Elves, German Nationalism, and Gunnar Gunnarsson

Before Darwin, European culture had many ways of understanding the relationship between humans, land, and evolution. Scientifically, they withered under the evidence of Darwin’s theories, but culturally many of them have remained potent. One of them is the Huldafólk, or Other People, of Icelandic folk culture. The English translation is “elves”, but these aren’t Tolkein’s elves, nor are they the fairies of Irish folklore. These are human-sized people, just more beautiful than the humans themselves.

Jumping After Hildur
A man jumping after an elf (English Engraving, 1864)
Another set of alternate people are the dwarves of Norse (and occasionally Icelandic) legend…
P1020278Dvergasteinn, Seyðisfjörður

The dwarves, it is said, rowed this dwelling (rock) across the fjord, when the humans moved their church to this site, because they missed their company on Sundays. Eventually, the humans moved away and took their church with them. The stone (and its dwarves) is left.

Another alternate human is the Green Man, and his relative, the Old Man of the Woods. These people were said to be the original humans, who had risen from the earth and the trees.

greenThe Green Man, Görlitz, Germany

With his leafy beard, hair, and moustache.

The Green Man was an important nationalist symbol in the German struggle for independence in the mid-19th century. He was often said to be a representation of the first Christian, Judaic and Islamic human, Adam. Here those ideas kind of come together in one of the contemporary centres of German ultra-nationalism:

bismarckBismarck, the Iron Chancellor, Jena, Germany

The father of Germany, with his bushy Green Man Moustache. Now a fountain.

Here is an older image of these men coming together in one spot:

barbarossaBarbarossa, or Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich I, Kyffhäuser Monument, Germany

Friedrich’s Crusade to recapture the Holy Land came to an end on June 10, 1190, when he drowned in Northern Lebanon. The monument was erected to commemorate the founding of the modern German State.

Few of Barbarossa’s (Red Beard’s) 100,000 men made it home. Legend, though, has him return to the country as an old pilgrim dressed in grey, inspecting his kingdom, which had lapsed from true observance of Christianity and was a shambles, much like this figure…


Wodin, from the lost Hall of Sagas, in Silesia

Odin of Norse Belief, or Gandalf in the modern version, or Barbarossa, take your pick. Old legends just don’t die out. Barbarossa was the code name for Hitler’s Invasion of Russia in 1941.

Depressed at it all, Barbarossa retreated to the castle on Kyffhäuser Mountain, where he lived inside the mountain with his knights, served by the dwarves of the mountain. He drank a lot of beer with them and fell asleep, only to wake a century later, ask if it was time to wake up, and then drink another beer and fall asleep once more. His beard kept growing.

P1160220One of Barbarossa’s Dwarves

Dwarves show up continually in German folklore. Luther, the translator of the Bible and unwilling founder of Protestant Christianity, was raised in such legends, in the mountains east of Frankfurt, where his father was a coal miner and descended among them daily. Their power haunted their simple forest house.

Luther’s dwarves were the subconscious mind of the German people. They lived inside what was known as “the living rock”, or the deep rock of the mountains. Gunnar Gunnarsson, son of Iceland, descendent of men of Odin, born to a country of turf houses buried in the earth, also came from this story. So did this man:

DeeJohn Dee, 1527-1609

Dee was an Englishman who served as Court Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth of England, created the navigational instruments used by early European explorers in the North, and spent many years writing down his conversations with the angels. He believed that if he could learn their language, and speak it correctly, he would be able to conjure up the spirits of the earth and the air, as God did in the Book of Genesis, restart Creation, heal all war and disease, and return earth to Eden. Legend has it that when the Spanish Armada, the most powerful state in the world, attacked England, John Dee wove a magic spell around the Island and conjured up a storm, which wrecked the Spanish fleet. This act formed the basis of Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.

prosperoProspero, Duke of the Island, Banishing the Half-Human Creature Caliban

The tree spirit Caliban is not unlike the Green Man.

Return Earth to Eden? Cast a spell around an island alive with spirits of earth and air? Banish the half-humans? Retreat to a mountain stronghold (an old monastery)? Found a country? Invasion from the most powerful country in the world? The old gods walking the roads in disguise? This is the context in which Gunnar Gunnarsson was operating — the old European, pre-Darwin context, that was still very much alive in his time and is still alive today. In my next post, I’ll show how these ideas illuminate parts of the speech he gave while on tour in Germany in the spring of 1940.

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