Islandic Myth and the Gold of Troy

An early stone depiction of Odin on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir

An early stone depiction of Odin on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir

In his introduction to The Prose Edda of Snorri  Sturlson: Tales from Norse Mythology, selected and trans­lated by Jean I Young (Bowes and Bowes, Cambridge, 1954) Sigurdur Nordall, Research Professor of Icelandic Literzoture in the University of Reykjavik writes, "It is a matter of common knowledge that the riches and purest source extant for the ideas and attitude to life of the early Germanic peoples is the literature of Iceland during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This ancient inheritance is usually regarded as having been slowly destroyed by the impact of Christianity between the version of Iceland (in 1000) and about 1400." (p. 8)

Snorri Sturlson (1179-1241) was a rationalistic layman and great chieftan, "repelled by the ecclesiastical spirit pervading the...legendary tales, sermons of edification, pious remarks and unctuous style" of earlier works, with their distortion of the true historical record and inept literary pretensions.which so ill served the mythic heritage of his time and people. A polymath, "astute at business and a diplomat, highly educated and traveled, he early acquired great wealth and power, twice occupying the highest office in Iceland," yet Snorri's chief interest was in literature. He is regarded as Iceland's greatest hero of letters from having saved  his nation's ancient art of poetry from the 13th cenruty attack of "a narrow-minded clergy (that) in their desire to obliterate every trace of heathenism, had gone so far as to banish the names of the old gods from those of the days of the week....It was no wonder they considered it sinful for poetry to incorporate all the ancient mythological kennings which were in­comprehensible without some knowledge of the myths of the AEsir." (p. 10) He also laid down meticulous rules for preserving the vital craft of poetic diction for the practical use of younger poets to learn and to pass on to others, carefully specifying, among other things, "the way in which all the ancient gods are to be designated." (p. 11) So we may regard as highly reliable the attributes of Odin, presented by Snorri in his key work, The Deluding of Gylfi, "Odin is very powerful and there are many proofs of this. As is said here in the words of the AEsir themselves:

The foremost of trees
is the ash Yggdrasil,
of ships Skidbladnir,
of AEsir Odin,
Sleipnir of steeds,
Bifröst of bridges,
Bragi of poets,
Habrok of hawks
and of hounds, Garm."
     (p. 66)

Odin's tree is the sacred ash, in whose wood the runes were first carved, and from which the earliest boats were constructed, not only by the Germanic peoples when they migrated from Asia Minor to the Baltic, but also favored by the early Celtic peoples of Ireland and Wales, where "all oars and coracle slats were made of ash; and so were the rods used for urging on horses." (Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p. 168) This is also why the hobbyhorse is properly constructed from ash wood. The ship, Skidbladnir, "is the best ship and built with the greatest skill. ...It is so big that all the AEsir with weapons and armour can find room in it and, wherever it is going, a breeze springs up as soon as its sail is hoisted. Moreover, it is made of so many things and with such cunning that when it has not to go to sea, it can be folded together like a cloth and kept in one's pouch." (p. 68-69). Doubtless the art of weaving cloth is here connected with making sails, whatever else is implied by this remarkable reference.

Sleipnir, Odin's horse, is the attribute that establishes the Germanic tribes as skilled in the breeding and early domestication of the horse--archaic cultural activities that were brought with them on their migrations hundreds of years before Snorri was writing.

"Have you never been told that the gods built a bridge from earth to heaven called Bifrost? (The name means 'Quivering Roadway'). You will have seen it, but maybe you call it the rainbow." (p. 40) The fame of the Rainbow Bridge was enhanced by Jimi Hendrix, and by the leprechauns of Brigadoon. In Snorri's Prose Edda it is characterized as having "three colors and is very strong, and made with more skill and cunning than other structures." (p. 40) We should note that this description would not be inapt for traditional warp ikat: the colors being indigo blue, mengkudu red and natural cotton, the skill and cunning in the ikat resist dyeing.

Odin corresponds generally to the Germanic version of the Greek Hermes and the Latin Mercury, as god of communication, letters, reckoning and the like. As such, he is patron of poets, having sacrificed one of his eyes while hanging for nine days and nights on the ash tree. Snorri associates him with another god, Bragi, to whom is given the patronage of the oral tradition:"He is famous for wisdom and most of all for eloquence and skill with words; he knows most about poetry, and from him poetry gets its name (one of the Old Icelandic words for poetry is bragr)." (p. 54)

The hawk and the hound, together with the horse, make up for the human hunter a versatile, balanced and effective team. "According to Turkic tradition, each tribe (of the Uzbek peoples living in Transoxania) had adopted a bird of prey as its tribal emblem. The falcon, eagle or hawk represented the soul of a dead warrior-king and was evoked by the shamans as a means of communicating with the spirits." (David Lindhal and Thomas Knorr, Uzbek: The textiles and life of the nomadic and sedentary Uzbek tribes of Central Asia, Exhibition Catalogue, Basel, 1975, p. 8) The bird imagery is particularly associated with the tree in paleoSiberian shamanic traditions, but may also appear in the Egyptian image of the bird as a form of the spirit, and the sacred djed of Osiris as the archetypal World Tree. (See Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy  and Peter Tompkins, The Magic of Obelisks)

In his Prologue for The Deluding of Gylfi, Snorri Sturluson recounts the origin of the AEsir, or the men of Asia as they were called, ancestors of the Norsemen. "Near the centre of the world where what we call Turkey lies, was built the most famous of all palaces and halls--Troy by name." From one of the chiefs called Mennon and Priam, the daughter of the King of Troy called Troan, was born a son named Tror, "we call him Thor," says Snorri. (p. 25) Following a marvelous, heroic youth, he married a goldenhaired prophetess in the northern part of the world, from whom eventually descended Odin. Odin was "a man famed for his wisdom and every kind of accomplishment, who also had the gift of prophecy together with his wife Frigg. "By means of this magic art he discovered that his name would be famous in the northern part of the world and honored above that of all kings. For this reason he decided to set out on, a journey from Turkey...until they came to the north of the country now called Germany." (p. 26)

Their descendants settled and populated all of Northern Europe, becoming so numerous "that their language, that of the men of Asia, became the language proper to all these countries. From the fact that their geneaologies are written down," notes Snorri, "men suppose that these names came with this language, and that it was brought here to the north of the world, to Norway, Sweden, Den­mark and Germany, by the AEsir." (p. 28)

Since Odin is a god of Northern Europe, it is not surprising to find him described as wearing a golden helmet as he rides into battle against the Midgard Serpent, Fenrir the Wolf, Loki and all the family of Hel at Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods. We do not need the connection with some supposed "gold of Troy," and it is just as well, because despite the romantic visions of Heinrich Schliemann, the great cultural heritage from Troy did not, apparently, involve gold. "There is no evidence whatever that the Trojans at this time (of Troy VI, the high point before the cataclysm of the Trojan War famed in the Iliad of Homer) mined or manufactured in gold or silver. This surprising lack of precious metals has been explained in various ways: the fortress was thoroughly plundered; or the inhabitants took away all their gold and silver when they left. But it is incredible that nothing should have been overlooked, that nothing should ever have been lost and buried in hundreds of years. The most likely reason that no gold or silver is found is that no gold or silver was ever there. This is not a mere argument from silence: buried gold is practically indestructible; and, if gold there was, it is simply not to be believed that the extensive and infinitely careful excavations of the Americans would have brought to light nothing more than 'one infinitessimal bead' of gold, and one of silver." (Denys Page, History and the Homeric Iliad: Sather Classical Lectures Volume 31, University of California Press, Berkeley 1959, p. 67-68)

Neither is there any suggestion that the Trojans practiced the fine arts on any scale comparable with their contemporary Mycenaeans, whose elegant wares rather they imported. Troy did not control trade in any practical way, they had neither merchant navy nor toll houses, being difficult of access from both land and sea. In addition to the considerable skills of masonry that had developed by this time, however, there were two finds in the excavations that do help us understand the bases upon which the wealth and power of ancient Troy depended.

"The relics of the sixth settlement include, from the beginning, something wholly unknown (before that time) on the site or in the neighborhood of Troy: the bones, in considerable quantities, of the horse." These invaders, who made Troy great, came with horses, and most likely by land. "It is a long way to Troy from the regions beyond the Caucasus: but others had come, or were soon to come, as far, if not farther along the same track; and the path of the Cimmerians in the 7th century was not very different." (p. 57-58) It is possible then, "that the Trojans specialized in the breeding and export  of the horse. The Homeric poems call Ilios (Troy) alone of all cities "eupolos," 'of good horses,' and the Trojans alone of all peoples "hippodamoi," 'horse-tamers'; thus in the old formular poetry Troy was associated especially with the breeding and management of horses; and there is reason to believe that they would find many an eager market in the East and West " (p.70)

And there is one other product of trade that may have been as significant in the ancient Trojan economy as the horse. "There is one object found at Troy in quantities unparalleled on any other site,--the spindle whorl." Schliemann's collection includes 7,737 specimens, the Americans found another 400, This is proof, not subject to confirmation or rebuttal, that the spinning of yarn must be counted among the commonest and most productive occupations at Troy. "The abundant bones  of sheep and goats found in all layers (of the sixth settlement) indicate that there can have been no shortage of wool," and the craft of the spinner is mani­fest for six hundred years. What an obvious and likely commodity of exchange, whether spun yarn or textile; here is an object of which the Trojans might have a surplus, and a craft which they practiced so long and so assiduously that they might not have a rival in the Aegean world." (p. 69-70)

Kurt von Meier