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in fragmentary fashion tell the eventful history of the Völsungs and the Nibelungs.?
The Sagas. — The Eddas contain many myths and mythical features that contradict the national character of both Germans and Norsemen ; but the Sagas have their roots in Norse civilization, and are national property. Of these mythic-heroic prose compositions the most important to us is the Völsunga Saga, which
part upon the poems of the Elder Edda, in part upon floating traditions, and in part upon popular songs that now are lost.3
$ 14. Records of German Mythology. — The story of the Völsungs and the Nibelungs springs from mythological sources common to the whole Teutonic race. Two distinct versions of the Saga survive, – the Low or North German, which we have already noticed in the lays of the Elder Edda and in the Norse Völsunga Saga, and the High or South German, which has been preserved in German folk-songs and in the Nibelungenlied, or Lay of the Nibelungs, that has grown out of them. The Norse form of the story exhibits a later survival of the credulous, or myth-making, mental condition. The Lay of the Nibelungs absorbed, at an earlier date, historical elements, and began sooner to restrict the personality of its heroes within the compass of human limitations.
Although there are many manuscripts, or fragments of manuscripts, of the Nibelungenlied that attest its popularity between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was not until the Swiss critic, J. J. Bodmer, published, in 1757, portions of two ancient poems, “ The Revenge of Kriemhild ” and “ The Lament over the Heroes of Etzel,” that the attention of modern scholars was called to this famous German epic. Since that time many theories of the composition of the Nibelungenlied have been advanced. It has been held by some that the German epic is an adaptation of the Norse version ;' by others, that the Scandinavians, not the Germans, borrowed the story; and by others still, that the epics, while proceeding from a common cradle, are of independent growth. The last theory is the most tenable. Concerning the history of the Nibelungenlied, it has been maintained that since, during the twelfth century, when no poet would adopt any other poet's stanzaic form, the Austrian Von Kürenberg used the stanzaic form of the Nibelungenlied, the epic must be his.3 It has also been urged that the poem, having been written down about 1140, was altered in metrical form by younger poets, until, in 1200 or thereabouts, it assumed the form preserved in the latest of the three great manuscripts. But the theory advanced by Lachmann is still of great value: that the poem consists of a number of ancient ballads of various age and uneven worth ; and that, about 1210, a collector, mending some of the ballads to suit himself, strung them together on a thread of his own invention.
1 For literature, see Commentary, 177-185.
8 Morris and Magnússon's The Story of the Völsungs and Nibelungs. Horn's Gesch. d. Lit. d. Skand. Nordens, 27-42, 58, etc.
4 Werner Hahn, Das Nibelungenlied.
In fine, the materials of the poem would persuade us not only of its origin in very ancient popular lays, but of their fusion and improvement by the imaginative effort of at least one, and, probably, of several poets, who lived and wrote between 1120 and 1200 A.D. The metrical structure, also, would indicate derivation from the German folk-song and modification due to multifarious handling on the part of popular minstrels and poets of written verse.
$ 15. Records of Oriental Mythology.' -— Although the myths of Egypt, India, and Persia are of intense interest and importance, they have not materially affected English literature. The following is, however, a brief outline of the means by which some of them have been preserved.
1 The Grimm brothers; v. d. Hagen; Vilmar.
6 For translations of Oriental Myths, see Commentary, 15; for mythical personages, see Index and Dictionary.
Egyptian Records. — These are (1) The Hieroglyphs, or sacred inscriptions in Tombs of the Kings, and other solemn places, — conveying ideas by symbols, by phonetic signs, or by both; (2) The Sacred Papyri, containing hymns to the gods; (3) The Books of the Dead and of the Lower Hemisphere, — devoted to necromantic incantations, prayers for the souls of the departed, and other rituals.
Indian Records. — (1) The Vedas, or Holy Scriptures of the Hindoos, which fall into four divisions. The most ancient, the Rig-veda, consists of hymns of an elevated and spiritual character composed by families of Rishis, or psalmists, as far back, perhaps, as 3000 B.C., not later than 1400 B.C. They give us the religious conceptions of the Aryans when they crossed the Himalayas and began to push toward Southern Hindostan. The Sama-veda is a book of solemn chants and tunes. The Yajur-veda comprises prayers for sacrificial occasions, and interpretations of the same. The Atharva-veda shows, as might be expected of the youngest of the series, the influence upon the purer Aryan creed, of superstitions borrowed, perhaps, from the aboriginal tribes of India. It contains spells for exorcising demons and placating them.
(2) The Indian Epics of classical standing. They are the Mahâbhârata and the Râmâyana. Scholars differ as to the chronological precedence. The Great Feud of the Bhâratas has the air of superior antiquity because of the numerous hands and generations that have contributed to its composition. The Adventures of Râma, on the other hand, recalls a more primitive stage of credulity, and of savage invention. The Mahâbhârata is a storehouse of mythical tradition. It contains several wellrounded epic poems, the most beautiful of which is the Episode of Nala, - a prince who, succumbing to a weakness common to his contemporaries, has gambled away his kingdom. The Great Feud of the Bhâratas is, indeed, assigned to an author – but his name, Vyâsa, means simply the Arranger. The Râmâyana purports to have been written by the poet Valmiki. It tells how Sita, the wife of Prince Râma, is carried off to Ceylon by Râvana, king of the demons, and how Râma, by the aid of an army of monkeys, bridges the straits between India and Ceylon, and slaying the demon, recovers his lovely and innocent wife. The resemblance" between the plot and that of the Iliad has inclined some scholars to derive the Indian from the Greek epic. But, until the relative antiquity of the poems is established, the Iliad might as well be derived from the Râmâyana. The theory is unsubstantiated. These epics of India lack the artistic spirit and grace of the Iliad and the Odyssey, but they display a keener sympathy with nature and a more romantic appreciation of the loves and sorrows of mankind.
Persian Records. — The Avesta, or Sacred Book of the ancient Persians, composed in the Zend language and later translated into mediæval Persian, — or Pahlavi, — contains the Gáthás, or hymns of Zoroaster and his contemporaries, and scriptures of as recent a date as the fifth century B.C. Zoroaster, a holy man of God, was the founder or the reformer of the Persian religion. He lived as early as the fourteenth or fifteenth century B.C., and his system became the dominant religion of Western Asia from the time of Cyrus (550 B.c.) to the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great. The teachings of Zoroaster are characterized by beautiful simplicity, and by an unwavering faith in the ultimate victory of righteousness (Ormuzd) over evil (Ahriman).
The stories of Greek, Roman, Norse, and German mythology that have most influenced our English literature will follow in the order named. The Romans, being by nature a practical, not a poetic, people, incorporated in their literature the mythology of the Greeks. We shall, however, append to our description of the Greek gods a brief account of the native Latin divinities that retained an individuality in Roman literature.