Curious Myths of the Middle Ages/The Mountain of Venus

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RAGGED, bald, and desolate, as though a curse rested upon it, rises the Hörselberg out of the rich and populous land between Eisenach and Gotha, looking, from a distance, like a huge stone sarcophagus—a sarcophagus in which rests in magical slumber, till the end of all things, a mysterious world of wonders.

High up on the north-west flank of the mountain, in a precipitous wall of rock, opens a cavern, called the Hörselloch, from the depths of which issues a muffled roar of water, as though a subterraneous stream were rushing over rapidly-whirling mill-wheels. “When I have stood alone on the ridge of the mountain,” says Bechstein, “after having sought the chasm in vain, I have heard a mighty rush, like that of falling water, beneath my feet, and after scrambling down the scarp, have found myself—how, I never knew—in front of the cave.” (“Sagenschatz des Thüringes-landes,” 1835.)

In ancient days, according to the Thüringian Chronicles, bitter cries and long-drawn moans were heard issuing from this cavern; and at night, wild shrieks and the burst of diabolical laughter would ring from it over the vale, and fill the inhabitants with terror. It was supposed that this hole gave admittance to Purgatory; and the popular but faulty derivation of Hörsel was Hore, die Seele, Hark, the Souls!

But another popular belief respecting this mountain was, that in it Venus, the pagan Goddess of Love, held her court, in all the pomp and revelry of heathendom; and there were not a few who declared that they had seen fair forms of female beauty beckoning them from the mouth of the chasm, and that they had heard dulcet strains of music well up from the abyss above the thunder of the falling, unseen torrent. Charmed by the music, and allured by the spectral forms, various individuals had entered the cave, and none had returned, except the Tanhäuser, of whom more anon. Still does the Hörselberg go by the name of the Venusberg, a name frequently used in the Middle Ages, but without its locality being always defined.

“In 1398, at midday, there appeared suddenly three great fires in the air, which presently ran together into one globe of flame, parted again, and finally sank into the Hörselberg,” says the Thüringian Chronicle.

And now for the story of Tanhäuser.

A French knight was riding over the beauteous meadows in the Hörsel vale on his way to Wartburg, where the Landgrave Hermann was holding a gathering of minstrels, who were to contend in song for a prize.

Tanhäuser was a famous minnesinger, and all his lays were of love and of women, for his heart was full of passion, and that not of the purest and noblest description.

It was towards dusk that he passed the cliff in which is the Hörselloch, and as he rode by, he saw a white glimmering figure of matchless beauty standing before him, and beckoning him to her. He knew her at once, by her attributes and by her superhuman perfection, to be none other than Venus. As she spake to him, the sweetest strains of music floated in the air, a soft roseate light glowed around her, and nymphs of exquisite loveliness scattered roses at her feet. A thrill of passion ran through the veins of the minnesinger; and, leaving his horse, he followed the apparition. It led him up the mountain to the cave, and as it went flowers bloomed upon the soil, and a radiant track was left for Tanhäuser to follow. He entered the cavern, and descended to the palace of Venus in the heart of the mountain.

Seven years of revelry and debauch were passed, and the minstrel’s heart began to feel a strange void. The beauty, the magnificence, the variety of the scenes in the pagan goddess’s home, and all its heathenish pleasures, palled upon him, and he yearned for the pure fresh breezes of earth, one look up at the dark night sky spangled with stars, one glimpse of simple mountain-flowers, one tinkle of sheep-bells. At the same time his conscience began to reproach him, and he longed to make his peace with God. In vain did he entreat Venus to permit him to depart, and it was only when, in the bitterness of his grief, he called upon the Virgin-Mother, that a rift in the mountain-side appeared to him, and he stood again above ground.

How sweet was the morning air, balmy with the scent of hay, as it rolled up the mountain to him, and fanned his haggard cheek! How delightful to him was the cushion of moss and scanty grass after the downy couches of the palace of revelry below! He plucked the little heather-bells, and held them before him; the tears rolled from his eyes, and moistened his thin and wasted hands. He looked up at the soft blue sky and the newly-risen sun, and his heart overflowed. What were the golden, jewel-incrusted, lamp-lit vaults beneath to that pure dome of God’s building!

The chime of a village church struck sweetly on his ear, satiated with Bacchanalian songs; and he hurried down the mountain to the church which called him. There he made his confession; but the priest, horror-struck at his recital, dared not give him absolution, but passed him on to another. And so he went from one to another, till at last he was referred to the Pope himself. To the Pope he went. Urban IV. then occupied the chair of St. Peter. To him Tanhäuser related the sickening story of his guilt, and prayed for absolution. Urban was a hard and stern man, and shocked at the immensity of the sin, he thrust the penitent indignantly from him, exclaiming, “Guilt such as thine can never, never be remitted. Sooner shall this staff in my hand grow green and blossom, than that God should pardon thee!”

Then Tanhäuser, full of despair, and with his soul darkened, went away, and returned to the only asylum open to him, the Venusberg. But lo! three days after he had gone, Urban discovered that his pastoral staff had put forth buds, and had burst into flower. Then he sent messengers after Tanhäuser, and they reached the Hörsel vale to hear that a wayworn man, with haggard brow and bowed head, had just entered the Hörselloch. Since then the Tanhäuser has not been seen[1].

Such is the sad yet beautiful story of Tanhäuser. It is a very ancient myth Christianized, a wide-spread tradition localized. Originally heathen, it has been transformed, and has acquired new beauty by an infusion of Christianity. Scattered over Europe, it exists in various forms, but in none so graceful as that attached to the Hörselberg. There are, however, other Venusbergs in Germany; as, for instance, in Swabia, near Waldsee; another near Ufhausen, at no great distance from Freiburg (the same story is told of this Venusberg as of the Hörselberg); in Saxony there is a Venusberg not far from Wolkenstein. Paracelsus speaks of a Venusberg in Italy, referring to that in which Æneas Sylvius (Ep. 16) says Venus or a Sibyl resides, occupying a cavern, and assuming once a week the form of a serpent. Geiler v. Keysersperg, a quaint old preacher of the fifteenth century, speaks of the witches assembling on the Venusberg.

The story, either in prose or verse, has often been printed. Some of the earliest editions are the following:—“Das Lied von dem Danhewser.” Nürnberg, without date; the same, Nürnberg, 1515.—“Das Lyedt v. d. Thanheüser.” Leyptzk, 1520.—“Das Lied v. d. Danheüser,” reprinted by Bechstein, 1835.—“Das Lied vom edlen Tanheuser, Mons Veneris.” Frankfort, 1614 Leipzig, 1668.—“”Twe lede volgen Dat erste vam Danhüsser.” Without date.—“Van heer Danielken.” Tantwerpen, 1544.—A Danish version in “Nyerup, Danske Viser,” No. VIII.

Let us now see some of the forms which this remarkable myth assumed in other countries. Every popular tale has its root, a root which may be traced among different countries, and though the accidents of the story may vary, yet the substance remains unaltered. It has been said that the common people never invent new story-radicals any more than we invent new word-roots, and this is perfectly true. The same story-root remains, but it is varied according to the temperament of the narrator or the exigencies of localization. The story-root of the Venusberg is this:

The underground folk seek union with human beings.
α. A man is enticed into their abode, where he unites with a woman of the underground race.
β. He desires to revisit the earth, and escapes.
γ. He returns again to the region below.

Now, there is scarcely a collection of folk-lore which does not contain a story founded on this root. It appears in every branch of the Aryan family, and examples might be quoted from Modern Greek, Albanian, Neapolitan, French, German, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, Icelandic, Scotch, Welsh, and other collections of popular tales. I have only space to mention some.

There is a Norse Tháttr of a certain Helgi Thorir’s son, which is, in its present form, a production of the fourteenth century. Helgi and his brother Thorstein went a cruise to Finnmark, or Lapland. They reached a ness, and found the land covered with forest. Helgi explored this forest, and lighted suddenly on a party of red-dressed women riding upon red horses. These ladies were beautiful and of Troll race. One surpassed the others in beauty, and she was their mistress. They erected a tent and prepared a feast. Helgi observed that all their vessels were of silver and gold. The lady, who named herself Ingibjorg, advanced towards the Norseman, and invited him to live with her. He feasted and lived with the trolls for three days, and then returned to his ship, bringing with him two chests of silver and gold, which Ingibjorg had given him. He had been forbidden to mention where he had been and with whom, so he told no one whence he had obtained the chests. The ships sailed, and he returned home.

One winter’s night Helgi was fetched away from home, in the midst of a furious storm, by two mysterious horsemen, and no one was able to ascertain for many years what had become of him, till the prayers of the king, Olaf, obtained his release, and then he was restored to his father and brother, but he was thenceforth blind. All the time of his absence he had been with the red-vested lady in her mysterious abode of Glœsisvellir.

The Scotch story of Thomas of Ercildoune is the same story. Thomas met with a strange lady, of elfin race, beneath Eildon Tree, who led him into the underground land, where he remained with her for seven years. He then returned to earth, still, however, remaining bound to come to his royal mistress whenever she should summon him. Accordingly, while Thomas was making merry with his friends in the Tower of Ercildoune, a person came running in, and told, with marks of fear and astonishment, that a hart and a hind had left the neighbouring forest, and were parading the street of the village. Thomas instantly arose, left his house, and followed the animals into the forest, from which he never returned. According to popular belief, he still “drees his weird” in Fairy Land, and is one day expected to revisit earth. (Scott, “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.”) Compare with this the ancient ballad of Tamlane.

Debes relates that “it happened a good while since, when the burghers of Bergen had the commerce of the Faroe Isles, that there was a man in Serraade, called Jonas Soideman, who was kept by the spirits in a mountain during the space of seven years, and at length came out, but lived afterwards in great distress and fear, lest they should again take him away; wherefore people were obliged to watch him in the night.” The same author mentions another young man who had been carried away, and after his return was removed a second time, upon the eve of his marriage.

Gervase of Tilbury says that “in Catalonia there is a lofty mountain, named Cavagum, at the foot of which runs a river with golden sands, in the vicinity of which there are likewise silver mines. This mountain is steep, and almost inaccessible. On its top, which is always covered with ice and snow, is a black and bottomless lake, into which if a stone be cast, a tempest suddenly arises; and near this lake is the portal of the palace of demons.” He then tells how a young damsel was spirited in there, and spent seven years with the mountain spirits. On her return to earth she was thin and withered, with wandering eyes, and almost bereft of understanding.

A Swedish story is to this effect. A young man was on his way to his bride, when he was allured into a mountain by a beautiful elfin woman. With her he lived forty years, which passed as an hour; on his return to earth all his old friends and relations were dead, or had forgotten him, and finding no rest there, he returned to his mountain elf-land.

In Pomerania, a labourer’s son, John Dietrich of Rambin, is said to have spent twelve years in the underground land. When about eight years old he was sent to spend a summer with his uncle, a farmer in Rodenkirchen. Here John had to keep cows with other boys, and they used to drive them to graze about the Nine-hills. There was an old cowherd, Klas Starkwolt, who used to join the boys, and tell them stories of the underground people who dwelt in a glorious land beneath the Nine-hills. These tales John swallowed eagerly, and could think of little else. One Midsummer day he ran to the hills, and laid himself down on the top of one of them, where, according to Klas, the little people were wont to dance. John lay quite still from ten till twelve at night. At last a distant tower-clock tolled midnight. Instantly the hill was covered with the little people, dancing and tossing their caps about. One of these fell near John: he caught it, and set it on his head. By the acquisition of this cap he had obtained power over the elves. When the cock began to crow, a bright glass point appeared on the hill-top, and opened. John and the people descended, and he found himself in a land of wonder. He found that there were in that place the most beautiful walks, in which he might ramble along for miles in all directions without ever finding an end of them, so immensely large was the hill that the little people lived in; and yet outwardly it seemed but a little hill, with a few bushes and trees growing on it. It was extraordinary that, between the meads and fields, which were thick sown with hills and lakes and islands, and ornamented with trees and flowers in the greatest variety, there ran, as it were, small lanes, through which, as through crystal rocks, one was obliged to pass to come to any new place; and the single meads and fields were often a mile long, and the flowers were so brilliant and so fragrant, and the song of the numerous birds so sweet, that John had never seen any thing on earth at all like it. There was a breeze, and yet one did not feel the wind; it was quite clear and bright, and yet there was no heat, no sun, no moon; the waves dashed about, but there was no danger; and the most beautiful little barks and canoes came, like white swans, when one wanted to cross the water, and went backwards and forwards of themselves. Whence all this came no one knew, nor could his servant tell any thing about it; but one thing John saw plainly, which was, that the large carbuncles and diamonds that were set in the roof and walls gave light instead of the sun, moon, and stars. Here John found a little maiden, Elizabeth Krabbin, daughter of the minister of Rambin, who had been spirited away by the little people a few years before. John and she soon formed an attachment, and were wont to walk together. On one of their strolls they must have approached the surface, for they heard the crowing of a cock. At the sound, the remembrance of earth returned to them, and they felt a desire once more to be on Christian land. “Every thing down here,” said Elizabeth, “is beautiful, and the little folk are kind, but there is not pure pleasure here. Every night I dream of my father and mother, and of our churchyard; and I cannot go to the House of God, and worship Him as a Christian should; for this is no Christian life we lead down here, but a delusive, half-heathen one.”

John, however, could not release Elizabeth from the power of the underground folk till he found a toad, the sight and smell of which was so repulsive to them, that they readily complied with every request of John, on condition he should bury the offensive reptile.

Then he and the girl escaped, taking with them gold and silver and jewels, to such an amount, that their fortune was made. They were, of course, married; and John bought up half the island of Rügen, was ennobled, built and endowed the present church of Rambin, and became the founder of a powerful family. To the altar of Rambin he gave some of the cups and plates of gold made by the underground people, and his own and Elizabeth’s glass shoes which they had worn in the mount. But these were taken away in the time of Charles XII. of Sweden, when the Russians came on the island, and the Cossacks plundered the churches[2].

In the year 1520, there lived at Basle, in Switzerland, a tailor’s son, named Leonard. He entered a cave which penetrated far into the bowels of the earth, holding a consecrated taper in his hand. He came to an enchanted land, where was a beautiful woman wearing a golden crown, but from her waist downwards she was a serpent. She gave him gold and silver, and entreated him to kiss her three times. He complied twice, but the writhing of her tail so horrified him, that he fled without giving her the third kiss. Afterwards he prowled about the mountains, seeking the entrance to the cave, filled with a craving for the society of the lady, but he never could find it again[3].

There is a curious story told by Fordun in his “Scotichronicon,” by Matthew of Westminster in his Chronicle, and by Roger of Wendover in his “Flowers of History,” which has some interest in connection with the legend of the Tanhäuser. He relates that in the year 1050, a youth of noble birth had been married in Rome, and during the nuptial feast, being engaged in a game of ball, he took off his wedding-ring, and placed it on the finger of a statue of Venus. When he wished to resume it, he found that the stony hand had become clinched, so that it was impossible to remove the ring. Thenceforth he was haunted by the Goddess Venus, who constantly whispered in his ear, “Embrace me; I am Venus, whom you have wedded; I will never restore your ring.” However, by the assistance of a priest, she was at length forced to give it up to its rightful owner.

This story occurs also in Vincent of Beauvais, whose version will be found in the Appendix[4]. Cæsarius of Heisterboch has also a story bearing a relation to that of Venus and the ring. A certain Clerk Phillip, a great necromancer, took some Swabian and Bavarian youths to a lonely spot in a field, where, at their desire, he proceeded to perform incantations. First he drew a circle round them with his sword, and warned them on no consideration to leave the ring. Then retiring from them a little space he began his incantations, and suddenly there appeared around the youths a multitude of armed men, brandishing weapons, and daring them to fight. The demons, failing to draw them by this means from their enchanted circle, vanished, and then there was seen a company of beautiful damsels, dancing about the ring, and by their attitudes alluring the youths towards them. One of these, exceeding the others in beauty and grace, singled out a youth, and dancing before him, extended to him a ring of gold, casting languishing glances towards him, and by all means in her power endeavouring to attract his attention, and kindle his passion. The young man, unable any longer to resist, put forth his finger beyond the circle to the ring, and the apparition at once drew him towards her and vanished along with him. However, after much trouble, the necromancer was able to recover him from the embraces of the evil spirit[5].

Another mediæval story is founded on the same myth, but purified and Christianized. A knight is playing at ball, and incommoded by his ring. He therefore removes it, and places it for safety on the finger of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On seeking it again he finds the hand of the figure clasped, and he is unable to recover his ring. Whereupon the knight renounces the world, and as the betrothed of the Virgin enters a monastery[6].

The incident of the ring in connexion with the ancient goddess is certainly taken from the old religion of the Teutonic and Scandinavian peoples. Freyja was represented in her temples holding a ring in her hand; so was Thorgerda Hörgabrúda. The Faereyinga Saga relates an event in the life of the Faroese hero, Sigmund Brestesson, which is to the point. “They (Earl Hakon and Sigmund) went to the temple, and the earl fell on the ground before her statue, and there he lay long. The statue was richly dressed, and had a heavy gold ring on the arm. And the earl stood up and touched the ring, and tried to remove it, but could not; and it seemed to Sigmund as though she frowned. Then the earl said, ‘She is not pleased with thee, Sigmund! and I do not know whether I shall be able to reconcile you; but that shall be the token of her favour, if she gives us the ring, which she has in her hand.’ Then the earl took much silver, and laid it on the footstool before her; and again he flung himself prostrate before her, and Sigmund noticed that he wept profusely. And when he stood up he took the ring, and she let go of it. Then the earl gave it to Sigmund, and said, ‘I give thee this ring to thy weal, never part with it.’ And Sigmund promised he would not[7].” This ring is the death of the Faroese chief. In after years, King Olaf, who converts him to Christianity, knowing that this gold ring is a relic of Paganism, asks Sigmund to give it him. The chief refuses, and the king angrily pronounces a warning that it will be the cause of his death. And his word falls true, for Sigmund is murdered in his sleep for the sake of the ring.

Unquestionably the Venus of the Horselberg, of Basle, of the Eildon Hill, that of whom Fordun, Vincent, and Cæsarius relate such weird tales, is the ancient goddess Holda, or Thorgerda; a conclusion to which the stories of the ring naturally lead us.

The classic legend of Ulysses held captive for eight years by the nymph Calypso in the Island of Ogygia, and again for one year by the enchantress Circe, contains the root of the same story of the Tanhäuser.

What may have been the significance of the primeval story-radical it is impossible for us now to ascertain; but the legend, as it shaped itself in the Middle Ages, is certainly indicative of the struggle between the new and the old faith.

We see thinly veiled in Tanhäuser the story of a man, Christian in name, but heathen at heart, allured by the attractions of paganism, which seems to satisfy his poetic instincts, and which gives full rein to his passions. But these excesses pall on him after a while, and the religion of sensuality leaves a great void in his breast.

He turns to Christianity, and at first it seems to promise all that he requires. But alas! he is repelled by its ministers. On all sides he is met by practice widely at variance with profession. Pride, worldliness, want of sympathy exist among those who should be the foremost to guide, sustain, and receive him. All the warm springs which gushed up in his broken heart are choked, his softened spirit is hardened again, and he returns in despair to bury his sorrows and drown his anxieties in the debauchery of his former creed.

A sad picture, but doubtless one very true.

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Prœtorius, Blocksberg, Leipzig, 1668. Grimm, Deutsche Sagen, Berlin, 1866, I. p. 214. Bechstein, Thuringische Märchenschatz, 1835.
  2. Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, 1860, p. 178.
  3. Kornemann, Mons Veneris, c. 34. Prœtorius, Weltbeschreibung, p. 661.
  4. Appendix B. Vincent. Bellov. I. 36, Spec. Historiale. Antonini Summa Histor. P. II., tit. 16.
  5. Cæsarius Heister. V. 4.
  6. Wolf, Beiträge z. deut. Myth. Göttingen, 1857, II., p. 257.
  7. Faereyinga Saga. Copenhagen, 1832, p. 103; and Fornmanna Sögur, II., cap. 184.