Norse Tales, No. xxiii, we are told how it was the bear came to have a stumpy tail, and in an African tale, [9] we find how it was the hyaena became tailless and earless. Now, the tailless condition both of the bear and the hyaena could scarcely fail to attract attention in a race of hunters, and we might expect that popular tradition would attempt to account for both, but how are we to explain the fact, that both Norseman and African account for it in the same way–that both owe their loss to the superior cunning of another animal. In Europe the fox bears away the palm for wit from all other animals, so he it is that persuades the bear in the Norse Tales to sit with his tail in a hole in the ice till it is fast frozen in, and snaps short off when he tries to tug it out. In Bornou, in the heart of Africa, it is the weasel who is the wisest of beasts, and who, having got some meat in common with the hyaena, put it into a hole, and said:

‘Behold two men came out of the forest, took the meat, and put it into a hole: stop, I will go into the hole, and then thou mayst stretch out thy tail to me, and I will tie the meat to thy tail for thee to draw it out’. So the weasel went into the hole, the hyaena stretched its tail out to it, but the weasel took the hyaena’s tail, fastened a stick, and tied the hyaena’s tail to the stick, and then said to the hyaena ‘I have tied the meat to thy tail; draw, and pull it out’. The hyaena was a fool, it did not know the weasel surpassed it in subtlety; it thought the meat was tied; but when it tried to draw out its tail, it was fast. When the weasel said again to it ‘Pull’, it pulled, but could not draw it out; so it became vexed, and on pulling with force, its tail broke. The tail being torn out, the weasel was no more seen by the hyaena: the weasel was hidden in the hole with its meat, and the hyaena saw it not. [_Kanuri Proverbs_, p. 167.]

Here we have a fact in natural history accounted for, but accounted for in such a peculiar way as shows that the races among which they are current must have derived them from some common tradition. The mode by which the tail is lost is different indeed; but the manner in which the common ground-work is suited in one case to the cold of the North, and the way in which fish are commonly caught at holes in the ice as they rise to breathe; and in the other to Africa and her pitfalls for wild beasts, is only another proof of the oldness of the tradition, and that it is not merely a copy.

Take another instance. Every one knows the story in the Arabian Nights, where the man who knows the speech of beasts laughs at something said by an ox to an ass. His wife wants to know why he laughs, and persists, though he tells her it will cost him his life if he tells her. As he doubts what to do, he hears the cock say to the house-dog ‘Our master is not wise; I have fifty hens who obey me; if he followed my advice, he’d just take a good stick, shut up his wife in a room with him, and give her a good cudgelling.’ The same story is told in Straparola [10] with so many variations as to show it is no copy; it is also told in a Servian popular tale, with variations of its own; and now here we find it in Bornou, as told by Koelle.

There was a servant of God who had one wife and one horse; but his wife was one-eyed, and they lived in their house. Now this servant of God understood the language of the beasts of the forest when they spoke, and of the birds of the air when they talked as they flew by. This servant of God also understood the cry of the hyaena when it arose at night in the forest, and came to the houses and cried near them; so, likewise, when his horse was hungry and neighed, he understood why it neighed, rose up, brought the horse grass, and then returned and sat down. It happened one day that birds had their talk as they were flying by above and the servant of God understood what they talked. This caused him to laugh, whereupon his wife said to him ‘What dost thou hear that thou laughest?’ He replied to his wife ‘I shall not tell thee what I hear, and why I laugh’. The woman said to her husband ‘I know why thou laughest; thou laughest at me because I am one-eyed’. The man then said to his wife ‘I saw that thou wast one-eyed before I loved thee, and before we married and sat down in our house’. When the woman heard her husband’s word she was quiet.

But once at night, as they were lying on their bed, and it was past midnight, it happened that a rat played with his wife on the top of the house and that both fell to the ground. Then the wife of the rat said to her husband ‘Thy sport is bad; thou saidst to me that thou wouldst play, but when we came together we fell to the ground, so that I broke my back’.

When the servant of God heard the talk of the rat’s wife, as he was lying on his bed, he laughed. Now, as soon as he laughed his wife arose, seized him, and said to him as she held him fast: ‘Now this time I will not let thee go out of this house except thou tell me what thou hearest and why thou laughest’. The man begged the woman, saying ‘Let me go’; but the woman would not listen to her husband’s entreaty.

The husband then tells his wife that he knows the language of beasts and birds, and she is content; but when he wakes in the morning he finds he has lost his wonderful gift; and the moral of the tale is added most ungallantly: ‘If a man shews and tells his thoughts to a woman, God will punish him for it’. Though, perhaps, it is better, for the sake of the gentler sex, that the tale should be pointed with this unfair moral, than that the African story should proceed like all the other variations, and save the husband’s gift at the cost of the wife’s skin.

Take other African instances. How is it that the wandering Bechuanas got their story of ‘The Two Brothers’, the ground-work of which is the same as ‘The Machandelboom’ and the ‘Milk-white Doo’, and where the incidents and even the words are almost the same? How is it that in some of its traits that Bechuana story embodies those of that earliest of all popular tales, recently published from an Egyptian Papyrus, coeval with the abode of the Israelites in Egypt? and how is it that that same Egyptian tale has other traits which reminds us of the Dun Bull in ‘Katie Woodencloak’, as well as incidents which are the germ of stories long since reduced to writing in Norse Sagas of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries? [11] How is it that we still find among the Negroes in the West Indies [12] a rich store of popular tales, and the Beast Epic in full bloom, brought with them from Africa to the islands of the West; and among those tales and traditions, how is it that we find a ‘Wishing Tree’, the counter-part of that in a German popular tale, and ‘a little dirty scrub of a child’, whom his sisters despise, but who is own brother to Boots in the Norse Tales, and like him outwits the Troll, spoils his substance, and saves his sisters? How is it that we find the good woman who washes the loathsome head rewarded, while the bad man who refuses to do that dirty work is punished for his pride; the very groundwork, nay the very words, that we meet in Bushy-bride, another Norse Tale? How is it that we find a Mongolian tale, which came confessedly from India, made up of two of our Norse tales, ‘Rich Peter the Pedlar’ and ‘The Giant that had no heart in his body’ [_The Deeds of Bogda Gesser Chan_, by I. J. Schmidt (Petersburg and Leipzig, 1839).]? How should all these things be, and how could they possibly be, except on that theory which day by day becomes more and more a matter of fact; this, that the whole human race sprung from one stock, planted in the East, which has stretched out its boughs and branches laden with the fruit of language, and bright with the bloom of song and story, by successive offshoots to the utmost parts of the earth.


And now, in the second place, for that particular branch of the Aryan race, in which this peculiar development of the common tradition has arisen, which we are to consider as ‘Norse Popular Tales’.

Whatever disputes may have existed as to the mythology of other branches of the Teutonic subdivision of the Aryan race–whatever discussions may have arisen as to the position of this or that divinity among the Franks, the Anglo-Saxons, or the Goths–about the Norsemen there can be no dispute or doubt. From a variety of circumstances, but two before all the rest–the one their settlement in Iceland, which preserved their language and its literary treasures incorrupt; the other their late conversion to Christianity–their cosmogony and mythology stands before us in full flower, and we have not, as elsewhere, to pick up and piece together the wretched fragments of a faith, the articles of which its own priests had forgotten to commit to writing, and which those of another creed had dashed to pieces and destroyed, wherever their zealous hands could reach. In the two Eddas, therefore, in the early Sagas, in Saxo’s stilted Latin, which barely conceals the popular songs and legends from which the historian drew his materials, we are enabled to form a perfect conception of the creed of the heathen Norsemen. We are enabled to trace, as has been traced by the same hand in another place [_Oxford Essays for_ 1898: ‘The Norsemen in Iceland’.], the natural and rational development of that creed from a simple worship of nature and her powers, first to monotheism, and then to a polytheistic system. The tertiary system of Polytheism is the soil out of which the mythology of the Eddas sprang, though through it each of the older formations crops out in huge masses which admit of no mistake as to its origin. In the Eddas the natural powers have been partly subdued, partly thrust on one side, for a time, by Odin and the Aesir, by the Great Father and his children, by One Supreme and twelve subordinate gods, who rule for an appointed time, and over whom hangs an impending fate, which imparts a charm of melancholy to this creed, which has clung to the race who once believed in it long after the creed itself has vanished before the light of Christianity. According to this creed, the Aesir and Odin had their abode in Asgard, a lofty hill in the centre of the habitable earth, in the midst of Midgard, that _middle earth_ which we hear of in early English poetry, the abode of gods and men. Round that earth, which was fenced in against the attacks of ancient and inveterate foes by a natural fortification of hills, flowed the great sea in a ring, and beyond that sea was Utgard, the outlying world, the abode of Frost Giants, and Monsters, those old-natural powers who had been dispossessed by Odin and the Aesir when the new order of the universe arose, and between whom and the new gods a feud as inveterate as that cherished by the Titans against Jupiter was necessarily kept alive. It is true indeed that this feud was broken by intervals of truce during which the Aesir and the Giants visit each other, and appear on more or less friendly terms, but the true relation between them was war; pretty much as the Norseman was at war with all the rest of the world. Nor was this struggle between two rival races or powers confined to the gods in Asgard alone. Just as their ancient foes were the Giants of Frost and Snow, so between the race of men and the race of Trolls was there a perpetual feud. As the gods were men magnified and exaggerated, so were the Trolls diminished Frost Giants; far superior to man in strength and stature, but inferior to man in wit and invention. Like the Frost Giants, they inhabit the rough and rugged places of the earth, and, historically speaking, in all probability represent the old aboriginal races who retired into the mountainous fastnesses of the land, and whose strength was exaggerated, because the intercourse between the races was small. In almost every respect they stand in the same relations to men as the Frost Giants stand to the Gods.

There is nothing, perhaps, more characteristic of a true, as compared with a false religion, than the restlessness of the one when brought face to face with the quiet dignity and majesty of the other. Under the Christian dispensation, our blessed Lord, his awful sacrifice once performed, ‘ascended up on high’, having ‘led captivity captive’, and expects the hour that shall make his foes ‘his footstool’; but false gods, Jupiter, Vishnu, Odin, Thor, must constantly keep themselves, as it were, before the eyes of men, lest they should lose respect. Such gods being invariably what the philosophers call _subjective_, that is to say, having no existence except in the minds of those who believe in them; having been created by man in his own image, with his own desires and passions, stand in constant need of being recreated. They change as the habits and temper of the race which adores them alter; they are ever bound to do something fresh, lest man should forget them, and new divinities usurp their place. Hence came endless avatars in Hindoo mythology, reproducing all the dreamy monstrosities of that passive Indian mind. Hence came Jove’s adventures, tinged with all the lust and guile which the wickedness of the natural man planted on a hot-bed of iniquity is capable of conceiving. Hence bloody Moloch, and the foul abominations of Chemosh and Milcom. Hence, too, Odin’s countless adventures, his journeys into all parts of the world, his constant trials of wit and strength, with his ancient foes the Frost Giants, his hair-breadth escapes. Hence Thor’s labours and toils, his passages beyond the sea, girt with his strength-belt, wearing his iron gloves, and grasping his hammer which split the skulls of so many of the Giant’s kith and kin. In the Norse gods, then, we see the Norseman himself, sublimed and elevated beyond man’s nature, but bearing about with him all his bravery and endurance, all his dash and spirit of adventure, all his fortitude and resolution to struggle against a certainty of doom which, sooner or later, must overtake him on that dread day, the ‘twilight of the gods’, when the wolf was to break loose, when the great snake that lay coiled round the world should lash himself into wrath, and the whole race of the Aesirs and their antagonists were to perish in internecine strife.

Such were the gods in whom the Norseman believed–exaggerations of himself, of all his good and all his bad qualities. Their might and their adventures, their domestic quarrels and certain doom, were sung in venerable lays, now collected in what we call the Elder, or Poetic Edda; simple majestic songs, whose mellow accents go straight to the heart through the ear, and whose simple severity never suffers us to mistake their meaning. But, besides these gods, there were heroes of the race whose fame and glory were in every man’s memory, and whose mighty deeds were in every minstrel’s mouth. Helgi, Sigmund, Sinfjoetli, Sigurd, Signy, Brynhildr, Gudrun; champions and shield- maidens, henchmen and corse-choosers, now dead and gone, who sat round Odin’s board in Valhalla. Women whose beauty, woes, and sufferings were beyond those of all women; men whose prowess had never found an equal. Between these, love and hate; all that can foster passion or beget revenge. Ill assorted marriages; the right man to the wrong woman, and the wrong man to the right woman; envyings, jealousies, hatred, murders, all the works of the natural man, combine together to form that marvellous story which begins with a curse–the curse of ill-gotten gold–and ends with a curse, a widow’s curse, which drags down all on whom it falls, and even her own flesh and blood, to certain doom. Such was the theme of the wondrous Volsung Tale, the far older, simpler and grander original of that Nibelungen Need of the thirteenth century, a tale which begins with the slaughter of Fafnir by Sigurd, and ends with Hermanaric, ‘that fierce faith-breaker’, as the Anglo-Saxon minstrel calls him, when he is describing, in rapid touches, the mythic glories of the Teutonic race.

This was the story of the Volsungs. They traced themselves back, like all heroes, to Odin, the great father of gods and men. From him sprung Sigi, from him Rerir, from him Volsung, ripped from his mother’s womb after a six years’ bearing, to become the Eponymus of that famous race. In the centre of his hall grew an oak, the tall trunk of which passed through the roof, and its boughs spread far and wide in upper air. Into that hall, on a high feast day, when Signy, Volsung’s daughter, was to be given away to Siggeir, King of Gothland, strode an old one-eyed guest. His feet were bare, his hose were of knitted linen, he wore a great striped cloak, and a broad flapping hat. In his hand he bore a sword, which, at one stroke, he drove up to the hilt in the oak trunk. ‘There’, said he, ‘let him of all this company bear this sword who is man enough to pull it out. I give it him, and none shall say he ever bore a better blade.’ With these words he passed out of the hall, and was seen no more. Many tried, for that sword was plainly a thing of price, but none could stir it, till Sigmund, the best and bravest of Volsung’s sons, tried his hand, and, lo! the weapon yielded itself at once. This was that famous blade _Gram_, of which we shall hear again. Sigmund bore it in battle against his brother-in-law, who quarrelled with him about this very sword, when Volsung fell, and Sigmund and his ten brothers were taken and bound. All perished but Sigmund, who was saved by his sister Signy, and hidden in a wood till he could revenge his father and brethren. Here with Sinfjoetli, who was at once his son and nephew, he ran as a werewolf through the forest, and wrought many wild deeds. When Sinfjoetli was of age to help him, they proceed to vengeance, and burn the treacherous brother-in-law alive, with all his followers. Sigmund then regains his father’s kingdom, and in extreme old age dies in battle against the sons of King Hunding. Just as he was about to turn the fight, a warrior of more than mortal might, a one-eyed man in a blue cloak, with a flapping hat, rose up against him spear in hand. At that outstretched spear Sigmund smites with his trusty sword. It snaps in twain. Then he knows that his luck is gone; he sees in his foe Odin the giver of the sword, sinks down on the gory battle-field, and dies in the arms of Hjordis, his young wife, refusing all leechcraft, and bowing his head to Odin’s will. By the fortune of war, Hjordis, bearing a babe under her girdle, came into the hands of King Hialprek of Denmark, there she bore a son to Sigmund, Sigurd, the darling of Teutonic song and story. Regin, the king’s smith, was his foster-father, and as the boy grew up the fairest and stoutest of all the Volsungs, Regin, who was of the dwarf race, urged him day by day to do a doughty deed, and slay Fafnir the Dragon. For Fafnir, Regin, and Otter had been brothers, sons of Reidmar. In one of their many wanderings, Odin, Loki, and Haenir came to a river and a forge. There, on the bank under the forge, they saw an otter with a salmon in its mouth, which it ate greedily with its eyes shut. Loki took a stone, threw it, and killed the beast, and boasted how he had got both fish and flesh at one throw. Then the Aesir passed on and came at night to Reidmar’s house, asked a lodging, got it, and showed their spoil. ‘Seize and bind them lads’, cried Reidmar; ‘for they have slain your brother Otter’. So they were seized and bound by Regin and Fafnir, and offered an atonement to buy off the feud, and Reidmar was to name the sum. Then Otter was flayed, and the Aesir were to fill the skin with red gold, and cover it without, that not a hair could be seen. To fetch the gold Odin sent Loki down to the abodes of the Black Elves; there in a stream he caught Andvari the Dwarf, and made him give up all the gold which he had hoarded up in the stony rock. In vain the Dwarf begged and prayed that he might keep one ring, for it was the source of all his wealth, and ring after ring dropped from it. ‘No; not a penny should he have’ said Loki. Then the dwarf laid a curse on the ring, and said it should be every man’s bane who owned it. ‘So much the better’ said Loki; and when he got back, Odin saw the ring how fair it was, and kept it to himself, but gave the gold to Reidmar. So Reidmar filled the skin with gold as full as he could, and set it up on end, and Odin poured gold over it, and covered it up. But when Reidmar looked at it he saw still one grey hair, and bade them cover that too, else the atonement was at an end. Then Odin drew forth the ring and laid it over the grey hair. So the Aesir was set free, but before they went, Loki repeated the curse which Andvari had laid upon the ring and gold. It soon began to work. First, Regin asked for some of the gold, but not a penny would Reidmar give. So the two brothers laid their heads together and slew their sire. Then Regin begged Fafnir to share the gold with him. But ‘no’, Fafnir was stronger, and said he should keep it all himself, and Regin had best be off, unless he wished to fare the same way as Reidmar. So Regin had to fly, but Fafnir took a dragon’s shape; ‘and there’, said Regin, ‘he lies on the “Glistening Heath”, coiled round his store of gold and precious things, and that’s why I wish you to kill him.’ Sigurd, told Regin who was the best of smiths, to forge him a sword. Two are made, but both snap asunder at the first stroke. ‘Untrue are they like you and all your race’ cries Sigurd. Then he went to his mother and begged the broken bits of _Gram_, and out of them Regin forged a new blade, that clove the anvil in the smithy, and cut a lock of wool borne down upon it by a running stream. ‘Now, slay me Fafnir’, said Regin; but Sigurd must first find out King Hunding’s sons, and avenge his father Sigmund’s death. King Hialprek lends him force; by Odin’s guidance he finds them out, routs their army, and slays all those brothers. On his return, his foster-father still eggs him on to slay the Dragon, and thus to shew that there was still a Volsung left. So, armed with Gram, and mounted on Gran, his good steed, whom Odin had taught him how to choose, Sigurd rode to the ‘Glistening Heath’, dug a pit in the Dragon’s path, and slew him as he passed over him down to drink at the river. Then Regin came up, and the old feeling of vengeance for a brother’s blood grew strong, and as an atonement, Sigurd was to roast Fafnir’s heart, and carry it to Regin, who swilled his fill of the Dragon’s blood, and lay down to sleep. But as Sigurd roasted the heart, and wondered if it would soon be done, he tried it with his finger to see if it were soft. The hot roast burned his finger, and he put it into his mouth, and tasted the life-blood of the Dragon. Then in a moment he understood the song of birds, and heard how the swallows over his head said one to the other, ‘There thou sittest, Sigurd, roasting Fafnir’s heart. Eat it thyself and become the wisest of men.’ Then another said ‘There lies Regin, and means to cheat him who trusts him.’ Then a third said ‘Let Sigurd cut off his head then, and so own all the gold himself.’ Then Sigurd went to Regin and slew him, and ate the heart, and rode on Gran to Fafnir’s lair, and took the spoil and loaded his good steed with it, and rode away.

And now Sigurd was the most famous of men. All the songs and stories of the North made him the darling of that age. They dwell on his soft hair, which fell in great locks of golden brown, on his bushy beard of auburn hue, his straight features, his ruddy cheeks, his broad brow, his bright and piercing eye, of which few dared to meet the gaze, his taper limbs and well knit joints, his broad shoulders, and towering height. ‘So tall he was, that as he strode through the full- grown rye, girt with Gram, the tip of the scabbard just touched the ears of corn.’ Ready of tongue too, and full of forethought. His great pleasure was to help other men, and to do daring deeds; to spoil his foes, and give largely to his friends. The bravest man alive, and one that never knew fear. On and on he rode, till on a lone fell he saw a flickering flame, and when he reached it, there it flamed and blazed all round a house. No horse but Gran could ride that flame; no man alive but Sigurd sit him while he leaped through it. Inside the house lay a fair maiden, armed from head to foot, in a deep sleep. Brynhildr, Atli’s sister, was her name, a Valkyrie, a corse-chooser; but out of wilfulness she had given the victory to the wrong side, and Odin in his wrath had thrust the horn of sleep into her cloak, and laid her under a curse to slumber there till a man bold enough to ride through that flame came to set her free, and win her for his bride. So then she woke up, and taught him all runes and wisdom, and they swore to love each other with a mighty oath, and then Sigurd left her and rode on.

So on he rode to King Giuki’s hall, Giuki the Niflung, King of Frankland, whose wife was Grimhildr, whose sons were Gunnar and Hogni, whose stepson was Guttorm, and whose daughter was the fair Gudrun. Here at first he was full of Brynhildr, and all for going back to fetch his lovely bride from the lone fell. But Grimhildr was given to dark arts; she longed for the brave Volsung for her own daughter, she brewed him the philtre of forgetfulness, he drained it off, forgot Brynhildr, swore a brother’s friendship with Gunnar and Hogni, and wedded the fair Gudrun. But now Giuki wanted a wife for Gunnar, and so off set the brothers and their bosom friend to woo, but whom should they choose but Brynhildr, Atli’s sister, who sat there still upon the fell, waiting for the man who was bold enough to ride through the flickering flame. She knew but one could do it, and waited for that one to come back. So she had given out whoever could ride that flame should have her to wife. So when Gunnar and Hogni reached it, Gunnar rode at it, but his horse, good though it was, swerved from the fierce flame. Then by Grimhild’s magic arts, Sigurd and Gunnar changed shapes and arms, and Sigurd leapt up on Gran’s back, and the good steed bore him bravely through the flame. So Brynhildr the proud maiden was won and forced to yield. That evening was their wedding; but when they lay down to rest, Sigurd unsheathed his keen sword _Gram_, and laid it naked between them. Next morning when he arose, he took the ring which Andvari had laid under the curse, and which was among Fafnir’s treasures, and gave it to Brynhildr as a ‘morning gift’, and she gave him another ring as a pledge. Then Sigurd rode back to his companions and took his own shape again, and then Gunnar went and claimed Brynhildr, and carried her home as his bride. But no sooner was Gunnar wedded, than Sigurd’s eyes were opened, and the power of the philtre passed away, he remembered all that had passed, and the oath he had sworn to Brynhildr. All this came back upon him when it was too late, but he was wise and said nothing about it. Well, so things went on, till one day Brynhildr and Gudrun went down to the river to wash their hair. Then Brynhildr waded out into the stream as far as she could, and said she wouldn’t have on her head the water that streamed from Gudrun’s; for hers was the braver husband. So Gudrun waded out after her, and said the water ought to come on her hair first, because her husband bore away the palm from Gunnar, and every other man alive, for he slew Fafnir and Regin and took their inheritance. ‘Aye’, said Brynhildr, ‘but it was a worthier deed when Gunnar rode through the flame, but Sigurd dared not try!’ Then Gudrun laughed, and said ‘Thinkst thou that Gunnar really rode the flame? I trow _he_ went to bed with thee that night, who gave me this gold ring. And as for that ring yonder which you have on your finger, and which you got as your “morning-gift”; its name is Andvari’s-spoil, and _that_ I don’t think Gunnar sought on the “Glistening Heath”‘. Then Brynhildr held her peace and went home, and her love for Sigurd came back, but it was turned to hate, for she felt herself betrayed. Then she egged on Gunnar to revenge her wrong. At last the brothers yielded to her entreaties, but they were sworn brothers to Sigurd, and to break that oath by deed was a thing unheard of. Still they broke it in spirit; by charms and prayers they set on Guttorm their half-brother, and so at dead of night, while Gudrun held the bravest man alive fast locked in her white arms, the murderer stole to the bedside and drove a sword through the hero. Then Sigurd turned and writhed, and as Guttorm fled he hurled Gram after him, and the keen blade took him asunder at the waist, and his head fell out of the room and his heels in, and that was the end of Guttorm. But with revenge Brynhildr’s love returned, and when Sigurd was laid upon the pile her heart broke; she burst forth into a prophetic song of the woes that were still to come, made them lay her by his side with Gram between them, and so went to Valhalla with her old lover. Thus Andvari’s curse was fulfilled.

Gudrun, the weary widow, wandered away. After a while, she accepts atonement from her brothers for her husband’s loss, and marries Atli, the Hun King, Brynhildr’s brother. He cherished a grudge against Giuki’s sons for the guile they had practised against their brother- in-law, which had broken his sister’s heart, and besides he claimed, in right of Gudrun, all the gold which Sigurd won from the Dragon, but which the Niflung Princes had seized when he was slain. It was in vain to attack them in fair fight, so he sent them a friendly message, and invited them to a banquet; they go, and are overpowered. Hogni’s heart is cut out of him alive, but he still smiles; Gunnar is cast into a pit full of snakes, but even then charms them to sleep with his harp, all but one, that flies at his heart and stings him to death. With them perished the secret of the Dragon’s hoard, which they had thrown into the Rhine as they crossed it on the way to Hunland. Now comes horror on horror. Revenge for her brothers now belongs to Gudrun; she slays with her own hand her two sons by Atli, makes him eat their flesh, and drink their blood out of their skulls, and, while the king slept sound, slew him in his bed by the help of her brother Hogni’s son. Then she set the hall a-blaze, and burnt all that were in it. After that she went to the sea-shore, and threw herself in to drown. But the deep will not have her, the billows bear her over to King Jonakr’s land. He marries her, and has three sons by her, Saurli, Hamdir, and Erp, black-haired as ravens, like all the Niflungs. Svanhild, her daughter by Sigurd, who had her father’s bright and terrible eyes, she has still with her, now grown up to be the fairest of women. So when Hermanaric the mighty, the great Gothic king, heard of Svanhild’s beauty, he sent his son Randver to woo her for him, but Bikki the False said to the youth: ‘Better far were this maiden for thee than for thy old father’; and the maiden and the prince thought it good advice. Then Bikki went and told the king, and Hermanaric bade them take and hang Randver at once. So on his way to the gallows, the prince took his hawk and plucked off all its feathers, and sent it to his father. But when his sire saw it, he knew at once that, as the hawk was featherless and unable to fly, so was his realm defenceless under an old and sonless king. Too late he sent to stop the hanging; his son was already dead. So one day as he rode back from hunting, he saw fair Svanhild washing her golden locks, and it came into his heart how there she sat, the cause of all his woe; and he and his men rode at her and over her, and their steeds trampled her to death. But when Gudrun heard this, she set on her three Niflung sons to avenge their sister. Byrnies and helms she gave them so true that no sword would bite on them. They were to steal on Hermanaric as he slept; Saurli was to cut off his hands, Hamdir his feet, and Erp his head. So as the three went along, the two asked Erp what help he would give them when they got to Hermanaric. ‘Such as hand lends to foot’ he said. ‘No help at all’ they cried; and passing from words to blows, and because their mother loved Erp best, they slew him. A little further on Saurli stumbled and fell forward, but saved himself with one hand, and said ‘Here hand helps foot: better were it that Erp lived.’ So they came on Hermanaric as he slept, and Saurli hewed off his hands, and Hamdir his feet, but he awoke and called for his men. Then said Hamdir: ‘Were Erp alive, the head would be off, and he couldn’t call out.’ Then Hermanaric’s men arose and took the twain, and when they found that no steel would touch them, an old one-eyed man gave them advice to stone them to death. Thus fell Saurli and Hamdir, and soon after Gudrun died too, and with her ends the Volsung and the Niflung tale.

And here it is worth while to say, since some minds are so narrowly moulded as to be incapable of containing more than one idea, that because it has seemed a duty to describe in its true light the old faith of our forefathers, it by no means follows that the same eyes are blind to the glorious beauty of Greek Mythology. That had the rare advantage of running its course free and unfettered until it fell rather by natural decay than before the weapon of a new belief. The Greeks were Atheists before they became Christian. Their faith had passed through every stage. We can contemplate it as it springs out of the dim misshapen symbol, during that phase when men’s eyes are fixed more on meaning and reality than on beauty and form, we can mark how it gradually looks more to symmetry and shape, how it is transfigured in the Arts, until, under that pure air and bright sky, the glowing radiant figures of Apollo and Aphrodite, of Zeus and Athene–of perfect man-worship and woman-worship, stand out clear and round in the foreground against the misty distance of ancient times. Out of that misty distance the Norseman’s faith never emerged. What that early phase of faith might have become, had it been once wedded to the Muses, and learnt to cultivate the Arts, it is impossible to say. As it is, its career was cut short in mid-course. It carried about with it that melancholy presentiment of dissolution which has come to be so characteristic of modern life, but of which scarce a trace exists in ancient times, and this feeling would always have made it different from that cheerful carelessness which so attracts us in the Greeks; but even that downcast brooding heart was capable of conceiving great and heroic thoughts, which it might have clothed in noble shapes and forms, had not the axe of Providence cut down the stately sapling in the North before it grew to be a tree, while it spared the pines of Delphi and Dodona’s sacred oaks, until they had attained a green old age. And so this faith remained rude and rough; but even rudeness has a simplicity of its own, and it is better to be rough and true-hearted than polished and false. In all the feelings of natural affection, that faith need fear no comparison with any other upon earth. In these respects it is firm and steadfast as a rock, and pure and bright as a living spring. The highest God is a father, who protects his children; who gives them glory and victory while they live, and when they die, takes them to himself; to those fatherly abodes Death was a happy return, a glorious going home. By the side of this great father stands a venerable goddess, dazzling with beauty, the great mother of gods and men. Hand in hand this divine pair traverse the land; he teaching the men the use of arms and all the arts of war,–for war was then as now a noble calling, and to handle arms an honourable, nay necessary, profession. To the women she teaches domestic duties and the arts of peace; from her they learn to weave, and sew, and spin; from her, too, the husbandman learns to till his fields. From him springs poetry and song; from her legend and tradition. Nor should it ever be forgotten that the footsteps of Providence are always onward, even when they seem taken in the dark, and that their rude faith was the first in which that veneration for woman arose, which the Western nations may well claim as the brightest jewel in their crown of civilization; that while she was a slave in the East, a toy to the Greeks, and a housewife to the Romans, she was a helpmeet to the Teuton, and that those stern warriors recognized something divine in her nature, and bowed before her clearer insight into heavenly mysteries. The worship of the Virgin Mary was gradually developed out of this conception of woman’s character, and would have been a thing absurd and impossible, had Christianity clung for ever to Eastern soil. And now to proceed, after thus turning aside to compare the mythology of the Greek with the faith of the Norseman. The mistake is to favour one or the other exclusively instead of respecting and admiring both; but it is a mistake which those only can fall into, whose souls are narrow and confined, who would say this thing and this person you shall love, and none other; this form and feature you shall worship and adore, and this alone; when in fact the whole promised land of thought and life lies before us at our feet, our nature encourages us to go in and possess it, and every step we make in this new world of knowledge brings us to fresh prospects of beauty, and to new pastures of delight.

Such were the gods, and such the heroes of the Norseman; who, like his own gods, went smiling to death under the weight of an inevitable destiny. But that fate never fell on their gods. Before this subjective mythological dream of the Norsemen could be fulfilled, the religious mist in which they walked was scattered by the sunbeams of Christianity. A new state and condition of society arose, and the creed which had satisfied a race of heathen warriors, who externally were at war with all the world, became in time an object of horror and aversion to the converted Christian. This is not the place to describe the long struggle between the new and the old faith in the North; how kings and queens became the foster-fathers and nursing- mothers of the Church; how the great chiefs, each a little king in himself, scorned and derided the whole scheme as altogether weak and effeminate; how the bulk of the people were sullen and suspicious, and often broke out into heathen mutiny; how kings rose and kings fell, just as they took one or the other side; and how, finally, after a contest which had lasted altogether more than three centuries, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden–we run them over in the order of conversion–became faithful to Christianity, as preached by the missionaries of the Church of Rome. One fact, however, we must insist on, which might be inferred, indeed, both from the nature of the struggle itself, and the character of Rome; and that is, that throughout there was something in the process of conversion of the nature of a compromise–of what we may call the great principle of ‘give and take’. In all Christian churches, indeed, and in none so much as the Church of Rome, nothing is so austere, so elevating, and so grand, as the uncompromising tone in which the great dogmas of the Faith are enunciated and proclaimed. Nothing is more magnificent, in short, than the theory of Christianity; but nothing is more mean and miserable than the time-serving way in which those dogmas are dragged down to the dull level of daily life, and that sublime theory reduced to ordinary practice. At Rome, it was true that the Pope could congratulate the faithful that whole nations in the barbarous and frozen North had been added to the true fold, and that Odin’s grim champions now universally believed in the gospel of peace and love. It is so easy to dispose of a doubtful struggle in a single sentence, and so tempting to believe it when once written. But in the North, the state of things, and the manner of proceeding, were entirely different. There the dogma was proclaimed, indeed; but the manner of preaching it was not in that mild spirit with which the Saviour rebuked the disciple when he said ‘Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.’ There the sword was used to bring converts to the font, and the baptism was often one rather of blood than of water. There the new converts perpetually relapsed, chased away the missionaries and the kings who sheltered them, and only yielded at last to the overwhelming weight of Christian opinion in the Western world. St Olof, king and martyr, martyred in pitched battle by his mutinous allodial freemen, because he tried to drive rather than to lead them to the cross; and another Olof, greater than he, Olof Tryggvason, who fell in battle against the heathen Swedes, were men of blood rather than peace; but to them the introduction of the new faith into Norway is mainly owing. So also Charlemagne, at an earlier period, had dealt with the Saxons at the Main Bridge, when his ultimatum was ‘Christianity or death’. So also the first missionary to Iceland–who met, indeed, with a sorry reception–was followed about by a stout champion named Thangbrand, who, whenever there was what we should now call a missionary meeting, challenged any impugner of the new doctrines to mortal combat on the spot. No wonder that, after having killed several opponents in the little tour which he made with his missionary friend through the island, it became too hot to hold him, and he, and the missionary, and the new creed, were forced to take ship and sail back to Norway.

‘Precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little and there a little’, was the motto of Rome in her dealings with the heathen Norsemen, and if she suited herself at first rather to their habits and temper than to those of more enlightened nations, she had an excuse in St Paul’s maxim of making herself ‘all things to all men.’ Thus, when a second attempt to Christianize Iceland proved more successful–for in the meantime, King Olof Tryggvason, a zealous Christian, had seized as hostages all the Icelanders of family and fame who happened to be in Norway, and thus worked on the feelings of the chiefs of those families at home, who in their turn bribed the lawman who presided over the Great Assembly to pronounce in favour of the new Faith–even then the adherents of the old religion were allowed to perform its rites in secret, and two old heathen practices only were expressly prohibited, the exposure of infants and the eating of horseflesh, for horses were sacred animals, and the heathen ate their flesh after they had been solemnly sacrificed to the gods. As a matter of fact, it is far easier to change a form of religion than to extirpate a faith. The first indeed is no easy matter, as those students of history well know who are acquainted with the tenacity with which a large proportion of the English nation clung to the Church of Rome, long after the State had declared for the Reformation. But to change the faith of a whole nation in block and bulk on the instant, was a thing contrary to the ordinary working of Providence and unknown even in the days of miracles, though the days of miracles had long ceased when Rome advanced against the North. There it was more politic to raise a cross in the grove where the Sacred Tree had once stood, and to point to the sacred emblem which had supplanted the old object of national adoration, when the populace came at certain seasons with songs and dances to perform their heathen rites. Near the cross soon rose a church; and both were girt by a cemetery, the soil of which was doubly sacred as a heathen fane and a Christian sanctuary, and where alone the bodies of the faithful could repose in peace. But the songs and dances, and processions in the church-yard round the cross, continued long after Christianity had become dominant. So also the worship of wells and springs was christianized when it was found impossible to prevent it. Great churches arose over or near them, as at Walsingham, where an abbey, the holiest place in England, after the shrine of St Thomas at Canterbury, threw its majestic shade over the heathen wishing-well, and the worshippers of Odin and the Nornir were gradually converted into votaries of the Virgin Mary. Such practices form a subject of constant remonstrance and reproof in the treatises and penitential epistles of medieval divines, and in some few places and churches, even in England, such rites are still yearly celebrated. [13]

So, too, again with the ancient gods. They were cast down from honour, but not from power. They lost their genial kindly influence as the protectors of men and the origin of all things good; but their existence was tolerated; they became powerful for ill, and degenerated into malignant demons. Thus the worshippers of Odin had supposed that at certain times and rare intervals the good powers shewed themselves in bodily shape to mortal eye, passing through the land in divine progress, bringing blessings in their train, and receiving in return the offerings and homage of their grateful votaries. But these were naturally only exceptional instances; on ordinary occasions the pious heathen recognized his gods sweeping through the air in cloud and storm, riding on the wings of the wind, and speaking in awful accents, as the tempest howled and roared, and the sea shook his white mane and crest. Nor did he fail to see them in the dust and din of battle, when Odin appeared with his terrible helm, succouring his own, striking fear into their foes, and turning the day in many a doubtful fight; or in the hurry and uproar of the chase, where the mighty huntsman on his swift steed, seen in glimpses among the trees, took up the hunt where weary mortals laid it down, outstripped them all, and brought the noble quarry to the ground. Looking up to the stars and heaven, they saw the footsteps of the gods marked out in the bright path of the Milky Way; and in the Bear they hailed the war-chariot of the warrior’s god. The great goddesses, too, Frigga and Freyja, were thoroughly old-fashioned domestic divinities. They help women in their greatest need, they spin themselves, they teach the maids to spin, and punish them if the wool remains upon their spindle. They are kind, and good, and bright, for _Holda_, _Bertha_, are the epithets given to them. And so, too, this mythology which, in its aspect to the stranger and the external world, was so ruthless and terrible, when looked at from within and at home, was genial, and kindly, and hearty, and affords another proof that men, in all ages and climes, are not so bad as they seem; that after all, peace and not war is the proper state for man, and that a nation may make war on others and exist; but that unless it has peace within, and industry at home, it must perish from the face of the earth. But when Christianity came, the whole character of this goodly array of divinities was soured and spoilt. Instead of the stately procession of the God, which the intensely sensuous eye of man in that early time connected with all the phenomena of nature, the people were led to believe in a ghastly grisly band of ghosts, who followed an infernal warrior or huntsman in hideous tumult through the midnight air. No doubt, as Grimm rightly remarks [D. M., p. 900: _Wuetendes Heer_], the heathen had fondly fancied that the spirits of those who had gone to Odin followed him in his triumphant progress either visibly or invisibly; that they rode with him in the whirlwind, just as they followed him to battle, and feasted with him in Valhalla; but now the Christian belief, when it had degraded the mighty god into a demon huntsman, who pursued his nightly round in chase of human souls, saw in the train of the infernal master of the hunt only the spectres of suicides, drunkards, and ruffians; and, with all the uncharitableness of a dogmatic faith, the spirits of children who died unbaptized, whose hard fate had thrown them into such evil company. This was the way in which that wide-spread superstition arose, which sees in the phantoms of the clouds the shapes of the Wild Huntsman and his accursed crew, and hears, in spring and autumn nights, when sea-fowl take the wing to fly either south or north, the strange accents and uncouth yells with which the chase is pressed on in upper air. Thus, in Sweden it is still Odin who passes by; in Denmark it is King Waldemar’s Hunt; in Norway it is _Aaskereida_, that is _Asgard’s Car_; in Germany, it is Wode, Woden, or Hackelberend, or Dieterich of Bern; in France it is Hellequin, or King Hugo, or Charles the Fifth, or, dropping a name altogether, it is _Le Grand Veneur_ who ranges at night through the Forest of Fontainebleau. Nor was England without her Wild Huntsman and his ghastly following. Gervase of Tilbury, in the twelfth century, could tell it of King Arthur, round whose mighty name the superstition settled itself, for he had heard from the foresters how, ‘on alternate days, about the full of the moon, one day at noon, the next at midnight when the moon shone bright, a mighty train of hunters on horses was seen, with baying hounds and blast of horns; and when those hunters were asked of whose company and household they were, they replied “of Arthur’s”.’ We hear of him again in _The Complaynt of Scotland_, that curious composition attributed by some to Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount in Fife, and of Gilmerton in East Lothian, pp. 97, 98, where he says:

Arthur knycht, he raid on nycht,
With gyldin spur and candil lycht.

Nor should we forget, when considering this legend, that story of Herne the Hunter, who

Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest, Doth all the winter time, at still midnight, Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns; And there he blasts the trees, and takes the cattle, And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
_Merry Wives of Windsor_, act. iv, sc. 4.

And even yet, in various parts of England, the story of some great man, generally a member of one of the county families, who drives about the country at night, is common. Thus, in Warwickshire, it is the ‘One-handed Boughton’, who drives about in his coach and six, and makes the benighted traveller hold gates open for him; or it is ‘Lady Skipwith’, who passes through the country at night in the same manner. This subject might be pursued to much greater length, for popular tradition is full of such stories; but enough has been said to show how the awful presence of a glorious God can be converted into a gloomy superstition; and, at the same time, how the majesty of the old belief strives to rescue itself by clinging, in the popular consciousness, to some king or hero, as Arthur or Waldemar, or, failing that, to some squire’s family, as Hackelberend, or the ‘one- handed Boughton’, or even to the Keeper Herne.

Odin and the Aesir then were dispossessed and degraded by our Saviour and his Apostles, just as they had of old thrown out the Frost Giants, and the two are mingled together, in medieval Norse tradition, as Trolls and Giants, hostile alike to Christianity and man. Christianity had taken possession indeed, but it was beyond her power to kill. To this half-result the swift corruption of the Church of Rome lent no small aid. Her doctrines, as taught by Augustine and Boniface, by Anschar and Sigfrid, were comparatively mild and pure; but she had scarce swallowed the heathendom of the North, much in the same way as the Wolf was to swallow Odin at the ‘Twilight of the Gods’, than she fell into a deadly lethargy of faith, which put it out of her power to digest her meal. Gregory the Seventh, elected pope in 1073, tore the clergy from the ties of domestic life with a grasp that wounded every fibre of natural affection, and made it bleed to the very root. With the celibacy of the clergy he established the hierarchy of the church, but her labours as a missionary church were over. Henceforth she worked not by missionaries and apostles, but by crusades and bulls. Now she raised mighty armaments to recover the barren soil of the Holy Sepulchre, or to annihilate heretic Albigenses. Now she established great orders, Templars and Hospitallers, whose pride and luxury, and pomp, brought swift destruction on one at least of those fraternities. Now she became feudal,–she owned land instead of hearts, and forgot that the true patrimony of St Peter was the souls of men. No wonder that, with the barbarism of the times, she soon fulfilled the Apostle’s words, ‘She that liveth in luxury is dead while she liveth’, and became filled with idle superstitions and vain beliefs. No wonder, then, that instead of completing her conquest over the heathen, and carrying out their conversion, she became half heathen herself; that she adopted the tales and traditions of the old mythology, which she had never been able to extirpate, and related them of our Lord and his Apostles. No wonder, then, that having abandoned her mission of being the first power of intelligence on earth, she fell like Lucifer when the mist of medieval feudalism rolled away, and the light of learning and education returned–fell before the indignation of enlightened men, working upon popular opinion. Since which day, though she has changed her plans, and remodelled her superstitions to suit the times, she has never regained the supremacy which, if she had been wise in a true sense, she seemed destined to hold for ever.


The preceding observations will have given a sufficient account of the mythology of the Norsemen, and of the way in which it fell. They came from the East, and brought that common stock of tradition with them. Settled in the Scandinavian peninsula, they developed themselves through Heathenism, Romanism, and Lutheranism, in a locality little exposed to foreign influence, so that even now the Daleman in Norway or Sweden may be reckoned among the most primitive examples left of peasant life. We should expect, then, that these Popular Tales, which, for the sake of those ignorant in such matters, it may be remarked, had never been collected or reduced to writing till within the last few years, would present a faithful picture of the national consciousness, or, perhaps, to speak more correctly, of that half consciousness out of which the heart of any people speaks in its abundance. Besides those world-old affinities and primaeval parallelisms, besides those dreamy recollections of its old home in the East, which we have already pointed out, we should expect to find its later history, after the great migration, still more distinctly reflected; to discover heathen gods masked in the garb of Christian saints; and thus to see a proof of our assertion above, that a nation more easily changes the form than the essence of its faith, and clings with a toughness which endures for centuries to what it has once learned to believe.

In all mythologies, the trait of all others which most commonly occurs, is that of the descent of the Gods to earth, where, in human form, they mix among mortals, and occupy themselves with their affairs, either out of a spirit of adventure, or to try the hearts of men. Such a conception is shocking to the Christian notion of the omnipotence and omnipresence of God, but we question if there be not times when the most pious and perfect Christian may not find comfort and relief from a fallacy which was a matter of faith in less enlightened creeds, and over which the apostle, writing to the Hebrews, throws the sanction of his authority, so far as angels are concerned. [Heb., xiii, 1: ‘Let brotherly love continue. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’]

Nor could he have forgotten those words of the men of Lystra, ‘The Gods are come down to us in the likeness of men’; and how they called ‘Barnabas Jupiter’, and himself Mercury, ‘because he was the chief speaker.’ Classical mythology is full of such stories. These wanderings of the Gods are mentioned in the Odyssey, and the sanctity of the rites of hospitality, and the dread of turning a stranger from the door, took its origin from a fear lest the wayfaring man should be a Divinity in disguise. According to the Greek story, Orion owed his birth to the fact that the childless Hyrieus, his reputed father, had once received unawares Zeus, Poseidon, and Hermes, or, to call them by their Latin names, Jupiter, Neptune, and Mercury. In the beautiful story of Philemon and Baucis, Jupiter and Mercury reward the aged couple who had so hospitably received them by warning them of the approaching deluge. The fables of Phaedrus and Aesop represent Mercury and Demeter as wandering and enjoying the hospitality of men. In India it is Brahma and Vishnu who generally wander. In the Edda, Odin, Loki, and Hoenir thus roam about, or Thor, Thialfi, and Loki. Sometimes Odin appears alone as a horseman, who turns in at night to the smith’s house, and gets him to shoe his horse, a legend which reminds us at once of the Master-smith. [14] Sometimes it is Thor with his great hammer who wanders thus alone.

Now, let us turn from heathen to Christian times, and look at some of these old legends of wandering gods in a new dress. Throughout the Middle Age, it is our blessed Lord and St Peter that thus wander, and here we see that half-digested heathendom to which we have alluded. Those who may be shocked at such tales in this collection as ‘the Master-Smith’ and ‘Gertrude’s Bird’, must just remember that these are almost purely heathen traditions, in which the names alone are Christian; and if it be any consolation to any to know the fact, we may as well state at once that this adaptation of new names to old beliefs is not peculiar to the Norsemen, but is found in all the popular tales of Europe. Germany was full of them, and there St Peter often appears in a snappish ludicrous guise, which reminds the reader versed in Norse mythology of the tricks and pranks of the shifty Loki. In the Norse tales he thoroughly preserves his saintly character.

Nor was it only gods that walked among men. In the Norse mythology, Frigga, Odin’s wife, who knew beforehand all that was to happen, and Freyja, the goddess of love and plenty, were prominent figures, and often trod the earth; the three Norns or Fates, who sway the wierds of men, and spin their destinies at Mimirs’ well of knowledge, were awful venerable powers, to whom the heathen world looked up with love and adoration and awe. To that love and adoration and awe, throughout the middle age, one woman, transfigured into a divine shape, succeeded by a sort of natural right, and round the Virgin Mary’s blessed head a halo of lovely tales of divine help, beams with soft radiance as a crown bequeathed to her by the ancient goddesses. She appears as divine mother, spinner, and helpful virgin (vierge secourable). Flowers and plants bear her name. In England one of our commonest and prettiest insects is still called after her, but which belonged to Freyja, the heathen ‘Lady’, long before the western nations had learned to adore the name of the mother of Jesus. [15] [15] Footnote: So also Orion’s Belt was called by the Norsemen, Frigga’s spindle or _rock, Friggjar rock_. In modern Swedish, _Friggerock_, where the old goddess holds her own; but in Danish, _Mariaerock_, Our Lady’s rock or spindle. Thus, too, _Karlavagn_, the ‘car of men’, or heroes, who rode with Odin, which we call ‘Charles’ Wain’, thus keeping something, at least, of the old name, though none of its meaning, became in Scotland ‘Peter’s-pleugh’, from the Christian saint, just as Orion’s sword became ‘Peter’s-staff’. But what do ‘Lady Landers’ and ‘Lady Ellison’ mean, as applied to the ‘Lady-Bird’ in Scotland?

The reader of these Tales will meet, in that of ‘the Lassie and her Godmother’, No. xxvii, with the Virgin Mary in a truly mythic character, as the majestic guardian of sun, moon and stars, combined with that of a helpful, kindly woman, who, while she knows how to punish a fault, knows also how to reconcile and forgive.

The Norseman’s god was a god of battles, and victory his greatest gift to men; but this was not the only aspect under which the Great Father was revered. Not victory in the fight alone, but every other good gift came down from him and the Aesir. Odin’s supreme will was that treasure-house of bounty towards which, in one shape or the other, all mortal desires turned, and out of its abundance showers of mercy and streams of divine favour constantly poured down to refresh the weary race of men. All these blessings and mercies, nay, their very source itself, the ancient language bound up in a single word, which, however expressive it may still be, has lost much of the fulness of its meaning in its descent to these later times. This word was ‘Wish’, which originally meant the perfect ideal, the actual fruition of all joy and desire, and not, as now, the empty longing for the object of our desires. From this original abstract meaning, it was but a step to pass to the concrete, to personify the idea, to make it an immortal essence, an attribute of the divinity, another name for the greatest of all Gods himself. And so we find a host of passages in early writers, [_D. M._, p. 126 fol., where they are cited at length.] in every one of which ‘God’ or ‘Odin’ might be substituted for ‘Wish’ with perfect propriety. Here we read how ‘The Wish’ has hands, feet, power, sight, toil, and art. How he works and labours, shapes and masters, inclines his ear, thinks, swears, curses, and rejoices, adopts children, and takes men into his house; behaves, in short, as a being of boundless power and infinite free- will. Still more, he rejoices in his own works as in a child, and thus appears in a thoroughly patriarchal point of view, as the Lord of creation, glorying in his handiwork, as the father of a family in early times was glad at heart when he reckoned his children as arrows in his quiver, and beheld his house full of a long line of retainers and dependants. For this attribute of the Great Father, for Odin as the God of Wish, the Edda uses the word ‘Oski’ which literally expresses the masculine personification of ‘Wish’, and it passed on and added the _works_ wish, as a prefix to a number of others, to signify that they stood in a peculiar relation to the great giver of all good. Thus we have _oska-steinn_, wishing-stone, i.e. a stone which plays the part of a divining rod, and reveals secrets and hidden treasure; _oska-byrr_, a fair wind, a wind as fair as man’s heart could wish it; _osk-barn_ and _oska-barn_, a child after one’s own heart, an adopted child, as when the younger Edda tells us that all those who die in battle are Odin’s _choice- bairns_, his adopted children, those on whom he has set his heart, an expression which, in their turn, was taken by the Icelandic Christian writers to express the relation existing between God and the baptized; and, though last, not least, _oska-maer_, wish- maidens, another name for the Valkyries–Odin’s corse-choosers–who picked out the dead for him on the field of battle, and waited on the heroes in Valhalla. Again, the Edda is filled with ‘choice things’, possessing some mysterious power of their own, some ‘virtue’, as our older English would express it, which belong to this or that god, and are occasionally lent or lost. Thus, Odin himself had a spear which gave victory to those on whose side it was hurled; Thor, a hammer which destroyed the Giants, hallowed vows, and returned of itself to his hand. He had a strength-belt, too, which, when he girded it on, his god-strength waxed one-half; Freyr had a sword which wielded itself; Freyja a necklace which, like the cestus of Venus, inspired all hearts with love; Freyr, again, had a ship called _Skithblathnir_.

She is so great, that all the Aesir, with their weapons and war gear, may find room on board her; and as soon as the sail is set, she has a fair wind whither she shall go; and when there is no need of faring on the sea in her, she is made of so many things, and with so much craft, that Freyr may fold her together like a cloth, and keep her in his bag.
[Snorro’s _Edda_, Stockholm, 1842, translated by the writer.]

Of this kind, too, was the ring ‘Dropper’ which Odin had, and from which twelve other rings dropped every night; the apples which Idun, one of the goddesses, had, and of which, so soon as the Aesir ate, they became young again; the helm which Oegir, the sea giant had, which struck terror into all antagonists like the Aegis of Athene; and that wonderful mill which the mythical Frodi owned, of which we shall shortly speak.

Now, let us see what traces of this great god ‘Wish’ and his choice- bairns and wishing-things we can find in these Tales, faint echoes of a mighty heathen voice, which once proclaimed the goodness of the great Father in the blessings which he bestowed on his chosen sons. We shall not have long to seek. In tale No. xx, when Shortshanks meets those three old crookbacked hags who have only one eye, which he snaps up, and gets first a sword ‘that puts a whole army to flight, be it ever so great’, we have the ‘one-eyed Odin’, degenerated into an old hag, or rather–by no uncommon process–we have an old witch fused by popular tradition into a mixture of Odin and the three Nornir. Again, when he gets that wondrous ship ‘which can sail over fresh water and salt water, and over high hills and deep dales,’ and which is so small that he can put it into his pocket, and yet, when he came to use it, could hold five hundred men, we have plainly the Skith-blathnir of the Edda to the very life. So also in the Best Wish, No. xxxvi, the whole groundwork of this story rests on this old belief; and when we meet that pair of old scissors which cuts all manner of fine clothes out of the air, that tablecloth which covers itself with the best dishes you could think of, as soon as it was spread out, and that tap which, as soon as it was turned, poured out the best of mead and wine, we have plainly another form of Frodi’s wishing-quern–another recollection of those things of choice about which the old mythology has so much to tell. Of the same kind are the tablecloth, the ram, and the stick in ‘the Lad who went to the North Wind’, No. xxxiv, and the rings in ‘the Three Princesses of Whiteland’, No. xxvi, and in ‘Soria Moria Castle’, No. lvi. In the first of those stories, too, we find those ‘three brothers’ who have stood on a moor ‘these hundred years fighting about a hat, a cloak, and a pair of boots’, which had the virtue of making him who wore them invisible; choice things which will again remind the reader of the _Nibelungen Lied_, of the way in which Siegfried became possessed of the famous hoard of gold, and how he got that ‘cap of darkness’ which was so useful to him in his remaining exploits. So again in ‘the Blue Belt’, No. xxii, what is that belt which, when the boy girded it on, ‘he felt as strong as if he could lift the whole hill’, but Thor’s ‘choice-belt’; and what is the daring boy himself, who overcomes the Troll, but Thor himself, as engaged in one of his adventures with the Giants? So, too, in ‘Little Annie the Goose- girl’, No. lix, the stone which tells the Prince all the secrets of his brides is plainly the old Oskastein, or ‘wishing-stone’. These instances will suffice to show the prolonged faith in ‘Wish’, and his choice things; a belief which, though so deeply rooted in the North, we have already traced to its home in the East, whence it stretches itself from pole to pole, and reappears in every race. We recognize it in the wishing-cap of Fortunatus, which is a Celtic legend; in the cornucopia of the Romans; in the goat Amalthea among the Greeks; in the wishing-cow and wishing-tree of the Hindoos; in the pumpkin-tree of the West Indian Ananzi stories; in the cow of the Servian legends, who spins yarn out of her ear; in the Sampo of the Finns; and in all those stories of cups, and glasses, and horns, and rings, and swords, seized by some bold spirit in the midst of a fairy revel, or earned by some kind deed rendered by mortal hand to one of the ‘good folk’ in her hour of need, and with which the ‘_luck_’ [See the well- known story of ‘The Luck of Eden Hall’.] of that mortal’s house was ever afterwards bound up; stories with which the local traditions of all lands are full, but which all pay unconscious homage to the worship of that great God, to whom so many heathen hearts so often turned as the divine realizer of their prayers, and the giver of all