Heroes of the Middle Ages  by Eva March Tappan

The Teutons and Their Myths

F OR a long while, as we have seen, the Roman Empire had been growing weaker and the Teutons, or Germans, had been growing stronger. These Teutons were a most interesting people. They were tall and strong, with blue eyes and light hair. They were splendid fighters, and nothing made them so happy as the sound of a battle-cry. They cared nothing for wounds, and they felt it a disgrace for any one to meet death quietly at home. A man should die on the field of battle, thought the Teutons; and then one of the Valkyrs, the beautiful war-maidens of Odin, would come and carry him on her swift horse straight to Valhalla, her armour gleaming as she rode through the air, with the flashing glow which men call the northern lights.


The Ride of the Valkyrs

Valhalla, they believed, was a great hall with shields and spears hanging on its walls. The bravest warriors who had ever fought on the earth were to be found there. Every morning they went out to some glorious battle. At night they came back, their wounds were healed, they drank great cups of mead and listened to songs of deeds of valour. Odin, or Woden, king of the gods, ruled in this hall.



He had a son Thor, who was sometimes called the thunder-god. Thor rode about in a chariot drawn by goats. He carried with him a mighty hammer, and this he threw at any one who displeased him. Tyr, another son of Odin, whose sword Attila thought he had found, was the god of war.

Not all the gods were thunderers and fighters. There was Odin's wife, Freya, who ruled the sunshine and the rain, and who loved fairies and flowers and all things dainty and pretty. Then there was Freya's son, Baldur, whom every one loved, and Loki, whom everyone feared and hated. Loki was always getting the gods into trouble, and it was he who brought about the death of Baldur. Freya had once made beasts and birds and trees and everything on the earth that had life promise never to hurt her son; but the mistletoe was so small and harmless that she forgot it. There was a chance for wicked Loki. It was a favourite game of the gods to shoot arrows at Baldur, for they knew that nothing would harm him. One of the gods was blind, and Loki offered to guide his hand, saying that all ought to do honour to so good a god as Baldur. In all innocence, the blind one threw the twig of mistletoe that Loki gave him. Baldur fell down dead, and had to go forever to the land of gloom and darkness.



The Teutonic story of the creation of the earth was this:—Long ago there was far to the northward a gulf of mist. In the mist was a fountain, and from the fountain there flowed twelve rivers. By and by, the waters of the rivers froze, and then in the north there was nothing but a great mass of ice. Far to the southward was a world of warmth and light. From this a warm wind blew upon the ice and melted it. Clouds were formed, and from them came forth the giant Ymir and his children and his cow. The cow was one day licking the hoar frost and salt from the ice, when she saw the hair of a man. The next day she licked still deeper, and then she saw a man's head. On the third day a living being, strong and beautiful, had taken his place in this strange world. He was a god, and one of his children was Odin. Together the children slew Ymir. Of his body they made the earth, of his blood the seas, of his bones the mountains, of his eyebrows they made Midgard, the mid earth. Odin arranged the seasons, and when the world was covered with green things growing, the gods made man of an ash tree and woman of an alder. An immense ash tree, which grew from the body of Ymir, supported the whole universe. One of its roots extended to Asgard, the home of the gods; one to Jötunheim, the abode of the giants; and one to Niflheim, the region of cold and darkness beneath the earth. It was believed that some day all created things would be destroyed. After this a new heaven and a new earth would be formed in which there would be no wickedness or trouble, and gods and men would live together in peace and happiness. All these fancies had some meaning; for instance, Baldur the beautiful, at sight of whose face all things rejoiced, represented the sunshine.

Poetical as the Germans were in some of their fancies, they were by no means poetical when any fighting was to be done. They had a custom of choosing some man as leader and following him wherever he led; but the moment that he showed himself a poor commander or failed to give them a fair share of whatever spoils they had captured, they left him and sought another chief. When the time had come that the Romans were no longer willing to defend themselves, it seemed to them a most comfortable arrangement to send a messenger to some of the Teuton chiefs to say, "If you will help us in this war, we will give you so much gold." Unluckily for themselves, the Romans looked upon barbarians as nothing more than convenient weapons, and did not stop to think that they were men who kept their eyes open, and who sooner or later would be sure to feel that there was no reason why they, as well as the Romans, should not take what they wanted if they could get it.


A Barbarian Ally of the Romans
(From the Column of Trajan, at Rome.His weapons are a club and a sword.)

The Goths, especially, were always ready to give up their old ways if they found something better; and by the time Alaric invaded Italy, those who lived nearest the Roman territories had learned something of Christianity, and Ulfilas, a Greek whom they had captured in war, had translated nearly all of the Bible into their language. They had learned to enjoy some of the comforts and conveniences of the Romans. They had discovered that there were better ways of governing a nation than their haphazard fashion of following any one who had won a victory; and they had begun to see that it was a good thing to have established cities. But if they gave up their roving life and made their home in one place, they could no longer live by fishing and hunting, for the rivers and forests would soon be exhausted; they must cultivate the ground. We have seen how the Goths had become the most powerful of all the Teutonic tribes. To so warlike a people, it seemed much easier to take the cultivated ground of the Romans than to make the wild forest land into fields and gardens. These were reasons why the Goths, among all the Germans, were so persistent in their invasions of the Roman Empire. There was one more reason, however, quite as strong as these. It was that other tribes even more barbarous than they were coming from Asia, and pressing upon them in order to get their land. The Romans might have found some way to save their country; but they were too busy enjoying themselves to be troubled about such matters. Their only care seemed to be to find the easiest way out of a difficulty, and when a nation is faced by pwerful and determined enemies whose hearts are not set upon a life of ease and luxury, they are sure, sooner or later, to be destroyed.