After the Bronze Age: Footprints by Hilda Ellis Davidson (1969)

Source: ‘Part II: After the Bronze Age,’ Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age, 1969, pp. 152-153.

The Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze AgeThe footprints found so frequently on the rocks among the other Bronze Age carvings, sometimes in pairs and sometimes singly, do not appear in any recognizable context in later heathen times. There are examples of prints of both a bare and a sandalled foot being used symbolically, but these are scattered and provoke speculation whenever they appear. A stamp in the shape of a human foot is found beside a wheel on a cremation urn of the Roman period in Jutland (Fig. 74). A marble offering slab with two human feet outlined on it was found at the Ritona temple at Trier-Allbachtal (Kyll, p. 55). The usual interpretation given to the symbols of this kind is that they were thank offerings for healing, or, when the feet wear sandals, for a successful return from a journey. Sandals are, however, also found on Christian gravestones, perhaps as a sign of resurrection.

The only northern myth connected with the feet is that of the marriage of the god Njord to Skadi. The giantess was told that she might choose a husband among the gods, as an atonement for the killing of her father, but that she must make her choice from a view of their feet only. According to Snorri’s account in the Prose Edda she chose the handsomest pair of feet in view, assuming that these would belong to Balder, but found that they were the feet of Njord. Oxenstierna (p. 96) links this tradition with a marriage game. Njord is a god connected with the sea and ships, and also, in the poem from which Snorri quotes and from which presumably he took his story, with swans: the howling of wolves, says the god, when he stays in the mountains with his bride, seems ill after the swans’ song. However, the links are too tenuous to allow firm conclusions to be drawn. It may be noted incidentally that Njord too is linked with the Vanir deities, and said to be the father of Freyja and Freyja, and that the passing of bare feet over the earth to make it fruitful is something which appears frequently in folk customs (Hole, 1950, p. 14).

The symbol of footprints on the ground is often taken as a sign of visitation by a supernatural power. A strange point made more than once in the Icelandic prose sagas is that when some evil troll or shape-changer disappears, he sinks into the earth so that ‘they saw the soles of his feet’; such, for instance, is the last glimpse of Ogmund in Þorsteins saga Víkingssonar. It is possible that this convention may be based on a confused memory of a divine visitant or the returning dead being commemorated by the symbol of feet in an earlier period. Local traditions in the British Isles of the hoof-mark of the devil left on rock or hill offer another example of this symbolism. The sagas also refer to a custom of blinding ‘death-shoes’ on the feet of the dead (Ellis, 1943, p. 39), which if genuinely based on funeral practices in the heathen period, suggests a symbol of the journey to another world, and the hope that the dead might not remain in the vicinity of the grave to trouble the living.

Fig. 74. Chariot of the Sun

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