"Folklore (Volkskunde) undertakes to investigate all the manifestations of the life of a people, that is to say, of a definite complex of human beings, be it thousands or millions, whose boundaries, historically and geographically, are accurately defined." It is, therefore, "a national and historical science." In one of its branches it investigates "the popular religious opinions and observances, usually comprised under the name of superstitions."
These are the words of K. Weinhold in a very brief but excellent essay, in which he pleads for an historical treatment of what is usually called folklore, a name that has been the subject of some controversy. Accepting Weinhold's exposition, we shall, therefore, have to reserve a place in our historical survey for Teutonic folklore of the Middle Ages and of more recent times.
The task of mythology in the study of folklore is to point out the heathen elements in various Marchen, customs, popular usages, and legal institutions. From the nature of the case, we can here only draw the main outlines and bring forward illustrative examples.
At the very outset we must draw a rather sharp line of demarcation between the stories and the customs. The latter have struck far deeper root in the life of the people than the former. Scholars have long given the Marchen undue prominence. Myths were traced in them; the Marchen was "the poor relation" of myth and heroic saga, the "patois" of mythology. The Sleeping Beauty in the forest was Brunhild; the tale of the faithful John, the myth of Freyr and Gerdhr; and account of the burgomaster of Cologne, who killed a lion in the year 1276, could be nothing else than the myth of Tyr. But this view, although apparently supported by a large number of examples, is now recognized as untenable. In the first place, it is not obvious how and why so large a number of myths should have been converted into popular tales. It has, moreover, been proved that many of these tales are of Oriental origin, having reached Europe through literary channels, and were preserved only after being recast in the popular imagination. Finally, a large number of identical story types may be traced in myths, heroic sagas, and popular tales. Their agreement and spread do not admit of a further explanation.
The case is different with respect to the numerous elements of popular belief and popular usage that may be reduced to conceptions which everywhere characterize the lower stages in the development of the human race. The belief in souls and spirits that roam about, in demoniac possession, in metamorphosis, in a correspondence between vegetable and animal life, in the universal character of soul, in the magic power of various formulas and practices,—in what since the time of Tylor has passed under the general name of "animism,"—is encountered everywhere. In the case of more highly developed peoples, this is held to represent a survival of the primitive savage state. From this point of view "ethnographic parallels" are constantly sought for; what is found, for example, among the Teutons is illustrated by similar customs, perchance of Polynesians, or, nearer at hand, of the nations of classical antiquity. It is obvious, however, that this method does not result in reproducing a picture of the life of a definite people; that in the present instance not what is characteristically Teutonic, but Teutonic parallels for general conceptions, no matter how rich, are brought into relief. Thus Mannhardt arranged the material gathered from the series of questions he had sent to all points of the compass, not historically, but according to certain general points of view.
The question naturally presents itself, whether there is a sufficient amount of material at hand for a different, for a truly historical, treatment of folklore. Fortunately, so far as the Teutonic nations are concerned, this question can be answered in the affirmative. The data usually comprised under the name of folklore constitute part of the material through which we become acquainted with the civilization, the manner, and the customs of a people in the different periods of its historical existence. Folklore is an important study only in connection with this history of culture, and nowhere are we better able to study folklore in its historical environment than on Teutonic soil.
Of a number of usages, we possess direct testimony that they have come down from heathen times, in that they were prohibited as such by West-Gothic, Frankish, or Anglo-Saxon synods, or in ecclesiastical documents. Heathen games, horse races, banquets immediately preceding Ascension day, worship of springs, various kinds of magic blessings, and similar customs, the church strenuously sought to eradicate as survivals of Teutonic paganism. In popular legal forms also and in symbolic actions there is not a little that may be classed under this head. Even in the late Middle Ages a throw with a stone hammer determined the boundary of a field, a custom that must certainly be of ancient origin, since a stone hammer was not a tool commonly used by an archbishop of Mainz or a count of Nassau. The same applies to the figures of the ancient gods that lie concealed behind the personages of Christian saints. Donar-Thor, with his hammer, his red beard, and the dragon that he slays , is clearly recognizable in St. George and St. Olaf; Wodan, with hat, mantle, and dapple-gray horse, or as a wild huntsman, appears in the guise of St. Martin and St. Michael.
There is an extensive literature on the subject of pagan elements in popular belief and observances. In studying these elements, a distinction must be made, not only between what is national and what is universal, what is Teutonic and what is foreign, but also between what has really come down from heathen times and what originated at a later period. In the Middle Ages and even in modern times, the people formed mental images and fashioned customs of life on the pattern of pagan conceptions. Pagan ideas and pagan figures thus continue to exist, but not in fixed, immutable forms. The people are not bound to them, but preserve the old in new and characteristic combinations, adding to the old various new features. Only in this way can we account for existing facts and vindicate for Teutonic folklore an historical character of its own, as an important element in the general history of culture. A few examples will serve to illustrate these statements. We must perforce be brief in our consideration of the subject, since the detailed treatment does not lie within the scope of the present volume.
The collections of popular tales and sagas, arranged according to districts, show how all manner of stories are associated with particular with particular places. Especially forests and springs, but also old castles, are still visited by white women or the old lords of the castle. What strikes us in these stories is that the references to elemental spirits or souls haunting the earth are not of a general character, but that definite occurrences are related. Hence these tales constitute and essential part of the life of the people. Several of their characteristic features have been derived from prehistoric heathen times.
Forests were held in especial veneration by the ancient Teutons. Similarly, Christian synods were compelled to inveigh continually against the worship of springs. We have repeatedly pointed out how much value was attached to keeping alive the memory of the old ancestors and to doing homage to the semi- or totally mythical progenitor of the tribe. But what the peasantry still tell and believe is not simply the echo of the belief of fifteen hundred or more years ago. Historical occurrences from the earlier or later Middle Ages are found as well in these accounts. A collection such as that which Mullenhoff made for the district of Sleswick-Holstein shows this very clearly. Various stories are still current among the people of the ancient mythical characters of Sceaf and Scyld. Tales are also told of a black Griet or a tall Pier, people who have actually existed, but who are treated entirely on the same basis as mythical characters. Finally, a variety of stories are told among the people, the origin of which is not to be traced to either myths or sagas: restricted to a definite locality, they represent a poetically imaginative continuation of ancient belief and custom.
The calendar is especially instructive in this regard. To take an example from the months: In Iceland the names of the first four months of the year are Thorri, Goi, Einmanadhr, Harpa. There is no mythology behind these names. They are largely appellative in origin. But a myth has been created out of them: Thor and Goi are the parents of Einman and Harpa. Each was fetched in and welcomed at the beginning of his or her month: Thor by the husbands, Goi by the wives, and Einman and Harpa by the boys and girls, respectively. The bondi who brought Thor in limped around his house, clad in a shirt and with only one leg in his trousers, and gave a feast, at which there was great merriment. These are customs that have a heathen look about them, and which yet do not go back to heathen times.
The festival of Nerthus and the ship of Isis show that, as early as the days of Tacitus, the change of seasons was celebrated among the German tribes with processions. We are therefore justified in regarding the numerous springtime processions in which a ship was drawn about on a wagon, encountered especially in the region of the Lower Rhine, as a continuation of a heathen custom. But the people did not stop there. Everywhere the new season is brought in and the winter driven out; or verdant summer, symbolized by a girl dressed in white and gaily bedecked with ribbons, and winter bundled up in straw and furs, sing an alternate song; or merry guests fetch in the May queen, or the Pfingstlümmel. All this represents a new warp on an old woof. It would be as preposterous to trace all this to Teutonic paganism as to attribute to it any special religious significance.
Similarly, in the case of the fires kindled to ward off misfortune, the so-called Notfeuer (need-fire), and the many observances connected with the harvest and the breeding of cattle. Doubtless these are survivals of heathen customs. In the case of the Scandinavian North, it is expressly stated they Freyr received sacrifices for the fruitfulness of the soil. But it would be far-fetched to trace all the details of modern usage to the heathen period. The greater part of it has sprung up from a root of paganism in a Christian soil. Such religious significance as may be detected in it bears a heathen character, even where the customs are of later origin. But in the case of the "last sheaf," and the magic brooms with which cattle are touched to drive out the spirits that cause sickness, and the like, the religious idea has come to be quite secondary. This much is certain, that the observances as found at present have become and integral part of German peasant life and, having been modified to meet local conditions, constitute an essential element of the historical life of the people.
The conception of the Wild Hunt or the Furious Host plays an important part in popular belief. Since the Middle Ages, such conceptions are met with under various names, the former more commonly in North, the latter in South, Germany.
The general notion underlying this conception may easily be determined. In the raging and howling of the tempest the wild hunter and his train are recognized. This hunter is usually Wodan, the god of the wind, who is at the same time to god of the dead. This train is made up of the souls of the departed. Dying we find occasionally designated as "joining the old host." While the elements that enter into the conception are therefore two in number, the wind and the company of souls, there have not only been added a number of other features, but in many places and in various localities the conception has assumed a special character. In one place the train issues from a particular mountain, in another particular individuals are designated as forming a part of it.
Here, again, the student of folklore should not seek exclusively for general parallels with conceptions that are current elsewhere, but should first of all inquire what special features distinguish the Teutonic conception. The "host" rushing through the air is found in a large number of special variations. The "wild Hunt" or "furious host" is connected with various time of the year, with definite localities,—more especially mountains,—with semi-mythical stories, such as the chase in pursuit of an animal or woman, with the fate of the soul after death, with individual persons whose savagery seemed to deserve this punishment of being compelled to wander about restlessly, with various prognostications associated in the minds of the people with wind and aërial phenomena, and with many other things. We do not, of course, claim that the enormous mass of material gathered on this subject in the way of popular tales and stories, of observances and superstitions, admits of strictly historical arrangements. Nor is it maintained that all of it, as existing in the Christian Middle Ages and in the life of the peasantry in modern times, has been handed down from Teutonic heathendom. The popular imagination has given further development to an already existing germ. It is clear, at any rate, that in this Wild Hunt the great "hell-hunter," Wodan, still survives among the people. If not necessarily, the Wild Hunt is at least frequently, directly connected with the god Wodan, and the whole conception attains among the Teutons a vividness, clearness, and variety that is equalled nowhere else. The historical element in folklore, therefore, implies that, apart from the numerous historical reminiscences to be found in the hunt or the host, one or more of its members may be identified with persons of whose memory the people still stand in awe.
Everywhere in Teutonic folklore we meet with giants and dwarfs. In whole series of popular tales and narratives they play the chief rôle. They persist, furthermore, in a number of popular customs; the elves, at any rate, are even accorded some species of religious worship. It is, of course, an easy matter to trace general ethnographic parallels for giants and dwarfs. Elemental spirits of mountain, forest, and water, wild men of the woods, giant mountain spirits, dexterous gnomes, teasing goblins, are found among various peoples. To picture the life of this queer folk, the Grimms turned to Ireland.
But alongside of these general features the Teutonic world shows much that is characteristic. Not merely that we can here gather the richest harvest of examples of this widespread belief, but the giants and elves have also taken on the character of the land and people. They too are localized, are connected with definite mountains or springs, are interwoven with the history of a village or family. Many of them, dwarfs especially, bear names and have thus become real personages. While among Balto-Slavic nations the family and house spirits play the leading role, among Teutons this is taken by the spirits of nature. The distinction is, of course, not an absolute one., but merely one of degree. The special characteristics of the giants are unwieldiness and wisdom, of the dwarfs skill and cunning. In the Norse mythology of the Edda there are indications of a conception of the giants as an older race of gods, a power inimical to the Æsir. This idea has not, however, been developed as systematically as in the case of the Greek Titans and Giants. In German folklore, and in that of France and England as well, there appears now and then the poetic conception that elves strive through the love of man to acquire an immortal soul. The conception is popular, but not heathen in origin.
In discussing Teutonic folklore, we are continually struck by the fact that it is not possible to draw a sharp line of demarcation between the figures of the "lower" mythology which still live on in it and those of mythology proper. The theory which explains the one as the development of the other is as unsatisfactory as that which sees in folklore merely a popular degenerated form of mythology. There are several classes of beings which we cannot group exclusively on either the one side or the other. So in the case of the giants and dwarfs, who belong to folklore, but at the same time play a part in numerous myths, and who even occupy a place in the cult. The same applies to the Norns and Walkyries. The Norns especially play a rôle in many a Marchen, and yet they also require consideration in connection with the pantheon, in which the Teutons believed.
We are here only concerned with giving specific examples, and there is no need of largely multiplying these. The Norse Berserkers alone still remain to be considered. These raging and foaming heroes, who during the intervals when they are possessed are endowed with supernatural strength, are also encountered elsewhere. But who could overlook the characteristically Norse way in which they are treated? Whenever the warlike Scandinavians make mention of ecstatic conditions or supernatural powers, they have in mind exclusively the exhibition of physical, superhuman strength. Hence the Berserkers are not to be regarded chiefly in the light of ethnographic data, to be grouped under the head of demoniac possession or metamorphosis, but they typify the history of Norse ideas and sentiments.
In this historical treatment of folklore a question suggests itself, which has frequently been asked, and whose consideration may fittingly find a place at the close of our historical survey. What line of historical development would Teutonic paganism have followed if its course had not been interrupted by the introduction of Christianity? Does not this enormous mass of folklore, which has struck such deep roots in the life of the people, prove that paganism still possessed vitality; that when the current was shut off from the higher circles of life it flowed along in another bed, that of the life of the people, for the sole reason that it was forced to do so?
Questions of this kind, that concern what might have been but was not, can never be answered with absolute certainty. An yet we may, the present instance, arrive at a decision with some degree of assurance. We have found no trace, either among the southern Teutons, who were converted to Christianity at the migrations, or among the Scandinavian nations, of a system of doctrines evolved or handed down by priests and which become a power among the people. In the attempts made by the Scandinavians to systematize their myths, motive of a religious character may be detected perhaps only in the case of Völuspa and Lokasenna, and here only to a certain extent. The opinion that the Teutons, if they had not been Christianized, would have arrived at more spiritual and monotheistic conceptions, has absolutely no basis on which to rest and it is in view of our knowledge of existent conditions wholly inadmissible.. An organize form of worship, too, is altogether lacking among the Southern Teutons, and is found among the Scandinavian peoples in only the simplest forms. How little the priests were interested in maintaining paganism we have seen both in the case of the Anglo-Saxons and of the Icelandic godhi.
Alongside of the political and national motives influencing Frisians, Saxons, and Norsemen, the strongest bulwarks of paganism were the attachment to the ancient sacred places and observances, the belief in the presence of divine beings in forest and stream, the old processions at the changing of the seasons, the vows pledged over the cup to this or that god. These beliefs and customs survive as folklore, although by no means all of the survivals date from the heathen period. Indeed, by far the larger part are of later origin. At the same time we recognize in this folklore a form of historical continuity, the bond of union between the life of the people in pagan and in Christian times.
"The Religion of the Teutons," by P. D. Chantepie De La Saussaye, trans. by Bert J. Vos, page 210-220.