Hvad mon da ei
Og her lyksalig leves kan? Jeg troer
Det mueligt, som för i Heden-Old
For rasks Skander mueligt det var,
Paa denne kolde Oe.
What cannot one
Here, too, live happy? I believe it now
As possible, as in the heathen age,
For the bold Scandinavians it was,
On this cold isle.
IT is in vain that we look into the works of travellers for information on the subject of popular belief in Iceland. Their attention was too much occupied by Geysers, volcanoes, agriculture, and religion, to allow them to devote any part of it to this, in their eyes, unimportant subject. So that, were it not for some short but curious notices given by natives of the island, we should be quite ignorant of the fate of the subordinate classes of the old religion in Iceland.
Torfaeus, who wrote in the latter end of the seventeenth century, gives, in his preface to his edition of Hrolf Krakas Saga, the opinion of a venerable Icelandic pastor, named Einar Gudmund, respecting the Dwarfs. This opinion Torfaeus heard when a boy from the lips of the old man.
"I believe, and am fully persuaded," said he, "that this people are the creatures of God, consisting of a body and a rational spirit; that they are of both sexes; marry, and have children; and that all human acts take place among them as with us: that they are possessed of cattle, and of many other kinds of property; have poverty and riches, weeping and laughter, sleep and wake, and have all other affections belonging to human nature; and that they enjoy a longer or a shorter term of life according to the will and pleasure of God. Their power of having children," he adds, "appears from this, that some of their women have had children by men, and were very anxious to have their offspring dipped in the sacred font, and initiated into Christianity; but they, in general, sought in vain. Thorkatla Mari, the wife of Karl, was pregnant by a Hill-man, but she did not bring the child Aresus into the world, as appears from the poems made on this fatal occasion.
"There was formerly on the lands of Haga a nobleman named Sigvard Fostre, who had to do with a Hill-woman. He promised her faithfully that he would take care to have the child received into the bosom of the church. In due time the woman came with her child and laid it on the churchyard wall, and along with it a gilded cup and a holy robe (presents she intended making to the church for the baptism of her child), and then retired a little way. The pastor inquired who acknowledged himself the father of the child. Sigvard, perhaps, out of shame, did not venture to acknowledge himself. The clerk now asked him if it should be baptised or not. Sigvard said 'No,' lest by assenting he should be proved to be the father. The infant then was left where it was, untouched and unbaptised. The mother, filled with rage, snatched up her babe and the cup, but left the vestment, the remains of which may still be seen in Haga. That woman foretold and inflicted a singular disease on Sigvard and his posterity till the ninth generation, and several of his descendants are to this day afflicted with it. Andrew Gudmund (from which I am the seventh in descent) had an affair of the same kind. He also refused to have the child baptised, and he and his posterity have suffered a remarkable disease, of which very many of them have died; but some, by the interposition of good men, have escaped the deserved punishment."
The fullest account we have of the Icelandic Elves or Dwarfs is contained in the following passage of the Ecclesiastical History of Iceland of the learned Finnus Johannaeus.
"As we have not as yet," says he, "spoken a single word about the very ancient, and I know not whether more ridiculous or perverse, persuasion of our forefathers about semigods, this seems the proper place for saying a few words about this so celebrated figment, as it was chiefly in this period it attained its acmè, and it was believed as a true and necessary article of faith, that there are genii or semi-gods, called in our language Alfa and Alfa-folk.
"Authors vary respecting their essence and origin. Some hold that they have been created by God immediately and without the intervention of parents, like some kinds of spirits: others maintain that they are sprung from Adam, but before the creation of Eve: [a] lastly, some refer them to another race of men, or to a stock of pre-Adamites. Some bestow on them not merely a human body, but an immortal soul: others assign them merely mortal breath (spiritum) instead of a soul, whence a certain blockhead, [b] in an essay written by him respecting them, calls them our half-kin (half-kyn).
"According to the old wives' tales that are related about this race of genii who inhabit Iceland and its vicinity, they have a political form of government modelled after the same pattern as that which the inhabitants themselves are under. Two viceroys rule over them, who in turn every second year, attended by some of the subjects, sail to Norway, to present themselves before the monarch of the whole race, who resides there, and to give him a true report concerning the fidelity, good conduct, and obedience of the subjects; and those who accompany them are to accuse the government or viceroys if they have transgressed the bounds of justice or of good morals. If these are convicted of crime or injustice, they are forthwith stript of their office, and others are appointed in their place.
"This nation is reported to cultivate justice and equity above all other virtues, and hence, though they are very potent, especially with words and imprecations, they very rarely, unless provoked or injured, do any mischief to man; but when irritated they avenge themselves on their enemies with dreadful curses and punishments.
"The new-born infants of Christians are, before baptism, believed to be exposed to great peril of being stolen by them, and their own, which they foresee likely to be feeble in mind, in body, in beauty, or other gifts, being substituted for them. These supposititious children of the semigods are called Umskiptingar; whence nurses and midwives were strictly enjoined to watch constantly, and to hold the infant firmly in their arms, till it had had the benefit of baptism, lest they should furnish any opportunity for such a change. Hence it comes, that the vulgar use to call fools, deformed people, and those who act rudely and uncivilly, Umskiptinga eins og hann sie ko minnaf Alfum, i.e. changelings, and come of the Alfs.
"They use rocks, bills, and even the seas, for their habitations, which withinside are neat, and all their domestic utensils extremely clean and orderly. They sometimes invite men home, and take especial delight in the converse of Christians, some of whom have had intercourse with their daughters or sisters, who are no less wanton than beautiful, and have had children by them, who must by all means be washed in holy water, that they may receive an immortal soul, and one that can be saved. Nay, they have not been ashamed to feign that certain women of them have been joined in lawful marriage with men, and continued for a long time with them, happily at first, but, for the most part, with an ill or tragical conclusion.
"Their cattle, if not very numerous, are at least very profitable They are invisible as their owners are, unless when it pleases them to appear, which usually takes place when the weather is serene and the sun shining very bright; for as they do not see the sun within their dwellings, they frequently walk out in the sunshine that they may be cheered by his radiance. [c] Hence, even the coffins of dead kings and nobles, such as are the oblong stones which are to be seen here and there, in wildernesses and rough places, always lie in the open air and exposed to the sun.
"They change their abodes and habitations occasionally like mankind; this they do on new-year's night; whence certain dreamers and mountebanks used on that night to watch in the roads, that, by the means of various forms of conjurations appointed for that purpose, they might extort from them as they passed along the knowledge of future events. [d] But people in general, who were not acquainted with such things, especially the heads of families, used on this evening strictly to charge their children and servants to be sure to be serious and modest in their actions and language, lest their invisible guests, and mayhap future neighbours, should be aggrieved or any way offended. Hence, when going to bed they did not shut the outer doors of their houses, nor even the door of the sitting-room, but having kindled a light, and laid out a table, they desired the invisible personages who had arrived, or were to arrive, to partake, if it was their pleasure, of the food that was laid out for them; and hoped that if it pleased them to dwell within the limits of their lands, they would live safe and sound, and be propitious to them. As this superstitious belief is extremely ancient, so it long continued in full vigour, and was held by some even within the memory of our fathers." [e]
The Icelandic Neck, Kelpie, or Water-Spirit, is called Nickur, Ninnir, and Hnikur, one of the Eddaic names of Odin. He appears always in the form of a fine apple-grey horse on the sea-shore; but he may be distinguished from ordinary horses by the circumstance of his hoofs being reversed. If any one is so foolish as to mount him, he gallops off and plunges into the sea with his burden. He can, however, be caught in a particular manner, tamed, and made to work. [f]
The Icelanders have the same notions respecting the seals which we shall find in the Feroes and Shetland. It is a common opinion with them that King Pharaoh and his army were changed into these animals.
[a] This was plainly a theory of the monks. It greatly resembles the Rabbinical account of the origin of the Mazckeen, which the reader will meet in the sequel.
Some Icelanders of the present day say, that one day, when Eve was washing her children at the running water, God suddenly called her. She was frightened, and thrust aside such of them as were not clean. God asked her if all her children were there, and she said, Yes; but got for answer, that what she tried to hide from God should be hidden from man. These children became instantly invisible and distinct from the rest. Before the flood came on, God put them into a cave and closed up the entrance. From them are descended all the underground-people.--Magnussen, Eddalaere.
[b] This was one Janus Gudmund, who wrote several treatises on this and similar subjects, particularly one "De Alfis et Alfheimum," which the learned bishop characterises as a work" nullius pretii, et meras nugas continens." We might, if we were to see it, be of a different opinion. Of Janus Gudmund Brynj Svenonius thus expresses himself to Wormius: Janus Gudmundius, aere dirutus verius quam rude donatus, sibi et aliis inutiis in angulo consenuit. Worm., Epist., 970.
[c] The Icelandlo dwarfs, it would appear, wore red clothes. In Nial's Saga (p. 70), a person gaily dressed (i litkloedum) is jocularly called Red-elf (raud-álfr).
[d] There was a book of prophecies called the Kruckspá, or Prophecy of Kruck, a man who was said to have lived in the 15th century. It treated of the change of religion and other matters said to have been revealed to him by the Dwarfs. Johannaeus says it was forged by Brynjalf Svenonius in or about the year 1660.
[e] Finni Johannaei Historia Ecclesiastica Islandiae, tom. ii. p. 368. Haviae, 1774. We believe we might safely add, is held at the present day, for the superstition is no more extinct in Iceland than elsewhere.
[f] Svenska Visor, iii. 128. Grimm, Deut. Mythol, p. 458. At Bahus, in Sweden a clever man contrived to throw on him an ingeniously made bridle so that he could not get away, and he ploughed all his land with him. One time the bridle fell off and the Neck, like a flash of fire, sprang into the lake and dragged the harrow down with him. Grimm, ut sup., see p. 148.