E IGHT hundred years ago, when the galleys of the bold Norsemen were scudding through storm and mist far into the unknown western seas, or, in the soft summer of the Mediterranean, riding at anchor in the ports of Italy and Northern Africa, the old stories of the battles of the gods and the giants that had been repeated for hundreds of years by Norse firesides in the long winter evenings were brought together by Saemund the Wise in Iceland, and were known henceforth as the Elder Edda; and a hundred years later Snorre Sturleson retold the same old stories, with others equally marvellous, in the Younger Edda. These ancient books, which a brave and noble race carried in its heart through all its wide wanderings and conquests, take one back to the beginning of time, and tell of the birth of the worlds and the coming of the gods to rule over them.
Norway faces the sea with a line of cliffs so massive that their foundations seem everlasting. Islands without number rise out of the tossing waves; the deep, tranquil waters of the fjords, overhung with fir-covered mountains, and bright at night with the quenchless splendour of the stars, flow through narrow channels to the outer ocean; and against the sky great mountains stand vast and immovable, as if from eternity to eternity. No Norseman, steering his adventurous galley along these rocky shores, seeing, perhaps, the mighty rush of the polar seas against the North Cape, and hearing the long reverberation of Thor's hammer roll from mountain peak to mountain peak, would have believed that these things had not been as he saw them from the very beginning, if the Eddas, wiser than any wisdom of man, had not told him of a time when even the gods had not begun to live, and in the vast space where no worlds hung and no heavens shone there was nothing but the unseen spirit of the great All-Father, solitary and silent in the depths.
Not even the Eddas are able to reveal his thoughts or to describe his life in the awful solitariness of a silent universe; they can only declare that in his own good time he began to build the worlds, and far in the north Niflheim rose out of the depths, the land of eternal winter wrapped in fogs and mists, and far in the south Muspelheim, the land of quenchless fire, glowing with unspeakable heat and overhung with clouds and fiery sparks, in the midst of whose blinding heat and light sat Surt, guarding the kingdom of fire with a flaming sword. Between the land of ice and the land of fire yawned the bottomless abyss, Ginungagap, black and fathomless, and into it the rivers of Niflheim poured with soundless fury, and as the icy streams fell into the darkness they congealed and hung in great masses from the northern edges of the abyss; and over the awful chasm and the silent cataracts icy fogs gathered and bitter winds swept.
Against the whirling snows and shifting fogs of Niflheim glowed the wandering flames and floating fires of Muspelheim, throwing broad beams of light far into the sunless abyss, and sending a wide glow through the drifting snow. Glittering sparks shot into the silent space above and floated far off towards the north like stars that had wandered from their courses; and as the icy mist met the burning heat in the upper air, it hung motionless for a brief moment and then fell drop by drop into the abyss, and there, out of heat and cold, fire and fog, in darkness and solitude, the giant Ymer grew into life. To give him food the cow Audhumbla was made, and as she stood nourishing the giant with her milk, she licked the icy stones which were covered with salt, and straightway the head of a man began to take shape, grew larger, and on the third day the man stood upright, fair of face and mighty of stature; and his name was Bure. Now Bure had a son, whom he called Bor, and Bor, in turn, became the father of Odin, Vile, and Ve, the first of the gods. The giant Ymer also was the father of many children who were frost-giants and enemies of the gods.
At last they fell upon him and slew him
Ymer grew to such vast size, and was so full of evil, that Odin, Vile, and Ve could not live in peace with him, and at last they fell upon him, and slew him, and the blood poured in such torrents from his great body that all the giants, save Bergelmer and his wife, were drowned; these two alone escaped on a chest, and from them the whole race of the frost-giants sprang. The gods dragged Ymer's body into the centre of the abyss, and there they fashioned the world out of it. They wrought with divine beauty and power, spreading out the great plains, cutting the deep valleys through the hills, filling the wide seas and sending the waters far up into the deep fjords; and over all they stretched the bending heaven, and north, south, east, and west set a dwarf to keep it in place; and they caught the great sparks that floated out of Muspelheim and set them in the sky, until the splendour of the stars shone over the whole earth. Around the world lay the deep sea, an endless circle of waters, and beyond it were the dreary shores of Jotunheim, the home of the frost-giants.
To the giantess Night, and to her beautiful son Day, whose father was of their own number, the gods gave chariots and swift horses that they might ride through the sky once in every twenty-four hours. Night drove first behind the fleet Hrimfaxe, and as she ended her course at dawn bedewed the waiting earth with drops from his bit; Day flew swiftly after his dusky mother, the shining mane of his horse, Skinfaxe, filling the heavens with light. There was also one Mundilfare, who had a son and daughter of such exceeding beauty that he called the one Maane, or Moon, and the other Sol, or Sun; and the gods were so angry at his daring that they set the one to guide the Sun and the other the Moon in their daily courses around the world. So day and night, summer and winter, seed-time and harvest, were established.
In the very centre of the earth rose a lofty mountain, and on the top of it was the beautiful plain of Ida, overlooking all lands and seas. Here the gods came when their work was done, and looked upon all that they had made and saw that it was fair; the earth, green and fruitful, blossomed at their feet, and the heavens bent over them radiant with sun by day and filled with the soft splendour of moon and stars by night. And they chose the plain of Ida for their home, and built the shining city of Asgard. In the midst of it stood a hall of pure gold, whose walls were circled with the thrones of the twelve gods, and they called it Gladsheim. There was a noble hall for the goddesses also, and homes for all the gods. They made ready a great smithy, and filled it with all manner of tools, anvils, hammers, and tongs, with which to forge the weapons that were to slay the giants and keep the world in order. From earth to heaven they stretched Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, over which they passed and repassed in their journeyings.
When the work was done, and Asgard shone like a beautiful cloud overhanging the world, there came a time so peaceful and happy that it was called the Age of Gold. The gods had endless sport in games of skill and strength on the plains of Ida, and day and night the fires blazed in the smithy, as, with wonderful skill, they fashioned all kinds of curious things. There was no care nor sorrow anywhere; no clouds darkened the sun, no blights fell on the growing fields, no mighty tasks pressed on the hearts of the gods summoning them out of ease and pleasure to great enterprises and awful perils. At last the happy time came to an end, for one day the Norns, or fates, the three terrible sisters, Urd, Verdande, and Skuld, who determined the course of events and shaped the lives of things, took their abode at the foot of the tree Ygdrasil, and henceforth not even the gods were free from care.
The earth was fruitful, but no one tilled its field or crossed its seas; the shouts of children at play and the ringing voices of the reapers and harvesters were never heard. So the gods took the earth-mould and out of it they made the dwarfs and set them to work in the veins of metal and in dark caverns under ground. It happened also one day that Odin, Hœner, and Loder were walking together along the shore of the sea, and they came upon an ash and an elm, two beautiful trees, straight and symmetrical and crowned with foliage. Odin looked at them long, and a great thought came into his mind.
"Out of these trees," he said at last, "let us make man to fill the earth and make it fruitful, and he shall be our child, and we will care for him."
And out of the ash and the elm the first man and woman were made, and the gods called the man Ask and the woman Embla.