Myths of the Norsemen From the Eddas and Sagas

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Many of the elves were supposed to live and die with the trees and plants which they tended, but these moss, wood, or tree maidens, while remarkably beautiful when seen in front, were hollow like a trough when viewed from behind. They appear in many of the popular tales, but almost always as benevolent and helpful spirits, for they were anxious to do good to mortals and to cultivate friendly relations with them.

Images on Doorposts

In Scandinavia the elves, both light and dark, were worshipped as household divinities, and their images were carved on the doorposts. The Norsemen, who were driven from home by the tyranny of Harald Harfager in 874, took their carved doorposts with them upon their ships. Similar carvings, including images of the gods and heroes, decorated the pillars of their high seats which they also carried away. The exiles showed their trust in their gods by throwing these wooden images overboard when they neared the Icelandic shores and settling where the waves carried the posts, even if the spot scarcely seemed the most desirable. “Thus they carried with them the religion, the poetry, and the laws of their race, and on this desolate volcanic island they kept these records unchanged for hundreds of years, while other Teutonic nations gradually became affected by their intercourse with Roman and Byzantine Christianity.” These records, carefully collected by Sæmund the learned, form the [250]Elder Edda, the most precious relic of ancient Northern literature, without which we should know comparatively little of the religion of our forefathers.

Old Houses with Carved Posts

Old Houses with Carved Posts

The sagas relate that the first settlements in Greenland and Vinland were made in the same way,—the Norsemen piously landing wherever their household gods drifted ashore. [251]


Chapter XXVI: The Sigurd Saga

The Beginning of the Story

While the first part of the Elder Edda consists of a collection of alliterative poems describing the creation of the world, the adventures of the gods, their eventual downfall, and gives a complete exposition of the Northern code of ethics, the second part comprises a series of heroic lays describing the exploits of the Volsung family, and especially of their chief representative, Sigurd, the favourite hero of the North.

The Volsunga Saga

These lays form the basis of the great Scandinavian epic, the Volsunga Saga, and have supplied not only the materials for the Nibelungenlied, the German epic, and for countless folk tales, but also for Wagner’s celebrated operas, The Rhinegold, Valkyr, Siegfried, and The Dusk of the Gods. In England, William Morris has given them the form which they will probably retain in our literature, and it is from his great epic poem, by the courteous permission of his trustees, and of his publishers, Messrs. Longmans, Green and Co., that almost all the quotations in this section are taken in preference to extracts from the Edda.


The story of the Volsungs begins with Sigi, a son of Odin, a powerful man, and generally respected, until he killed a man from motives of jealousy, the latter having slain more game when they were out hunting together. In consequence of this crime, Sigi was driven from his own land and declared an outlaw. But it seems that he had not entirely forfeited Odin’s favour, [252]for the god now provided him with a well-equipped vessel, together with a number of brave followers, and promised that victory should ever attend him.