Nothing is known of a cult paid to this god, but what is said of him in the Eddas points to his being one of the older Æsir. Snorri gives no separate account of him, but mentions him mainly in connexion with other gods.1 In Voluspa he is associated with Odin and Lodur in the creation of Ask and Embla, giving them soul or reason, and the three gods are called “mighty and benevolent.” He is also joined with the same gods (if Lodur is Loki) in the stories of Idunn and of Andvari.2 A ballad of the Faroe Islands introduces the same gods, calling them Ouvin, Honir, and Lokkji. A peasant had lost his son to a giant at a game of draughts, and prayed the three gods to help him. Ouvin made a field of barley spring up in a night, and hid the boy in an ear of the barley. When the giant cut this down, the ear fell from his hand and Ouvin brought back the boy to his father. Next Honir hid him in a feather on the neck of one of seven swans. The giant caught them, but the feather fell out and the boy escaped. Finally Lokkji changed him into an egg in a flounder’s roe. This also escaped from the giant, who was slain by Lokkji. All this has been interpreted mythologically, but it is nothing more than the invention of a poet to whom the association of the three gods was known, making use also of a common folk-tale motif.3
This association of the gods is remembered by the skalds. Hœnir is “bench-mate,” “friend,” “companion” of Odin, and Loki is Hœnir’s “companion” and “staunch friend.” Snorri
calls Hœnir “the swift god,” “the long-footed god,” and “king of clay” or “moisture,” or, as some interpret the Norse words, “king of eld” (aur-konúng).4 What lies behind these titles is unknown, and the myths which may have given rise to them have not survived. In a Saga fragment Hœnir is called “the most timorous” of the Æsir.”5 This may refer to the account of his being sent as a hostage to the Vanir, when his apparent goodliness proved illusory, as already narrated.6 In this story he is a big, handsome being, but stupid, unlike the Hœnir who gave reason to Ask and Embla.
After the Doom of the gods, Hœnir survives and appears in the renewed world. There he chooses the hlaut-viþr, i.e., a slip of wood with runes engraved on it.7 This perhaps signifies his knowledge of the future.
Heimdall (ON Heimdallr) is an enigmatic being, and he has been regarded as a mere creation of the skalds, a poetic form of the old Heaven-god. But this is to over-emphasize the poverty of Teutonic polytheism, as well as the argument from silence. Though enigmatic, Heimdall stands out as an actual mythic being.
Heimdall, called also Vindler, is included among the Æsir by Snorri and in Grimnismal: he is “of the race of the gods,” according to Hyndluljod, and a son of Odin.8 In the Eddic poems he is “whitest of the gods,” and, like the Vanir, he knows the future. His abode is in Himinbjorg, where in a pleasant house, he, the watchman of the gods, drinks mead. The name Himinbjorg, “Heaven mountain,” is still used in Norway for a steep mountain sloping down into the sea. Heimdall is “the man mighty in arms,” and, as watchman of the gods, he has a horn, the Gjallar-horn, which meanwhile rests under the ash Yggdrasil, if the Voluspa poet is not here making it take the place of Odin’s eye. It is curious that the divine watchman’s
horn should not be beside him. Before the Doom of the gods, this horn will be blown as a warning.9
The human race, high and low, are Heimdall’s children, or, as in Rigsthula, where he is called Rig, he is ancestor of the jarls, yeomen, and thralls. He went along the shore and came to a dwelling, where he called himself Rig. There he begat a son Thrill on his hostess Edda, and he was the first of the thralls. Then he went to another house, where Amma bore to him Karl, the first of the yeomen or karls. In a third dwelling he was received by Fathir and Mothir, and the latter became by him mother of Jarl, the first of the jarls. As Rig, Heimdall is called the brave, old, wise god, the bold, robust walker, and he knows well to speak wise words. Heimdall is “the kinsman of men,” endowed with unusual strength, and is celebrated in weapons. He is son of nine giantesses, Gjolp, Greip, Eistla, Eyrgjafa, Ulfrun, Angeyja, Imd, Atla, and Jarnsaxa. This account of his parentage is given in Hyndluljod, and by the skald Ulf Uggason, as well as in a fragment of the lost Heimdalar-galdr, cited by Snorri: —
In Lokasenna Heimdall opposes Loki, and is told by him to be silent, for in the old time an evil fate was fixed for him. Now he must stand with stiff neck and keep guard as watcher of the gods.11 We have already seen how he advised Thor to disguise himself as Freyja and thus go to the giant Thrym.
Snorri combines much of this and gives further details about Heimdall. He is “the white god,” great and holy, born of nine sisters. He is also called Hallinskidi, “ram” (?), and Gullintani, “Golden teeth.” His horse is Gulltopp, “Gold top,” on which he rode at Balder’s funeral. He dwells in Himinbjorg, close by Bifrost, at the end of Heaven by the bridge head, where Bifrost joins Heaven. He is warder of the gods, and sits there to guard the bridge from the Hill-giants. Less sleep
does he need than a bird; by night or day he sees equally well a hundred leagues; he hears grass growing on earth and wool on sheep, as well as everything that has a louder sound. He has the Gjallar-horn, the blast of which is heard through all worlds.12
The statements regarding Heimdall as watchman of the gods point to the reality of his personality. The dualistic form of Eddic mythology — gods opposed by giants — may early have suggested this need of watchfulness, therefore of a watchman ever guarding the frontier of the gods’ realm from the approach of their enemies, just as a watchman was needed against enemies among men. For this reason it is said of him that he needs little sleep, though this, as well as his miraculous sight and hearing, belongs to universal folk-tale formulae. Such powers are distributed among various beings who help a hero in his adventures.13 This “white god” or “whitest of the gods” may be a god of light, light being essential to such functions as his.
As son of nine giantesses, perhaps the nine daughters of Ægir and Ran, who are the waves, though their names differ, he was born at the edge of the world. If we regard these giantesses as personifications of the waves, or, possibly, of mountains, Heimdall might be regarded as a personification of the day dawning out of the sea or over the mountains that look down upon it. Another suggestion regarding his birth is that the myth alludes to nine reincarnations of the god.14
The skalds called a sword “Heimdall’s head,” “for it is said that he was pierced by a man’s head.” This was told in the lost Heimdalar-galdr, and since then a head was called “Heimdall’s fate,” and a sword “man’s fate.” Heimdall’s sword was also called “head.”15 Does this mean that there was some myth of Heimdall’s having been slain by a head, or is it merely an obscure way of referring to his death at the future Doom when he and Loki slay each other? If the former, then Heimdall must have been reborn, for he is still to die at the last battle, and this would lend support to the theory of his nine reincarnations.
In Hyndluljod it is said of his ninefold birth that he was nourished “with the strength of earth, with the ice-cold sea, and with the blood of swine.” As Heimdall was born at the world’s edge, i.e., where sea and land meet, this may account for the reference to earth and sea, while “the blood of swine” would mean sacrificial blood. The lines are believed by some editors to have been transferred to Hyndluljod from Guthrunarkvitha where earth, sea, and swine’s blood are components of the magic drink given by Grimhild to Gudrun.16
Heimdall is called “the foe of Loki,” “the seeker of Freyja’s necklace,” “the frequenter of Vagasker and Singasteinn, where he fought with Loki for the necklace Brisinga-men.” According to Ulf Uggason’s Husdrapa, Heimdall and Loki were then in the form of seals, and Snorri quotes some lines of the poem which refer to this without throwing much light upon it.17 Loki must have stolen and hid the necklace, perhaps in some cliff by the sea, and he and Heimdall, transformed to seals, fought for it, and Heimdall apparently recovered it. Examples of such transformation combats occur in Celtic and other mythologies. The enmity between Loki and Heimdall culminates at the Doom of the gods when each slays the other.
As men are “Heimdall’s sons,” as he is “kinsman of men and of all rulers,” and “holds sway over men,” Heimdall is in some sense regarded as creator or progenitor as well as ruler of men and orderer of their classes.18 In the prose Introduction to Rigsthula, probably later than the poem itself, Rig (from Old Irish rig, “king”) is identified with Heimdall, and it is said that “old stories” tell the narrative which is the subject of the poem. Some critics think that Odin, not Heimdall, is Rig. While this is possible, the references in the other Eddic poems to Heimdall in relation to men, support the identification of the Introduction. In the third son, Jarl, Rig took peculiar interest, calling him by his name, Rig-Jarl, teaching him runes, and bidding him possess his wide heritage. The poem serves as a
eulogy of kingship, and to trace the descent of a royal house to a god.
Grimm compared Heimdall at Heaven’s bridge to the angel guarding Paradise with a sword, and his horn blown before the Doom to the trumpet blown by the angel at the Last Day. Heimdall’s strife with Loki is a parallel to that of Michael and Satan. Such Christian conceptions might have influenced the myth of Heimdall, but granting a bridge from Heaven to earth and an expected attack on the gods’ abode, nothing is more likely than that it should have a divine watchman with a horn.19
Of a cult of Heimdall nothing is known, though his name occurs in certain place-names.
Ull (ON Ullr) was son of Thor’s wife Sif by an unknown father, and stepson of Thor, called “Ull’s glorious step-sire “and his kinsman.20 He is fair of face and has all the accomplishments of a warrior, therefore men do well to call on him in single combats. He is so excellent a bowman and snow-shoe runner that none may vie with him. Hence he is called “Snowshoe-god,” “Bow-god,” “Hunting-god,” and “Shield-god.21 This is Snorri’s account of him.” His ring is mentioned in Atlakvitha as that on which oaths were taken, probably a ring attached to or laid on an altar-stone, and the custom of swearing on such a ring is mentioned in Sagas. Odin singles out Ull by name along with the gods when he is bound between two fires, as recounted in Grimnismal:
“Ull’s favour and that of all gods Has he, who first in the fire will reach; The dwelling can be seen by the sons of the gods, If one takes the kettle from its hook.”22
Odin here refers to the torments he is suffering between the fires. Let some one draw away the kettle from its hook and
the gods will be able to look down through the roof-opening which served as a chimney, and see his perilous position.
Ull dwells in Ydalir, “Yew-dales,” an appropriate place for a god of the bow, since bows were made of yew. One manuscript of Snorri’s Edda, in the passage which tells of the steeds of the gods, says that Ull had many horses.23
Ull’s name means “the lordly,” “the majestic,” and is the equivalent of Gothic wulþus, “glory.” The few notices regarding him suggest his former importance, waning before that of other gods. Many place-names, especially in Sweden, contain his name, and show that his cult was widespread.24 As Snow-shoe-god Ull’s original sphere would be the more northerly parts of Scandinavia, unless he is to be regarded as ruling more particularly in winter. He has been regarded as a Finnish god, or a god worshipped in the region where Finns and Scandinavians mingled. Skadi, who may have been a Finnish goddess, is also characterized by her snow-shoes. Ull would thus be her male counterpart. The shield, according to the skalds, was “the ship of Ull,”25 that on which he travelled — a reference to a lost myth, though skjold, “shield,” may be an error for skid, “snow-shoe,” the snow-shoes on which he journeyed over the snow-fields. An interesting comment on this skaldic periphrasis, which may point to its origin in folk-custom, is found in what Plutarch says of the Cimbri, when opposing the Romans in the Alps. They climbed to the tops of the hills and, placing their broad shields under their bodies, let themselves slide down the slopes — a primitive kind of toboggan.26 Olerus in Saxo, the equivalent of Ull, used a bone marked with runes to travel overseas, and quickly passed over the waters. This seems to mingle the travelling on skates made of bone with the skaldic conception of the shield as a ship.27
Ull took Odin’s place when he went into exile and bore his name, as Saxo relates. This points to his high place, as does also the phrase “Ull and all the gods” in Grimnismal, where he is singled out by name as if of great importance. That he, as the
glorious god, was a form of Tiuz, ousted by Odin, is doubtful. More likely he was a native Scandinavian, possibly Finnish, god, whose place and cult were taken by Odin — a fact indicated in Saxo’s story of Odin and Ollerus.
Recent research in Scandinavian place-names has caused some scholars to see in Ull and Frey a pair of alternating divine brothers, gods of fertility. They are believed to have been worshipped on two hills near Leira in Sjællend — the place where a nine-yearly sacrifice formerly took place. These hills are the Hyldehög and Frijszhög, and their popular names as recorded three centuries ago, point to the belief that Ull and Frey were buried there. These twin gods were associated in a fertility cult with goddesses, and the cult seems to have contained the representation of a ritual marriage. On a rock called Ullaber (? Ullarberg) near Ullensvang, within recent times a gathering was held on Midsummer Day and a girl was dressed up as a bride.28 The close connexion in one stanza of Grimnismal between Ull’s abode, Ydalir, and Frey’s, Alfheim, whereas those of other deities have each one stanza allotted to them, has also led to the supposition of a connexion between Ull and Frey.29
|“Underwood and luxuriant grass
Fills Vidi, Vidarr’s land;
There springs the youth from the back of his horse
Ready to avenge his father.”31
The latter part of the stanza refers to Vidarr’s deed at the Doom of the gods.
As one of the Æsir present at Ægir’s banquet, Vidarr was bidden by Odin to rise up and let Loki sit down in order that he might not speak words of contempt. Vidarr obeyed and presented Loki with a cup of ale.32 He is the one god present who escapes the acid of Loki’s biting tongue.
At the Doom of the gods, after the Fenris-wolf swallows Odin, Vidarr speeds to meet him and thrusts his sword into the monster’s heart, thus avenging Odin. Snorri quotes this notice from Voluspa, but himself gives a different account. He has told how Vidarr has a thick shoe, hence he is “possessor of the iron shoe.” When Odin met his fate, Vidarr strode forth and set one foot — that on which he wears the shoe — on the lower jaw of the wolf. With one hand he seized the upper jaw, and tore the two apart, killing the monster. This agrees with Vafthrudnismal: “He will tear the jaws of the wolf, so that he will die.” Hence Vidarr is called “Foe and slayer of Fenris-wolf,” and “Avenger of the gods.”33 With Vali, he survives the conflict, unharmed by the sea and Surt’s fire, and dwells in Ithavoll.34
Though Snorri speaks of Vidarr’s shoe as of iron, he gives another description of it, taken from folk-belief. The materials for this shoe have been gathering through the ages, the scraps of leather cut by men from their shoes at heel or toe. He who desires to aid the gods should throw these scraps away. This tradition, which resembles that about the ship Naglfar, formed from dead mens’ nails, must be based on some folk-custom.35
Out of these sparse data and from the supposed source of the god’s name, whether from vid, “forest,” or from Vidi, the plain on which he dwelt, elaborate conceptions of Vidarr have been formed. Kauffmann says: “In the dark solitude of the forest the silent god watches over order and justice in the lives of the gods and men. He is the guardian of peace, and as such the appointed judge of those who disturb it.” He is the god who lives “untouched by wrong; silent and aloof he dwells, far from all crime, the lord of righteousness. . . . His temple
among the Norwegians, as among the German tribe of the Semnones in the time of Tacitus, was the forest with its darkness and awe. In him we recognize the Deus Requalivahanus, “the god dwelling in darkness.” Kauffmann also identifies Vidarr with Heimdall and Hœnir, all forms of one and the same god.36
On the other hand Rœdiger regards Vidarr as the god of the heath-land, wide-spreading, silent, remote. He is a divine personification of the heath with its brooding silence and its undergrowth, its thick grassy and mossy surface, symbolized by the indestructible shoes.37
While the ingenuity of these views does credit to the mythopœic faculty of their authors, they are entirely hypothetical as far as Scandinavian mythology is concerned.
Although no proof of a cult of Vidarr exists, here again the god’s name is found in place-names — Vidarshof, Vidarsgarth, and the like.38
he would give him a horse and sword from his hoard, and a ring, if he would refrain from making mischief among the gods. Loki said that he had none of these things, and that of all present he was the most cowardly in fight and most afraid of darts. Bragi retorted that were he outside the hall he would carry away Loki’s head in his hand as a punishment for lying. Loki taunted him with being valiant on his bench, and ironically called him “the bench-gracing Bragi.” If he is angry, let him fight: a bold man does not sit considering. Idunn now intervened, and said that Bragi was drunk with ale.40 Whether Loki’s accusation was based on a lost myth is unknown.
Critics maintain that Bragi was a creation of the skalds or actually the poet Bragi Boddason (c. 800 A.D.) thus apotheosized by them and regarded as Odin’s son. This Bragi was most noted of all skalds; though, on the other hand, he himself has been regarded as mythical! In Eiriksmal (c. 935) Bragi, the god or the poet, is Odin’s favourite poet. He wonders at the noise of a host approaching Valhall and thinks that it must be Balder returning. In Hakonarmal Odin bids Bragi and Hermod go forth to meet the dead Hakon and invite him to enter Valhall. Bragi tells him how his brothers await him in Odin’s hall and invests him with its honours.41
On the whole, Bragi may be regarded as distinct from the poet of that name. He would be worshipped by skalds as god of poetry, like Ogma among the Irish Celts and his counterpart Ogmios among the Gauls.42 As god of poetry, he takes Odin’s place, for to him this function was attributed, and as “the long-bearded god” (sidskeggia ás) he resembles him, for Odin himself was called Sidskegg and Langbard. In Odin’s court this divine skald, whose personality is at least so well marked as to be assigned Idunn for a consort (after slaying her brother — a myth referred to in Lokasenna,43 but otherwise unknown), has the same place as the skald at a king’s court, and he greets the heroic dead who enter it. His eloquence is emphasized by Snorri, and he is the narrator in Bragarœdur and Skaldskaparmal.
In the first he discusses the poetic art and its origin; in the second he shows how poetry should be composed and tells a number of myths. The wood called Braga-lund in Helgi Hundingsbana is “Bragi’s wood.”44
The cup drunk by the heir at a feast after the death of a king or jarl and in his memory, was called bragar-full, “cup of the foremost,” i.e., of kings or jarls. Drinking it, an oath was taken by the heir, and he was then conducted to his father’s seat. The same name was given to the cup drunk at sacrificial feasts, after those drunk to Odin, Frey, and Njord. A vow was made to perform some great deed which might become the theme of song.45 In Helgakvitha Hforvardssonar Hedin refused an offer made to him by a troll-wife on Yule-eve, and she said: “Thou shalt pay for this when thou emptiest the bragar-full.” That night he vowed at the drinking of the cup to possess Svava, the beloved of Helgi, but repented this so bitterly that he left home and wandered through wild regions.46 The name of this cup is sometimes connected with that of Bragi, as if it had been drunk in his honour, but it is rather derived from bragr in the sense of “the foremost” or “the best,” i.e., king, chief, or hero.
Forseti, “the President,” “he who has the first seat,” the right-speaking god, is son of Balder and Nanna. His hall is called Glitnir, “the Glittering”; it rests on golden pillars and the roof is decked with silver. There he dwells and sits in judgment, reconciling those who are at strife, and who come before him with quarrels arising out of lawsuits. He was thus a god of justice, one to whom the disputes of men must in some way have been submitted. The place-name in Norway, Forsete-lund, “Forseti’s grove,” preserves his name, and points to a seat of his cult.47
The Frisians worshipped a god Fosite, who had a temple on the sacred island of Helgoland or Fositesland. Cattle grazing
near it or anything about it might not be touched, and water from the sacred stream must be drawn in silence. Any one profaning the temple was sacrificed to the god, according to the Frisian folk-law. S. Boniface had striven to convert the Frisians, but the heathen among them had put him to death. His successors carried on his work, but found the Frisians jealous of their temples, sacred springs, and holy places in woods fields, or moorlands. In the early years of the eighth century, Willibrord, when in Helgoland, baptized some of the people in Fosite’s spring. His companions slew some of the sacred animals. The anger of the people was roused: one of the party was offered in sacrifice, and the rest sent back into Frankish territory.48
Fosite is assumed to be the same as Forseti, and his cult to have passed from the Frisians to the Norsemen, who had relations with them. The Norse poets then made him son of Balder.
A curious story is connected by some students with this god. Charlemagne desired the twelve Asegen from the seven Frisian Seelands to tell him what the Frisian law was. They declared that they could not do this, and asked for two days respite, and then for three more. At the end of this time, being still unable to obey the command, they were doomed to punishment, but received the choice of death, slavery, or being set in a ship without sails or rudder. They chose the last, and one of them proposed to call on God for help. As Christ had appeared to His disciples through closed doors, so He would send one who would teach them what the law was and bring them to land. They prayed, and now a thirteenth person was seen among them, with an axe on his shoulder. By its means he steered the ship to land. He threw the axe on the shore and there a well began to spring forth. Hence this place was called Axenthove. Then the stranger taught them the law and vanished. They now returned to Charlemagne and told him what the law was.49 This mysterious personage who thus revealed the Frisian law
is presumed to have been Fosite, giver of law and justice, though the axe would rather suggest Donar.
Vali or Ali, called “brother of the Æsir,” is son of Odin and the giantess Rind, who is counted as one of the goddesses by Snorri. Vali is described as daring in fight and a clever marksman. Like Vidarr he is said to be “a dweller in the homesteads of the fathers.”50 He was born expressly to avenge Balder’s death. In Baldrs Draumar the seeress says to Odin:
Voluspa also says of him that “Balder’s brother is soon born,” and repeats in almost identical words the passage in Baldrs Draumar. The Lesser Voluspa in Hyndluljod speaks of Vali as swift to avenge Balder’s death, when he slew his brother’s slayer. Hence, as Snorri says, Vali is called “Balder’s avenger,” Foe and slayer of Hod.”51
The Eddas relate nothing further of Vali’s origin nor of his act of blood-revenge. In Saxo Vali is called Bous, and the blood-vengeance is long delayed. Bous dies of a wound received in his fight with Hotherus.52
The passages cited from the Edda suggest that while Balder’s corpse was still on the pyre, his slayer’s body was laid beside it. On the other hand, the vengeance seems to be delayed — Vali accomplishes it when one night old, but does not cut his hair or wash his hand till it is completed. The latter points to a period of waiting, and is the heroic aspect of an oath of blood-revenge or of the intention to do a doughty deed. The infant hero who arrives quickly at maturity and vigour is a commonplace of folk-tale and hero-tale — as with the heroes Cuchulainn, Fionn, Magni, son of Thor, Apollo, etc.53
Detter and Neckel explain Vali’s name as derived from Wanilo, “the little Van,” as if he were one of the Vanir, while Neckel assumes that Vali was the avenger, not of Balder, but of his father Frey. Such attempts at explaining away the statements of the Edda are futile. Sievers’ derivation of Vali from *vanula, “shining,” does not agree with anything told of this god.54
Vali takes no part in the strife at the Doom of the gods, but in the renewed world he shares with Vidarr the seats of the gods. While Vidarr and Vali are sons of Odin by giantesses; avengers, one of Odin, the other of Balder; and sharers of the blissful future, they are not necessarily identical, as has been maintained. That both are later creations of poetic fancy, i.e., to fit into the Doom drama, is possible.
In Svipdagsmal the dead Groa recites protective charms to her son, among others one that Rind sang to Ran. Ran is here not the Sea-goddess, but, as the parallel demands, a hero and even a son of Rind. Hence Ran is assumed to be another name for Vali. The Eddas say little of Rind, but from the Swedish place-name Vrindravi,” Rind’s sanctuary,” it is believed that she must have been the object of a cult.55
The Voluspa poet and Snorri tell how Hod will sit down with Balder in peace in the renewed world.58
One of the periphrases for Balder is “Hod’s adversary,”59 and this agrees with Saxo’s story, in which Balder was adversary of Hotherus (Hod), who is here a hero and king of Sweden, not a god. The kennings for Hod were “the blind god,” thrower of the mistletoe,” “companion of Hel,” “foe of Vali.”60
A curious theory of Detter’s as explaining the Balder myth is that Hod was really Odin. Balder and Vali were brothers, connected with Frey, Vali being “the little Van,” one of the Vanir. Odin, the one-eyed or blind god of war, sought to cause strife between the brothers. He placed his spear in the form of a mistletoe-twig in Vali’s hand. Vali threw it at Balder, who was slain.61