"Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes"
Edith Hamilton
(USA: 1940; Mentor Books paperback, 1953)


A book on Mythology must draw from widely different sources. Twelve hundred years separate the first writers through whom the myths have come down to us from the last, and there are stories as unlike each other as “Cinderella” and “King Lear.” To bring them all together in one volume is really somewhat comparable to doing the same for the stories of English literature from Chaucer to the ballads, through Shakespeare and Marlowe and Swift and Defoe and Dryden and Pope and so on, ending with, say, Tennyson and Browning, or even, to make the comparison truer, Kipling and Galsworthy. The English collection would be bigger, but it would not contain more dissimilar material. In point of fact, Chaucer is more like Galsworthy and the ballads like Kipling than Homer is like Lucian or Aeschylus like Ovid.
     Faced with this problem, I determined at the outset to dismiss any idea of unifying the tales. That would have meant either writing “King Lear,” so to speak, down to the level of “Cinderella” — the vice versa procedure being obviously not possible — or else telling in my own way stories which were in no sense mine and had been told by great writers in ways they thought suited their subjects. I do not mean, of course, that a great writer's style can be reproduced or that I should dream of attempting such a feat. My aim has been nothing more ambitious than to keep distinct for the reader the very different writers from whom our knowledge of the myths comes. For example, Hesiod is a notably simple writer and devout; he is naive, even childish, sometimes crude, always full of piety. Many of the stories in this book are told only bv him. Side by side with them are stories told only by Ovid, subtle, polished, artificial, self-conscious, and the complete skeptic. My effort has been to make the reader see some difference between writers who were so different. After all, when one takes up a book like this one does not ask how entertainingly the author has retold the stories, but how close he has brought the reader to the original.
     My hope is that those who do not know the classics will gain in this way not only a knowledge of the myths, but some little idea of what the writers were like who told them — who have been proved, by two thousand years and more, to be immortal.

* * *

The Mythology of the Norsemen

Introduction to Norse Mythology

The world of Norse mythology is a strange world. Asgard, the home of the gods, is unlike any other heaven men have dreamed of. No radiancy of joy is in it, no assurance of bliss. It is a grave and solemn place, over which hangs the threat of an inevitable doom. The gods know that a day will come when they will be destroyed. Sometime they will meet their enemies and go down beneath them to defeat and death. Asgard will fall in ruins. The cause the forces of good are fighting to defend against the forces of evil is hopeless. Nevertheless, the gods will fight for it to the end.
     Necessarily the same is true of humanity. If the gods are finally helpless before evil, men and women must be more so. The heroes and heroines of the early stories face disaster. They know that they cannot save themselves, not by any courage or endurance or great deed. Even so, they do not yield. They die resisting. A brave death entitles them—at least the heroes—to a seat in Valhalla, one of the halls of Asgard, but there too they must look forward to final defeat and destruction. In the last battle between good and evil they will fight on the side of the gods and die with them.
     This is the conception of life which underlies the Norse religion, as somber a conception as the mind of man has ever given birth to. The only sustaining support possible for the human spirit, the one pure unsullied good men can hope to attain, is heroism; and heroism depends on lost causes. The hero can prove what he is only by dying. The power of good is shown not by triumphantly conquering evil, but by continuing to resist evil while facing certain defeat. (pp. 300-301)
     Such an attitude toward life seems at first sight fatalistic, but actually the decrees of an inexorable fate played no more part in the Norseman’s scheme of existence than predestination did in St. Paul’s or in that of his militant Protestant followers, and for precisely the same reason. Although the Norse hero was doomed if he did not yield, he could choose between yielding or dying. The decision was in his own hands. Even more than that. A heroic death, like a martyr's death, is not a defeat, but a triumph. The hero in one of the Norse stories who laughs aloud while his foes cut his heart out of his living flesh shows himself superior to his conquerors. He says to them, in effect, You can do nothing to me because I do not care what you do. They kill him, but he dies undefeated.
     This is stern stuff for humanity to live by, as stern in its totally different way as the Sermon on the Mount, but the easy way has never in the long run commanded the allegiance of mankind. Like the early Christians, the Norsemen measured their life by heroic standards. The Christian, however, looked forward to a heaven of eternal joy. The Norseman did not. But it would appear that for unknown centuries, until the Christian missionaries came, heroism was enough.
     The poets of the Norse mythology, who saw that victory was possible in death and that courage was never defeated are the only spokesmen for the belief of the whole great Teutonic race—of which England is a part, and ourselves through the first settlers in America. Everywhere else in northwestern Europe the early records, the traditions, the songs and stories, were obliterated by the priests of Christianity, who felt a bitter hatred for the paganism they had come to destroy. It is extraordinary how clean a sweep they were able to make. A few bits survived: Beowulf in England, the Nibelungenlied in Germany, and some stray fragments here and there. But if it were not for the two Icelandic Eddas we should know practically nothing of the religion which molded the race to which we belong. In Iceland, naturally by its position the last northern country to be Christianized, the missionaries seem to have been gentler, or, perhaps, they had less influence. Latin did not drive Norse out as the literary tongue. The people still told the old stories in the common speech, and some of them were written down, although by whom or when we do not know. The oldest manuscript of the Elder Edda is dated at about 1300, three hundred years after the Christians arrived, but the poems it is made up of are purely pagan and adjudged by all scholars to be very old. The Younger Edda, in prose, was written down (p. 301) by one Snorri Sturluson in the last part of the twelfth century. The chief part of it is a technical treatise on how to write poetry, but it also contains some prehistoric mythological material which is not in the Elder Edda.
     The Elder Edda is much the more important of the two. It is made up of separate poems, often about the same story, but never connected with each other. The material for a great epic is there, as great as the Iliad, perhaps even greater, but no poet came to work it over as Homer did the early stories which preceded the Iliad. There was no man of genius in the Northland to weld the poems into a whole and make it a thing of beauty and power; no one even to discard the crude and the commonplace and cut out the childish and wearisome repetitions. There are lists of names in the Edda which sometimes run on unbroken for pages. Nevertheless the somber grandeur of the stories comes through in spite of the style. Perhaps no one should speak of “the style” who cannot read ancient Norse; but all the translations are so alike in being singularly awkward and involved that one cannot but suspect the original of being responsible, at least in part. The poets of the Elder Edda seem to have had conceptions greater than their skill to put them into words. Many of the stories are splendid. There are none to equal them in Greek mythology, except those retold by the tragic poets. All the best Northern tales are tragic, about men and women who go steadfastly forward to meet death, often deliberately choose it, even plan it long beforehand. The only light in the darkness is heroism. (p. 302)

22 The Stories of Signy and Sigurd

Signy was the daughter of Volsung and the sister of Sigmund. Her husband slew Volsung by treachery and captured his sons. One by one he chained them at night to where the wolves would find them and devour them. When the last, who was Sigmund, was brought out and chained, Signy had devised a way to save him. She freed him and the two took a vow to avenge their father and brothers. Signy determined that Sigmund should have one of their own blood to help him and she visited him in disguise and spent three nights with him. He never knew who she was. When the boy who was born of their union was of an age to leave her, she sent him to Sigmund and the two lived together until the lad—his name was Sinfiotli —was grown to manhood; All this time Signy was living with her husband, bearing him children, showing him nothing of the one burning desire in her heart, to take vengeance upon him. The day for it came at last. Sigmund and Sinfiotli surprised the household. They killed Signy’s other children; they shut her husband in the house and set fire to it. Signy watched them (p. 303) with never a word. When all was done she told them that they had gloriously avenged the dead, and with that she entered the burning dwelling and died there. Through the years while she had waited she had planned when she killed her husband to die with him. Clytemnestra would fade beside her if there had been a Norse Aeschylus to write her story.

The story of Siegfried is so familiar that that of his Norse prototype, Sigurd, can be briefly told. Brynhild, a Valkyrie, has disobeyed Odin and is punished by being put to sleep until some man shall wake her. She begs that he who comes to her shall be one whose heart knows no fear, and Odin surrounds her couch with flaming fire which only a hero would brave. Sigurd, the son of Sigmund, does the deed. He forces his horse through the flames and wakens Brynhild, who gives her- self to him joyfully because he has proved his valor in reaching her. Some days later he leaves her in the same fire-ringed place.
     Sigurd goes to the home of the Giukungs where he swears brotherhood with the king, Gunnar. Griemhild, Gunnar’s mother, wants Sigurd for her daughter Gudrun, and gives him a magic potion which makes him forget Brynhild. He marries Gudrun; then, assuming through Griemhild’s magical power the appearance of Gunnar, he rides through the flames again to win Brynhild for Gunnar, who is not hero enough to do this himself. Sigurd spends three nights there with her, but he places his sword between them in the bed. Brynhild goes with him to the Giukungs, where Sigurd takes his own shape again, but without Brynhild’s knowledge. She marries Gunnar, believing that Sigurd was faithless to her and that Gunnar had ridden through the flames for her. In a quarrel with Gudrun she learns the truth and she plans her revenge. She tells Gunnar that Sigurd broke his oath to him, that he really possessed her those three nights when he declared that his sword lay between them, and that unless Gunnar kills Sigurd she will leave him. Gunnar himself cannot kill Sigurd because of the oath of brotherhood he has sworn, but he persuades his younger brother to slay Sigurd in his sleep, and Gudrun wakes to find her husband’s blood flowing over her.

But although, or because, she brought about his death, she will not live when Sigurd is dead. She says to her husband:—

     She tells him that Sigurd had not been false to his oath when he rode through the fiery ring to win her for Gunnar.

She kills herself, praying that, her body shall be laid on the funeral pyre with Sigurd’s.
     Beside his body Gudrun sits in silence. She cannot speak; she cannot weep. They fear that her heart will break unless she can find relief, and one by one the women tell her of their own grief.

Husband, daughters, sisters, brothers,—one says,—all were taken from me, and still I live.

     My seven sons fell in the southern land, another says, and my husband too, all eight in battle. I decked with my own hands the bodies for the grave. One half-year brought me this to bear. And no one came to comfort me.

     Then one wiser than the rest lifts the shroud from the dead.

• • •

     Such are the early Norse stories. Man is born to sorrow as the sparks fly upward. To live is to suffer and the only solution of the problem of life is to suffer with courage. Sigurd, on his way to Brynhild the first time, meets a wise man and asks him what his fate shall be,

The wise man answers: —

23 The Norse Gods

No god of Greece could be heroic. All the Olympians were immortal and invincible. They could never feel the glow of courage; they could never defy danger. When they fought they were sure of victory and no harm could ever come near them. It was different in Asgard. The Giants, whose city was Jotunheim, were the active, persistent enemies of the Aesir, as the gods were called, and they not only were an ever-present danger, but knew that in the end complete victory was assured to them.
     This knowledge was heavy on the hearts of all the dwellers in Asgard, but it weighed heaviest on their chief and ruler, Odin. Like Zeus, Odin was the sky-father,

But there the resemblance ends. It would be hard to conceive anything less like the Zeus of Homer than Odin. He is a strange and solemn figure, always aloof. Even when he sits at the feasts of the gods in his golden palace, Gladsheim, or with the heroes in Valhalla, he eats nothing. The food set before him he gives to the two wolves who crouch at his feet. On his shoulders perch two ravens, who fly each day through the world and bring him back news of all that men do. The name of the one is Thought (Hugin) and of the other Memory (Munin).
     While the other gods feasted, Odin pondered on what Thought and Memory taught him.
     He had the responsibility more than all the other gods together of postponing as long as possible the day of doom, Ragnarok, when heaven and earth would be destroyed. He was the All-father, supreme among gods and men, yet even so he constantly sought for more wisdom. He went down to the Well of Wisdom guarded by Mimir the wise, to beg for a draught from it, and when Mimir answered that he must pay for it with one of his eyes, he consented to lose the eye. He won the knowledge (p. 308) of the Runes, too, by suffering. The Runes were magical inscriptions, immensely powerful for him who could inscribe them on anything—wood, metal, stone. Odin learned them at the cost of mysterious pain. He says in the Elder Edda that he hung

He passed the hard-won knowledge on to men. They too were able to use the Runes to protect themselves. He imperiled his life again to take away from the Giants the skaldic mead, which made anyone who tasted it a poet. This good gift no bestowed upon men as well as upon the gods. In all ways he was mankind's benefactor.
     Maidens were his attendants, the VALKYRIES. They waited on the table in Asgard and kept the drinking horns full, but their chief task was to go to the battlefield and decide at Odin’s bidding who should win and who should die, and carry the brave dead to Odin. Val means “slain,” and the Valkyries were the Choosers of the Slain; and the place to which they brought the heroes was the Hall of the Slain, Valhalla. In battle, the hero doomed to die would see

Wednesday is of course Odin’s day. The Southern form of his name was Woden.
     Of the other gods, only five were important: BALDER, THOR, FREYR, HEIMDALL, and TYR.

     BALDER was the most beloved of the gods, on earth as in heaven. His death was the first of the disasters which fell upon the gods. One night he was troubled with dreams which seemed to foretell some great danger to him. When his mother, FRIGGA, the wife of Odin, heard this she determined to protect him from the least chance of danger. She went through the world and exacted an oath from everything, all things with life and without life, never to do him harm. But Odin still feared. He rode down to NIFLHEIM, the world of the dead, where he found the dwelling of HELA, or HEL, the Goddess of the Dead, all decked out in festal array. A Wise Woman told him for whom the house had been made ready:—

Odin knew then that Balder must die, but the other gods believed that Frigga had made him safe. They played a game accordingly which gave them much pleasure. They would try to hit Balder, to throw a stone at him or hurl a dart or shoot an arrow or strike him with a sword, but always the weapons fell short of him or rolled harmlessly away. Nothing would hurt Balder. He seemed raised above them by this strange exemption and all honored him for it, except one only, LOKI. He was not a god, but the son of a Giant, and wherever he came trouble followed. He continually involved the gods in difficulties and dangers, but he was allowed to come freely to Asgard because for some reason never explained Odin had sworn brotherhood with him. He always hated the good, and he was jealous of Balder. He determined to do his best to find some way of injuring him. He went to Frigga disguised as a woman and entered into talk with her. Frigga told him of her journey to ensure Balder's safety and how everything had sworn to do him no harm. Except for one little shrub, she said, the mistletoe, so insignificant she had passed it by.
     That was enough for Loki. He got the mistletoe and went with it to where the gods were amusing themselves. Hoder. Balder’s brother, who was blind, sat apart. “Why not join in the game?” asked Loki. “Blind as I am?” said Hoder. “And with nothing to throw at Balder, either?” “Oh, do your part,” Loki said. “Here is a twig. Throw it and I will direct your aim.” Hoder took the mistletoe and hurled it with all his strength. Under Loki’s guidance it sped to Balder and pierced his heart. Balder fell to the ground dead.
     His mother refused even then to give up hope. Frigga cried out to the gods for a volunteer to go down to Hela and try to ransom Balder. Hermod, one of her sons, offered himself. Odin gave him his horse Sleipnir and he sped down to Niflheim.
     The others prepared the funeral. They built a lofty pyre on a great ship, and there they laid Balder’s body. Nanna, his wife, went to look at it for the last time; her heart broke and she fell to the deck dead. Her body was placed beside his. Then the pyre was kindled and the ship pushed from the shore. As it sailed out to sea, the flames leaped up and wrapped it in fire. When Hermod reached Hela with the gods’ petition, she answered that she would give Balder back if it were proved to her that all everywhere mourned for him. But if one thing or one living creature refused to weep for him she would keep him. The gods dispatched messengers everywhere to ask all creation to shed tears so that Balder could be redeemed from death. They met with no refusal. Heaven and earth and every- thing therein wept willingly for the beloved god. The messengers rejoicing started back to carry the news to the gods. Then, (p. 310) almost at the end of their journey, they came upon a Giantess —and all the sorrow of the world was turned to futility, for she refused to weep. “Only dry tears will you get from me,” she said mockingly. “I had no good from Balder, nor will T give him good.” So Hela kept her dead.
     Loki was punished. The gods seized him and bound him in a deep cavern. Above his head a serpent was placed so that its venom fell upon his face, causing him unutterable pain. But his wife, Sigyn, came to help him. She took her place at his side and caught the venom in a cup. Even so, whenever she had to empty the cup and the poison fell on him, though but for a moment, his agony was so intense that his convulsions shook the earth.
     Of the three other great gods, THOR was the Thunder-god, for whom Thursday is named, the strongest of the Aesir; FREYR cared for the fruits of the earth; HEIMDALL was the warder of Bifrost, the rainbow bridge which led to Asgard; TYR was the God of War, for whom Tuesday, once Tyr’s day, was named.
     In Asgard goddesses were not as important as they were in Olympus. No one among the Norse goddesses is comparable to Athena, and only two are really notable. Frigga, Odin's wife, for whom some say Friday is named, was reputed to be very wise, but she was also very silent and she told no one, not even Odin, what- she knew. She is a vague figure, oftenest depicted at her spinning-wheel, where the threads she spins are of gold, but what she spins them for is a secret.
     FREYA was the Goddess of Love and Beauty, but, strangely to our ideas, half of those slain in battle were hers. Odin’s Valkyries could carry only half to Valhalla. Freya herself rode to the battlefield and claimed her share of the dead, and to the Norse poets that was a natural and fitting office for the Goddess of Love. Friday is generally held to have been namedfor her.
     But there was one realm which was handed over to the sole rule of a goddess. The Kingdom of Death was Hela's. No god had any authority there, not Odin, even. Asgard the Golden belonged to the gods; glorious Valhalla to the heroes; Midgard was the battlefield for men, not the business of women. Gud-run, in the Elder Edda, says.

     The cold pale world of the shadowy dead was woman’s sphere in Norse mythology. (p. 311)


In the Elder Edda a Wise Woman says:—

    But the chasm, tremendous though it was, did not extend everywhere. Far to the north was Niflheim, the cold realm of death, and far to the south was MUSPELHEIM, the land of fire. From Niflheim twelve rivers poured which flowed into the chasm and freezing there filled it slowly up with ice From Muspelhelm came fiery clouds that turned the ice to mist Drops of water fell from the mist and out of them there were I formed the frost maidens and YMIR the first Giant. His son was Odin’s father, whose mother and wife were frost maidens.
    Odin and his two brothers killed Ymir. They made the earth and sky from him, the sea fiom his blood, the earth from his body, the heavens from his skull. They took sparks from Muspelhelm and placed them in the sky as the sun, moon, and stars. The earth was round and encircled by the sea. A great wall which the gods built out of Ymir's eyebrows defended the place where mankind was to live. The space within was called Midgard. Here the first man and woman were created from trees, the man from an ash, the woman from an elm. They were the parents of all mankind. In the world were also DWARFS—ugly creatures, but masterly craftsmen, who lived under the earth; and ELVES, lovely sprites, who tended the flowers and streams.
     A wondrous ash-tree, YGGDRASIL, supported the universe. It struck its roots through the worlds.

It is also said that “one of the roots goes up to Asgard.” Beside this root was a well of white water, URDA’s WELL, so holy that none might drink of it. The three NORNS guarded it, who

The three were URDA (the Past), VERDANDI (the Present), and SKULD (the Future). Here each day the gods came, passing over the quivering rainbow bridge to sit beside the well and pass judgment on the deeds of men. Another well beneath another root was the WELL OF KNOWLEDGE, guarded by MIMIR THE WISE.
     Over Yggdrasil, as over Asgard, hung the threat of destruction. Like the gods it was doomed to die. A serpent and his brood gnawed continually at the root beside Niflheim, Hel’s home. Some day they would succeed in killing the tree, and the universe would come crashing down.
     The Frost Giants and the Mountain Giants who lived in Jotunheim were the enemies of all that is good. They were the brutal pov/ers of earth, and in the inevitable contest between them and the divine powers of heaven, brute force would conquer,

     But such a belief is contrary to the deepest conviction of the human spirit, that good is stronger than evil. Even these sternly hopeless Norsemen, whose daily life in their icy land through the black winters was a perpetual challenge to heroism, saw a far-away light break through the darkness. There is a prophecy in the Elder Edda, singularly like the Book of Revelation, that after the defeat of the gods,—when

—there would be a new heaven and a new earth,

Then would come the reign of One who was higher even than Odin and beyond the reach of evil—

     This vision of a happiness infinitely remote seems a thin sustenance against despair, but it was the only hope the Eddas afforded. (p. 313)


Another view of the Norse character, oddly unlike its heroic aspect, is also given prominence in the Elder Edda. There are several collections of wise sayings which not only do not reflect herosim at all, but give a view of life which dispenses with it. This Norse wisdom-literature is far less profound than the Hebrew Book of Proverbs; indeed it rarely deserves to have the great word “wisdom” applied to it, but the Norsemen who created it had at any rate a large store of good sense, a striking contrast to the uncompromising spirit of the hero. Like the writers of Proverbs the authors seem old; they are men of experience who have meditated on human affairs. Once, no doubt, they were heroes, but now they have retired from battlefields and they see things from a different point of view. Sometimes they even look at life with a touch of humor:—

Some show a shrewd knowledge of human nature: —

Now and then they are cheerful, almost light-hearted:—

A surprisingly tolerant spirit appears occasionally:—

There is real depth of insight sometimes:—

Two lines near the end of the most important of the collections show wisdom:—

• • •

Along with their truly awe-inspiring heorism, these men of the North had delightful common sense. The combination seems impossible, but the poems are here to prove it. By race we are connected with the Norse; our culture goes back to the Greeks. Norse mythology and Greek mythology together give a clear picture of what the people were like from whom comes a major part of our spiritual and intellectual inheritance.