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The Prehistoric Period

from "The Religion of the Teutons"

by P. D. Chantepie De La Saussaye, trans. by Bert J. Vos, page 49-64.


"From the ancient grave-mounds no clear voice, but only confused sounds reach our ears." "These remains afford but a glimpse of only a few aspects of culture, and these the less important ones."

While acknowledging the value and significance of archæological studies, such statements should warn us against overestimating them. We possess numerous material remains from ages on which history proper sheds no light. We find stone monuments, stone chambers, stone circles, graves, lake dwellings, skulls, bones, utensils, implements, weapons, and ornaments. Through these abundant and varied remains, prehistoric archæology seeks for a solution of such problems as the distribution of races, the conditions of primitive times, and the origin of civilization. Archæological research in this way joins hands with geology, both having positive data at their command.

From finds made in the lakes of Central Europe, in the grottoes and river-beds of France, along the coast of Denmark, and in various other localities, conclusions may be drawn that are unassailable. It has been definitely established, for example, that in Europe as elsewhere the age of man on earth is to be reckoned by thousands of years, and it is equally certain that the life of our race during this prehistoric period did not present in idyllic picture. It is hardly possible to form too low an estimate of the civilization of these prehistoric people, who knew no domestic animal other than the dog, were ignorant of agriculture, with difficulty warded off the attacks of wild beasts, found a scanty subsistence by hunting and fishing, were in certain localities doubtless cannibals, and possessed only the rudest weapons and implements.

We should, however, be on our guard against basing too bold and comprehensive theories on the results of these studies. What these material remains have to tell us, they tell us clearly enough, but their testimony is not nearly as far-reaching as many are disposed to believe. The finds, while numerous, are fragmentary. Alongside of objects whose origin and purpose are perfectly clear, there are others that allow wide scope for conjecture.

Stones and bones are, after all, mute; they afford some indications as to outward conditions, but they do not allow us to penetrate into man's thoughts and feelings. It is well therefore to heed the warning of those who would dissuade us from attempting to give a complete sketch of the culture of the stone age, or from constructing theories concerning the origin of civilization on the basis of archæological study.

Due caution must be exercised in any endeavor to gather the fruits of these researches. The material found in Scandinavian countries is especially important. While much has been brought to light elsewhere, the remains from Denmark and Sweden, deposited for the larger part in the museums at Kopenhagen and Stockholm, are exceptionally valuable for prehistoric investigations.

The first question that presents itself is whether the prehistoric remains shed any light on the earliest migrations. Of what race or family were the people whose stone chambers and implements are found in Scandinavia and elsewhere? For a long time it was supposed, though without sufficient reason, that they must be regarded as a race entirely distinct from our own. The general scheme on which this supposition was based did indeed seem attractive. During the stone age, it was held, Finns and other Mongolian tribes far into Central Europe. The bronze age was identified with the Kelts and the iron age with the Teutons. It was thought that a dolichocephalous population of noble Indo-European blood was at any rate everywhere in Europe preceded by a brachycephalous people of a lower race. The facts as we now know them have lead to a reconsideration of these theories, and have entirely done away with these hypothetical autochthons, of unknown or at least of foreign race. The skulls from the so-called giants' chambers in Denmark and the Swedish stone graves most probably belong, not only according to Scandinavian scholars but according to such an authority as Virchow, to ancestors of the same race as the present inhabitants. Moreover, if successive archæological periods always coincided with the conquest and domination of a new people that displaced the old, then there would be a sharp line of division between those periods. But this is by no means the case. The transitions are gradual. Neither suddenly, nor indeed universally, does bronze take the place of stone, or iron that of bronze.

The oldest remains give no indication of an extermination or dislodgment of one people by another. This does not, however, furnish an answer to the question whence these people came, nor does it exclude the possibility of foreign influences. The evidence, so far as we are able to penetrate the past, goes to show that no sudden changes or shiftings took place, at least not in the North. And While in Central Europe we know even in historic times of various changes in population, there are still strong reasons for believing that even the Alpine like villages were inhabited by people of Indo-European blood.

The mode of life of these ancient Europeans has commonly been held to have been nomadic. They were thought to have come with their flocks from Asia, and until the beginning of our era, or even later, to have remained nomad shepherds. Some passages from classical authors were thought to lend color to this view. Strabo claims that the tribes on the other side of the Elbe wandered up and down with their flocks. How this inhospitable, thickly wooded country afforded the requisite pasture, and of what these flocks consisted, is not clear. Cæsar's statement, that the Teutons did not engage in agriculture, is at variance with the mention of corn by the same author, and with the picture drawn by Tacitus, from which it appears that tilling of the soil was not unknown to the Teutons of the second century of our era.

If we are unable to regard the Teutons at their appearance on the stage of history as nomads, all the evidence in hand also argues against such a supposition in the case of the far more ancient prehistoric population. In the first place, neither Central nor Northern Europe can possibly have been a country adapted to a population wandering about with camels and sheep. The evidence gathered from the remains is to the same effect. When in the Alpine lakes we can count piles by tens of thousands, this certainly points to fixed habitations. The same argument applies to the large stone buildings and walls in Germany, England, and Scandinavia. Nomads may perhaps here and there erect heaps of stone, but they do not build hünenbedden (giants' hills), giants' chambers, and stone walls. Also the so-called Kjökkenmöddings (refuse heaps), along the Danish coasts, forming accumulations of remains of crustaceous animals and of the implements and utensils of the prehistoric inhabitants, show clearly that these people had settled there where the oyster beds along the coast furnished them with food ready at hand. The oldest inhabitants found perhaps a scanty subsistence in hunting and fishing, and what nature provided of its own accord, but fixed habitations must soon have led to the beginnings of agriculture, as in fact the objects found in the heaps indicate.

Archæological study clearly points to the definite establishment of three periods in the development of man: the ages of stone, of bronze, and of iron, the material in use indicating the existing degree of civilization. Danish scholars more especially have expounded this system at great length, each of the three periods being again separated into two large subdivisions. From the older stone age we posses the remains along the coast of the Cattegat, the refuse heaps, which are believed to go back to at least three thousand years before the beginning of our era. The later stone age is that marked by the large monuments and therefore known as the neolithic or megalithic period. Stones and implements already show better workmanship, and the beginnings of decorative art make their appearance. Between the ages of stone and bronze there lies perhaps a period of transition, in which copper was worked without an admixture of tin. Then follow the older and later bronze periods, which bring us up to, and perhaps even across, the border line of historic times. Last of all, iron weapons and implements come into use. What dates are to be assigned to these several periods is subject to great doubt. For Southern and Central Europe these periods must have set in several centuries earlier than in the Scandinavian North. In the latter region we know that iron was in use some centuries before the beginning of the Christian era.

At the same time, it must be noted that this entire theory of a succession of three periods still encounters occasional opposition. Lindenschmit among others combats it violently. While it may be admitted that originally it was merely a "working hypothesis," it has yet withstood the test of time and has on the whole permitted a satisfactory classification of the material. New discoveries too have tended to strengthen rather than to weaken it, and the system of three periods, in an expanded form, is at the present time endorsed not only by Norse scholars but by the majority of investigators in every land. The objection frequently brought to bear against it, that such a division has regard exclusively to the material of which objects are made, is no longer valid, inasmuch as more recent investigators, Sophus Müller, for example, in determining dates also attach great importance—too great according to some— to the form, ornamentation, and decorative motifs. Moreover, the fact that these periods have been named from stone, bronze, and iron does not imply the character of the culture depended wholly on this difference in material, but merely that the periods into which their culture may be divided coincided to a large extent with the use of these materials. Recently scholars have also taken into consideration that it is not always feasible to draw a hard and fast line between what belongs to an earlier and what belongs to a later period.

The prehistoric remains also shed light on the question of foreign influences on the inhabitants of the North. The proposition, indeed, that all work in bronze was of foreign importation, coming from either Phœnicia or Southern Europe, can no longer be maintained; for along side of what was unquestionably obtained through import, the Northern people themselves must have worked objects in bronze. On the other hand, it is more than probable that the spiral ornamentation which makes its appearance for the first time in the bronze age has a connection with Mycenæan art. This view is favored by the fact that a continuous strip of land, from Greece through Hungary and Germany down to Denmark, exhibits these spiral ornamentations on objects of bronze.

We may go farther and maintain that the entire culture of the bronze period,—the same period in which gold was first worked,— in the case of a land that produced neither copper nor tin, points of necessity to intercourse with other countries. On its side the North possessed elektron (amber), which was so highly prized in Greece, and which has even been found in Egypt in graves of the sixth dynasty. We must accordingly assume that, even at a very early time, a traffic in bronze on the one side and in amber on the other connected Southern Europe, that is to say, Greece and Etruria, with Denmark and the Baltic. Nor was this trade carried on by the sea alone, through the Phœnicians, with their intermediate stations along the coasts of Western Europe, or even by way of Southern Russia to the Baltic; but we know of a certainty that there existed several trade routs through the very centre of Europe, both to the British Isles and to Denmark. One of these followed the Danube, another the Rhone, Aar, and Rhine, though it is to be noted that this trade did not establish direct connections between the North and the civilizations of Italy and Greece. Here too we must assume an undulatory motion. The wares probably passed from one tribe to a neighboring one, and in this way the barter of barbarians with one another may have established communications between Southern and Northern Europe.

While the thesis here proposed is more or less conjectural, it is yet a conjecture resting on established facts, and which furnishes the best explanation of the facts. It is evident in any case that, from the earliest times, the culture and civilization of the Teutons ere derived from foreign sources and that whatever the intermediary road may have been, the use of bronze was derived from the ancients. It is no longer possible to determine what other features are due to borrowing outside of this metal and the ornamental motif, but inasmuch as the connection was not a direct one, it is not likely that there are many . Material objects pass more readily from hand to hand than ideas and customs, but, since the way was open, the possibility of a certain degree of influence must be taken into account.

We have dwelt upon this subject at length in order to supply the necessary setting in the pursuit of our main inquiry, namely, the religion of which these ancient remains give evidence. We have already warned the reader against entertaining too high expectations of the results of this inquiry. The remains we possess are fragmentary, and it is always a hazardous task to evolve thoughts and feelings from mute monuments. In times gone by numerous explanations were ventured that are now no longer regarded within the range of possibility. The well-known stones near Salisbury, for example,—the so-called Stonehenge,—were certainly not erected as a memorial to the four hundred noblemen slain by Hengist in the year 472, as Nennius thought, who first mentions this monument in the ninth century. Nor are the to be looked upon as the remains of a Roman temple, Inigo Jones claimed in the middle of the seventeenth century. Similar remains in Denmark Ole Worm (1643) regarded as old meeting-places for the "Thing," where justice and law were administered and kings chosen, or as the space laid out for single combats or for the erection of altars on which sacrificial offerings were made. Thus people groped about in the dark. There was a disposition to regard as a sacrificial object every knife brought to light, and to identify every hammer without further proof as the insignium of Thor. Thomsen and Worsaae were instrumental in putting an end to many arbitrary combinations of this sort, but not without at times substituting for them others no less dubious.

Even at present all manner of popular tales of giants and spirits are associated with the Jættestuer and Troldstuer, but scholars are generally agreed that hüenbedden and giants' chambers and the like were in the main graves. The objects found in them can readily be explained as offerings to the dead or as magic charms for their protection. What purpose the large stones on the grave subserved cannot be stated with certainty. Were they monuments raised in honor of the dead? or was the stone to bar the soul of the dead from coming back to the world of the living, thus serving as a protection to the living against dangers from this source? Or, since the fate of the soul in another world depended on the uninjured state of the body, was the stone placed there as a protection of the corpse against wild animals? Each of these views has its advocates; and the grounds for giving to any one of them a preference over the others are forthcoming solely in the uncertain, and by no means entirely unequivocal, analogies with usages found among other tribes more or less distant.

The same observations apply to most of the other characteristic features of the remains. A large number of stones in Sweden have holes apparently made for some other purpose besides ornamentation. At present it is the custom of the people to lay gifts for the elves in these holes and then speak of them as elf-mills (Elfvekvärnar) or elf-stones. Among the objects that have been found, a number seem to be amulets and offerings to the dead. It has been observed that many of the skulls are trepanned, and in some cases this surgical operation was perhaps a magic practice performed long before death ensued. In the tombs of the stone age, traces of fire are frequently found beside the buried bodies, be it to cheer and warm the dead or to ward off evil spirits from the grave. While all these facts are absolutely certain, their interpretation remains, from the nature of the case, more or less vague and divergent. That the objects found are to be connected with worship of the dead and with conceptions as to the fate of the soul after death is fairly clear, but it is impossible to define this general character in more specific terms.

The Heimskringla tells us that the mode of disposal of the dead differed in successive periods of the distant past; burning of the dead is stated to antedate burial, and a distinction is drawn between the usage in Denmark and in the other two countries. Archælolgical finds show in the main graves from the stone age, and traces of burning from the bronze age, but a sharp line of demarcation does not exist. The transitions are gradual. On the island of Bornholm, as well as elsewhere, remains of burnt bodies are found with implements made exclusively of stone, while at the side of buried warriors occur bronze weapons.

While we may not, therefore, attribute this change to a sudden or a general upheaval, it is yet obvious that a different attitude of mind must be assumed to exist in a people who value the preservation of the body from those who regard its annihilation as the very condition of a happy life hereafter. In the stone age the body was placed in the ground, covered with a large stone, or put into a stone coffin, or in later times in large tombs. With the bronze period burning came into vogue, which according to Grimm, was intended as a burnt sacrifice to the gods. It is more satisfactory, however, to see in this observance indications of a belief in a separate existence of the soul, which is freed by burning of the body,—an idea expressed in Goethe's Braut von Corinth:

Open up my wretched tomb for pity, . . . . . When the ashes glow, 
When the fire-sparks flow,
To the ancient gods aloft we soar.

In the iron age, however, we again find burial in use, at least for the wealthy, in large mounds. It might be supposed that from these various forms of disposal of the dead we could deduce the conceptions entertained in regard to the regions inhabited by the soul after death: those buried being supposed to dwell in an abode on or under the earth, while those burnt ascended to an upper world. But history does not confirm this view. Whereas the ancient Egyptian Kings were laid to rest in pyramids or graves cut out from the rocks, their souls journeyed away in the sun ship and visited regions celestial as well as subterranean. On the other hand, Patroclus in the Iliad desires that his corpse be properly burnt so that he may not suffer any harm in Hades. Nothing, therefore, as to the conceptions of the prehistoric Teutons concerning the abode of the souls can be deduced from their mode of disposal of the dead.

Nor can conclusions be based on the implements and other objects found in and near the graves, inasmuch as it is not clear how far these were intended as sacrificial offerings for the dead, or were given them with a view of caring for their needs in the abode of souls. In the graves of the earlier iron age few weapons are found, but much that was to serve in eating and drinking,—a clear indication that at this time the chief occupation in the hereafter was held to be not fighting, but feasting.

More light seems to be shed by the symbols that are frequently met with on stones, rocks, grave urns, weapons, and implements. Among these are the Helleristninger (rock tracings) found cut in the granite rocks of Sweden (especially in Bohuslän), in Norway, and to a lesser extent, in Denmark. In addition we find such symbols as hammer, _, wheel, Å , rectangular cross (fylfot), and triangle (triskele). While most of these designations belong to the iron age, that is to say, to the historical period, in part they revert doubtless to the periods of stone and bronze. The rectangular cross and the triangle are found in the North in the bronze age, and on the whole their distribution throughout the world coincides fairly well with that of the burning of the dead. In any case, the rectangular cross (croix gammée, Hakenkreuz) and the ansate cross (croix ansée) are each confined to definite districts, the latter to Egypt, and Western Asia, the former to India (svastika) and the whole of Europe.

These results furnish some additional evidence with regard to the connection and intercourse between the peoples of the North and those of Southern Europe, but they shed no light on the signification of the symbols themselves. With some degree of probability the wheel and rectangular cross have been interpreted as symbolical of the sun. Far more doubtful is a supposed connection with individual deities. While in a later period the hammer is the well-nigh inseparable attribute of Thor, and the triangular cross was here and there interpreted as symbolical of the three chief gods, Odhin, Thor, and Freyr, there is nothing to show that this connection was original.

The most important question of all, that which concerns the use and purpose of these symbols, is also the most difficult to answer. Frequently, no doubt, they were of a purely ornamental character, but originally they must nevertheless have been made with some useful purpose in view. It is likely that magic power was attributed to them, but we are in the dark as to the exact nature of this power. Did they serve to ward off evil, to bring a blessing, and to secure the protection of some particular divinity? The case in hand illustrates in a striking manner how little is gained by the use of such words as "magic" and "amulet," when we can only hazard a guess as to the character of the thoughts and feelings that lie at their basis.

We have now reached the border-line separating the prehistoric from the historic, and might, therefore, consider the present chapter closed. But, on the one hand, the dividing line between these two periods is by no means sharply drawn, and, on the other hand, the light shed by the monuments on the centuries that may be called the twilight of history is of the same indistinct, hazy character as that of the preceding period. We should hence be separating what is homogeneous, if we did not here add what may be gathered from the monuments for the centuries that follow.

First of all, the coins demand our attention; Roman, Byzantine, and, later on, Cufic coins, have been found in large numbers along the Baltic, on the Danish islands, and in the southern parts of Sweden and Norway. They testify to the existence of trade routs from Southern to Northern Europe, from the first centuries of our era; trade routs not by way of the western islands, but through Germany and Russia, by way of the Oder and Vistula. They furnish, therefore, a confirmation of what we already know concerning the channels along which the bronze and amber trade of the prehistoric era moved. In the North itself money was first coined in the tenth century. Of more importance are the signs and representations found on monuments, with and without runes, on ornaments, and on the so-called bracteates, thin golden plates chased on one side and at times used as necklaces. These bracteates date from the sixth or seventh century onward; some have come down from the Viking period. The so-called Runic Monuments have been found in every part of the Teutonic world. They are most common in the Scandinavian countries, but are also of frequent occurrence in England and Germany. Even in so distant a place as Bucharest, a Gothic, and at Charnay—in a socalled Merovingian grave—a Burgundian, ornament with runes have been found. The runic alphabet of twenty-four signs (i.e. the older one, futhark, found on the bracteate of Vadstena, and elsewhere) again yields testimony of the same general character as that which we have before had occasion to note; these written signs reached the North from the South,—in the present instance Italy,—not through direct communication, but by gradual transmission from tribe to tribe.

We cannot here enter upon a discussion of these runic signs. Some attention must, however, be paid to the figures and scenes depicted on the objects mentioned, inasmuch as some authorities are disposed to attach great importance to them. In the year 1639 and 1734, respectively, there were found in Southern Jutland two large golden horns. At the beginning of the present they were unfortunately converted into bullion, but we are still able to judge of them from drawings and descriptions. These horns, dating according to Worsaae from the fifth or the beginning of the sixth century, were held to show, after the manner of a mythological picture book, the following persons and objects: Thor, Freyr, Odhin, Freya with the necklace Brisingamen, Hel, Walhalla with the Einherjar engaged in combat, and finally the tree Yggdrasil; in the centre several scenes from the myths of Baldr and Loki were recognized. If the origin of these precious horns is really to be assigned to so early a date, then their evidence is of great importance. In that case it would appear that the North about the year 500 already possessed a splendid cult and a connected body of myths of gods. The conceptions of this early period would show a most remarkable agreement with medieval Norse mythology in its fully developed form, and the latter would therefore have existed in the North in a practically unchanged state, from the period of migrations onward. All that has been said concerning the later and foreign origin of this mythology would accordingly be refuted by the evidence of these horns. What is even more significant, the very elements that scholars are at present inclined to regard more and more as later additions, Walhalla and Yggdrasil, are made to appear especially prominent on these horns. But all these deductions rest on an extremely insecure foundation. We possess only the pictorial representations, and these, unaccompanied as they are by an explanatory text, permit equally well the allegorical interpretation of old Ole Worm as the mythical one of Worsaae. There is no evidence of any consequence that these figures really represent Norse Mythology. With fully as much inherent probability Sophus Müller recognizes foreign motifs in them. Even though the horns in question, therefore, are, like the silver kettle found in Jutland in 1891, to be assigned to an even earlier date than does Worsaae,—something that is quite within the range of possibilities,—they would in no wise vindicate the ancient character of Norse myths, but rather point to that same connection with the culture of Central and Southern Europe to which reference has repeatedly been made.

Nor can much more be gained from other pictorial representations, of which we possess more or less detailed descriptions and investigations. On Swedish rocks are found scenes from the Sigurd Saga, on an Anglo-Saxon rune casket, scenes from the Wieland Saga. The former are of uncertain date, but both show how wide a circulation these motifs had attained. Two English monuments, the so-called Ruthwell Cross and the Gosforth Cross, show a curious admixture of pagan and Christian motifs. Still other monuments might be mentioned, but they would not alter the final result.

It then we sum up what is actually known concerning the prehistoric period, it appears that the monuments do not allow us to draw any safe conclusions as to "origins." Archæology teaches us that as far north as Sweden there dwelt a Tonic population some thousands of years before the Christian era. At a very early period these tribes borrowed, if not directly yet extensively, from the cultured nations of Southern Europe. The undulatory motion through which material objects as well as the products of man's skill passed from one country to another no doubt followed various roads and was more rapid at one time than another. It required more than nine hundred years before Christianity reached Scandinavia in this manner. The dwellings, graves, household utensils, and weapons indicate to some extent the material conditions prevailing in these prehistoric times and the degree of practical skill acquired by the population. We may safely assume that alongside of such objects as were imported there had also arisen a more or less free imitation and appropriation of ideas, but we possess no criterion for discriminating between the one and the other. With regard to the thoughts and feelings of these people we are thrown back upon conjectures, with inherent probabilities and analogies as our sole guides.

Nor is the testimony of the monuments from the historical period at all of a certain character. Evidence that would at first blush seem to argue in favor of the originality of Norse mythology appears in a different light as soon as it is more closely examined. While much points to a dependence on Southern Europe, this applies more to ornamentation and art than to religion and mythology. What may be gleaned from the monuments for the study of Teutonic mythology is extremely meagre.


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