Open main menu

Folk-Lore/Volume 1/Recent Research on Teutonic Mythology

RECENT RESEARCH ON TEUTONIC MYTHOLOGY.


THE new fasciculus of Paul’s Grundriss der germanischen Philologie (Bd. ii, Abteilung i, Lief, i,[1] contains a conspectus of the chief epic cycles of the Teutons by B. Symons, Heldensage; a short sketch of the history of the Gothic fragments by E. Sievers, Gotische Literatur; and an article on the classic Old Northern literature by E. Mogk, Nordische Literatur, Norwegisch-Isländische.

Neither of these papers, which are good enough summaries of accepted knowledge, with fair bibliographies attached, shows any advance; but they will be useful enough to the student who wishes for a general introduction to the subjects treated.

Symons’ paper is based chiefly on Müllenhoff and Wülcker; it has notices of the legends of Beowulf, the Nibelungs, Wolf-Dietrich and the Hardings, Ermanric Theodric, and Attila, Hilda, Waldhere of Burgundy, Wayland, Orwandil, and Iron. The sketch requires to be supplemented by the later work of Vigfússon, Rhys, Rydberg, and by some knowledge of the sculptured representations of the Sigfred, Gunnere, Egil, and Wayland legends in Britain and Scandinavia; for instance, the Leeds Cross contains a different version of the rape of Beaduhild from that in Völundarqurða, while the Egil tragedy is shown upon the Franks casket. Some important identifications are passed over, such as the Eriphyle = Cordelia = Hilda equation pointed out six years ago. Saxo is hardly sufficiently used. Bugge’s “classical borrowing” theory is implicitly and properly rejected. The point of view taken is on the whole too narrow, and the whole subject, beyond a few such references, is left where Grimm left it. One is a little disappointed at the sterility of the survey, which, as treated by Dr. Symons, opens out no prospect of future fruitfulness, and neglects the anthropological side completely.

Sievers’ useful little notice, chiefly concerning Wulfila, is beside our purpose here. Mogk’s sketch of O. N. literature is again rather flat: it summarises handily enough much that is sufficiently known, but, like Symons’ paper, it lacks what one might call the suggestive quality. The MSS. are not noticed; the chronology is sometimes at fault; thus, 872 is too early for Hafursfrith battle, and the Greenland Lay is dated rather too soon, and Alvíss-mal too late; the upward date of Angantheow’s Lay, fixed by the allusion to Harold Fair-hair—an ec Noregi narðag ʒllom—and other like examples, are not considered. The defective plan of the Grundriss in separating the Norwegian and Icelandic from the Swedish and Danish classic literature is responsible for the omission of the Northern sources of Saxo, and of the Hrolf-cycle, where one naturally looks for it. Still, on the whole, Dr. Mogk’s work is painstaking, and, while by no means replacing earlier work, will probably help the German student. The bibliography is useful.

Of the succeeding fasciculi of the Grundriss der germanischen Philologie received up to present date, Band i, Lieferung 3, is taken up with the history of the Old Northern, German, and Netherland tongues, by A. Noreen, O. Behaghel, and J. F. Winkel, respectively; and does not directly concern us here. Band ii, Abteilung 2, Lieferung 3, is occupied by the end of K. von Amira’s interesting sketch of Teutonic Law, A. Schultz’s little article on the Teutonic Weapons of War, and F. Klaund’s well-ordered description of the social life and condition of the Scandinavians, from all three of which much that is of importance with regard to the ideas and pursuits of the old Teutonic world may be gathered by students of folk-lore.

With Band ii, Lieferung 1, we are more immediately engaged; H. Schuck contributes a history of the Swedish and Danish literature which, passing over without due notice the earlier traditions and traditional history, deals briefly but clearly with the mediæval remains of Sweden and Denmark, and appends a useful selected bibliography. R. Kögel’s Old High and Old Low German literature is fuller and more detailed, dealing one by one with the various texts, prose and verse, Latin and Teutonic, giving a good choice of references, and forming the most practical introduction to the subject yet printed. The English student will find it of special service for the comparison with and illustration of the parallel Old and Early English remains. F. Vogt begins his sketch of the Middle High-German literature in the same fasciculus on a similar plan


In Acta Germanica[2] we have a new series projected by R. Henning and J. Hoffory; it is intended to place the results of scientific philology (in the widest sense) before a somewhat wider public than has been hitherto catered for—a most praiseworthy design. The need for some such endeavour is almost more necessary on the Continent than it is here, for the differentiation of function, fostered no doubt by endowed special research, has rather brought about a neglect of efforts to improve the general culture of the public that reads; Hackel’s fascinating books belonging to a rare class in Germany, while in this country books such as Galton’s important contributions to biology are eminently readable.

The series opens with M. Hirschfeld’s Untersuchungen zur Loka-Senna, containing a normalised and Sieverian text and a good translation, preceded by an introduction and commentary of some sixty pages. Containing no new results, it summarises the main Continental authorities in a handy enough way. Misled by the hypothesis that Iceland was the home of the author of this comic poem, Dr. Hirschfeld indulges in an extraordinary theory that Laufey is Iceland, that the Giant’s glove is the fiord-cut north-west promontory of the same land, and that the sun shining through the steam-pillars of the boiling springs is the foundation of a myth in the poem. This fancy, ingenious as it is, may at once be set aside as contrary to everything we know of the origin and development of these Eddie lays. The whole standpoint of the mythologic treatment is somewhat feeble and imperfect. The identification of Lóþurr-Vrtra is noticed. The poem is dated too late, probably owing to the preconception of its Icelandic origin. The corruptions in the text are got round in the old fashion, rather than obelized; though this is perhaps necessary in a popular work, where the sense is more important than the letter, but verses which are purely immetrical should surely be so marked thus in Stanza 38. I should either obelize the third line, or read according to a conjecture of Vigfússon’s—“Ulfge hefr oc vel es í vidjomscal.” The translation, again, of the fourth line is also far too loose; whatever Ragna-röc may mean (and I take it to mean nothing else than the Doom of the gods) it cannot be translated “Welten-brand”. With the rejection of the lines superfluous in the metre one would cordially agree; they are in one case mere reciters’ repetition or substitutions, but as they may be in one or two cases witnesses to the early existence of parallel texts they should be noticed. The anthropological aspects of the poem are left untouched. Nor are the ancient representations of Loke, which are of no small interest, made use of. The absence of an index is inexcusable, and a short note on the most helpful books consulted, or to consult, would help the general reader who was attracted to the subject, and cost little trouble to Dr. Hirschfeld. It would be easy to criticise this book more minutely, but the main short-comings, arising from too absolute an acceptance of the opinions of one school, have been pointed out, and we would not wish to do other than encourage efforts directed to the widening of the circle of those who take pleasure in such classic masterpieces as Loka-Senna, the best work of the unknown Aristophanes of the Scandinavian colonies.

The next book to be noticed is one of much greater importance. It is the Researches in Teutonic Mythology of Viktor Rydberg, translated by R. B. Anderson. This is on one side the most important addition to our knowledge of early Teutonic myths since Grimm. It is a book with a good deal of humanity about it, and though one is far from agreeing with all its conclusions, it is eminently suggestive. The author has studied his Saxo to good purpose, and has been rewarded. The peculiar merit of the author is his sagacity in grasping clues that have escaped others; his weak side is the over-tendency to identifications; yet it must be admitted that the existence of parallel myths in the North has been neglected unduly, and that one must suppose that in the spread of governmental area by the leaguing of tribes into nations, various forms of the same myth would appear side by side, and where the differentiation of the parallels had been great they would tend to survive with the differentiation accented, while where the differentiation was slight they would merge, leaving perhaps in a word or phrase the traces of a brief separate existence.

The first portion of this volume is devoted to a clear and good summary of the mediæval Trojan hypothesis in its relation to the Scandinavians, and to a review of the earlier native traditions respecting migrations from the North. Next follows an examination into the mythic culture-god or hero, the Teutonic Triptolemus, Sheaf, with an identification of Skelfir-Sheaf and Heimdall, which I should hardly be disposed to admit, and further equations of Skiold-Borgar-Rig-Earl, and of Gram Skioldson-Halfdan, the old-Halfdan, Borgarsson-Halfdan Berg-gram, which I think, in essentials, must be accepted along with the ingenious identification of Groa, Orwandil’s wife, and Groa, Sripdag’s mother, with the considerations it involves. On the other hand, the suggested equation Halfdan-Mannus must fall to the ground, and the reasons that support it are wholly illusory, e.g., Guðormr is taken as Guð-hormr instead of Guð-ꝥormr, and falsely connected with Hermio. The suggestion that Heimdall was the husband of Sol the sun-goddess will require further proof. The identification of Saxo’s Halfdan-Gram with the Eddie Helge Hundingsbane is of course correct. The treatment of the Eddie lay itself is poor, with a curious suggestion that in the lines “þa es Borgarr [Borgir R.] braut í Brálunde”, and “Drótt ꝥotti sá deglingr uesa”, the names of Halfdan’s father and mother, Borgarr and Drott are preserved; ch. 35 on Svipdag is not convincing. The following discussion on the first war and its incidents, and the hag Gulveig-Herð-Angerboda, is exceedingly ingenious. The adventures of Hadding are next treated, with much skill. But there is too much forcing of analogies in what follows, and to identify Hadding-Hartung with Theodoric of Verona is absurd, though there are false traditions connected with the great king which have some relation with those told of Hadding.

An investigation into the myths relating to the Lower World follows, but its results are too consistent. The fact is that we have existing traditions not only divergent sister legends of the same type, but survivals from successive strata of very different age, from the most archaic and “petral” to those which are deeply tinged with Christian ideas.

However, one may note the identification Gudmund-Mimer-Modsögner, and the Iranic parallels adduced to explain Mimer’s grove by Jima’s garden. In his geography of the Teutonic underworld and the equation Hel-Urd which follow, one cannot follow Dr. Rydberg. Chapters lxix, lxx, lxxi, on the thingsteads and dooms of the gods, are over-ingenious, and the writer does not seem to understand the curious geography of an old Teutonic mootstead, with its law-hill, or rock or slope, and the fenced ring of seats for the court lying to the east thereof, the two connected by a path, along which the judges pass to the dooming. There follows an examination of the World-mill legends, which is suggestive, but cannot be wholly accepted. The mill-traditions are evidently late (because the quern is a late instrument preceded by the pounder, and probably not developed till the regular cultivation of cereals came in), and they are mere outcomes of the desire to explain the salt of the sea and the sand of the shore.

An ingenious equation of Heimdall with Agni as the god of the auger-born fire is to be noticed. The Niðað-Mimer equation is by no means acceptable. An excellent note on p. 486 on Saxo’s rules for Latinising vernacular names is to be mentioned, but the speculations on the Moon-god, with much that seems reasonable, include a good deal of forced analogy and doubtful theory. Fair-Balder is a good equation, and there is a clever essay on the legend of the Seven Sleepers.

The third part of the volume deals with the Ivalde Race, and first with Swipdag-Oðrand Freyja-Menglad, and connects the former with the historic Eric, the Swede god, and with Hermod, while Orwandil is made a synonym of Egil and Ibor. The weakness of much of this lies in the ignoring of the patent fact that myths are continually being transferred from a half-forgotten hero to the one fresh in fame, and that round persons like Hnef, Hermod, and Eric old myths crystallise afresh.

Chapter iii sums up admirably the plot of part of Völuspá, and shows the identity of the Vedic legend of Tvashtar and the Ribhas with the Teutonic Sindre-Ivalde tradition. The next chapter deals with Thjasse-Tishja-Rogner. The authority of Forspiallsliód (in the authenticity of which Dr. Rydberg unaccountably believes) is of course more than useless. The analysis of Thórsdrapa is ingenious, even plausible, but it is impossible to build securely upon what is left of this fine poem, so unsafe is the text. The identifications Wayland-Thjasse, Slagfin-Gjuke, are alluring, but one is hardly prepared to assent to them off-hand, while with the guesses about Hencgest it is impossible to agree.

In conclusion, one may commend to every mythologist or student of the old Northern literature this bold and ingenious book. It is not easy reading, nor is it easy to criticise, its strength and weakness alike depend upon detail. The author’s experience in belles lettres has given him a quick eye for a plot, a delight in character, and a desire to bring harmony out of confusion. No professional scholar of the modern German type would have attempted or could have achieved this book, which, with all its imperfections, contains the most important work done in Northern mythology by a Scandinavian book during the last fifty years.

The next work is of a wholly different character, a book showing on every page marks of methodic training, of wide reading, some ingenuity, and slow, persevering labour, a book deserving careful consideration, and with which one is bound in future to reckon, but not to my mind a book that carries conviction with it. Its thesis is that Völuspá is a book-poem composed in Iceland cir. 1125, in “the first quarter of the 12th century”. A careful analysis, commentary, reconstructed text (but no index), make up a volume of 300 pages. (Völuspá, eine Untersuchung, von Elard Hugo Meyer, Berlin, 1889.) While quite willing to admit, as he was himself, that Vigfússon has not said the last word on Völuspá, and entertaining very little of Dr. Meyer’s respect for Mullenhoff’s work on this poem, it is a large demand that is made upon the reader’s faith, and at present I must confess to regarding the thesis advanced as a mere piece of prettily constructed speculation. The striking character of Völuspá as a work of art, and the exaggerated importance as a mythologic authority which its systematic eschatology has given it in the minds of modern readers, have obscured the fact that it has a peculiar and unique position among the other Eddic Lays, that it is isolated in character and tone. It is a work neither of daylight nor dark, in fact, a creation of the passing twilight. But to my mind there is a power, a simplicity, a spontaneity in it that absolutely forbids one to look upon it as the learned product of a reconstructive book-worm of the 12th century in Iceland.

The wide reading and ingenuity of Bugge and the discoveries of Bang have led incautious followers into doubtful tracks. Mediæval Christianity in Teutonic lands is to a great extent Teutonic heathendom with a thin varnish of Christian ideas, but it is not true that Teutonic heathendom is permeated by Latino-Greek or Judæo-Christian thought. The fantastic theories of mediæval book-writers such as Jordanes Dudo, the Editor of what is called the Prose Edda, were not persons who represented the general ideas and feelings of their time, but learned speculators who had no more influence on the thought of the mass of their fellow-creatures than the Bishop of Oxford’s researches into the British Constitution have on the ordinary member of a Liberal Three Hundred or a Primrose League Habitation. The good old mythology and ritual went on as old wives’ fables and charms many a century after, and survive in the fairy-tales and superstitious observances of to-day.



  1. Strassburg: K. Trübner, 1889.
  2. Berlin: Mayer und Müller.