The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



Frith and honour, these are the sum of life, the essence of what a man needs to live fully and happily.

        "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth," says God, in the Genesis, to Noah on his leaving the Ark; and the Anglo-Saxon poet of the Genesis gives it as follows: "Be fruitful and increase; live in honour and in frith with pleasure."

        Once on a time, there lived in Iceland, near the Isfiord, an old man by name Havard. He had been a bold man in his day; but he was not rich, and had not great influence. His only son, Olaf, was envied for his prowess and popularity by the local chieftain residing at Laugabol, the powerful and intractable Thorbjorn. Thorbjorn sought to be more than first, he would be the only man of note in the place, and this end he attained by killing Olaf. When the news was brought to Havard he sank down with a deep groan and kept his bed a whole year. And indeed there was no one who really believed that a solitary old man would be able to exact reparation from the domineering men of Laugabol. Havard's grave wife kept the homestead going, went fishing with the manservant by day and did the rest of her work by night; then, at the end of the year she persuaded the old man to pull himself together and set off to demand payment of a fine. He was met with great scorn. His demand was not even refused; he was told to look outside the enclosure, he would find there a creature just as old and lame and halt as himself; the horse had lain kicking for a long while past, but now, after some scrapings, might perhaps manage to


get on its legs again; this poor beast he was welcome to keep, if he wanted consolation for the death of his son. Havard staggers home and goes to bed for another year.

        Once again he humours his wife and makes the attempt; he is loth to go, but "if I knew there should be vengeance for my son Olaf, I would never reck how dearly I might have to buy it". So he rides to the law-thing. Thorbjorn, when first he sees the old man enter the booth, cannot at once recollect what is his errand. "This," says Havard, "the slaying of my son Olaf is ever in my mind as if it were but newly done; and therefore it is my errand now to crave payment of you." He gains nothing for his pains but new scorn, bloody scorn. So downcast is he now as he leaves the booth, that he scarcely notices when one and another man of some standing pass him a kindly word. And his third year in bed is rendered heavier to bear by reason of aching joints. Bjargny, his wife, still manages the work of the place, and finds time between whiles to persuade her kinsfolk to render aid, and to gain knowledge of Thorbjorn's journeys and the way he goes. Then one day she comes to the bedside again, when the third summer was come: "Now you have slept long enough; to-night your son Olaf is to be avenged; afterwards, it will be too late." This was something different from the comfortless task of riding out to ask for reparation. Havard sprang from this bed, secured his revenge before daybreak, and came the next morning to Steinthor of Eyri to report the killing of four men, and remind him of his words at the last Al-thing: "For methinks you said then, that if I should need a trifle of help, I might as well come to you as to other chieftains." "Help you shall have," answered Steinthor, "but I should like to know what you would reckon a great help, if this you now crave is but a trifle." And thereupon Havard seated himself squarely and at ease in the second high seat at Eyri, laughed at the future with its troubles, and jested with all he met: "for now there was an end to all fretting and misery."

        Havard had suffered a shame, a loss of honour. It shakes him in every limb. The evil grips him, aged man as he is, so that he sinks down in a palsy. And there he lies, while a single


thought gnaws so insistently at his mind that he thinks he has not slept all those three years. At the law-thing he walks, as a looker-on describes him, "a man unlike others, large of growth and something stricken in years; he drags himself along, and yet he looks manly enough; he seems filled with sorrow and unrest."

        But when at last reparation comes, honour flows once more through his veins, honour newly born and giving new birth again. His limbs are straightended, his lungs are filled. With a sigh of awakening the man feels life once more pour through and from him. His strength wells up. His mind grows young, so young that it must learn anew the meaning of danger, the meaning of difficulty; it is filled with restive joy of life, the true rejoicing in life that cares nothing for death.

        Paulus Diaconus tells of an aged Lombard, Sigvalde, who, like Havard, was sorely tried, and like Havard, reaped joy in many fold for his sorrow. He had lost two sons in battle with the invading Slavs. In two battles he avenged them with great eagerness, and when a third battle was about to take place he insisted on going out to fight, in spite of all protestations, "for", he declared, "I have now gained full restitution for my sons; now I can meet death gladly if need be." And so he went to his death out of sheer abundance of vitality.

        Honour at once brings up the thought of vengeance. It must be so; he who thinks of honour must say vengeance, not only because the two are always found together in the stories, but more because it is only through vengeance that we can see the depth and breadth of honour. Vengeance contains the illumination and the explanation of life; life as it is seen in the avenger is life at its truest and most beautiful, life in its innermost nature.

        Life is known by its esctasy. There is a sort of delight in which men go beyond themselves and forget themselves, to sink down into the infinite, the timeless. But then too, there is an ecstasy wherein men go beyond themselves without losing foothold in time, a delight in which they live through the highest and deepest - their highest and deepest - as in a feeling of power, so that they stand a while in enjoyment of the growth of their strength, and then storm on, stronger and bolder.


It is by this life-filled delight that life must be known. In it, culture reveals its essence and its value. In order to attain to a just estimate of a strange age, we must ourselves participate in its ecstasy. Living through that one moment gives more than many years' experience, because a culture's whole complement of thought and feeling lies close-packed there in its highest power. In this great moment of experience the refracted rays of daily life must be made clear; the joy of life, its sorrow, its beauty, its truth, its right, reveal to us here their innermost being. What is the substance of a people's joy and of its sorrow - the answer to this question forces us far into the culture of that people. But it is equally important to measure the degree of strength in joy; what is the measure of height for these people: jubilation, delight, refreshment of the soul, shouts of laughter, smiles, or what? And what is sorrow to them? A thing they can enjoy, if only in the ennobling form of poetry, or a pestilence, a thing terrible and despicable in itself?

        What Christianity was, in the days when Christianity constituted a culture, a spiritual atmosphere, life-giving and necessary to life, we feel by trying to realise in our own minds as nearly as possible the experience of a father when he praises God because his children have been found worthy to suffer for the sake of Jesu name. The Jew reveals himself in the moment he places a newborn son on his knee and by his blessing consecrates him to be the uplholder of his race. Hellas must be experienced through the aged Diagoras, as he sits on the shoulders of his sons after their victory at the games, surrounded by a jubilant throng, and "accounted happy in his children". The Germanic ecstasy is reached in the moment of vengeance.

        Havard and Sigvalde tread holy ground. However far we may be from understanding their motives and reasonings, their presence inspires us with awe. It is not their manhood, their violence, their humour, their quickness of wit that arouses our interest; we feel dimly, that vengeance is the supreme expression of their humanity, and are urged on by the need of converting our veneration into a sympathetic understanding of the ideals guiding their acts.


Vengeance makes them great, because it develops every possibility in them, not merely a few bloodthirsty attributes. It strains their power of achievement, almost beyond its reach, makes them feel stronger and bolder. But it teaches them, also, to wait, and bear in mind, and calculate; year after year a man can wait and watch, arranging all his plans and actions so as to grasp the most fleeting opportunity of satisfying his honour; ay, even to his daily work about the homestead, looking to his hay and his cattle, it is so disposed that he can watch the roads and see at any moment if the wanted man should ride that way. Vengeance teaches him to reckon time and space as trifles. One may come through time by remembering, and one can be driven over sea and land, when one has an object in view. A boy of six, seeing his father slain before his eyes, can at once find the right word: “Not weep, but remember the better.”

                Vengeance raises him up and transfigures him. It does not merely raise him, but holds him suspended, thrusts him into a higher plane. And this can happen, because the desire of redress is not only the loftiest of all sentiments, but also the most ordinary, most generally human. Whatever differences there might be between human beings otherwise, in one thing they met; they must and should and could not but seek restitution.

                What then was vengeance?

                It was not the outcome of a sense of justice. There are peoples who see in justice the vital principle of existence, whereby the world is held together and kept going. For them, there is a kind of direct relationship between the behaviour of human beings and the motion of the planets, so that a crime unpunished hangs brooding like a peril over mankind. In order to avoid famine, defeat, or disturbances of the order of the world generally, one must, in case of need, execute the sons for the crimes of their fathers, and vice versa. The Germanic people are not of this sort. Justice demands an altogether different type of conscience from that with which our forefathers were equipped.

                Neither did these barbarians understand the symmetrical morality, that which restores the balance by striking out an eye for an eye. The Germanic mind had as little conception of the word retaliation as of the word punishment.


If the thirst for vengeance is understood as meaning the wish to see one's desire upon one's enemies, then the word does not accord with the Germanic idea. Vengeance was planned with every care, and carried out in the most cold-blooded fashion; one is tempted to say with a business-like sang-froid. The avenger plants his axe in his opponent's head, wipes off the blood in the grass, covers the body according to custom, and rides on his way. He has no lust for further dealings with the fallen man; mutilation of the dead is, in the history of the Northmen, a thing so unique as to mark the doer of such a deed as an exception, that is to say, as an inferior man. Ugly memories can on rare occasions lead a man to forget himself. Havard dealt Thorbjorn a further wound across the face after he had given him his death-blow; for Thorbjorn had once struck him in the face with a pouch in which Olaf Havardson's teeth had been kept since the day they were loosened by the blow that killed him. But Havard's deed at once calls forth the question from his companion: “Why do you deal so by a dead man?" Even if the man were not dead, it was counted unmanly to strike him once he lay mortally wounded. The act would be that of a niding.

                There is little of exultation over the fallen; and even when it occurs, it is plainly only a casual attendant circumstance, not the main point in the feeling of satisfaction. Behind the outward calmness of vengeance, the mind is in a turmoil of rejoicing and pride; the accomplishment of the deed serves better than anything else to call forth enthusiastic words in praise of the act, in praise of him who wrought it, and of him for whose sake it was done, of the race to which both parties belonged. But these outbursts come from the depths, they are the outcome of life's ecstasy.

                For the punisher, as for the man of vindictive nature, all thoughts circle about that other one, what is to be done with him, whether he can be properly and feelingly struck. The avenger has the centre of his thoughts in himself. All depends on what he does, not on what the other suffers. The avenger procures something; he takes vengeance.


Two things are requisite for right vengeance; that the offender should fall by stroke of weapon, and that the weapon should be wielded by the one offended. If the slayer, before the matter could be settled, perished in some other wise — either died a natural death, or was killed by accident — then the offended parties had none the less their vengeance due to them; they must then look to the offender's kin, just as in case of his escaping alive out of their hands, e. g. by choosing that season to travel and see the world, and learn good customs of the kings in other lands. Nor would the injured family regard it as any restitution that the offender should fall by the hand of a third party unconcerned in the affair; their vengeance was yet to come, for they had not yet “gotten honour over their kinsman.”

                But then also, the other party must necessarily have an honour, if the injury was to be wiped out. The most unfortunate death a man could die was to be killed by slaves, and more particularly when these were acting on their own behalf, without any man of distinction as instigator; for there was no vengeance to be gained from bondmen. One of the earliest settlers in Iceland, Hjorleif, was set upon and slain by his slaves. When his foster-brother Ingolf found the body later, he cried out in distress: “This was a wretched fate for a brave man, that thralls should be his bane.” Havard, when taking vengeance for the killing of his son, suffered the slaves to go free; the deed would not be “more avenged” by his taking their worthless lives as well. Almost as wretched as death by the hand of slaves was his lot who died by the hand of a vagabond, a man having no companions in honour, no foster-brother or comrades in arms in the world. Not only was there the risk of vengeance being lost, since it vested in a single individual; but the honour to be gained from such an one was in itself but slight.

                Even among true kinsmen, however, there might be degrees of value in revenge. If the family felt the injury very deeply, either because the member slain was one of their best men, or because his kinsmen generally set a high price upon their honour, then they might prefer to aim immediately at a better man

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