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The earliest recorded writer in German prose or verse is Ovid, who states that when he was exiled among the Getae, he attempted to compose a book in their barbarous language. Ah! pudet ! et Getico scripsi serinone libellum.
Structaque sunt nostris barbara verba modis. It does not appear however what was the nature of the tongue in which he composed, most probably Gothic, resembling very
little in structure the modern German. He chose for subject the decease and apotheosis of Augustus, no doubt in order to gain some favor with the emperor and shorten his exile.
From what period the Edda dates cannot at present be satisfactorily ascertained. No doubt it has been added to, and enlarged at various times. The collection of the present poems under that name is chiefly due to Charlemagne. They treat of the achievements of Odin or Wodin, and his heroes of the Walhalla, and indicate a great analogy between the ancient mythology of Greece and Rome, and that of Scandinavia or the Teutovic races. Some doubt has been thrown upon the identity of the divinities of the Scandinavians and Teutons, but we find that the Anglo-Saxons of Britain had the very same deities and traditions respecting them, before the introduction of Christianity, as are mentioned in the Edda. Odin appears to be the Jove although some consider him more resembling Mercury; Thor's "giant strength and redoubtable hammer" have a great affinity with the attributes of Hercules. gests the idea of the gentle Apollo ; and Hertha, who drives through the land in a car drawn by white oxen, disarming Farriors, causing the flowers and fruits of the earth to spring forth at her touch, recalls at once the benignant reign of Ceres. Mixed up with the actions of these deities are many legends concerning remarkable personages, the most striking of which, that of Wieland or Veland Smith, brings to mind at once certain superstitions formerly existing in parts of England, and the Grecian fable of Icarus, the Cretan, who gave his name to a part of the sea. Wieland was a cunning forger of metal, who having married one of the Valkyres, or maidens presiding over the carnage of battle, is deserted by her at the sound of a trumpet. She flies away from him by means of a robe of feathers which he endeavours to imitate. The King of Sweden seizes him, and compels him to work night and day, having cut his ham-strings in order to prevent his escape. "Wieland revenges
himself by slaying the king's two sons, making drinking-caps of their sculls, and breast-clasps of their teeth, as a present for the parents. He flies away afterwards with the king's daughter, having discovered the secret of the robe of feathers, and mocks the king in the distance with an account of his revenge.
Attached to this mythology is a goodly array of spirits of a minor order, Elves, Dwarfs, Gnomes, Cobolds, and Nixes, who peopled the woods, fields, and rocky caverns, in the same manner as the Fauns, and Nymphs did among the Greeks and Romans, and interfered in the affairs of men. The stories of them and their good or evil propensities are innumerable, but the most remarkable are those of the white women, denoting a transition from Paganism to the rites of Christianity.
There are the white women who often appear at early dawn, or dewy evening with their pale sad faces and shadowy forms; these are the goddesses of ancient Paganism condemned to wander through ages to expiate the guilt of having received divine worship, and sentenced at length to eternal punishment unless redeemed by mortal aid. At certain times they are permitted to appear to human view to seek that which alone can procure them salvation. A fisherman in the neighbourhood of Fieben, suddenly beheld a white woman standing before him ; “ Home, home !" she cried, “ thy wife has brought a boy into the world, carry it hither, let me kiss it that I may be redeemed." The fisherman amazed, hastened to his cottage and found all as the white woman had said; but fearing very naturally to trust his new born infant into the hands of this uo. earthly being till protected by the holy rite of baptism, he had this ceremony performed, and then bore it to the sea shore where he found the white woman weeping bitterly, for the condition attached to her salvation was, that the child should not be baptized ! and still at times does she appear upon the sea shore sighing and lamenting.
The goddess Hertha, mentioned by Tacitus, designated in the middle ages by the nanje of Perchta, plays a most conspicuous part in these legends.
She had been spouse to Odin, and watched over certain districts of the country with beneficent sway, having the privilege of appearing on the feast of the three kings to the inhabitants of upper earth. In consequence however of a slight put upon her and her attendant dwarfs, she withdrew from the neighbourhood, which soon lost its fertility, and became lone and desolate. Some of those fables indicate the influence which the first seeds of Christianity had among the people, and the way in which the priests endeavoured to turn these superstitions to the advantage of the new creed.
The translation of the Scriptures in the Mæso Gothic tongue, done by Ulphilas, Bishop of the Visigoths, in the middle of the fourth century, may be looked upon as the earliest specimen of German literature extant. It is still preserved in the Cathedral at Upsal under the title of the "silver codex," having been brought from Prague by Count Königsmark. It is partially written in metre, and adheres in many passages to the rythin of the Greek version. Thus in Matthew, chap. xi. verse xvii, the original runs thus :
'Ηυλησαμεν υμίν, και ουκ άρχησασθε
'Εθρηνησαμεν υμίν, και ουκ έκοψασθε. The meaning of which is ; "we have piped to you and you have not danced; we have lamented and you have not mourned." The Mäso Gothic version of Ulpbilas is as follows :
Swiglodeduin izwis, jah ni plinsideduth,
Gaunodedum izwis, jah ni gaigeroduth. The words of this passage do not seem to have much affinity with modern German, except those "jah ni," which are evidently the first forins of the “ ja nicht” of the present day.
After Ulphilas a great hiatus of nearly four hundred years occurs, duriug which there does not appear to bave been any noted lay produced among the German nations. No doubt they had their warlike chaunts and songs celebrating achievements of their heroes, but the first signs of revival are in the eight century, when the Northmen began to form their piratjcal excursions. One of these "Ragnar the sea king,” the terror of the coasts, who was taken prisoner while invadiug the territories of Ella, King of Northumberland, and perished stung to death by serpents in a loathsome dungeon, has left behind him an ode sung in the midst of tortures.
It is composed of short strophes, without rhyine, each commencing with the refrain “we fought with the sword.” A series of similar lays, in which may be reckoned the Weissbrunnen Gebet, Hilde. brand lied, Walter of Aquitaine and Beowulf, form the Frankishi period of German poetry, in which a certain number of characters are constantly reproduced in different views and adventures. They are rhymeless, the measure consisting of a species of alliteration, formed by the accentuation of the principal words in each line commencing with the same consonants. The hero Siegfried, Etzel, or Attila, King of the Huns, Theodoric the Great under the name of Dietrich of Berne or Verona, Günther, King of the Burgandians, and his vassals Hagan and Hildebrand, are the principal personages running through the whole.
Walter of Aquitaine appears to be the most complete of the series, although the only manuscripts now extant of it are in the Latin tongue. It commences with an account of an expedition by Etzel and his Hunnish army, in which he takes Hagan and Walter, then mere youths, as captives from the Burgundians. When they grow up the former escapes from his servitude, and the other having made Etzel and his court drunk, flies off with the king's daughter Hildegunda and two boxes of treasures. They arrive in the territories of Günther, the King of Burgandy, who sends out Hagan and twelve picked men to seize the maiden and jewels. They are vanquished by Walter and Hagan's son Patafred slain. Gunther and Hagan afterwards attacked Walter together, and fight until one has lost a hand, another an eye, and the third a foot, when they consider it right to make up the quarrel, become good friends, and return to Worms in company. This lay is attributed to a monk of St. Gall, Eckard, who lived in the ninth century. A manuscript copy dating from about that period is still preserved in the library at Carlsruhe. From some passages translated by Madame Pontés it would appear to have been written in a discursive ballad style, and gives a good idea of the manners of that strange age. Walter's declaration of love to Hildegunda, when he persuades her to fly with him, would not disgrace some of the more finished romances of the present day. He finds Hildegunda pensive and alone in the royal apartment, and the following scene takes place :
Upon the maiden's lips he prest a tender kiss, the first.
She gave it to the warrior; he crossed himself and drank ;
I was destined for thy husband; thou wert chosen for my bride ;
But why deny each other in this sad and foreign land,
“Thy tongue affects a language which is foreign to thy heart;
We now enter upon the cycle of the Niebelungen, containing several lays all relating to the same personages under different pbases, and forming such a train of extraordinary encounters as are read of in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. The first is that of the Horny Siegfried, who may be styled the Achilles of the North, for he owes his extraordinary power to a bath of dragon's blood, which changes the surface of his body into horn, and makes him invulnerable. He delivers Chriemhild, a princess of Burgundy, from the jaws of a monstrous giant, and is married to her at Worms to be stabbed by Hagan, Günther's fierce vassal, in the only spot where he is vulnerable. Thus the termination of the poem is anti-classical, ending in the slaughter of the hero himself.
The Niebelungen lay itself, the crowning effort of ancient German chivalrous poetry, is of such a truculent nature that it is very difficult to conceive how it can have formed the delight of the ladies' bower of those ages of romance. The characters are nearly the same as before ; Siegfried is introduced winning Chriemhild, the sister of Günther, by his prowess. l'he Burgundian king, seeking to obtain the land of Brunhild, a warlike princess of Isenland, employs Siegfried to overcome her in the combat. A rivalry ensues between the two ladies, and Brunhild obtains the assassination of Siegfried. Chriemhild, for the sake of revenge, marries Etzel, the king of the Huns, and having invited her brother Günther and his wife to a banquet, procures them to be murdered. A general slaughter ensues, only three of the characters being left alive at the end of the poem. The action of the epic extends over a great period of years, nearly thirty, and by some has been regarded as proceeding from several bands, not put together by one composer. There are many passages of great power and beauty, impossible to give in a translation, which have caused