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Our Fathers' Godsaga : Retold for the Young.
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In Northern countries the corn-harvest is also the beginning of the winter, which holds sway during an interminable series of months. The field lies hidden under a thick covering of snow waiting for the coming of the new spring. The days of the winter-solstice are a period of utter darkness, but at the same time a turning-point of high importance. The forces of fertility will from this day onwards slowly awaken to new life and the thoughts of the peasant are constantly turning towards the crop of the coming year. Here is a meeting-point between the waning growing-power of the former year and the waxing one of the following. Now, by any small inadvertency, this essence of fertility, being in the weakest possible condition, may be lost altogether. Hence it is necessary to secure its continuation and it is only natural that the last sheaf, containing this very 'fertilizing power, plays a prominent part in the ceremonial festivals of this time. [24]

But in these days the dead forefathers are commemorated. The reason of their being honoured especially at Yule-tide is not sufficiently clear; the influence of the Christian church may have caused considerable changes in the original state of things. At any rate, autumn seems to be very appropriate for a sacrifice to the dead. All kinds of spirits are then freely moving through the upper-world 57); the darkness and the storms are peopled with a host of mythical beings by the terrified imagination of man.

Feasts of the dead and rites of fertility took place in the same months, occasionally even during the same weeks. A mutual influence was inevitable. As soon as the power of fertility had been developed into a personal being and on the other hand the dead ancestors were considered to be responsible for the fertility of the soil, it would be quite impossible to make any clear distinction between the two categories of mythical beings. The gradual change of the impersonal growing essence into a definite animal or human shape seems to me mainly due to the influence exerted by the conception of the relation between the dead ancestors and the fertility of the soil.

So in a general way we may be convinced of a constant interrelation between both series of religious practices and representations. Are there, moreover, any special motives to account for their being so inextricably commingled?

5. The Wild Hunt and Othin

The animal forms of the vegetation spirit are in many respects the same as those of the souls of the dead. So the dog, the horse, the hare, the pig are likewise known as belonging to the realm of death as well as to the mysterious powers of fertility. It is difficult to decide in which [25] connection each animal has originated. The pig, as the animal of astonishing fecundity seems exceedingly appropriate for the theriomorphic representation of the fertility spirit; on the other hand it may easily be brought into close connection with the inhabitants of the underworld because it likes to root in the ground with its snout. Why should it not be possible that it has been applied to two different religious conceptions from the very beginning?

Of course it must be borne in mind that the intimate relations between the religious representations of the powers of fertility and the spirits of the dead belong to the very essence of these notions. But they are so very complicated that they have, each separately, their domain as well. The idea of the last sheaf as the residence of the growing power of the corn-field has nothing to do with spirits of the dead; so the Wild Hunt has no connection whatever with agricultural practices. Still during the long ages of development even in such originally widely separated domains, mutual influences have been at work and these influences were not only the result of similitudes in the religious attitude towards the powers of death and of fertility, but even of fortuitous and superficial points of contact.

The ideas of the Wild Hunt are a case in point. In large parts of the Germanic world we meet with the belief in a ferocious spirit riding about during the stormy nights of autumn and winter. In the southern parts of Germany, as well as on the borders of the Lower Rhine and in Thuringia people believe that a host of raging spirits (das Wütende Heer) is sweeping along in the gales; these spirits are commonly considered to be damned souls, who must restlessly wander till the Day of Judgment. But we find also another conception: a spectral huntsman is careering along on his horse, pursuing a naked female whom he finally catches and throws in front of him across the back of his steed. This is the popular belief in the-plains [26] of Northern Germany and in the Scandinavian countries, but it is deeply rooted also in England and in Northern France 58).

A treatment of this belief in its details lies beyond the scope of this paper; moreover we have an excellent monograph on the subject by Axel Olrik in Dania. VIII entitled “Odinsjægeren i Jylland”. In contiguous and even partly overlapping regions of the Scandinavian territory where the custom of sacrificing the last sheaf or bundle of grass 'to the horse of Othin is known, the Wild Huntsman is identified with the same god. And we are justified in concluding that in both cases the name of Othin has been introduced into a mythical conception which originally perhaps had nothing to do with this heathen deity. Still it seems natural that Othin was not brought into connection with these spheres of religious belief quite independently; it is more likely that he has first been adopted in one of them and afterwards transferred to the other.

Which of them has to be considered as the first stage of this development, does not seem difficult to say. The close connection of Othin and his horse makes it clear that it is as Lord of the Dead he started on this new career. This is too the opinion of Olrik, who says on p. 162 of the above mentioned paper, that the transition of the Wild Huntsman to a deity, a supernatural being of a friendly character, is very abrupt and fanciful, neither is it the logical result of the original animistic belief, nor does it belong to the same development as the local traditions. The Wild Huntsman shows the tendency to grow into a god of the cattle, a god of the corn or a god of the homestead 59).

There is then, besides the problem of the relation between Othin and modern agricultural practices, still another question: the connection between the leader of the Wild Hunt in popular belief and the heathen divinity. It is again Axel Olrik who has formulated this problem with his [27] usual acumen. The Wild Huntsman is named Othin only in a very limited territory, especially in Southern Sweden and the Juttish peninsula; we may perhaps add Westphalia, where we find the names as Woenjäger, Hodenjäger and Bodenjäger, furthermore the coast of the North Sea, where he is called Woiinjäger, and Holstein with the name of the Wohljäger. But besides these regions we find him called simply the Wild Huntsman, “Der Wilde Jäger”. Have we to consider these last regions as having forgotten his original divine name, or must we suppose on the other hand that we find here the primitive conception of a nameless spirit which has afterwards developed into a personal god and has been confounded with Otbin?

Olrik does not venture to come to a conclusion before entering upon a more elaborate investigation of the various forms of this popular belief; still it seems necessary to me to make at any rate some observations of a more theoretical character and to come to a provisional conclusion, although the attempt is not likely to yield an entirely satisfactory result.

The choice must be made not between two, but between three possibilities: for we have not only a Wild Huntsman with no name whatever and a god Othin, but we have also this same mythical being with a name that, although bearing some resemblance with that of the pagan deity, still shows signs of a more original form and of a higher antiquity. Just as the last sheaf is sacrificed not only to the horse of Othin, but also to a demon Wode, Wold, Waul, so the Wild Huntsman is called in one region Un or Wåjen, in another Woejäger, or Wohljäger. I do not agree with Olrik that these latter names should be explained as later modifications of an original name Wodan. At any rate we have to consider the striking fact that the corn-spirit too has the same shorter names which may be after all a more original form than the divine name Wodan 60). [28]

It is indeed hard to say of how many different religious conceptions the present popular superstitions about the Wild Hunt are the result. When we say that during the storms of winter the damned souls are racing along through the sky, we give by such a sentence the result of a historical development in which at least three different layers may be distinguished.

The most primitive is the effect of natural phenomena upon human mind; the roaring and whistling of a furious storm, dashing through the trees of the forest or sweeping across the farm-yard, makes man shudder with the impression of frightful supernatural forces. The weird cries of birds of passage flying through the sky in the dark of the night can make a deep impression upon the imagination. The Danish folklorist Feilberg has had the following experience in the neighbourhood of Odense 61): as he once came home in the evening, he heard just at the moment of opening the house-door, a buzzing noise far away but rapidly approaching. Presently the barking and howling of dogs was heard and when it was right over him it seemed as if all the dogs of Odense were engaged in a most desperate fight. Feilberg, however, was a clear-minded young man; he at once remembered the traditions of the Wild Hunter who sweeps along with his dogs through the sky and the next day he asked his teacher what kind of migratory birds he might have heard 62). Primitive man, naturally, was only struck with awe by such a strange phenomenon.

The idea of spirits moving invisibly through the sky lay near at hand as an explanation of such terrifying cries and noises; at all events they could not be explained otherwise than as a manifestation of living beings. These spirits may have been considered simply as the representations of natural phenomena such as the stormwind, the roaring forest, in a human form, or else as mortal souls freed from the [29] body by death. The fact that the furious storms are much more frequent in autumn and winter and that the long dark winter nights are especially favourable for such conceptions coming into being, and that the birds of passage are going southwards during this part of the year, may account for the belief that the spirits of the dead are hovering about at this same time and are then particularly dangerous.

Modern superstition regards them as damned souls; here we meet the third, the Christian layer. According to Christian belief these souls obviously have this dreadful fate as a punishment for actions by which they transgressed the divine laws 63). But the germ of this conception certainly lies already in heathen times, when the dead ancestors were supposed to reside in the burial mound of the family, while those, feared by man for their cruelty, their witchcraft or other uncommon mental qualities, might leave their graves to worry the living. Especially those who had fallen in battle and whose corpses were left to the wolf and the raven, could find no rest after death; they formed an army of spirits continuously fighting on with the fury of their supreme battle. The Old Norse traditions about the battle of the Hjaðningar as well as the religious conceptions of the einherjar, are offsprings of this same root.

But the South Scandinavian tradition does not know the conception of a raging host of spirits (das wütende Heer), but of a Wild Huntsman. So here the idea of Othin as the lord of the warriors fallen in battle probably does not lie at the bottom of this superstition. The Wild Huntsman is not necessarily a lonely wanderer through the darkness for he may be followed by a train of other huntsmen, just like any real hunting-party; and so both notions are imperceptably flowing into each other. The Aasgaardsrei or in a more phonetic form, the Oskorei, of Norwegian folklore seems to me more like a spiritual host than a Wild Hunt. But in Danish tradition the idea of a [30] solitary huntsman prevails, pursuing the female spirits of the forest. And it is as “Odinsjægeren” that he constantly appears to the Juttish peasants. The ties that bind this figure of lower mythology with the heathen god Othin, seem to me rather weak.

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