Thomas Carlyle.

Sartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history online

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all things, is with these old Northmen, Loke, a most swift subtle
_Demon_, of the brood of the Jötuns. The savages of the Ladrones
Islands too (say some Spanish voyagers) thought Fire, which they never
had seen before, was a devil or god, that bit you sharply when you
touched it, and that lived upon dry wood. From us too no Chemistry, if
it had not Stupidity to help it, would hide that Flame is a wonder.
What _is_ Flame? - _Frost_ the old Norse Seer discerns to be a
monstrous hoary Jötun, the Giant _Thrym_, _Hrym_: or _Rime_, the old
word now nearly obsolete here, but still used in Scotland to signify
hoar-frost. _Rime_ was not then as now a dead chemical thing, but a
living Jötun or Devil; the monstrous Jötun _Rime_ drove home his
Horses at night, sat 'combing their manes,' - which Horses were
_Hail-Clouds_, or fleet _Frost-Winds_. His Cows - No, not his, but a
kinsman's, the Giant Hymir's Cows are _Icebergs_: this Hymir 'looks at
the rocks' with his devil-eye, and they _split_ in the glance of it.

Thunder was not then mere Electricity, vitreous or resinous; it was
the God Donner (Thunder) or Thor, - God also of beneficent Summer-heat.
The thunder was his wrath; the gathering of the black clouds is the
drawing down of Thor's angry brows; the fire-bolt bursting out of
Heaven is the all-rending Hammer flung from the hand of Thor: he urges
his loud chariot over the mountain-tops, - that is the peal: wrathful
he 'blows in his red beard,' - that is the rustling storm-blast before
the thunder begin. Balder again, the White God, the beautiful, the
just and benignant (whom the early Christian Missionaries found to
resemble Christ), is the Sun - beautifulest of visible things; wondrous
too, and divine still, after all our Astronomies and Almanacs! But
perhaps the notablest god we hear tell-of is one of whom Grimm the
German Etymologist finds trace: the God _Wünsch_, or Wish. The God
_Wish_; who could give us all that we _wished_! Is not this the
sincerest yet rudest voice of the spirit of man? The _rudest_ ideal
that man ever formed; which still shows itself in the latest forms of
our spiritual culture. Higher considerations have to teach us that the
God _Wish_ is not the true God.

Of the other Gods or Jötuns I will mention only for etymology's sake,
that Sea-tempest is the Jötun _Aegir_, a very dangerous Jötun; - and
now to this day, on our river Trent, as I learn, the Nottingham
bargemen, when the River is in a certain flooded state (a kind of
back-water, or eddying swirl it has, very dangerous to them), call it
_Eager_; they cry out, "Have a care, there is the _Eager_ coming!"
Curious; that word surviving, like the peak of a submerged world! The
_oldest_ Nottingham bargemen had believed in the God Aegir. Indeed,
our English blood too in good part is Danish, Norse; or rather, at
bottom, Danish and Norse and Saxon have no distinction, except a
superficial one, - as of Heathen and Christian, or the like. But all
over our Island we are mingled largely with Danes proper, - from the
incessant invasions there were: and this, of course, in a greater
proportion along the east coast; and greatest of all, as I find, in
the North Country. From the Humber upwards, all over Scotland, the
Speech of the common people is still in a singular degree Icelandic;
its Germanism has still a peculiar Norse tinge. They too are
'Normans,' Northmen, - if that be any great beauty! -

Of the chief god, Odin, we shall speak by and by. Mark at present so
much; what the essence of Scandinavian and indeed of all Paganism is:
a recognition of the forces of Nature as godlike, stupendous, personal
Agencies, - as Gods and Demons. Not inconceivable to us. It is the
infant Thought of man opening itself, with awe and wonder, on this
ever-stupendous Universe. To me there is in the Norse System something
very genuine, very great and manlike. A broad simplicity, rusticity,
so very different from the light gracefulness of the old Greek
Paganism, distinguishes this Scandinavian System. It is Thought; the
genuine Thought of deep, rude, earnest minds, fairly opened to the
things about them; a face-to-face and heart-to-heart inspection of the
things, - the first characteristic of all good Thought in all times.
Not graceful lightness, half-sport, as in the Greek Paganism; a
certain homely truthfulness and rustic strength, a great rude
sincerity, discloses itself here. It is strange, after our beautiful
Apollo statues and clear smiling mythuses, to come down upon the Norse
Gods 'brewing ale' to hold their feast with Aegir, the Sea-Jötun;
sending out Thor to get the caldron for them in the Jötun country;
Thor, after many adventures, clapping the Pot on his head, like a huge
hat, and walking off with it, - quite lost in it, the ears of the Pot
reaching down to his heels! A kind of vacant hugeness, large awkward
gianthood, characterises that Norse System; enormous force, as yet
altogether untutored, stalking helpless with large uncertain strides.
Consider only their primary mythus of the Creation. The Gods, having
got the Giant Ymer slain, a Giant made by 'warm wind,' and much
confused work, out of the conflict of Frost and Fire, - determined on
constructing a world with him. His blood made the sea; his flesh was
the Land, the Rocks his bones; of his eyebrows they formed Asgard
their Gods'-dwelling; his skull was the great blue vault of Immensity,
and the brains of it became the Clouds. What a Hyper-Brobdignagian
business! Untamed Thought, great, giantlike, enormous; - to be tamed in
due time into the compact greatness, not giant-like, but godlike and
stronger than gianthood, of the Shakspeares, the Goethes! - Spiritually
as well as bodily these men are our progenitors.

I like, too, that representation they have of the Tree Igdrasil. All
Life is figured by them as a Tree. Igdrasil, the Ash-tree of
Existence, has its roots deep-down in the kingdoms of Hela or Death;
its trunk reaches up heaven-high, spreads its boughs over the whole
Universe: it is the Tree of Existence. At the foot of it, in the
Death-kingdom, sit three _Nornas_, Fates, - the Past, Present, Future;
watering its roots from the Sacred Well. Its 'boughs,' with their
buddings and disleafings, - events, things suffered, things done,
catastrophes, - stretch through all lands and times. Is not every leaf
of it a biography, every fibre there an act or word? Its boughs are
Histories of Nations. The rustle of it is the noise of Human
Existence, onwards from of old. It grows there, the breath of Human
Passion rustling through it; - or stormtost, the stormwind howling
through it like the voice of all the gods. It is Igdrasil, the Tree of
Existence. It is the past, the present, and the future; what was done,
what is doing, what will be done; 'the infinite conjugation of the
verb _To do_.' Considering how human things circulate, each
inextricably in communion with all, - how the word I speak to you
to-day is borrowed, not from Ulfila the Moesogoth only, but from all
men since the first man began to speak, - I find no similitude so true
as this of a Tree. Beautiful; altogether beautiful and great. The
'_Machine_ of the Universe,' - alas, do but think of that in contrast!

* * * * *

Well, it is strange enough this old Norse view of Nature; different
enough from what we believe of Nature. Whence it specially came, one
would not like to be compelled to say very minutely! One thing we may
say: It came from the thoughts of Norse men; - from the thought, above
all, of the _first_ Norse man who had an original power of thinking.
The First Norse 'man of genius,' as we should call him! Innumerable
men had passed by, across this Universe, with a dumb vague wonder,
such as the very animals may feel; or with a painful, fruitlessly
inquiring wonder, such as men only feel; - till the great Thinker came,
the _original_ man, the Seer; whose shaped spoken Thought awakes the
slumbering capability of all into Thought. It is ever the way with the
Thinker, the spiritual Hero. What he says, all men were not far from
saying, were longing to say. The Thoughts of all start up, as from
painful enchanted sleep, round his Thought; answering to it, Yes, even
so! Joyful to men as the dawning of day from night; _is_ it not,
indeed, the awakening for them from no-being into being, from death
into life? We still honour such a man; call him Poet, Genius, and so
forth: but to these wild men he was a very magician, a worker of
miraculous unexpected blessing for them; a Prophet, a God! - Thought
once awakened does not again slumber; unfolds itself into a System of
Thought; grows, in man after man, generation after generation, - till
its full stature is reached, and _such_ System of Thought can grow no
farther, but must give place to another.

For the Norse people, the Man now named Odin, and Chief Norse God, we
fancy, was such a man. A Teacher, and Captain of soul and of body; a
Hero, of worth _im_measurable; admiration for whom, transcending the
known bounds, became adoration. Has he not the power of articulate
Thinking; and many other powers, as yet miraculous? So, with boundless
gratitude, would the rude Norse heart feel. Has he not solved for them
the sphinx-enigma of this Universe; given assurance to them of their
own destiny there? By him they know now what they have to do here,
what to look for hereafter. Existence has become articulate, melodious
by him; he first has made Life alive! - We may call this Odin, the
origin of Norse Mythology: Odin, or whatever name the First Norse
Thinker bore while he was a man among men. His view of the Universe
once promulgated, a like view starts into being in all minds; grows,
keeps ever growing, while it continues credible there. In all minds it
lay written, but invisibly, as in sympathetic ink; at his word it
starts into visibility in all. Nay, in every epoch of the world, the
great event, parent of all others, is it not the arrival of a Thinker
in the world! -

One other thing we must not forget; it will explain, a little, the
confusion of these Norse Eddas. They are not one coherent System of
Thought; but properly the _summation_ of several successive systems.
All this of the old Norse Belief which is flung-out for us, in one
level of distance in the Edda, like a picture painted on the same
canvas, does not at all stand so in the reality. It stands rather at
all manner of distances and depths, of successive generations since
the Belief first began. All Scandinavian thinkers, since the first of
them, contributed to the Scandinavian System of Thought; in ever-new
elaboration and addition, it is the combined work of them all. What
history it had, how it changed from shape to shape, by one thinker's
contribution after another, till it got to the full final shape we see
it under in the _Edda_, no man will now ever know: _its_ Councils of
Trebisond, Councils of Trent, Athanasiuses, Dantes, Luthers, are sunk
without echo in the dark night! Only that it had such a history we can
all know. Wheresoever a thinker appeared, there in the thing he
thought-of was a contribution, accession, a change or revolution made.
Alas, the grandest 'revolution' of all, the one made by the man Odin
himself, is not this too sunk for us like the rest! Of Odin what
history? Strange rather to reflect that he _had_ a history! That this
Odin, in his wild Norse vesture, with his wild beard and eyes, his
rude Norse speech and ways, was a man like us; with our sorrows, joys,
with our limbs, features; - intrinsically all one as we: and did such a
work! But the work, much of it, has perished; the worker, all to the
name. "_Wednes_day," men will say to-morrow; Odin's day! Of Odin there
exists no history; no document of it; no guess about it worth

Snorro indeed, in the quietest manner, almost in a brief business
style, writes down, in his _Heimskringla_, how Odin was a heroic
Prince, in the Black-Sea region, with Twelve Peers, and a great people
straitened for room. How he led these _Asen_ (Asiatics) of his out of
Asia; settled them in the North parts of Europe, by warlike conquest;
invented Letters, Poetry and so forth, - and came by and by to be
worshipped as Chief God by these Scandinavians, his Twelve Peers made
into Twelve Sons of his own, Gods like himself: Snorro has no doubt of
this. Saxo Grammaticus, a very curious Northman of that same century,
is still more unhesitating; scruples not to find out a historical fact
in every individual mythus, and writes it down as a terrestrial event
in Denmark or elsewhere. Torfæus, learned and cautious, some centuries
later, assigns by calculation a _date_ for it: Odin, he says, came
into Europe about the Year 70 before Christ. Of all which, as grounded
on mere uncertainties, found to be untenable now, I need say nothing.
Far, very far beyond the Year 70! Odin's date, adventures, whole
terrestrial history, figure and environment are sunk from us forever
into unknown thousands of years.

Nay Grimm, the German Antiquary, goes so far as to deny that any man
Odin ever existed. He proves it by etymology. The word _Wuotan_, which
is the original form of _Odin_, a word spread, as name of their chief
Divinity, over all the Teutonic Nations everywhere; this word, which
connects itself, according to Grimm, with the Latin _vadere_, with the
English _wade_ and suchlike, - means primarily _Movement_, Source of
Movement, Power; and is the fit name of the highest god, not of any
man. The word signifies Divinity, he says, among the old Saxon, German
and all Teutonic Nations; the adjectives formed from it all signify
_divine_, _supreme_, or something pertaining to the chief god. Like
enough! We must bow to Grimm in matters etymological. Let us consider
it fixed that _Wuotan_ means _Wading_, force of _Movement_. And now
still, what hinders it from being the name of a Heroic Man and
_Mover_, as well as of a god? As for the adjectives, and words formed
from it, - did not the Spaniards in their universal admiration for
Lope, get into the habit of saying 'a Lope flower,' a 'Lope _dama_,'
if the flower or woman were of surpassing beauty? Had this lasted,
_Lope_ would have grown, in Spain, to be an adjective signifying
_godlike_ also. Indeed, Adam Smith, in his _Essay on Language_,
surmises that all adjectives whatsoever were formed precisely in that
way: some very green thing chiefly notable for its greenness, got the
appellative name _Green_, and then the next thing remarkable for that
quality, a tree for instance, was named the _green_ tree, - as we still
say 'the _steam coach_,' 'four-horse coach,' or the like. All primary
adjectives, according to Smith, were formed in this way; were at first
substantives and things. We cannot annihilate a man for etymologies
like that! Surely there was a First Teacher and Captain; surely there
must have been an Odin, palpable to the sense at one time; no
adjective, but a real Hero of flesh and blood! The voice of all
tradition, history or echo of history, agrees with all that thought
will teach one about it, to assure us of this.

How the man Odin came to be considered a _god_, the chief god? - that
surely is a question which nobody would wish to dogmatise upon. I have
said, his people knew no _limits_ to their admiration of him; they had
as yet no scale to measure admiration by. Fancy your own generous
heart's-love of some greatest man expanding till it _transcended_ all
bounds, till it filled and overflowed the whole field of your thought!
Or what if this man Odin, - since a great deep soul, with the afflatus
and mysterious tide of vision and impulse rushing on him he knows not
whence, is ever an enigma, a kind of terror and wonder to
himself, - should have felt that perhaps _he_ was divine; that _he_ was
some effluence of the 'Wuotan,' '_Movement_,' Supreme Power and
Divinity, of whom to his rapt vision all Nature was the awful
Flame-image; that some effluence of _Wuotan_ dwelt here in him! He was
not necessarily false; he was but mistaken, speaking the truest he
knew. A great soul, any sincere soul, knows not _what_ he
is, - alternates between the highest height and the lowest depth; can,
of all things, the least measure - Himself! What others take him for,
and what he guesses that he may be; these two items strangely act on
one another, help to determine one another. With all men reverently
admiring him; with his own wild soul full of noble ardours and
affections, of whirlwind chaotic darkness and glorious new light; a
divine Universe bursting all into godlike beauty round him, and no man
to whom the like ever had befallen, what could he think himself to be?
"Wuotan?" All men answered, "Wuotan!" -

And then consider what mere Time will do in such cases; how if a man
was great while living, he becomes tenfold greater when dead. What an
enormous _camera-obscura_ magnifier is Tradition! How a thing grows in
the human Memory, in the human Imagination, when love, worship and all
that lies in the human Heart, is there to encourage it. And in the
darkness, in the entire ignorance; without date or document, no book,
no Arundel-marble; only here and there some dumb monumental cairn.
Why, in thirty or forty years, were there no books, any great man
would grow _mythic_, the contemporaries who had once seen him, being
all dead. And in three-hundred years, and three-thousand years - ! - To
attempt _theorising_ on such matters would profit little: they are
matters which refuse to be _theoremed_ and diagramed; which Logic
ought to know that she _cannot_ speak of. Enough for us to discern,
far in the uttermost distance, some gleam as of a small real light
shining in the centre of that enormous camera-obscura image; to
discern that the centre of it all was not a madness and nothing, but a
sanity and something.

This light, kindled in the great dark vortex of the Norse mind, dark
but living, waiting only for light; this is to me the centre of the
whole. How such light will then shine out, and with wondrous
thousandfold expansion spread itself, in forms and colours, depends
not on _it_, so much as on the National Mind recipient of it. The
colours and forms of your light will be those of the _cut-glass_ it
has to shine through. - Curious to think how, for every man, any the
truest fact is modelled by the nature of the man! I said, The earnest
man, speaking to his brother men, must always have stated what seemed
to him a _fact_, a real Appearance of Nature. But the way in which
such Appearance or fact shaped itself, - what sort of _fact_ it became
for him, - was and is modified by his own laws of thinking; deep,
subtle, but universal, ever-operating laws. The world of Nature, for
every man, is the Phantasy of Himself; this world is the multiplex
'Image of his own Dream.' Who knows to what unnameable subtleties of
spiritual law all these Pagan Fables owe their shape! The number
_Twelve_, divisiblest of all, which could be halved, quartered, parted
into three, into six, the most remarkable number, - this was enough to
determine the _Signs of the Zodiac_, the number of Odin's _Sons_, and
innumerable other Twelves. Any vague rumour of number had a tendency
to settle itself into Twelve. So with regard to every other matter.
And quite unconsciously too, - with no notion of building-up
'Allegories'! But the fresh clear glance of those First Ages would be
prompt in discerning the secret relations of things, and wholly open
to obey these. Schiller finds in the _Cestus of Venus_ an everlasting
æsthetic truth as to the nature of all Beauty; curious: - but he is
careful not to insinuate that the old Greek Mythists had any notion of
lecturing about the 'Philosophy of Criticism'! - - On the whole we must
leave those boundless regions. Cannot we conceive that Odin was a
reality? Error indeed, error enough: but sheer falsehood, idle fables,
allegory aforethought, - we will not believe that our Fathers believed
in these.

* * * * *

Odin's _Runes_ are a significant feature of him. Runes, and the
miracles of 'magic' he worked by them, make a great feature in
tradition. Runes are the Scandinavian Alphabet; suppose Odin to have
been the inventor of Letters, as well as 'magic,' among that people!
It is the greatest invention man has ever made, this of marking down
the unseen thought that is in him by written characters. It is a kind
of second speech, almost as miraculous as the first. You remember the
astonishment and incredulity of Atahualpa the Peruvian King; how he
made the Spanish Soldier who was guarding him scratch _Dios_ on his
thumb-nail, that he might try the next soldier with it, to ascertain
whether such a miracle was possible. If Odin brought Letters among his
people, he might work magic enough!

Writing by Runes has some air of being original among the Norsemen:
not a Phoenician Alphabet, but a native Scandinavian one. Snorro tells
us farther that Odin invented Poetry; the music of human speech, as
well as that miraculous runic marking of it. Transport yourselves into
the early childhood of nations; the first beautiful morning-light of
our Europe, when all yet lay in fresh young radiance as of a great
sunrise, and our Europe was first beginning to think, to be! Wonder,
hope; infinite radiance of hope and wonder, as of a young child's
thoughts, in the hearts of these strong men! Strong sons of Nature;
and here was not only a wild Captain and Fighter; discerning with his
wild flashing eyes what to do, with his wild lion-heart daring and
doing it; but a Poet too, all that we mean by a Poet, Prophet, great
devout Thinker and Inventor, - as the truly Great Man ever is. A Hero
is a Hero at all points; in the soul and thought of him first of all.
This Odin, in his rude semi-articulate way, had a word to speak. A
great heart laid open to take in this great Universe, and man's Life
here, and utter a great word about it. A Hero, as I say, in his own
rude manner; a wise, gifted, noble-hearted man. And now, if we still
admire such a man beyond all others, what must these wild Norse souls,
first awakened into thinking, have made of him! To them, as yet
without names for it, he was noble and noblest; Hero, Prophet, God;
_Wuotan_, the greatest of all. Thought is Thought, however it speak or
spell itself. Intrinsically, I conjecture, this Odin must have been of
the same sort of stuff as the greatest kind of men. A great thought in
the wild deep heart of him! The rough words he articulated, are they
not the rudimental roots of those English words we still use? He
worked so, in that obscure element. But he was as a _light_ kindled in
it; a light of Intellect, rude Nobleness of heart, the only kind of
lights we have yet; a Hero, as I say: and he had to shine there, and
make his obscure element a little lighter, - as is still the task of us

We will fancy him to be the Type Norseman; the finest Teuton whom that
race had yet produced. The rude Norse heart burst-up into _boundless_
admiration round him; into adoration. He is as a root of so many great
things; the fruit of him is found growing, from deep thousands of
years, over the whole field of Teutonic Life. Our own Wednesday, as I
said, is it not still Odin's Day? Wednesbury, Wansborough, Wanstead,
Wandsworth: Odin grew into England too, these are still leaves from
that root! He was the Chief God to all the Teutonic Peoples; their
Pattern Norseman; - in such way did _they_ admire their Pattern
Norseman; that was the fortune he had in the world.

Thus if the man Odin himself have vanished utterly, there is this huge
Shadow of him which still projects itself over the whole History of
his People. For this Odin once admitted to be God, we can understand
well that the whole Scandinavian Scheme of Nature, or dim No-scheme,
whatever it might before have been, would now begin to develop itself
altogether differently, and grow thenceforth in a new manner. What
this Odin saw into, and taught with his runes and his rhymes, the
whole Teutonic People laid to heart and carried forward. His way of
thought became their way of thought: - such, under new conditions, is
the history of every great thinker still. In gigantic confused
lineaments, like some enormous camera-obscura shadow thrown upwards
from the dead deeps of the Past, and covering the whole Northern
Heaven, is not that Scandinavian Mythology in some sort the
Portraiture of this man Odin? The gigantic image of _his_ natural
face, legible or not legible there, expanded and confused in that
manner! Ah, Thought, I say, is always Thought. No great man lives in
vain. The History of the world is but the Biography of great men.

Online LibraryThomas CarlyleSartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history → online text (page 24 of 43)