Analysis Of The Sagas Mentioned In Nos 44-48
: THE MYTH IN REGARD TO THE LOWER WORLD.
: Teutonic Mythology
If we consider the position of the authors or recorders of these sagas
in relation to the views they present in regard to Odainsaker and the
Glittering Plains, then we find that they themselves, with or without
reason, believe that these views are from a heathen time and of heathen
origin. The saga of Erik Vidforle states that its hero had in his own
native land, and in his heathen environment, heard reports about
saker. The Miklagard king who instructs the prince in the doctrines
of Christianity knows, on the other hand, nothing of such a country. He
simply conjectures that the Odainsaker of the heathens must be the same
as the Paradise of the Christians, and the saga later makes this
conjecture turn out to be incorrect.
The author of Hervor's saga mentions Odainsaker as a heathen belief, and
tries to give reasons why it was believed in heathen times that
Odainsaker was situated within the limits of Gudmund's kingdom, the
Glittering Plains. The reason is: "Gudmund and his men became so old
that they lived through several generations (Gudmund lived five hundred
years), and therefore the heathens believed that Odainsaker was situated
in his domain."
The man who compiled the legend about Helge Thoreson connects it with
the history of King Olaf Trygveson, and pits this first king of Norway,
who laboured for the introduction of Christianity, as a representative
of the new and true doctrine against King Gudmund of the Glittering
Plains as the representative of the heathen doctrine. The author would
not have done this if he had not believed that the ruler of the
Glittering Plains had his ancestors in heathendom.
The saga of Thorstein Baearmagn puts Gudmund and the Glittering Plains in
a tributary relation to Jotunheim and to Geirrod, the giant, well known
in the mythology.
Saxo makes Gudmund Geirrod's (Geruthus') brother, and he believes he is
discussing ancient traditions when he relates Gorm's journey of
discovery and Hadding's journey to Jotunheim. Gorm's reign is referred
by Saxo to the period immediately following the reign of the mythical
King Snoe (Snow) and the emigration of the Longobardians. Hadding's
descent to the lower world occurred, according to Saxo, in an antiquity
many centuries before King Snow. Hadding is, in Saxo, one of the first
kings of Denmark, the grandson of Skjold, progenitor of the Skjoldungs.
The saga of Erik Vidforle makes the way to Odainsaker pass through
Syria, India, and an unknown land which wants the light of the sun, and
where the stars are visible all day long. On the other side of
Odainsaker, and bordering on it, lies the land of the happy spirits,
That these last ideas have been influenced by Christianity would seem to
be sufficiently clear. Nor do we find a trace of Syria, India, and
Paradise as soon as we leave this saga and pass to the others, in the
chain of which it forms one of the later links. All the rest agree in
transferring to the uttermost North the land which must be reached
before the journey can be continued to the Glittering Plains and
Odainsaker. Hervor's saga says that the Glittering Plains and Odainsaker
are situated north of Halogaland, in Jotunheim; Herrod's and Bose's saga
states that they are situated in the vicinity of Bjarmaland. The saga of
Thorstein Baearmagn says that they are a kingdom subject to Geirrod in
Jotunheim. Gorm's saga in Saxo says it is necessary to sail past
Halogaland north to a Bjarmia ulterior in order to get to the kingdoms
of Gudmund and Geirrod. The saga of Helge Thoreson makes its hero meet
the daughters of Gudmund, the ruler of the Glittering Plains, after a
voyage to Finmarken. Hadding's saga in Saxo makes the Danish king pay a
visit to the unknown but wintry cold land of the "Nitherians," when he
is invited to make a journey to the lower world. Thus the older and
common view was that he who made the attempt to visit the Glittering
Plains and Odainsaker must first penetrate the regions of the uttermost
North, known only by hearsay.
Those of the sagas which give us more definite local descriptions in
addition to this geographical information all agree that the region
which forms, as it were, a foreground to the Glittering Plains and
Odainsaker is a land over which the darkness of night broods. As just
indicated, Erik Vidforle's saga claims that the stars there are visible
all day long. Gorm's saga in Saxo makes the Danish adventurers leave sun
and stars behind to continue the journey sub Chao. Darkness, fogs, and
mists envelop Hadding before he gets sight of the splendidly-clad
proceres who dwell down there, and the shining meadows whose flowers
are never visited by winter. The Frisian saga in Adam of Bremen also
speaks of a gloom which must be penetrated ere one reaches the land
where rich giants dwell in subterranean caverns.
Through this darkness one comes, according to the saga of Erik Vidforle,
to a plain full of flowers, delicious fragrances, rivers of honey (a
Biblical idea, but see Nos. 89, 123), and perpetual light. A river
separates this plain from the land of the spirits.
Through the same darkness, according to Gorm's saga, one comes to
Gudmund's Glittering Plains, where there is a pleasure-farm bearing
delicious fruits, while in that Bjarmaland whence the Glittering Plains
can be reached reign eternal winter and cold. A river separates the
Glittering Plains from two or more other domains, of which at least one
is the home of departed souls. There is a bridge of gold across the
river to another region, "which separates that which is mortal from the
superhuman," and on whose soil a mortal being must not set his foot.
Further on one can pass in a boat across the river to a land which is
the place of punishment for the damned and a resort of ghosts.
Through the same darkness one comes, according to Hadding's saga, to a
subterranean land where flowers grow in spite of the winter which reigns
on the surface of the earth. The land of flowers is separated from the
Elysian fields of those fallen in battle by a river which hurls about in
its eddies spears and other weapons.
These statements from different sources agree with each other in their
main features. They agree that the lower world is divided into two main
parts by a river, and that departed souls are found only on the farther
side of the river.
The other main part on this side the river thus has another purpose than
that of receiving the happy or damned souls of the dead. There dwells,
according to Gorm's saga, the giant Gudmund, with his sons and
daughters. There are also the Glittering Plains, since these, according
to Hervor's, Herrod's, Thorstein Baearmagn's, and Helge Thoreson's sagas,
are ruled by Gudmund.
Some of the accounts cited say that the Glittering Plains are situated
in Jotunheim. This statement does not contradict the fact that they are
situated in the lower world. The myths mention two Jotunheims, and hence
the Eddas employ the plural form, Jotunheimar. One of the Jotunheims is
located on the surface of the earth in the far North and East, separated
from the Midgard inhabited by man by the uttermost sea or the Elivogs
(Gylfaginning, 8). The other Jotunheim is subterranean. According to
Vafthrudnismal (31), one of the roots of the world-tree extends down "to
the frost-giants." Urd and her sisters, who guard one of the fountains
of Ygdrasil's roots, are giantesses. Mimer, who guards another fountain
in the lower world, is called a giant. That part of the world which is
inhabited by the goddesses of fate and by Mimer is thus inhabited by
giants, and is a subterranean Jotunheim. Both these Jotunheims are
connected with each other. From the upper there is a path leading to the
lower. Therefore those traditions recorded in a Christian age, which we
are here discussing, have referred to the Arctic Ocean and the uttermost
North as the route for those who have the desire and courage to visit
the giants of the lower world.
When it is said in Hadding's saga that he on the other side of the
subterranean river saw the shades of heroes fallen by the sword arrayed
in line of battle and contending with each other, then this is no
contradiction of the myth, according to which the heroes chosen on the
battle-field come to Asgard and play their warlike games on the plains
of the world of the gods.
In Voeluspa (str. 24) we read that when the first "folk"-war broke out in
the world, the citadel of Odin and his clan was stormed by the Vans, who
broke through its bulwark and captured Asgard. In harmony with this,
Saxo (Hist., i.) relates that at the time when King Hadding reigned
Odin was banished from his power and lived for some time in exile (see
It is evident that no great battles can have been fought, and that there
could not have been any great number of sword-fallen men, before the
first great "folk" war broke out in the world. Otherwise this war
would not have been the first. Thus Valhal has not before this war had
those hosts of einherjes who later are feasted in Valfather's hall. But
as Odin, after the breaking out of this war, is banished from Valhal and
Asgard, and does not return before peace is made between the Asas and
Vans, then none of the einherjes chosen by him could be received in
Valhal during the war. Hence it follows that the heroes fallen in this
war, though chosen by Odin, must have been referred to some other place
than Asgard (excepting, of course, all those chosen by the Vans, in
case they chose einherjes, which is probable, for the reason that the
Vanadis Freyja gets, after the reconciliation with Odin, the right to
divide with him the choice of the slain). This other place can nowhere
else be so appropriately looked for as in the lower world, which we know
was destined to receive the souls of the dead. And as Hadding, who,
according to Saxo, descended to the lower world, is, according to Saxo,
the same Hadding during whose reign Odin was banished from Asgard, then
it follows that the statement of the saga, making him see in the lower
world those warlike games which else are practised on Asgard's plains,
far from contradicting the myth, on the contrary is a consequence of the
connection of the mythical events.
The river which is mentioned in Erik Vidforle's, Gorm's, and Hadding's
sagas has its prototype in the mythic records. When Hermod on Sleipner
rides to the lower world (Gylfaginning, 10) he first journeys through a
dark country (compare above) and then comes to the river Gjoell, over
which there is the golden bridge called the Gjallar bridge. On the other
side of Gjoell is the Helgate, which leads to the realm of the dead. In
Gorm's saga the bridge across the river is also of gold, and it is
forbidden mortals to cross to the other side.
A subterranean river hurling weapons in its eddies is mentioned in
Voeluspa, 33. In Hadding's saga we also read of a weapon-hurling river
which forms the boundary of the Elysium of those slain by the sword.
In Vegtamskvida is mentioned an underground dog, bloody about the
breast, coming from Nifelhel, the proper place of punishment. In Gorm's
saga the bulwark around the city of the damned is guarded by great dogs.
The word "nifel" (nifl, the German Nebel), which forms one part of
the word Nifelhel, means mist, fog. In Gorm's saga the city in question
is most like a cloud of vapour (vaporanti maxime nubi simile).
Saxo's description of that house of torture, which is found within the
city, is not unlike Voeluspa's description of that dwelling of torture
called Nastrand. In Saxo the floor of the house consists of serpents
wattled together, and the roof of sharp stings. In Voeluspa the hall is
made of serpents braided together, whose heads from above spit venom
down on those dwelling there. Saxo speaks of soot a century old on the
door frames; Voeluspa of ljorar, air- and smoke-openings in the roof
(see further Nos. 77 and 78).
Saxo himself points out that the Geruthus (Geirroedr) mentioned by him,
and his famous daughters, belong to the myth about the Asa-god Thor.
That Geirrod after his death is transferred to the lower world is no
contradiction to the heathen belief, according to which beautiful or
terrible habitations await the dead, not only of men but also of other
beings. Compare Gylfaginning, ch. 46, where Thor with one blow of his
Mjolner sends a giant nidr undir Niflhel (see further, No. 60).
As Mimer's and Urd's fountains are found in the lower world (see Nos.
63, 93), and as Mimer is mentioned as the guardian of Heimdal's horn and
other treasures, it might be expected that these circumstances would not
be forgotten in those stories from Christian times which have been cited
above and found to have roots in the myths.
When in Saxo's saga about Gorm the Danish adventurers had left the
horrible city of fog, they came to another place in the lower world
where the gold-plated mead-cisterns were found. The Latin word used by
Saxo, which I translate with cisterns of mead, is dolium. In the
classical Latin this word is used in regard to wine-cisterns of so
immense a size that they were counted among the immovables, and usually
were sunk in the cellar floors. They were so large that a person could
live in such a cistern, and this is also reported as having happened.
That the word dolium still in Saxo's time had a similar meaning
appears from a letter quoted by Du Cange, written by Saxo's younger
contemporary, Bishop Gebhard. The size is therefore no obstacle to
Saxo's using this word for a wine-cistern to mean the mead-wells in the
lower world of Teutonic mythology. The question now is whether he
actually did so, or whether the subterranean dolia in question are
objects in regard to which our earliest mythic records have left us in
In Saxo's time, and earlier, the epithets by which the mead-wells--Urd's
and Mimer's--and their contents are mentioned in mythological songs had
come to be applied also to those mead-buckets which Odin is said to have
emptied in the halls of the giant Fjalar or Suttung. This application
also lay near at hand, since these wells and these vessels contained the
same liquor, and since it originally, as appears from the meaning of the
words, was the liquor, and not the place where the liquor was kept, to
which the epithets Odraerir, Bodn, and Son applied. In Havamal
(107) Odin expresses his joy that Odraerir has passed out of the
possession of the giant Fjalar and can be of use to the beings of the
upper world. But if we may trust Bragar, (ch. 5), it is the drink and
not the empty vessels that Odin takes with him to Valhal. On this
supposition, it is the drink and not one of the vessels which in Havamal
is called Odraerir. In Havamal (140) Odin relates how he, through
self-sacrifice and suffering, succeeded in getting runic songs up from
the deep, and also a drink dipped out of Odraerir. He who gives him the
songs and the drink, and accordingly is the ruler of the fountain of the
drink, is a man, "Bolthorn's celebrated son." Here again Odraerer is one
of the subterranean fountains, and no doubt Mimer's, since the one who
pours out the drink is a man. But in Forspjalsljod (2) Urd's fountain is
also called Odraerer (Odhraerir Urdar). Paraphrases for the liquor of
poetry, such as "Bodn's growing billow" (Einar Skalaglam) and "Son's
reedgrown grass edge" (Eilif Gudrunson), point to fountains or wells,
not to vessels. Meanwhile a satire was composed before the time of Saxo
and Sturlason about Odin's adventure at Fjalar's, and the author of this
song, the contents of which the Younger Edda has preserved, calls the
vessels which Odin empties at the giant's Odhraerir, Bodn, and Son
(Brogaraedur, 6). Saxo, who reveals a familiarity with the genuine
heathen, or supposed heathen, poems handed down to his time, may thus
have seen the epithets Odraerir, Bodn, and Son applied both to the
subterranean mead-wells and to a giant's mead-vessels. The greater
reason he would have for selecting the Latin dolium to express an idea
that can be accommodated to both these objects.
Over these mead-reservoirs there hang, according to Saxo's description,
round-shaped objects of silver, which in close braids drop down and are
spread around the seven times gold-plated walls of the mead-cisterns.
Over Mimer's and Urd's fountains hang the roots of the ash Ygdrasil,
which sends its root-knots and root-threads down into their waters. But
not only the rootlets sunk in the water, but also the roots from which
they are suspended, partake of the waters of the fountains. The norns
take daily from the water and sprinkle the stem of the tree therewith,
"and the water is so holy," says Gylfaginning (16), "that everything
that is put in the well (consequently, also, all that which the norns
daily sprinkle with the water) becomes as white as the membrane between
the egg and the egg-shell." Also the root over Mimer's fountain is
sprinkled with its water (Voelusp., Cod. R., 28), and this water, so far
as its colour is concerned, seems to be of the same kind as that in
Urd's fountain, for the latter is called hvitr aurr (Voelusp., 18) and
the former runs in aurgum forsi upon its root of the world-tree
(Voelusp., 28). The adjective aurigr, which describes a quality of the
water in Mimer's fountain, is formed from the noun aurr, with which
the liquid is described which waters the root over Urd's fountain.
Ygdrasil's roots, as far up as the liquid of the wells can get to them,
thus have a colour like that of "the membrane between the egg and the
egg-shell," and consequently recall both as to position, form, and
colour the round-shaped objects "of silver" which, according to Saxo,
hang down and are intertwined in the mead-reservoirs of the lower world.
Mimer's fountain contains, as we know, the purest mead--the liquid of
inspiration, of poetry, of wisdom, of understanding.
Near by Ygdrasil, according to Voeluspa (27), Heimdal's horn is
concealed. The seeress in Voeluspa knows that it is hid "beneath the
hedge-o'ershadowing holy tree."
Veit hon Heimdallar
hljod um folgit
Near one of the mead-cisterns in the lower world Gorm's men see a horn
ornamented with pictures and flashing with precious stones.
Among the treasures taken care of by Mimer is the world's foremost sword
and a wonderful arm-ring, smithied by the same master as made the sword
(see Nos. 87, 98, 101).
Near the gorgeous horn Gorm's men see a gold-plated tooth of an animal
and an arm-ring. The animal tooth becomes a sword when it is taken into
the hand. Near by is a treasury filled with a large number of
weapons and a royal robe. Mimer is known in mythology as a collector of
treasures. He is therefore called Hoddmimir, Hoddropnir,
Thus Gorm and his men have on their journeys in the lower world seen not
only Nastrand's place of punishment in Nifelhel, but also the holy land,
where Mimer reigns.
When Gorm and his men desire to cross the golden bridge and see the
wonders to which it leads, Gudmund prohibits it. When they in another
place farther up desire to cross the river to see what there is beyond,
he consents and has them taken over in a boat. He does not deem it
proper to show them the unknown land at the golden bridge, but it is
within the limits of his authority to let them see the places of
punishment and those regions which contain the mead-cisterns and the
treasure chambers. The sagas call him the king on the Glittering Plains,
and as the Glittering Plains are situated in the lower world, he must be
a lower world ruler.
Two of the sagas, Helge Thoreson's and Gorm's, cast a shadow on
Gudmund's character. In the former this shadow does not produce
confusion or contradiction. The saga is a legend which represents
Christianity, with Olaf Trygveson as its apostle, in conflict with
heathenism, represented by Gudmund. It is therefore natural that the
latter cannot be presented in the most favourable light. Olaf destroys
with his prayers the happiness of Gudmund's daughter. He compels her to
abandon her lover, and Gudmund, who is unable to take revenge in any
other manner, tries to do so, as is the case with so many of the
characters in saga and history, by treachery. This is demanded by the
fundamental idea and tendency of the legend. What the author of the
legend has heard about Gudmund's character from older saga-men, or what
he has read in records, he does not, however, conceal with silence, but
admits that Gudmund, aside from his heathen religion and grudge towards
Olaf Trygveson, was a man in whose home one might fare well and be
Saxo has preserved the shadow, but in his narrative it produces the
greatest contradiction. Gudmund offers fruits, drinks, and embraces in
order to induce his guests to remain with him for ever, and he does it
in a tempting manner and, as it seems, with conscious cunning.
Nevertheless, he shows unlimited patience when the guests insult him by
accepting nothing of what he offers. When he comes down to the
sea-strand, where Gorm's ships are anchored, he is greeted by the leader
of the discoverers with joy, because he is "the most pious being and
man's protector in perils." He conducts them in safety to his castle.
When a handful of them returns after the attempt to plunder the treasury
of the lower world, he considers the crime sufficiently punished by the
loss of life they have suffered, and takes them across the river to his
own safe home; and when they, contrary to his wishes, desire to return
to their native land, he loads them with gifts and sees to it that they
get safely on board their ships. It follows that Saxo's sources have
described Gudmund as a kind and benevolent person. Here, as in the
legend about Helge Thoreson, the shadow has been thrown by younger hands
upon an older background painted in bright colours.
Hervor's saga says that he was wise, mighty, in a heathen sense pious
("a great sacrificer"), and so honoured that sacrifices were offered to
him, and he was worshipped as a god after death. Herrod's saga says that
he was greatly skilled in magic arts, which is another expression for
heathen wisdom, for fimbul-songs, runes, and incantations.
The change for the worse which Gudmund's character seems in part to have
suffered is confirmed by a change connected with, and running parallel
to it, in the conception of the forces in those things which belonged to
the lower world of the Teutonic heathendom and to Gudmund's domain. In
Saxo we find an idea related to the antique Lethe myth, according to
which the liquids and plants which belong to the lower world produce
forgetfulness of the past. Therefore, Thorkil (Thorkillus) warns his
companions not to eat or drink any of that which Gudmund offers them. In
the Gudrun song (ii. 21, 22), and elsewhere, we meet with the same
idea. I shall return to this subject (see No. 50).
[Footnote 35: Inde digressis dolia septem zonis aureis circumligata
panduntur, quibus pensiles ex argento circuli crebros inseruerant
[Footnote 36: The word biti= a tooth (cp. bite) becomes in the
composition leggbiti, the name of a sword.]