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Legends of Gods and Heroes

The Norse Mythology

The mythology of our forefathers, as we know it from Norse mythical
poems and from the records of ancient writers, has not come down to us in
its genuine pagan form. It is extant only in a later form, dating from a period
when its devotees had begun to lose their absolute faith in the older
divinities, had begun to harbor doubts and to catch intimations of a
consolation nobler and better than that which the ancient divinities had
been able to give them.

Germanic Tribes

We learn to know it, furthermore, in the sources
designated, as it manifested itself in Norway during the centuries just
preceding the introduction of Christianity and as it appeared, something
more than a hundred years earlier, upon its transference into Iceland by the
Norwegian emigrants.

In its main outlines it was at that time common to all
the so-called Germanic tribes: on the one hand, to Norwegians, Swedes,
and Danes; and on the other hand, to Goths, Franks, Saxons, Swabians,
Frisians, Anglo-Saxons, and other peoples.

Yet in the nature of the case, as the Germanic tribes gradually diverged with respect to language,
customs, and modes of living, and each thus entered upon a separate
development, it followed of necessity that mythology and cult took on a
distinct character in each of these tribes; even in early prehistoric times,
moreover, external influences proceeding from the more cultivated of
neighboring non-Germanic peoples must have been at work, and also mutually operative influences as between the Germanic tribes themselves.

Ancient Norse Religion background

The ancient Norse religion was thus far from being identical with the mythology and worship of the
other Northern or Germanic peoples. Evidence to this effect is to be
discovered even in a cursory comparison with the few available accounts of
religious conditions among the various German tribes during the pagan era.
The pagan beliefs of the Swedes and the Danes, of which little is known
through direct tradition, must also have differed in many particulars from
those prevailing in Norway and Iceland as paganism drew toward its end.

According to the plan of the present work, the Norwegian-Icelandic myths
will have the most prominent place; it is these which particularly concern
us, and only by means of these is it possible to reconstruct anything like a
complete mythology. So far as it is practicable, nevertheless, reference will
be made to the religious survivals of the other Germanic peoples.

Among the various Germanic tribes the pagan mythology was
gradually driven back as Christianity spread abroad: first of all in France,
about five centuries after the birth of Christ; thereafter in England, a century
or two later; and still later in Germany, where the Saxons, who received the
new faith at the hands of Charlemagne about the year 800, stood last of the
pagan tribes.

In the North paganism held its ground more stubbornly; in
Iceland it did not loose its hold before the beginning of the eleventh
century, in Norway and Denmark thirty years later, and in Sweden probably not before the year 1150.
Farther to the south the ancient faith was so thoroughly uprooted that
scarcely a reminiscence survived.

Pagan divinities

Only a small number of the early writers have set down so much as an occasional comment on the pagan divinities; their references lack fullness and exactitude and bear the clear stamp of
prejudice and contempt. In more southerly lands, even those occupied by
German tribes, there existed no such deep need and desire for the
preservation of ancestral traditions as marked the North; or, if these
tendencies had once prevailed, they had been smothered by the growing
influence of the Catholic clergy.

Furthermore, such writers as took any
interest in recording the memories of the past were almost without
exception ecclesiastics, who held it sinful to mention the ancient gods more
than was strictly necessary. The situation was different in the North; there
the pagan faith maintained a firmer footing, the general interest in
searching out old traditions and listening to tales of ancestral prowess had
struck deeper roots, and, what is more important, the clergy had never
gained so complete an ascendancy as in the South.

The chief reason for these conditions, at any rate in Norway and Iceland, was that the people
held fast both in writing and in speech to the mother tongue, so that Latin,
the language of the church, never became well established. The Norse
historian would have found little profit in using Latin after the manner of the
southern clergy, since few would have been able to read what he might

Skald’s writing

Historical composition thus came to be the province of the laity rather than of the clergy. Moreover, our forefathers were inordinately fond of skaldic poetry and song. The skalds
made their verses in the vernacular; and since they drew most of their
figures and similes from the old mythology, study of the myths was
necessary both for the poets and for those who listened to their lays.

The skald Hallfred, for example, upon his baptism made the unequivocal
statement to king Olaf Tryggvason that he would neither deride the ancient
gods nor refrain from naming them in his verse.
Through these various means a knowledge of the older mythology
was maintained in Norway and Iceland; and for a long time nothing more
than a visit to the neighboring kingdom of Sweden was required to discover
a land still wholly pagan. In Iceland the common interest in poetry and
history remained so vigorous that, even after medieval Christianity had run
a good part of its course, two comprehensive and otherwise remarkable
source books of Norse mythology made their appearance, namely Snorri’s
Edda and the so-called Sæmund’s Edda.

Edda and famous Snorii

Snorri’s Edda is a veritable handbook for skaldic poets, written about the year 1220 by the illustrious
Snorri Sturluson; the first part of the work contains a full account of the
ancient system of divinity, and in addition a number of separate stories
about the gods and their deeds. The designation of Edda, which doubtless
means “great-grandmother,” probably became attached to the book
because its contents were drawn from ancient narratives and songs that
had come down from the “days of great-grandmother” herself. Sæmund’s Edda is a collection of poems celebrating the gods and heroes of olden times.

Just when the collection originated is uncertain; evidences tend to make it
contemporaneous with Snorri’s Edda; yet the individual poems are much
older and had lived long in popular tradition before they came to be written
down. Sæmund’s Edda is also called the Elder Edda; Snorri’s, the Younger
Further information about the primitive mythology is to be gathered
from numerous early poems, still extant, and bits here and there from the
saga narratives; but these sources are as nothing in comparison with the
two Eddas. In fine, it is only through Norwegian-Icelandic sources, that
satisfactory knowledge of the ancient mythology is to be obtained.

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