The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


denial, "If thine eye offend thee, thy hand send thee, cast them from thee," he says, "Go not with the kinsman who leads to sin, to wrong, though he be never so closely thy kinsman; better to cast him aside, to abhor him, and lay waste love in the heart, that one may rise alone to the high heaven."

Personal sympathies and antipathies again, can of course never stand up against the authority of frith. Relations between Thorstein and his father had never been very cordial; to Egil's mind, this son of his was ever too soft, too easygoing a man. Egil could not thrive in his house, but went in his old age to live with a step-daughter; but his personal feelings towards his son could not make him stop a single moment to consider whether or not he should interfere.

The Bandamanna saga has a little story based on this theme, of a father and son who never could get along together, but are drawn together by their common feeling against all outsiders. The son is Odd, a wealthy man; Usvif, his father, is poor. Odd gets entangled in a lawsuit, which his ill-wishers take advantage of to squeeze him thoroughly. They have sworn together not to let him go free till they have stripped him. Then artful old Usvif comes along, and under cover of his notorious illwill towards his son, goes about among the conspirators, opening the eyes of a few of them to the hazardous nature of their undertaking. "As purely as my son has money in his chest, so surely also has he wit in his head to find a way when that is needed... do you properly know how much of the booty there will fall to each, when there are eight of you to share?... For you need not think my son will sit waiting at home for you; he has a ship, as you know, and save for homestead and land, a man's wealth will float on water, that much I know... nay, but what a man has gotten, that he has." And here the old man is near letting fall a fat purse hidden beneath his cloak, the price he had demanded of his son beforehand for his help. Thus he went unhesitatingly about the work of frith as he understood it, and took a hearty pride in his and his son's success in settling the matter.

All must give way to frith, all obligations, all considerations


of self, everything, down to the regard for one's own personal dignity – if such a thing could be imagined as existing apart from the feeling of kinship.

The great heroic example of daughterly and sisterly fidelity is Signy. The Volsungasaga tells, presumably based throughout on older poems, how a disagreement between Volsung and his son-in-law, Siggeir, Signy's husband, leads to the slaying of the former. Volsung's only surviving son, Sigmund, has to take to the woods, and there he ponders on revenge for his father. Signy sends one after another of her sons out to aid him, and sacrifices them mercilessly when they show themselves craven and useless. At last she herself goes out, disguised and unrecognisable, to Sigmund's hiding place, and bears her own brother a son, an avenger of the true type, instinct with the feeling of clanship. "The war-skilled youth closed me in his arms; there was joy in his embrace, and yet it was hateful to me also," runs the stirring Old English monologue. And when at last the long-awaited vengeance comes, and the fire blazes up about King Siggeir, she throws herself into the flames with the words: "I have done all that King Siggeir might be brought to his death; so much have I done to bring about vengeance that I will not in any wise live longer; I will die now with Siggeir as willingly as I lived unwillingly with him."

To such a length is she driven by frith. She cannot stop at any point, in face of any horror, so long as her sisterly love is still unsatisfied. She is carried irresistibly through motherly feeling and the dread of incest. For there is not the slightest suggestion in the saga that Signy is to be taken as one of those stern characters in whom one passion stifles all others from the root.

One is tempted to regard this episode as a study, a piece of problem writing, as a conscious attempt to work out the power of frith upon the character. The suggestion has, I think, something to justify it; the story as it stands has its idea. Consciously or unconsciously, the poet, and his hearers, were concerned to bring it about that the frith on one side and that on the other – a woman's relationship to her husband is also a sort of frith


– were so forced one against the other that the two showed their power by crushing human beings between them. Signy must take vengeance on her husband for her father's death, in despite of humanity itself, and she must take vengeance on herself for her own act; her words : "So much have I done to bring about vengeance that I will not in any wise live longer," do not come as an empty phrase, they ring out as the theme of the poem. Gudrun may sorrow for her husband, but she cannot take action against her brothers; Signy must aid in furthering vengeance for her father, even though it cost her her husband, and her children, and something over.

The frith of the guild statutes, which requires the brethren to take up one another's cause, considering only the person, and not the matter itself, is thus no exaggeration. And the frith of kinship has one thing about it which can never find expression in a paragraph of laws: to wit, spontaneity, necessity, the unreflecting "we cannot do otherwise".

And whence comes this "We cannot do otherwise", but from depths that lie beneath all self-determination and self-comprehension. We can follow the idea of frith from its manifestation in man's self-consciousness, down through all his dispositions, until it disappears in the root of will. We dimly perceive that it is not he that wills frith, but frith that wills him. It lies at the bottom of his soul as the great fundamental element, with the blindness and the strength of nature.

Frith constitutes what we call the base of the soul. It is not a mighty feeling among other feelings in these people, but the very core of the soul, that gives birth to all thoughts and feelings, and provides them with the energy of life – or it is that centre in the self where thoughts and feelings receive the stamp of their humanity, and are inspired with will and direction. It answers to what we in ourselves call the human. Humanity in them bears always the mark of kinship. In our culture, a revolting misdeed is branded as inhuman, and conversely, we express our appreciation of noble behaviour by calling it genuinely human; by the Teutons, the former is condemned as destroying a man's kin-life, the latter praised for strengthening the sense


of frith. Therefore the slaying of a kinsman is the supreme horror, shame and ill-fortune in one, whereas an ordinary killing is merely an act that may, or may not, be objectionable according to circumstances.

Down at this level of spontaneity there is no difference between me and thee, as far as kinship reaches. If frith constitutes the base of the soul, it is a base which all kinsmen have in common. There they adjoin one another, without any will or reflection between them as a buffer. Kinsmen strengthen one another; they are not as two or more individuals who add their respective strengths together, but they act in concert, because deep down in them all there is a thing in common which knows and thinks for them. Nay, more; they are so united that one can draw strength to himself from another.

This peculiarity of man is well known by the bear, according to a saying current in the North of Sweden. "Better to fight twelve men than two brothers" runs a proverb ascribed to the wise animal. Among twelve men, a bear can pick off one at a time in rational fashion; but the two cannot be taken one by one. And if the one falls, his strength is passed on to his brother.

This solidarity – as exemplified in the laws of revenge – rests on the natural fact of psychological unity. Through the channel of the soul, the action and the suffering of the individual flow on, spreading out to all who belong to the same stock, so that in the truest sense they are the doers of one another's acts. When they follow their man to the seat of justice and support him to the utmost of their power, they are not acting as if his deed were theirs, but because it is. As long as the matter is still unsettled, all the kinsmen concerned are in a state of permanent challenge. Not only the slayer stands in danger of perishing by the sword he has drawn; vengeance can equally well be attained by the killing of one of his kin, if the offended parties find such an one easier to reach, or judge him more "worthy", as an object of vengeance. Steingrim's words have a most natural ring, when he comes to Eyjolf Valgerdson and tells that he has been out in search of Vemund, but being prevented, took instead his brother Herjolf (who, from the saga, does not appear to have


had any share in Vemund's doings). "Eyjolf was not well pleased that it had not been Vemund or Hals (another brother of Vemund's); but Steingrim said, they had not been able to reach Vemund – "though we had rather seen it had been him". And Eyjolf likewise had no objection to this." The ring of the words, the passionless, practical, matter-of-fact tone in which the speeches are uttered, tells us at once, better than much roundabout explanation, that we have here to deal with a matter of experience, and not a reflection or an arbitrary rule. In another saga a man has to pay with his life for the amorous escapades of his brother. Ingolf had caused offence to Ottar's daughter by his persistent visits to her home, and her father vindicated the honour of his daughter by having Ingolf's brother, Gudbrand, killed. Ingolf himself was too wary to give the girl's protectors a chance upon his life, and so they had no choice but to strike at him through the body of his kinsman.

Similarly, all those united by one bond of kinship suffer by any scathe to one of their clan: all feel the pain of the wound, all are equally apt to seek vengeance. If a fine be decreed, all will have their share.

Thus the kinsmen proclaim their oneness of soul and body, and this reciprocal identity is the foundation on which society and the laws of society mast be based. In all relations between man and man, it is frith that is taken into account, not individuals. What a single man has done binds all who live in the same circle of frith. The kinsmen of a slain man appear in pleno as accusers. It is the clan of the slayer that promises indemnity; the clan that pays it. It is the clan of the slain man that receives the fine, and the sum is again shared out in such wise as to reach every member of the group. The two families promise each other, as one corporation to another peace and security in future.

When a matter of blood or injury is brought before the tribunal of the law-thing, the decree must follow the line of demarcation drawn by kinship. The circle of frith amounts to an individual, which cannot be divided save by amputation, and its right constitutes a whole which no judgement can dissect.


Germanic jurisprudence knows no such valuation of an act as allows of distributive justice; it can only hold the one party entirely in the right, and the other entirely in the wrong. If a man has been slain, and his friends waive their immediate right of vengeance and bring their grievance before the law court instead, the community must either adjudge the complainants their right of frith and reparation, or doom them from their frith and declare them unworthy of seeking redress. In the first case, the community adds its authority to the aggrieved party's proceedings, thereby denying the accused all right to maintain their kinship or defend and aid the slayer: in the latter case, when the killing was done in self-defence or on provocation, the law-thing says to the complainants: "Your frith is worsted, you have no right to vengeance."

We have been taught from childhood to regard the story of the bundle of sticks as an illustration of the importance of unity. The Germanic attitude of mind starts from a different side altogether. Here, unity is not regarded as originating in addition; unity is first in existence. The thought of mutual support plays no leading part among these men; they do not see it in the light of one man after another coming with his strength and the whole then added together; but rather as if the force lay in that which unites them. For them, then, the entire community is broken, and the strength of its men therewith, as soon as even one of the individual parties to it is torn up. And thus they compare the group of kinsmen to a fence, stave set by stave, enclosing a sacred ground. When one is struck down, there is a breach in the clan, and the ground lies open to be trampled on.

Such then, is the frith which in ancient days united kinsmen one with another; a love which can only be characterized as a feeling of identity, so deeply rooted that neither sympathy nor antipathy, nor any humour or mood can make it ebb or flow.

No happening can be so powerful as to reach down and disturb this depth. Not even the strongest feelings and obliga-

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