Hélène Adeline Guerber
Myths of the Norsemen|
Chapter XXIX: Greek and Northern Mythologies
During the past fifty years learned men of many nations have investigated philology and comparative mythology so thoroughly that they have ascertained beyond the possibility of doubt “that English, together with all the Teutonic dialects of the Continent, belongs to that large family of speech which comprises, besides the Teutonic, Latin, Greek, Slavonic, and Celtic, the Oriental languages of India and Persia.” “It has also been proved that the various tribes who started from the central home to discover Europe in the north, and India in the south, carried away with them, not only a common language, but a common faith and a common mythology. These are facts which may be ignored but cannot be disputed, and the two sciences of comparative grammar and comparative mythology, though but of recent origin, rest on a foundation as sound and safe as that of any of the inductive sciences.” “For more than a thousand years the Scandinavian inhabitants of Norway have been separated in language from their Teutonic brethren on the Continent, and yet both have not only preserved the same stock of popular stories, but they tell them, in several instances, in almost the same words.”
This resemblance, so strong in the early literature of nations inhabiting countries which present much the same physical aspect and have nearly the same climate, is not so marked when we compare the Northern myths with those of the genial South. Still, notwithstanding the contrast between Northern and Southern Europe, where these myths gradually ripened and attained their full growth, there is an analogy between the two mythologies which shows that the seeds from whence both sprang were originally the same.
In the foregoing chapters the Northern system of mythology has been outlined as clearly as possible, and the physical significance of the myths has been explained. Now we shall endeavour to set forth the resemblance of Northern mythology to that of the other Aryan nations, by comparing it with the Greek, which, however, it does not resemble as closely as it does the Oriental.
It is, of course, impossible in a work of this character to do more than mention the main points of resemblance in the stories forming the basis of these religions; but that will be sufficient to demonstrate, even to the most sceptical, that they must have been identical at a period too remote to indicate now with any certainty.
The Northern nations, like the Greeks, imagined that the world rose out of chaos; and while the latter described it as a vapoury, formless mass, the former, influenced by their immediate surroundings, depicted it as a chaos of fire and ice—a combination which is only too comprehensible to any one who has visited Iceland and seen the wild, peculiar contrast between its volcanic soil, spouting geysers, and the great icebergs which hedge it round during the long, dark winter season.
From these opposing elements, fire and ice, were born the first divinities, who, like the first gods of the Greeks, were gigantic in stature and uncouth in appearance. Ymir, the huge ice giant, and his descendants, are comparable to the Titans, who were also elemental forces of Nature, personifications of subterranean fire; and both, having held full sway for a time, were obliged to yield to greater perfection. After a fierce struggle for supremacy, they all found themselves defeated and banished to the respective remote regions of Tartarus and Jötun-heim.
The triad, Odin, Vili, and Ve, of the Northern myth is the exact counterpart of Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, who, superior to the Titan forces, rule supreme over the world in their turn. In the Greek mythology, the gods, who are also all related to one another, betake themselves to Olympus, where they build golden palaces for their use; and in the Northern mythology the divine conquerors repair to Asgard, and there construct similar dwellings.
Northern cosmogony was not unlike the Greek, for the people imagined that the earth, Mana-heim, was entirely surrounded by the sea, at the bottom of which lay coiled the huge Midgard snake, biting its own tail; and it was perfectly natural that, viewing the storm-lashed waves which beat against their shores, they should imagine these to be caused by his convulsive writhing. The Greeks, who also fancied the earth was round and compassed by a mighty river called Oceanus, described it as flowing with “a steady, equable current,” for they generally gazed out upon calm and sunlit seas. Nifl-heim, the Northern region of perpetual cold and mist, had its exact counterpart in the land north of the Hyperboreans, where feathers (snow) continually hovered in the air, and where Hercules drove the Ceryneian stag into a snowdrift ere he could seize and bind it fast.
Like the Greeks, the Northern races believed that the earth was created first, and that the vaulted heavens were made afterwards to overshadow it entirely. They also imagined that the sun and moon were daily driven across the sky in chariots drawn by fiery steeds. Sol, the sun maiden, therefore corresponded to Helios, Hyperion, Phœbus, or Apollo, while Mani, the Moon (owing to a peculiarity of Northern grammar, which makes the sun feminine and the moon masculine), was the exact counterpart of Phœbe, Diana, or Cynthia.
The Northern scalds, who thought that they descried the prancing forms of white-maned steeds in the flying clouds, and the glitter of spears in the flashing light of the aurora borealis, said that the Valkyrs, or battle maidens, galloped across the sky, while the Greeks saw in the same natural phenomena the white flocks of Apollo guarded by Phaetusa and Lampetia.
As the dew fell from the clouds, the Northern poets declared that it dropped from the manes of the Valkyrs’ steeds, while the Greeks, who observed that it generally sparkled longest in the thickets, identified it with Daphne and Procris, whose names are derived from the Sanskrit word which means “to sprinkle,” and who are slain by their lovers, Apollo and Cephalus, personifications of the sun.
The earth was considered in the North as well as in the South as a female divinity, the fostering mother of all things; and it was owing to climatic difference only that the mythology of the North, where people were daily obliged to conquer the right to live by a hand-to-hand struggle with Nature, should represent her as hard and frozen like Rinda, while the Greeks embodied her in the genial goddess Ceres. The Greeks believed that the cold winter winds swept down from the North, and the Northern races, in addition, added that they were produced by the winnowing of the wings of the great eagle Hræ-svelgr.
The dwarfs, or dark elves, bred in Ymir’s flesh, were like Pluto’s servants in that they never left their underground realm, where they, too, sought the precious metals, which they moulded into delicate ornaments such as Vulcan bestowed upon the gods, and into weapons which no one could either dint or mar. As for the light elves, who lived above ground and cared for plants, trees, and streams, they were evidently the Northern equivalents to the nymphs, dryads, oreades, and hamadryads, which peopled the woods, valleys, and fountains of ancient Greece.
Jupiter, like Odin, was the father of the gods, the god of victory, and a personification of the universe. Hlidskialf, Allfather’s lofty throne, was no less exalted than Olympus or Ida, whence the Thunderer could observe all that was taking place; and Odin’s invincible spear Gungnir was as terror-inspiring as the thunderbolts brandished by his Greek prototype. The Northern deities feasted continually upon mead and boar’s flesh, the drink and meat most suitable to the inhabitants of a Northern climate, while the gods of Olympus preferred the nectar and ambrosia which formed their only sustenance.
Twelve Æsir sat in Odin’s council hall to deliberate over the wisest measures for the government of the world and men, and an equal number of gods assembled on the cloudy peak of Mount Olympus for a similar purpose. The Golden Age in Greece was a period of idyllic happiness, amid ever-flowering groves and under balmy skies, while the Northern age of bliss was also a time when peace and innocence flourished on the earth, and when evil was as yet entirely unknown.
Using the materials near at hand, the Greeks modelled their first images out of clay; hence they naturally imagined that Prometheus had made man out of that substance when called upon to fashion a creature inferior to the gods only. As the Northern statues were hewn out of wood, the Northern races inferred, as a matter of course, that Odin, Vili, and Ve (who here correspond to Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Minerva, the three Greek creators of man) made the first human couple, Ask and Embla, out of blocks of wood.
The goat Heidrun, which supplied the heavenly mead, is like Amalthea, Jupiter’s first nurse, and the busy, tell-tale Ratatosk is equivalent to the snow-white crow in the story of Coronis, which was turned black in punishment for its tattling. Jupiter’s eagle has its counterpart in the ravens Hugin and Munin, or in the wolves Geri and Freki, which are ever crouching at Odin’s feet.
The close resemblance between the Northern Orlog and the Greek Destiny, goddesses whose decrees the gods themselves were obliged to respect, and the equally powerful Norns and Mœræ, is too obvious to need pointing out, while the Vanas are counterparts of Neptune and the other ocean divinities. The great quarrel between the Vanas and the Æsir is merely another version of the dispute between Jupiter and Neptune for the supremacy of the world. Just as Jupiter forces his brother to yield to his authority, so the Æsir remain masters of all, but do not refuse to continue to share their power with their conquered foes, who thus become their allies and friends.
Like Jupiter, Odin is always described as majestic and middle-aged, and both gods are regarded as the divine progenitors of royal races, for while the Heraclidæ claimed Jupiter as their father, the Inglings, Skioldings, etc., held that Odin was the founder of their families. The most solemn oaths were sworn by Odin’s spear as well as by Jupiter’s footstool, and both gods rejoice in a multitude of names, all descriptive of the various phases of their nature and worship.
Odin, like Jupiter, frequently visited the earth in disguise, to judge of the hospitable intentions of mankind, as in the story of Geirrod and Agnar, which resembles that of Philemon and Baucis. The aim was to encourage hospitality; therefore, in both stories, those who showed themselves humanely inclined are richly rewarded, and in the Northern myth the lesson is enforced by the punishment inflicted upon Geirrod, as the scalds believed in poetic justice and saw that it was carefully meted out.
The contest of wit between Odin and Vafthrudnir has its parallel in the musical rivalry of Apollo and Marsyas, or in the test of skill between Minerva and Arachne. Odin further resembled Apollo in that he, too, was god of eloquence and poetry, and could win all hearts by means of his divine voice; he was like Mercury in that he taught mortals the use of runes, while the Greek god introduced the alphabet.
The disappearance of Odin, the sun or summer, and the consequent desolation of Frigga, the earth, is merely a different version of the myths of Proserpine and Adonis. When Proserpine and Adonis have gone, the earth (Ceres or Venus) bitterly mourns their absence, and refuses all consolation. It is only when they return from their exile that she casts off her mourning garments and gloom, and again decks herself in all her jewels. So Frigga and Freya bewail the absence of their husbands Odin and Odur, and remain hard and cold until their return. Odin’s wife, Saga, the goddess of history, who lingered by Sokvabek, “the stream of time and events,” taking note of all she saw, is like Clio, the muse of history, whom Apollo sought by the inspiring fount of Helicon.
Just as, according to Euhemerus, there was an historical Zeus, buried in Crete, where his grave can still be seen, so there was an historical Odin, whose mound rises near Upsala, where the greatest Northern temple once stood, and where there was a mighty oak which rivalled the famous tree of Dodona.
Frigga, like Juno, was a personification of the atmosphere, the patroness of marriage, of connubial and motherly love, and the goddess of childbirth. She, too, is represented as a beautiful, stately woman, rejoicing in her adornments; and her special attendant, Gna, rivals Iris in the rapidity with which she executes her mistress’s behests. Juno has full control over the clouds, which she can brush away with a motion of her hand, and Frigga is supposed to weave them out of the thread she has spun on her jewelled spinning wheel.
In Greek mythology we find many examples of the way in which Juno seeks to outwit Jupiter. Similar tales are not lacking in the Northern myths. Juno obtains possession of Io, in spite of her husband’s reluctance to part with her, and Frigga artfully secures the victory for the Winilers in the Langobarden Saga. Odin’s wrath at Frigga’s theft of the gold from his statue is equivalent to Jupiter’s marital displeasure at Juno’s jealousy and interference during the war of Troy. In the story of Gefjon, and the clever way in which she procured land from Gylfi to form her kingdom of Seeland, we have a reproduction of the story of Dido, who obtained by stratagem the land upon which she founded her city of Carthage. In both accounts oxen come into play, for while in the Northern myth these sturdy beasts draw the piece of land far out to sea, in the other an ox hide, cut into strips, serves to enclose the queen’s grant.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin, who could attract all living creatures by his music, is like Orpheus or Amphion, whose lyres had the same power; and Odin, as leader of the dead, is the counterpart of Mercury Psychopompus, both being personifications of the wind, on whose wings disembodied souls were thought to be wafted from this mortal sphere.
The trusty Eckhardt, who would fain save Tannhäuser and prevent his returning to expose himself to the enchantments of the sorceress, in the Hörselberg, is like the Greek Mentor, who not only accompanied Telemachus, but gave him good advice and wise instructions, and would have rescued Ulysses from the hands of Calypso.
Thor, the Northern thunder-god, also has many points of resemblance with Jupiter. He bears the hammer Miölnir, the Northern emblem of the deadly thunderbolt, and, like Jupiter, uses it freely when warring against the giants. In his rapid growth Thor resembles Mercury, for while the former playfully tosses about several loads of ox hides a few hours after his birth, the latter steals Apollo’s oxen before he is one day old. In physical strength Thor resembles Hercules, who also gave early proofs of uncommon vigour by strangling the serpents sent to slay him in his cradle, and who delighted, later on, in attacking and conquering giants and monsters. Hercules became a woman and took to spinning to please Omphale, the Lydian queen, and Thor assumed a woman’s apparel to visit Thrym and recover his hammer, which had been buried nine rasts underground. The hammer, his principal attribute, was used for many sacred purposes. It consecrated the funeral pyre and the marriage rite, and boundary stakes driven in by a hammer were considered as sacred among Northern nations as the Hermæ or statues of Mercury, removal of which was punishable by death.
Thor’s wife, Sif, with her luxuriant golden hair, is, as we have already stated, an emblem of the earth, and her hair of its rich vegetation. Loki’s theft of these tresses is equivalent to Pluto’s rape of Proserpine. To recover the golden locks, Loki must visit the dwarfs (Pluto’s servants), crouching in the low passages of the underground world; so Mercury must seek Proserpine in Hades.
The gadfly which hinders Jupiter from recovering possession of Io, after Mercury has slain Argus, reappears in the Northern myth to sting Brock and to endeavour to prevent the manufacture of the magic ring Draupnir, which is merely a counterpart of Sif’s tresses, as it also represents the fruits of the earth. The fly continues to torment the dwarf during the manufacture of Frey’s golden-bristled boar, a prototype of Apollo’s golden sun chariot, and it prevents the perfect formation of the handle of Thor’s hammer.
The magic ship Skidbladnir, also made by the dwarfs, is like the swift-sailing Argo, which was a personification of the clouds sailing overhead; and just as the former was said to be large enough to accommodate all the gods, so the latter bore all the Greek heroes off to the distant land of Colchis.
Thor’s struggle against Hrungnir is a parallel to the fight between Hercules and Cacus or Antæus; while Groa is evidently Ceres, for she, too, mourns for her absent child Orvandil (Proserpine), and breaks out into a song of joy when she hears that it will return.
Magni, Thor’s son, who when only three hours old exhibits his marvellous strength by lifting Hrungnir’s leg off his recumbent father, also reminds us of the infant Hercules; and Thor’s voracious appetite at Thrym’s wedding feast has its parallel in Mercury’s first meal, which consisted of two whole oxen.
The marvellous necklace worn by Frigga and Freya to enhance their charms is like the cestus or girdle of Venus, which Juno borrowed to subjugate her lord, and is, like Sif’s tresses and the ring Draupnir, an emblem of luxuriant vegetation or a type of the stars which shine in the firmament.
The Northern sword-god Tyr is, of course, the Greek war-god Ares, whom he so closely resembles that his name was given to the day of the week held sacred to Ares, which is even now known as Tuesday or Tiu’s day. Like Ares, Tyr was noisy and courageous; he delighted in the din of battle, and was fearless at all times. He alone dared to brave the Fenris wolf; and the Southern proverb concerning Scylla and Charybdis has its counterpart in the Northern adage, “to get loose out of Læding and to dash out of Droma.” The Fenris wolf, also a personification of subterranean fire, is bound, like his prototypes the Titans, in Tartarus.
The similarity between the gentle, music-loving Bragi, with his harp, and Apollo or Orpheus, is very great; so is the resemblance between the magic draught Od-hroerir and the waters of Helicon, both of which were supposed to serve as inspiration to mortal as well as to immortal poets. Odin dons eagle plumes to bear away this precious mead, and Jupiter assumes a similar guise to secure his cupbearer Ganymede.
Idun, like Adonis and Proserpine, or still more like Eurydice, is also a fair personification of spring. She is borne away by the cruel ice giant Thiassi, who represents the boar which slew Adonis, the kidnapper of Proserpine, or the poisonous serpent which bit Eurydice. Idun is detained for a long time in Jötun-heim (Hades), where she forgets all her merry, playful ways, and becomes mournful and pale. She cannot return alone to Asgard, and it is only when Loki (now an emblem of the south wind) comes to bear her away in the shape of a nut or a swallow that she can effect her escape. She reminds us of Proserpine and Adonis escorted back to earth by Mercury (god of the wind), or of Eurydice lured out of Hades by the sweet sounds of Orpheus’s harp, which were also symbolical of the soughing of the winds.
The myth of Idun’s fall from Yggdrasil into the darkest depths of Nifl-heim, while subject to the same explanation and comparison as the above story, is still more closely related to the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, for the former, like Bragi, cannot exist without the latter, whom he follows even into the dark realm of death; without her his songs are entirely silenced. The wolf-skin in which Idun is enveloped is typical of the heavy snows in Northern regions, which preserve the tender roots from the blighting influence of the extreme winter cold.
The Van Niörd, who is god of the sunny summer seas, has his counterpart in Neptune and more especially in Nereus, the personification of the calm and pleasant aspect of the mighty deep. Niörd’s wife, Skadi, is the Northern huntress; she therefore resembles Diana. Like her, she bears a quiver full of arrows, and a bow which she handles with consummate skill. Her short gown permits the utmost freedom of motion, also, and she, too, is generally accompanied by a hound.
The story of the transference of Thiassi’s eyes to the firmament, where they glow like brilliant stars, reminds us of many Greek star myths, and especially of Argus’s eyes ever on the watch, of Orion and his jewelled girdle, and of his dog Sirius, all changed into stars by the gods to appease angry goddesses. Loki’s antics to win a smile from the irate Skadi are considered akin to the quivering flashes of sheet-lightning which he personified in the North, while Steropes, the Cyclops, typified it for the Greeks.
The Northern god of sunshine and summer showers, the genial Frey, has many traits in common with Apollo, for, like him, he is beautiful and young, rides the golden-bristled boar which was the Northern conception of the sunbeams, or drives across the sky in a golden car, which reminds us of Apollo’s glittering chariot.
Frey has some of the gentle Zephyrus’s characteristics besides, for he, too, scatters flowers along his way. His horse Blodug-hofi is not unlike Pegasus, Apollo’s favourite steed, for it can pass through fire and water with equal ease and velocity.
Fro, like Odin and Jupiter, is also identified with a human king, and his mound lies beside Odin’s near Upsala. His reign was so happy that it was called the Golden Age, and he therefore reminds us of Saturn, who, exiled to earth, ruled over the people of Italy, and granted them similar prosperity.
Gerda, the beautiful maiden, is like Venus, and also like Atalanta; she is hard to woo and hard to win, like the fleet-footed maiden, but, like her, she yields at last and becomes a happy wife. The golden apples with which Skirnir tries to bribe her remind us of the golden fruit which Hippomenes cast in Atalanta’s way, and which made her lose the race.
Freya, the goddess of youth, love, and beauty, like Venus, sprang from the sea, for she is a daughter of the sea-god Niörd. Venus bestowed her best affections upon the god of war and upon the martial Anchises, while Freya often assumes the garb of a Valkyr, and rides rapidly to earth to take part in mortal strife and bear away the heroic slain to feast in her halls. Like Venus, she delights in offerings of fruits and flowers, and lends a gracious ear to the petitions of lovers. Freya also resembles Minerva, for, like her, she wears a helmet and breastplate, and, like her, also, she is noted for her beautiful blue eyes.
Odur, Freya’s husband, is like Adonis, and when he leaves her, she, too, sheds countless tears, which, in her case, are turned to gold, while Venus’s tears are changed into anemones, and those of the Heliades, mourning for Phaeton, harden to amber, which resembles gold in colour and in consistency. Just as Venus rejoices at Adonis’s return, and all Nature blooms in sympathy with her joy, so Freya becomes lighthearted once more when she has found her husband beneath the flowering myrtles of the South. Venus’s car is drawn by fluttering doves, and Freya’s is swiftly carried along by cats, which are emblems of sensual love, as the doves were considered types of tenderest love. Freya is appreciative of beauty and angrily refuses to marry Thrym, while Venus scorns and finally deserts Vulcan, whom she has been forced to marry against her will.
The Greeks represented Justice as a goddess blindfolded, with scales in one hand and a sword in the other, to indicate the impartiality and the fixity of her decrees. The corresponding deity of the North was Forseti, who patiently listened to both sides of a question ere he, too, promulgated his impartial and irrevocable sentence.
Uller, the winter-god, resembles Apollo and Orion only in his love for the chase, which he pursues with ardour under all circumstances. He is the Northern bowman, and his skill is quite as unerring as theirs.
Heimdall, like Argus, was gifted with marvellous keenness of sight, which enabled him to see a hundred miles off as plainly by night as by day. His Giallar-horn, which could be heard throughout all the world, proclaiming the gods’ passage to and fro over the quivering bridge Bifröst, was like the trumpet of the goddess Renown. As he was related to the water deities on his mother’s side, he could, like Proteus, assume any form at will, and he made good use of this power on the occasion when he frustrated Loki’s attempt to steal the necklace Brisinga-men.
Hermod, the quick or nimble, resembles Mercury not only in his marvellous celerity of motion. He, too, was the messenger of the gods, and, like the Greek divinity, flashed hither and thither, aided not by winged cap and sandals, but by Odin’s steed Sleipnir, whom he alone was allowed to bestride. Instead of the Caduceus, he bore the wand Gambantein. He questioned the Norns and the magician Rossthiof, through whom he learned that Vali would come to avenge his brother Balder and to supplant his father Odin. Instances of similar consultations are found in Greek mythology, where Jupiter would fain have married Thetis, yet desisted when the Fates foretold that if he did so she would be the mother of a son who would surpass his father in glory and renown.
The Northern god of silence, Vidar, has some resemblance to Hercules, for while the latter has nothing but a club with which to defend himself against the Nemean lion, whom he tears asunder, the former is enabled to rend the Fenris wolf at Ragnarok by the possession of one large shoe.
Odin’s courtship of Rinda reminds us of Jupiter’s wooing of Danae, who is also a symbol of the earth; and while the shower of gold in the Greek tale is intended to represent the fertilising sunbeams, the footbath in the Northern story typifies the spring thaw which sets in when the sun has overcome the resistance of the frozen earth. Perseus, the child of this union, has many points of resemblance with Vali, for he, too, is an avenger, and slays his mother’s enemies just as surely as Vali destroys Hodur, the murderer of Balder.
The Fates were supposed to preside over birth in Greece, and to foretell a child’s future, as did the Norns; and the story of Meleager has its unmistakable parallel in that of Nornagesta. Althæa preserves the half-consumed brand in a chest, Nornagesta conceals the candle-end in his harp; and while the Greek mother brings about her son’s death by casting the brand into the fire, Nornagesta, compelled to light his candle-end at Olaf’s command, dies as it sputters and burns out.
Hebe and the Valkyrs were the cupbearers of Olympus and Asgard. They were all personifications of youth; and while Hebe married the great hero and demigod Hercules when she ceased to fulfil her office, the Valkyrs were relieved from their duties when united to heroes like Helgi, Hakon, Völund, or Sigurd.
The Cretan labyrinth has its counterpart in the Icelandic Völundarhaus, and Völund and Dædalus both effect their escape from a maze by a cleverly devised pair of wings, which enable them to fly in safety over land and sea and escape from the tyranny of their respective masters, Nidud and Minos. Völund resembles Vulcan, also, in that he is a clever smith and makes use of his talents to work out his revenge. Vulcan, lamed by a fall from Olympus, and neglected by Juno, whom he had tried to befriend, sends her a golden throne, which is provided with cunning springs to seize and hold her fast. Völund, hamstrung by the suggestion of Nidud’s queen, secretly murders her sons, and out of their eyes fashions marvellous jewels, which she unsuspectingly wears upon her breast until he reveals their origin.
Just as the Greeks fancied that the tempests were the effect of Neptune’s wrath, so the Northern races attributed them either to the writhings of Iörmungandr, the Midgard snake, or to the anger of Ægir, who, crowned with seaweed like Neptune, often sent his children, the wave maidens (the counterpart of the Nereides and Oceanides), to play on the tossing billows. Neptune had his dwelling in the coral caves near the Island of Eubœa, while Ægir lived in a similar palace near the Cattegat. Here he was surrounded by the nixies, undines, and mermaids, the counterpart of the Greek water nymphs, and by the river-gods of the Rhine, Elbe, and Neckar, who remind us of Alpheus and Peneus, the river-gods of the Greeks.
The frequency of shipwrecks on the Northern coasts made the people think of Ran (the equivalent of the Greek sea-goddess Amphitrite) as greedy and avaricious, and they described her as armed with a strong net, with which she drew all things down into the deep. The Greek Sirens had their parallel in the Northern Lorelei, who possessed the same gift of song, and also lured mariners to their death; while Princess Ilse, who was turned into a fountain, reminds us of the nymph Arethusa, who underwent a similar transformation.
In the Northern conception of Nifl-heim we have an almost exact counterpart of the Greek Hades. Mödgud, the guardian of the Giallar-bridge (the bridge of death), over which all the spirits of the dead must pass, exacts a tribute of blood as rigorously as Charon demands an obolus from every soul he ferries over Acheron, the river of death. The fierce dog Garm, cowering in the Gnipa hole, and keeping guard at Hel’s gate, is like the three-headed monster Cerberus; and the nine worlds of Nifl-heim are not unlike the divisions of Hades, Nastrond being an adequate substitute for Tartarus, where the wicked were punished with equal severity.
The custom of burning dead heroes with their arms, and of slaying victims, such as horses and dogs, upon their pyre, was much the same in the North as in the South; and while Mors or Thanatos, the Greek Death, was represented with a sharp scythe, Hel was depicted with a broom or rake, which she used as ruthlessly, and with which she did as much execution.
Balder, the radiant god of sunshine, reminds us not only of Apollo and Orpheus, but of all the other heroes of sun myths. His wife Nanna is like Flora, and still more like Proserpine, for she, too, goes down into the underworld, where she tarries for a while. Balder’s golden hall of Breidablik is like Apollo’s palace in the east; he, also, delights in flowers; all things smile at his approach, and willingly pledge themselves not to injure him. As Achilles was vulnerable only in the heel, so Balder could be slain only by the harmless mistletoe, and his death is occasioned by Loki’s jealousy just as Hercules was slain by that of Deianeira. Balder’s funeral pyre on Ringhorn reminds us of Hercules’s death on Mount Œta, the flames and reddish glow of both fires serving to typify the setting sun. The Northern god of sun and summer could only be released from Nifl-heim if all animate and inanimate objects shed tears; so Proserpine could issue from Hades only upon condition that she had partaken of no food. The trifling refusal of Thok to shed a single tear is like the pomegranate seeds which Proserpine ate, and the result is equally disastrous in both cases, as it detains Balder and Proserpine underground, and the earth (Frigga or Ceres) must continue to mourn their absence.
Through Loki evil entered into the Northern world; Prometheus’s gift of fire brought the same curse upon the Greeks. The punishment inflicted by the gods upon the culprits is not unlike, for while Loki is bound with adamantine chains underground, and tortured by the continuous dropping of venom from the fangs of a snake fastened above his head, Prometheus is similarly fettered to Caucasus, and a ravenous vulture continually preys upon his liver. Loki’s punishment has another counterpart in that of Tityus, bound in Hades, and in that of Enceladus, chained beneath Mount Ætna, where his writhing produced earthquakes, and his imprecations caused sudden eruptions of the volcano. Loki, further, resembles Neptune in that he, too, assumed an equine form and was the parent of a wonderful steed, for Sleipnir rivals Arion both in speed and endurance.
The Fimbul-winter has been compared to the long preliminary fight under the walls of Troy, and Ragnarok, the grand closing drama of Northern mythology, to the burning of that famous city. “Thor is Hector; the Fenris wolf, Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, who slew Priam (Odin); and Vidar, who survives in Ragnarok, is Æneas.” The destruction of Priam’s palace is the type of the ruin of the gods’ golden halls; and the devouring wolves Hati, Sköll, and Managarm, the fiends of darkness, are prototypes of Paris and all the other demons of darkness, who bear away or devour the sun-maiden Helen.
According to another interpretation, however, Ragnarok and the consequent submersion of the world is but a Northern version of the Deluge. The survivors, Lif and Lifthrasir, like Deucalion and Pyrrha, were destined to repeople the world; and just as the shrine of Delphi alone resisted the destructive power of the great cataclysm, so Gimli stood radiant to receive the surviving gods.
We have already seen how closely the Northern giants resembled the Titans. It only remains to mention that while the Greeks imagined that Atlas was changed into a mountain, so the Northmen believed that the Riesengebirge, in Germany, were formed from giants, and that the avalanches which descended from their lofty heights were the burdens of snow which these giants impatiently shook from their crests as they changed their cramped positions. The apparition, in the shape of a bull, of one of the water giants, who came to woo the queen of the Franks, has its parallel in the story of Jupiter’s wooing of Europa, and Meroveus is evidently the exact counterpart of Sarpedon. A faint resemblance can be traced between the giant ship Mannigfual and the Argo, for while the one is supposed to have cruised through the Ægean and Euxine Seas, and to have made many places memorable by the dangers it encountered there, so the Northern vessel sailed about the North and Baltic Seas, and is mentioned in connection with the Island of Bornholm and the cliffs of Dover.
While the Greeks imagined that Nightmares were the evil dreams which escaped from the Cave of Somnus, the Northern race fancied they were female dwarfs or trolls, who crept out of the dark recesses of the earth to torment them. All magic weapons in the North were said to be the work of the dwarfs, the underground smiths, while those of the Greeks were manufactured by Vulcan and the Cyclopes, under Mount Ætna, or on the Island of Lemnos.
In the Sigurd myth we find Odin one-eyed like the Cyclopes, who, like him, are personifications of the sun. Sigurd is instructed by Gripir, the horse-trainer, who is reminiscent of Chiron, the centaur. He is not only able to teach a young hero all he need know, and to give him good advice concerning his future conduct, but is also possessed of the gift of prophecy.
The marvellous sword which becomes the property of Sigmund and of Sigurd as soon as they prove themselves worthy to wield it, and the sword Angurvadel which Frithiof inherits from his sire, remind us of the weapon which Ægeus concealed beneath the rock, and which Theseus secured as soon as he had become a man. Sigurd, like Theseus, Perseus, and Jason, seeks to avenge his father’s wrongs ere he sets out in search of the golden hoard, the exact counterpart of the golden fleece, which is also guarded by a dragon, and is very hard to secure. Like all the Greek sun-gods and heroes, Sigurd has golden hair and bright blue eyes. His struggle with Fafnir reminds us of Apollo’s fight with Python, while the ring Andvaranaut can be likened to Venus’s cestus, and the curse attached to its possessor is like the tragedy of Helen, who brought endless bloodshed upon all connected with her.
Sigurd could not have conquered Fafnir without the magic sword, just as the Greeks failed to take Troy without the arrows of Philoctetes, which are also emblems of the all-conquering rays of the sun. The recovery of the stolen treasure is like Menelaus’s recovery of Helen, and it apparently brings as little happiness to Sigurd as his recreant wife did to the Spartan king.
Brunhild resembles Minerva in her martial tastes, physical appearance, and wisdom; but her anger and resentment when Sigurd forgets her for Gudrun is like the wrath of Œnone, whom Paris deserts to woo Helen. Brunhild’s anger continues to accompany Sigurd through life, and she even seeks to compass his death, while Œnone, called to cure her wounded lover, refuses to do so and permits him to die. Œnone and Brunhild are both overcome by the same remorseful feelings when their lovers have breathed their last, and both insist upon sharing their funeral pyres, and end their lives by the side of those whom they had loved.
Containing, as it does, a whole series of sun myths, the Volsunga Saga repeats itself in every phase; and just as Ariadne, forsaken by the sun-hero Theseus, finally marries Bacchus, so Gudrun, when Sigurd has departed, marries Atli, the King of the Huns. He, too, ends his life amid the flames of his burning palace or ship. Gunnar, like Orpheus or Amphion, plays such marvellous strains upon his harp that even the serpents are lulled to sleep. According to some interpretations, Atli is like Fafnir, and covets the possession of the gold. Both are therefore probably personifications “of the winter cloud which broods over and keeps from mortals the gold of the sun’s light and heat, till in the spring the bright orb overcomes the powers of darkness and tempests, and scatters his gold over the face of the earth.”
Swanhild, Sigurd’s daughter, is another personification of the sun, as is seen in her blue eyes and golden hair; and her death under the hoofs of black steeds represents the blotting out of the sun by clouds of storm or of darkness.
Such are the main points of resemblance between the mythologies of the North and South, and the analogy goes far to prove that they were originally formed from the same materials, the principal differences being due to the local colouring imparted unconsciously by the different races.
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