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A collection of stories told by the Norsemen that "tell of the birth of the world and the coming of the gods to rule over them."...
A collection of stories told by the Norsemen that "tell of the birth of the world and the coming of the gods to rule over them."
The Making of the World
Eight hundred years ago, when the galleys of the bold Norsemen were scudding through storm and mist far into the unknown western seas, or, in the soft summer of the Mediterranean, riding at anchor in the ports of Italy and Northern Africa, the old stories of the battles of the gods and the giants that had been repeated for hundreds of years by Norse firesides in the long winter evening were brought together by some unknown man in Iceland, and were known henceforth as the Elder Edda; and a hundred years later Snorre Sturleson retold the same old stories, with others equally marvellous, in the Younger Edda. These ancient books, which a brave and noble race carried in its heart through all its wide wanderings and conquests, take one back to the beginning of time, and tell of the birth of the worlds and the coming of the gods to rule over them.
Norway faces the sea with a line of cliffs so massive that their foundations seem everlasting. Islands without number rise out of the tossing waves; the deep, tranquil waters of the fjords, overhung with fir-covered mountains, and bright at night with the quenchless splendour of the stars, flow through narrow channels to the outer ocean; and against the sky great mountains stand vast and immovable, as if from eternity to eternity. No Norseman, steering his adventurous galley along these rocky shores, seeing, perhaps, the mighty rush of the polar seas against the North Cape, and hearing the long reverberation of Thor's hammer roll from mountain peak to mountain peak, would have believed that these things had not been as he saw them from the very beginning, if the Eddas, wiser than any wisdom of man, had not told him of a time when even the gods had not begun to live, and in the vast space where no worlds hung and no heavens shone there was nothing but the unseen spirit of the great All-Father, solitary and silent in the depths.
Not even the Eddas are able to reveal his thoughts or to describe his life in the awful solitariness of a silent universe; they can only declare that in his own good time he began to build the worlds, and far in the north Niflheim rose out of the depths, the land of eternal winter wrapped in fogs and mists, and far in the south Muspelheim, the land of quenchless fire, glowing with unspeakable heat and overhung with clouds and fiery sparks, in the midst of whose blinding heat and light sat Surt, guarding the kingdom of fire with a flaming sword. Between the land of ice and the land of fire yawned the bottomless abyss, Ginungagap, black and fathomless, and into it the rivers of Niflheim poured with soundless fury, and as the icy streams fell into the darkness they congealed and hung in great masses from the northern edges of the abyss; and over the awful chasm and the silent cataracts icy fogs gathered and bitter winds swept.
Against the whirling snows and shifting fogs of Niflheim glowed the wandering flames and floating fires of Muspelheim, throwing broad beams of light far into the sunless abyss, and sending a wide glow through the drifting snow. Glittering sparks shot into the silent space above and floated far off towards the north like stars that had wandered from their courses; and as the icy mist met the burning heat in the upper air, it hung motionless for a brief moment and then fell drop by drop into the abyss, and there, out of heat and cold, fire and fog, in darkness and solitude, the giant Ymer grew into life. To give him food the cow Audhumbla was made, and as she stood nourishing the giant with her milk, she licked the icy stones which were covered with salt, and straightway the head of a man began to take shape, grew larger, and on the third day the man stood upright, fair of face and mighty of stature; and his name was Bure. Now Bure had a son, whom he called Bor, and Bor, in turn, became the father of Odin, Vile, and Ve, the first of the gods. The giant Ymer also was the father of many children who were frost-giants and enemies of the gods.
Ymer grew to such vast size, and was so full of evil, that Odin, Vile, and Ve could not live in peace with him, and at last they fell upon him, and slew him, and the blood poured in such torrents from his great body that all the giants, save Bergelmer and his wife, were drowned; these two alone escaped on a chest, and from them the whole race of the frostgiants sprang. The gods dragged Ymer's body into the centre of the abyss, and there they fashioned the world out of it. They wrought with divine beauty and power, spreading out the great plains, cutting the deep valleys through the hills, filling the wide seas and sending the waters far up into the deep fjords; and over all they stretched the bending heaven, and north, south, east, and west set a dwarf to keep it in place; and they caught the great sparks that floated out of Muspelheim and set them in the sky, until the splendour of the stars shone over the whole earth. Around the world lay the deep sea, an endless circle of waters, and beyond it were the dreary shores of Jotunheim, the home of the frost-giants.
To the giantess Night, and to her beautiful son Day, whose father was of their own number, the gods gave chariots and swift horses that they might ride through the sky once in every twenty-four hours. Night drove first behind the fleet Hrimfaxe, and as she ended her course at dawn bedewed the waiting earth with drops from his bit; Day flew swiftly after his dusky mother, the shining mane of his horse, Skinfaxe, filling the heavens with light. There was also one Mundilfare, who had a son and daughter of such exceeding beauty that he called the one Maane, or Moon, and the other Sol, or Sun; and the gods were so angry at his daring that they set the one to guide the Sun and the other the Moon in their daily courses around the world. So day and night, summer and winter, seed-time and harvest, were established.
In the very centre of the earth rose a lofty mountain, and on the top of it was the beautiful plain of Ida, overlooking all lands and seas. Here the gods came when their work was done, and looked upon all that they had made and saw that it was fair; the earth, green and fruitful, blossomed at their feet, and the heavens bent over them radiant with sun by day and filled with the soft splendour of moon and stars by night. And they chose the plain of Ida for their home, and built the shining city of Asgard. In the midst of it stood a hall of pure gold, whose walls were circled with the thrones of the twelve gods, and they called it Gladsheim. There was a noble hall for the goddesses also, and homes for all the gods. They made ready a great smithy, and filled it with all manner of tools, anvils, hammers, and tongs, with which to forge the weapons that were to slay the giants and keep the world in order. From earth to heaven they stretched Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, over which they passed and repassed in their journeyings.
When the work was done, and Asgard shone like a beautiful cloud overhanging the world, there came a time so peaceful and happy that it was called the Age of Gold. The gods had endless sport in games of skill and strength on the plains of Ida, and day and night the fires blazed in the smithy, as, with wonderful skill, they fashioned all kinds of curious things. There was no care nor sorrow anywhere; no clouds darkened the sun, no blights fell on the growing fields, no mighty tasks pressed on the hearts of the gods summoning them out of ease and pleasure to great enterprises and awful perils. At last the happy time came to an end, for one day the Norns, or fates, the three terrible sisters, Urd, Verdande, and Skuld, who determined the course of events and shaped the lives of things, took their abode at the foot of the tree Ygdrasil, and henceforth not even the gods were free from care.
The earth was fruitful, but no one tilled its field or crossed its seas; the shouts of children at play and the ringing voices of the reapers and harvesters were never heard. So the gods took the earth-mould and out of it they made the dwarfs and set them to work in the veins of metal and in dark caverns under ground. It happened also one day that Odin, Hoener, and Loder were walking together along the shore of the sea, and they came upon an ash and an elm, two beautiful trees, straight and symmetrical and crowned with foliage. Odin looked at them long, and a great thought came into his mind.
"Out of these trees," he said at last, "let us make man to fill the earth and make it fruitful, and he shall be our child, and we will care for him."
And out of the ash and the elm the first man and woman were made, and the gods called the man Ask and the woman Embla.CHAPTER 2
Gods and Men
A great many hundreds of years after the creation of the world, there ruled in Sweden a wise king whose name was Gylfe; and the wisdom of this king, like all wisdom, was in part knowledge and in larger part goodness. He knew how to give as well as how to receive. A wayfaring woman once found shelter at his hands, and, in return told him many wonderful stories; which so pleased the king that he gave her, as a reward, as much land as four oxen could plough in a day and a night. Now this woman was of the race of the gods and her name was Gefjun. She took four great oxen from Jotunheim, who were the offspring of a giant, and set them before the plough and drove them forth into the land which the king had set apart for her. And the plough, being drawn by giants, cut so deep into the soil, that it tore away a great piece of land, and carried it into the sea to the west, and there left it. Gefjun called this new country which she had taken from the mainland, Seeland; and the place from which the land was taken was filled by the sea and formed a lake which is now called Logrinn.
This was but the beginning of King Gylfe's acquaintance with the gods; for he was a seeker after wisdom and he who searches for wisdom must go to the gods to find it. He saw the wonderful things which the gods did and the marvellous ways in which their will was done in Asgard, and upon the earth, and he thought much upon their power and wondered whence it came. He could not make up his mind whether these gods, of whom he had heard and whose mighty works he saw, were powerful by reason of the force in themselves, or whether they were made strong by other and greater gods. After thinking much about these things and finding that no man could answer the questions which he was continually asking himself, Gylfe assumed the form of a very old man and made the long journey to Asgard, thinking to learn the secrets of the gods without letting them know who he was.
The gods know all things, and they not only knew that the old man who one day came to Asgard was Gylfe, but they knew that he was to make the journey long before he had so much as thought of it. They received him, however, as if they thought he was what he appeared to be, and he learned as much as he could understand; which is as much as a man ever learns.
The gods have often visited men, but men have rarely visited the gods, and the King's coming to Asgard was the beginning of a new wisdom among men.
No sooner did he enter the home of the gods than he found himself in a great hall, so high that he would hardly see over it. And the roof of this hall was thatched with shields of gold in place of shingles:
Thatched the roof;
The beams of the burg
Beamed with gold.
When Gylfe came to the door of this great hall he saw a man playing with swords with such wonderful quickness and skill that he kept seven flashing in the air at one time. When this player with swords asked his name, the king speaking as an old man, answered that he was Ganglere, or the Walker, that he had come a long distance and that he begged a lodging for the night; and he asked, as if it were a very unimportant matter, who owned the hall. The man, who was a god in disguise, replied that it belonged to their king and that he would take Ganglere to him.
"You may ask him his name yourself when you see him," he added.
Then the man led the way into the hall and no sooner were they within its walls than the doors were shut. There were many rooms under the shining roof and every room seemed to be full of people, some of whom were playing games, and some were drinking out of great horns or cups, and some were fighting with different kinds of weapons; and Gylfe did not understand half of the things he saw. He was not at all frightened by his ignorance, however, and he said to himself:
Before in you go,
You must examine well;
For you cannot know
Where enemies sit
In the house before you.
When Gylfe had looked about him he saw three seats or thrones and upon each of these a man sat high above the throng which played and drank and fought.
"What are the names of these kings?" he asked. And the man who led him into the hall answered that he who sat on the lowest of the three thrones was the king and was called Har, and that he who sat on the throne next above him was called Jafnhar, and he who sat on the highest throne was called Thride. Now these three gods were as many different forms of Odin, and Gylfe was really seeing one god when he seemed to be seeing three.
Then Har, or Odin, spoke in a deep and wonderful tone and asked Gylfe who he was, and why he had come there, and bade him welcome by inviting him to eat and drink as much and often as he chose. But Gylfe was so bent upon learning the secrets of the gods that he did not think of food or drink, nor did he stop to answer Har's questions. He replied boldly that he wanted to find a wise man if there were one. Then Har answered him, as the gods often answer men, in words which were so full of meaning that he did not understand them until long afterwards:
"You shall not go from this place unharmed unless you go wiser than you came."
It is dangerous to seek the gods, unless we profit by what they tell us; for it is better to be ignorant than to possess knowledge and not live by it.
Then Gylfe stood boldly before Odin,—a man standing in the presence of God and seeking for knowledge,—and asked many and deep questions about the gods and their ways and power; and about the giants, and their homes; and about the making of the world and the creation of man; and about the sun and moon and stars; and about the seasons and the wind and fire. And Odin answered his questions and told him the things which men are eager to know, but cannot learn unless the gods teach them.
When Odin had told Gylfe all that a man could understand of these deep mysteries he refused to answer any more questions and bade the questioner make the best use of what had been told him, and when Odin had spoken these words Gylfe heard a great noise and found himself standing alone in a great plain, and the hall and Asgard had vanished utterly. Then, filled with wonder by all he had heard and seen, he went home to his own kingdom, and told of the marvellous things which had befallen him on his journey to the home of the gods; and what he said was remembered by those who heard the wonderful stories and told again to their children and their children's children to the latest generations.
Now Gylfe was not the only man who talked with the gods; for Aeger, who lived on the island called Hler's Isle and was also a man of great wisdom, made the journey to Asgard and the gods knew of his coming before he came and prepared a great feast for him. When the feast began Odin had swords brought into the hall and these swords were of such brightness that they lighted the hall without the aid of fire or lamps; and the hall was hung with glittering shields. The gods sat on their thrones and ate and drank with Aeger, and Brage told him strange and wonderful tales of the things which had befallen the gods.
And this is the way in which men came to know the stories which are told in this book.
Excerpted from Norse Mythology by Hamilton Wright Mabie. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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