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SOULS, DEMONS, AND GODS
I. COMMON POPULAR BELIEF (LOWER MYTHOLOGY)
1. Lower Mythology. It has been pointed out in the General Introduction that the worship of souls and nature-demons, the oldest foundation of heathen religion, has yielded a succession of superstitious ideas, which have held very long in the minds of the people and of which we find evident traces even in our day. The same basal ideas reappear among all heathen people, although in details the belief may have developed in a very distinct manner. We find here a marked conformity among all the Gothic-Germanic peoples, and we shall now bring forward some of the chief points from this so-called lower mythology, independent of the more developed national religion which in the main acquires its character from those most highly developed in the community.
2. Nightmare. Our forefathers, like other heathen people, found one of the plainest proofs of the soul's independence of the body and its ability to take a hand in the affairs of living men in the nightmare and dream, as they lacked all other means of explaining those things. They therefore took it for granted that they were spirits, usually in the form of animals or men. Through the smallest crack or crevice the nightmare slips to the sleeping one, and torments and troubles him so sadly that he becomes ill or that it causes his death. It is felt as an oppressing weight upon the breast or throat; the mare "treads" or "rides" the sleeping one from his legs up to his body and thrusts his tongue into the victim's throat to hinder him from crying out. The Northern people have clung to this very day to their belief in the "mare" as a supernatural female being, and many legends about it have arisen. A "mare" can slip out only by the same way that it came in; if one stops up the opening, it is caught. The same thing happens if one names its name.
In the Ynglinga Saga it is told of King Vanlandi, who had betrayed his Finnish bride, Drifa, that he in punishment for that had been killed by a "mare'' with which the magic arts of the Finns had tormented him. He became suddenly sleepy and lay down to rest, but when he had slept a little he cried that a "mare" was treading him. The king's men hastened to his assistance, but when they turned to his head, the "mare" trod upon his legs so that they were nearly broken, and if they went to the legs, she was directly occupied at the head; and so the king was actually tortured to death.
3. Dreams. The part that dreams play in the popular consciousness is well known. In our fathers' poetry every great event is presaged by dreams, through which fate in some way is revealed to men. Baldur had evil dreams before his fateful death, and in the Icelandic sagas and our Danish folk songs we meet dreams at every turn. Souls can even in one's lifetime forsake the body and wander far and wide, as it transpires in dreams. Such a soul is called in the old language hugr, 'thought' or soul'; it took on the most varied forms of beasts, appearing most often as a bear, a wolf, or an eagle. A man dreamed that he was going out from one of his buildings and there he saw some wolves come running from the south in upon the field; there were eighteen in all and a she-fox was running on ahead. When he was awakened he knew immediately that they were manna hugir, 'men's souls,' which boded an approaching battle. The holy Bishop John's "soul" was often occupied with what belonged to the divine service, both before the Bishop fell asleep and before he awoke.
Draumr-Draugr. From the same root as the word "dream" (Old Norse draumr) is also the old word draugr, which means now soul as specter, now has the same meaning as hugr. (The common basal meaning seems to be "to press, squeeze." Therefore the older language used also the verb "to dream" in a peculiar construction; for example, this man has often "dreamed me" originally = has often tortured me as "mare" while I slept; later = has often presented himself to me in dreams.)
4. Form Shifting. A kindred relation is presented by our fathers' widespread belief in form shifting, i.e. the soul's ability to leave the body and assume another form, haw. In the Ynglinga Saga it is told about Odin, that he "changed his form; the body lay there as if heavy with sleep or dead, but he himself was in the form of a bird or beast, fish or worm, and went in a twinkling on his own or another's errand to distant countries." Freyna has a falcon cloak or form, the Valkyrs flew in swans' form, the giants oftenest in the form of eagles.
Hamram and Berserk. Men who had a peculiar aptitude for changing form were called hamramir, "strong in form." We must certainly regard the fury of the Berserk as r in the same category. Warriors who in the heat of battle were attacked by wild and brutal frenzy were called Berserkir or Ulfhethinn, i.e. men who wear furs of bear or wolf skin; but the original belief was really that they went about in the form of bears or wolves.
5. Ghosts But it is especially the souls of the dead that "haunt." Older Norse literature abounds in evidences of a belief in ghosts. They most often return to the dwelling they had while in the flesh, or they move about preferably in the vicinity of their burialplace. Frequently the spirits occasion only evil when they reappear, and the surviving must withstand dangerous conflicts with them, until they are properly "put to rest," i.e. lodged in a mound of heaped-up stones.
The renowned Icelandic chieftain, Olaf Paa, at Hjartharltolt, had many servants. One day the man who took care of the farrow horned cattle came and asked to be released from that work, as lie would rather do something else. Olaf thought that he should perform the work that was given to him, but the man preferred to seek another place for himself. Olaf then went with him at evening to the cow stable, which was a long way from the farmyard, to investigate the cause of the trouble. The fellow received orders to bind the creatures fast after Olaf drove them in. He now went in at the door, but instantly rushed back into his master's arms before the latter could look about him. Olaf asks then why he acts so awkwardly. He answers, "Hrap is standing in the stable door and is groping for me; but I have had enough of wrestling with him." Hrap was an evil-tempered Iceland farmer, who, after his own wish, had been buried standing under the door of one of his houses so as to be better able to oversee his property, and who afterward had worried the whole neighborhood by appearing and haunting the locality. Now Olaf goes in at the door and thrusts after Hrap with his spear; the point breaks off meanwhile and the apparition vanishes into the earth. The next morning Olaf went to the place where Hrap had been "put to rest" and had him exhumed. He was even then not decayed, and Olaf found his spear-point also with the body. This was now burned and the ashes were cast into the sea. Then, for the first tune, the people in the neighborhood had peace.
Spirits in Popular Tradition. At times it was interest in the surviving which brought the spirit back to earth. He returns to expiate a fault, or from longing to see again his loved ones. Later we shall tell about Helgi, Hunding's Bane, who in the tomb receives a visit from his beloved Sigrun (Folk songs about Aage and Else, and Lenore.) Here also belongs the widespread popular tradition of The Wild Hunt, outlawed spirits who in dismal forms on headless steeds and with their own heads under their arms at night-time drive through the air. From Denmark we know Abel's hunt at Schley and Valdemar's at Gurre; Norwegians tell about Aasgaardsrei.
6. The Dead are Conjured. From belief in souls the idea quite naturally developed that the souls of the dead could also be called back to earth against their will, according to the wishes of men. One can conjure them up when one knows the right charms to use. In the Eddic Song about Baldur's Dreams, Odin rides down to the underworld to the grave of a prophetess, chants potent valgaldir or charms over the dead, who then steps forth and speaks "the death-word." Svipdag, the hero in another Eddic Poem, goes to his mother Groa's grave and calls her forth to his aid. Hervar conjures up her father Angantyr from the tomb on Samsφ and compels him to deliver up the sword Tyrfing. Belief is conjuration is very ancient and common to all people using our group of languages. It seems as if our older poetry especially has contained magic songs of different kinds, among others some for this use.
7. Funerals and Funeral- or Grave-Feasts. Even from the earliest times, our forefathers took particular care for the burial of the dead. They gave them the necessaries for their continued life, sometimes simply necessary objects for use, sometimes splendid implements and ornaments. We can trace a distinct development from the grave-finds of the Stone and Bronze Ages to the moor-finds of the Iron Age and the buried ships of Viking times. But also from historic times we have good evidence of our fathers' burial customs. We must understand the erfiφl, 'funeral feast,' as a kind of offering to the departed at which people originally thought of the spirit as present and honored it by regaling themselves with meat and drink a custom which is faithfully preserved at the burial feasts of the common people. At the funeral feasts the heir for the first time occupied the high seat of the deceased and completely assumed his dignity; then was brought forward also the "Bragi cup" over which they made their vows. (Ceremonies of the Jomsvikingar and Svein Tiuguskegg.)1
So long as the body was not buried, the soul remained near by. Therefore they removed it from the house as soon as possible, preferably the same day that death occurred. First they rendered nabjargir.2 They approached the dead person from behind, stretched the body out and closed the eyes, after which the face was covered. Then the body was placed in a mound, lying or sitting, and richly supplied with implements and weapons. Gunnar from Hlitharendi laughed and sang in the tomb. When the son Hogni seizes his renowned father's spear to undertake blood-vengeance, the mother of the dead asks who ventures to touch the weapon. Hogni answers: I intend to take it to my father so that he can have it with him at Valhalla and exhibit it at the weapon-show. People usually chose open and nicely situated burial places on mountains or hills, or in forests. But criminals and trolls who especially did evil as ghosts were "put to rest" or burned. The mound and monument upon it are called in the old language Kumbl. Bautarsteiuar3 (memorial stones without inscriptions) and rune stones have been discussed above.
8. Worship of the Dead. It is difficult to say definitely whether there was among our forefathers a complete system of ancestor-cult, i.e., worship of the dead in the family; but there are many who maintain that this usage prevailed from a very ancient time all through the heathen age. The forefathers of the race were considered the family's natural protectors in the spirit world, and many passages in the old literature relate about offerings to the dead either in or at grave-mounds or family-mounds, or upon adjacent mountains. Sacrifice was made to a man named Grim after his death, because of his popularity, and Snorri plainly understood Frey as an earthly prince who later was worshiped as a god.
9. Transmigration of Souls. There is also much that goes to show that our heathen forefathers had a widespread belief in the transmigration of souls. The soul of the deceased could take its abode in a newborn child and live another life. Those human beings thus reborn are called in the old sources endrbornir, 'born again.' Helgi, Hjorvarth's son, and the Valkyr Svafa were endrbornir. Of the renowned Helgi, Hunding's Bane, a prose piece in the Elder Edda relates: "The belief prevailed in ancient times that people became endrbornir, but now it is called old wives' talk. Also about Helgi and Sigrun, it was said that they were born again." Saint Olaf was, after the opinion of people, one born again from a traditional-historical king, Olaf Geirstathaalf, who received sacrifice. To the belief in being born again was perhaps attached originally the custom of naming a child after one deceased in order that the one concerned might be born again in the little child who bears the dead person's name.
10. Independent "Souls." In the course of time new religious ideas were developed from soul-belief; namely, a belief in independent supernatural soul-beings whose life and activity are not dependent upon the particular human body.
a. Fylgjur. A transition from the belief in souls and the worship of souls in the simplest form, to supernatural soul-beings, forms our fathers' faith in the soul as a guardian spirit. The soul is man's fylgja, 'attendant,' from the cradle to the grave, and since it can forsake the body and put on a new form, it is also called hamingja. Originally, then, the fylgja is quite the same as hugr, which in dreams or in waking condition, in its own or another's form, can manifest itself especially as a warning of great events or of near approaching death. To see one's own fylgja is a certain sign that death is near. This feature is preserved in the superstition of the present time where the vision of one's self or another as a corpse or as occupied with a corpse is regarded as a death-warning. Fylgjur appear in the same manner as manna hugir, oftenest in animal form, according to a person's character. Great chieftains and men of note had "strong" fylgjur which walked in front of them, but which could be seen by only a few specially gifted persons.
When Thorstein Uxafot4 was a boy of seven years, he once came quickly rushing into the room, as children are wont to do, and fell on the floor. Wise old Gejt saw it and burst out laughing. So the lad went to him and asked why his falling appeared to him so laughable. "Well," said the old man, "because I saw it as you did not see it. When you entered the room a white bear's cub followed you and ran before you on the floor; but when it set eyes on me it stopped, and when you then came hurrying in you fell over it." It was Thorstein's fylgja, and Gejt concluded from that that he was not of ordinary origin.
b. Fylgjur as Women. The next step in the development of the belief in tutelary goddesses is this, that one can lend another his fylgja. Powerful persons, or those known for their especial good fortune, bestow their fylgnur upon those whom they wish to help. Fylgjur here resemble good luck, and besides hamingja the old language uses also, in the same sense, other words which ordinarily have the general meaning 'good fortune.'
The Icelander Hjalti Skeggi's son drove with Bjorn Stallare to Sweden on an errand for Olaf the Stout. On leaving he said to the king, "And we now greatly need, O King, that you give your hamingja for this journey." Olaf answered among other things, "You shall know for a certainty that I shall bestow all my hugr in case it weighs anything in the scale, and give my hamingja to go with you and all of you." Here the king unconsciously indicates how the pretty and implicit belief developed among our forefathers. The king's hugr, i.e. his good wishes and thoughts for the journey, follow them; but this is interpreted as if the king's second ego, his hamingja or fylgja set free, as a kind of luck goddess, follows them on their way.
c. Family Fylgja. More plainly does the fylgja appear as an independent soul-being in its capacity as aettar-fylgja, 'family fylgja,' which cares for the fortunes of the family and takes up its abode now with one, now with another, of the members. After its owner dies, the fylgja seeks an abode with another person, preferably one of the same family. When Christianity was introduced, the opinion seems to have developed that one could change his fylgja together with his belief. The old chieftain Hall let himself be baptized by Tangbrand on condition that the archangel Michael should for the future be his fylgja.
The scald, Halfred, upon his death-bed on board his ship did not wish to have the company of his fylgja over into the next life. Then the people saw a woman walking along the ship, handsome to look upon and dressed in a coat of mail; she went over the waves with the same readiness as if she were walking on the ground. It was Halfred's "fylgja-woman" or fetch, from whom he now had freed himself. Another man to whom she applied did not wish to have her, either, but finally she was accepted by the poet's son, and in this way remained in the family.
d. Dream-Women. As a being set free, the fylgja is also called Dis, Spadis, or Draum-Kona, who makes her appearance to help men. She then closely resembles the Norns and Valkyrs who are also plainly designated as Disir, who upon Odin's command summon heroes home to Valhalla.
11. Norns and Valkyrs. The conception of fate-women and battle-women as personal, divine beings has developed from the soul-belief among all the Gothic-Germanic people, but Norns and Valkyrs represent a distinctly Northern development. The first word is found only among Norsemen, the other with Anglo-Saxons as well; on the other hand Wurd (Norse, Urth 'spinning woman'?) as a name for inexorable fate is found among all racially related people. In our fathers' belief there are many Norns, good and evil, who "wind fate-threads" and fix man's life from the cradle to the grave.
Valkyrs are the "Norns of Battle," but among our people they have received their character from Odin faith and the teaching about Valhalla. They serve at table in Valhalla and they "choose the slain," the Val, at Odin's command, when as well-equipped shield-maidens they take part in the conflict and determine its course. A series of pretty myths about Odin's divine maids has arisen in Norwegian-Icelandic mythology and poetry. (The "Darrath Song" 5 in Njal's Saga; Hakonarmal.)
The Valkyrs appear often with half-human nature, since they contract marriage with earthly heroes, until the battle nature suddenly awakens in them and drives them away from hearth and home into the tumult of conflict. As swan-maidens they fly far across the country. At times they lay off the swan form in order to bathe; but if this is stolen by a man, the maid must follow him and give him her love (cf. section on Hero-Sagas).
In the Eddic Song Havamal; Odin enumerates in a special
section the magic songs he is able to use. In this it says:
This I know, the tenth, If I see witches 6
hurry through the air;
I so arrange that ( they) go deprived
of their own shape, of their own home.
Our forefathers had then a widespread belief also in evil soul-beings, peculiar souls of the witches of the earth, who after death continue their evil dealings with men. Such evil spirits are designated by various words, as troll, sprite, night-creature, evening-, darkness-, and farm-rider.
13. Nature-Demons. Again, the belief in elves, dwarfs, and gnomes seems to have grown out of soul-worship. Originally these names designated only souls which had taken fixed abodes out in nature and were in possession of certain qualities and accomplishments in advance of men. In the later myths these beings play an important part and belief in them has been preserved a very long time among the common people. With these must also he classed such supernatural beings as goblins, river-sprites, mermen, and mermaids, which form a transition to the real nature-demons.
Giants. The common names for nature-demons are giants, frost and mountain giants. While elves and dwarfs especially bear the imprint of the calm, mild, and friendly in nature, giants are symbols of the forces of nature and the elements in their might and fury, the worst enemies of mankind, with which a hard struggle must be carried on in order to insure existence. Ordinarily giants are thought of, therefore, in wild and dismal forms, corresponding to the elements by which they are surrounded; but giant women may after all be very handsome, so that they even awaken love in the breasts of the gods. Njorth was married to the giant Thiazzi's daughter Skathi, and Frey's affection for Gerth, daughter of Gymir, is treated in one of the finest of the Eddic Songs. To what is told about giants in the first section, we will add some individual examples from the giant's world.
14. Aegir and Ran. The foremost sea-giant is Aegir or Hler, who, according to Snorri, has his dwelling on Hlesey.7 He is indeed a giant but he is on terms of hospitality with the gods, for whom he arranges great banquets. It was at one of these that Loki took occasion to pour out his venom upon the gods and goddesses. The billows are called Aegir's daughters. His wife is named Ran, and she catches shipwrecked men in her net, with which she may cruelly pursue the seafarer. To Ran come all who suffer death upon the sea by accident; according to the testimony of a certain saga it is the sign of a good reception at the home of Ran, when the drowned man obtains leave to turn back to take part in the funeral feast which is held for him. Loki borrowed Ran's net to catch the dwarf Andvari, who in the form of a pike was darting around in a waterfall.
Another more violent sea-giant is Hymir, at whose home Thor sought the great kettle of which we shall tell in a later paragraph.
1 Jomsburg Vikings and Svein Twibeard, early king of Denmark. See the Heimskringla.
2 Last service to dead.
3 Bautar from bautathr means 'fighter' or 'hero.'
5 Weaving Song of the twelve Valkyrs: a 'Battle' Song.
6 Lit. Farm-riders.
7 Island of Hler, now Laesφ in the Kattegat.