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Teutonic Myth and Legend

Donald A. Mackenzie

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This is Donald Mackenzie's able retelling of the Northern mythological cycle. He weaves a coherent narrative from the Eddas, the Niebelunglied, the Volsung Saga, Beowulf, the primordial Hamlet myths, and Medieval German tales of chivalry.

This book has 408 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1912.

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Excerpt from 'Teutonic Myth and Legend'

"Teutonic Myth and Legend" applies to the ancient religious conceptions and traditional tales of the "non-Celtic" northern peoples, whom Continental scholars prefer to call "Germanic" in the widest sense of the term. The myths varied in different districts and at different periods. It is doubtful if there ever was in any particular age complete uniformity of religious belief over a wide area of separated States. In fact, there are indications that sects and creeds were at least as numerous among Teutonic peoples in early times as at the present day. Stories repeated orally were also subject to change; they were influenced by popular taste, and rendered more effective by the introduction of local colouring.

Teutonic Mythology survives in its most concrete form in Scandinavian literature. On that account it has to be considered from the northern point of view, although much of it is clearly not of northern origin. Our principal sources of knowledge of this great Pagan religious system are the two Eddas of Iceland.

These Eddas are collections of mythical and heroic poems and stories. One is called the Elder or Poetic Edda; the other, Snorri's or the Prose Edda. The latter was discovered first; it came into the possession of appreciative scholars in the seventeenth century, by whom it was studied and carefully preserved.

The Prose Edda is a synopsis of Northern Mythology, with poetic quotations from lost poems and references to an earlier work. It was partly written and partly compiled by the great Icelandic scholar, Snorri Sturlason. He was born some time between 1179 and 1181, and was the son of a chief. Adopted by the learned Jon Loptsson, grandson of Saemund the Wise, he passed his early years at Oddi, where his literary tendencies were fostered and cultivated. He married a wealthy heiress, and settled in 1206 at Reykjaholt, where he lived in comparative luxury. Nominally a Christian, he was in reality an educated Pagan. He was a poet and historian, a lawyer and a politician; he combined great ambition with want of courage, and avarice with "aversion from effort"; he was also of loose morals. In 1215 he became President of Iceland, and afterwards resided for a time in Norway, where he was a Court poet. In 1222 he was again President of his native island. He held office for about ten years, and exercised his influence at every opportunity to enrich himself. He obtained a divorce from his wife, after living with her for twenty-five years, and married an heiress. It is not surprising, therefore, to find him involved in serious quarrels with his kinsmen. There were also political complications which had a tragic sequel. He was murdered by his son-in-law in 1241, at the instigation of the King of Norway.

In addition to the Prose Edda, Snorri's works included Heimskringla, or Sagas of Norse Kings, which opens with Ynglinga Saga, and the History of Olaf.

The discovery of Snorri's Edda in the seventeenth century caused a search to be made for the older collection to which it referred. Happily the quest was fruitful, and the lost manuscript came into the hands of an Icelandic bishop, who called it for the first time the "Edda of Saemund".

Saemund was a scion of the royal house of Norway, who was born in 1056 and died in 1133. He studied in France and Germany, and was afterwards parish priest of Oddi in Iceland. According to tradition, he was the author of a prose work on mythology which unfortunately perished. It is probable, however, that Snorri was acquainted with the lost manuscript while resident at Oddi, and he may have used it when compiling the Prose Edda. At any rate, scholars are now agreed that Saemund was neither the author nor compiler of the particular Edda which was long associated with his name.

The Elder Edda is a collection of mythical and heroic poems--lays of the gods and lays of the Volsung and other heroes--by various unknown authors. They are valuable treasures of antiquity, for they throw great light on northern beliefs and manners and customs. Some survive in fragments; others are fairly complete, and are introduced by brief prose summaries. A portion of them were evidently of pre-Christian origin.

As literary productions they are of unequal merit. They are all ear-poems, composed to be sung or recited, and therefore melodious, musically vowelled, and clear, as compared with the eye-poems of many modern authors, which have more harmony than melody, and are composed for the reader. A particular group of these Eddic poems are more dramatic and imaginative than the others, and certain critics are inclined to hold that their high development was caused by Celtic influence. Iceland was peopled not only from Norway, but also from the Hebrides, where the Vikings mingled with the people and married the island maidens. Many settlers were also of mixed Irish descent. Nor was the old English element absent, as certain borrowed words show clearly. But, when these facts are given adequate consideration, it must be borne in mind that literature, and especially poetry, owes usually more to the individual than to the race. If we knew as little of Keats as we do of the author of Beowulf, it might be held that he was a son of Greek parents who settled in England.

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