The Teutonic and Scandinavian Religion
Viking Age Online Library Release #1
1. The Land and the Race.
The great Teutonic or German division of the Indo-European family entered Europe subsequently to the Keltic tribes, and before the Slavic immigration. This people overspread and occupied a large of Northern Central Europe, from which the attempts of the Romans to dispossess them proved futile. Of their early history we know very little. Bishop Percy contrasts their love of making records, as even shown by the Runic inscriptions, with the Keltic law of secrecy. The Druids forbade any communication of their mysteries by writing: but the German Scalds put all their belief into popular songs, and reverenced literature as a gift of the gods. Yet we have received very little information concerning these tribes before the days of Cæsar and Tacitus. Cæsar describes them as warlike, huge in stature; having reverence for the Sun, the Moon, and Fire; having no regular priests, and paying little regard to sacrifices. He says that they occupied their lives in hunting and war, devoting themselves from childhood to severe labors. They reverenced chastity, and considered it as conductive to health and strength. They were rather a pastoral then agricultural people; no one owning land, but each having it assigned to him temporarily. The object of this provision was said to be to prevent accumulation of wealth and the loss of warlike habits. They fought with cavalry supported by infantry. In the time of Augustus all attempts at conquering Germany were relinquished, and war was maintained only in the hope of revenging the destruction of Varus and his three legions by the famous German chief Arminius, or Herrman,
Tacitus freely admits the the Germans were as warlike as the Romans, and were only inferior in weapons and discipline. He pays a generous tribute to Arminius, whom he declares to have been "beyound all question the liberator of Germany," dying at thirty-seven, unconquered in war. Tacitus quotes from some ancient German ballads or hymns ("the only historic monuments," says he, "that they possess") the names of Tuisto, a god born from the earth, and Mannus, his son. Tacitus was much struck with the physical characteristic of the race, as being so uniform. There was a family likeness, he says, among them all,-stern blue eyes, yellow hair, large bodies. Their wealth was in their flocks and herds. "Gold and silver are kept from them by the anger, or perhaps by the favor, of Heaven." Their rulers were elective, and their power was limited. Their judges were the priests. They saw something divine in woman, and her judgments were accepted as oracles. Such women as Veleda and Aurinia were reverenced as prophets; "but not adored or made into goddesses," says Tacitus, with a side-glance at some events at ho,e. Their gods, Tacitus chooses to call Mercury, Hercules, and Mars; but he distinctly says that the Germans had neither idols nor temples, but worshipped in sacred groves. He also says that the Germans divined future events by pieces of sticks, by the duel, and by the movements of sacred horses. Their leaders might decide the less important matters, but the principal questions were settled at public meetings. These assemblies were held at regular intervals, were opened by the priest, were presided over by the chief, and decided all public affairs. Tacitus remarks that the spirit of liberty goes to such an extreme among the Germans as to destroy regularity and order. They will not be punctual at their meetings, lest it should seem as if they attended because commanded to come. Marriage was sacred, and, unlike other heathen nations, they were contented with one wife. They were affectionate and constant to the marriage vow, which meant to the pure German woman one husband, one life, one body, and one soul. The ancient Germans, like their modern descendants, drank beer and Rhenish wine, and were divided into numerous tribes, who afterward reappeared for the destruction of the Roman Empire, as the Goths, Vandals, Lombards, and Franks.
The Scandinavians were a branch of the great German family. Their language, the old Norse, was distinguished from the Alemannic, or High German tongue. From the Norse have been derived the languages of Iceland, of the Ferroe Isles, of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. From the Germanic branch have come German, Dutch, Anglo-Saxon, Mæso-Gothic, and English. It was in Scandinavia that the Teutonic race developed its special civilization and religion. Cut off from the rest of the world by stormy seas, the people could there unfold their ideas, and become themselves. It is therefore to Scandinavia that we must go to study the German religion, and to find the influence exercised on modern civilization and the present character of Europe. This influence has been freely acknowledged by great historians.
"The great prerogative of Scandinavia is, that it afforded the great resource to the liberty of Europe, this is, to almost all of liberty there is among men. The Goth Jornandes calls the North of Europe the forge of mankind. I would rather call it the forge of those instruments which broke the fetters manufactured in the South."
Geijer, in his Swedish History, tells us:-
"the recollections which Scandinavia has to add to those of the Germanic race are yet the most antique in character and comparatively the most original. They offer the completest remaining example of a social state existing previously to the reception of influences from Rome, and in duration stretching onward so as to come within the sphere of historical light."
We do not know how much of those old Northern ideas may be still mingled with our ways of thought. The names of their gods we retain in those of our weekdays,-Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Their popular assemblies, or Things, were the origin of our Parliament, our Congress, and our general assemblies. If from the South came the romantic admiration of woman, from the North came better respect for her rights and the sense of her equality. Our trail by jury was immediately derived fro Scandinavia; and, according to Montesquieu, as we have seen, we owe to the North, as the greatest inheritance of all, that desire for freedom which is so chief an element in Christian civilization.
Scandinavia proper consists of those regions now occupied by the kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The geographical peculiarity of this country is its proximity everywhere to the sea, and the great extent of its coast line. The great peninsula of Sweden and Norway with the Northern Ocean on its west, the Baltic and Gulf of Bothnia on its east, penetrated everywhere by creeks, friths, and arms of the sea, surrounded with innumerable islands, studded with lakes, and cleft with rivers, is also unrivalled, except by Switzerland, in the sublime and picturesque beauty of its mountains. The other peninsula, that of Denmark, surrounded and penetrated also everywhere by the sea, differs in being almost level; rising nowhere, at its highest point, more than a thousand feet above the ocean. Containing an area of only twenty-two thousand square miles, it is so penetrated with bays and creeks as to have four thousand miles of coast. Like the northern peninsula, it is also surrounded with a multitude of islands, which are so crowded together, especially on its eastern coast, as to make an archipelago. It is impossible to look at the map of Europe, and not be struck with the resemblance in these particular between its northern and southern geography. The Baltic Sea is the Mediterranean of Northern Europe. The peninsula of Denmark, with its multitudinous bays and islands, corresponds to Greece, the Morea, and its archipelago. We have shown in our chapter on Greece that modern geography teaches that the extent of coast line, when compared with the superficial area of a country, is one of the essential conditions of civilization. Who can fail to see the hand of Providence in the adaptation of race to the countries they are to inhabit? The great tide of human life, flowing westward from Central Asia, was divided into currents by the Caspian and Black Seas. and by the lofty range of mountains which, under the name of the Caucasus, Carpathian Mountains, and the Alps, extends almost in an unbroken line from the western coast of the Caspian to the northern limits of Germany. the Teutonic races, Germans, Saxons, Franks, and Northmen, were thus determined to the north, and spread themselves along the coast and peninsulas of the Northern Mediterranean. The other branch of the great Indo-European variety was distributed through Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Southern France, Italy, and Spain. Each of these vast European families, stimulated to mental and moral activity by its proximity to water, developed its own peculiar forms of national character, which were afterwards united in modern European society. The North developed individual freedom, the South social organization. The north gave force, the south gave culture. From Southern Europe came literature, philosophy, laws, arts; from the North that respect for individual rights, that sense of personal dignity, that energy of the single soul, which is the essential equipoise of a high social culture. These two elements, of freedom and civilization, always antagonist, have been in most ages hostile. The individual freedom of the North has been equivalent to barbarism, and from time to time has rolled down a destroying deluge over the South, almost sweeping away its civilization, and overwhelming in a common ruin arts, literature, and laws. On the other hand, civilization at the South has passed into luxury, has produced effeminacy, till individual freedom has been lost under grinding despotism. But in modern civilization a third element has been added, which has brought these two powers of Northern freedom and Southern culture into equipoise and harmony. This new element is Christianity, which develops, at the same time, the sense of personal responsibility, by teaching the individual destiny and worth of every soul, and also the mutual dependence and interlacing brotherhood of all human society. This Christian element in modern civilization saves it from the double danger of a relapse into barbarism on the one hand, and a too refined luxury on the other. The nations of Europe, to-day, which are the most advanced in civilization, literature, and art, are also the most deeply pervaded with the love of freedom; and the most civilized nations on the globe, instead of being the most effeminate, are also the most powerful.
The Scandinavian people, destined to play so important a part in the history of the world, were, as we have said, a branch of the great Indo-European variety. We have seen that modern ethnology teaches that all the races which inhabit Europe, with some trifling exceptions, belong to one family, which originated in Central Asia. This has appeared and is proved by means of glossology, or the science of language. The closest resemblance exists between the seven linguistic families of Hindostan, Persia, Greece, Rome, Germany, the Kelts, and the Slavi;and it is a most striking fact of human history, that from the earliest period of recorded time down to the present day a powerful people, speaking a language belonging to one or other of these races, should have in a great measure swayed the destinies of the world.
Before the birth of Christ the peninsula of Denmark was called by the Romans the Cimbric Chersonesus, or Cimbric peninsula. This name came from the Cimbri, a people who, one hundred and eleven years before Christ, almost overthrew the Roman Republic, exciting more terror than any event since the days of Hannibal. More than three hundred thousand men, issuing from the peninsula of Denmark and the adjacent regions, poured like a torrent over Gaul and Southern Germany. They met and overthrew in succession four Roman armies; until, finally. they were conquered by the military skill and genius of Marius. After this eruption was checked, the great northern volcano slumbered for centuries. Other tribes from Asia - Goths, Vandals, Huns - combined in the overthrow of the Roman Empire. At last the inhabitants of of Scandinavia appear again under the name of Northmen, invading and conquering England in the fifth century as Saxons, in the ninth century as Danes, and in the eleventh as Normans again overrunning England and France. But the peculiarity of the Scandinavian invasions was their maritime character. Daring and skillful navigators, they encountered the tempests of the Northern Ocean and the heavy roll of the Atlantic in vessels so small and slight that they floated like eggshells on the surface of the waves, and ran up the rivers of France and England, hundreds of miles, without check from shallows or rocks.In these fragile barks they made also the most extraordinary maritime discoveries. The sea-kings of Norway discovered Iceland, and settled it A.D. 860 and A.D. 874. They discovered and settled Greenland A.D. 982 and A.D. 986. On the western coast of Greenland they planted colonies, where churches were built, and diocesan bishoprics established, which lasted between four and five hundred years. Finally, in A.D. 1000, they discovered, by sailing from Greenland, the coast of Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Massachusetts Bay; and, five hundred years before the discovery of Columbus, gathered grapes and built houses on the southern side of Cape Cod. These facts, long considered mythical, have been established, to the satisfaction of European scholars, by the publication of Icelandic contemporaneous annals. This remarkable people have furnished nearly the whole population of England by means of the successive conquest of Saxon, Danes, and Normans, driving the Keltic races into the mountainous regions of Wales and North Scotland, where their descendants still remain. Colonizing themselves also everywhere in Northern Europe, and even in Italy and Greece, they have left the familiar stamp of their ideas and habits in all our modern civilization. *
* See, for the history and religion of the Teutonic and Scandinavian
race, Cæsar; Tacitus; Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie; Geschichte und
System der Altdeutschen Religion, von Wilhelm Müller; Northern Mythology,
by Benjamin Thorpe; The Sea-Kings of Norway, by S. Laing; Manual of Scandinavian
Mythology, by G. Pigott; Literature and Romance of Northern Europe, By William
and Mary Howitt; Die Edda, von Karl Simrock; Aryan Mythology, by George
W. Cox; Norse Tales, by Dasent, etc. But one of the best as well as the
most accessible summaries in English of this mythology is Mallet's Northern
Antiquities, in Bohn's Antiquarian Library. This edition is edited by Mr.
Blackwell with great judgment and learning.
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