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An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 116

JAPANESE MYTHIC LITERATURE

Japan is rich in mythic literature, perhaps the most valuable of its mythic books being the Kojiki, or "Record of Ancient Matters." The traditions embraced in it are said to have been recited by a court lady, Hiyeda No Ra Rae, endowed with an extraordinary memory, and commanded by the Emperor Temmu, who flourished at the end of the seventh century A.D., to absorb all the mythical and historical materials she could and then to dictate them to a scribe. But the emperor died before he could give final instructions concerning the scheme, and for twenty-five years Hiyeda carried these mythic annals in her brain, patiently awaiting the day when Temmu's successor could furnish her with a scribe. At length the Empress Gemmyo took the matter up in A.D. 712, and gave her as helper the scribe Yesumaro. The Kojiki is written in archaic[Pg 260] Japanese, and describes the divine origin of the Japanese race and the story of creation given elsewhere in this book, before it goes on to treat of the annals of early sovereigns. The Nihongi, or "Chronicles of Japan," is written in the classical or Chinese style, and goes over much the same ground as the Kojiki, the songs of which it occasionally alters slightly, supplementing here and omitting there, but it is by no means so Japanese in character. It is, however, much more valuable as a repository of myth and history. The mythology of these books is, of course, Shintoism. The principal gods and heroes and their adventures, divine and terrestrial, are described, and one of the chief tales recounts the quarrel of the sun-goddess with her brother Susa-no-o. The sun-goddess, Ama-terasu, is, of course, an important figure in these mythic annals, as from her sprang the line of the mikados. The great cycle of myths collected in these annals is known as the "Period of the Gods," and may be compared with the divine cycles of the Celts, or the Popol Vuh.

THE EDDAS

The Teutons of the North do not appear to have possessed any very ancient written records of their mythology. The Prose, or Younger, Edda is a miscellaneous group of writings collected by Snorri Sturlason (1178-1241), who completed the work about 1222. The name 'Edda' does not appear to have been originally bestowed upon it by its author, and Scandinavian scholars find some difficulty in explaining it. It was, it is thought, composed by different hands between the years 1140 and 1160. It is divided into four parts, with a preface, which, after the fashion of that period, purports to furnish the reader with a history of human affairs from the beginning. The second part, "Gylfaginning," or "The Delusion of Gylfi," is a valuable compendium of early Scandinavian myth. It deals, in the first place, with the adventures of the mythical king Gylfi and the giantess Gelfion, the manner of creation of the island of Zealand, and the invasion of Sweden by the Æsir or divine beings, captained by Odin. The third part, the "Bragaræthur," or "Sayings of Bragi," contains mythical poems attributed to[Pg 261] Bragi, the god of poetry. The remainder of the Younger Edda deals with the poetic art, and therefore does not fall to be described here. Sturlason's collection is fortified by another work called the Ynglinga Saga, which describes how the hero-gods of the Scandinavian race advanced from the Black Sea northward through Russia and westward through Esthonia, overrunning the south of Scandinavia and founding kingdoms there. Of this work three important manuscripts are still extant, the Wurm Manuscript, the Codex Regius, and, most important of all, the Upsala Codex, probably written about the year 1300.

The Elder Edda, or the Poetic Edda, discovered by Bishop Sveinsson in 1643, was attributed by him to Sæmund Sigfusson, a royal Norwegian who flourished in Iceland from about 1055 to 1132. He was mistaken, for the fragmentary poems it contains are probably rather earlier. They deal with the myths of early Scandinavian civilization, and are composed in a simple and archaic form of Icelandic. Who composed them we do not know, but they were almost certainly collected from oral tradition. The most important and interesting of these ancient poems is the "Völuspá" or prophecy of the Völva, or Sybil, who from her lofty seat addresses Odin, singing of the primeval times before even the gods were created, of the origin of the Jötunn of men and dwarfs, and of the last dreadful doom in the 'twilight of the gods' at Ragnorök. The whole composition is intensely mystical in both atmosphere and wording, shows knowledge of a cosmology different from that of later Scandinavian times, and is on the whole extremely difficult to understand. Next we have "Hávamál" ("Lesson of the High One"), a collection of saws and proverbs, containing a series of stories told by Odin to his own discomfiture. This is true matter of mythology, and is the sort of material which strengthens the theory of Lang and others that myth possesses no religious significance, that it is exoteric to religion, the truth, of course, being that the above is only one type of myth—the secular as opposed to the sacred. The cosmogony and chronology of the Scandinavian religion are set forth in the "Vafprúthnismál," or "Lesson of Vafprúthnir," a giant who is visited by Odin in[Pg 262] disguise and catechized by him. Many burlesque stories of the gods are also told in "The Journey of Skirnir," "The Lay of Hoarbeard," and "The Brewing of Ægir." In the "Song of Thrym" we are told how a giant of that name stole the hammer of Thor, refusing to restore it unless the goddess Freya was given him to wife, and how Thor, dressed in female garments, took her place, slew the giant, and recovered his hammer. A myth which recounts how the caste system arose in Scandinavia is met with in "Rígsmál," which tells how the god Hemisdal, taking the human name of Rig, bestowed the power of procreation on the two dwarfs Ai and Edda, who became the parents of the race of thralls or bondsmen. A like gift he bestowed on Afi and Ama, who became the parents of the caste of churls. He himself brought up Jarl, the first freeman, instructing him in the arts of war and wisdom. The rest of the Poetic Edda is concerned with pseudo-history, and, among other things, with the long and important series of lays relating to the two heroic families of the Volsungs and the Nibelungs. These, however, are not so much myth as hero-story. The principal manuscript of the Poetic Edda is the Codex Regius in the royal library at Copenhagen, written on forty-five leaves of vellum, probably between 1260 and 1280.


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