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THE GODS AND THEIR LIFE
1. The Golden Age. — After an account has been given in the Volva's Prophecy of the conditions at the beginning of time, the poem continues:
Early the sons of Bor earth's surface raised,
they who Mithgarth the wondrous shaped.
The sun shone from the south on the stones of the ground
Then was earth grown with green herbs.
The Aesir met on Ida-field,
who sanctuary and temple erected high;
forges they placed rich treasures wrought;
tongs they shaped and tools they made.
They played at draughts in court, were joyful,
they in no wise had a lack of gold —
until three came, the giant maids,
of greatest might, from Jotunheim.
The Golden Age of the gods, time of innocence, did not last very long. As a warning that "sin was to come into the world," the three giant maidens appeared, commonly supposed to be the Norns. This feature reappears in the most developed heathen religions; one cannot comprehend the relation of things in the world without assuming a belief in inexorable fate, to which even the gods themselves must bow. The heathen gods are mighty, but not almighty.
2. The Vanir. — Besides the gods who descend from Bor, the Northern people have also conceived of another race of gods, the Vanir, as to whose origin the old sources give us few and obscure particulars. Only one thing can be definitely stated: it came to a conflict between the two races of gods. This ended, as it seems, in a victory for the Aesir, after which the contending parties concluded peace and reconciliation and gave each other hostages. By this means Njorth and his two children, Frey and Freyja, came to Asgarth.
REMARK. — IN the Ynglinga Saga, Snorri gives closer information: the Vanir who lived in Vanaheim gave as a hostage their most excellent man, Njorth the Rich, and his son Frey, but the Aesir in return gave Hoenir, who in every respect looked as a chieftain ought and who was a tall and very handsome man. With him the Aesir sent the very wise Mimir, and the Vanir gave for him the wisest man in their number, Kvasir. Hoenir became forthwith a noted chieftain, for Mimir gave him advice against all dangers. But if he was admitted to the court or in other assemblies where Mimir was not present, and when one or another difficult matter was laid before him, he always answered: "Let others decide it." So the Vanir soon conceived a suspicion that the Aesir had duped them in the exchange of hostages, wherefore they took Mimir, beheaded him, and sent his head to the Aesir. Odin anointed the head with medicinal herbs, so that it could not decay, and pronounced magic songs over it, so that it spoke and revealed to him many secret matters.
The Vanir were versed in magic to a peculiar degree. Freyja was the first who practiced enchantments among the Aesir, a kind of magic prevalent among the Vanir. Njorth was the father of the two children mentioned in union with his sister; but among the Aesir, marriage between such near relatives was forbidden.
The Volva's Prophecy relates that the occasion for the conflict was this. There came a woman versed in magic, by name Gollveig, from the Vanir to Asgarth. She caused nothing but calamities, and the Aesir resolved to slay her. They raised her on a spear and burned her upon a pyre, but she was born again three times and burned anew. The Vanir claimed redress, but no agreement was reached:
Odin hurled and shot against the warriors;
that was the war, the first in the world;
shattered was the wall of the castle of the gods,
the warlike Vanir could tread the field.
We ourselves can now draw the inference that the Aesir had to conclude peace; the poem tells nothing of this, nor does it tell how the gods got their castle rebuilt.
Snorri says that they contracted with a giant builder for this work; he was allowed to have the help only of his horse Svathilfari, and was to complete the work in one winter. If the castle was finished on the first day of summer, he should have Freyja and the sun and moon as reward for his building. The Aesir made these terms upon Loki's advice, and the giant made the gods take solemn oath that they would give him free conduct. The work advanced rapidly, and when it neared completion the Aesir were provoked with Loki and wanted to slay him if he did not contrive a remedy. Loki grew anxious for his life, and perceived that all depended upon depriving the giant of his assistant, the horse. He therefore transformed himself into a mare, which enticed Svathilfari into the woods away from the work. When the builder saw that his undertaking could not be accomplished at the right time, he became furious; so the gods had to call upon Thor. "He soon was there, and then the hammer Mjolnir flew into the air: he1 became the one, not Sol and Mani, who paid the reward for the work. The first blow was such that his skull burst into small pieces." Of the mare was afterward born a foal, which became Odin's renowned steed, the eight-footed Sleipnir.
While Snorri obviously delights in Thor and the strength with which he crushes the poor giant, in the Volva's Prophecy there is seriousness and alarm in the portrayal: for the gods have committed murder, and now there comes a new state of affairs, which is introduced with treachery and infidelity:
Thor alone fought there, filled with wrath;
he seldom sits when he learns such things.
Broken were oaths and words and vows,
all solemn pacts between them made.
Odin is disquieted at this, since he foresees that the happiness of the gods now is past, and he fears for what is to come. Seized with foreboding, he has Gjallarhorn concealed at Mimir's well, and pledges one of his eyes to the wise giant for a single draught from the fountain of wisdom.
Here we must pause for a time to give a portrayal of the individual gods and goddesses, with their relation to men.
3. Aesir and Asynjur. — "Then said Gangleri (i.e. King Gylfi): Which are the Aesir in whom it is man's duty to believe? Har answers: Twelve are the Aesir of the race of gods. Then said Jafnhar: The Asynjur are not less holy and they are not less capable. Then said Thrithi: Odin is the greatest and oldest of the Aesir."
We have been told before how Snorri has brought a certain system into the teaching about the gods. He particularly attaches great value to the introduction of the numbers three and twelve into his presentation. Although there were doubtless very few of these gods and goddesses whom our forefathers really worshiped,
they are so often met in later poetry that we must begin with a short account of them all, following Snorri as closely as possible.
4. Odin is the greatest and oldest of the Aesir, and governs all things; however mighty the other gods are, they all serve him as children their father. Frigg is his wife, and she knows exactly the fate of every man, but yet does not occupy herself with divination. Odin is called "All-father," because he is father of all the gods, but is called also "Valfathir," because all those are his chosen sons who fall on the field of battle. He gives them places in Valhalla and Vingolf, and there they are called Einherjar. Odin is also called God of the Hanged, and has many more names, which can be read in the Eddic Poem Grimnismal.
5. Thor is foremost among the other Aesir: he is called Asa-Thor and Aka-Thor, and is the strongest of all gods and men. His kingdom is called Thruthheim or Thruthvangar, but his abode is called Bilskirnir. In the. hall there are five hundred and forty rooms, and it is the largest house that was ever built. Thor has two goats; when he drives, they draw his wagon, and he is called Aka-Thor. He has besides three wonderful treasures: one is the hammer Mjolnir, which the frost giants and mountain giants recognize when he comes — and that is not so strange, either, for it has crushed many a skull of their fathers and kinsmen; next, the strength-girdle — when he puts it about him, his godlike strength grows twofold; finally, the iron mittens for grasping the hammer-shaft. No one is so well versed in knowledge of the past that he can recount all of Thor's mighty deeds.
6. Another son of Odin is Baldur. Of him there is only good to tell; he is the best of all and all praise him. He is so fair and shining in visage that light comes from him, and there is a plant so white that it has been compared to the god's eyelashes and called "Baldur's brow"; it is the whitest of all plants. Baldur is the wisest, most eloquent and gracious of all the Aesir. This peculiarity follows him, however, that none of his decisions hold. His dwelling is in heaven in Breithablik, and in this place there can be nothing impure.
7. Njorth dwells in heaven in Noatun. He governs the course of the wind and calms the sea and fire; to him shall men call, upon the sea and in the chase. He is so rich in land and goods that he can give richly of these to those who ask. He was really born in Vanaheim, but as we have heard before, the Vanir gave him as a hostage to the gods in Asgarth. He was married to Skathi, a daughter of a giant, Thiazzi. Skathi much preferred to live up in Thrymheim, among the mountains, where her father had his farm. Njorth, on the contrary, was most attached to the vicinity of the sea. So they agreed to stay alternately, nine days in Thrymheim and then nine in Noatun; but when Njorth came back from the mountains he said: Odious to me are the mountains, and yet I tarried there not long, only nine nights; and the howling of the wolves methinks is evil compared with the singing of the swans. But Skathi answered about Noatun: I could not sleep on the borders of the shore for the screaming of the birds; every morning the gull wakens me when it comes from the sea. After that she moved up into the mountains and continued to dwell there. She often runs upon snowshoes and shoots deer with her bow, wherefore she is also called the "Snowshoe Goddess."
8. Frey and Freyja. — Njorth of Noatun, as we have said, had had two children in Vanaheim, a son, Frey, and a daughter, Freyja. Frey is the grandest among the Aesir: he governs the rain and sunshine and thereby the products of the earth; wherefore men shall call upon him to obtain good years and times of peace, as he also governs men's happiness with reference to the gods. His dwelling is called Alfheim. His sister, Freyna, is the most excellent among the Asynjur, and dwells in heaven in the castle which is called Folkvang. When she rides to battle she takes half the Val, 'the slain,' but Odin the other half. Her hall is called Sessrymnir, and she has a wagon drawn by two cats. One is to call upon her in everything which concerns love. She herself had as husband a man named Od, whom she dearly loved, but he forsook her and set out on a long journey, while she remained behind weeping. Her tears were red gold; she owned the costly ornament Brisingamem, wherefore she is called Menglath, 'glad in adornment.' Of her other epithets, Gefn, Vanadis, and Mardal, 'the one shining over the sea' may be emphasized.
9. Tyr is the most hardy and courageous among the Aesir. He is master especially of victory in combat, and for this reason brave men should call upon him. As a proof of his bravery, the chaining of the Fenris Wolf ( §14) can be cited, in which he lost his right hand. Tyr is therefore called the one-handed god, but no one calls him the reconciler of men.
10. Bragi is god of the scaldic art, and he is married to Ithun, who guards the apples which the gods eat when they grow old. Afterwards they grow young again, and so it will continue until Ragnarok.
11. Heimdall is called the white god; he is great and holy. Nine maids, all sisters, bore him. He is also called Gullintanni, for his teeth are of gold, and his horse is called Gulltop. As mentioned above, he dwells in the mountains of heaven at the end of the bridge of the Aesir, as caretaker of the bridge and of the gods. He needs less sleep than a bird, sees a hundred rasts (miles) before him just as well by night as by day, and has such acute hearing that he hears the grass growing in the field and the wool upon the sheep. His horn is called Gjallarhorn (Fig. 162), which sounds so loud that it can be heard over all worlds, and his sword is called Hofuth, 'head.'
12. Other Aesir. — We can further mention Odin's blind son, Hothr, the silent god; Vithar, who is next strongest after Thor; Vali, son of Odin and Rind; and also Thor's stepson, Ull of Ydalir, who is unrivaled as an archer and snow-skater and good to call upon in single combat. Forseti is the name of the son of Baldur and Nanna, daughter of Nep, who owns in heaven the hall Glitnir, and is the god of justice, who adjusts all difficult matters that arise.
Fig. 16 – Heimdall with Horn.
In Helgoland (Fositi's land) a divinity Fositi was worshiped when the Christian missionaries arrived, and he is taken for the same as the Forseti of the Norsemen. He had a great temple; no one was allowed to touch his herd of cattle or other property, and from his sacred well one might draw only in silence.
13. Loki. — In the number of the Aesir we can also count the one whom some call the gods' occasioner of quarrels, the originator of all fraud and the disgrace of gods and men. He is called Loki, or Lopt, and is son of the giant Farbauti and the giantess Laufey. Loki is handsome and fair in countenance but evil in character and of very changeable mien. He is gifted with great ingenuity and cunning, and although he caused the Aesir the greatest misfortunes, he could just as often with his shrewdness invent means of escape from difficulties. Loki's wife was named Sigyn, their son Nari, or Narfi.
14. Loki's Offspring. — But Loki had other children. In Jotunheim lived a woman by name Angrbotha, and with her Loki had terrible offspring: the wolf Fenrir, the serpent Mithgarthsorm, and Hel. Since it was prophesied that these children should cause great calamities, the gods cast the Mithgarth serpent out into the deep ocean-world, where it grew great and encircled the whole earth. Hel was cast flown into Niflheim, where she became queen of the underworld, but the Aesir brought up the wolf at their home. When he grew up his evil nature became fairly known, and therefore they resolved to bind him. The first two chains he burst with ease. Only the third fetter, Gleipnir, could hold, and that, to be sure, was made of the noise of a cat's paw, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird. The wolf was not willing that the slender and insignificant fetter should be placed upon him, since he suspected fraud, until Tyr put his right hand as a pledge into the monster's mouth. All the gods laughed when the fetter bound his limbs together, excepting Tyr; he had lost his right hand.
15. The Asynjur. — "Which are the Asynjur, 'goddesses'? Har answers, Frigg is the supreme one." She has a very magnificent dwelling, which is called Fensal. However, we have told about her and Freyja above. Another goddess is Saga, in Sokkvabek; Ejr is the best physician; Gefjon is a maiden, and she is served by all those who die as maidens; another maiden is Fulla, who has streaming hair with a golden head-band, — she is Frigg's handmaid and knows her secret plans. We can further mention Var, the goddess of promises, who listens to the agreements which men and women make with each other, while she also avenges every infringement of them; and also Sjofu and Lofn.
Valkyrs. — Now those women must be named who are called Valkyrjur and serve at table in Valhalla. Odin sends them to every battle; they "choose the slain," and have control of the strife and its result. There are many mentioned with different names, all of which mean "battle" and "tumult of war."
16. Life in Valhalla — Valhalla is thatched with golden shields and has five hundred and forty doors. Through each of these eight hundred Einherjar can go at one time. Outside of Valhalla lies the grove Glasir, whose foliage is shining gold. Odin's heroes live from the flesh which the boar Saehrimnir yields them; they drink beside the mead which flows from the udders of the goat Heithrun, while the goat feeds on the leaves from Valhalla's tree.
Every day, when the Einherjar awake, they put on their armor and go out upon the court to fight against each other. But the fallen rise again, and all return at evening, joyous and reconciled, to the drinking bout in Odin's hall. Thus it reads in the Eddic Poem of Vafthruthnir:
All Einherjar at Odin's court
contend together every day;
the slain they choose and ride from the fray;
sit, thereupon in peace together.
But it is only the brave dying in arms who go to Odin; those dying of disease go down to the shadow realm of Hel.
17. The World's Downfall Approaches. — In the Volva's Prophecy the further course of the life of gods and men is described. We see how correct Odin's evil forebodings were. The Valkyrs ride away, brandishing their spears, which signifies trouble and war in the earth. The giants begin to assemble and equip themselves for the last battle with the gods, and now comes to pass also the world's greatest misfortune: Baldur, the god of gentleness and innocence, goes, according to the decree of fate, to lid 's abode. Evil dreams have augured danger for his life. Frigg takes oath of everything dead and living, excepting the slender and supple but beautiful shoot, the Mistletoe:
There grew from the tree what slender seemed
a perilous pain-shaft; Hothr did shoot;
But Frigg shed tears in Fensal
for Valhalla's woe; do ye yet know? or how?
18. Loki is Punished. — Indeed, it is Baldur's blind brother who becomes the instrument of fate: but behind him stands Loki, the originator of all evil. The gods inflict terrible punishment upon him, as with his own son's intestines they bind him fast to three stones set upon edge, and fix a poisonous serpent over his face. Meanwhile his faithful wife Sigyn stands by him and catches the poison in a bowl; but every time it is filled and she must empty its contents, Loki writhes in terrible pain, so that the earth trembles (Fig. 173). This is really of but little advantage, since Baldur must remain with Hel. Odin's swain, Hermoth, gained of the death-goddess permission for Baldur's return in case everything in the world should weep over his death. It was done; only a giant woman, Thokk, whom they found in a gloomy mountain cavern, would "weep with dry tears," wherefore Hel kept what she had. But it is commonly thought that it was Loki who had taken on this giant woman's form in order to set a crown upon his work.
Fig. 17. — Loki's Punishment.
19. Nastrond. — Now evil really breaks loose, and great crimes are committed in the world; perjured men, murderers, and seducers must wade through heavy streams into a hall on Nastrond, "death-shore," far from the sun. Its door turns toward the north, poison drips in at the louver, and the ceiling is plaited with serpent's backs. Moral corruption increases in a frightful degree:
Brothers will fight together and become each other's bane,
sister's children will violate kinship;
it is evil in the world, adultery serious, ...
no man will spare another.
Then comes finally the fearful encounter between the warrior gods and the evil powers in the earth, in which all go to destruction. But the conclusion of the conflict means only that a new earth, with gods and men in purified forms, arises.
1 The builder.
2 From an English stone cross: Heimdall representing Christ?
3 From an English stone cross. The picture is commonly understood to represent Loki's punishment, since Loki is said to signify "the bound devil." Cf. the two foregoing figures and the remark on Bugge's interpretation. (Introd. "Home of the Eddic Poems.")