Myth & Religion of the North
The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia
Many years of experience as a teacher have shown me how strong is the interest in the pagan religion of the north, although no survey of it has been published in English for many years. The literature of this subject in other languages is enormous and consists, for the most part, of monographs, often published in learned journals. I have had to Convert myself with mentioning only a small part of this literature, and that to which I am especially indebted. Outstanding modern works are those of J. de Vries and of G. Dumezil, to which reference will frequently he made in the following pages. Many have disputed the revolutionary conclusions of Dumezil, but the significance of his keen observations cannot be questioned. It is not too much to say that this scholar has restored our confidence in the validity of Norse tradition as it is expressed in the literary records of Iceland. In quite another way the studies of the late Magnus Olsen, who has investigated Scandinavian place~names in the light of ancient literature have been no less important.
I am indebted to scholars, not only for their published works, but also for advice and for the long discussions which I have had with them. Among many, I would particularly like to name Einar Ól. Sveinsson, of Reykjavík and Dag Strömbäck of Uppsala, both of whom have listened patiently and criticised my views.
Joan Turville-Petre has helped me untiringly and made many suggestions which have influenced my work, and David Wilson of the British Museum has helped me with the illustrations, and so has my friend Dr. Kristján Eldjarn. I can hardly say how much I owe to Professor E. 0. James, General Editor of this Series, for his encouragement and criticism. I am indebted also to Miss G. Feith for the care with which she has made the index. I would like finally to thank the Publishers and Printers for the work which they have done on a book which is in many ways difficult.
Oxford E.G. G. Turville-Petre
Introductory-Old Norse Poetry-Histories and Sagas-Snorri Studason-Saxo Grammaticus
The RELIGION of the ancient Norsemen is one of the most difficult to describe, indeed far more so than are the older religions of Rome, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Persia or India. Reasons for this are not hard to appreciate. The followers of these southern religions could express their own thoughts in writing, and left hymns, myths and legends, but the pagan Norsemen knew little of writing.
In its obscurity, the Norse religion has much in common with that of the neighbouring Celts. Both of them have to be studied chiefly from poems and traditions written down generations after the pagan religion had been abandoned. The Celtic traditions were enshrined largely in the literature of medieval Ireland, and the Norse ones mainly in texts written in Iceland in the twelfth and especially in the thirteenth century. As Ireland was the storehouse of Celtic tradition, Iceland preserved that of the north. In other words, tradition survived longest on the periphery.
The history of Iceland is thus of some importance for the present study, and an extraordinary history it is. The first permanent settlement on that barren island was made late in the ninth century. The settlers came partly from the mixed Norse-Celtic colonies in Ireland and the western isles, but mainly from western Norway. Their chieftains left their homes, not for conquest, but rather, as medieval writers persistently tell, for political reasons. They wished to preserve their traditional, patriarchal way of life, rather than submit to the centralized form of government introduced by Harald Finehair (c. 885), for this was alien to them. This may partly explain why the Icelanders preserved northern tradition as no other nation did.
The Icelanders adopted Christianity in the year 1000, 50 that paganism flourished among them for little more than a century. They began to write history early in the twelfth century and, in the course of the Middle Ages, they put down in writing, not only the traditions of their own people, but also those of other Scandinavian lands. The provenance and reliability of their work will be the subject of the following sections. For the present it must suffice to say that without the Icelandic texts, our knowledge of Norse heathendom would be but a fragment of what it is, and the myths, which will fill so large a part of this work would be practically unknown.
I remarked that the pagan Norsemen knew little of writing. Nevertheless, they possessed an alphabet which could well have been used for writing texts on parchment. In fact, the runic alphabet, as it is called, was used only for carving inscriptions on stone, metal and wood. The origin of this alphabet has not yet been decided, but it shows affinities with Latin, Greek and other European alphabets. It was used throughout the Germanic world, and the oldest inscriptions found in Scandinavia are thought to date from the beginning of the third century AD. These early inscriptions are generally short, consisting of a word or two, or a name, or sometimes of groups of letters which defy interpretation, although they must have had a meaning for the masters who painstakingly carved them.
The runes were said to be divine (reginkuðr) 3; Odin had acquired them, as it seems, from the world of death, and they had a mystical force. Their significance becomes plainer as time draws on. The inscription of some 200 runes found at Eggjum, in western Norway, and said to be written early in the eighth century, is plainly magical in content. A recent scholar claims to find a direct allusion to Odin in it. The stone from Rök in Östergötland (Sweden) belongs to the early Viking Age and contains some 700 runic symbols. It was set up by a father in memory of his son. It is partially in verse, and is thus a rare record of pre-Christian Swedish poetry and, indeed, of heroic tradition. Towards the end of the pagan period, we find inscriptions over graves in which a pagan deity is invoked directly in such terms as þórr vigi (may Thór hallow, protect)
The place-names of Scandinavia, studied in conjunction with the literature, are especially informative. From the point of view of religious history, those of Norway have been sifted most carefully, and particularly by M. Olsen, to whose books and papers I shall frequently refer. Swedish place-names of religious interest have also been studied in some detail, and provide much evidence of heathen cults, while those of Denmark are also valuable. The place-names of Iceland, none older than the late ninth century, tell much about the distribution of temples and the worship of certain gods, of whom Thor was the foremost.
philologically many of the place-names are difficult to interpret, but one of their chief values is that they show something about gods and their cults before the Viking Age, when Iceland was peopled and our oldest poetic records took shape. They also show how eminent were 50me of the gods and goddesses, such as UIl (Ullinn), Hörn (identified by Snorri with Freyja) who, for us, are only shadowy figures. Occasionally they preserve names of gods and goddesses of whose existence we should otherwise hardly know. Place-names also show how one god might be worshipped with another, or perhaps a god next to a goddess, and how some gods were favoured in one region and others elsewhere. Much can also be learnt from place-names about the distribution of temples and more primitive places of worship at various ages.
No branch of Norse study has made greater advances in the last century than the archaeology of prehistoric times, and the findings are proving of ever-growing value for the study of social conditions, art and religious history.
Interpretation of the various objects discovered must be left to specialists, but so many useful handbooks are available that even a layman can form some ideas about their meaning.
Undoubtedly the finds give some insight into religious concepts of prehistoric periods which fall outside the scope of this book. J. Maringer, in the present series, has described the rock-carvings and paintings of the so-called Arctic Stone Age and considered their relations with the older, naturalistic art of palæolithic Europe. The objects so naturalistically depicted by Stone Age artists are chiefly animals, especially reindeer and elk, occasionally bears and sometimes whales and fishes.
This is the art of a hunting people, and it is agreed that its purpose is either religious, magical or both. By naturalistic drawing man could gain power over his quarry; he might also invoke the deities who ruled the animal world.
Some believe that this arctic art derived from the palæolithic art of western Europe. Comparison with the art and practices of modern arctic and other primitive peoples may gradually explain its meaning. In short, it must be said that it is not yet possible to trace any link between it and the Old Norse religion with which we are now concerned.
The gradual introduction of agriculture, say 3000 BC, inevitably led to a more settled form of life, and a changed religious outlook. Gods of the hunt must give way to gods of the soil. The Megalith graves, evidently introduced from abroad in the third millennium BC, probably implied changed views about life after death. Whole families were interred together, generation after generation. Probably they were thought to live on in their dead bodies, much as they had done in this life.
A conception of this kind, of the living corpse, was widespread in Scandinavia in the Viking Age, but it cannot be known whether the beliefs of the Megalith people had any historical relations with those of the classical Norsemen. They could well have developed independently.
The so-called Battle-axe people invaded Scandinavia from the south and south-east, probably early in the second millennium BC. The were so-named from their characteristic weapon, and changed the civilization of Scandinavia radically. Megaliths gave way to single graves, again implying changed beliefs about death. The invade blended with the Megalith people, until a unified culture was established
Whatever their predecessors may have been, many specialists believe that the Battle-axe people were Indo-Europeans. This means that they spoke an Indo-European language and had adopted something of the culture which has come to be called Indo-European.
Even if this is doubted, it is plain that an Indo-European people overran Scandinavia in prehistoric times. The original home of the Indo-Europeans is still disputed, but we may well believe that, before their language split up into its divergent groups, they had certain religious concepts which developed differently among different peoples This may have some importance for the study of Norse religion.
J. Grimm and many succeeding scholars have been astonished b certain similarities between myths of the Indo-European world from India to Iceland, and some of the religious practices resemble each other too closely to be explained by chance. Scholars have thus bee led to think of a common Indo-European inheritance. It must, ho ever, be allowed that the religious conceptions of the different groups Indo-Europeans were influenced by those of other cultures with which they came into contact.
It is not known that Scandinavia suffered any major invasion after that of the Battle-axe people, and it may be supposed that there h been a certain cultural continuity since that time, although trade an travel kept the way open to foreign influences.
Such influences led to the Bronze Age, covering the period from about 3500 to 500 BC. This age was one of great wealth, especially Denmark, as is shown by the priceless treasures which survive. For the study of religion, the rock-carvings are of greatest interest. They are found over a wide area, particularly in Skáne and coastal district. They are in many ways unlike the beautiful pictures of the Arctic Stone Age. Little attempt is made to reproduce nature, and there little art. The figures are drawn schematically and the motives are very varied.
It would be rash for any but the specialized archaeologist to attempt to interpret these stylized pictures, but the absence of artistic endeavor may, in itself, give evidence of religious purpose. The most common of the figures depicted are ships, which are often surmounted with trees, and especially discs. Sometimes groups of men are seen together with one several times their size. Men are depicted swinging axes, fighting and shooting bows. Some men support circular objects. Marriage scenes are depicted and ithyphallic figures are common. The impression of footprints is also much favoured, while ploughs and ploughmen provide common motives.
If, as is now generally supposed, the pictures are religious symbols, they must belong to a people who lived largely by agriculture. The discs and concentric circles, whether supported by men, ships or standing alone, are thought to represent the sun. The ship, sometimes carrying a disc, could be carrying the sun over the sky, but it may also turn our thoughts to the numerous ships buried in howes and the descriptions of ship funerals from later ages. It could be bearing the dead to the Other World. In fact, there is little contradiction in this, for as I shall attempt to explain in later chapters, death and fertility are hardly separable.
The pictures of the Stone Age did not provide clear evidence of belief in personal gods, although this is not to deny that they were worshipped. There is greater reason to believe that the pictures of the Bronze Age reflect such beliefs. We see little men, sometimes accompanying a big man, generally ithyphallic, and sometimes carrying an axe. The big man may represent a god, and the tool may be a symbol of his divine power, even the forerunner of Thor's hammer, bringing thunder and rain. The footprints may be those of a god, believed to have been present on one or another occasion. The sun-discs and other objects depicted on the rocks may thus be symbols of the sun-god and of other divinities.
There are many other finds dating from the Bronze Age which must have a religious meaning. These are commonly precious objects planted in bogs or pools, as if as votive offerings. Among the most remarkable is the famous disc from Trundholm, in Zealand, dating from the early Bronze Age. This consists of a richly decorated disc, standing on six wheels and drawn by a horse. The disc is, on one side, gilded. It may represent the sun and, if so, it represents a conception like that known from the Vafþrúðnismál (strs. 12-14) and from later sources. The horse, Skinfaxi (Shining maned) is said to draw the sun, or day, over men, while another horse, Hrimfaxi (Frost-maned), is said to draw the night. Perhaps the gilded side of the disc represents day, and the other night.
Heathen burial customs can be followed in detail to the end of the pagan period. These customs were undoubtedly founded on beliefs i~ the after-life, although the meaning may have been forgotten by man who practiced them. In some cases they may even have been adopted as fashions from foreign lands, having little significance for the Scandinavians. As Snorri was well aware, inhumation alternated with cremation and, in some regions, the two went on together. The Viking Age was the richest in grave-goods and the most splendid of all graves was that found at Oseberg in S.E. Norway, dating from the ninth century. Besides the ordinary necessities of life, this grave contained a magnificent yacht, a decorated chariot, a bucket adorned with a figure like Buddha, elaborate tapestries and the bones of about sixteen horses. This woman, who was perhaps a queen, was well provided for her journey to the Other World. The grave-goods of Iceland have lately been studied in close detail. Poor as they are these throw considerable light on conceptions of the after-life.
The Indo-European language split up into its different dialects, an with these went divergent cultures. The Germanic dialect is thought to have developed during the first millennium BC, and its home is sought. in northern Germany or perhaps in Denmark. We can now speak, although with certain reservations, of a Germanic culture and religion, practiced by all peoples who spoke the Germanic dialect until their religion gave way to Christianity. The Goths who, according to their own traditions, had emigrated from Scandinavia and settled in south Russia, followed some of the same religious practices which we know from Scandinavian records of the Middle Ages. Sparse as the literal records are, we know that some of the deities worshipped were called by the same names in all Germanic lands.
Among the closest neighbours of the Germanic peoples were, for a long time, the Celts, with whom their traditions had much in common. We may even suppose that some of the Celtic and Germanic traditions, such as those of Sigurd and Finn, developed in close proximity to each other.
It was remarked that the Bronze Age was one of riches. The use of iron first became known in Scandinavia about 500 BC, and this was a age of poverty and deteriorating climate; it is likely that some of the northern regions of Scandinavia now became uninhabitable. There were probably political reasons for the decline in economy as well. The Celts had come to dominate the trade-routes of central Europe, the isolating Scandinavia from the rich markets of the Mediterranean. Economic recovery hardly set in before the last centuries BC.
It was during this time that classical authorities first showed an interest in the north. In the fourth century BC Pytheas of Marseilles had sailed round Britain and from Shetland he had reached 'Thule', probablv meaning Norway. Although Pytheas's work survives only in the excerpts of later writers, it contains a number of observations on the geography of the north and the life of the inhabitants. Pytheas did not, as far as is known, describe the religious practices of the northerners.
Ceasar made some general statements about the social organization and religion of Germans, but he was struck chiefly by the differences between them and the Gauls. The Germans had no druids and no interest in sacrifice, worshipping only gods whom they could see, the sun, Vulcan and the moon. Such remarks probably apply to Germans on the Rhine, and certainly present a one-sided picture of religious practice and organization.
Tacitus in his Germania, written C. AD 98, presented a lucid picture of the civilization of continental Germans and threw some light on that of Scandinavia. It is now generally believed that he worked chiefly from older books, and especially from a lost Bella Germaniae of the Elder Pliny (c. AD 23-79), although he must also have gained information from merchants, soldiers and others who had penetrated Germany.
Many of Tacitus's observations on the religion of the Germans help to explain those of Scandinavia as they are described in later times. His description of the cult of the goddess Nerthus on an island in the north is of especial importance (Njord and Freyr-Froði-Nerthus-Ing).
As we approach the Middle Ages, the writings of the foreign observers grow richer. The Gothic historian, Jordanes (c. 55o), wrote of the history and traditions of his own people who, as he asserts, had come from Scandinavia. This slight history is an excerpt of a larger one written by Cassiodorus (c. 490-580), which is now lost. Cassiodorus, in his turn, followed older historians, most of whose work has perished.
Rimbert (died 888), priest and afterwards bishop, described the journeys of the missionary Anskar (died 865) among Danes and especially Swedes, first in 829 and again about the middle of the ninth centurv. Although hagiographic in tone, the Vita Anskarii contains valuable observations on Scandinavian heathendom. In his History of the Bishops of Hamburg (c. 1070), Adam of Bremen wrote especially of Swedish paganism, giving detailed accounts of festivals, sacrifice and of the glorious temple of Uppsala.
Vernacular writers of the Viking Age told of Norse heathens who had invaded their lands. Foremost of these are the English and Irish chroniclers. The Nestorian Chronicle throws some light on the practices of Norsemen settled in Russia. Arab travellers of the tenth century also left interesting descriptions of Norsemen whom they had met in Russia in the tenth century. The most remarkable of these Arab write was Ibn Fadlán, who gave an unusually detailed account of a shi burial among Norsemen in Russia and of the beliefs which it expressed.
The works of the foreign chroniclers are valuable because the described contemporaries, some of whom they had seen with their own eyes. But, in general, it must be admitted that few medieval foreigners took an objective interest in Norse heathendom. They regarded it as diabolical superstitition to be eradicated.
Scandinavian scholars of the present century frequently allude to the practices of Finns and especially of Lapps, believing that these ma throw light on those of their Scandinavian neighbours. The Lappish and Finnish practices have been recorded only in recent centuries, but some specialists believe that Lapps and Finns were influenced by the religion of the Scandinavians as early as the Bronze Age. They could thus preserve features of Norse religion in a form older than we would otherwise know them.
Popular practices, sayings and superstitions, which survive today have been used by some scholars as sources of Old Norse religious history. They may sometimes confirm the conclusions which we draw from older records, and I shall refer to them here and there. It is, how ever, doubtful whether such sources have great independent value Scandinavians, like other European peoples, suffered waves of foreign influences after they adopted Christianity. They were in contact wit foreigners and they read books.
Old Norse Poetry
Among the richest sources for the study of northern heathendom are the poetic ones, many of which will be mentioned and some described in the following chapters, although a few introductory words should b said now.
The Old Norse poetry is of various ages, but hardly any of it is pre served except in manuscripts written in Iceland in the thirteenth an later centuries. It falls broadly into two classes, called the 'Eddaic' an the 'scaldic'. Inappropriate as these terms are, the differences between the two kinds of poetry will be discussed below.
The Eddaic poetry owes its name to a small, unpretentious manuscript, commonly known as the 'Elder' or 'Poetic Edda', in which most of the poems of this class are preserved. This manuscript w written in Iceland in the later decades of the thirteenth century, or about 1170, but it derives from one or more lost manuscripts writen early in that century. In fact the name 'Edda' did not originally be long to this book, but to Snorri's Edda, which will be discussed later. It was first applied to the 'Elder Edda' in the seventeenth century.
The Eddaic poetry is distinguished from the scaldic largely in its form. It is composed in three distinct measures, of which there are minor variants, but all of them are rhythmical and alliterative, and the syllables are not strictly counted. The Eddaic poetry is thus of the same type as Old English and German poetry, as exemplified in the 'Fight at Finnsburh' and the 'Lay of Hildebrand'.
In substance, and it is this alone which concerns us now, the Eddaic poetry is chiefly of two kinds, mythical and heroic. The one kind describes the world of gods, and the other that of such legendary heroes as Sigurd, Helgi and Ermanaric. The distinction, mythical and heroic, may be found unwarrantably sharp. It will be seen in later chapters that some of the earthly heroes were originally divine, or lived against a background of myth.
The poems about gods are, in their turn, of several kinds. Some of them are narrative, telling of the gods' fates and adventures, and these may be compared with the heroic lays. Others are didactic and, in them, mysteries of the universe, of gods and men, their origins and end are disclosed.
The most renowned of the divine poems is the Voluspa (Sibyl's Prophecy). There is no poem in early Germanic literature of such scope. As presented, it is spoken by a sibyl (volva) born before the world began. She addresses men and gods, and particularly Odin. The sibyl tells about primeval chaos and its giants, the beginning of the world and of men. She describes the age of the youthful, innocent gods, their trials and corruption and finally the impending doom in the Ragnarök (Doom of the gods).
Although the subject of the Voluspa is pagan, few would now deny that it is coloured by Christian symbols, and particularly in the description of the Ragnarök. This had led to the conclusion that it was composed about the beginning of the eleventh century, when men were turning from the old religion to the new.
While the Voluspa stands supreme as a literary monument, it must be treated with reserve as a source of mythology. It has a logical unity lacking in many poems of the Edda. It must be judged as the work of a mystic, an individual who did not necessarily express views on the fates of gods and men which were popular in his time.
Among the narrative poems, the Skirnismal (Words of Skirnir), telling of Freyr's courtship of his bride from the giant world, will be much (quoted in the body of this book. The þrymskviða will also be cited several times. This is a burlesque, telling how Thor's hammer had fallen into the hands of giants. The giant (Thrym) would restore it only if he could have Freyja as his bride. Therefore the virile Thor must go to the giant land disguised as the goddess Freyja. There he recovered his hammer and overcame the giants.
Two of the didactic poems, the Grimnismál (Words of Grímnir) and the Vafþrudismál (Words of Vafthrúðnir) are especially valuable as sources of myth. Both of them are presented in frames, and Odin appears in disguise. In the Grímnismál, using the name Grímnir (Masked) he comes to an earthly king Geirrøð. The King, believing that Grimnir was a wizard, had him seized and tortured between two fires, where h~ thirsted for eight days until the King's son took pity on him and brought him drink. In this state, the god spoke as if he saw visions. He described dwellings of many gods. Odin's own home, Valhöll, is described in two passages of the Grímnismál, and these are the only detailed account of it which survive in early poetry. Odin later spoke of rivers flowing through the worlds of gods, men and the dead, and of the world tree Yggdrasill, its roots and torments. He spoke again of the formation the world out of the flesh, blood and bones of the giant Ymir. Finally the accursed King Geirrod fell on his sword and died.
The Grimnismdl includes many beautiful strophes. In parts it ma seem disjointed, and the text may contain some interpolations, but, in perceptive study, M. Olsen showed that it has a fundamental artisti unity.
The Vafþrudismál is equally valuable as a work of art and as source. The disguised Odin visits the aged giant, Vafthrudnir, wishing to test his wisdom. First the giant asks Odin a few questions about the cosmos, and then god and giant settle down to a contest of wits, of which each wagers his head.
It is Odin's turn to ask questions, and the giant answers seventeen of them correctly. He tells of the origin of earth, of heaven, moon, sun of worlds of the dead, of life in Valholl, of the Ragnarok and its sequel Odin's eighteenth question defeats him. He discloses his own identified by asking what Odin had whispered into Baldr's ear before he went to the funeral pyre. None but Odin can answer this, and so the giant' head was forfeit.
Whatever its age, there is no reason to doubt the unity of the Vafþrúðnismal. Whether the work of a devout pagan or of a Christian antiquarian, it is a short handbook of myth.
In the Lokasenna (Flyting of Loki), gods and goddesses are assemble at a feast in the hall of the sea-god, Ægir, and Loki arrives uninvited He hurls abuse at one after another; he boasts of his own evil deeds an reminds goddesses of their illicit love-affairs, even with himself. While Loki's abuse is often crude, it generally has a sound basis in myth. It was not without reason that he accused Freyja of incest (Njord and Freyja), and probably not when he boasted that Odin has once been his foster-brother.
Another flyting poem is the Hárbarðsljóð in which Thor and Odin confront each other. Odin, this time under the name Hárbarð (Grey-beard), appears as a ferryman, while Thor, on his way from the giant world in the east, asked for a passage over the water. The ferryman was stubborn and abusive, and the two gods began to boast, each of his own achievements. Ha'rbard boasted chiefly of his amorous successes, of his magical powers and of how he incited princes to fight. It was he who took the fallen princes, while the thralls were left for Thor. Thor, in his turn, told how he had beaten the giants. The whole world would be peopled by them were it not for him.
The particular interest of the Hárbarðsljóð is that it emphasizes the differences between the two foremost gods of the hierarchy. On the one side stands the cunning trickster, Odin, promoter of war; on the other the valiant Thor, who protects our world from the giants.
In the Codex Regius, the chief manuscript of the Edda, the title Havamal is applied to a collection of about 164 strophes. In applying this title, the redactor showed that he regarded all of these strophes as the words of Odin, the High One (Hávi). Whether he was right or wrong, it is plain that the collection includes some six poems, or fragments, about various subjects and of devious origin.
The first eighty strophes of the Havamdl are not strictly mythical, but rather gnomic. They embody cynical rules of conduct such as we might expect in the Viking Age of a society in the throes of social and political upheaval. In other sections Odin tells of his amorous experiences; how one woman had fooled him, and how he had fooled another, robbing her of the precious mead of poetry. In another section (Strs 138-145), Odin tells how he hung for nine nights on the windswept tree, and thus acquired runes and poetry and much of his occult wisdom. Obscure as these strophes are, they give some insight into the mystical aspects of the pagan religion.
The last section of the Havamal (Strs. 146-63), the so-called Ljóðata1 (list of songs) consists of a list of magic songs of which the speaker is master. He can blunt the weapons of his enemies, break his bonds, turn a javelin in flight, get the better of witches and make the hanged man talk. In the final strophe the title Havamal is used in verse, suggesting that it is correctly applied at least to this last section.
As already said, the heroic lays of the Edda also contain much mythical matter. This applies especially to the lays of the two Helgis, in which
Odin and his valkyries play a decisive part. The so-called Sigrdrífumál (Words of Sigrdrífa), in which Sigurð awakens the sleeping valkyrie, contains gnomic utterances like those in the first section of the Havamal, as well as a list of the magical uses of runes. Poems about the young Sigur6 also present the hero as the favourite of Odin.
If we could know the ages of the mythical lays and where they originated, we should be better able to evaluate them as sources of religious history. As I have said, such lays are scarcely to be found except in Icelandic manuscripts. Most of them are preserved in the Codex Regius of the later thirteenth century, and some in the related fragment (commonly called 'A') of the beginning of the fourteenth century.
These manuscripts are commonly agreed to derive from one or more written in Iceland early in the thirteeth century.
In recent years, the Norwegian scholar, D. A. Seip, has attempted to show that the manuscript sources, at least of many of the Eddaic lays, were Norwegian, and were written in the twelfth century. Such a conclusion, if accepted, would revolutionize our conceptions of the development of Norwegian and Icelandic literatures. Seip's arguments are brilliant and persuasive, but few scholars have been able to agree with his conclusions.
Probably the lays were first written in Iceland early in the thirteenth century, and the redactors were guided by the antiquarian interests of their age. But this does not show that all the lays originated in Iceland. The Voluspa, as stated above, seems to date from the beginning of the eleventh century. The symbolism in it is coloured, not only by Christian legend, but also by the scenery of Iceland, its volcanoes, sandy beaches, even its midnight sun. It expresses the religious conceptions, not of a people, but of one Icelander.
The Havamal was mentioned, and parts of it will be discussed in later chapters. The first eighty strophes, if they are to be assigned to an age and a country, should probably be assigned to Viking Norway. One of the strophes is quoted by the Norwegian Eyvind the Plagiarist in his memorial lay on Hakon the Good, composed about 960. The mystical passages of the Havamal (Strs. 138-164) must also belong to the Heathen Age, and their home is likely to be Norway, where the cult of runes was old and deep.
There may be little dispute about the ages and origins of the Voluspa and of various sections of the Havamal, but there is little agreement about other lays. The prototypes of some of the heroic lays, such as the Hamðismál are believed to be continental, and, in some cases, to go back to the Dark Ages, but this cannot be said of the extant mythical lays. Although the continental Germans certainly had myths, and probably
incorporated them in lays,16 the mythical lays found in the Icelandic manuscripts can hardly derive from these ancient Germanic ones. It might well be argued that some of them originated in Sweden, Denmark, and in the Viking colonies of the British Isles.
A number of the mythical lays were quoted by Snorri in the Gylfaginning. These include the Voluspa, Grimnismál, Vafþrúðnismál and, to a lesser extent, Skírnismál, Lokasenna and Hávamál. Whether or not Snorri had such lays in written form, it is plain that he believed them to be very old. This suggests that even the latest of them were composed some generations before Snorri's time.
In general, it must be admitted that critics fall back on subjective arguments in dating the mythological lays. While the one says that þrymskviða was composed in the tenth century, others argue that it dates from the twelfth century or the thirteenth, or even that it is the work of Snorri Sturluson. Rígsþula is said by some to belong to the tenth century, while others assign it to the late thirteenth. It may be hoped that detailed analysis of the language, metres and syntax will give us clearer ideas about the ages and homes of the mythical lays than we have now.
When we study the myths, the ages of the poems may be of less importance than might appear at first sight. The survival of pagan tradition as late as the thirteenth century is well proved by the works of Snorri. Even if Snorri were the author of the þrymskviða, its value as a source would not be altogether vitiated.
The surviving mythical lays are only a fraction of those which once existed. The extant lays contain material of many different kinds, whose authors had different aims. While some of the lays are didactic, and some may contain relics of ritual poetry, others, like the Þrymskviða, are designed for entertainment. In many, the author's object is primarily artistic. The lays are not hymns, and the Edda is not a sacred book.
The Eddaic lays reflect the myths in which their authors believed, or else treasured as hereditary tradition. But the sharp contrast between the lays and the historical records suggests that the lays give a one-sided picture of religious life. In the lays, Thor, the bold defender of Miðgarð, is put in the background, and even laughed at, while Odin reigns supreme. This may help to show the social conditions under which poetry of this kind developed. Odin is not only the god of poetry; he is also god of princes and warriors.
As noted above, the term 'scaldic', as used today, has no basis in Old Norse, but derives only from the word skáld (skald), meaning 'poet'.
The modern usage is a loose one and a precise definition of scaldic poetry is hardly to be found. We think commonly of the difference between the scaldic and the Eddaic as one of form. While the Eddaic lays are in free, rhythmical metres, in the scaldic poetry every syllable counted and measured. Not everyone would accept this definition, for the Eddaic and the scaldic differ also in substance.
The Eddaic poetry is all anonymous, telling of gods and of hero who lived in a distant past. Most of the scaldic poetry is ascribed t named authors. Its subject is not, in the first place, myth or legend, but rather contemporary history. The scalds praise a chieftain for his valor and generosity, either during his lifetime or in a memorial lay mad after his death. They commemorate a battle between princes of Scandinavia or the British Isles, or even a scrap between Icelandic farmers
The measures used by the scalds do not always differ from those of the Eddaic poets. One of the better-known scalds was Thorbjörn Hornklofi, a favourite of Harald Finehair (died C. 945). His most famous work is the Haroldskvæð (Lay of Harald) or Hrafnsmál (Words of the Raven), of which a considerable part survives. This lay is presented in a frame, like some of the Eddaic ones. It consists of a dialogue between valkyrie and a raven. The bird, ever since he was hatched, had followed the young king, rejoicing in the carrion left on the battlefield. This ma be called a scaldic poem, but Thorbjörn uses, not the syllabic measure typical of scaldic poetry, but the simpler measures of the Edda. At the same time, he uses some abstruse imagery generally associated wit scaldic poetry. The same could be said of the Eiriksmál, a lay made in memory of Eirik Bloodaxe, killed in England about the middle of the tenth century, as well as of the Hákonarmál, composed by Eyvind th Plagiarist in memory of Hákon the Good, who died in Norway a few years later. These two lays are especially interesting in the picture which they give of the reception of dead chiefs in Valholl.
The poems so far mentioned could be called 'half-scaldic', and th same could be said of the Ynglingatal (List of the Ynglingar), in which Thjóðlf of Hvin, another contemporary of Harald Finehair, traced the descent of Norwegian princes to the illustrious Ynglingar, kings of th Swedes.
The Eddaic poetry, the half-scaldic and the strictly scaldic went on together. Thjodolf of Hvin, Thorbjorn Hornklofl and Eyvind the Plagiarist also left poetry in strict scaldic form.
We must consider briefly what this form is. As already said, this is syllabic poetry. There are many different measures, but the one most widely used was the Court Measure (Dróttkvætt). The lines consisted of six syllables, of which three were stressed. Each line ended in trochee, and the lines were bound by alliteration in pairs. The measure was strophic, and the strophe consisted of eight lines, divided by a deep cæsura into half-strophes of four lines. The scaldic verses are often transmitted in half-strophes, and it is likely that the half-strophe of four lines was the original unit. Internal rime and consonance are employed, generally according to strict rules.
Syllable-counting was not characteristic of Germanic poetry, and its introduction was a break with the Germanic tradition. For this and other reasons, some have believed that the scaldic technique was an innovation devised in the ninth century under foreign influences, notably medieval Latin and Irish.
The first to whom poetry in scaldic form is ascribed was Bragi Boddason, the Old. Bragi's chief surviving poem is the Ragnarsdrápa (Lay of Ragnar) of which twenty strophes and half-strophes are preserved in Snorri's Edda. The poet describes the pictures painted on a shield said to be given to him by Ragnar Loðbrók. These pictures were scenes from legend and myth; they included Gefjun's plough and Thor's struggle with the World Serpent.
We read in several sources of a god of poetry, called Bragi. It will be suggested in a later chapter that the historical Bragi devised the scaldic form of poetry, and that he was promoted to godhead after death.
Several later scalds followed Bragi's tradition in describing pictures of mythical scenes. In the Haustlong, which is also a 'shield' poem, Thjodolf of Hvin described the rape of Iðunn and Thor's battle with the giant Hrungnir. In the elaborate þórsdrápa (Lay of Thor), of the late tenth century, Eilíf Guðrúnarson described Thor's visit to the giant Geirrod. This lay may also be based on pictures. Úlf Uggason in his Húsdrápa (house Lay), composed late in the tenth century, described panels carved on the inner timbers of a house in Iceland. The scenes depicted included the cremation of Baldr and the fight between Loki and Heimdall for possession of the Brising necklace.
Egill Skalla-Grímsson (c. 910-990) was, without doubt, the greatest master of the scaldic art. He was one of those tenth-century Icelanders who had travelled far and seen much. He had lived as a Viking, fighting battles in England and other lands. His verses are not generally about religious subjects, but they are rich in allusion to myth, and especially to Odin, god of poetry.
The earliest scalds, or court poets, of whom we read, were Norwegians, although their work is preserved chiefly in Icelandic manuscripts. It is strange that after Lyvind the Plagiarist (died C. 990) we hear little more of Norwegian scalds, and their successors were nearly all Icelanders.36 One of the foremost of these was Emar Skalaglamin, a younger friend of Egill Skalla-Grimsson. His chief work is the Vellekia (Gold-dearth), made in praise of Hákon the Great (died 995). Hakon, who was an ardent pagan, had expelled the half-Christian sons of Eirik Bloodaxe, and Emar, in magnificent language, celebrates the restoration of temples and sacrifice.
Hallfreð, nicknamed the troublesome poet, was the particular favourite of the Christian king, Olaf Tryggvason (died AD 1000), who, with difficulty, converted him to the new religion. In some of his verses, Hallfred expresses his regret at deserting the heathen gods of his ancestors.
The Icelandic Family Sagas contain numerous scaldic verses, made for one occasion or another. In their kennings these are often valuable; as sources of mythology. Some of those dating from the period of the Conversion have religious themes. A woman poet, Steinunn, praised the god Thor for wrecking the ship of the missionary, Thangbrand (c. 999)
From the present point of view the interest of the scaldic poetry is largely in its diction. All poets use periphrases, but the scalds developed these periphrases, or kennings as they are called, in ways of which other Germanic poets had not dreamed. Any poet might call the sea the 'land of waves', but when a poet calls it the 'blood of Ymir', the 'wounds of the giant's neck', it is plain that he is addressing hearers to whom myth was familiar.
The kenning, as has sometimes been said, may present a myth in miniature. Many of the kennings for poetry are based upon the myth of its origin, or of Odin's theft of ~ It may be called the 'blood of Kvasir', 'rain of dwarfs', 'theft of Odin', the 'hallowed cup of the raven-god'.
Scaldic poetry dates from the ninth century to the thirteenth (and even later). Most of it is assigned to named poets, whose dates are approximately known. It has been said that the mythological kennings declined early in the eleventh century with the introduction of Christianity, to revive as meaningless phrases about the middle of the twelfth century.40 Such a conclusion should be accepted with reserve. Much of' the surviving poetry dating from 995-1030 was dedicated to the fanatical Christian kings, Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf the Saint, who understandably disliked pagan imagery. The fragments left by humbler Icelandic poets of the period, e.g. Gizur Gullbrárskald and HofgarðaRef, suggest that pagan tradition was cherished and that it was not broken. This may partly explain how the pagan myths survived in Iceland until the thirteenth century.
Much of the scaldic poetry is preserved in the works of Snorri and in the sagas of kings and of Icelanders. Every reader must wonder whether the ascription to this or that poet is correct. In some cases it is clearly not. Few would believe that all the verses ascribed to Grettir Ásmundarson (died C. 1031) were really his work, and many have questioned the authenticity of the verses ascribed to Gísli Súrsson (died C. 978) But few have doubted that many verses are correctly ascribed to the Norwegian and Icelandic scalds of the ninth and tenth centuries. Even if some of the verses are spurious, they can, in many cases, be proved by linguistic argument to be much older than the prose texts in which they are embedded. Without explanation, many of the scaldic verses would be meaningless, and could not live. It follows that many of the explanations of these verses, found in prose sources, whether correct or not, date from an early period. The scaldic poetry is one of the most valuable sources of myth.
Histories and Sagas
Comparatively little history was written in medieval Scandinavia, except in Iceland. History was first written in that country about the end of the eleventh century, and the first work of which we hear was a history of the kings of Norway, written by the aristocratic priest, Sæmund Sigiússon (1056-1133). We read that Sæmund had studied in France, most probably in Paris, and it is likely that continental models prompted him to undertake this work. It is nearly certain that Saemund wrote in Latin. His history is lost, but references to it in later works, and occasional quotations from it, show that it was a concise history, and suggest that Saemund laid great emphasis on the chronology of the kings' lives.
Saemund's younger contemporary, An Thorgilsson (3067-1148) is of far greater significance. He too was a priest and was the first to write history in Icelandic or any Scandinavian language. An's surviving Luellus Islandorum (Islendingabók) is a summary history of Iceland from the settlement in the late ninth century to his own time. He wrote, in the first place, for the bishops of Iceland, and shows especial interest in the Conversion of the Icelanders (AD 1000) and in the history of the early Church. In fact the extant version of this book is a second one, but some later historians, and especially Snorri, show that they knew the book in its original form. An is not a romancer, but writes as a scientific historian, stating and weighing his evidence.
The 'Book of Settlements' (Landnámabók) is a much more detailed history of Iceland, district by district and family by family. There are good reasons to believe that this was largely Ari's work, although it survives today only in versions of the thirteenth and later centuries, notably those of Sturla Thorðarson (died 1284), of Hauk Erlendsson (died 1334), in the fragmentary Melabók and in derivatives of these. The Laudnámabók is of immense value as a source of social and religious history. In one version (that of Hauk), it includes the opening clauses of the heathen law, introduced in Iceland about AD 930. These clauses provide for the administration of temples, for the position of the go (priest and chieftain), for sacrifice and for the form of the oat sworn in the names of Freyr, Njord and the all-powerful god. It is also laid down that none may approach the shores of Iceland with a dragon head on his ship, lest the guardian-spirits should take fright.
The Lananamabok must have taken many years to compile and much painstaking research, and it is likely that An had collaborators. A certain Kolskegg, probably an older contemporary of An, is named in the text as if he were author or source of some chapters about the east and south-east of the country.
There are some other scraps or schedae which may also be ascribed t An. One of these is a summary life of the chieftain Snorri Goði (died 1031), which was an important source for the Eyrbyggja Saga. The Droplaugar Sona Saga and the Bjarnar Saga Hitdaelakappa are also believed to be based partly on summary lives written in the twelfth century, and there were perhaps many more of these than we know of now. If so, they may give us confidence in the historicity of Family Sagas of the thirteenth century.
Certain histories in Latin and in the vernacular are also ascribed to Norwegians of the twelfth century. One of them, the Historia de antiquitate regum norwagensium was wntten by a monk, Theodricus (Theodoricus). It is a synoptic history of the kings from the ninth century to the twelfth, and is dedicated to Eysteinn, Archbishop of Niðaróss (died 1188). It is of no great importance for the present study, but it is interesting to notice how Theodricus pays tribute to Icelanders, who had preserved memories of antiquity in ancient verses. He can only refer to scaldic verses about the kings of Norway.
The Icelandic sagas, to which we must now turn, fall into several groups. The oldest of them, written about II 7090 treat chiefly of the two Christian kings of Norway, Ólaf the Saint (died 1030), and Olaf Tryggvason (died 100). These are markedly clerical works. Their form is modelled partly on that of medieval lives of saints, of which number were known in Iceland at that time. The material, on the other hand, is drawn much from scaldic poetry and other traditional sources.
These early biographies of kings are of less interest from the present point of view than are some of the later ones, and particularly those of Snorri, who made copious use, not only of older histories, but also of scaldic poetry and tradition (see Snorri Sturluson, below).
The Icelandic Family Sagas are among the most important of our sources and, at the same time, the most difficult to evaluate. They were mostly written in the thirteenth century, and tell of the lives of Icelanders who lived in the tenth and early in the eleventh century. It used to be said that many of them were composed almost at the time when the events described took place, and were transmitted orally, and nearly without change, until they were written down. If this were so these sagas could be trusted implicitly as records of history, but few believe it now. The Family Sagas must be studied as the product of a literary movement of the thirteenth century, perhaps the most astonishing in medieval Europe. They are often realistic, and this has led many to believe that they are historically exact.
In recent years, reaction against such views has gone far. We read Sometimes that these sagas are fiction and no more, and that their authors' concepts of pagan religion were based only on Christian outlook and prejudice.
D. Strömbäck has shown with telling examples how deeply the descriptions of pagan belief found in the sagas could be influenced by Christian legend. Nevertheless, the survival of scaldic poetry with its allusive diction implied a survival of pagan tradition. Moreover, some sagas, at least, drew on summary histories written early in the twelfth century, when memories of the Heathen Age still lived.
The Icelanders were converted to Christianity on one day in the year AD 1000, although pagan practices were permitted for some time afterwards. It is not extravagant to suppose that memories of heathendom lived on until, with the remarkable learning of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, they acquired an antiquarian value.
We should not speak of Family Sagas in any general way. Each one is governed by the aims, methods and sources of its author. Some authors, relying on the written and oral sources which they knew, aimed to write history, and this may more often be true of the older than of the later ones. For some the object was to entertain or to compose a work of art.
Few of the Family Sagas describe religious beliefs and practices in close detail. An exception is the Eyrbyggja Saga, whose author gave an account of the worship of Thor among the settlers of Iceland. He also left a detailed description of a temple and of the sacrifices conducted in it, as well as narratives illustrating conceptions of death which, as he believed, were current in the Heathen Age. As already remarked, this author used older histories, when these were available, as well as numerous scaldic poems and local traditions. His history may not be exact, but he may yet draw a fair picture of life and religion in pagan Iceland.
Some sagas, and especially the later ones, have been proved to be mainly, or even wholly fictitious. An example is the famous Hrafnkels Saga, one of the most realistic and convincing of the whole group. It has been shown that some of the leading characters in this saga never existed. In outline the story must be fiction, but this need not imply that the author created it out of nothing. The Hrafnkels Saga includes exceptionally interesting account of the worship of the god, Freyr, an of that god's relations with a dedicated stallion. Comparative stud shows that the author based this on reliable sources, whether write works now lost, poetry or amorphous tradition. For the study of relgious history it is not important whether Hrafnkell, the hero of the saga, worshipped Freyr in the manner described, or whether others did so.
Although most of the Family Sagas contain few details of religious life, they allude to many pagan practices. They tell of such practices sprinkling the new-born child with water, naming him, and occasion ally dedicating him to a god. They tell of temples, their administration and of dues payable for their upkeep. In contrast to the Eddas, the suggest that Thor was the favourite god of the Icelanders, and next t him came the fertility god, Freyr. Presiding over all is an impersonal, unapproachable fate.
Besides Family Sagas, we have to consider another group of sagas religious sources. These are sometimes called in English 'Heroic Sagas' and, in Icelandic, Fornaldar Sögur.' They are of many different kinds but, to define them in the simplest words, they are tales about heroes who were supposed to have lived before Iceland was peopled in the ninth century. They contain little history, but much tradition some of it ancient. Some of them tell of heroes of the Dark Ages, such as Ermanaric, Hrólf Kraki, and others of Viking heroes, such as Ragnar Loðbrók and his notorious sons. Others are based chiefly on mediev folklore and, in many, these three kinds of material are combined.
In their extant form, few Heroic Sagas can be older than the second half of the thirteenth century, and many date from the fourteenth century. There are some exceptions. The Skjoldunga Saga, a history of the mythical and legendary kings of the Danes, was known to Snorri, an Snorri himself compiled the rnglinga Saga (see Snorri Sturluson, below).
In some cases it is possible to see how Heroic Sagas were compiled The Volsunga Saga is based largely on lays about Sigurd and his kinsmen preserved in the Poetic Edda, and on some which have fallen from that book. Its introductory chapters contain much mythological matter drawn from unknown sources. The Heiðreks Saga, which also h much mythological interest, is based largely on verses, many of which are quoted in its text. Some of these verses are believed to be among th oldest preserved in Norse, while others probably date from the twelfth century.
Akhough most Heroic Sagas are written in a late form and style, some have a pre-literary history which can be followed comparatively closely. It is related in the þorgils Saga ok Hafliða how two stories were told at a wedding feast held in western Iceland in AD 1119. In one of these there was a Viking, Hröngvið, and a warrior king, Olaf. It was told how the cairn of a berserk had been plundered. A certain Hrómund Gripsson also appeared in the story, and many verses went with it. The roan who told this story is named as Hrólf of Skálmarnes, and it is said in the text that he had composed it (sarnan setta) himself. Since Hrólf is remembered as a poet, we may believe that he had composed the verses as well.
This passage in the þorgils Saga is difficult to interpret. Its age and , veracity have been questioned, but recent commentators have regarded ii as a genuine record. The story told by Hr6lf may have some slight basis in history, for Hr6mund appears in genealogies as if he had lived in Telemark in the eighth century. But, although there can have been little history in it, Hrólf's story survived orally for some two centuries. It appears in a sequence of verses (Griplur), probably of the fifteenth century, which are believed to be based on a saga of the fourteenth century.
The especial interest of this passage from the þorgils Saga is that it shows something about a Heroic Saga in preliterary form. Much of it was in verse, and in subject it was plainly related to some of the lays of the Edda, notably those of Helgi and the lost Káruljoð.
Saxo, writing early in the thirteenth century (see Saxo, below) also retold much that he had heard about gods and heroes of old, and much of this was in verse. The myths and legends were, in many cases, exceedingly ancient, but Saxo treated his sources freely and put his own interpretation upon them. The form in which the stories are presented in Heroic Sagas is a late, romantic one. These sagas were written chiefly for entertainment. In so far as they represent pagan myth and tradition, they bring us back to the world of the Eddaic lays. Odin, appearing one-eyed, or disguised, is often the decisive figure.
The works of Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241) have unique importance for the study of Norse heathendom, or rather Norse myths. They will often be quoted in the following pages, but have been discussed so fully in many books which are easily available that little need be said of them here.
Snorri came of a powerful family of northern Iceland, but at the age of two he was taken to Oddi, where he was brought up by Jón Loptsson
(1124-97), the most eminent chieftain of his age. Jón and his family the Oddaverjar, as they were called, dominated the cultural and politcal scenes of Iceland throughout the twelfth century, and Snorri's pr found learning and interest in antiquity must be traced largely to early years in their charge.
Snorri's foster-father, Jón, was described by contemporary write He was not only a secular chieftain, but was also a deacon in orders and despite his loose morals, a pious man. He was accomplished in the clerical arts, which he had learnt from his parents. His father, Lopt, was priest and was himself the son of S~mund (1056-I 133), who ha established not only the fortunes of the family hut also the practice writing history in Iceland.
Many of Saemund's descendants took holy orders and were noted for their learning. They were also proud of their family traditions, claiming to descend not only from the Sljöldungar, the ancient kings of Den; mark, but also from the kings of Norway. It was acknowledged that the mother of Jón Loptsson was a natural daughter of King Magnús Bareleg (died 1103). To commemorate this, an anonymous poet com posed a Nóregs Konunga Tal (List of the Kings of Norway), tracing the decent of Jón to the ninth century. This poem, in an antiquated style was based partly on the Chronicle of Saemund.
Some important historical works appear to have been wntten by th Oddaverjar or under their guidance. These include the Skjoldunga Saga and the Orkneyinga Saga, both of which Snorri used as sources.
Undoubtedly a large library was kept at Oddi, and we may suppose that Snorri acquired his taste for learning there. He did not take orders, which were now withheld from chieftains, and his education was rather that of a layman. While it cannot be shown that he studied Latin, as many of the Oddaverjar had done, he seems to have read all the historical, or quasi-historical literature written in Icelandic before his day. In his writing he made copious use of earlier works, sometimes alluding. to them by name, and sometimes copying word-for-word.
But Snorri did not use written sources alone; he also used oral ones,; and this greatly adds to the value of his work for the study of mythology..
The first of Snorri's major works was his Edda, written about 1220, which, to this day, remains the most valuable summary of Norse myths. It was not, in the first place, designed as a treatise on this subject, but rather on prosody. As it seems, Snorri was aware that the scaldic art was dying out, and believed that it should be revived and explained.. His Edda consists of a Prologue and four sections. The last section, which is called the Háttatal (List of verse-forms), was perhaps written first. It consists of 102 strophes exemplifying 100 different forms of verse. These
Verses are addressed to Hákon Hákonarson, the young King of Norway, and his uncle, Jarl Skúli. Snorri has added a detailed commentary on each form of verse which he uses, and this remains the basis of our knowledge of the metrical variations used by the scalds. It is the second and first sections of the book which chiefly concern us here. The second is called the Skálaskaparmál (Speech of Poetry). Snorri's aim in writing this section was to explain kennings and other poetical expressions used by the scalds. He illustrated their usage with lavish quotations from early poetry, and thus saved much from oblivion.
While explaining the kennings, Snorri often tells at length the myths or legends upon which they are based. He thus tells why poetry is denoted by such kennings as 'Kvasir's blood', 'the ship of the dwarfs', 'Odin's mead', and why gold is 'the speech of the giants', 'the payment for the otter', and battle 'the storm of the Hjaðings'.
Since the scaldic kennings were based to a great extent on myths, it was necessary to give a description of the Norse Olympus. Therefore Snorri wrote the first section of his Edda, the Gylfaginning (Deceiving of Gylfi), which is the section most widely read today, both for its literary and mythological interest. It is set in a kind of frame: Gylfi, a king of the Swedes, goes to Asgarð, the citadel of the supposed gods, who deceived his eyes by the force of their wizardry. He asked them question after question about the origins of the earth, of the giants, gods and men. He heard of the feats, failures and tragedies of the gods, and finally of the terrible Ragnarok, which is yet to come.
Snorri used many sources for the Gylfaginning, but a great part of it came from Eddaic poetry. It is likely that Snorri had received this poetry orally, although some believe that he had written versions of it. 'The outline of the story told to Gylfi was supplied by the Voluspa, from which Snorri quotes many strophes. Like the author of the Voluspa, Snorri traces the history of the gods from the beginning to the Ragnarok, but he has added much from other sources, quoting both from Eddaic poems known to us, and from others which are forgotten. He quoted no scaldic poetry except at the beginning, although he drew from it, and based some of his stories largely upon it.
Although educated as a layman, Snorri derived his literary education from men of clerical training. Consequently his views about heathen gods were coloured by Christian teaching. In the Gylfaginning he expresses a kind of euhemerism, but it is mixed with other views. The Æsir, who deceived Gylfi, were not really gods; they were wizards. They had evidently come to the north from Asia. Their original home, the ancient Ásgarð (Ásgarðr hinn forni) was identified with Troy. But euhemerism did not carry Snorri all the way. The gods, of whom his
hosts told Gylfi, were those whom they worshipped themselves (goð mogn þau, er peir blótuðu). They deceived Gylfi by pretending that the were the same as those gods (allir váru einir þeir æsir, er nú var frá sagt, ok þessir er ) þá váru þáu somu nofn gefin)
Snorri's Edda is preceded by a Prologue, which need hardly concern us here. This is so different from the rest of the book that some have doubted whether it is really Snorri's work, although manuscript evidence suggests that it is. The purpose of the Prologue is plain; it brings Norse mythology into line with the European learning of the age. It begins with the creation of the world, passes on to the flood, and tells how the name of God was forgotten, although people observed the wonders of nature and concluded that there must be some ruler over the elements. The geography of the world is then described, as well as the Trojan heroes, who were ancestors of the Norse gods. This story is filled in with genealogies of English origin, and it is told finally how the Æsir, the men of Asia, migrated to Sweden.
The reliability of Snorri's Edda as a source of mythology has been judged very variously. Snorri was writing more than two centuries after Iceland had adopted Christianity, and a Christian spirit runs through his work. He sometimes misunderstood the sources which he quoted, and tended to systematize and rationalize. Some critics have suspected that nearly everything which Snorri adds to known sources was invented, either by him or by his contemporaries. Thus the story which Snorri tells in the Gylfaginning (Ch. 6) of the drowning of the giants in the blood of one of their own race is merely an adaptation of the story of the biblical flood, far removed as it is. Similarly, it has been said, Loki had no place in the story of Baldr's death, because this is not plainly stated in the extant poetic sources, even if it is implied.
Such views have been found hypercritical, and a sharp reaction has set in in recent years. Using the comparative method, G. Dumezé1 has shown that Snorri's evidence cannot be so lightly dismissed. Many examples illustrating this will be quoted in the body of this work, but to take one of them, the story of the origin of poetry, 'the blood of Kvasir', finds a very close parallel in an Indian myth.
If we admit that Snorri had a deep knowledge of Norse myths, we may wonder how he acquired it. It is clear that the Skjö1dunga Saga and some 'mythography' had been written before Snorri's time, but it is doubtful whether this was much. Although Snorri's sources appear to be largely oral, it is difficult to understand how myths could have lived orally through two centuries of ardent Christianity. A partial answer may be given. Scaldic poetry had lived orally from the tenth century until Snorri's time, and new poetry, often about Christian subjects, was composed in the same vein throughout the period. Poetry of this kind is rarely self-explanatory; in other words commentators were needed to explain the kennings and sophisticated diction. We may believe that many of the stories which Snorri told in the Skáldskaparmál were based on the verbal commentaries of those who had instructed him in the scaldic art. Although they had originated in the scaldic period, these stories must have been modified, partly by successive narrators, and partly by Snorri himself.
It is another question how far Snorri gives a true picture of the pagan hierarchy. It seems one-sided. Odin, All-father, is presented under his many names as chief of all the gods, and once equated with God Almighty, while Thor is benevolent and, on occasion, fooled. The historical sources, on the other hand, show that, in Western Scandinavia at least, Thor enjoyed the widest respect and trust (see previous section). The reasons for this discrepancy are not difficult to see. Snorri was following the tradition of the poets. While the peasants placed their faith in Thor, Odin was the favourite god of the poets and of the princes who supported them. Poetry was Odin's mead, his theft, his burden.
In later life, Snorri turned more to history. The historical works commonly ascribed to him are the Saga of St. Olaf and the Heimskringla, a history of the Kings of Norway from the earliest times to the late twelfth century. There are also good reasons to believe that Snorri was the author of the Egils Saga. It may be supposed that these works were written between C. 1223 and 1235.
Snorri had travelled in Norway and S.W. Sweden (Gautland) in the years 1218-20, and his historical works may be regarded partly as the outcome of this visit. He shows a more detailed knowledge of the geography and traditions, both of Norway and Sweden, than he could be expected to acquire in Iceland alone.
It was suggested that Snorri had based much of his Edda on oral sources. But his historical works, treating largely of the Kings of Nor-way, depend largely on older sagas about these Kings, for many had been written before Snorri's time. Nevertheless, Snorri added much, partly from his own deductions and observations, and from stories which he had heard on his travels. As he says himself in his Prologue to the Heimskringla, he had a strong faith in the scaldic poetry made in honour of the kings whom he described, although he realized that it might be corrupt or misunderstood.
Snorri's histories contain numerous allusions to pagan practices, particularly those which cover the period of the Conversion, in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.
But for the study of myths, the most valuable of Snorri's historical, or quasi-historical works is the fnglioga Saga, the first section of the Heimskringla. Here Snorri tells of the mythical and legendary ancestors of the Ynglingar, the Kings of the Swedes.
Like many others, these Kings were believed to descend from the gods, and Snorri traces their mythical ancestry in some detail. He expresses the same euhemeristic views as he did in his Edda, but carries them further. He tells of the two tribes of gods, Æsir and Vanir, of the war between them and subsequent treaty. He tells how the gods, under the leadership of Odin, had come from Asia to Scandinavia, where Odin had distributed dominions among his sons and followers.
After Odin had died in Sweden, Njord was ruler of the Swedes, and after him his son Freyr. Freyr was also known by another name, Yngvi, and it was after him that the Kings were called Ynglingar.
In this part of the Heimskriogla, Snorri has used many sources of devious kinds, which could not profitably be discussed in this space. His chief source was the poem Ynglinga Tal (List of the Ynglingar), which was composed in the ninth century by the Norwegian Thjodolf of Hvin. The poet's aim was to glorify the petty kings of south-eastern Norway, demonstrating their descent from the splendid house of the Ynglingar.
The poem, of which some thirty-seven strophes survive, is a strange mixture of myth and history, and it is difficult to know whether some of those named as kings of the Swedes had ever lived or not. But the Ylaglinga Tal corresponds in many things closely with the Old English Beowulf, showing that the Swedish traditions embodied in this Norwegian poem go back to the sixth century at least.
In its present form, the Ynglinar Tal tells little about the Kings of the Swedes, except how they died and where they were buried. The be-ginning, which must have told of Odin, Njord, Freyr, is lost. It is not improbable that Snorri received this poem in written form; it seems to have been known to Ari Thorgilsson and to have influenced some other medieval writers, indirectly.
Whether or not it was written down before the time of Snorri, the Ynglinga Tal must certainly have been accompanied by explanatory stories, in which something more was told about the kings than their death and burial. It is also likely that, while he was in Sweden, Snorri heard some traditions which he incorporated in the Ynglinga Saga. He seems to know of the three great burial mounds at Uppsala, and to believe that three kings were buried in them.
Since the traditions upon which the Ynglinga Talis based reach so far back into antiquity, it is likely that it was itself based on poetry older than the ninth century. If so, much of this poetry was probably Swedish. It would be in the same tradition as the genealogical poetry mentioned by Tacitus (Germ. II), in which Germans celebrated their descent from Tuisto. Jordanes also alluded to poetry in which the Goths commemorated their ancestors, and he seemed to know records which told of the deaths of the Gothic princes and their burial.
Historical or not, the early kings of the Swedes were the kinsmen of the gods; they presided over the sacrifices and, on occasion, they were the victims of sacrifice. If only in death, cremation and inhumation, they reflect ancient religious beliefs and practices.
The Gesta Danorum of the Danish historian Saxo, nicknamed Grammaticus, will be mentioned frequently in this book. The work consists of sixteen books in Latin, and is a comprehensive history of the Danes from prehistoric times to the late twelfth century.
Saxo's aim and the conditions under which he worked may be considered briefly. He was probably born about 1150, and little is known of his life, except that he was secretary of Absalon, Bishop of Roskilde 1158 and Archbishop of Lund 1178-1201.
As Saxo himself tells, it was at the instigation of Absalon that he undertook his stupendous task. Its object was, in the first place, the glorification of the Danes which, in Saxo's mind, combined with a hatred of Germans. It is supposed that he began his work about I i85 and finished it long after Absalon's death. It is dedicated to Andreas died 1228), who succeeded Absalon, and to King Valdemar II (1202-42). The strictly historical section, covering Books X-XVI, from Harald Bluetooth (936-86) to Saxo's own time, was evidently written first, and was based on Danish sources.
The first nine Books, and it is these alone which concern us here, were probably written as an afterthought, forming an introduction to the whole.
These Books were completed about 1215, or a little later, and they are an invaluable source, not so much of early history as of legend, mythology and religious tradition.
The stories which Saxo tells are often chaotic and difficult to follow, and his sources and methods of work must be considered if his status as an authority is to he judged.
It is plain that, while Saxo used Danish folktales and oral traditions, these provided only a part of his material. The bulk of it was made up by west Norse tradition. A. Olrik, in his monumental work, Kilderne til Sakses Oldhistorie (I-II, 1892-94), attempted to distinguish the Danish from the West Norse elements and, in general, his conclusions must be accepted.
It is more difficult to discover how Saxo came to know these West Norse traditions. He provides a partial answer himself In his Prologue (p.3), he lavishes praise on the Tylenses, the men of Iceland (Thule); He praises them, not only for their sobriety and wisdom, hut especially for their profound knowledge of the ancient history of lands other than their own. He adds that he has composed 'no small part' (haut Paruams...partem) of his work by weaving together their narratives. In his Prologue (p.6), Saxo also gives a detailed and remarkably exact description of the island of Iceland, although there is nothing to suggest that he had ever been there himself. We may then wonder who were the Icelandic informants who told Saxo about their legends and their country. Olrik inclined to believe that there was only one 0 them, and this was Arnoldus Tylensis, who is identified with Arnhall Thorvaldsson, said in an Icelandic source to have composed poetry for; the King of Denmark, Valdemar the Great (1157-82). Only one story is told of Arnoldus, and that by Saxo in Book XIV (594); he was said to be in the company of Bishop Absalon about the year 1167, and was praised for his sagacity, knowledge of history and power of recounting
It is not known whether Saxo had met Arnoldus, but if he was born about the middle of the twelfth century, he would have been only seventeen years old in 1167. Olrik therefore suggested6 that the stories which Arnoldus told were transmitted to Saxo by Danish middlemen and this would account for certain misunderstandings found in his narrative.
This theory had appeared to many as unnecessarily elaborate and it seems to conflict with the words used by Saxo in his Prologue for he praises the Icelanders as a people and as the repository of ancient tradition.
Several Icelandic poets other than Arnoldus are known to have worked for kings of Denmark in Saxo's time, and many Icelanders must have passed through Denmark on their way to the south.
One of the most eminent and learned Icelanders of this period was Gizur Hallsson. Gizur travelled widely and frequently. He had lived in Norway and been to Rome, and was the author of a Flos Peregrinationis, now lost. He is named as an authonty on German emperors, on Olaf Tryggvason and, strangely enough, on the kings of Denmark Gizur was an older man than Saxo, dying in 1206 about the age of eighty The course of his life, since he was Law-speaker from 1181 to 1200, may make it improbable that he and Saxo had met. Nevertheless, we could sup pose that he was the kind of scholarly Icelander, of whom there were
Many in those days, with whom Saxo exchanged learning. It could be added that Gizur's son, Magnus, afterwards Bishop of Skalaholt 1216-37), was in Denmark in 1188 and probably again on his way to and from Rome in 1202 and 1203.
Olrik's brilliant exposition has sometimes been criticized in another point, although less generally. As he believed, the West Norse stories were told by an Icelander, but they were based, to a great extent, on a Norwegian, and not on an Icelandic tradition. Saxo's narrative is particularly rich in place-names of Western Norway. The traditions were, therefore, gathered by an Icelander who had travelled the Norwegian coast. Elsewhere, Olrik thought also of Norwegian prelates, exiled from Norway in the reign of King Sverrir (died 1202), as the transmitters of Norwegian tradition. It should, however, be remarked that the Icelanders of the twelfth century were great travellers, and they knew no foreign part so well as Western Norway. h is believed also that Saxo had himself visited Norway in the year 1168,15 but his contempt for the drunken Norwegians makes it improbable that he owed any great debt to them.
The source of one of Saxo's sections has aroused particular interest and controversy among scholars. This is the so-called Bravallaþula, in which Saxo enumerates the champions on either side in the legendary battle of Brávellir, where Harald Wartooth lost his life (see Ch. X, Harald Wartooth). Saxo claims to be following the words of the hero Starkað, and some 160 champions are named. They come from all the known world, and their nicknames and places of origin are often added.
It was noticed long ago that, in this imposing list of champions, Saxo was reproducing a metrical list of the kind called in Icelandic þulur. This same list is given, although in shorter form, in the so-called 'Fragmentary History (of Kings of Denmark)' (Sogubrot), preserved in an Icelandic manuscript of c. 1300.
The origin of this list, or þula, is disputed, and many have argued that it is Norwegian, claiming to find a Norwegian, or Telemarkian patnotism in its lines, besides certain historical anachronisms, of which an Icelander of the twelfth century would not be guilty. Others, using close linguistic arguments, claim more precisely that it originated in south-eastern Norway, and even that manuscripts written in that region provided the model, both for Saxo and for the 'Fragmentary History'. These conclusions have been accepted widely, but the most recent investigator shows that the arguments on which they are based are unreliable, partly because of our defective knowledge of Norwegian dialects at so early a period.
If it is studied from the point of view of literary history, the Bravalla þula fits more easily into an Icelandic setting. Metrical name-lists (þulur) flourished in Iceland, where many are preserved. It is believed that these lists date mainly from the twelfth century, and to this period the Bravallal1a þula most probably belonged.
It is agreed that Saxo received a great part of the traditions incorporated in his first nine books from Icelanders, it is still difficult to know in what form these traditions reached him, and what was their ultimate origin.
Again, we may find a partial answer to the first question in Saxo's own words. His sources were partly in verse and, as he says himself, he took care to render verse by verse (metra metris reddenda curaui). The verse, which Saxo wrote in Latin, was in flowery language and elaborate measures, altogether obscuring the form of his originals. Nevertheless, Icelandic vernacular sources sometimes show what these were like. As Saxo tells the story of Hadding's disagreement with his wife, the couple address each other in more than thirty lines. When the god Njord and his giant wife, Skadi, addressed each other in words which must be close to the source of Saxo's Latin, they used twelve short alliterating lines of Ljo'~ahdttr, in which they expressed nearly as much.
In Book II Saxo tells the famous story of Hrólf Kraki and his last battle at Hleiðra (Lejre), when the castle was set alight, apparently by its own defenders. Saxo (II, 67) gives the latter scene in lengthy hexameters, purporting to reproduce a 'Danish' poem (danici...carminis), known to many antiquarians. The term 'Danish' (donsk tunga) was often applied, in the Middle Ages, to Scandinavian languages in general, and therefore this does not show that Saxo received the poem from a Dane. He could equally well have heard it from an Icelander, and there are some reasons to think that he did. Not only the underlying legends, but the poem itself was known to Icelanders of Saxo's time, and was called the Bjarkamál. In his account of the battle of Stiklastaðir (AD 1030), l where St Ólaf laid down his life, Snorri tells that, on the morning before I the battle, the Saint called his Icelandic poet, Thormóð, to awaken his men with a stirring, martial song. He chanted the Bjarkamól, which was also called Húskarlahvot (Incitement of Housecarles) and by Saxo Exortationum Series. The first two strophes of the poem are quoted by Snorri in the Heimsknngla, and Snorri quotes three other strophes, which he assigns to it, in his Edda.
The Bjarkamál, as Saxo retells it, is a trialogue, spoken chiefly by the champion, Hjalti, to awaken the sleeping warriors, calling them to lay down their lives for their generous lord, as the enemy approach. On the basis of Saxo's version, A. Olrik was able to reconstruct a convincing version of this poem in modern Danish, which was subsequently adapted in English by L. M. Hollander.
Good reasons have been given for believing that the Bjarkarn4l was, in fact, a Danish poem of the tenth century. It cannot, however, be used as evidence that alliterative verse survived in Denmark in Saxo's time. The Icelanders, as Saxo makes plain, stored and developed the traditions of lands other than their own.
The Bjarkamdl and the legends of Hrolf Kraki are mentioned here because they provide an exceptionally good example of the preservation and growth of tradition. The basis is partly historical, and founded on events which took place in Denmark in the sixth century. Allusion is made to them, not only in the rich Icelandic sources, but also in the Old English Beowulf and widsith.
But in the Norse tradition, the Danish prince has adopted some of the qualities of an Odin hero. Saxo may not fully have realized this. In his version of the Bjarkamal, Odin appears suddenly on the battlefield among the assailants of Hrólf. Arngrímr Jónsson, in his excerpt from the Sjoldunga Saga, makes this incident plain. When Hrólf was returning from a successful raid on Uppsala, Odin disguised as a farmer had offered him a corselet and a cloak (loricam et clamydem), but the hero had offended him by refusing the gifts. When he realized who the farmer was, Hrolf knew that he could expect no more victory. The late Icelandic Hrolfs Saga says that neither Hrolf nor his chosen companions ever sacrificed to the gods, but it preserves the same motive about Hrolf's refusal of the god's gifts, and enlarges upon it, telling how the disguised Odin had twice come to the aid of Hrolf with his advice. It seems to be implied that Hro'lf was under the protection of Odin but, when time was ripe, the war-god turned against him, and took him to himself, just as he took Harald Wartooth, Eirik Bloodaxe and many another.
By no means all that Saxo heard from the Icelanders was told to him in verse. In Chs. III and V, two stories will be cited from Saxo about the journeys of a certain Thurkillus. It is the first of these stories which concerns us here, and Saxo makes it plain that it had come from the men of Thule. In outline it closely resembles the story of Thorsteinn Boejarmagn (þorsteins þáttr) found in an Icelandic manuscript of the late fifteenth century. Both of these stories describe the visit of a hero, Thurkillus or Thorsteinn, to the terrible and revolting giant Geirrod (Geruthus). They derive ultimately from an ancient myth, recorded in the þórsdrápa of the late tenth century, and again by Snorri in his Edda, of the perilous journey of the god Thor to the house of the giant Geirrod. Saxo, in fact, makes a direct allusion to the myth.
But the god has been dropped, both from the Icelandic and from Saxo's version. The reasons are not difficult to see. Both of them are placed in a Christian or half-Christian setting. Thorsteinn is an attend-ant of the Christian King Olaf Tryggvason, and it is upon his kingly force (hamingja) that he relies in his perils. Thurkillus is not a Christian to begin with, but he is a model pagan. When his companions invoked their gods, Thurkillus called only on the Lord of the Universe. Before the end of his life, Thurkillus went to Germany and adopted the Christian religion.
Saxo has enriched his version of this story from wide reading in European letters. Some sections of the story of the journey of Thurkillus in the frozen north read like the Navigation of Brendan and other Irish imramma. He seems also to make use of Adam of Bremen's account of a Friesian expedition to the North Pole. Influences of other European literature have also been detected.
Mixed, and confused as it is, Saxo's story of Thurkillus throws much light on the development of mythical tradition in Iceland. He combines the visit to Geirrod with that to Gudmund, said to be the brother of the giant, ruling a neighbouring territory. This is, of course, Gudmund of Glaesisvellir (the Shining Fields), who is famous in late Icelandic sagas, although never named in early texts. In his glorious kingdom, it was said, lay the Ódainsakr, the field of eternal life.
Both Thurkillus and Thorsteinn had to pass through the kingdom of Gudmund before they reached the giant world of Geirrod, divided from it by a river or torrent. Gudmund, according to the Iceland sources, is not the brother of Geirrod, but his unwilling vassal.
The Icelandic þorsteins þáttr has enriched the story with motives of its own, which are often hard to trace, but Saxo shows that, already in his day, the Icelanders had combined the myth of Thor and Geirrod with that of Gudmund in his Shining Fields. He thus shows that stories told in such late Icelandic texts as the þorsteins þáttr cannot be too lightly dismissed. He also shows something about the state of Icelandic tradition in the late twelfth century. That which Saxo shares with the þorsteins þáttr must have been in his oral Icelandic source. Saxo is thus one of our chief authorities for the state of Icelandic tradition in his age. This tradition had grown from exceedingly ancient roots.
We may doubt whether alliterative poetry in the style of the Edda survived in Denmark in the time of Saxo, but we should not belittle the importance of Danish folktale and tradition as sources for his history. His version of the myth of Baldr and Höð will be mentioned later. So great are the differences between Saxo's version and those given in the Icelandic records that it is hard, in spite of the arguments of Heusler and others, to believe that Saxo was here following an Icelandic, or even a Norwegian source. Indeed, in this section, Saxo quotes several folktales based on place-names of Denmark. Much as he has added to it, we may believe that the picture which Saxo drew of Baldr and Höð was largely a Danish one.
In general, Saxo's descriptions of the gods resemble those left by Icelandic writers of his age. Odin was the chief of them, and was credited with the false honour of godhead throughout Europe, while commonly residing in Uppsala. He appears under many names, as he does in Iceland, and in the disguises typical of Icelandic tradition. He is an old man with one eye, appearing at a critical moment. He calls from the shore to a favourite hero; boards his ship and teaches him how to deploy his army. Odin calls his chosen warriors to himself when their time has come, although Valhöll is nowhere named in Saxo's work. On one occasion, Odin rides through the air and over the sea on his magical charger. The charger, Sleipnir, was well known to the Icelanders, but Odin more often appeared on foot. To judge by the folk-tales, collected in modern times, Odin, the wild rider, was better known in Danish than in Icelandic tradition.
Thor is distinguished for his might and armed, if not with a hammer, with a club. Freyr residing in Uppsala with his sons, is the patron of orgies and revolting sacrifices. He is once presented as King of the Swedes.
Although he did not express it so clearly, Saxo shared the belief of his Icelandic contemporaries that the gods had come from the near East, and their original home was Byzantium.
For Saxo, as for the medieval Icelanders, the gods were not gods, but crafty men of old. With superior cunning they had overcome the primeval giants; they had deluded men into believing that they were divine.
But Saxo carried euhemerism further than the Icelanders did. Saxo's gods play a more intimate part in the affairs of men. They beget children with earthly women. Baldr, according to Icelandic sources, was son of Odin and Frigg. Saxo also says that he was son of Odin, but he was only a demigod, secretly begotten on an earthly woman. In the same way, Odin in disguise begat Bous on the Ruthenian princess, Rinda.
The gods fight with men, and their superior magic does not always bring them victory. When they fought for Baldr against his rival, Höð who for Saxo was not a god, they were ignominiously put to flight.
Saxo differs from the Icelandic writers chiefly in his bitter contempt of the gods and all they stood for. Snorri sometimes poked fun at them, but it was a good-humoured fun, of a kind which had no place in Saxo's mind.
Saxo tells much about the substance of Icelandic traditions living in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, but his education was in European letters and his literary models were medieval and post-classical. He tells little about the forms, whether in prose or in verse, in which he received the Icelandic myths.