Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 1 - Hero as Divinity

[May 5, 1840.]

We have undertaken to discourse here for a little on Great Men, their
manner of appearance in our world's business, how they have shaped
themselves in the world's history, what ideas men formed of them, what work
they did;--on Heroes, namely, and on their reception and performance; what
I call Hero-worship and the Heroic in human affairs. Too evidently this is
a large topic; deserving quite other treatment than we can expect to give
it at present. A large topic; indeed, an illimitable one; wide as
Universal History itself. For, as I take it, Universal History, the
history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the
History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of
men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense
creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to
attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are
properly the outer material result, the practical realization and
embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world:
the soul of the whole world's history, it may justly be considered, were
the history of these. Too clearly it is a topic we shall do no justice to
in this place!

One comfort is, that Great Men, taken up in any way, are profitable
company. We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man, without
gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain, which it is
good and pleasant to be near. The light which enlightens, which has
enlightened the darkness of the world; and this not as a kindled lamp only,
but rather as a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven; a flowing
light-fountain, as I say, of native original insight, of manhood and heroic
nobleness;--in whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them. On
any terms whatsoever, you will not grudge to wander in such neighborhood
for a while. These Six classes of Heroes, chosen out of widely distant
countries and epochs, and in mere external figure differing altogether,
ought, if we look faithfully at them, to illustrate several things for us.
Could we see them well, we should get some glimpses into the very marrow of
the world's history. How happy, could I but, in any measure, in such times
as these, make manifest to you the meanings of Heroism; the divine relation
(for I may well call it such) which in all times unites a Great Man to
other men; and thus, as it were, not exhaust my subject, but so much as
break ground on it! At all events, I must make the attempt.

It is well said, in every sense, that a man's religion is the chief fact
with regard to him. A man's, or a nation of men's. By religion I do not
mean here the church-creed which he professes, the articles of faith which
he will sign and, in words or otherwise, assert; not this wholly, in many
cases not this at all. We see men of all kinds of professed creeds attain
to almost all degrees of worth or worthlessness under each or any of them.
This is not what I call religion, this profession and assertion; which is
often only a profession and assertion from the outworks of the man, from
the mere argumentative region of him, if even so deep as that. But the
thing a man does practically believe (and this is often enough _without_
asserting it even to himself, much less to others); the thing a man does
practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital
relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that
is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all
the rest. That is his _religion_; or, it may be, his mere scepticism and
_no-religion_: the manner it is in which he feels himself to be
spiritually related to the Unseen World or No-World; and I say, if you tell
me what that is, you tell me to a very great extent what the man is, what
the kind of things he will do is. Of a man or of a nation we inquire,
therefore, first of all, What religion they had? Was it
Heathenism,--plurality of gods, mere sensuous representation of this
Mystery of Life, and for chief recognized element therein Physical Force?
Was it Christianism; faith in an Invisible, not as real only, but as the
only reality; Time, through every meanest moment of it, resting on
Eternity; Pagan empire of Force displaced by a nobler supremacy, that of
Holiness? Was it Scepticism, uncertainty and inquiry whether there was an
Unseen World, any Mystery of Life except a mad one;--doubt as to all this,
or perhaps unbelief and flat denial? Answering of this question is giving
us the soul of the history of the man or nation. The thoughts they had
were the parents of the actions they did; their feelings were parents of
their thoughts: it was the unseen and spiritual in them that determined
the outward and actual;--their religion, as I say, was the great fact about
them. In these Discourses, limited as we are, it will be good to direct
our survey chiefly to that religious phasis of the matter. That once known
well, all is known. We have chosen as the first Hero in our series Odin
the central figure of Scandinavian Paganism; an emblem to us of a most
extensive province of things. Let us look for a little at the Hero as
Divinity, the oldest primary form of Heroism.

Surely it seems a very strange-looking thing this Paganism; almost
inconceivable to us in these days. A bewildering, inextricable jungle of
delusions, confusions, falsehoods, and absurdities, covering the whole
field of Life! A thing that fills us with astonishment, almost, if it were
possible, with incredulity,--for truly it is not easy to understand that
sane men could ever calmly, with their eyes open, believe and live by such
a set of doctrines. That men should have worshipped their poor fellow-man
as a God, and not him only, but stocks and stones, and all manner of
animate and inanimate objects; and fashioned for themselves such a
distracted chaos of hallucinations by way of Theory of the Universe: all
this looks like an incredible fable. Nevertheless it is a clear fact that
they did it. Such hideous inextricable jungle of misworships, misbeliefs,
men, made as we are, did actually hold by, and live at home in. This is
strange. Yes, we may pause in sorrow and silence over the depths of
darkness that are in man; if we rejoice in the heights of purer vision he
has attained to. Such things were and are in man; in all men; in us too.

Some speculators have a short way of accounting for the Pagan religion:
mere quackery, priestcraft, and dupery, say they; no sane man ever did
believe it,--merely contrived to persuade other men, not worthy of the name
of sane, to believe it! It will be often our duty to protest against this
sort of hypothesis about men's doings and history; and I here, on the very
threshold, protest against it in reference to Paganism, and to all other
_isms_ by which man has ever for a length of time striven to walk in this
world. They have all had a truth in them, or men would not have taken them
up. Quackery and dupery do abound; in religions, above all in the more
advanced decaying stages of religions, they have fearfully abounded: but
quackery was never the originating influence in such things; it was not the
health and life of such things, but their disease, the sure precursor of
their being about to die! Let us never forget this. It seems to me a most
mournful hypothesis, that of quackery giving birth to any faith even in
savage men. Quackery gives birth to nothing; gives death to all things.
We shall not see into the true heart of anything, if we look merely at the
quackeries of it; if we do not reject the quackeries altogether; as mere
diseases, corruptions, with which our and all men's sole duty is to have
done with them, to sweep them out of our thoughts as out of our practice.
Man everywhere is the born enemy of lies. I find Grand Lamaism itself to
have a kind of truth in it. Read the candid, clear-sighted, rather
sceptical Mr. Turner's _Account of his Embassy_ to that country, and see.
They have their belief, these poor Thibet people, that Providence sends
down always an Incarnation of Himself into every generation. At bottom
some belief in a kind of Pope! At bottom still better, belief that there
is a _Greatest_ Man; that _he_ is discoverable; that, once discovered, we
ought to treat him with an obedience which knows no bounds! This is the
truth of Grand Lamaism; the "discoverability" is the only error here. The
Thibet priests have methods of their own of discovering what Man is
Greatest, fit to be supreme over them. Bad methods: but are they so much
worse than our methods,--of understanding him to be always the eldest-born
of a certain genealogy? Alas, it is a difficult thing to find good methods
for!--We shall begin to have a chance of understanding Paganism, when we
first admit that to its followers it was, at one time, earnestly true. Let
us consider it very certain that men did believe in Paganism; men with open
eyes, sound senses, men made altogether like ourselves; that we, had we
been there, should have believed in it. Ask now, What Paganism could have

Another theory, somewhat more respectable, attributes such things to
Allegory. It was a play of poetic minds, say these theorists; a shadowing
forth, in allegorical fable, in personification and visual form, of what
such poetic minds had known and felt of this Universe. Which agrees, add
they, with a primary law of human nature, still everywhere observably at
work, though in less important things, That what a man feels intensely, he
struggles to speak out of him, to see represented before him in visual
shape, and as if with a kind of life and historical reality in it. Now
doubtless there is such a law, and it is one of the deepest in human
nature; neither need we doubt that it did operate fundamentally in this
business. The hypothesis which ascribes Paganism wholly or mostly to this
agency, I call a little more respectable; but I cannot yet call it the true
hypothesis. Think, would _we_ believe, and take with us as our
life-guidance, an allegory, a poetic sport? Not sport but earnest is what
we should require. It is a most earnest thing to be alive in this world;
to die is not sport for a man. Man's life never was a sport to him; it was
a stern reality, altogether a serious matter to be alive!

I find, therefore, that though these Allegory theorists are on the way
towards truth in this matter, they have not reached it either. Pagan
Religion is indeed an Allegory, a Symbol of what men felt and knew about
the Universe; and all Religions are symbols of that, altering always as
that alters: but it seems to me a radical perversion, and even inversion,
of the business, to put that forward as the origin and moving cause, when
it was rather the result and termination. To get beautiful allegories, a
perfect poetic symbol, was not the want of men; but to know what they were
to believe about this Universe, what course they were to steer in it; what,
in this mysterious Life of theirs, they had to hope and to fear, to do and
to forbear doing. The _Pilgrim's Progress_ is an Allegory, and a
beautiful, just and serious one: but consider whether Bunyan's Allegory
could have _preceded_ the Faith it symbolizes! The Faith had to be already
there, standing believed by everybody;--of which the Allegory could _then_
become a shadow; and, with all its seriousness, we may say a _sportful_
shadow, a mere play of the Fancy, in comparison with that awful Fact and
scientific certainty which it poetically strives to emblem. The Allegory
is the product of the certainty, not the producer of it; not in Bunyan's
nor in any other case. For Paganism, therefore, we have still to inquire,
Whence came that scientific certainty, the parent of such a bewildered heap
of allegories, errors and confusions? How was it, what was it?

Surely it were a foolish attempt to pretend "explaining," in this place, or
in any place, such a phenomenon as that far-distant distracted cloudy
imbroglio of Paganism,--more like a cloud-field than a distant continent of
firm land and facts! It is no longer a reality, yet it was one. We ought
to understand that this seeming cloud-field was once a reality; that not
poetic allegory, least of all that dupery and deception was the origin of
it. Men, I say, never did believe idle songs, never risked their soul's
life on allegories: men in all times, especially in early earnest times,
have had an instinct for detecting quacks, for detesting quacks. Let us
try if, leaving out both the quack theory and the allegory one, and
listening with affectionate attention to that far-off confused rumor of the
Pagan ages, we cannot ascertain so much as this at least, That there was a
kind of fact at the heart of them; that they too were not mendacious and
distracted, but in their own poor way true and sane!

You remember that fancy of Plato's, of a man who had grown to maturity in
some dark distance, and was brought on a sudden into the upper air to see
the sun rise. What would his wonder be, his rapt astonishment at the sight
we daily witness with indifference! With the free open sense of a child,
yet with the ripe faculty of a man, his whole heart would be kindled by
that sight, he would discern it well to be Godlike, his soul would fall
down in worship before it. Now, just such a childlike greatness was in the
primitive nations. The first Pagan Thinker among rude men, the first man
that began to think, was precisely this child-man of Plato's. Simple, open
as a child, yet with the depth and strength of a man. Nature had as yet no
name to him; he had not yet united under a name the infinite variety of
sights, sounds, shapes and motions, which we now collectively name
Universe, Nature, or the like,--and so with a name dismiss it from us. To
the wild deep-hearted man all was yet new, not veiled under names or
formulas; it stood naked, flashing in on him there, beautiful, awful,
unspeakable. Nature was to this man, what to the Thinker and Prophet it
forever is, preternatural. This green flowery rock-built earth, the trees,
the mountains, rivers, many-sounding seas;--that great deep sea of azure
that swims overhead; the winds sweeping through it; the black cloud
fashioning itself together, now pouring out fire, now hail and rain; what
_is_ it? Ay, what? At bottom we do not yet know; we can never know at
all. It is not by our superior insight that we escape the difficulty; it
is by our superior levity, our inattention, our _want_ of insight. It is
by _not_ thinking that we cease to wonder at it. Hardened round us,
encasing wholly every notion we form, is a wrappage of traditions,
hearsays, mere _words_. We call that fire of the black thunder-cloud
"electricity," and lecture learnedly about it, and grind the like of it out
of glass and silk: but _what_ is it? What made it? Whence comes it?
Whither goes it? Science has done much for us; but it is a poor science
that would hide from us the great deep sacred infinitude of Nescience,
whither we can never penetrate, on which all science swims as a mere
superficial film. This world, after all our science and sciences, is still
a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, _magical_ and more, to whosoever will
_think_ of it.

That great mystery of TIME, were there no other; the illimitable, silent,
never-resting thing called Time, rolling, rushing on, swift, silent, like
an all-embracing ocean-tide, on which we and all the Universe swim like
exhalations, like apparitions which are, and then are _not_: this is
forever very literally a miracle; a thing to strike us dumb,--for we have
no word to speak about it. This Universe, ah me--what could the wild man
know of it; what can we yet know? That it is a Force, and thousand-fold
Complexity of Forces; a Force which is _not_ we. That is all; it is not
we, it is altogether different from us. Force, Force, everywhere Force; we
ourselves a mysterious Force in the centre of that. "There is not a leaf
rotting on the highway but has Force in it; how else could it rot?" Nay
surely, to the Atheistic Thinker, if such a one were possible, it must be a
miracle too, this huge illimitable whirlwind of Force, which envelops us
here; never-resting whirlwind, high as Immensity, old as Eternity. What is
it? God's Creation, the religious people answer; it is the Almighty God's!
Atheistic science babbles poorly of it, with scientific nomenclatures,
experiments and what not, as if it were a poor dead thing, to be bottled up
in Leyden jars and sold over counters: but the natural sense of man, in
all times, if he will honestly apply his sense, proclaims it to be a living
thing,--ah, an unspeakable, godlike thing; towards which the best attitude
for us, after never so much science, is awe, devout prostration and
humility of soul; worship if not in words, then in silence.

But now I remark farther: What in such a time as ours it requires a
Prophet or Poet to teach us, namely, the stripping-off of those poor
undevout wrappages, nomenclatures and scientific hearsays,--this, the
ancient earnest soul, as yet unencumbered with these things, did for
itself. The world, which is now divine only to the gifted, was then divine
to whosoever would turn his eye upon it. He stood bare before it face to
face. "All was Godlike or God:"--Jean Paul still finds it so; the giant
Jean Paul, who has power to escape out of hearsays: but there then were no
hearsays. Canopus shining down over the desert, with its blue diamond
brightness (that wild blue spirit-like brightness, far brighter than we
ever witness here), would pierce into the heart of the wild Ishmaelitish
man, whom it was guiding through the solitary waste there. To his wild
heart, with all feelings in it, with no _speech_ for any feeling, it might
seem a little eye, that Canopus, glancing out on him from the great deep
Eternity; revealing the inner Splendor to him. Cannot we understand how
these men _worshipped_ Canopus; became what we call Sabeans, worshipping
the stars? Such is to me the secret of all forms of Paganism. Worship is
transcendent wonder; wonder for which there is now no limit or measure;
that is worship. To these primeval men, all things and everything they saw
exist beside them were an emblem of the Godlike, of some God.

And look what perennial fibre of truth was in that. To us also, through
every star, through every blade of grass, is not a God made visible, if we
will open our minds and eyes? We do not worship in that way now: but is
it not reckoned still a merit, proof of what we call a "poetic nature,"
that we recognize how every object has a divine beauty in it; how every
object still verily is "a window through which we may look into Infinitude
itself"? He that can discern the loveliness of things, we call him Poet!
Painter, Man of Genius, gifted, lovable. These poor Sabeans did even what
he does,--in their own fashion. That they did it, in what fashion soever,
was a merit: better than what the entirely stupid man did, what the horse
and camel did,--namely, nothing!

But now if all things whatsoever that we look upon are emblems to us of the
Highest God, I add that more so than any of them is man such an emblem.
You have heard of St. Chrysostom's celebrated saying in reference to the
Shekinah, or Ark of Testimony, visible Revelation of God, among the
Hebrews: "The true Shekinah is Man!" Yes, it is even so: this is no vain
phrase; it is veritably so. The essence of our being, the mystery in us
that calls itself "I,"--ah, what words have we for such things?--is a
breath of Heaven; the Highest Being reveals himself in man. This body,
these faculties, this life of ours, is it not all as a vesture for that
Unnamed? "There is but one Temple in the Universe," says the devout
Novalis, "and that is the Body of Man. Nothing is holier shall that high
form. Bending before men is a reverence done to this Revelation in the
Flesh. We touch Heaven when we lay our hand on a human body!" This sounds
much like a mere flourish of rhetoric; but it is not so. If well

meditated, it will turn out to be a scientific fact; the expression, in
such words as can be had, of the actual truth of the thing. We are the
miracle of miracles,--the great inscrutable mystery of God. We cannot
understand it, we know not how to speak of it; but we may feel and know, if
we like, that it is verily so.

Well; these truths were once more readily felt than now. The young
generations of the world, who had in them the freshness of young children,
and yet the depth of earnest men, who did not think that they had finished
off all things in Heaven and Earth by merely giving them scientific names,
but had to gaze direct at them there, with awe and wonder: they felt
better what of divinity is in man and Nature; they, without being mad,
could _worship_ Nature, and man more than anything else in Nature.
Worship, that is, as I said above, admire without limit: this, in the full
use of their faculties, with all sincerity of heart, they could do. I
consider Hero-worship to be the grand modifying element in that ancient
system of thought. What I called the perplexed jungle of Paganism sprang,
we may say, out of many roots: every admiration, adoration of a star or
natural object, was a root or fibre of a root; but Hero-worship is the
deepest root of all; the tap-root, from which in a great degree all the
rest were nourished and grown.

And now if worship even of a star had some meaning in it, how much more
might that of a Hero! Worship of a Hero is transcendent admiration of a
Great Man. I say great men are still admirable; I say there is, at bottom,
nothing else admirable! No nobler feeling than this of admiration for one
higher than himself dwells in the breast of man. It is to this hour, and
at all hours, the vivifying influence in man's life. Religion I find stand
upon it; not Paganism only, but far higher and truer religions,--all
religion hitherto known. Hero-worship, heartfelt prostrate admiration,
submission, burning, boundless, for a noblest godlike Form of Man,--is not
that the germ of Christianity itself? The greatest of all Heroes is
One--whom we do not name here! Let sacred silence meditate that sacred
matter; you will find it the ultimate perfection of a principle extant
throughout man's whole history on earth.

Or coming into lower, less unspeakable provinces, is not all Loyalty akin
to religious Faith also? Faith is loyalty to some inspired Teacher, some
spiritual Hero. And what therefore is loyalty proper, the life-breath of
all society, but an effluence of Hero-worship, submissive admiration for
the truly great? Society is founded on Hero-worship. All dignities of
rank, on which human association rests, are what we may call a _Hero_archy
(Government of Heroes),--or a Hierarchy, for it is "sacred" enough withal!
The Duke means _Dux_, Leader; King is _Kon-ning_, _Kan-ning_, Man that
_knows_ or _cans_. Society everywhere is some representation, not
insupportably inaccurate, of a graduated Worship of Heroes--reverence and
obedience done to men really great and wise. Not insupportably inaccurate,
I say! They are all as bank-notes, these social dignitaries, all
representing gold;--and several of them, alas, always are _forged_ notes.
We can do with some forged false notes; with a good many even; but not with
all, or the most of them forged! No: there have to come revolutions then;
cries of Democracy, Liberty and Equality, and I know not what:--the notes
being all false, and no gold to be had for _them_, people take to crying in
their despair that there is no gold, that there never was any! "Gold,"
Hero-worship, _is_ nevertheless, as it was always and everywhere, and
cannot cease till man himself ceases.

I am well aware that in these days Hero-worship, the thing I call
Hero-worship, professes to have gone out, and finally ceased. This, for
reasons which it will be worth while some time to inquire into, is an age
that as it were denies the existence of great men; denies the desirableness
of great men. Show our critics a great man, a Luther for example, they
begin to what they call "account" for him; not to worship him, but take the
dimensions of him,--and bring him out to be a little kind of man! He was
the "creature of the Time," they say; the Time called him forth, the Time
did everything, he nothing--but what we the little critic could have done
too! This seems to me but melancholy work. The Time call forth? Alas, we
have known Times _call_ loudly enough for their great man; but not find him
when they called! He was not there; Providence had not sent him; the Time,
_calling_ its loudest, had to go down to confusion and wreck because he
would not come when called.

For if we will think of it, no Time need have gone to ruin, could it have
_found_ a man great enough, a man wise and good enough: wisdom to discern
truly what the Time wanted, valor to lead it on the right road thither;
these are the salvation of any Time. But I liken common languid Times,
with their unbelief, distress, perplexity, with their languid doubting
characters and embarrassed circumstances, impotently crumbling down into
ever worse distress towards final ruin;--all this I liken to dry dead fuel,
waiting for the lightning out of Heaven that shall kindle it. The great
man, with his free force direct out of God's own hand, is the lightning.
His word is the wise healing word which all can believe in. All blazes
round him now, when he has once struck on it, into fire like his own. The
dry mouldering sticks are thought to have called him forth. They did want
him greatly; but as to calling him forth--! Those are critics of small
vision, I think, who cry: "See, is it not the sticks that made the fire?"
No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief
in great men. There is no sadder symptom of a generation than such general
blindness to the spiritual lightning, with faith only in the heap of barren
dead fuel. It is the last consummation of unbelief. In all epochs of the
world's history, we shall find the Great Man to have been the indispensable
savior of his epoch;--the lightning, without which the fuel never would
have burnt. The History of the World, I said already, was the Biography of
Great Men.

Such small critics do what they can to promote unbelief and universal
spiritual paralysis: but happily they cannot always completely succeed.
In all times it is possible for a man to arise great enough to feel that
they and their doctrines are chimeras and cobwebs. And what is notable, in
no time whatever can they entirely eradicate out of living men's hearts a
certain altogether peculiar reverence for Great Men; genuine admiration,
loyalty, adoration, however dim and perverted it may be. Hero-worship
endures forever while man endures. Boswell venerates his Johnson, right
truly even in the Eighteenth century. The unbelieving French believe in
their Voltaire; and burst out round him into very curious Hero-worship, in
that last act of his life when they "stifle him under roses." It has
always seemed to me extremely curious this of Voltaire. Truly, if
Christianity be the highest instance of Hero-worship, then we may find here
in Voltaireism one of the lowest! He whose life was that of a kind of
Antichrist, does again on this side exhibit a curious contrast. No people
ever were so little prone to admire at all as those French of Voltaire.
_Persiflage_ was the character of their whole mind; adoration had nowhere a
place in it. Yet see! The old man of Ferney comes up to Paris; an old,
tottering, infirm man of eighty-four years. They feel that he too is a
kind of Hero; that he has spent his life in opposing error and injustice,
delivering Calases, unmasking hypocrites in high places;--in short that
_he_ too, though in a strange way, has fought like a valiant man. They
feel withal that, if _persiflage_ be the great thing, there never was such
a _persifleur_. He is the realized ideal of every one of them; the thing
they are all wanting to be; of all Frenchmen the most French. He is
properly their god,--such god as they are fit for. Accordingly all
persons, from the Queen Antoinette to the Douanier at the Porte St. Denis,
do they not worship him? People of quality disguise themselves as
tavern-waiters. The Maitre de Poste, with a broad oath, orders his
Postilion, "_Va bon train_; thou art driving M. de Voltaire." At Paris his
carriage is "the nucleus of a comet, whose train fills whole streets." The
ladies pluck a hair or two from his fur, to keep it as a sacred relic.
There was nothing highest, beautifulest, noblest in all France, that did
not feel this man to be higher, beautifuler, nobler.

Yes, from Norse Odin to English Samuel Johnson, from the divine Founder of
Christianity to the withered Pontiff of Encyclopedism, in all times and
places, the Hero has been worshipped. It will ever be so. We all love
great men; love, venerate and bow down submissive before great men: nay
can we honestly bow down to anything else? Ah, does not every true man
feel that he is himself made higher by doing reverence to what is really
above him? No nobler or more blessed feeling dwells in man's heart. And
to me it is very cheering to consider that no sceptical logic, or general
triviality, insincerity and aridity of any Time and its influences can
destroy this noble inborn loyalty and worship that is in man. In times of
unbelief, which soon have to become times of revolution, much down-rushing,
sorrowful decay and ruin is visible to everybody. For myself in these
days, I seem to see in this indestructibility of Hero-worship the
everlasting adamant lower than which the confused wreck of revolutionary
things cannot fall. The confused wreck of things crumbling and even
crashing and tumbling all round us in these revolutionary ages, will get
down so far; _no_ farther. It is an eternal corner-stone, from which they
can begin to build themselves up again. That man, in some sense or other,
worships Heroes; that we all of us reverence and must ever reverence Great
Men: this is, to me, the living rock amid all rushings-down
whatsoever;--the one fixed point in modern revolutionary history, otherwise
as if bottomless and shoreless.

So much of truth, only under an ancient obsolete vesture, but the spirit of
it still true, do I find in the Paganism of old nations. Nature is still
divine, the revelation of the workings of God; the Hero is still
worshipable: this, under poor cramped incipient forms, is what all Pagan
religions have struggled, as they could, to set forth. I think
Scandinavian Paganism, to us here, is more interesting than any other. It
is, for one thing, the latest; it continued in these regions of Europe till
the eleventh century: eight hundred years ago the Norwegians were still
worshippers of Odin. It is interesting also as the creed of our fathers;
the men whose blood still runs in our veins, whom doubtless we still
resemble in so many ways. Strange: they did believe that, while we
believe so differently. Let us look a little at this poor Norse creed, for
many reasons. We have tolerable means to do it; for there is another point
of interest in these Scandinavian mythologies: that they have been
preserved so well.

In that strange island Iceland,--burst up, the geologists say, by fire from
the bottom of the sea; a wild land of barrenness and lava; swallowed many
months of every year in black tempests, yet with a wild gleaming beauty in
summertime; towering up there, stern and grim, in the North Ocean with its
snow jokuls, roaring geysers, 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 seabord 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 discovered by
the Northmen! The old Norse Poets were many of them natives of Iceland.

Saemund, one of the early Christian Priests there, who perhaps had a
lingering fondness for Paganism, collected certain of their old Pagan
songs, just about becoming obsolete then,--Poems or Chants of a mythic,
prophetic, mostly all of a religious character: that is what Norse critics
call the _Elder_ or Poetic _Edda_. _Edda_, a word of uncertain etymology,
is thought to signify _Ancestress_. Snorro Sturleson, an Iceland
gentleman, an extremely notable personage, educated by this Saemund's
grandson, took in hand next, near a century afterwards, to put together,
among several other books he wrote, a kind of Prose Synopsis of the whole
Mythology; elucidated by new fragments of traditionary verse. A work
constructed really with great ingenuity, native talent, what one might call
unconscious art; altogether a perspicuous clear work, pleasant reading
still: this is the _Younger_ or Prose _Edda_. By these and the numerous
other _Sagas_, mostly Icelandic, with the commentaries, Icelandic or not,
which go on zealously in the North to this day, it is possible to gain some
direct insight even yet; and see that old Norse system of Belief, as it
were, face to face. Let us forget that it is erroneous Religion; let us
look at it as old Thought, and try if we cannot sympathize with it

The primary characteristic of this old Northland Mythology I find to be
Impersonation of the visible workings of Nature. Earnest simple
recognition of the workings of Physical Nature, as a thing wholly
miraculous, stupendous and divine. What we now lecture of as Science, they
wondered at, and fell down in awe before, as Religion The dark hostile
Powers of Nature they figure to themselves as "_Jotuns_," Giants, huge
shaggy beings of a demonic character. Frost, Fire, Sea-tempest; these are
Jotuns. The friendly Powers again, as Summer-heat, the Sun, are Gods. The
empire of this Universe is divided between these two; they dwell apart, in
perennial internecine feud. The Gods dwell above in Asgard, the Garden of
the Asen, or Divinities; Jotunheim, a distant dark chaotic land, is the
home of the Jotuns.

Curious all this; and not idle or inane, if we will look at the foundation
of it! The power of _Fire_, or _Flame_, for instance, which we designate
by some trivial chemical name, thereby hiding from ourselves the essential
character of wonder that dwells in it as in all things, is with these old
Northmen, Loke, a most swift subtle _Demon_, of the brood of the Jotuns.
The savages of the Ladrones Islands too (say some Spanish voyagers) thought
Fire, which they never had seen before, was a devil or god, that bit you
sharply when you touched it, and that lived upon dry wood. From us too no
Chemistry, if it had not Stupidity to help it, would hide that Flame is a
wonder. What _is_ Flame?--_Frost_ the old Norse Seer discerns to be a
monstrous hoary Jotun, the Giant _Thrym_, _Hrym_; or _Rime_, the old word
now nearly obsolete here, but still used in Scotland to signify hoar-frost.
_Rime_ was not then as now a dead chemical thing, but a living Jotun or
Devil; the monstrous Jotun _Rime_ drove home his Horses at night, sat
"combing their manes,"--which Horses were _Hail-Clouds_, or fleet
_Frost-Winds_. His Cows--No, not his, but a kinsman's, the Giant Hymir's
Cows are _Icebergs_: this Hymir "looks at the rocks" with his devil-eye,
and they _split_ in the glance of it.

Thunder was not then mere Electricity, vitreous or resinous; it was the God
Donner (Thunder) or Thor,--God also of beneficent Summer-heat. The thunder
was his wrath: the gathering of the black clouds is the drawing down of
Thor's angry brows; the fire-bolt bursting out of Heaven is the all-rending
Hammer flung from the hand of Thor: he urges his loud chariot over the
mountain-tops,--that is the peal; wrathful he "blows in his red
beard,"--that is the rustling storm-blast before the thunder begins.
Balder again, the White God, the beautiful, the just and benignant (whom
the early Christian Missionaries found to resemble Christ), is the Sun,
beautifullest of visible things; wondrous too, and divine still, after all
our Astronomies and Almanacs! But perhaps the notablest god we hear tell
of is one of whom Grimm the German Etymologist finds trace: the God
_Wunsch_, or Wish. The God _Wish_; who could give us all that we _wished_!
Is not this the sincerest and yet rudest voice of the spirit of man? The
_rudest_ ideal that man ever formed; which still shows itself in the latest
forms of our spiritual culture. Higher considerations have to teach us
that the God _Wish_ is not the true God.

Of the other Gods or Jotuns I will mention only for etymology's sake, that
Sea-tempest is the Jotun _Aegir_, a very dangerous Jotun;--and now to this
day, on our river Trent, as I learn, the Nottingham bargemen, when the
River is in a certain flooded state (a kind of backwater, or eddying swirl
it has, very dangerous to them), call it Eager; they cry out, "Have a care,
there is the _Eager_ coming!" Curious; that word surviving, like the peak
of a submerged world! The _oldest_ Nottingham bargemen had believed in the
God Aegir. Indeed our English blood too in good part is Danish, Norse; or
rather, at bottom, Danish and Norse and Saxon have no distinction, except a
superficial one,--as of Heathen and Christian, or the like. But all over
our Island we are mingled largely with Danes proper,--from the incessant
invasions there were: and this, of course, in a greater proportion along
the east coast; and greatest of all, as I find, in the North Country. From
the Humber upwards, all over Scotland, the Speech of the common people is
still in a singular degree Icelandic; its Germanism has still a peculiar
Norse tinge. They too are "Normans," Northmen,--if that be any great

Of the chief god, Odin, we shall speak by and by. Mark at present so much;
what the essence of Scandinavian and indeed of all Paganism is: a
recognition of the forces of Nature as godlike, stupendous, personal
Agencies,--as Gods and Demons. Not inconceivable to us. It is the infant
Thought of man opening itself, with awe and wonder, on this ever-stupendous
Universe. To me there is in the Norse system something very genuine, very
great and manlike. A broad simplicity, rusticity, so very different from
the light gracefulness of the old Greek Paganism, distinguishes this
Scandinavian System. It is Thought; the genuine Thought of deep, rude,
earnest minds, fairly opened to the things about them; a face-to-face and
heart-to-heart inspection of the things,--the first characteristic of all
good Thought in all times. Not graceful lightness, half-sport, as in the
Greek Paganism; a certain homely truthfulness and rustic strength, a great
rude sincerity, discloses itself here. It is strange, after our beautiful
Apollo statues and clear smiling mythuses, to come down upon the Norse Gods
"brewing ale" to hold their feast with Aegir, the Sea-Jotun; sending out
Thor to get the caldron for them in the Jotun country; Thor, after many
adventures, clapping the Pot on his head, like a huge hat, and walking off
with it,--quite lost in it, the ears of the Pot reaching down to his heels!
A kind of vacant hugeness, large awkward gianthood, characterizes that
Norse system; enormous force, as yet altogether untutored, stalking
helpless with large uncertain strides. Consider only their primary mythus
of the Creation. The Gods, having got the Giant Ymer slain, a Giant made
by "warm wind," and much confused work, out of the conflict of Frost and
Fire,--determined on constructing a world with him. His blood made the
Sea; his flesh was the Land, the Rocks his bones; of his eyebrows they
formed Asgard their Gods'-dwelling; his skull was the great blue vault of
Immensity, and the brains of it became the Clouds. What a
Hyper-Brobdignagian business! Untamed Thought, great, giantlike,
enormous;--to be tamed in due time into the compact greatness, not
giantlike, but godlike and stronger than gianthood, of the Shakspeares, the
Goethes!--Spiritually as well as bodily these men are our progenitors.

I like, too, that representation they have of the tree Igdrasil. All Life
is figured by them as a Tree. Igdrasil, the Ash-tree of Existence, has its
roots deep down in the kingdoms of Hela or Death; its trunk reaches up
heaven-high, spreads its boughs over the whole Universe: it is the Tree of
Existence. At the foot of it, in the Death-kingdom, sit Three _Nornas_,
Fates,--the Past, Present, Future; watering its roots from the Sacred Well.
Its "boughs," with their buddings and disleafings?--events, things
suffered, things done, catastrophes,--stretch through all lands and times.
Is not every leaf of it a biography, every fibre there an act or word? Its
boughs are Histories of Nations. The rustle of it is the noise of Human
Existence, onwards from of old. It grows there, the breath of Human
Passion rustling through it;--or storm tost, the storm-wind howling through
it like the voice of all the gods. It is Igdrasil, the Tree of Existence.
It is the past, the present, and the future; what was done, what is doing,
what will be done; "the infinite conjugation of the verb _To do_."
Considering how human things circulate, each inextricably in communion with
all,--how the word I speak to you to-day is borrowed, not from Ulfila the
Moesogoth only, but from all men since the first man began to speak,--I
find no similitude so true as this of a Tree. Beautiful; altogether
beautiful and great. The "_Machine_ of the Universe,"--alas, do but think
of that in contrast!

Well, it is strange enough this old Norse view of Nature; different enough
from what we believe of Nature. Whence it specially came, one would not
like to be compelled to say very minutely! One thing we may say: It came
from the thoughts of Norse men;--from the thought, above all, of the
_first_ Norse man who had an original power of thinking. The First Norse
"man of genius," as we should call him! Innumerable men had passed by,
across this Universe, with a dumb vague wonder, such as the very animals
may feel; or with a painful, fruitlessly inquiring wonder, such as men only
feel;--till the great Thinker came, the _original_ man, the Seer; whose
shaped spoken Thought awakes the slumbering capability of all into Thought.
It is ever the way with the Thinker, the spiritual Hero. What he says, all
men were not far from saying, were longing to say. The Thoughts of all
start up, as from painful enchanted sleep, round his Thought; answering to
it, Yes, even so! Joyful to men as the dawning of day from night;--_is_ it
not, indeed, the awakening for them from no-being into being, from death
into life? We still honor such a man; call him Poet, Genius, and so forth:
but to these wild men he was a very magician, a worker of miraculous
unexpected blessing for them; a Prophet, a God!--Thought once awakened does
not again slumber; unfolds itself into a System of Thought; grows, in man
after man, generation after generation,--till its full stature is reached,
and _such_ System of Thought can grow no farther; but must give place to

For the Norse people, the Man now named Odin, and Chief Norse God, we
fancy, was such a man. A Teacher, and Captain of soul and of body; a Hero,
of worth immeasurable; admiration for whom, transcending the known bounds,
became adoration. Has he not the power of articulate Thinking; and many
other powers, as yet miraculous? So, with boundless gratitude, would the
rude Norse heart feel. Has he not solved for them the sphinx-enigma of
this Universe; given assurance to them of their own destiny there? By him
they know now what they have to do here, what to look for hereafter.
Existence has become articulate, melodious by him; he first has made Life
alive!--We may call this Odin, the origin of Norse Mythology: Odin, or
whatever name the First Norse Thinker bore while he was a man among men.
His view of the Universe once promulgated, a like view starts into being in
all minds; grows, keeps ever growing, while it continues credible there.
In all minds it lay written, but invisibly, as in sympathetic ink; at his
word it starts into visibility in all. Nay, in every epoch of the world,
the great event, parent of all others, is it not the arrival of a Thinker
in the world!--

One other thing we must not forget; it will explain, a little, the
confusion of these Norse Eddas. They are not one coherent System of
Thought; but properly the _summation_ of several successive systems. All
this of the old Norse Belief which is flung out for us, in one level of
distance in the Edda, like a picture painted on the same canvas, does not
at all stand so in the reality. It stands rather at all manner of
distances and depths, of successive generations since the Belief first
began. All Scandinavian thinkers, since the first of them, contributed to
that Scandinavian System of Thought; in ever-new elaboration and addition,
it is the combined work of them all. What history it had, how it changed
from shape to shape, by one thinker's contribution after another, till it
got to the full final shape we see it under in the Edda, no man will now
ever know: _its_ Councils of Trebizond, Councils of Trent, Athanasiuses,
Dantes, Luthers, are sunk without echo in the dark night! Only that it had
such a history we can all know. Wheresover a thinker appeared, there in
the thing he thought of was a contribution, accession, a change or
revolution made. Alas, the grandest "revolution" of all, the one made by
the man Odin himself, is not this too sunk for us like the rest! Of Odin
what history? Strange rather to reflect that he _had_ a history! That
this Odin, in his wild Norse vesture, with his wild beard and eyes, his
rude Norse speech and ways, was a man like us; with our sorrows, joys, with
our limbs, features;--intrinsically all one as we: and did such a work!
But the work, much of it, has perished; the worker, all to the name.
"_Wednesday_," men will say to-morrow; Odin's day! Of Odin there exists no
history; no document of it; no guess about it worth repeating.

Snorro indeed, in the quietest manner, almost in a brief business style,
writes down, in his _Heimskringla_, how Odin was a heroic Prince, in the
Black-Sea region, with Twelve Peers, and a great people straitened for
room. How he led these _Asen_ (Asiatics) of his out of Asia; settled them
in the North parts of Europe, by warlike conquest; invented Letters, Poetry
and so forth,--and came by and by to be worshipped as Chief God by these
Scandinavians, his Twelve Peers made into Twelve Sons of his own, Gods like
himself: Snorro has no doubt of this. Saxo Grammaticus, a very curious
Northman of that same century, is still more unhesitating; scruples not to
find out a historical fact in every individual mythus, and writes it down
as a terrestrial event in Denmark or elsewhere. Torfaeus, learned and
cautious, some centuries later, assigns by calculation a _date_ for it:
Odin, he says, came into Europe about the Year 70 before Christ. Of all
which, as grounded on mere uncertainties, found to be untenable now, I need
say nothing. Far, very far beyond the Year 70! Odin's date, adventures,
whole terrestrial history, figure and environment are sunk from us forever
into unknown thousands of years.

Nay Grimm, the German Antiquary, goes so far as to deny that any man Odin
ever existed. He proves it by etymology. The word _Wuotan_, which is the
original form of _Odin_, a word spread, as name of their chief Divinity,
over all the Teutonic Nations everywhere; this word, which connects itself,
according to Grimm, with the Latin _vadere_, with the English _wade_ and
such like,--means primarily Movement, Source of Movement, Power; and is the
fit name of the highest god, not of any man. The word signifies Divinity,
he says, among the old Saxon, German and all Teutonic Nations; the
adjectives formed from it all signify divine, supreme, or something
pertaining to the chief god. Like enough! We must bow to Grimm in matters
etymological. Let us consider it fixed that _Wuotan_ means _Wading_, force
of _Movement_. And now still, what hinders it from being the name of a
Heroic Man and _Mover_, as well as of a god? As for the adjectives, and
words formed from it,--did not the Spaniards in their universal admiration
for Lope, get into the habit of saying "a Lope flower," "a Lope _dama_," if
the flower or woman were of surpassing beauty? Had this lasted, _Lope_
would have grown, in Spain, to be an adjective signifying _godlike_ also.
Indeed, Adam Smith, in his Essay on Language, surmises that all adjectives
whatsoever were formed precisely in that way: some very green thing,
chiefly notable for its greenness, got the appellative name _Green_, and
then the next thing remarkable for that quality, a tree for instance, was
named the _green_ tree,--as we still say "the _steam_ coach," "four-horse
coach," or the like. All primary adjectives, according to Smith, were
formed in this way; were at first substantives and things. We cannot
annihilate a man for etymologies like that! Surely there was a First
Teacher and Captain; surely there must have been an Odin, palpable to the
sense at one time; no adjective, but a real Hero of flesh and blood! The
voice of all tradition, history or echo of history, agrees with all that
thought will teach one about it, to assure us of this.

How the man Odin came to be considered a _god_, the chief god?--that surely
is a question which nobody would wish to dogmatize upon. I have said, his
people knew no _limits_ to their admiration of him; they had as yet no
scale to measure admiration by. Fancy your own generous heart's-love of
some greatest man expanding till it _transcended_ all bounds, till it
filled and overflowed the whole field of your thought! Or what if this man
Odin,--since a great deep soul, with the afflatus and mysterious tide of
vision and impulse rushing on him he knows not whence, is ever an enigma, a
kind of terror and wonder to himself,--should have felt that perhaps _he_
was divine; that _he_ was some effluence of the "Wuotan," "_Movement_",
Supreme Power and Divinity, of whom to his rapt vision all Nature was the
awful Flame-image; that some effluence of Wuotan dwelt here in him! He was
not necessarily false; he was but mistaken, speaking the truest he knew. A
great soul, any sincere soul, knows not what he is,--alternates between the
highest height and the lowest depth; can, of all things, the least
measure--Himself! What others take him for, and what he guesses that he
may be; these two items strangely act on one another, help to determine one
another. With all men reverently admiring him; with his own wild soul full
of noble ardors and affections, of whirlwind chaotic darkness and glorious
new light; a divine Universe bursting all into godlike beauty round him,
and no man to whom the like ever had befallen, what could he think himself
to be? "Wuotan?" All men answered, "Wuotan!"--

And then consider what mere Time will do in such cases; how if a man was
great while living, he becomes tenfold greater when dead. What an enormous
_camera-obscura_ magnifier is Tradition! How a thing grows in the human
Memory, in the human Imagination, when love, worship and all that lies in
the human Heart, is there to encourage it. And in the darkness, in the
entire ignorance; without date or document, no book, no Arundel-marble;
only here and there some dumb monumental cairn. Why, in thirty or forty
years, were there no books, any great man would grow _mythic_, the
contemporaries who had seen him, being once all dead. And in three hundred
years, and in three thousand years--! To attempt _theorizing_ on such
matters would profit little: they are matters which refuse to be
_theoremed_ and diagramed; which Logic ought to know that she _cannot_
speak of. Enough for us to discern, far in the uttermost distance, some
gleam as of a small real light shining in the centre of that enormous
camera-obscure image; to discern that the centre of it all was not a
madness and nothing, but a sanity and something.

This light, kindled in the great dark vortex of the Norse Mind, dark but
living, waiting only for light; this is to me the centre of the whole. How
such light will then shine out, and with wondrous thousand-fold expansion
spread itself, in forms and colors, depends not on _it_, so much as on the
National Mind recipient of it. The colors and forms of your light will be
those of the _cut-glass_ it has to shine through.--Curious to think how,
for every man, any the truest fact is modelled by the nature of the man! I
said, The earnest man, speaking to his brother men, must always have stated
what seemed to him a _fact_, a real Appearance of Nature. But the way in
which such Appearance or fact shaped itself,--what sort of _fact_ it became
for him,--was and is modified by his own laws of thinking; deep, subtle,
but universal, ever-operating laws. The world of Nature, for every man, is
the Fantasy of Himself. this world is the multiplex "Image of his own
Dream." Who knows to what unnamable subtleties of spiritual law all these
Pagan Fables owe their shape! The number Twelve, divisiblest of all, which
could be halved, quartered, parted into three, into six, the most
remarkable number,--this was enough to determine the _Signs of the Zodiac_,
the number of Odin's _Sons_, and innumerable other Twelves. Any vague
rumor of number had a tendency to settle itself into Twelve. So with
regard to every other matter. And quite unconsciously too,--with no notion
of building up " Allegories "! But the fresh clear glance of those First
Ages would be prompt in discerning the secret relations of things, and
wholly open to obey these. Schiller finds in the _Cestus of Venus_ an
everlasting aesthetic truth as to the nature of all Beauty; curious:--but
he is careful not to insinuate that the old Greek Mythists had any notion
of lecturing about the "Philosophy of Criticism"!--On the whole, we must
leave those boundless regions. Cannot we conceive that Odin was a reality?
Error indeed, error enough: but sheer falsehood, idle fables, allegory
aforethought,--we will not believe that our Fathers believed in these.

Odin's _Runes_ are a significant feature of him. Runes, and the miracles
of "magic" he worked by them, make a great feature in tradition. Runes are
the Scandinavian Alphabet; suppose Odin to have been the inventor of
Letters, as well as "magic," among that people! It is the greatest
invention man has ever made! this of marking down the unseen thought that
is in him by written characters. It is a kind of second speech, almost as
miraculous as the first. You remember the astonishment and incredulity of
Atahualpa the Peruvian King; how he made the Spanish Soldier who was
guarding him scratch _Dios_ on his thumb-nail, that he might try the next
soldier with it, to ascertain whether such a miracle was possible. If Odin
brought Letters among his people, he might work magic enough!

Writing by Runes has some air of being original among the Norsemen: not a
Phoenician Alphabet, but a native Scandinavian one. Snorro tells us
farther that Odin invented Poetry; the music of human speech, as well as
that miraculous runic marking of it. Transport yourselves into the early
childhood of nations; the first beautiful morning-light of our Europe, when
all yet lay in fresh young radiance as of a great sunrise, and our Europe
was first beginning to think, to be! Wonder, hope; infinite radiance of
hope and wonder, as of a young child's thoughts, in the hearts of these
strong men! Strong sons of Nature; and here was not only a wild Captain
and Fighter; discerning with his wild flashing eyes what to do, with his
wild lion-heart daring and doing it; but a Poet too, all that we mean by a
Poet, Prophet, great devout Thinker and Inventor,--as the truly Great Man
ever is. A Hero is a Hero at all points; in the soul and thought of him
first of all. This Odin, in his rude semi-articulate way, had a word to
speak. A great heart laid open to take in this great Universe, and man's
Life here, and utter a great word about it. A Hero, as I say, in his own
rude manner; a wise, gifted, noble-hearted man. And now, if we still
admire such a man beyond all others, what must these wild Norse souls,
first awakened into thinking, have made of him! To them, as yet without
names for it, he was noble and noblest; Hero, Prophet, God; _Wuotan_, the
greatest of all. Thought is Thought, however it speak or spell itself.
Intrinsically, I conjecture, this Odin must have been of the same sort of
stuff as the greatest kind of men. A great thought in the wild deep heart
of him! The rough words he articulated, are they not the rudimental roots
of those English words we still use? He worked so, in that obscure
element. But he was as a _light_ kindled in it; a light of Intellect, rude
Nobleness of heart, the only kind of lights we have yet; a Hero, as I say:
and he had to shine there, and make his obscure element a little
lighter,--as is still the task of us all.

We will fancy him to be the Type Norseman; the finest Teuton whom that race
had yet produced. The rude Norse heart burst up into _boundless_
admiration round him; into adoration. He is as a root of so many great
things; the fruit of him is found growing from deep thousands of years,
over the whole field of Teutonic Life. Our own Wednesday, as I said, is it
not still Odin's Day? Wednesbury, Wansborough, Wanstead, Wandsworth: Odin
grew into England too, these are still leaves from that root! He was the
Chief God to all the Teutonic Peoples; their Pattern Norseman;--in such way
did _they_ admire their Pattern Norseman; that was the fortune he had in
the world.

Thus if the man Odin himself have vanished utterly, there is this huge
Shadow of him which still projects itself over the whole History of his
People. For this Odin once admitted to be God, we can understand well that
the whole Scandinavian Scheme of Nature, or dim No-scheme, whatever it
might before have been, would now begin to develop itself altogether
differently, and grow thenceforth in a new manner. What this Odin saw
into, and taught with his runes and his rhymes, the whole Teutonic People
laid to heart and carried forward. His way of thought became their way of
thought:--such, under new conditions, is the history of every great thinker
still. In gigantic confused lineaments, like some enormous camera-obscure
shadow thrown upwards from the dead deeps of the Past, and covering the
whole Northern Heaven, is not that Scandinavian Mythology in some sort the
Portraiture of this man Odin? The gigantic image of _his_ natural face,
legible or not legible there, expanded and confused in that manner! Ah,
Thought, I say, is always Thought. No great man lives in vain. The
History of the world is but the Biography of great men.

To me there is something very touching in this primeval figure of Heroism;
in such artless, helpless, but hearty entire reception of a Hero by his
fellow-men. Never so helpless in shape, it is the noblest of feelings, and
a feeling in some shape or other perennial as man himself. If I could show
in any measure, what I feel deeply for a long time now, That it is the
vital element of manhood, the soul of man's history here in our world,--it
would be the chief use of this discoursing at present. We do not now call
our great men Gods, nor admire _without_ limit; ah no, _with_ limit enough!
But if we have no great men, or do not admire at all,--that were a still
worse case.

This poor Scandinavian Hero-worship, that whole Norse way of looking at the
Universe, and adjusting oneself there, has an indestructible merit for us.
A rude childlike way of recognizing the divineness of Nature, the
divineness of Man; most rude, yet heartfelt, robust, giantlike; betokening
what a giant of a man this child would yet grow to!--It was a truth, and is
none. Is it not as the half-dumb stifled voice of the long-buried
generations of our own Fathers, calling out of the depths of ages to us, in
whose veins their blood still runs: "This then, this is what we made of
the world: this is all the image and notion we could form to ourselves of
this great mystery of a Life and Universe. Despise it not. You are raised
high above it, to large free scope of vision; but you too are not yet at
the top. No, your notion too, so much enlarged, is but a partial,
imperfect one; that matter is a thing no man will ever, in time or out of
time, comprehend; after thousands of years of ever-new expansion, man will
find himself but struggling to comprehend again a part of it: the thing is
larger shall man, not to be comprehended by him; an Infinite thing!"

The essence of the Scandinavian, as indeed of all Pagan Mythologies, we
found to be recognition of the divineness of Nature; sincere communion of
man with the mysterious invisible Powers visibly seen at work in the world
round him. This, I should say, is more sincerely done in the Scandinavian
than in any Mythology I know. Sincerity is the great characteristic of it.
Superior sincerity (far superior) consoles us for the total want of old
Grecian grace. Sincerity, I think, is better than grace. I feel that
these old Northmen wore looking into Nature with open eye and soul: most
earnest, honest; childlike, and yet manlike; with a great-hearted
simplicity and depth and freshness, in a true, loving, admiring, unfearing
way. A right valiant, true old race of men. Such recognition of Nature
one finds to be the chief element of Paganism; recognition of Man, and his
Moral Duty, though this too is not wanting, comes to be the chief element
only in purer forms of religion. Here, indeed, is a great distinction and
epoch in Human Beliefs; a great landmark in the religious development of
Mankind. Man first puts himself in relation with Nature and her Powers,
wonders and worships over those; not till a later epoch does he discern
that all Power is Moral, that the grand point is the distinction for him of
Good and Evil, of _Thou shalt_ and _Thou shalt not_.

With regard to all these fabulous delineations in the _Edda_, I will
remark, moreover, as indeed was already hinted, that most probably they
must have been of much newer date; most probably, even from the first, were
comparatively idle for the old Norsemen, and as it were a kind of Poetic
sport. Allegory and Poetic Delineation, as I said above, cannot be
religious Faith; the Faith itself must first be there, then Allegory enough
will gather round it, as the fit body round its soul. The Norse Faith, I
can well suppose, like other Faiths, was most active while it lay mainly in
the silent state, and had not yet much to say about itself, still less to

Among those shadowy _Edda_ matters, amid all that fantastic congeries of
assertions, and traditions, in their musical Mythologies, the main
practical belief a man could have was probably not much more than this: of
the _Valkyrs_ and the _Hall of Odin_; of an inflexible _Destiny_; and that
the one thing needful for a man was _to be brave_. The _Valkyrs_ are
Choosers of the Slain: a Destiny inexorable, which it is useless trying to
bend or soften, has appointed who is to be slain; this was a fundamental
point for the Norse believer;--as indeed it is for all earnest men
everywhere, for a Mahomet, a Luther, for a Napoleon too. It lies at the
basis this for every such man; it is the woof out of which his whole system
of thought is woven. The _Valkyrs_; and then that these _Choosers_ lead
the brave to a heavenly _Hall of Odin_; only the base and slavish being
thrust elsewhither, into the realms of Hela the Death-goddess: I take this
to have been the soul of the whole Norse Belief. They understood in their
heart that it was indispensable to be brave; that Odin would have no favor
for them, but despise and thrust them out, if they were not brave.
Consider too whether there is not something in this! It is an everlasting
duty, valid in our day as in that, the duty of being brave. _Valor_ is
still _value_. The first duty for a man is still that of subduing _Fear_.
We must get rid of Fear; we cannot act at all till then. A man's acts are
slavish, not true but specious; his very thoughts are false, he thinks too
as a slave and coward, till he have got Fear under his feet. Odin's creed,
if we disentangle the real kernel of it, is true to this hour. A man shall
and must be valiant; he must march forward, and quit himself like a
man,--trusting imperturbably in the appointment and _choice_ of the upper
Powers; and, on the whole, not fear at all. Now and always, the
completeness of his victory over Fear will determine how much of a man he

It is doubtless very savage that kind of valor of the old Northmen. Snorro
tells us they thought it a shame and misery not to die in battle; and if
natural death seemed to be coming on, they would cut wounds in their flesh,
that Odin might receive them as warriors slain. Old kings, about to die,
had their body laid into a ship; the ship sent forth, with sails set and
slow fire burning it; that, once out at sea, it might blaze up in flame,
and in such manner bury worthily the old hero, at once in the sky and in
the ocean! Wild bloody valor; yet valor of its kind; better, I say, than
none. In the old Sea-kings too, what an indomitable rugged energy!
Silent, with closed lips, as I fancy them, unconscious that they were
specially brave; defying the wild ocean with its monsters, and all men and
things;--progenitors of our own Blakes and Nelsons! No Homer sang these
Norse Sea-kings; but Agamemnon's was a small audacity, and of small fruit
in the world, to some of them;--to Hrolf's of Normandy, for instance!
Hrolf, or Rollo Duke of Normandy, the wild Sea-king, has a share in
governing England at this hour.

Nor was it altogether nothing, even that wild sea-roving and battling,
through so many generations. It needed to be ascertained which was the
_strongest_ kind of men; who were to be ruler over whom. Among the
Northland Sovereigns, too, I find some who got the title _Wood-cutter_;
Forest-felling Kings. Much lies in that. I suppose at bottom many of them
were forest-fellers as well as fighters, though the Skalds talk mainly of
the latter,--misleading certain critics not a little; for no nation of men
could ever live by fighting alone; there could not produce enough come out
of that! I suppose the right good fighter was oftenest also the right good
forest-feller,--the right good improver, discerner, doer and worker in
every kind; for true valor, different enough from ferocity, is the basis of
all. A more legitimate kind of valor that; showing itself against the
untamed Forests and dark brute Powers of Nature, to conquer Nature for us.
In the same direction have not we their descendants since carried it far?
May such valor last forever with us!

That the man Odin, speaking with a Hero's voice and heart, as with an
impressiveness out of Heaven, told his People the infinite importance of
Valor, how man thereby became a god; and that his People, feeling a
response to it in their own hearts, believed this message of his, and
thought it a message out of Heaven, and him a Divinity for telling it them:
this seems to me the primary seed-grain of the Norse Religion, from which
all manner of mythologies, symbolic practices, speculations, allegories,
songs and sagas would naturally grow. Grow,--how strangely! I called it a
small light shining and shaping in the huge vortex of Norse darkness. Yet
the darkness itself was _alive_; consider that. It was the eager
inarticulate uninstructed Mind of the whole Norse People, longing only to
become articulate, to go on articulating ever farther! The living doctrine
grows, grows;--like a Banyan-tree; the first _seed_ is the essential thing:
any branch strikes itself down into the earth, becomes a new root; and so,
in endless complexity, we have a whole wood, a whole jungle, one seed the
parent of it all. Was not the whole Norse Religion, accordingly, in some
sense, what we called "the enormous shadow of this man's likeness"?
Critics trace some affinity in some Norse mythuses, of the Creation and
such like, with those of the Hindoos. The Cow Adumbla, "licking the rime
from the rocks," has a kind of Hindoo look. A Hindoo Cow, transported into
frosty countries. Probably enough; indeed we may say undoubtedly, these
things will have a kindred with the remotest lands, with the earliest
times. Thought does not die, but only is changed. The first man that
began to think in this Planet of ours, he was the beginner of all. And
then the second man, and the third man;--nay, every true Thinker to this
hour is a kind of Odin, teaches men _his_ way of thought, spreads a shadow
of his own likeness over sections of the History of the World.

Of the distinctive poetic character or merit of this Norse Mythology I have
not room to speak; nor does it concern us much. Some wild Prophecies we
have, as the _Voluspa_ in the _Elder Edda_; of a rapt, earnest, sibylline
sort. But they were comparatively an idle adjunct of the matter, men who
as it were but toyed with the matter, these later Skalds; and it is _their_
songs chiefly that survive. In later centuries, I suppose, they would go
on singing, poetically symbolizing, as our modern Painters paint, when it
was no longer from the innermost heart, or not from the heart at all. This
is everywhere to be well kept in mind.

Gray's fragments of Norse Lore, at any rate, will give one no notion of
it;--any more than Pope will of Homer. It is no square-built gloomy palace
of black ashlar marble, shrouded in awe and horror, as Gray gives it us:
no; rough as the North rocks, as the Iceland deserts, it is; with a
heartiness, homeliness, even a tint of good humor and robust mirth in the
middle of these fearful things. The strong old Norse heart did not go upon
theatrical sublimities; they had not time to tremble. I like much their
robust simplicity; their veracity, directness of conception. Thor "draws
down his brows" in a veritable Norse rage; "grasps his hammer till the
_knuckles grow white_." Beautiful traits of pity too, an honest pity.
Balder "the white God" dies; the beautiful, benignant; he is the Sungod.
They try all Nature for a remedy; but he is dead. Frigga, his mother,
sends Hermoder to seek or see him: nine days and nine nights he rides
through gloomy deep valleys, a labyrinth of gloom; arrives at the Bridge
with its gold roof: the Keeper says, "Yes, Balder did pass here; but the
Kingdom of the Dead is down yonder, far towards the North." Hermoder rides
on; leaps Hell-gate, Hela's gate; does see Balder, and speak with him:
Balder cannot be delivered. Inexorable! Hela will not, for Odin or any
God, give him up. The beautiful and gentle has to remain there. His Wife
had volunteered to go with him, to die with him. They shall forever remain
there. He sends his ring to Odin; Nanna his wife sends her _thimble_ to
Frigga, as a remembrance.--Ah me!--

For indeed Valor is the fountain of Pity too;--of Truth, and all that is
great and good in man. The robust homely vigor of the Norse heart attaches
one much, in these delineations. Is it not a trait of right honest
strength, says Uhland, who has written a fine _Essay_ on Thor, that the old
Norse heart finds its friend in the Thunder-god? That it is not frightened
away by his thunder; but finds that Summer-heat, the beautiful noble
summer, must and will have thunder withal! The Norse heart _loves_ this
Thor and his hammer-bolt; sports with him. Thor is Summer-heat: the god
of Peaceable Industry as well as Thunder. He is the Peasant's friend; his
true henchman and attendant is Thialfi, _Manual Labor_. Thor himself
engages in all manner of rough manual work, scorns no business for its
plebeianism; is ever and anon travelling to the country of the Jotuns,
harrying those chaotic Frost-monsters, subduing them, at least straitening
and damaging them. There is a great broad humor in some of these things.

Thor, as we saw above, goes to Jotun-land, to seek Hymir's Caldron, that
the Gods may brew beer. Hymir the huge Giant enters, his gray beard all
full of hoar-frost; splits pillars with the very glance of his eye; Thor,
after much rough tumult, snatches the Pot, claps it on his head; the
"handles of it reach down to his heels." The Norse Skald has a kind of
loving sport with Thor. This is the Hymir whose cattle, the critics have
discovered, are Icebergs. Huge untutored Brobdignag genius,--needing only
to be tamed down; into Shakspeares, Dantes, Goethes! It is all gone now,
that old Norse work,--Thor the Thunder-god changed into Jack the
Giant-killer: but the mind that made it is here yet. How strangely things
grow, and die, and do not die! There are twigs of that great world-tree of
Norse Belief still curiously traceable. This poor Jack of the Nursery,
with his miraculous shoes of swiftness, coat of darkness, sword of
sharpness, he is one. _Hynde Etin_, and still more decisively _Red Etin of
Ireland_, _in_ the Scottish Ballads, these are both derived from Norseland;
_Etin_ is evidently a _Jotun_. Nay, Shakspeare's _Hamlet_ is a twig too of
this same world-tree; there seems no doubt of that. Hamlet, _Amleth_ I
find, is really a mythic personage; and his Tragedy, of the poisoned
Father, poisoned asleep by drops in his ear, and the rest, is a Norse
mythus! Old Saxo, as his wont was, made it a Danish history; Shakspeare,
out of Saxo, made it what we see. That is a twig of the world-tree that
has _grown_, I think;--by nature or accident that one has grown!

In fact, these old Norse songs have a _truth_ in them, an inward perennial
truth and greatness,--as, indeed, all must have that can very long preserve
itself by tradition alone. It is a greatness not of mere body and gigantic
bulk, but a rude greatness of soul. There is a sublime uncomplaining
melancholy traceable in these old hearts. A great free glance into the
very deeps of thought. They seem to have seen, these brave old Northmen,
what Meditation has taught all men in all ages, That this world is after
all but a show,--a phenomenon or appearance, no real thing. All deep souls
see into that,--the Hindoo Mythologist, the German Philosopher,--the
Shakspeare, the earnest Thinker, wherever he may be:

"We are such stuff as Dreams are made of!"

One of Thor's expeditions, to Utgard (the _Outer_ Garden, central seat of
Jotun-land), is remarkable in this respect. Thialfi was with him, and
Loke. After various adventures, they entered upon Giant-land; wandered
over plains, wild uncultivated places, among stones and trees. At
nightfall they noticed a house; and as the door, which indeed formed one
whole side of the house, was open, they entered. It was a simple
habitation; one large hall, altogether empty. They stayed there. Suddenly
in the dead of the night loud noises alarmed them. Thor grasped his
hammer; stood in the door, prepared for fight. His companions within ran
hither and thither in their terror, seeking some outlet in that rude hall;
they found a little closet at last, and took refuge there. Neither had
Thor any battle: for, lo, in the morning it turned out that the noise had
been only the _snoring_ of a certain enormous but peaceable Giant, the
Giant Skrymir, who lay peaceably sleeping near by; and this that they took
for a house was merely his _Glove_, thrown aside there; the door was the
Glove-wrist; the little closet they had fled into was the Thumb! Such a
glove;--I remark too that it had not fingers as ours have, but only a
thumb, and the rest undivided: a most ancient, rustic glove!

Skrymir now carried their portmanteau all day; Thor, however, had his own
suspicions, did not like the ways of Skrymir; determined at night to put an
end to him as he slept. Raising his hammer, he struck down into the
Giant's face a right thunder-bolt blow, of force to rend rocks. The Giant
merely awoke; rubbed his cheek, and said, Did a leaf fall? Again Thor
struck, so soon as Skrymir again slept; a better blow than before; but the
Giant only murmured, Was that a grain of sand? Thor's third stroke was
with both his hands (the "knuckles white" I suppose), and seemed to dint
deep into Skrymir's visage; but he merely checked his snore, and remarked,
There must be sparrows roosting in this tree, I think; what is that they
have dropt?--At the gate of Utgard, a place so high that you had to "strain
your neck bending back to see the top of it," Skrymir went his ways. Thor
and his companions were admitted; invited to take share in the games going
on. To Thor, for his part, they handed a Drinking-horn; it was a common
feat, they told him, to drink this dry at one draught. Long and fiercely,
three times over, Thor drank; but made hardly any impression. He was a
weak child, they told him: could he lift that Cat he saw there? Small as
the feat seemed, Thor with his whole godlike strength could not; he bent up
the creature's back, could not raise its feet off the ground, could at the
utmost raise one foot. Why, you are no man, said the Utgard people; there
is an Old Woman that will wrestle you! Thor, heartily ashamed, seized this
haggard Old Woman; but could not throw her.

And now, on their quitting Utgard, the chief Jotun, escorting them politely
a little way, said to Thor: "You are beaten then:--yet be not so much
ashamed; there was deception of appearance in it. That Horn you tried to
drink was the _Sea_; you did make it ebb; but who could drink that, the
bottomless! The Cat you would have lifted,--why, that is the _Midgard-
snake_, the Great World-serpent, which, tail in mouth, girds and keeps up
the whole created world; had you torn that up, the world must have rushed
to ruin! As for the Old Woman, she was _Time_, Old Age, Duration: with
her what can wrestle? No man nor no god with her; gods or men, she
prevails over all! And then those three strokes you struck,--look at these
_three valleys_; your three strokes made these!" Thor looked at his
attendant Jotun: it was Skrymir;--it was, say Norse critics, the old
chaotic rocky _Earth_ in person, and that glove-_house_ was some
Earth-cavern! But Skrymir had vanished; Utgard with its sky-high gates,
when Thor grasped his hammer to smite them, had gone to air; only the
Giant's voice was heard mocking: "Better come no more to Jotunheim!"--

This is of the allegoric period, as we see, and half play, not of the
prophetic and entirely devout: but as a mythus is there not real antique
Norse gold in it? More true metal, rough from the Mimer-stithy, than in
many a famed Greek Mythus _shaped_ far better! A great broad Brobdignag
grin of true humor is in this Skrymir; mirth resting on earnestness and
sadness, as the rainbow on black tempest: only a right valiant heart is
capable of that. It is the grim humor of our own Ben Jonson, rare old Ben;
runs in the blood of us, I fancy; for one catches tones of it, under a
still other shape, out of the American Backwoods.

That is also a very striking conception that of the _Ragnarok_,
Consummation, or _Twilight of the Gods_. It is in the _Voluspa_ Song;
seemingly a very old, prophetic idea. The Gods and Jotuns, the divine
Powers and the chaotic brute ones, after long contest and partial victory
by the former, meet at last in universal world-embracing wrestle and duel;
World-serpent against Thor, strength against strength; mutually extinctive;
and ruin, "twilight" sinking into darkness, swallows the created Universe.
The old Universe with its Gods is sunk; but it is not final death: there
is to be a new Heaven and a new Earth; a higher supreme God, and Justice to
reign among men. Curious: this law of mutation, which also is a law
written in man's inmost thought, had been deciphered by these old earnest
Thinkers in their rude style; and how, though all dies, and even gods die,
yet all death is but a phoenix fire-death, and new-birth into the Greater
and the Better! It is the fundamental Law of Being for a creature made of
Time, living in this Place of Hope. All earnest men have seen into it; may
still see into it.

And now, connected with this, let us glance at the _last_ mythus of the
appearance of Thor; and end there. I fancy it to be the latest in date of
all these fables; a sorrowing protest against the advance of
Christianity,--set forth reproachfully by some Conservative Pagan. King
Olaf has been harshly blamed for his over-zeal in introducing Christianity;
surely I should have blamed him far more for an under-zeal in that! He
paid dear enough for it; he died by the revolt of his Pagan people, in
battle, in the year 1033, at Stickelstad, near that Drontheim, where the
chief Cathedral of the North has now stood for many centuries, dedicated
gratefully to his memory as _Saint_ Olaf. The mythus about Thor is to this
effect. King Olaf, the Christian Reform King, is sailing with fit escort
along the shore of Norway, from haven to haven; dispensing justice, or
doing other royal work: on leaving a certain haven, it is found that a
stranger, of grave eyes and aspect, red beard, of stately robust figure,
has stept in. The courtiers address him; his answers surprise by their
pertinency and depth: at length he is brought to the King. The stranger's
conversation here is not less remarkable, as they sail along the beautiful
shore; but after some time, he addresses King Olaf thus: "Yes, King Olaf,
it is all beautiful, with the sun shining on it there; green, fruitful, a
right fair home for you; and many a sore day had Thor, many a wild fight
with the rock Jotuns, before he could make it so. And now you seem minded
to put away Thor. King Olaf, have a care!" said the stranger, drawing down
his brows;--and when they looked again, he was nowhere to be found.--This
is the last appearance of Thor on the stage of this world!

Do we not see well enough how the Fable might arise, without unveracity on
the part of any one? It is the way most Gods have come to appear among
men: thus, if in Pindar's time "Neptune was seen once at the Nemean
Games," what was this Neptune too but a "stranger of noble grave
aspect,"--fit to be "seen"! There is something pathetic, tragic for me in
this last voice of Paganism. Thor is vanished, the whole Norse world has
vanished; and will not return ever again. In like fashion to that, pass
away the highest things. All things that have been in this world, all
things that are or will be in it, have to vanish: we have our sad farewell
to give them.

That Norse Religion, a rude but earnest, sternly impressive _Consecration
of Valor_ (so we may define it), sufficed for these old valiant Northmen.
Consecration of Valor is not a bad thing! We will take it for good, so far
as it goes. Neither is there no use in _knowing_ something about this old
Paganism of our Fathers. Unconsciously, and combined with higher things,
it is in us yet, that old Faith withal! To know it consciously, brings us
into closer and clearer relation with the Past,--with our own possessions
in the Past. For the whole Past, as I keep repeating, is the possession of
the Present; the Past had always something _true_, and is a precious
possession. In a different time, in a different place, it is always some
other _side_ of our common Human Nature that has been developing itself.
The actual True is the sum of all these; not any one of them by itself
constitutes what of Human Nature is hitherto developed. Better to know
them all than misknow them. "To which of these Three Religions do you
specially adhere?" inquires Meister of his Teacher. "To all the Three!"
answers the other: "To all the Three; for they by their union first
constitute the True Religion."

Thomas Carlyle

Sorry, no summary available yet.