Creed of Zoroaster — Received partially into most Heathen Nations — Instances among the Celtic Tribes of Scotland — Beltane Feast — Gudeman’s Croft — Such abuses admitted into Christianity after the earlier Ages of the Church — Law of the Romans against Witchcraft — Roman customs survive the fall of their Religion — Instances — Demonology of the Northern Barbarians — Nicksas — Bhargeist — Correspondence between the Northern and Roman Witches — The power of Fascination ascribed to the Sorceresses — Example from the “Eyrbiggia Saga”— The Prophetesses of the Germans — The Gods of Valhalla not highly regarded by their Worshippers — Often defied by the Champions — Demons of the North — Story of Assueit and Asmund — Action of Ejectment against Spectres — Adventure of a Champion with the Goddess Freya — Conversion of the Pagans of Iceland to Christianity — Northern Superstitions mixed with those of the Celts — Satyrs of the North — Highland Ourisk — Meming the Satyr.
The creed of Zoroaster, which naturally occurs to unassisted reason as a mode of accounting for the mingled existence of good and evil in the visible world — that belief which, in one modification or another, supposes the co-existence of a benevolent and malevolent principle, which contend together without either being able decisively to prevail over his antagonist, leads the fear and awe deeply impressed on the human mind to the worship as well of the author of evil, so tremendous in all the effects of which credulity accounts him the primary cause, as to that of his great opponent, who is loved and adored as the father of all that is good and bountiful. Nay, such is the timid servility of human nature that the worshippers will neglect the altars of the Author of good rather than that of Arimanes, trusting with indifference to the well-known mercy of the one, while they shrink from the idea of irritating the vengeful jealousy of the awful father of evil.
The Celtic tribes, by whom, under various denominations, Europe seems to have been originally peopled, possessed, in common with other savages, a natural tendency to the worship of the evil principle. They did not, perhaps, adore Arimanes under one sole name, or consider the malignant divinities as sufficiently powerful to undertake a direct struggle with the more benevolent gods; yet they thought it worth while to propitiate them by various expiatory rites and prayers, that they, and the elementary tempests which they conceived to be under their direct command, might be merciful to suppliants who had acknowledged their power, and deprecated their vengeance.
Remains of these superstitions might be traced till past the middle of the last century, though fast becoming obsolete, or passing into mere popular customs of the country, which the peasantry observe without thinking of their origin. About 1769, when Mr. Pennant made his tour, the ceremony of the Baaltein, Beltane, or First of May, though varying in different districts of the Highlands, was yet in strict observance, and the cake, which was then baken with scrupulous attention to certain rites and forms, was divided into fragments, which were formally dedicated to birds or beasts of prey that they, or rather the being whose agents they were, might spare the flocks and herds.9
9 See Tennant’s “Scottish Tour,” vol. i. p. III. The traveller mentions that some festival of the same kind was in his time observed in Gloucestershire.
Another custom of similar origin lingered late among us. In many parishes of Scotland there was suffered to exist a certain portion of land, called the gudeman’s croft, which was never ploughed or cultivated, but suffered to remain waste, like the TEMENOS of a pagan temple, Though it was not expressly avowed, no one doubted that “the goodman’s croft” was set apart for some evil being; in fact, that it was the portion of the arch-fiend himself, whom our ancestors distinguished by a name which, while it was generally understood, could not, it was supposed, be offensive to the stern inhabitant of the regions of despair. This was so general a custom that the Church published an ordinance against it as an impious and blasphemous usage.
This singular custom sunk before the efforts of the clergy in the seventeenth century; but there must still be many alive who, in childhood, have been taught to look with wonder on knolls and patches of ground left uncultivated, because, whenever a ploughshare entered the soil, the elementary spirits were supposed to testify their displeasure by storm and thunder. Within our own memory, many such places, sanctified to barrenness by some favourite popular superstition, existed, both in Wales and Ireland, as well as in Scotland; but the high price of agricultural produce during the late war renders it doubtful if a veneration for greybearded superstition has suffered any one of them to remain undesecrated. For the same reason the mounts called Sith Bhruaith were respected, and it was deemed unlawful and dangerous to cut wood, dig earth and stones, or otherwise disturb them.10
10 See “Essay on the Subterranean Commonwealth,” by Mr. Robert Kirke, minister of Aberfoyle.
Now, it may at first sight seem strange that the Christian religion should have permitted the existence of such gross and impious relics of heathenism, in a land where its doctrines had obtained universal credence. But this will not appear so wonderful when it is recollected that the original Christians under the heathen emperors were called to conversion by the voice of apostles and saints, invested for the purpose with miraculous powers, as well of language, for communicating their doctrine to the Gentiles, as of cures, for the purpose of authenticating their mission. These converts must have been in general such elect persons as were effectually called to make part of the infant church; and when hypocrites ventured, like Ananias and Sapphira, to intrude themselves into so select an association, they were liable, at the Divine pleasure, to be detected and punished. On the contrary, the nations who were converted after Christianity had become the religion of the empire were not brought within the pale upon such a principle of selection, as when the church consisted of a few individuals, who had, upon conviction, exchanged the errors of the pagan religion for the dangers and duties incurred by those who embraced a faith inferring the self-denial of its votaries, and at the same time exposing them to persecution. When the cross became triumphant, and its cause no longer required the direction of inspired men, or the evidence of miracles, to compel reluctant belief, it is evident that the converts who thronged into the fold must have, many of them, entered because Christianity was the prevailing faith — many because it was the church, the members of which rose most readily to promotion — many, finally, who, though content to resign the worship of pagan divinities, could not at once clear their minds of heathen ritual and heathen observances, which they inconsistently laboured to unite with the more simple and majestic faith that disdained such impure union. If this was the case, even in the Roman empire, where the converts to the Christian faith must have found, among the earlier members of the church, the readiest and the soundest instruction, how much more imperfectly could those foreign and barbarous tribes receive the necessary religious information from some zealous and enthusiastic preacher, who christened them by hundreds in one day? Still less could we imagine them to have acquired a knowledge of Christianity, in the genuine and perfect sense of the word, when, as was frequently the case, they only assumed the profession of the religion that had become the choice of some favoured chief, whose example they followed in mere love and loyalty, without, perhaps, attaching more consequence to a change of religion than to a change of garments. Such hasty converts, professing themselves Christians, but neither weaned from their old belief, nor instructed in their new one, entered the sanctuary without laying aside the superstitions with which their young minds had been imbued; and accustomed to a plurality of deities, some of them, who bestowed unusual thought on the matter, might be of opinion that, in adopting the God of the Christians, they had not renounced the service of every inferior power.
If, indeed, the laws of the empire could have been supposed to have had any influence over those fierce barbarians, who conceived that the empire itself lay before them as a spoil, they might have been told that Constantine, taking the offence of alleged magicians and sorcerers in the same light in which it was viewed in the law of Moses, had denounced death against any who used these unlawful enquiries into futurity. “Let the unlawful curiosity of prying into futurity,” says the law, “be silent in every one henceforth and for ever.11 For, subjected to the avenging sword of the law, he shall be punished capitally who disobeys our commands in this matter.”
11 “Codex,” lib. ix. tit. 18, cap. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8.
If, however, we look more closely into this enactment, we shall be led to conclude that the civil law does not found upon the prohibitions and penalties in Scripture; although it condemns the ars mathematica (for the most mystic and uncertain of all sciences, real or pretended, at that time held the title which now distinguishes the most exact) as a damnable art, and utterly interdicted, and declares that the practitioners therein should die by fire, as enemies of the human race — yet the reason of this severe treatment seems to be different from that acted upon in the Mosaical institutions. The weight of the crime among the Jews was placed on the blasphemy of the diviners, and their treason against the theocracy instituted by Jehovah. The Roman legislators were, on the other hand, moved chiefly by the danger arising to the person of the prince and the quiet of the state, so apt to be unsettled by every pretence or encouragement to innovation. The reigning emperors, therefore, were desirous to place a check upon the mathematics (as they termed the art of divination), much more for a political than a religious cause, since we observe, in the history of the empire, how often the dethronement or death of the sovereign was produced by conspiracies or mutinies which took their rise from pretended prophecies. In this mode of viewing the crime, the lawyers of the lower empire acted upon the example of those who had compiled the laws of the twelve tables.12 The mistaken and misplaced devotion which Horace recommends to the rural nymph, Phidyle, would have been a crime of a deep dye in a Christian convert, and must have subjected him to excommunication, as one relapsed to the rites of paganism; but he might indulge his superstition by supposing that though he must not worship Pan or Ceres as gods, he was at liberty to fear them in their new capacity of fiends. Some compromise between the fear and the conscience of the new converts, at a time when the church no longer consisted exclusively of saints, martyrs, and confessors, the disciples of inspired Apostles, led them, and even their priestly guides, subject like themselves to human passions and errors, to resort as a charm, if not as an act of worship, to those sacrifices, words, and ritual, by which the heathen, whom they had succeeded, pretended to arrest evil or procure benefits.
12 By this more ancient code, the punishment of death was indeed denounced against those who destroyed crops, awakened storms, or brought over to their barns and garners the fruits of the earth; but, by good fortune, it left the agriculturists of the period at liberty to use the means they thought most proper to render their fields fertile and plentiful. Pliny informs us that one Caius Furius Cresinus, a Roman of mean estate, raised larger crops from a small field than his neighbours could obtain from more ample possessions. He was brought before the judge upon a charge averring that he conjured the fruits of the earth, produced by his neighbours’ farms, into his own possession. Cresinus appeared, and, having proved the return of his farm to be the produce of his own hard and unremitting labour, as well as superior skill, was dismissed with the highest honours.
When such belief in a hostile principle and its imaginations was become general in the Roman empire, the ignorance of its conquerors, those wild nations, Franks, Goths, Vandals, Huns, and similar classes of unrefined humanity, made them prone to an error which there were few judicious preachers to warn them against; and we ought rather to wonder and admire the Divine clemency, which imparted to so rude nations the light of the Gospel, and disposed them to receive a religion so repugnant to their warlike habits, than that they should, at the same time, have adopted many gross superstitions, borrowed from the pagans, or retained numbers of those which had made part of their own national forms of heathenism.
Thus, though the thrones of Jupiter and the superior deities of the heathen Pantheon were totally overthrown and broken to pieces, fragments of their worship and many of their rites survived the conversion to Christianity — nay, are in existence even at this late and enlightened period, although those by whom they are practised have not preserved the least memory of their original purpose. We may hastily mention one or two customs of classical origin, in addition to the Beltane and those already noticed, which remain as examples that the manners of the Romans once gave the tone to the greater part of the island of Britain, and at least to the whole which was to the south of the wall of Severus.
The following customs still linger in the south of Scotland, and belong to this class: The bride, when she enters the house of her husband, is lifted over the threshold, and to step on it or over it voluntarily is reckoned a bad omen. This custom was universal in Rome, where it was observed as keeping in memory the rape of the Sabines, and that it was by a show of violence towards the females that the object of peopling the city was attained. On the same occasion a sweet cake, baked for the purpose, is broken above the head of the bride; which is also a rite of classic antiquity.
In like manner, the Scottish, even of the better rank, avoid contracting marriage in the month of May, which genial season of flowers and breezes might, in other respects, appear so peculiarly favourable for that purpose. It was specially objected to the marriage of Mary with the profligate Earl of Bothwell, that the union was formed within this interdicted month. This prejudice was so rooted among the Scots that, in 1684, a set of enthusiasts, called Gibbites, proposed to renounce it, among a long list of stated festivals, fast-days, popish relics, not forgetting the profane names of the days of the week, names of the months, and all sorts of idle and silly practices which their tender consciences took an exception to. This objection to solemnize marriage in the merry month of May, however fit a season for courtship, is also borrowed from the Roman pagans, which, had these fanatics been aware of it, would have been an additional reason for their anathema against the practice. The ancients have given us as a maxim, that it is only bad women who marry in that month.13
13 “Malæ nubent Maia.”
The custom of saying God bless you, when a person in company sneezes, is, in like manner, derived from sternutation being considered as a crisis of the plague at Athens, and the hope that, when it was attained the patient had a chance of recovery.
But besides these, and many other customs which the various nations of Europe received from the classical times, and which it is not our object to investigate, they derived from thence a shoal of superstitious beliefs, which, blended and mingled with those which they brought with them out of their own country, fostered and formed the materials of a demonological creed which has descended down almost to our own times. Nixas, or Nicksa, a river or ocean god, worshipped on the shores of the Baltic, seems to have taken uncontested possession of the attributes of Neptune. Amid the twilight winters and overpowering tempests of these gloomy regions, he had been not unnaturally chosen as the power most adverse to man, and the supernatural character with which he was invested has descended to our time under two different aspects. The Nixa of the Germans is one of those fascinating and lovely fays whom the ancients termed Naiads; and unless her pride is insulted or her jealousy awakened by an inconstant lover, her temper is generally mild and her actions beneficent. The Old Nick known in England is an equally genuine descendant of the northern sea-god, and possesses a larger portion of his powers and terrors The British sailor, who fears nothing else, confesses his terror for this terrible being, and believes him the author of almost all the various calamities to which the precarious life of a seaman is so continually exposed.
The Bhar-guest, or Bhar-geist, by which name it is generally acknowledged through various country parts of England, and particularly in Yorkshire, also called a Dobie — a local spectre which haunts a particular spot under various forms — is a deity, as his name implies, of Teutonic descent; and if it be true, as the author has been informed, that some families bearing the name of Dobie carry a phantom or spectre, passant, in their armorial bearings,14 it plainly implies that, however the word may have been selected for a proper name, its original derivation had not then been forgotten.
14 A similar bearing has been ascribed, for the same reason, to those of the name of Fantome, who carried of old a goblin, or phantom, in a shroud sable passant, on a field azure. Both bearings are founded on what is called canting heraldry, a species of art disowned by the writers on the science, yet universally made use of by those who practice the art of blazonry.
The classic mythology presented numerous points in which it readily coalesced with that of the Germans, Danes, and Northmen of a later period. They recognized the power of Erictho, Canidia, and other sorceresses, whose spell could perplex the course of the elements, intercept the influence of the sun, and prevent his beneficial operation upon the fruits of the earth, call down the moon from her appointed sphere, and disturb the original and destined course of Nature by their words and charms and the power of the evil spirits whom they invoked. They were also professionally implicated in all such mystic and secret rites and ceremonies as were used to conciliate the favour of the infernal powers, whose dispositions were supposed as dark and wayward as their realms were gloomy and dismal. Such hags were frequent agents in the violation of unburied bodies, and it was believed, by the vulgar at least, that it was dangerous to leave corpses unguarded lest they should be mangled by the witches, who took from them the most choice ingredients composing their charms. Above all, it must not be forgotten that these frightful sorceresses possessed the power of transforming themselves and others into animals, which are used in their degree of quadrupeds, or in whatever other laborious occupation belongs to the transformed state. The poets of the heathens, with authors of fiction, such as Lucian and Apuleius, ascribe all these powers to the witches of the pagan world, combining them with the art of poisoning, and of making magical philtres to seduce the affections of the young and beautiful; and such were the characteristics which, in greater or less extent, the people of the Middle Ages ascribed to the witches of their day.
But in thus adopting the superstitions of the ancients, the conquerors of the Roman Empire combined them with similar articles of belief which they had brought with them from their original settlements in the North, where the existence of hags of the same character formed a great feature in their Sagas and their Chronicles. It requires but a slight acquaintance with these compositions to enable the reader to recognize in the Galdrakinna of the Scalds the Stryga or witch-woman of more classical climates. In the northern ideas of witches there was no irreligion concerned with their lore. On the contrary, the possession of magical knowledge was an especial attribute of Odin himself; and to intrude themselves upon a deity, and compel him to instruct them in what they desired to know, was accounted not an act of impiety, but of gallantry and high courage, among those sons of the sword and the spear. Their matrons possessed a high reputation for magic, for prophetic powers, for creating illusions; and, if not capable of transformations of the human body, they were at least able to impose such fascination on the sight of their enemies as to conceal for a period the objects of which they were in search.
There is a remarkable story in the Eyrbiggia Saga (“Historia Eyranorum”), giving the result of such a controversy between two of these gifted women, one of whom was determined on discovering and putting to death the son of the other, named Katla, who in a brawl had cut off the hand of the daughter-in-law of Geirada. A party detached to avenge this wrong, by putting Oddo to death, returned deceived by the skill of his mother. They had found only Katla, they said, spinning flax from a large distaff. “Fools,” said Geirada, “that distaff was the man you sought.” They returned, seized the distaff, and burnt it. But this second time, the witch disguised her son under the appearance of a tame kid. A third time he was a hog, which grovelled among the ashes. The party returned yet again; augmented as one of Katla’s maidens, who kept watch, informed her mistress, by one in a blue mantle. “Alas!” said Katla, “it is the sorceress Geirada, against whom spells avail not.” Accordingly, the hostile party, entering for the fourth time, seized on the object of their animosity, and put him to death.15 This species of witchcraft is well known in Scotland as the glamour, or deceptio visus, and was supposed to be a special attribute of the race of Gipsies.
15 Eyrbiggia Saga, in “Northern Antiquities.”
Neither are those prophetesses to be forgotten, so much honoured among the German tribes, that, as we are assured by Tacitus, they rose to the highest rank in their councils, by their supposed supernatural knowledge, and even obtained a share in the direction of their armies. This peculiarity in the habits of the North was so general, that it was no unusual thing to see females, from respect to their supposed views into futurity, and the degree of divine inspiration which was vouchsafed to them, arise to the degree of HAXA, or chief priestess, from which comes the word Hexe, now universally used for a witch; a circumstance which plainly shows that the mythological system of the ancient natives of the North had given to the modern language an appropriate word for distinguishing those females who had intercourse with the spiritual world.16
16 It may be worth while to notice that the word Haxa is still used in Scotland in its sense of a druidess, or chief priestess, to distinguish the places where such females exercised their ritual. There is a species of small intrenchment on the western descent of the Eildon hills, which Mr. Milne, in his account of the parish of Melrose, drawn up about eighty years ago, says, was denominated Bourjo, a word of unknown derivation, by which the place is still known. Here an universal and subsisting tradition bore that human sacrifices were of yore offered, while the people assisting could behold the ceremony from the elevation of the glacis which slopes inward. With this place of sacrifice communicated a path, still discernible, called the Haxell-gate, leading to a small glen or narrow valley called the Haxellcleuch— both which words are probably derived from the Haxa or chief priestess of the pagans.
It is undeniable that these Pythonesses were held in high respect while the pagan religion lasted; but for that very reason they became odious so soon as the tribe was converted to Christianity. They were, of course, if they pretended to retain their influence, either despised as impostors or feared as sorceresses; and the more that, in particular instances, they became dreaded for their power, the more they were detested, under the conviction that they derived it from the enemy of man. The deities of the northern heathens underwent a similar metamorphosis, resembling that proposed by Drawcansir in the “Rehearsal,” who threatens “to make a god subscribe himself a devil.”
The warriors of the North received this new impression concerning the influence of their deities, and the source from which it was derived, with the more indifference, as their worship, when their mythology was most generally established, was never of a very reverential or devotional character. Their idea of their own merely human prowess was so high, that the champions made it their boast, as we have already hinted, they would not give way in fight even to the immortal gods themselves. Such, we learn from Cæsar, was the idea of the Germans concerning the Suevi, or Swabians, a tribe to whom the others yielded the palm of valour; and many individual stories are told in the Sagas concerning bold champions, who had fought, not only with the sorcerers, but with the demigods of the system, and come off unharmed, if not victorious, in the contest. Hother, for example, encountered the god Thor in battle, as Diomede, in the Iliad, engages with Mars, and with like success. Bartholsine17 gives us repeated examples of the same kind. “Know this,” said Kiartan to Olaus Trigguasen, “that I believe neither in idols nor demons. I have travelled through various strange countries, and have encountered many giants and monsters, and have never been conquered by them; I therefore put my sole trust in my own strength of body and courage of soul.” Another yet more broad answer was made to St. Olaus, King of Norway, by Gaukater. “I am neither Pagan nor Christian. My comrades and I profess no other religion than a perfect confidence in our own strength and invincibility in battle.” Such chieftains were of the sect of Mezentius —
“Dextra mihi Deus, et telum, quod missile libro,
And we cannot wonder that champions of such a character, careless of their gods while yet acknowledged as such, readily regarded them as demons after their conversion to Christianity.
17 “De causis contemptæ necis,” lib. i. cap 6.
18 “Æneid,” lib. x. line 773.
To incur the highest extremity of danger became accounted a proof of that insuperable valour for which every Northman desired to be famed, and their annals afford numerous instances of encounters with ghosts, witches, furies, and fiends, whom the Kiempé, or champions, compelled to submit to their mere mortal strength, and yield to their service the weapons or other treasures which they guarded in their tombs.
The Norsemen were the more prone to these superstitions, because it was a favourite fancy of theirs that, in many instances, the change from life to death altered the temper of the human spirit from benignant to malevolent; or perhaps, that when the soul left the body, its departure was occasionally supplied by a wicked demon, who took the opportunity to enter and occupy its late habitation.
Upon such a supposition the wild fiction that follows is probably grounded; which, extravagant as it is, possesses something striking to the imagination. Saxo Grammaticus tells us of the fame of two Norse princes or chiefs, who had formed what was called a brotherhood in arms, implying not only the firmest friendship and constant support during all the adventures which they should undertake in life, but binding them by a solemn compact, that after the death of either, the survivor should descend alive into the sepulchre of his brother-in-arms, and consent to be buried alongst with him. The task of fulfilling this dreadful compact fell upon Asmund, his companion, Assueit, having been slain in battle. The tomb was formed after the ancient northern custom in what was called the age of hills, that is, when it was usual to bury persons of distinguished merit or rank on some conspicuous spot, which was crowned with a mound. With this purpose a deep narrow vault was constructed, to be the apartment of the future tomb over which the sepulchral heap was to be piled. Here they deposited arms, trophies, poured forth, perhaps, the blood of victims, introduced into the tomb the war-horses of the champions, and when these rites had been duly paid, the body of Assueit was placed in the dark and narrow house, while his faithful brother-in-arms entered and sat down by the corpse, without a word or look which testified regret or unwillingness to fulfil his fearful engagement. The soldiers who had witnessed this singular interment of the dead and living, rolled a huge stone to the mouth of the tomb, and piled so much earth and stones above the spot as made a mound visible from a great distance, and then, with loud lamentation for the loss of such undaunted leaders, they dispersed themselves like a flock which has lost its shepherd.
Years passed away after years, and a century had elapsed ere a noble Swedish rover, bound upon some high adventure and supported by a gallant band of followers, arrived in the valley which took its name from the tomb of the brethren-in-arms. The story was told to the strangers, whose leader determined on opening the sepulchre, partly because, as already hinted, it was reckoned a heroic action to brave the anger of departed heroes by violating their tombs; partly to attain the arms and swords of proof with which the deceased had done their great actions. He set his soldiers to work, and soon removed the earth and stones from one side of the mound, and laid bare the entrance. But the stoutest of the rovers started back when, instead of the silence of a tomb, they heard within horrid cries, the clash of swords, the clang of armour, and all the noise of a mortal combat between two furious champions. A young warrior was let down into the profound tomb by a cord, which was drawn up shortly after, in hopes of news from beneath. But when the adventurer descended, some one threw him from the cord, and took his place in the noose. When the rope was pulled up, the soldiers, instead of their companion, beheld Asmund, the survivor of the brethren-in-arms. He rushed into the open air, his sword drawn in his hand, his armour half torn from his body, the left side of his face almost scratched off, as by the talons of some wild beast. He had no sooner appeared in the light of day, than, with the improvisatory poetic talent, which these champions often united with heroic strength and bravery, he poured forth a string of verses containing the history of his hundred years’ conflict within the tomb. It seems that no sooner was the sepulchre closed than the corpse of the slain Assueit arose from the ground, inspired by some ravenous goule, and having first torn to pieces and devoured the horses which had been entombed with them, threw himself upon the companion who had just given him such a sign of devoted friendship, in order to treat him in the same manner. The hero, no way discountenanced by the horrors of his situation, took to his arms, and defended himself manfully against Assueit, or rather against the evil demon who tenanted that champion’s body. In this manner the living brother waged a preternatural combat, which had endured during a whole century, when Asmund, at last obtaining the victory, prostrated his enemy, and by driving, as he boasted, a stake through his body, had finally reduced him to the state of quiet becoming a tenant of the tomb. Having chanted the triumphant account of his contest and victory, this mangled conqueror fell dead before them. The body of Assueit was taken out of the tomb, burnt, and the ashes dispersed to heaven; whilst that of the victor, now lifeless and without a companion, was deposited there, so that it was hoped his slumbers might remain undisturbed.19 The precautions taken against Assueit’s reviving a second time, remind us of those adopted in the Greek islands and in the Turkish provinces against the vampire. It affords also a derivation of the ancient English law in case of suicide, when a stake was driven through the body, originally to keep it secure in the tomb.
19 See Saxo Grammaticus, “Hist. Dan.,” lib. v.
The Northern people also acknowledged a kind of ghosts, who, when they had obtained possession of a building, or the right of haunting it, did not defend themselves against mortals on the knightly principle of duel, like Assueit, nor were amenable to the prayers of the priest or the spells of the sorcerer, but became tractable when properly convened in a legal process. The Eyrbiggia Saga acquaints us, that the mansion of a respectable landholder in Iceland was, soon after the settlement of that island, exposed to a persecution of this kind. The molestation was produced by the concurrence of certain mystical and spectral phenomena, calculated to introduce such persecution. About the commencement of winter, with that slight exchange of darkness and twilight which constitutes night and day in these latitudes, a contagious disease arose in a family of consequence and in the neighbourhood, which, sweeping off several members of the family at different times, seemed to threaten them all with death. But the death of these persons was attended with the singular consequence that their spectres were seen to wander in the neighbourhood of the mansion-house, terrifying, and even assaulting, those of the living family who ventured abroad. As the number of the dead members of the devoted household seemed to increase in proportion to that of the survivors, the ghosts took it upon them to enter the house, and produce their aërial forms and wasted physiognomy, even in the stove where the fire was maintained for the general use of the inhabitants, and which, in an Iceland winter, is the only comfortable place of assembling the family. But the remaining inhabitants of the place, terrified by the intrusion of these spectres, chose rather to withdraw to the other extremity of the house, and abandon their warm seats, than to endure the neighbourhood of the phantoms. Complaints were at length made to a pontiff of the god Thor, named Snorro, who exercised considerable influence in the island. By his counsel, the young proprietor of the haunted mansion assembled a jury, or inquest, of his neighbours, constituted in the usual judicial form, as if to judge an ordinary civil matter, and proceeded, in their presence, to cite individually the various phantoms and resemblances of the deceased members of the family, to show by what warrant they disputed with him and his servants the quiet possession of his property, and what defence they could plead for thus interfering with and incommoding the living. The spectres of the dead, by name, and in order as summoned, appeared on their being called, and muttering some regrets at being obliged to abandon their dwelling, departed, or vanished, from the astonished inquest. Judgment then went against the ghosts by default; and the trial by jury, of which we here can trace the origin, obtained a triumph unknown to any of the great writers who have made it the subject of eulogy.20
20 Eyrbiggia Saga. See “Northern Antiquities.”
It was not only with the spirits of the dead that the warlike people of the North made war without timidity, and successfully entered into suits of ejectment. These daring champions often braved the indignation even of the superior deities of their mythology, rather than allow that there existed any being before whom their boldness could quail. Such is the singular story how a young man of high courage, in crossing a desolate ridge of mountains, met with a huge waggon, in which the goddess, Freya (i.e., a gigantic idol formed to represent her), together with her shrine, and the wealthy offerings attached to it, was travelling from one district of the country to another. The shrine, or sanctuary of the idol, was, like a modern caravan travelling with a show, screened by boards and curtains from the public gaze, and the equipage was under the immediate guidance of the priestess of Freya, a young, good-looking, and attractive woman. The traveller naturally associated himself with the priestess, who, as she walked on foot, apparently was in no degree displeased with the company of a powerful and handsome young man, as a guide and companion on the journey. It chanced, however, that the presence of the champion, and his discourse with the priestess, was less satisfactory to the goddess than to the parties principally concerned. By a certain signal the divinity summoned the priestess to the sanctuary, who presently returned, with tears in her eyes and terror in her countenance, to inform her companion that it was the will of Freya that he should depart, and no longer travel in their company. “You must have mistaken the meaning of the goddess,” said the champion; “Freya cannot have formed a wish so unreasonable as to desire I should abandon the straight and good road, which leads me directly on my journey, to choose precipitous paths and by-roads, where I may break my neck.” “Nevertheless,” said the priestess, “the goddess will be highly offended if you disobey her commands, nor can I conceal from you that she may personally assault you.” “It will be at her own peril if she should be so audacious,” said the champion, “for I will try the power of this axe against the strength of beams and boards.” The priestess chid him for his impiety; but being unable to compel him to obey the goddess’s mandate, they again relapsed into familiarity, which advanced to such a point that a clattering noise within the tabernacle, as of machinery put in motion, intimated to the travellers that Freya, who perhaps had some qualities in common with the classical Vesta, thought a personal interruption of this tête-à-tête ought to be deferred no longer. The curtains flew open, and the massive and awkward idol, who, we may suppose, resembled in form the giant created by Frankenstein, leapt lumbering from the carriage, and, rushing on the intrusive traveller, dealt him, with its wooden hands and arms, such tremendous blows, as were equally difficult to parry or to endure. But the champion was armed with a double-edged Danish axe, with which he bestirred himself with so much strength and activity, that at length he split the head of the image, and with a severe blow hewed off its left leg. The image of Freya then fell motionless to the ground, and the demon which had animated it fled yelling from the battered tenement. The champion was now victor; and, according to the law of arms, took possession of the female and the baggage. The priestess, the divinity of whose patroness had been by the event of the combat sorely lessened in her eyes, was now easily induced to become the associate and concubine of the conqueror. She accompanied him to the district whither he was travelling, and there displayed the shrine of Freya, taking care to hide the injuries which the goddess had received in the brawl. The champion came in for a share of a gainful trade driven by the priestess, besides appropriating to himself most of the treasures which the sanctuary had formerly contained. Neither does it appear that Freya, having, perhaps, a sensible recollection of the power of the axe, ever again ventured to appear in person for the purpose of calling her false stewards to account.
The national estimation of deities, concerning whom such stories could be told and believed, was, of course, of no deep or respectful character. The Icelanders abandoned Odin, Freya, Thor, and their whole pagan mythology, in consideration of a single disputation between the heathen priests and the Christian missionaries. The priests threatened the island with a desolating eruption of the volcano called Hecla, as the necessary consequence of the vengeance of their deities. Snorro, the same who advised the inquest against the ghosts, had become a convert to the Christian religion, and was present on the occasion, and as the conference was held on the surface of what had been a stream of lava, now covered with vegetable substances, he answered the priests with much readiness, “To what was the indignation of the gods owing when the substance on which we stand was fluid and scorching? Believe me, men of Iceland, the eruption of the volcano depends on natural circumstances now as it did then, and is not the engine of vengeance intrusted to Thor and Odin.” It is evident that men who reasoned with so much accuracy concerning the imbecility of Odin and Thor were well prepared, on abandoning their worship, to consider their former deities, of whom they believed so much that was impious, in the light of evil demons.
But there were some particulars of the Northern creed in which it corresponded so exactly with that of the classics as leaves room to doubt whether the original Asæ, or Asiatics, the founders of the Scandinavian system, had, before their migration from Asia, derived them from some common source with those of the Greeks and Romans; or whether, on the other hand, the same proneness of the human mind to superstition has caused that similar ideas are adopted in different regions, as the same plants are found in distant countries without the one, as far as can be discovered, having obtained the seed from the others.
The classical fiction, for example, of the satyrs and other subordinate deities of wood and wild, whose power is rather delusive than formidable, and whose supernatural pranks intimate rather a wish to inflict terror than to do hurt, was received among the Northern people, and perhaps transferred by them to the Celtic tribes. It is an idea which seems common to many nations. The existence of a satyr, in the silvan form, is even pretended to be proved by the evidence of Saint Anthony, to whom one is said to have appeared in the desert. The Scottish Gael have an idea of the same kind, respecting a goblin called Ourisk, whose form is like that of Pan, and his attendants something between a man and a goat, the nether extremities being in the latter form. A species of cavern, or rather hole, in the rock, affords to the wildest retreat in the romantic neighbourhood of Loch Katrine a name taken from classical superstition. It is not the least curious circumstance that from this silvan deity the modern nations of Europe have borrowed the degrading and unsuitable emblems of the goat’s visage and form, the horns, hoofs, and tail, with which they have depicted the author of evil when it pleased him to show himself on earth. So that the alteration of a single word would render Pope’s well-known line more truly adapted to the fact, should we venture to read —
“And Pan to Satan lends his heathen horn.”
We cannot attribute the transferrence of the attributes of the Northern satyr, or Celtic ourisk, to the arch-fiend, to any particular resemblance between the character of these deities and that of Satan. On the contrary, the ourisk of the Celts was a creature by no means peculiarly malevolent or formidably powerful, but rather a melancholy spirit, which dwelt in wildernesses far removed from men. If we are to identify him with the Brown Dwarf of the Border moors, the ourisk has a mortal term of life and a hope of salvation, as indeed the same high claim was made by the satyr who appeared to St. Anthony. Moreover, the Highland ourisk was a species of lubber fiend, and capable of being over-reached by those who understood philology. It is related of one of these goblins which frequented a mill near the foot of Loch Lomond, that the miller, desiring to get rid of this meddling spirit, who injured the machinery by setting the water on the wheel when there was no grain to be grinded, contrived to have a meeting with the goblin by watching in his mill till night. The ourisk then entered, and demanded the miller’s name, and was informed that he was called Myself; on which is founded a story almost exactly like that of OUTIS in the “Odyssey,” a tale which, though classic, is by no means an elegant or ingenious fiction, but which we are astonished to find in an obscure district, and in the Celtic tongue, seeming to argue some connexion or communication between these remote Highlands of Scotland and the readers of Homer in former days, which we cannot account for. After all, perhaps, some Churchman more learned than his brethren may have transferred the legend from Sicily to Duncrune, from the shores of the Mediterranean to those of Loch Lomond. I have heard it also told that the celebrated freebooter, Rob Roy, once gained a victory by disguising a part of his men with goat-skins, so as to resemble the ourisk or Highland satyr.
There was an individual satyr called, I think, Meming, belonging to the Scandinavian mythology, of a character different from the ourisk, though similar in shape, whom it was the boast of the highest champions to seek out in the solitudes which he inhabited. He was an armourer of extreme dexterity, and the weapons which he forged were of the highest value. But as club-law pervaded the ancient system of Scandinavia, Meming had the humour of refusing to work for any customer save such as compelled him to it with force of arms. He may be, perhaps, identified with the recusant smith who fled before Fingal from Ireland to the Orkneys, and being there overtaken, was compelled to forge the sword which Fingal afterwards wore in all his battles, and which was called the Son of the dark brown Luno, from the name of the armourer who forged it.21
21 The weapon is often mentioned in Mr. MacPherson’s paraphrases; but the Irish ballad, which gives a spirited account of the debate between the champion and the armourer, is nowhere introduced.
From this it will appear that there were originals enough in the mythology of the Goths, as well as Celts, to furnish the modern attributes ascribed to Satan in later times, when the object of painter or poet was to display him in his true form and with all his terrors. Even the genius of Guido and of Tasso have been unable to surmount this prejudice, the more rooted, perhaps, that the wicked are described as goats in Scripture, and that the devil is called the old dragon. In Raffael’s famous painting of the archangel Michael binding Satan, the dignity, power, and angelic character expressed by the seraph form an extraordinary contrast to the poor conception of a being who ought not, even in that lowest degradation, to have seemed so unworthy an antagonist. Neither has Tasso been more happy, where he represents the divan of darkness in the enchanted forest as presided over by a monarch having a huge tail, hoofs, and all the usual accompaniments of popular diablerie. The genius of Milton alone could discard all these vulgar puerilities, and assign to the author of evil the terrible dignity of one who should seem not “less than archangel ruined.” This species of degradation is yet grosser when we take into consideration the changes which popular opinions have wrought respecting the taste, habits, powers, modes of tempting, and habits of tormenting, which are such as might rather be ascribed to some stupid superannuated and doting ogre of a fairy tale, than to the powerful-minded demon who fell through pride and rebellion, not through folly or incapacity.
Having, however, adopted our present ideas of the devil as they are expressed by his nearest acquaintances, the witches, from the accounts of satyrs, which seem to have been articles of faith both among the Celtic and Gothic tribes, we must next notice another fruitful fountain of demonological fancies. But as this source of the mythology of the Middle Ages must necessarily comprehend some account of the fairy folk, to whom much of it must be referred, it is necessary to make a pause before we enter upon the mystic and marvellous connexion supposed to exist between the impenitent kingdom of Satan and those merry dancers by moonlight.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13