"The Golden Age of Myth and Legend"
Thomas Bullfinch (1796-1867)
Denmark: Wordsworth Editions, Ltd., 1993
CHAPTER I: INTRODUCTION
The religions of ancient Greece and Rome are extinct. The so-called divinities of Olympus have not a single worshipper among living men. They belong now not to the department of theology, but to those of literature and taste. There they still hold their place, and will continute to hold it, for they are too closely connected with the finest productions of poetry and art, both ancient and modern, to pass into obliviion.
We propose to tell the stories relating to them which have come down to us from the ancients, and which are alluded to by modern poets, essayists, and orators. Our readers may thus at the same time be entertained by the most charming fictions of which fancy has ever created, and put in possession of information indispensable to everyone who would read with intelligence the elegant literature of his own day.
In order to understand these stories, it will be necessary to acquaint ourselves with the ideas of the structure of the universe which prevailed among the Greeks — the people from whom the Romans, and other nations through them, received their science and religion.
The Greeks believed the earth to be flat and circular, their own country occupying the middle of it, the central point being either Mount Olympus, the abode of the gods, or Delphi, so famous for its oracle.
. . .
CHAPTER XXXVIII: NORTHERN MYTHOLOGY: VALHALLA: THE VALKYRIOR
The Prime importance of the rude fragments of poetry preserved in early Icelandic literature will now be disputed by none, but there has been until recent times an extraordinary indifference to the wealth of religious tradition and mythical lore which they contain.
The long neglect of these precious records of our heathen ancestors is not the fault of the material in which all that survives of their religious beliefs is enshrined, for it may be safely asserted that the Edda is as rich in the essentials of national romance and race imagination, rugged though it be, as the more graceful and idyllic mythology of othe South. Neither is it due to anything weak in the conception of the deities themselves, for although they may not rise to great spiritual heights, foremost students of Icelandic literature agree that they stand out rude and massive as the Scandinavian mountains. They exhibit "a spirit of victory, superior to brute force, superior to mere matter, a spirit that fights and overcomes." "Even were some part of the matter of their myths taken from others, yet the Norsement have given their gods a noble, upright, great spirit, and placed them upon a high level that is all their own." "In fact these old Norse songs have a truth in them, an inward perennial truth and greatness. It is a greatness not of mere body and gigantic bulk, but a rude greatness of soul." (p. 407)
1 The Elder Edda is in poetry, and dates back to the year 1056; the more modern, or prose, Edda being of teh date of 1640.
2 "Northern Mythology," Kauffman
3 Halliday Sparling
4 Carlyle, "Heroes and Hero Worship"
The introduction of Christianity into the North brought with it the influence of teh classical races, and this eventually supplanted the native genius, so that the alien mythology and literature of Greece and Rome have formed an increasing part of the mental equipment of the northern peoples in proportion as the native and tradition have been neglected.
Undoubtedly Northern mythology has exercised a deep influence upon our customs, laws, and language, and there has been, therefore, a great unconscious inspiration flowing from these into English literature. The most distinctive traits of this mythology are a peculiar grim humor, to be found in the religion of no other race, and a dark thread of tragedy which runs throughout the whole woof, and these characteristics, touching both extremes, are writ large over English literature.
But of conscious influence, compared with the rich draught of Hellenistic inspiration, there is litle to be found, and if we turn to modern art the difference is even more apparent.
This indifference may be attributed to many causes, but it was due first to the fact that the religious beliefs of our pagan ancestors were not held with any real tenacity. Hence the success of the more or less considered policy of the early Christian missionaries to confuse heathen beliefs, and merge them in the new faith. Northern mythology was in this way arrested ere it had attained its full development, and the progress of Christianity eventually relegated it to the limbo of forgotten things. Its comprehensive and intelligent scheme, however, in strong contrast with the disconnected mythology of Greece and Rome, formed the basis of a more or less rational faith which prepared the Norsemen to receive the teaching of Christianity, ans so helped to bring about its own undoing. (pp. 408-409)
The religious beliefs of the North are not mirrored with any exactitude in the Elder Edda. Indeed only a travesty of the faith of our ancestors has been preserved in Norse literature. (p. 409)...
We are told nothing as to sacrificial and religious rites, and all else is omitted which does not provide material for artisitic treatment. The so-called Northern Mythology, therefore, may be regarded as a precious relic of the beginning of Northern poetry, rather than as a representation of the religious beliefs of the Scandinavians, and these literary fragments bear many signs of the transitional stage wherein the confusion of the old and new faiths is easily apparent.
But notwithstanding the limitations imposed by long neglect it is possible to reconstruct in part a plan of the ancient Norse beliefs, and the general reader will derive much profit from Carlyle's illuminating study in "Heroes and Hero Worship." "A bewildering, inextricable jungle of delusions, confusions, falsehoods, and absurdities, covering the whole field of Life!" he calls them, will all good reason. But he goes on to show, with equal truth, that at the sould of this crude show, with equal truth, that at the soul of this crude worship of distorted nature was a spiritual force seeking expression. What we probe without reverence they viewed with awe, and not understanding it, straightway deified it, as all children have been apt to do in all stages of the world's history. Truly they were hero-worshippers after Carlyle's own heart, and scepticism had no place in their simple philosophy [emphasis added]. (pp 409-410)
. . . CHAPTER XL: THE DEATH OF BALDUR: THE ELVES: RAGNAROK: THE VOLSUNGA SAGA: RUNIC LETTERS: SKALDS: ICELAND
. . .
The Edda mentions another class of beings, inferior to the gods, but still possessed of great power; these were called Elves. The white spirits, or Elves of Light, were exceedingly fair, more brilliant than the sun, clad in garments of a delicate and transparent texture. They loved the light, were kindly disposed to mankind, and generally appeared as fair and lovely children. Their country was called Alfheim, and was the domain of Freyr, the god of the sun, in whose light they were always sporting.
The black or Night Elves were a different kind of creatures. Ugly, long-nosed dwarfs, of a dirty brown color, they appeared only at night, for they avoided the sun as their most deadly enemy, because whenever his beams fell upon any of them they changed them immediately into stones. Their language was the echo of solitudes, and their dwelling places subterranian caves and clefts. They were supposed to have come into existence as maggots produced by the decaying flesh of Ymir's body, and were afterword endowed by the gods with human form and greeat understanding. They were particularly distinguished for a knowledge of the mysterious powers of nature, and for the runes which they carved and explained. They were the most skilful arificers of all created beings, and worked in metals and wood. Among their most noted works were Thor's hammer, and the ship "Skidbladnir," which they gave to Freyr, and which was so large that it could contain all the deities with their war and household implements, but so skilfully was it wrought that when folded together it could be put into a side pocket. (pp. 435-436)