The Northern Way

Grimm Centenary: Sigfred-Arminivs and Other Papers

Page 5


Of Crimes there were, as was aforesaid, two great categories, the deadly crimes which were unatonable, and those which might be compensated for. Thus in the Law of Cnut, §64, hús-bryce and bærnet and open þyfð and æbere morð and hláford-suíce æfter woruld-lage is bótleás. To this list of deadly crimes, naming house-breaking, arson or fire-raising, open theft (ran), and clear murder and treason to one's lord, the Northmen seem to have added unnatural crime (arg-scap), witchcraft, blasphemy, and oath-breach, all of which are spoken of with special loathing and detestation. The offence of cowardice and of slaying those near-of-kin, the Roman pari-cidium, was also bootless (as Beowulf shows, 2441). (7)

The innocent man is 'saclauss' sackless, and the guilty man is 'söco-dolgr,' Ch. W. 91, 99. The convict is 'uarg,' the wolf; cf. the Age of Felony, uarg-old of the Woluspa poet, 112.

The word 'sycn' refers rightly to the man who has purged his guilt by fulfilling his outlawry, by ordeal, or 'orrosta,' earnest, wager of battle, or getting restored to his legal status. It differs from 'ósannr' insons, the man who is declared by verdict of sworn men no offender.

The fierce punishment which greater criminals meet in the pit of the World of Hell, according to the author of the Woluspá, touches the following, though the text is fragmentary: --- perjurer, 'mein-suari,' Vsp. 173, 'uára-uargr,' W. Pl. 259, Vsp. 176; murderer, 'morð-uargr,' Vsp. 173; hidden murder, 'folg-uíg,' Vsp. 74; adulterer in secret, 'sa-es glepr annars eyra-rúno,' Vsp. 174; coward, 'níðing,' Vsp. 180; witch, 'fordæda,' Vsp. 175, also W. Pl. 271, Lokas. 128, but the text is fragmentary, and there was doubtless a full table in the original. There is also a fragmentary list to be culled out of the Old Wolsung Play, where only the man-sworn, the incestuous, the murderer are now mentioned.

        These great crimes seem to have been termed 'glœp.'

                nu hefir-þu enn aucit .......
                greipt glœp stóran. Atlam. 310-11.
                mic hefir miclo glœpr meiri sóttan. Helg. II. 50.

Taking them one by one, and first treason, 'suic.' This offence covers all breaches of peculiar trust, in which a crime is committed against a person one is bound to by such ties as friendship, affinity, kinship, service: our mediæval English high-treason and petty-treason will include most of these offences.

                illt es uin uéla. Atlam. 332.
                of þik uéla uinir. Grimn. 138.
                munc uin-þiófr uerða heitinn. Egil. 49.
                oc laun-suic inn lóm-gedi. Yng. 165.
                þu uerðr, siclingr, fyr suicom annars
                mundu Grím-hildar gialda ráða. Grip. 129-30.
                Drottins-suica es Diöfulinn hlægdo. Ditty 43.
                uándr munc heitinn
                S ........ með seggjom at sogoro. Grip. 157-8.

Murder --- that is, secret-killing, or slaying by night or by wicked means--- is 'morð' (Lat. mors).

                Synð hans suall, sofanda myrði. Ch. W. 23.
                menn ........ es myrðir ro
                allz fyr œngar sacar. Sol. 168-9.

The word for slaughter is 'uíg,' and this is perhaps the older word, for besides mere manslaughter or killing in fight, it is compounded with folg-, morð-, and the like.

A base offender is called 'argr,' a highly offensive word (cf. Paul Diaconus and Loka-senna passim) ----

                mic muno æsir argan calla
                ef ec bindasc lætc brúdar-líni. Þrym. 69, 79.

a quotation which illustrates the Jewish prohibition of men wearing women's clothes.

        Robbery with violence is 'rán.'

                menn .......... es marga höfðo
                fé oc fiörui rænt. Sol. 125-6.

The later Christian poems treat all forms of robbing one's neighbour as spiritually criminal.

                menn ......... es mörgom hlutom
                uilto um annars eign. Sol. 121-2.

Brenno-uargr, the fire-raiser, does not occur in the poems, and the suip-uisar conor of Solarliod, 99, is the only additional legal reference to witches, for whose names see C. P. B. i. 468.

Blasphemy, 'godgá,' is found in connection with Hialte's famous níð, where the word geyja occurs: Ditty 58; god-uargr is used, C. P. B. ii. 80, l. 25.

Slander, a minor offence, seems to have two aspects, one the older, in which a satire is believed to have by the power of the poet a real effect, by which means this crime is hateful, and approaches witchcraft (Lat. incantatio) in its effects, the ceremonies of the níð-stang and the horse's scull are part of this aspect of slander, and are very archaic. See C. P. B. i. 419; ii. 572. The Irish belief in the poets that could rhyme men and beasts to death, was kept up till late in Iceland. See C. P. B. ii. 415, No. 54.

The other view of the matter is that connected especially with satiric love-poems 'man-song.' It is a common incident in the Icelandic Family Sagas for a man to be bound in honour to revenge himself to the death upon his satirist. False reports and treacherous misstatements approach this aspect of the offence and bring it near to perjury.

                hrópi oc rógi ef þu eyss á holl regin. Lokas. 15.
                flá-rád tunga uard honom at fiör-lagi
                oc þeygi of sanna söc. Ch. W. 141-2
                menn .......... er mart hafa
                orð á annan logit. Sol. 137-8.

Another passage, which, though terribly mangled in the MS., yet preserves an interesting word if the Editor's conjecture be accepted, and no other reading seems to me at all satisfactory ---

                þat rædec þér ........ at þú þingi á
                        deilit uið heimsca hali:
                þuiat ó-suiðr maðr lætr ó-cueðins
                        orð ....... viti. W. Pl. 260-4. cor.

This term 'o-kueðins-ord' in the Guta-lag, c. 39, is given as meaning legal and punishable libel or insult, iniuria uerbi. Words not to be used to a man are four --- thief, murderer, robber, incendiary; but to a woman five --- thief, murderess, adulteress, witch, and incendiary. In later Danish 'oquems-ord' occurs a mere corruption of the older form, thus --- 'ó-cueðins-ord,' 'o-quens-ord,' 'o-quems-ord,' with a folk-etymology, unseemly or uncomely speech.

To carry off a woman is not in itself a crime at all, though it is (as Thucydides, and no doubt many before him, very justly observed) a most fruitful source for a feud between families, or even a war between nations. But incest, 'sifja-slit,' and the seduction of a kinsman's wife is a grave offence, as is adultery in a woman, which is indeed a species of treason to the Teutonic legal mind, and to be punished with death: cf. the case of Gudrun cited above under Ordeal, and quotations below, pp. 85, 86.


The subject of Perjury is but connected with Oaths, and may best be treated in connection with it. For the general subject of Oaths and Vows of the heathen time among the Old Northern folk, see C. P. B. i. 422. To give an oath is 'selja eiða'; to take it, 'uinna eiða'; to swear an oath, 'suerja eiða'; to maintain or respect it, is 'þyrma eiðom,' to uphold it is 'halda eiðom.'

                eiða scaltu mer áðr alla uinna
                at scips borði oc at scialdar rönd
                at mars bœgi oc at mækis egg. Weyl. 133-5.
                Baug-eið Óðinn hyggec unnit hafa. Love. Less. 55.
                Ið munoð alla eiða uinna. Grip. 121.
                mer hefir S...... selda eiða
                eiða selda alla logna
                þa uælti hann mic es hann (u ...... ) scylde
                allra eiða einn full-trui. Sh. Br. L. 3-6.
                tóc wið trygðom tueggja brœdra,
                seldosc eiða elion-frœcnir. L. B. L. 3, 4.
                þat ræd-ec þer ....... at þú eið ne suerir
                        nema þann-es saðr sé. W. Pl. 256-7.
                ........ sem þú wið G. átter
                eiða opt um suarða oc árófa nefnda
                at sól inni suðr-höllo oc at Sigtýss berge
                hölcui huíl-beðjar oc at hringi Ullar. Akv. 117-120. cor.
                Hue h ..... hafði fyrri
                eiðom haldit uið inn unga gram. Sh. Br. L. 71-5.
                þic scyli allir eiðar bíta
                þeir es H ....... h ......... hafðir unna
                at eno liósa leiptrar uatni
                oc at úrsuölom Unnar-steini. Helg. I. 257.
                sór þa Uingi, ser réd hann lítt eira,
                eigi hann Iötnar ef hann at yðr lygi
                galgi gœr-uallan ef hann á grið hygðe. Atlam. 111-113.
                þyrmða ec sifjom suörnom eiðom. L. Br. L. 112.
                mun engi maðr oðrom (eiðom) þyrma. Vsp.
                þyrma veom. Hacm. 55 (showing the bearing of the word).

The 'arófa' of the citation are the witnesses named to the oath taken in legal formalities.

 The subject of Vows rather belongs to Religion than Law, but Wager, in its aspect of an early contract, is noticed.

                höfði uedja uid scolom .........
                gestr um geð-speci. Vafþ. 71-2.

The perjurer is 'uára-uargr,' 'uár-liúgr,' Arinb. 50. cor. ; and perjury is 'uárlygi,' Atlam. 338; 'uárom,' 'uarg-dropa,' W. Pl. 308. Of other origin but like meaning are the rofi- series, 'griða-rofi,' W. Pl. 258; 'eið-rofi,' Sh. Br. L. 64. There is a curious proverb on treachery and perjury, the bearing of which is plain, but the exact meaning to me obscure: it occurs in two forms.

                grimmar limar ganga af griða-rofi,
                        armr es uára-uargr. W. Pl. 258-9.
                ósaðra orða es á annan lýgr
                        of lengi leiða limar. W. Pl. 15.


7. Brother slaying brother is of course bootless, quite irrespective of the heinousness of the offence which considers even an innocent fratricide as a great crime; for by the very theory, upon which were-gild was paid to the next of kin by the slayer, brother could not pay for brother.
                        wæs þam yldestan ungedéfelíce
                        mægesdædum morðor-bed stréð ......
                        þæt wæs feoh-léas gefeoht.
The Homeric Greeks make the same account of kin-killing. [Back]

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