The theory of the Greek Euhemerus (fourth century B.C.) that the gods were deified men, played an important part in the later Christian interpretation of the deities of different lands. Along with the beliefs that the gods were really devils, this theory that they had been men who, usually by demoniac aid or magic craft, dominated the minds of their fellows and caused them to worship them, was the stock argument against paganism for many centuries. We need not be surprised, therefore, to find it used as an explanation of the origin of the Scandinavian deities, even by the mythographer Snorri himself, who has preserved so much of the old mythology.
Snorri was an enthusiast for the traditions of the past as well as for the poetic art and its fitting expression, but he was a Christian, and therefore could not believe in the truth of these traditions nor in the gods themselves. Hence he says, addressing his audience of youthful skalds, that while they should not forget nor discredit the traditions by removing from poetry the ancient metaphors which originated out of them, yet, on the other hand, Christian men could not believe in pagan gods nor in the truth of the myths about them except in the sense set forth in the beginning of the book.1
The beginning of the book of which he speaks is the Prologue to the Edda, which, because it is written from the euhemeristic point of view in greater or less contradiction to the standpoint of the book itself, has sometimes been regarded as by another hand. On the contrary, Snorri’s definition of his position shows that this Prologue and the traditions or myths of the book are quite in keeping with each other.
The Prologue begins with a notice of the Creation, of Noah and the Flood, and of the races descended from him, and their thoughts about all that they saw around them. The world is divided into three parts — Africa, Europe, and Asia. The centre of the earth, Troy or Turkland, is in Asia,” best of homes and haunts.” Here we notice the influence of the classical tradition of Troy, as distinct from the general medieval view, as in Dante, that Jerusalem was the centre of the earth. In Troy were twelve kingdoms and one high king. In the stronghold were twelve chieftains, and one of these, Munon (Agamemnon), had a son Tror or Thor, by Troan, daughter of Priam. At twelve years old he had attained his full strength, and went forth over all the earth, slaying berserks, giants, dragons, and beasts. He married the prophetess Sibil, “whom we call Sif.” From him, strangely enough, and certainly in contradiction to what is said in the Edda, through a long line of descendants, came Voden, “whom we call Odin,” a man famed for wisdom and every accomplishment. His wife was Frigida (Frigg).
Odin and Frigg had second sight, and thus he knew that his name would be exalted in the northern regions. With a great multitude he journeyed out of Turkland, wandering over many lands, where he and his people seemed more like gods than men. At last they came to Saxland, where Odin abode long, taking possession of the land. In it he set three of his sons to rule — Vegdeg, Beldeg (Balder), and Sigi from whom came the Volsungs. Odin now made his way northwards to Reidgothland (Jutland), where he set his son Skjold, ancestor of the Skjoldings or kings of the Danes.
Going still farther north, Odin came to Sweden, then ruled by Gylfi. When Gylfi heard of the coming of these Æsir, or “men of Asia,” he met them, offering Odin such power in his kingdom as he himself wielded. Learned medieval etymology thus connected the Æsir with Asia. Snorri says that well-being, good seasons, and peace followed on the footsteps of Odin and
the Æsir. Men believed that these were caused by them. The Æsir were unlike all other men in fairness and wisdom.
In this region Odin founded a city called Sigtun, and established chieftains there as in Troy, with twelve doomsmen to judge. He now went to Norway and set his son Sæming to rule there. Another of his sons, Yngvi, was king in Sweden after him, and from him are descended the Ynglings.
Snorri stops short here, without explaining how Odin and his sons came to be worshipped as gods, but it is clear that, in his mind, the gods had once been heroic men. This is more definitely shown in the earlier chapters of the Ynglinga-saga, which forms the first part of his Heimskringla.
Here it is said that a great river, Tanais, flows from the North over Sweden to the Black Sea, dividing Europe and Asia. To the East of it is Asaheim, the land of the Æsir; its chief city is Asgard (the Troy of the Prologue to the Edda). Here a great chieftain, Odin, dwelt. It was a place of blood-offerings, with twelve temple-priests, who ruled the sacrifices and judged between men. They were called Diar or Drotnar, and all men were bound to their service.
Odin was a great warrior and far-travelled, who conquered many realms and was always victorious. He went West and South, even to Saxland, where he set his sons to rule. Thence he journeyed North to an island called now Odin’s island in Fion. Afterwards he went to Gylfi’s land and made peace with him. Gylfi knew that he could not withstand the Æsir, who were mightier than he, especially in magic. Odin abode at the Low and made there a great temple. This he called Sigtun, and here he gave their abodes to the temple-priests. Njord dwelt at Noatun, Frey at Upsala, Heimdall at Himinbjorg, Thor at Thrudvang, Balder at Breidablik.
Having told how Odin and the Diar taught crafts to the North countries, Snorri gives details of Odin’s superiority in many things, especially magic, an account of which will be given in Chapter IV. Hence he grew famous. He taught much of
his cunning to the temple-priests, who were now next to him in magic and craft. Others got knowledge of this magic, and so it spread far and wide and lasted long.
To Odin and these twelve lords men now offered sacrifice and called them gods, and named their children after them — a clear statement of the euhemeristic point of view.
Odin settled laws and arranged how the dead were to be burned with their goods, so that they might come to Valhall. All over Sweden men paid Odin tribute, but he was bound to keep their land from war, and to sacrifice for them for a good year. At last he died in his bed in Sweden, but was marked with a spear-point, claiming as his own all who died by weapons. He said that he would go his way to Godheim and there welcome all his friends. The Swedes thought that he had gone to the Asgard of old days, there to live for ever. So began anew the worship of Odin and vowing of vows to him. The Swedes believed that he showed himself to them in dreams before a battle. To some he gave victory; others he bade come to him; and either lot was held to be good.
To Odin succeeded Njord, and to him Frey, and a similar euhemeristic account is given of these.2
The notices of the deities given by Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum show that he also adopted the euhemeristic theory, probably from Icelandic writers who preceded him and from whom he borrowed. But he differs from Snorri in his incisive and contemptuous way of referring to the gods. He has none of Snorri’s irony or wit or delight in the humour of a story, none of his interest in preserving traditions intact. To him the gods were mortal deceivers and magicians. There had been in old days three races of such magicians. The first was that of the giants. Following them was a race skilled in divination, and surpassing the giants in mental power as these surpassed them in bodily condition. Constant wars for supremacy were waged between them, till the second race subdued the first, and gained not merely rule but also the repute of being
divine. Both races were skilled in the art of delusion and in appearing to change their form or that of others. The third race, springing from the union of the two others, had neither the bodily size nor the skill in magic of their parents, yet they gained credit as gods with those deluded by their magic.3
The second race is apparently the Æsir, but the third is more obscure, and perhaps Vanir, or Alfar, or Dwarfs are intended. The passage, however, is far from clear, and is not connected with what is presently said of Odin and other deities.
According to Saxo the gods first dwelt in Byzantium, which here stands for Asgard, in a senatus divinus or collegium. This resembles Snorri’s account of the temple-priests. Odin was reckoned to be chief of the gods. He was believed all over Europe to have the honour of divinity, which was false. He used to dwell much at Upsala, and the kings of the North, anxious to worship his deity, made an image of him, which they sent to Byzantium. Frey, the regent (satrapa) of the gods, also took up his abode at Upsala.4
These scattered statements are followed by a more definite notice of Saxo’s opinion. In former days there were men who excelled in sorcery — Thor, Odin, and many others. They were cunning in contriving magical tricks, and thus, gaining the minds of the simple, they began to claim the rank of gods. They ensnared Norway, Sweden, and Denmark in the vainest credulity, and by moving these lands to worship them, infected them with their imposture. The effect of this spread far and wide, and men adored a sort of divine power in them, and, supposing them to be gods or in league with gods, they offered up prayers to them. Hence days are called by their names, and Saxo here enters into a short discussion of their equivalence with Roman deities. He concludes by telling his readers that they will now know to what kind of worship their country once bowed the knee.5
Saxo is sometimes satirical towards these deified impostors. When Odin seeks advice from diviners and prophets regarding
vengeance on Balder, he adds this comment: “Godhead that is incomplete is often in need of human help.”6
According to the theories set forth by Snorri and Saxo, the gods had once been kings or priests or men possessed of profound magical powers, and because of their superiority or their cunning, caused credulous people to worship them as deities both before and after their deaths.