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 safely be 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 the 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 Norsemen 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.”
The introduction of Christianity into the North brought with it the influence of the 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 literature 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 humour, 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 Hellenic inspiration, there is little 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 the heathen beliefs, and merge them in the new faith, an interesting example of which is to be seen in the transference to the Christian festival of Easter of the attributes of the pagan goddess Eástre, from whom it took even the name. 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 Norseman to receive the teaching of Christianity, and so helped to bring about its own undoing.
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. The early poet loved allegory, and his imagination rioted among the conceptions of his fertile muse. “His eye was fixed on the mountains till the snowy peaks assumed human features and the giant of the rock or the ice descended with heavy tread; or he would gaze at the splendor of the spring, or of the summer fields, till Freya with the gleaming necklace stepped forth, or Sif with the flowing locks of gold.”
We are told nothing as to sacrificial and religious rites, and all else is omitted which does not provide material for artistic 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.