6. Ossian’s Impact on the Discovery of Ancient Scandianvian Literature
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76 CHAPTER SIX Ossian’s Impact on the Discovery of Ancient Scandinavian Literature Robert W. Rix In the late eighteenth century, classical literary models of Greece and Rome were challenged as benchmarks of cultural prestige. It was no longer sufficient only to regurgitate the fruits of timeless and transcultural classicism. Instead, cultural prestige was now increasingly to be won through reconstructing one’s own ethnic history. James Macpherson’s The Poems of Ossian was central to this change. Indeed the enormous popularity these poems enjoyed has made it appear as if they were the cause of this reorientation, but Ossian should rather be seen as the flagship riding the swell of interest in ancient vernacular poetry that had been growing for some time. The sensational ‘discovery’ of Ossian came at an opportune moment and accelerated developments. Macpherson’s poems were a significant catalyst for the renewed awareness of ancient Germanic or (in the parlance of the day) ‘Gothic’ tradition. This chapter will examine some of the dynamics that Ossian helped set in motion in respect to antiquarian and literary interest in the ‘Gothic’ tradition. The Germanic past was often recovered through Scandinavian sources, in particular Icelandic texts, which represented the most significant fount of knowledge about beliefs, manners, and poetic practice of the ‘Gothic’ peoples. But it was generally believed that what could be gleaned from this Norse material had once been widely shared by peoples living around the North Sea littoral. This chapter will concentrate on two case studies. The first will focus on Britain, where the recovery of ‘Gothic’ tradition was a reaction to Ossian, partly carried out in the spirit of admiration and partly in the spirit of competition, and partly in the spirit of both. The second focus will be on Denmark, where Copenhagen became a hub for both German and Danish writers exploring a new repertoire of vernacular antiquity with more or less direct reference to an appreciation of Ossian. 77 Celtic and Germanic In much eighteenth-century scholarship, no distinct fault lines were drawn between Celtic and Germanic cultures. So much is clear from Paul-Henri Mallet’s Introduction à l’histoire de Dannemarc, où l’on traite de la religion, des loix, des moeurs, et des usages des anciens Danois [Introduction to the History of Denmark, or Discussion of the Religion, Laws and Manners of the Ancient Danes] (1755) and Monuments de la mythologie et de la poésie des Celtes, et particulièrement des anciens Scandinaves [Monuments of the Mythology and the Poetry of the Celts, in Particular the Ancient Scandinavians] (1756). Mallet was a Genevan professor at Copenhagen, and his Introduction was sponsored by the Danish government in order to improve the reputation of Denmark. It proved a successful gambit, as both publications became popular books of reference throughout Europe. Much work had already been done by seventeenth-century Scandinavian scholars, such as Ole Worm, Thomas Bartholin and Johan Peringskiöld, but these Latin treatises were mostly appreciated by a cadre of dedicated antiquarians. Mallet’s studies in French kick-started a renewed interest in Nordic antiquity. This was in turn helped by the success of Ossian, which undoubtedly reinforced the popularity of Mallet’s works, resulting in new editions of his books in 1760, 1763, 1787 and 1790 – as well as translations into German (1764–1766) and English (1770). Ossian far from invented the interest in vernacular literary tradition, but its added measure of eighteenth-century sentimentalism was instrumental in relocating vernacular antiquities at the centre of fashionable culture. For example, in the collected 1765 edition of Ossian’s poetry, Mallet’s Introduction is mentioned in a footnote to Temora, annotating the remarks the bard makes about the religion of their Scandinavian enemies. This is one of the annotations that falls under the ‘historical-cum-cultural context and speculation’ category of notes.1 Through reference to Mallet, Ossian’s reference to the ‘stone of Loda’ is related to the worship of Loda or Loden, purportedly cognate names of the Norse god Odin.2 This was in fact nonsense, as the Ossian detractor Malcolm Laing pointed out.3 Either Macpherson or Hugh Blair had misread Mallet in their eagerness to provide a historical paratext that would seem to authenticate Ossian’s poetry. Regardless of escalating misgivings about Macpherson’s scholarship and credentials, antiquarians in Scandinavia often turned to Ossian as an important testimonial of the old Norsemen and their religion. Because Fingal had fought Scandinavians, the bard Ossian was believed to ossian...