of The Tablet's first edition
lectures on heroes, hero-worship, and the heroic in human history
It has been rumoured, in consequence of certain papers delivered at the door of the lecture-room announcing the intended publication of this report, that Mr. Carlyle is connected, in some way or other, with the Tablet . We are bound to deny that we are honoured with any such connection. This report has never even been seen by Mr. Carlyle, nor is he in any way responsible for it. We are sorry to say that we shall not be able, as we first intended, to give a complete report of the present course.]
We have great pleasure in being able to lay before our readers a report which, however imperfect, may give them some notion of the matter, and even of the manner, of the lectures of this extraordinary writer. We need not inform our Catholic readers that, from many of Mr. Carlyle's opinions - he being a staunch Protestant - we dissent most entirely. Gifted with great discernment of character, a rare sincerity of heart and understanding, an utter inability to reconcile himself to anything but what appears to him to be truth, entire and unadulterated, and haunted by an inborn necessity of everywhere discerning a soul of goodness in things evil; it yet appears to us (we say it with unaffected humility and reverence for his genius), as if one side of his mind were struck with paralysis; as if, for one class of minds of the highest moral elevation, he were without sympathy; as if, in one direction, this man of such keen and piercing vision were groping blindly in the dark. However, we say, honour to Mr. Carlyle for what he has done - for what he is doing! It is of the utmost importance that we should be acquainted with every phase of the present revival of spiritual life in England, and we may be sure that in this revival, the writings of Mr. Carlyle are not the least pregnant phenomenon. If in anything he is blind, it is the blindness of a Sampson, who, at one stoop, brings down the temple of the Philistines - the Benthamites and Utilitarians of the present day, - and overwhelms their nobles and princes in the most dismal and pitiless ruin. More than one person, we know ell, owes him an incalculable debt of gratitude for the guidance his writings have afforded to the precincts of the true faith.
Four lectures out of the six, of which the present course is composed, have already been delivered.
On the present occasion, we have undertaken to discourse of great men; and the notions which men in various epochs have formed of them. A great topic this - a topic as wide, we may see, as the whole history of the world; for the history of what the world has done is indeed included in the lives and doings of its great men. They are the leaders in all the great things men have done, and therefore the best exposition of what men have done, would be found in a biography of all the great men the world has had to lead it. It is a great thing to enter upon this subject - to break ground on it! to endeavour to explain the meaning of the thing, however imperfectly! It is a good thing to keep company even in our thoughts with great men. We cannot do so without profit.
By selecting these six species of great men widely differing among themselves, in all possible ways, differing in the areas and the countries in which they lived, we shall, perhaps, get a kind of gleam into the very marrow of the world's history.
The first kind of great men, which we have selected to discourse on to-day, belongs to the most ancient period of time - the period when the men who were distinguished by their great qualifications were regarded by those around them as divinities. To explain this, we have selected the Scandinavian mythology. Odin is the great central figure of it.
We may say of individual men, as it has been truly said of nations, that when we know what religion the man is of, we can tell what kind of a man he is. By religion I do not mean the creed he pronounces to himself; that is not the whole of the matter at all. I mean what he thinks of himself and his destiny, and the things around him, and the unseen influences by which he is surrounded. When we know what a man really thinks and believes about this, we may know what kind of man he is, what he is likely to do, and what he is capable of doing.
It is wonderful to us in the present day, how beings like ourselves, in ancient times, could have believed such a mass of absurd things as is contained in the Ethnical religion. It is almost incredible. Accordingly the shortest way to deal with the thing is to consider it all as priestcraft; as if there was a certain amount of dupeability in men, which was acted on by crafty men for their own purposes, and thus this was a thing got up by trick and fraud.
This is a doctrine we shall often have to protest against in the course of these lectures, and accordingly we do so here. It is not credible that men should proceed altogether on deception: whatever men have permanently believed and acted on, has had some kind of truth in it. If we had lived then, ourselves we should have believed it. Let us then, instead of setting it all down as a cheat, try to find what there is in it that was true; let us try to get at the truth of it then. It is a poor thing that denies all honesty and all truth to everything but our own little sect and our own time. But these matters are so far removed from us into early ages and early times, that we do them great injustice.
Aristotle supposes a man grown to maturity, away from all the influences of the world; coming into the world, in short, with all his faculties full grown, and then to look out on the earth for the first time, to see the sun rise, for instance, for the first time, and he conceives that the man's heart would burst out in wonder at all the glorious things about him. The case is something similar of the first original, really great, man among these primitive nations; a man who looked out upon nature and did not conceive of it as a system - as a whole. He looks up into the great blue deep; he sees the lakes and rivers, rocks and vallies, all about him, and he only knows that they are inscrutabilities - that they contain within them forces different from his altogether. And in that way it was natural for the man to give to these things, these forces, as they classed themselves in his mind, the names of divinities. We can fancy the wild Ishmaelite to look up at the star Canopus glancing on him from the blue depths, with diamond brightness, and imagine it to be an eye looking on him out of that sea of splendour; and he might then think it to be a worshipable thing - a God. For not the star Canopus alone, but every meanest thing about us discloses something infinite, and man's learning is indeed poor, if it teach him to forget this.
We hear and we see the cloud pouring out its thunder and lightning, and we give it a name - we call it electricity, but we do not know what it is because we have given it a name. We know that it is something, not us ; that when certain things come together, that other thing will succeed them; but this is all; we know not what it is. And yet, even the atheistic thinker, if such a thing be conceivable, it must be strange for him to reflect on the universe; how all things great and small, even to the leaf by the highway, are a part of the great system of the universe; how all kinds of forces are there combined, and even what seems to have no force at all, even the leaf if it be dead and rotting, is yet a force , and working and tending towards production. It must be strange for him to reflect on the evidence of an all-pervading force, of a kind which, to a thoughtful mind, is very different from mechanical force.
And if all this shows the divinity to us, still more does the spirit of man. Even the dullest and deadest heart, if we would think of it, is a revelation of the divinity. It cannot but be so. We must, above all things, acknowledge and act on this.
I have thought many times of the saying reported of St. Chrysostom, that devout Christian teacher, referring to the Shekinah of the Jews, the dwelling-place of the Holy of Holies.
St. Chrysostom, speaking of this Shekinah, says, that "the true Shekinah is man;" - a deep truth at all times, for the clearest revelation afforded by nature of that which is highest in the universe, is man. The commentary of Novalis, too, on this matter, is not without its significance. He says that there is but one temple in the world, and that is, the body of man. "we do reverence to God," says he, "when we bow down before man. We tough heaven whenever we lay our hand on a human body." This is not a mere rhetorical flourish, if we would think well of it, but a strict scientific fact. This garment of flesh is the garment of that which is unspeakable within us, which cannot understand itself, but feels, nevertheless, its connexion with heaven.
In this way we may conceive how the young, open, generations of the world, having in them the freshness of young children, and who were not accustomed to think that they had finished with everything, by giving it a scientific name, might imagine they saw that man had in him, what in strict scientific truth he has in him, something infinite, something divine. And yet it may almost make us shudder to look into the absurd, hideous jungle of paganism, which makes us think what depth of darkness there is in the human soul, as well as what height it can attain to.
And yet there is some kind of truth in it nevertheless. First of all, there was a recognition that nature, in all her variety and extent, was a revelation of whatever is divine; and next, that the great men who teach us how to understand nature, who as it were reveal this nature to us, that these are gods in the shape of men.
This Odin - Wodin - Woden - is related to us in a more intimate way than any other pagan divinity. In the first place, he is the most recent of them all. The worship of Odin did not cease till somewhere about the eleventh century, and being the most recent, he is in some respects the best known. In the second place, he is genealogically united to us. The people who professed that worship are our fathers, and the traces of it are yet in many ways visible amongst us. However, history cannot date the appearance of Odin in the world by thousands of years. The old Icelandic writers say he brought a colony of Teutons out of Asia to the place they now occupy, and where they have performed such a great part, and seem destined hereafter to do so much; but the date of it is unknown.
It is placed at about seventy years before Christ by some. But this supposition is rejected by later inquirers; and, indeed, it has no basis to ground itself on. But whatever be the date of it, Odin appears, if we may judge by the traces still left of him, to be the central figure of the Teutonic migration - the chief divinity of all the Teutonic countries. We have him in England. Odin - Woden; Wednesday is Woden's-day. Many places in our country bear his name, such as Wansborough in Wiltshire, and many others.
It is impossible to trace out by history what kind of man he was. We have no historical light to guide us in this inquiry. However, by the light of understanding, we may easily guess that he must have been a man of warlike genius to fit him for the work he had to do. He seems also to have been a man of poetic genius. In the mythology, he seems to be connected a good deal with poetry; and much mention is made of the work he carried on by means of Runes - the letters of that northern people. He was most probably the inventor of letters to them. What an effect that single circumstance must have had - the inventor of letters!
We may remember the Peruvian king's astonishment when he found that by a mark a man could make his thought legible to another; how he made a soldier write Dios on his thumb-nail, and then tried whether another soldier could tell what was written there.
But further than this we know nothing of Odin. He is an obscure shadow, deep sunk in the dim ages that are gone! A huge shadow flung over the history of his people, and visible only in their mythology.
It is a curious thing in regard to this mythology, that it has come to us from Iceland - the island of ice, of summer suns and winter snows, of volcanoes and ice-hills, the meeting of summer and winter - a country most unlikely, one would have thought, to preserve a literature. And yet so it is.
First of all, on the conversion to Christianity of Iceland in the eleventh century, Siemund collected together the old songs and poems, and mythology of this race. He seems to have had a great fondness for these remains of older times - the people were only half converted - and he collected them in the poem that is called Edda.
Next came Snorow, who was educated by the grandson of Siemund. He collected together whatever he could find, and made a new treatise on this mythology, which is called the Younger Edda.
I should not hide from you that some persons have denied the existence of Woden. All the commentators on his life - Saxo Grammaticus, and the others - have written down his history with as much confidence as if they had known him; but Grimm considered his name to be merely an adjective Wotan, which means, " pervading power ," and that Woden is rather that quality personified, than a man.
The answer to this is, that there is no proof that the meaning of the word did not come from the man. Metaphysicians, who have considered these matters, think that all adjectives are formed in this way. Thus the Spaniards, in their admiration of Lope, used Lope flower, Lope beauty , to express any thing of peculiar charm. Adam Smith marks this down as the origin of all adjectives. We first observe redness , and then we give this name as an adjective red, to whatever else we see that is red.
It is very likely that Odin was not the first thing the Norse people supposed to be a god; - far from that. Before him, they felt that some indescribable thing made this world. But Odin exceeded all they had before known in the qualities they gave to this thing, and they fancied him inspired by it, and imagined that Odin, Woden (Wotan), or power dwelt in him; that he was the incarnation, as it were, of the highest force, and his actions gave their notions a new shape, and a new form was given to their mythology from this revelation of the Divinity in the person of Odin.
As to this matter of hero-worship, it is useful for me to say at present, and perhaps in these sceptical times when we cannot understand this great admiration for a man, it is most important for us not to think this worship of Odin a mere brutal error, but to know the value and merit of the Norse people in admiring him. What was their admiration of him? their thinking that God was in him? It was admiring him beyond measure; admiration transcending all bounds, so that they had no word to express their love for him. In these sceptical times, we talk as if great men had nothing special in them at all; while in truth they are fire from heaven among us to illuminate us. We talk as if all things were done by the multitude of little men, as if the great man was called out by the time; as if he was ready there to come when the time needed, and there is some truth even in this. But there have been times that needed great men badly enough, when there have been none; times enough have all gone to confusion for want of great men. The man, indeed, takes the form of the time, and is moulded by it, but the great fact is that he is there. All those people who have nothing of their own, who go by hearsay, who, as the Psalmist says, believe what others have taught them, all who live that painful kind of life are but as dry fuel waiting for the fire from heaven to kindle them. It is a poor critic who, at sight of this says, "See how these sticks burn!" Not the sticks, but the fire is the great thing.
It lies at the bottom of everything around us, at the bottom of all society, that religion is revealed to us in our brother, in one like ourselves. Every hierarchy is based on this reverence of man for his fellow-man, of greater spiritual worth than himself.
It is a kind of pathetic, almost tragic, thing for us to look at this mythology as a voice from our dead fathers, in a dumb, inarticulate way, speaking to us and saying, "This was our way of considering this great matter. You have risen higher than we, but you will never exhaust it, no human intellect will ever get to the end of it."
It is possible that the Edda had in it a great of allegory which was not believed; perhaps the belief ceased before the song of the poet came. Thus the twelve gods of Odin may have had in them something symbolical, - may have arisen from the feeling that has given, in every nation, the number twelve a mysterious import. We trace in the Norse mythology a beautiful adumbration of those things in the universe which were manifest to them. The difference between their symbols and those of Christianity and Mohammedanism seems to be, that their were symbolical of the force that exists in nature, the others of the duties that exist in man.
Perhaps the great thing they believed with that hall of heroes; of theirs, was that valour was the great thing to recommend a man to Odin. In the Hall of Odin was a great concourse of heroes. Walhalla - their heaven - was military; their employment there was battle; and daily mimic battles are the sports they there go on with.
They had the idea which has existed in almost every creed, of man's lot being predestinated, that man's lot is appointed for him, that he must die in battle then and there. Another point impressed on them was, that valour is essential to a man; and this is true even now; valour is value , if we think rightly of it. The quantity of superiority to fear in a man is the thing that determines what sort of a man he is. Odin felt this in his own rude way, and the Norse people manifested it too. For never were people more patient of toil and danger. They were a robust nation. With them it was disgraceful to die but in battle. It was a blessedness to die fighting against their enemies. It was customary for them to have wounds made upon them that Odin might receive them with greater acceptance. Now all this is objectionable enough, and we do right to get rid of it; but though far away from us, it was yet a worthy beginning - a beginning that could unfold itself into much.
Besides these fighting kings, there were among the Norse people another kind of kings, who showed their valour by the use of more legitimate means - such as the kings who were called Woodcutters. For along with this reverence for mere valour, they had other gods who wear an interesting kind of aspect. Thus Thor was connected with a sort of peaceable industry. His name is very widely diffused among the Norse people. He was the eldest son of Odin, and was the Thunder-god of that mythology. There is great nanvetT , and at the same time great strength, in these poetic inventions of theirs. There is a hugeness about them, and though full of fancy, it is all untutored. Their account of the creation of the world, for instance, is altogether a chaotic affair of the wildest kind. They proceed in it in a huge Brobdignagian kind of way. From the drops of thawed ice melted by the warm wind was produced the giant Ymer, who was killed by his own grandchildren, and from his remains was formed the world that we now have. The earth was made of Ymer's flesh, his brains were made into clouds, his blood became the sea, his skull the great blue vault of immensity.
Thor himself is represented in a homely kind of way, strong and wild, but pleasant enough for all that, as in his excursion into the giant's country though he does the fiercest work there. These poems contain, here and there, little touches of true poetic feeling, as indeed all poems do that have been long preserved. Thus when Thor gets into a rage, we are told that he draws down his brows, frowning in the fearfullest manner, and he takes his hammer - that great hammer of his - into his hand, and grasps it in his hand till the knuckles become white.
There was, among these people, a deep conception of the things in this world, as if it was all a shew. The same thing which you find in the literature of other countries, in the Hindoo metaphysics, in Shakspeare, where he says, "We are such stuff as dreams are made of." Let us take as an illustration of this the story of Thor's journey into the giant's country. He finds on his way a house of strange fashion, where was an immense hall, branching off into five smaller halls, and in one of these he takes shelter with his friends. The house is shaken by a rumbling, as of an earthquake, and he finds at last that he has got into the giant's glove, and has taken refuge in the thumb of it. Then comes a terrific noise like thunder, which he finds to be the snoring of the giant. He does not at all like the appearance of things, and he raises his great hammer and hits the giant on the cheek, but the giant rubs his cheek and asks what leaf it is that dropped upon it; and he strikes him again and again, but the giant cannot be made to understand that it is anything more than the falling of a grain of sand upon him, or a bird dropping a feather, or something of that kind. At last they go out among the giant's people, and the giant treats him very kindly, and he joins in the games and sports they put before him. And one of them is that he is to drink out of a certain goblet, and drink it to the bottom; and he drinks out of it for a long while, but he can make no impression on it at all. Then they put him to lift a great cat they have, and he thinks this quite an easy effort of strength, and he lifts, but he finds he can make nothing of it; and at last, by using all his strength, he can just manage to lift a foot of the animal, and that is all he can do. Then they make him wrestle, and they choose out as the meanest creature they have, for he has been beaten so often, an old woman, and he wrestles with her and cannot throw her: and afterwards the giant explains to him. What you have just witnessed, he says, is a mere delusion of the sight. I knew well enough what you were doing with your hammer; and look there, look at there, look at those three great vallies, those are what you made with your three strokes of the hammer. That goblet that you tried to drain, and could make nothing of it, was the sea, which no man can drink dry, neither can any god; and yet, see! you have made it ebb a good deal more than it was wont. That cat, whose foot you could hardly lift, is the great snake that lies coiled all round the centre of the earth, with its tail in its mouth; if you had moved that cat, you would have torn away the snake, and the whole world would have rushed together and become a chaos. As for the old woman that you wrestled with, she is one to whom all must yield, for she is Age, old age, before whom all things give way.
There is something grand too in that suicidal war of the gods, who first conquer all their enemies, and then exterminate one another, and the new heaven and new earth that follow - purer and better - is a kind of sublime prophecy of the perpetual growth there is in man.
The last thing I shall mention is the end of Thor's career, his last appearance on the earth and among men, at the court of Olaf. Great changes were taken place, and Thor was a kind of pagan Conservative, who did not like the state of things that seemed hastening on there. In the midst of Olaf's court, on one occasion, suddenly a stranger made his appearance, with shaggy eye-brows and a great black bushy beard, such as Thor had, and said to him, "You would destroy even Thor if you could, but beware!" and then he vanished, and was never heard of more. One can imagine how this happened, without supposing there was any deception at all. The stranger very much resembled Thor, and the thing got magnified in the usual way by rumour, but it was not an intentional falsehood. At all events, it seems to me to be a touching emblem of the national spirit, and shows how among that race, all things, even the highest, had a kind of pathetic farewell.
I am sorry I have been so long and yet have made so little way with the subject; in fact, I have hardly been able to enter into it at all. But I hope next lecture I shall be able to make more progress.