THE Teutons, that race of northern peoples called by the Romans, "barbarians," comprised the Goths and Vandals who lived in Scandinavia, and the Germans who dwelt north of Italy and east of Gaul.
The nature of the northern country was such that the people could not get a living by peaceful agriculture. So it was natural that in the intervals of cattle-tending they should explore the seas all about, and ravage neighboring lands. The Romans and the Gauls experienced this in the centuries just before and after Christ, and England from the eighth to the tenth centuries. Such a life made the Norsemen adventurous, hardy, warlike, independent, and quick of action, while the Celts were by nature more slothful and fond of peaceful social gatherings, though of quicker intellect and wit.
Like the Greeks and Romans, the Teutons had twelve gods and goddesses, among whom were Odin or Wotan, the king, and his wife Freya, queen of Beauty and love. Idun guarded the apples of immortality, which the gods ate to keep them eternally young. The chief difference in Teutonic mythology was the presence of an evil god, Loki. Like Vulcan, Loki was a god of fire, like him, Loki was lame because he had been cast out of heaven. Loki was always plotting against the other gods, as Lucifer, after being banished from Heaven by God, plotted against him and his people, and became Satan, "the enemy."
"Him the Almighty Power
Hurl'd headlong flaming from th' ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th' Omnipotent to arms."
--MILTON: Paradise Lost.
It was this god of evil in Teutonic myth who was responsible for the death of the bright beautiful sun-god, Baldur. Mistletoe was the only thing in the world which had not sworn not to harm Baldur. Loki knew this, and gave a twig of mistletoe to Baldur's blind brother, Hodur, and Hodur cast it at Baldur and "unwitting slew" him. Vali, a younger brother of Baldur, avenged him by killing Hodur. Hodur is darkness and Baldur light; they are brothers; the light falls a victim to blind darkness, who reigns until a younger brother, the sun of the next day, rises to slay him in turn.
Below these gods, all nature was peopled with divinities. There were elves of two kinds: black elves, called trolls, who were frost spirits, and guarded treasure (seeds) in the ground; and white elves, who lived in mid-heaven, and danced on the earth in fairy rings, where a mortal entering died. Will-o'-the-wisps hovered over swamps to mislead travellers, and jack-o'-lanterns, the spirits of murderers, walked the earth near the places of their crimes.
The Otherworlds of the Teutons were Valhalla, the abode of the heroes whom death had found on the battlefield, and Niflheim, "the misty realm," secure from the cold outside, ruled over by Queen Hel. Valkyries, warlike women who rode through the air on swift horses, seized the heroes from the field of slaughter, and took them to the halls of Valhalla, where they enjoyed daily combats, long feasts, and drinking-bouts, music and story-telling.
The sacred tree of the Druids was the oak; that of the Teutonic priests the ash. The flat disk of earth was believed to be supported by a great ash-tree, Yggdrasil,
"An ash know I standing,
A stately tree sprinkled
With water the purest;
Thence come the dewdrops
That fall in the dales;
Ever-blooming, it stands
O'er the Urdar-fountain."
--Voluspa saga. (Blackwell trans.)
guarded by three fates, Was, Will, and Shall Be. The name of Was means the past, of Will, the power, howbeit small, which men have over present circumstances, and Shall Be, the future over which man has no control. Vurdh, the name of the latter, gives us the word "weird," which means fate or fateful. The three Weird Sister in Macbeth are seeresses.
Besides the ash, other trees and shrubs were believed to have peculiar powers, which they have kept, with some changes of meaning, to this day. The elder (elves' grave), the hawthorn, and the juniper, were sacred to supernatural powers.
The priests of the Teutons sacrificed prisoners of war in consecrated groves, to Tyr, god of the sword. The victims were not burned alive, as by the Druids, but cut and torn terribly, and their dead bodies burned. From these sacrifices auspices were taken. A man's innocence or guilt was manifested by gods to men through ordeals by fire; walking upon red-hot ploughshares, holding a heated bar of iron, or thrusting the hands into red-hot gauntlets, or into boiling water. If after a certain number of days no burns appeared the person was declared innocent. If a suspected man, thrown into the water, floated, he was guilty; if he sank, he was acquitted.
The rites of the Celts were done in secret, and it was forbidden that they be written down. Those of the Teutons were commemorated in Edda and Saga (poetry and prose).
In the far north the shortness of summer and the length of winter so impressed the people that when they made a story about it they told of a maiden, the Spring, put to sleep, and guarded, along with a hoard of treasure, by a ring of fire. One knight only could break through the flames, awaken her and seize the treasure. He is the returning sun, and the treasure he gets possession of is the wealth of summer vegetation. So there is the story of Brynhild, pricked by the "sleep-thorn" of her father, Wotan, and sleeping until Sigurd wakens her. They marry, but soon Sigurd has to give her up to Gunnar, the relentless winter, and Gunnar cannot rest until he has killed Sigurd, and reigns undisturbed. Grimm's story of Rapunzel, the princess who was shut up by a winter witch, and of Briar-Rose, pricked by a witch's spindle, and sleeping inside a hedge which blooms with spring at the knight's approach, mean likewise the struggle between summer and winter.
The chief festivals of the Teutonic year were held at Midsummer and Midwinter. May-Day, the very beginning of spring, was celebrated by May-ridings, when winter and spring, personified by two warriors, engaged in a combat in which Winter, the fur-clad king of ice and snow, was defeated. It was then that the sacred fire had been kindled, and the sacrificial feast held. Judgements were rendered then.
The summer solstice was marked by bonfires, like those of the Celts on May Eve and Midsummer. They were kindled in an open place or on a hill, and the ceremonies held about them were similar to the Celtic. As late as the eighteenth century these same customs were observed in Iceland.
A May-pole wreathed with magical herbs is erected as the center of the dance in Sweden, and in Norway a child chosen May-bride is followed by a procession as at a real wedding. This is a symbol of the wedding of sun and earth deities in the spring. The May-pole, probably imported from Celtic countries, is used at Midsummer because the spring does not begin in the north before June.
Yule-tide in December celebrated the sun's turning back, and was marked by banquets and gayety. A chief feature of all these feasts was the drinking of toasts to the gods, with vows and prayers.
By the sixth century Christianity had supplanted Druidism in the British Isles. It was the ninth before Christianity made much progress in Scandinavia. After King Olaf had converted his nation, the toasts which had been drunk to the pagan gods were kept in honor of Christian saints; for instance, those to Freya were now drunk to the Virgin Mary or to St. Gertrude.
The "wetting of the sark-sleeve," that custom of Scotland and Ireland, was in its earliest form a rite to Freya as the northern goddess of love. To secure her aid in a love-affair, a maid would wash in a running stream a piece of fine linen--for Freya was fond of personal adornment--and would hang it before the fire to dry an hour before midnight. At half-past eleven she must turn it, and at twelve her lover's apparition would appear to her, coming in at the half-open door.
"The wind howled through the leafless boughs, and there was every appearance of an early and severe winter, as indeed befell. Long before eleven o'clock all was hushed and quiet within the house, and indeed without (nothing was heard), except the cold wind which howled mournfully in gusts. The house was an old farmhouse, and we sat in the large kitchen with its stone floor, awaiting the first stroke of the eleventh hour. It struck at last, and then all pale and trembling we hung the garment before the fire which we had piled up with wood, and set the door ajar, for that was an essential point. The door was lofty and opened upon the farm- yard, through which there was a kind of thoroughfare, very seldom used, it is true, and at each end of it there was a gate by which wayfarers occasionally passed to shorten the way. There we sat without speaking a word, shivering with cold and fear, listening to the clock which went slowly, tick, tick, and occasionally starting as the door creaked on its hinges, or a half-burnt billet fell upon the hearth. My sister was ghastly white, as white as the garment which was drying before the fire. And how half an hour had elapsed and it was time to turn. . . . This we did, I and my sister, without saying a word, and then we again sank on our chairs on either side of the fire. I was tired, and as the clock went tick-a-tock, I began to feel myself dozing. I did doze, I believe. All of a sudden I sprang up. The clock was striking one, two, but ere it could give the third chime, mercy upon us! we heard the gate slam with a tremendous noise. . . ."
"Well, and what happened then?"
"Happened! before I could recover myself, my sister had sprung to the door, and both locked and bolted it. The next moment she was in convulsions. I scarcely knew what happened; and yet it appeared to me for a moment that something pressed against the door with a low moaning sound. Whether it was the wind or not, I can't say. I shall never forget that night. About two hours later, my father came home. He had been set upon by a highwayman whom he beat off."
Freya and Odin especially had had power over the souls of the dead. When Christianity turned all the old gods into spirits of evil, these two were accused especially of possessing unlawful learning, as having knowledge of the hidden matters of death. This unlawful wisdom is the first accusation that has always been brought against witches. A mirror is often used to contain it. Such are the crystals of the astrologers, and the looking-glasses which on Hallowe'en materialize wishes.
From that time in the Middle Ages when witches were first heard of, it has nearly always been women who were accused. Women for the most part were the priests in the old days: it was a woman to whom Apollo at Delphi breathed his oracles. In all times it has been women who plucked herbs and concocted drinks of healing and refreshment. So it was very easy to imagine that they experimented with poisons and herbs of magic power under the guidance of the now evil gods. If they were so directed, they must go on occasions to consult with their masters. The idea arose of a witches' Sabbath, when women were enabled by evil means to fly away, and adore in secret the gods from whom the rest of the world had turned. There were such meeting-places all over Europe. They had been places of sacrifice, of judgement, or of wells and springs considered holy under the old religion, and whither the gods had now been banished. The most famous was the Blocksberg in the Hartz mountains in Germany.
"Dame Baubo first, to lead the cerw!
A tough old sow and the mother thereon,
Then follow the witches, every one."
--GOETHE: Faust. (Taylor trans.)
In Norway the mountains above Bergen were a resort, and the Dovrefeld, once the home of the trolls.
"It's easy to slip in here,
But outward the Dovre-King's gate opens not."
--IBSEN: Peer Gynt. (Archer trans.)
In Italy the witches met under a walnut tree near Benevento; in France, in Puy de Dome; in Spain, near Seville.
In these night-ridings Odin was the leader of a wild hunt. In stormy, blustering autumn weather.
"The wonted roar was up among the woods."
Odin rode in pursuit of shadowy deer with the Furious Host behind him. A ghostly huntsman of a later age was Dietrich von Bern, doomed to hunt till the Judgement Day.
Frau Venus in Wagner's Tannhauser held her revels in an underground palace in the Horselberg in Thuringia, Germany. This was one of the seats of Holda, the goddess of spring. Venus herself is like the Christian conception of Freya and Hel. She gathers about her a throng of nymphs, sylphs, and those she has lured into the mountain by intoxicating music and promises. "The enchanting sounds enticed only those in whose hearts wild sensuous longings had already taken root." Of these Tannhauser is one. He has stayed a year, but it seems to him only one day. Already he is tired of the rosy light and eternal music and languor, and longs for the fresh green world of action he once knew. He fears that he has forfeited his soul's salvation by being there at all, but cries,
"Salvation rests for me in Mary!"
At the holy name Venus and her revellers vanish, and Tannhauser finds himself in a meadow, hears the tinkling herd-bells, and a shepherd's voice singing,
"Frau Holda, goddess of the spring,
Steps forth from the mountains old;
She comes, and all the brooklets sing,
And fled is winter's cold.
* * * * *
Play, play, my pipe, your lightest lay,
For spring has come, and merry May!"
--Tannhauser. (Huckel trans.)
praising the goddess in her blameless state.
By the fifteenth century Satan, taking the place of the gods, assumed control of the evil creatures. Now that witches were the followers of the Devil, they wrote their names in his book, and were carried away by him for the revels by night. A new witch was pricked with a needle to initiate her into his company. At the party the Devil was adored with worship due to God alone. Dancing, a device of the pagans, and hence considered wholly wicked, was indulged in to unseemly lengths. In 1883 in Sweden it was believed that dances were held about the sanctuaries of the ancient gods, and that whoever stopped to watch were caught by the dancers and whirled away. If they profaned holy days by this dancing, they were doomed to keep it up for a year.
At the witches' Sabbath the Devil himself sometimes appeared as a goat, and the witches were attended b cats, owls, bats, and cuckoos, because these creatures had once been sacred to Freya. At the fest horse-flesh, once the food of the gods at banquets, was eaten. The broth for the feast was brewed in a kettle held over the fire by a tripod, like that which supported the seat of Apollo's priestess at Delphi. The kettle may be a reminder of the one Thor got, which gave to each guest whatever food he asked of it, or it may be merely that used in brewing the herb-remedies which women made before they were thought to practise witchcraft. In the kettle were cooked mixtures which caused storms and shipwrecks, plagues, and blights. No salt was eaten, for that was a wholesome substance.
The witches of Germany did not have prophetic power; those of Scandinavia, like the Norse Fates, did have it. The troll-wives of Scandinavia were like the witches of Germany--they were cannibals, especially relishing children, like the witch in Hansel and Grethel.
For the fourteenth to the eighteenth century all through Europe and the new world people though to be witches, and hence in the devil's service, were persecuted. It was believed that they were able to take the form of beasts. A wolf or other animal is caught in a trap or shot, and disappears. Later an old woman who lives alone in the woods is found suffering from a similar wound. She is then declared to be a witch.
"There was once an old castle in the middle
of a vast thick wood; in it lived an old woman
quite alone, and she was a witch. By day she
made herself into a cat or a screech-owl, but
regularly at night she became a human being
--GRIMM: Jorinda and Joringel.
"Hares found on May morning are witches and should be stoned," reads an old superstition. "If you tease a cat on May Eve, it will turn into a witch and hurt you."