Thomas Bulfinch.

The age of fable: or, Beauties of mythology online

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The gods upon this despatched messengers throughout the

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world to beg every thing 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 waU
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.^

Among Matthew Arnold's Poems is one called "Balder
Dead " beginning thus :

*' So on the floor lay Balder dead ; and round
Lay thickly strewn swords, axes, darts and spean,
Which all the Gods in sport had idly thrown
At Balder, whom no weapon pierced or clave :
But in his breast stood fixt the fatal bough
Of mistletoe, which Lok the Accuser gave
To Hoder, and unwitting Hoder threw :
'Gainst that alone had Balder's life no charm*
And all the Gk>ds and all the heroes came
And stood round Balder on the bloody floor
Weeping and wailing ; and Valhalla rang
Up to its golden roof with sobs and cries :
And on the table stood the untasted meats,
And in the horns and gold-rimmed skulls the wine :
And now would night have fallen and found them yet
Wailing : but otherwise was Odin's will."

The Funeral op Baldur.

The gods took up the dead body and bore it to the searshore
where stood Baldur's ship Hringham, which passed for the
largest in the world. Baldur's dead body was put on the

» In Loncrfellow's Poems, vol. i., pajre 379, will be found a poem entitled
Tegner's Drapa, upon the subject of Baldur*s death.

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funeral pile, on board the ship, and his wife Nanna was so
struck with grief at the sight that sh ^ broke her heart, and
her body was burned on the same pile with her husband's.
There was a vast concourse of various kinds of people at
Baldur's obsequies. First came Odin accompanied by Frigga,
the Valkyrior, and his ravens ; then Frey in his car drawn by
Oullinbursti, 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 con-
sumed 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 lirding he must be caught,
tried to leap over the net ; but Tl < c 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

The Elves.

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 deli-
cate and transparent texture. They loved the light, were
kindly disposed to mankind, and generally appeared as fair

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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 subter-
ranean caves and clefts. They were supposed to have come into
existence as maggots, produced by the decaying flesh of Tmir's
body, and were afterwards endowed by the gods with a human
form and great understanding. They were particularly distin-
guished 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 con-
tain 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.

Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gk>DS.

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 Mid-
gard, 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 comers 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

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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 ser-
pent 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 battle-field 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 Heim-
dall 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 uni-
verse 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.

Runic Letters.

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 invari-
ably of straight lines, in the shape of little sticks either singly
or put together. Such sticks were in early times used by the

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Qorthern 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 medi-
cinal, 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 epi-
taphs on tombstones.

Oray's ode on the Descent of Odin contains an aUusion to the
use of Runic letters for incantation : —

'* Facing to the northern clime,
Thnee he ti-aced 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.

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 intel-
lectual gratification with the rude feasts of the warriors, by re-
hearsing, 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.

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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 barren-
ness and lava, swallowed many months of every year in black
tempests, yet with a wild, gleaming beauty in summer time,
towering up there stem 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 battle-field 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 dis-
covered by the Northmen I**

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rIE Druids were the priests or ministers of religion among
the ancient Celtic nations in Gaul, Britain, and Germany.
Our information respecting them is borrowed from notices in
the Greek and Roman writers, compared with the remains of
Welsh and Gaelic poetry still extant.

The Druids combined the functions of the priest, the magis-
trate, the scholar, and the physician. They stood to the people
of the Celtic tribes in a relation closely analogous to that in
which the Brahmans of India, the Magi of Persia, and the
priests of the Egyptians stood to the people respectively by
whom they were revered.

The Druids taught the existence of one God, to whom they
gave a name " Be' al," which Celtic antiquaries tell us means
" the life of every thing," or " the source of all beings," and
which seems to have affinity with the Phoenician Baal. What
renders this affinity more striking is that the Druids as well afc


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the Phoenicians identified this, their supreme deity, with the
Sun. Fire was regarded as a symbol of the divinity. The
Latin writers assert that the Druids also worshipped numerous
inferior Gods.

They used no images to represent the object of their worship,
nor did they meet in temples or buildings of any kind for the
performance of their sacred rites. A circle of stones (each
stone generally of vast size) enclosing an area of from twenty
feet to thirty yards in diameter, constituted their sacred place.
The most celebrated of these now remaining is Stonehenge, on
Salisbury Plain, England.

These sacred circles were generally situated near some stream,
or under the shadow of a grove or wide-spreading oak. In the
centre of the circle stood the Cromlech or altar, which was a
. large stone, placed in the manner of a table upon other stones
set up on end. The Druids had also their high places, which
were large stones or piles of stones on the summits of hills.
These were called Cairns, and were used in the worship of the
deity under the symbol of the sun.

That the Druids offered sacrifices to their deity there can be
no doubt. But there is some uncertainty as to what they
offered, and of the ceremonies connected with their religious
services we know almost nothing. The classical (Roman)
writers afiirm that they offered on great occasions human
sacrifices ; as for success in war or for relief from dangerous
diseases. Caesar has given a detailed account of the manner in
which this was done. " They have images of immense size, the
limbs of which are framed with twisted twigs and filled with
living persons. These being set on fire, those within are en-
compassed by the flames." Many attempts have been made by
Celtic writers to shake the testimony of the Roman historians
to this fact, but without success.

The Druids observed two festivals in each year. The former
took place in the beginning of May, and was called Beltane or
"fire of God." On this occasion a large fire was kindled on
some elevated spot, in honor of the sun, whose returning benef-
icence they thus welcomed after the gloom and desolation of
winter. Of this custom a trace remains in the name given t|

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Whitsunday in parts of Scotland to this day. Sir Walter Soott
ves the word in the Boat Song in the Lady of the Lake: —

*' Ours is DO sapling, chance-sown by the foantain.
Blooming at Beltane in winter to fade.**

The other great festival of the Druids was called ** Samh' in,**
or " fire of peace," and was held on Hallow-eve (first of Novem-
ber), which still retains this designation in the Highlands of
Scotland. On this occasion the Druids assembled in solemn
conclave, in the most central part of the district, to discharge the
judicial functions of their order. All questions, whether public or
private, all crimes against person or property, were at this time
brought before them for adjudication. With these judicial
acts were combined certain superstitious usages, especially the
kindling of the sacred fire, from which all the fires in the dis-
trict which had been beforehand scrupulously extinguished,
might be relighted. This usage of kindling fires on Hallow-eve
lingered in the British Islands long after the establishment of

Besides these two great annual festivals, the Druids were in
the habit of observing the full moon, and especially the sixth
day of the moon. On the latter they sought the mistletoe,
which grew on their favorite oaks, and to which, as well as to
the oak itself, they ascribed a peculiar virtue and sacredness.
The discovery of it was an occasion of rejoicing and solemn
worship. "They call it," says Pliny, "by a word in their
language which means 'heal-all,' and having made solemn prep-
aration for feasting and sacrifice under the tree, they drive
thither two milk-white bulls, whose horns are then for the first
time bound. The priest then, robed in white, ascends the tree,
and cuts off the mistletoe with a golden sickle. It is caught in
a white mantle, after which they proceed to slay the victims,
at the same time praying that God would render his gift pros-
perous to those to whom he had given it. They drink the
water in which it has been infused, and think it a remedy for all
diseases. The mistletoe is a parasitic plant, and is not always
nor often found on the oak, so that when it is found it is the
more precious."

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The Druids were the teachers of morality as well as of
religion. Of their ethical teaching a valuable specimen is
preserved in the Triads of the Welsh Bards, and from this we
may gather that their views of moral rectitude were on the
whole just, and that they held and inculcated many very noble
and valuable principles of conduct. They were also the men
of science and learning of their age and people. Whether
they were acquainted with letters or not has been disputed,
though the probability is strong that they wore, to some extent.
But it is certain that they committed nothing of their doctrine,
their history, or their poetry to writing. Their teaching was
oral, and their literature (if such a word may be used in such
a case) was preserved solely by tradition. But the Roman
writers admit that '* they paid much attention to the order and
laws of nature, and investigated and taught to the youth under
their charge many things concerning the stars and their motions,
the size of the world and the lands, and concerning the might
and power of the immortal gods."

Their history consisted in traditional tales, in which the
heroic deeds of their forefathers were celebrated. These were
apparently in verse, and thus constituted part of the poetry as
well as the history of the Druids. In the poems of Ossian we
have, if not the actual productions of Druidical times, what
may be considered faithful representations of the songs of the

The Bards were an essential part of the Druidical hierarchy.
One author, Pennant, says, *' The bards were supposed to be
endowed with powers equal to inspiration. Tiiey were the
oral historians of all past transactions, public and private. They
were also accomplished genealogists.**

Pennant gives a minute account of the Eisteddfods or
sessions of the bards and minstrels, which were held in Wales
for many centuries, long after the Druidical priesthood in its
other departments became extinct. At these meetings none
but bards of merit were suffered to rehearse their pieces, and
minstrels of skill to perform. Judges were appointed to decide
on their respective abilities, and suitable degrees were con-
ferred. In the earlier period the judges were appointed by the

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Welsh princes, and after the conquest of Wales, by commission
from the kings of England. Yet the tradition is that Edward
I., in revenge for the influence of the bards, in animating the
resistance of the people to hb sway, persecuted them with
great cruelty. This tradition has furnished the poet P ^y with
the subject of his celebrated ode, the Bard.

There are still occasional meetings of the lovers of Welsh
poetry and music, held under the ancient name. Among Mrs.
Hemans's poems is one written for an Eisteddfod, or meeting
of Welsh Bards, held m London May 22, 1822. It begins with
a description of the ancient meeting, of which the following
lines are a part : —

** midst the eternal cliffs, whose strength defied

The crested Roman in his hour of pride ;

And where the Druid's ancient cromlech frowned,

And the oaks breathed mysterious murmurs round,

There thronged the inspired of yore ! on plain or height^

In the sun's face, beneath the eye of light.

And baring unto heaven each noble head.

Stood in the circle, where none else might tread. "

The Druidical system was at its height at the time of the
Roman invasion under Julius Caesar. Against the Druids, as
their chief enemies, these conquerors of the world directed
their unsparing fury. The Druids, harassed at all points on
the main-land, retreated to Anglesey and lona, where for a
season they found shelter, and continued their now-dishonored

The Druids retained their predominance in lona and over
the adjacent islands and main-land until they were supplanted
and their superstitions overturned by the arrival of St. Colum-
ba, the apostle of the Highlands, by whom the inhabitants of
that district were first led to profess Christianity.


One of the smallest of the British Isles, situated near a
rugged and barren coast, surrounded by dangerous seas, and
possessing no sources of internal wealth, lona has obtained an

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lONA. 441

imperishable place in history as the seat of civilization and
reii(pon at a time when the darkness of heathenism hung over
almost the whole of Northern Europe. lona or IcolmkiU is
situated at the extremity of the island of Mull, from which it
b separated by a strait of half a mile in breadth, its distance
from the main-land of Scotland being thirty-six miles.

Columba was a native of Ireland, and connected by birth
with the princes of the land. Ireland was at that time a land
of gospel light, while the western and northern parts of Scot-
land were stUl immersed in the darkness of heathenism. Co-
lumba, with twelve friends landed on the island of lona in the
year of our Lord 568, having made the passage in a wicker
boat covered with hides. The Druids who occupied the island
endeavored to prevent his settling there, and the savage nations
on the adjoining shores incommoded him with their hostility,
and on several occasions endangered his life by their attacks.
Yet by his perseverance and zeal he surmounted all opposition,
procured from the king a gift of the island, and established
there a monastery of which he was the abbot. He was un-
wearied in hb labors to disseminate a knowledge of the Scrip-
tures throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and
such was the reverence paid him that though not a bbhop, but
merely a presbyter and monk, the entire province with its
bbhops was subject to him and his successors. The Pictish
monarch was so impressed with a sense of hb wbdom and
worth that he held him in the highest honor, and the neighbor-
ing chiefs and princes sought his counsel and availed themselves
of his judgment in settling their disputes.

When Columba landed on lona he was attended by twelve
followers whom he had formed into a religious body, of which
he was the head. To these, as occasion required, others were
from time to time added, so that the original number was
always kept up. Their institution was called a monastery, and
the superior an abbot, but the system had little in common
with the monastic institutions of later times. The name by
which those who submitted to the rule were known was that
of Culdees, probably from the Latin "cultores Dei** — wor-
shippers of God. They were a body of religious persons asso*

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oiated together for the purpose of aiding each other in the
common work of preaching the gospel and teaching youth, as
well as maintaining in themselves the fervor of devotion by
united exercises of worship. On entering the order certain
vows were taken by the members, but they were not those
which were usually imposed by monastic orders, for of these,
which are three, celibacy, poverty, and obedience, the Culdees
were bound to none except the third. To poverty they did
not bind themselves ; on the contrary they seem to have labored
diligently to procure for themselves and those dependent on
them the comforts of lift. Marriage also was allowed them,
and most of them seem to have entered into that state. True,

Online LibraryThomas BulfinchThe age of fable: or, Beauties of mythology → online text (page 34 of 42)