Herman and Thusnelda - George Upton

The Giants' Graves and Irminsul

Herman several times begged his generous host to return, but he would not consent, as he desired to show him ~ some forest routes which would make his journey more comfortable. Wearing his sword suspended from a chain round his body, and carrying his spear, he strode stoutly along at the head of the band, a true son of the woods.

At last they reached a river winding along between high banks. Across the stream were broad meadow lands upon which herds of swift-footed stags and deer were grazing. To the right were forests of millennial oaks, beeches, and lofty firs, and under them the ground was covered with blue-bells and anemones. The restful temptation of the scene was irresistible. Their horses were turned out upon the meadow, which was quickly forsaken by the stags and deer, and then the men rested under the oaks.

The old man, who knew nearly every bush and tree in that region, had told Herman many a story relating to it on their way. He now called his attention to a mound at the right, rising under the firs and overgrown with thorn and wild rose bushes.

"That is a giant's grave," said he. Herman asked him if he knew the story of the hero buried there.

The host replied: "You remember the story of the man who once found a snake in the woods, chilled by the frost. He placed it in his bosom under his bearskin. As it grew warm and recovered its strength it stung him with its poisonous fangs and killed him. You also know the story of the hunter who carried a young wolf home. After it grew up it strangled its master in his sleep. A king's daughter in the olden times had a like experience. She found a young dragon just hatched by the sun. You know that the dragons guarded gold in their dreadful caves, and that the gold upon which they rested increased as they grew. The king's daughter thought this dragon would bring the blessing of gold to the castle, so she put some gold in a little chest and laid the dragon upon it. It grew rapidly, and the gold grew with it.

"After seven days it was crowded in the chest, so it changed its position and put its scaly tail into its jaws. It kept on growing. Soon it devoured doves, then hens, and then geese. Wise men warned the king's daughter that if she did not kill the dragon it would bring harm to her. But as she saw the gold increasing, her greed made her throw their warnings to the winds. After seven times seven weeks the dreadful creature took up the whole apartment. Daily it devoured a lamb, then a yearling bull, and at last a horse. It was strong enough to drag these animals out of their stalls. And still it grew, and the gold grew with it. The room being at last too small, it occupied the castle yard. One day it devoured a man, and people grew afraid to leave their dwellings. Nothing could resist the dragon's power. It daily seized a victim.

"One day it said to the king's daughter: 'I will be your king, and you shall be my wife and shall be called the Dragon Princess?'

"The king's daughter was alarmed at the proposal, but she plucked up courage and said, 'What will you bring me for the bridal gift? ' The dragon asked what she desired; and she answered, 'You shall contend with seven of our heroes, and if you vanquish all seven I will be your wife.' The dragon answered, 'Let them come.'

"The king's daughter thereupon sent the following message far and wide: 'Whosoever shall fight with the dragon and slay it, him will I take for my husband, and to him shall all the dragon-gold belong.'

"There were many stout heroes in our country in those days—stouter heroes than we have now. Soon one of them appeared. He fought a desperate fight with the dragon, but it killed and devoured him. For a long time no one ventured to give battle to the dragon again. The king's daughter shed many tears and bitterly regretted that she had allowed herself to be dazzled by the gold and that she had not killed the poisonous dragon long before. The country was being depopulated, for there was no way of escape from it; for wings had grown upon its loathsome scaly body, which carried it, swift as the wind, over mountain, valley, and sea. The last of the seven heroes finally appeared and created great surprise among the people by his heroic appearance. They had never seen such a champion before, and despair gave place to hope.

"The contest began. The hero's sword cut through the air like the lightning flash and smote the dragon's head, but only sparks flew from the stroke. The dragon emitted a hissing, poisonous stream of fire, and all grew dark before the hero's eyes. The monster instantly seized him with its claws and tried to drag him near enough to devour him. He recovered himself, however, summoned all his strength, and drove his long sword to the hilt into its breast. It sank dead upon the ground, which shook under its fall.

"The king's daughter, who had witnessed the struggle, joyfully ran toward the victor to greet him as her future husband. But he looked upon her sternly and reproachfully and said: 'You did great harm by disregarding the warnings of the wise men, and keeping the dragon in your home, thereby inflicting severe calamities upon the land. Go! I cannot accept the hand of such a foolish woman. I did not fight the dragon for your sake, but to relieve the country from its misfortunes.' Thereupon the hero took the gold, loaded it upon twelve horses, and had it carried to the sea where it was so deep no bottom had ever been found. There he sank it, saying, 'Greed for thee, thou glowing metal, has brought great disasters to my country.'

"They say that the mermaids have built themselves a golden house out of this metal, and that to-day when the water is calm and the sun or the moon shines upon it, the glistening gold can be seen far down in the depths.

"The king's daughter was overwhelmed with grief. Pale and languishing and clad in black, she went daily to the sea, and one night did not return. Mariners afterwards often saw her sitting on the beach playing with gold. She sang to them with a voice of ravishing sweetness, hoping to entice them to her and drag them down into the sea. But all fled from her.

"After the disappearance of the king's daughter the people said to each other, 'Let us make him our king who rescued us from the curse of the dragon.' But the hero's strength waned from that day. He had inhaled the poisonous breath of the dragon in the fierce struggle, and before the moon had twice changed he died, and was buried over there under the firs whose branches extend above the mound, like the arms of a priest in benediction."

Herman and his companions had listened to the story with intense eagerness. One of the band asked the narrator if he knew aught of the giants, and whether any of them were still living.

"There are giants still," he replied, "but they are not like those of the olden time. When I was young, an old graybeard told me many wonderful stories about them."

Herman begged him to tell them the tales, whereupon he said:

"Before the heavens and the earth were created there was a great chaos, or world of mist, called Nebelwelt. Its two extremes were called Muspelheim and Niffelheim. From Muspelheim came light and warmth; from Niffelheim, darkness and cold. In the midst of this world of mist was a fountain whence issued twelve rivers. Far from their source they turned to rigid ice, but southward from the land of light came warm winds which melted them; and from the rising vapor sprang the wicked giant Ymir.' While he was sleeping, there came a man and a woman from his armpits, and from these sprang the race of the giants. They are also called the Frost Giants, because of their frosty bodies and icy hair and beards. As they thawed there appeared the cow Audhumbla. From its udder ran four streams of milk. While it was licking the hoar-frost one day there appeared a man's hair, on the next day his head, and on the third his whole body, powerful and beautiful. He was called Burl, and his son, Bor. The son married Besetta, a giant's daughter, who was dazzling as the sun, and they produced Odin and the other gods who rule the earth, and to whom we pray and bring our offerings. The gods killed Ymir, and so great was the stream of his blood that the entire race of giants was drowned in it. From the body of this giant the gods constructed the world. They made the earth from his flesh, the seas and rivers from his blood, the mountains from his bones, and the rocks from his teeth. From his brows they built Midgard (Midearth). Then they took the skull and out of it fashioned the firmament. Of his brain they made the clouds. The sparks, flying across from Muspeiheim, they set in the firmament to light it. Each light had its own place, and the days and years were appointed for their courses.

"From the hair still remaining sprang the giants who lived on the earth at a later period. They were not so great as the Frost Giants but as much greater than men as those firs are higher than the thorn bushes.

"A giant's child once found a peasant in the fields. It carried him in its hand to its mother and asked, What kind of a creature is this I found digging in the ground? ' The mother replied, 'Let him go; it is a man. The gods are kind to men, and we must respect them whenever we find them.'

"The giants gradually disappeared before the race of men, to whom the gods had given the earth. Many traces of them, however, still remain. That gray rock yonder on the mountain-side we could hardly move, and yet long ago it was in a giants' shoe. Feeling its pressure, he unloosed his shoe and shook it out."

Herman said, "I can well believe what you tell me of the giants; but interesting as your stories are, we must not remain here longer."

The horses were called and carne running up like dogs, for in the olden days horse and rider understood each other more perfectly than now. The band resumed their journey and soon reached Steinberg, where their guide halted. Before thanking Herman and taking his leave, he said:

"You will not think me inquisitive in asking you what is the significance of that stone statue with the three arms on the Steinberg. I have heard that your father erected it in past years, but I have never asked the priests the meaning of it."

Reining up his horse, Herman replied: "I do not yet know the meaning of all our religious symbols, but I will tell you what I have learned from my father. There is a sacred ash tree whose branches reach to the sky. It is called Yggdrasil.' In its shade the gods hold their daily councils. Under one of its roots is Mimir's spring, where wisdom and understanding lie hidden. The statue is an image of the sacred ash. Its three arms signify the three roots, one of which extends to the abodes of the gods; the second into Nebelwelt (the region of cold and darkness), in which Hel, the pale goddess of death, rules; and the third to the realms of the giants."

Thereupon they parted with courteous words and handshaking. The statue described by Herman is still held in reverence by the people, and there are many of them now scattered over Germany. They are called Irminsuls, a name sometimes confused with Arminius, as if they had been erected in his memory.