Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch
Stories of Gods and Heroes
Chapter XL. The Death of Baldur--The Elves--Runic Letters--Iceland--Teutonic Mythology--Nibelungen Lied
The Death of Baldur
Baldur the Good, having been tormented with terrible dreams indicating that his life was in peril, told them to the assembled gods, who resolved to conjure all things to avert from him the threatened danger. Then Frigga, the wife of Odin, exacted an oath from fire and water, from iron and all other metals, from stones, trees, diseases, beasts, birds, poisons, and creeping things, that none of them would do any harm to Baldur. Odin, not satisfied with all this, and feeling alarmed for the fate of his son, determined to consult the prophetess Angerbode, a giantess, mother of Fenris, Hela, and the Midgard serpent. She was dead, and Odin was forced to seek her in Hela's dominions. This Descent of Odin forms the subject of Gray's fine ode beginning,--
"Uprose the king of men with speed And saddled straight his coal-black steed"
But the other gods, feeling that what Frigga had done was quite sufficient, amused themselves with using Baldur as a mark, some hurling darts at him, some stones, while others hewed at him with their swords and battle-axes; for do what they would, none of them could harm him. And this became a favorite pastime with them and was regarded as an honor shown to Baldur. But when Loki beheld the scene he was sorely vexed that Baldur was not hurt. Assuming, therefore, the shape of a woman, he went to Fensalir, the man- sion of Frigga. That goddess, when she saw the pretended woman, inquired of her if she knew what the gods were doing at their meetings. She replied that they were throwing darts and stones at Baldur, without being able to hurt him. "Ay," said Frigga, "neither stones, nor sticks, nor anything else can hurt Baldur, for I have exacted an oath from all of them." "What," exclaimed the woman, "have all things sworn to spare Baldur?" "All things," replied Frigga, "except one little shrub that grows on the eastern side of Valhalla, and is called Mistletoe, and which I thought too young and feeble to crave an oath from."
As soon as Loki heard this he went away, and resuming his natural shape, cut off the mistletoe, and repaired to the place where the gods were assembled. There he found Hodur standing apart, without partaking of the sports, on account of his blindness, and going up to him, said, "Why dost thou not also throw something at Baldur?"
"Because I am blind," answered Hodur, "and see not where Baldur is, and have, moreover, nothing to throw."
"Come, then," said Loki, "do like the rest, and show honor to Baldur by throwing this twig at him, and I will direct thy arm towards the place where he stands."
Hodur then took the mistletoe, and under the guidance of Loki, darted it at Baldur, who, pierced through and through, fell down lifeless. Surely never was there witnessed, either among gods or men, a more atrocious deed than this. When Baldur fell, the gods were struck speechless with horror, and then they looked at each other, and all were of one mind to lay hands on him who had done the deed, but they were obliged to delay their vengeance out of respect for the sacred place where they were assembled. They gave vent to their grief by loud lamentations. When the gods came to themselves, Frigga asked who among them wished to gain all her love and good will. "For this," said she, "shall he have who will ride to Hel and offer Hela a ransom if she will let Baldur return to Asgard." Whereupon Hermod, surnamed the Nimble, the son of Odin, offered to undertake the journey. Odin's horse, Sleipnir, which has eight legs and can outrun the wind, was then led forth, on which Hermod mounted and galloped away on his mission. For the space of nine days and as many nights he rode through deep glens so dark that he could not discern anything, until he arrived at the river Gyoll, which he passed over on a bridge covered with glittering gold. The maiden who kept the bridge asked him his name and lineage, telling him that the day before five bands of dead persons had ridden over the bridge, and did not shake it as much as he alone. "But," she added, "thou hast not death's hue on thee; why then ridest thou here on the way to Hel?"
"I ride to Hel," answered Hermod, "to seek Baldur. Hast thou perchance seen him pass this way?"
She replied, "Baldur hath ridden over Gyoll's bridge, and yonder lieth the way he took to the abodes of death"
Hermod pursued his journey until he came to the barred gates of Hel. Here he alighted, girthed his saddle tighter, and remounting clapped both spurs to his horse, who cleared the gate by a tremendous leap without touching it. Hermod then rode on to the palace, where he found his brother Baldur occupying the most distinguished seat in the hall, and passed the night in his company. The next morning he besought Hela to let Baldur ride home with him, assuring her that nothing but lamentations were to be heard among the gods. Hela answered that it should now be tried whether Baldur was so beloved as he was said to be. "If, therefore," she added, "all things in the world, both living and lifeless, weep for him, then shall he return to life; but if any one thing speak against him or refuse to weep, he shall be kept in Hel."
Hermod then rode back to Asgard and gave an account of all he had heard and witnessed.
The gods upon this despatched messengers throughout the world to beg everything to weep in order that Baldur might be delivered from Hel. All things very willingly complied with this request, both men and every other living being, as well as earths, and stones, and trees, and metals, just as we have all seen these things weep when they are brought from a cold place into a hot one. As the messengers were returning, they found an old hag named Thaukt sitting in a cavern, and begged her to weep Baldur out of Hel. But she answered,
"Thaukt will wail With dry tears Baldur's bale-fire. Let Hela keep her own."
It was strongly suspected that this hag was no other than Loki himself, who never ceased to work evil among gods and men. So Baldur was prevented from coming back to Asgard.
[Footnote: In Longfellow's Poems will be found a poem entitled "Tegner's Drapa," upon the subject of Baldur's death.]
The gods took up the dead body and bore it to the seashore where stood Baldur's ship "Hringham," which passed for the largest in the world. Baldur's dead body was put on the funeral pile, on board the ship, and his wife Nanna was so struck with grief at the sight that she broke her heart, and her body was burned on the same pile as her husband's. There was a vast concourse of various kinds of people at Baldur's obsequies. First came Odin accompanied by Frigga, the Valkyrie, and his ravens; then Frey in his car drawn by Gullinbursti, the boar; Heimdall rode his horse Gulltopp, and Freya drove in her chariot drawn by cats. There were also a great many Frost giants and giants of the mountain present. Baldur's horse was led to the pile fully caparisoned and consumed in the same flames with his master.
But Loki did not escape his deserved punishment. When he saw how angry the gods were, he fled to the mountain, and there built himself a hut with four doors, so that he could see every approaching danger. He invented a net to catch the fishes, such as fishermen have used since his time. But Odin found out his hiding- place and the gods assembled to take him. He, seeing this, changed himself into a salmon, and lay hid among the stones of the brook. But the gods took his net and dragged the brook, and Loki, finding he must be caught, tried to leap over the net; but Thor caught him by the tail and compressed it, so that salmons ever since have had that part remarkably fine and thin. They bound him with chains and suspended a serpent over his head, whose venom falls upon his face drop by drop. His wife Siguna sits by his side and catches the drops as they fall, in a cup; but when she carries it away to empty it, the venom falls upon Loki, which makes him howl with horror, and twist his body about so violently that the whole earth shakes, and this produces what men call earthquakes.
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, and 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 subterranean caves and clefts. They were supposed to have come into existence as maggots produced by the decaying flesh of Ymir's body, and were afterwards endowed by the gods with a human form and great 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 artificers of all created beings, and worked in metals and in 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 skillfully was it wrought that when folded together it could be put into a side pocket.
Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods
It was a firm belief of the northern nations that a time would come when all the visible creation, the gods of Valhalla and Niffleheim, the inhabitants of Jotunheim, Alfheim, and Midgard, together with their habitations, would be destroyed. The fearful day of destruction will not, however, be without its forerunners. First will come a triple winter, during which snow will fall from the four corners of the heavens, the frost be very severe, the wind piercing, the weather tempestuous, and the sun impart no gladness. Three such winters will pass away without being tempered by a single summer. Three other similar winters will then follow, during which war and discord will spread over the universe. The earth itself will be frightened and begin to tremble, the sea leave its basin, the heavens tear asunder, and men perish in great numbers, and the eagles of the air feast upon their still quivering bodies. The wolf Fenris will now break his bands, the Midgard serpent rise out of her bed in the sea, and Loki, released from his bonds, will join the enemies of the gods. Amidst the general devastation the sons of Muspelheim will rush forth under their leader Surtur, before and behind whom are flames and burning fire. Onward they ride over Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, which breaks under the horses' hoofs. But they, disregarding its fall, direct their course to the battlefield called Vigrid. Thither also repair the wolf Fenris, the Midgard serpent, Loki with all the followers of Hela, and the Frost giants.
Heimdall now stands up and sounds the Giallar horn to assemble the gods and heroes for the contest. The gods advance, led on by Odin, who engages the wolf Fenris, but falls a victim to the monster, who is, however, slain by Vidar, Odin's son. Thor gains great renown by killing the Midgard serpent, but recoils and falls dead, suffocated with the venom which the dying monster vomits over him. Loki and Heimdall meet and fight till they are both slain. The gods and their enemies having fallen in battle, Surtur, who has killed Freyr, darts fire and flames over the world, and the whole universe is burned up. The sun becomes dim, the earth sinks into the ocean, the stars fall from heaven, and time is no more.
After this Alfadur (the Almighty) will cause a new heaven and a new earth to arise out of the sea. The new earth filled with abundant supplies will spontaneously produce its fruits without labor or care. Wickedness and misery will no more be known, but the gods and men will live happily together.
One cannot travel far in Denmark, Norway, or Sweden without meeting with great stones of different forms, engraven with characters called Runic, which appear at first sight very different from all we know. The letters consist almost invariably of straight lines, in the shape of little sticks either singly or put together. Such sticks were in early times used by the northern nations for the purpose of ascertaining future events. The sticks were shaken up, and from the figures that they formed a kind of divination was derived.
The Runic characters were of various kinds. They were chiefly used for magical purposes. The noxious, or, as they called them, the bitter runes, were employed to bring various evils on their enemies; the favorable averted misfortune. Some were medicinal, others employed to win love, etc. In later times they were frequently used for inscriptions, of which more than a thousand have been found. The language is a dialect of the Gothic, called Norse, still in use in Iceland. The inscriptions may therefore be read with certainty, but hitherto very few have been found which throw the least light on history. They are mostly epitaphs on tombstones.
Gray's ode on the "Descent of Odin" contains an allusion to the use of Runic letters for incantation:
"Facing to the northern clime, Thrice he traced the Runic rhyme; Thrice pronounced, in accents dread, The thrilling verse that wakes the dead, Till from out the hollow ground Slowly breathed a sullen sound."
The Skalds were the bards and poets of the nation, a very important class of men in all communities in an early stage of civilization. They are the depositaries of whatever historic lore there is, and it is their office to mingle something of intellectual gratification with the rude feasts of the warriors, by rehearsing, with such accompaniments of poetry and music as their skill can afford, the exploits of their heroes living or dead. The compositions of the Skalds were called Sagas, many of which have come down to us, and contain valuable materials of history, and a faithful picture of the state of society at the time to which they relate.
The Eddas and Sagas have come to us from Iceland. The following extract from Carlyle's lectures on "Heroes and Hero Worship" gives an animated account of the region where the strange stories we have been reading had their origin. Let the reader contrast it for a moment with Greece, the parent of classical mythology:
"In that strange island, Iceland,--burst up, the geologists say, by fire from the bottom of the sea, a wild land of barrenness and lava, swallowed many months of every year in black tempests, yet with a wild, gleaming beauty in summer time, towering up there stern and grim in the North Ocean, with its snow yokuls [mountains], roaring geysers [boiling springs], sulphur pools, and horrid volcanic chasms, like the waste, chaotic battlefield of Frost and Fire,--where, of all places, we least looked for literature or written memorials,--the record of these things was written down. On the seaboard of this wild land is a rim of grassy country, where cattle can subsist, and men by means of them and of what the sea yields; and it seems they were poetic men these, men who had deep thoughts in them and uttered musically their thoughts. Much would be lost had Iceland not been burst up from the sea, not been discovered by the Northmen!"
In the mythology of Germany proper, the name of Odin appears as Wotan; Freya and Frigga are regarded as one and the same divinity, and the gods are in general represented as less warlike in character than those in the Scandinavian myths. As a whole, however, Teutonic mythology runs along almost identical lines with that of the northern nations. The most notable divergence is due to modifications of the legends by reason of the difference in climatic conditions. The more advanced social condition of the Germans is also apparent in their mythology.
The Nibelungen Lied
One of the oldest myths of the Teutonic race is found in the great national epic of the Nibelungen Lied, which dates back to the prehistoric era when Wotan, Frigga, Thor, Loki, and the other gods and goddesses were worshipped in the German forests. The epic is divided into two parts, the first of which tells how Siegfried, the youngest of the kings of the Netherlands, went to Worms, to ask in marriage the hand of Kriemhild, sister of Gunther, King of Burgundy. While he was staying with Gunther, Siegfried helped the Burgundian king to secure as his wife Brunhild, queen of Issland. The latter had announced publicly that he only should be her husband who could beat her in hurling a spear, throwing a huge stone, and in leaping. Siegfried, who possessed a cloak of invisibility, aided Gunther in these three contests, and Brunhild became his wife. In return for these services, Gunther gave Siegfried his sister Kriemhild in marriage.
After some time had elapsed, Siegfried and Kriemhild went to visit Gunther, when the two women fell into a dispute about the relative merits of their husbands. Kriemhild, to exalt Siegfried, boasted that it was to the latter that Gunther owed his victories and his wife. Brunhild, in great anger, employed Hagan, liegeman of Gunther, to murder Siegfried. In the epic Hagan is described as follows:
"Well-grown and well-compacted was that redoubted guest; Long were his legs and sinewy, and deep and broad his chest; His hair, that once was sable, with gray was dashed of late; Most terrible his visage, and lordly was his gait."
--Nibelungen Lied, stanza 1789.
This Achilles of German romance stabbed Siegfried between the shoulders, as the unfortunate King of the Netherlands was stooping to drink from a brook during a hunting expedition.
The second part of the epic relates how, thirteen years later, Kriemhild married Etzel, King of the Huns. After a time, she invited the King of Burgundy, with Hagan and many others, to the court of her husband. A fearful quarrel was stirred up in the banquet hall, which ended in the slaughter of all the Burgundians but Gunther and Hagan. These two were taken prisoners and given to Kriemhild, who with her own hand cut off the heads of both. For this bloody act of vengeance Kriemhild was herself slain by Hildebrand, a magician and champion, who in German mythology holds a place to an extent corresponding to that of Nestor in the Greek mythology.
The Nibelungen Hoard
This was a mythical mass of gold and precious stones which Siegfried obtained from the Nibelungs, the people of the north whom he had conquered and whose country he had made tributary to his own kingdom of the Netherlands. Upon his marriage, Siegfried gave the treasure to Kriemhild as her wedding portion. After the murder of Siegfried, Hagan seized it and buried it secretly beneath the Rhine at Lochham, intending to recover it at a future period. The hoard was lost forever when Hagan was killed by Kriemhild. Its wonders are thus set forth in the poem:
"'Twas as much as twelve huge wagons in four whole nights and days Could carry from the mountain down to the salt sea bay; Though to and fro each wagon thrice journeyed every day. "It was made up of nothing but precious stones and gold; Were all the world bought from it, and down the value told, Not a mark the less would there be left than erst there was, I ween." --Nibelungen Lied, XIX.
Whoever possessed the Nibelungen hoard were termed Nibelungers. Thus at one time certain people of Norway were so called. When Siegfried held the treasure he received the title "King of the Nibelungers."
Wagner's Nibelungen Ring
Though Richard Wagner's music-drama of the Nibelungen Ring bears some resemblance to the ancient German epic, it is a wholly independent composition and was derived from various old songs and sagas, which the dramatist wove into one great harmonious story. The principal source was the Volsunga Saga, while lesser parts were taken from the Elder Edda and the Younger Edda, and others from the Nibelungen Lied, the Ecklenlied, and other Teutonic folklore.
In the drama there are at first only four distinct races,--the gods, the giants, the dwarfs, and the nymphs. Later, by a special creation, there come the valkyrie and the heroes. The gods are the noblest and highest race, and dwell first in the mountain meadows, later in the palace of Valhalla on the heights. The giants are a great and strong race, but lack wisdom; they hate what is noble, and are enemies of the gods; they dwell in caves near the earth's surface. The dwarfs, or nibelungs, are black uncouth pigmies, hating the good, hating the gods; they are crafty and cunning, and dwell in the bowels of the earth. The nymphs are pure, innocent creatures of the water. The valkyrie are daughters of the gods, but mingled with a mortal strain; they gather dead heroes from the battle-fields and carry them to Valhalla. The heroes are children of the gods, but also mingled with a mortal strain; they are destined to become at last the highest race of all, and to succeed the gods in the government of the world.
The principal gods are Wotan, Loki, Donner, and Froh. The chief giants are Fafner and Fasolt, brothers. The chief dwarfs are Alberich and Mime, brothers, and later Hagan, son of Alberich. The chief nymphs are the Rhine-daughters, Flosshilda, Woglinda, and Wellgunda. There are nine Valkyrie, of whom Brunhild is the leading one.
Wagner's story of the Ring may be summarized as follows:
A hoard of gold exists in the depths of the Rhine, guarded by the innocent Rhine-maidens. Alberich, the dwarf, forswears love to gain this gold. He makes it into a magic ring. It gives him all power, and he gathers by it a vast amount of treasures.
Meanwhile Wotan, chief of the gods, has engaged the giants to build for him a noble castle, Valhalla, from whence to rule the world, promising in payment Freya, goddess of youth and love. But the gods find they cannot spare Freya, as they are dependent on her for their immortal youth. Loki, called upon to provide a substitute, tells of Alberich's magic ring and other treasure. Wotan goes with Loki, and they steal the ring and the golden hoard from Alberich, who curses the ring and lays the curse on all who shall henceforth possess it. The gods give the ring and the treasure to the giants as a substitute for Freya. The curse at once begins. One giant, Fafner, kills his brother to get all, and transforms himself into a dragon to guard his wealth. The gods enter Valhalla over the rainbow bridge. This ends the first part of the drama, called the Rhine-Gold.
The second part, the Valkyrie, relates how Wotan still covets the ring. He cannot take it himself, for he has given his word to the giants. He stands or falls by his word. So he devises an artifice to get the ring. He will get a hero-race to work for him and recover the ring and the treasures. Siegmund and Sieglinda are twin children of this new race. Sieglinda is carried off as a child and is forced into marriage with Hunding. Siegmund comes, and unknowingly breaks the law of marriage, but wins Nothung, the great sword, and a bride. Brunhild, chief of the Valkyrie, is commissioned by Wotan at the instance of Fricka, goddess of marriage, to slay him for his sin. She disobeys and tries to save him, but Hunding, helped by Wotan, slays him. Sieglinda, however, about to bear the free hero, to be called Siegfried, is saved by Brunhild, and hid in the forest. Brunhild herself is punished by being made a mortal woman. She is left sleeping on the mountains with a wall of fire around her which only a hero can penetrate.
The drama continues with the story of Siegfried, which opens with a scene in the smithy between Mime the dwarf and Siegfried. Mime is welding a sword, and Siegfried scorns him. Mime tells him something of his mother, Sieglinda, and shows him the broken pieces of his father's sword. Wotan comes and tells Mime that only one who has no fear can remake the sword. Now Siegfried knows no fear and soon remakes the sword Nothung. Wotan and Alberich come to where the dragon Fafner is guarding the ring. They both long for it, but neither can take it. Soon Mime comes bringing Siegfried with the mighty sword. Fafner comes out, but Siegfried slays him. Happening to touch his lips with the dragon's blood, he understands the language of the birds. They tell him of the ring. He goes and gets it. Siegfried now has possession of the ring, but it is to bring him nothing of happiness, only evil. It is to curse love and finally bring death. The birds also tell him of Mime's treachery. He slays Mime. He longs for some one to love. The birds tell him of the slumbering Brunnhilda, whom he finds and marries.
The Dusk of the Gods portrays at the opening the three norns or fates weaving and measuring the thread of destiny. It is the beginning of the end. The perfect pair, Siegfried and Brunhild, appear in all the glory of their life, splendid ideals of manhood and womanhood. But Siegfried goes out into the world to achieve deeds of prowess. He gives her the Nibelungen ring to keep as a pledge of his love till his return. Meanwhile Alberich also has begotten a son, Hagan, to achieve for him the possession of the ring. He is partly of the Gibichung race, and works through Gunther and Gutrune, half-brother and half-sister to him. They beguile Siegfried to them, give him a magic draught which makes him forget Brunhild and fall in love with Gutrune. Under this same spell, he offers to bring Brunhild for wife to Gunther. Now is Valhalla full of sorrow and despair. The gods fear the end. Wotan murmurs, "O that she would give back the ring to the Rhine." But Brunhild will not give it up,--it is now her pledge of love. Siegfried comes, takes the ring, and Brunhild is now brought to the Rhine castle of the Gibichungs, but Siegfried under the spell does not love her. She is to be wedded to Gunther. She rises in wrath and denounces Siegfried. But at a hunting banquet Siegfried is given another magic draught, remembers all, and is slain by Hagan by a blow in the back, as he calls on Brunhild's name in love. Then comes the end. The body of Siegfried is burned on a funeral pyre, a grand funeral march is heard, and Brunhild rides into the flames and sacrifices herself for love's sake; the ring goes back to the Rhine-daughters; and the old world--of the gods of Valhalla, of passion and sin--is burnt up with flames, for the gods have broken moral law, and coveted power rather than love, gold rather than truth, and therefore must perish. They pass, and a new era, the reign of love and truth, has begun.
Those who wish to study the differences in the legends of the Nibelungen Lied and the Nibelungen Ring, and the way in which Wagner used his ancient material, are referred to Professor W. C. Sawyer's book on "Teutonic Legends in the Nibelungen Lied and the Nibelungen Ring," where the matter is treated in full detail. For a very thorough and clear analysis of the Ring as Wagner gives it, with a study of the musical motifs, probably nothing is better for general readers than the volume "The Epic of Sounds," by Freda Winworth. The more scholarly work of Professor Lavignac is indispensable for the student of Wagner's dramas. There is much illuminating comment on the sources and materials in "Legends of the Wagner Drama" by J. L. Weston.