The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


not like the look of the ice; better, he thought, to go round by the bridge. But the peasants could not understand that he should be afraid of going against so small a party on good ice. Gregorius answered: “I have not often needed that any should taunt me with lack of courage, and it shall not be needed now; see only that you follow when I go on ahead; it is you who have wished to make trial of bad ice, I have no great wish myself, but I will not bear with your gibes. Forward the banner!” Altogether a score of men followed him, the rest turned back as soon as they felt the ice underfoot. There Gregorius fell. And this was as late as the year 1161.

A man has power over his neighbour by the use of frýjuorð, because the taunting words place the honour of his opponent in danger. If honour fails to rise and show its strength in answer, paralysis steals over it. The man sinks down to a niding. When an Icelander or a Norseman shouts at his opponent: “Be you every man's niding if you will not fight 'with me”, his words act as the strongest magic formula; for if the other will not take up the challenge, he becomes in fact a niding all his days. In the Hildebrand Lay, the father utters his anguished cry of woe to fate: “Now must mine own child strike me with the sword, give me my death with his axe, or I must be his bane.” But what is to be done? “He shall be most craven of all the Easterlings, who would now refuse you battle, since you are so eager for it..." So irresistible is the power of the taunt that it can force upon a man the deadliest of all misfortunes, the killing of his kinsman.

An insult, or an accusation, no less than blow or stroke of weapon, bends something within the man, something that is called honour, something which constitutes the very backbone of his humanity. In this wise, a man could make his fellow an inferior in law and right. The Uppland Law gives us a fragment of an old legal form from pagan times, in regard to an accusation of cowardice. The one party says: “You are not a man, you have no courage!” the other says: “I am as good a man as you!” Then they are to meet with weapons at a cross-roads; he who fails to appear is a niding and devoid of right. Or as


the Lombards said: If one call another craven, then he must be able to maintain his assertion in trial by combat; if he succumb, then he should rightly pay for his falseness. If any call a woman witch or whore, her kin must clear her by combat at law, or she must bear the punishment for witchcraft or whoredom. Here, the insulting party infuses cowardice or whoredom into the other by his assertion. Similarly, the complainant puts robbery or other mischief into his opponent before the law, and forces him to cleanse himself.

The honour which has been bent within the party accused must be raised up again, and given back its power to rule the man. The insult can be regarded as a kind of poison, which must be cast out and flung back upon the sender. And thereafter, the sufferer must get back honour again from the offender, for the full and complete strengthening of his humanity. Mere self-preservation forces one to seek restitution for any injury; for a man cannot carry on life in shame. It is of this feeling that the constitution of society is born, a fundamental law hard enough to hold hard natures together in an ordered community under the guardianship of law.

If a man were slack in revenging an injury, his friends would step in, saying: “We will amend it, if you dare not; for there is shame for us all in this.” But even when reparation had been exacted from the enemy, the matter was not wholly mended. The bitterest part of the shame stuck, because one of the kinsmen had suffered an insult to lie upon him, instead of shaking it off at once, and thus drawn the shame down over himself and his kin. This wound was not healed by the shedding of blood, and what was worse, there was no restitution possible.

The insult, the injury, might come from within, by the fact of a kinsman showing cowardice or slackness, in letting slip an opportunity of showing himself, of accentuating his existence in honour. Or he stamped himself as a son of dishonour by committing an act that could not be defended; let us say, by “murdering” a man. Finally, the family could be stricken


by a bloody stroke that was in itself irreparable; when the slayer was one of its own members.

Then, the kinsmen may utter such words as these: Better gone than craven; better an empty place in the clan where he stands. We know something of what it must have cost to say such a thing; to utter these words a man must do violence to his feeling of frith; he must be filled with a dread that overshadows his natural fear of seeing the number of his kinsmen diminished and the prospect of a rich coming generation narrowed down; he must be driven so far as to forget what pain it meant to each one personally in the circle, when a string, a close-twisted string, was riven out of it. If we have realised what frith meant: the very joy of living and the assurance of life in future, and if we can transmute this understanding into sympathy, we cannot but tremble at the words: better a breach where he stands.

When shame comes from within in such a way as to preclude all restitution, it produces paralysing despair.

In the Gylfaginning, we read of Balder's death as follows: “When Balder was fallen, speech failed the gods, and their hands had no power to grasp him; one looked at another; all had but one mind towards him who had done the deed; but none could avenge it; the peace of the place was too strong. But when the gods found speech again, then burst their weeping forth at first, so that none could say any word to the others of his sorrow. But Odin felt the ill fortune heaviest, for he best knew how great a loss the gods suffered in Balder's going. -But when the gods came to themselves, then Frigg asked if there were any among the gods who would gain all her love by riding out along the Hel-road, to see if he might find Balder and offer ransom to Hel for suffering him to return home to Asgard.”

The reader can hardly doubt but that the author has drawn this vivid description from actual experience. The myth itself was undoubtedly handed down from earlier times; but whatever it may have held in its popular form, whatever its centre may have been before it gained its final shape, it must have


touched and released a fear in the poet himself that lay awaiting the opportunity to burst forth. With the weight of an inner experience, the single moment is made a fatal turning-point. The gods are standing, young and happy, rejoicing in their strength and well-being, and then, suddenly as a hasty shiver comes, grey autumn is upon them. They have no power to determine, no strength to act. And while we watch, the shadows draw out, longer and longer, till they fuse, at the farthest point, into inavertible darkness. By its inner pathos the scene announces itself as a turning-point in the history of gods and men; we are made to feel that the killing of Balder ushers in the decline of the gods and the end of the world.

A man might actually come to live through a catastrophe which brought irreparable ruin upon a whole circle; and from some such experience — of the feeling of frith in the moment before its dissolution — the myth has drawn all its life. I am not in any way presupposing that the poet should himself have seen such a disaster in his own family; the overwhelming force of the deepest, most elementary feelings can so easily transform itself into a premonition of what the loss would mean, that an apparently very slight impulse may raise them in tragic form. Out of this collision between subject and experience, this inspiration as we call it, rose the generally recognisable picture of frith violating itself. Thus the kinsmen stand in their need. Their hands sink down, they look timidly at one another, fearing to look straight before them and yet afraid to meet one another's glance; none can utter a word. In a moment all vital force is broken. No one knows anything, all sway from side to side between two possibilities, as the Beowulf aptly paints it in the line about King Hrethel: “He could not let the doer of that deed hear ill words, and yet he could not love him.” In place of the old determination, which never paused to consider anything but the means, we have blind fumbling. The gods can find no other way but to send a messenger to Hel, and even go on a beggar's errand afterwards to all living and all dead things imploring them to raise Balder from the realm of death by their crying. This is no


exaggeration transposed to human conditions. The kinsmen who bear the shame between themselves have no power for vengeance or defence. Insult from without is too strong for them. They bow their heads involuntarily, where they would otherwise stand firm. They fight without hope, with the despairing consciousness that the disaster will not cease. This misery is properly speaking what the ancients called redelessness, the inability to find a way.

And with this the downfall of the family is certain. When Beowulf's retainers had forsaken their king in his fight with the dragon, the consequences of their cowardice are depicted in the following words: “None of your kin shall ever now reach gladly for gold, see sword outstretched in gift; waste is the dwelling of the fathers, waste is life. Every man of your race shall go empty-handed away, and leave his land of heritage behind, as soon as brave men far and wide hear of your flight, your craven deed. Better is death than life in shame.”

This passage in the Old English poem leads us first and foremost to think of the disaster as a civic death; we can imagine the family driven into exile by a weight of sentence openly expressed or mutely understood. In this we are right to some degree; but the sentence is not the primary fact, it is only the outcome of deeper causes. For the trouble lies not merely in the scorn of men. Shame does not merely render the kinsmen unworthy of participating in human existence, but also, and most strictly, incapable of so doing. There is something wrong within. If it were not that the cowardice of individuals infected their companions and rendered them incapable of showing manhood, the race would not to such a degree become as a rotten bush, that could be torn up at a grasp and flung out into the field. Lack of frith is in its innermost essence a sickness, and identical with lack of honour. Such a condition is called by the Northmen nidinghood, the state of being a niding, whereby they understand a dissolution of that inner quality which makes the individual at once a man and a kinsman.

We encounter the word niding now at every step. In it


lies the whole fear of a loss of honour not made good. And at every encounter, the word has a deeper and more ill-boding ring. To be a niding means that a man has lost his humanity. He is no longer reckoned as a human being, and the reason is, that he has ceased to be so in fact.

The state in which Hrethel and his fellow-sufferers find themselves forms a diametrical opposite to Havard's fulness of life. In men without honour, a dissolution of all human qualities takes place. First and foremost, the frith of kinship is destroyed. The strong coherence which alone enables the members of a family, not only to act unanimously, but to act at all, fades away. The lack of honour eats through the frith, so that the kinsmen wither and rush all different ways, as a mob of solitary units, that is to say, a mob of nidings.

In the house where a kinsman lies unavenged, there is no full and true frith. The family lives in a state of interregnum, a miserable and dangerous pause, in which all life lies as it were prostrate, waiting its renewal. The high seat is empty; none may sit there until honour is restored. The men shun their neighbours, they do not go to any meetings of men. Their avoidance of others is due to the fact that they have no place to sit where people are gathered together. 'Wherever they go, they must submit to be regarded as shadows. Nidinghood is in process of growth, encroaching over a new stratum of the soul for every opportunity of vengeance suffered to go by. Joy there is none. What is told of an Icelander; that he did not laugh from the day his brother was slain till the day he was avenged, applies in a wider sense, inasmuch as the power of joy itself was frozen.

The intermediate state is dangerous; for if restitution be too long in coming, it may end with loss of the power to take revenge. Then anticipation and determination give place to helplessness and despair, to self-effacement.

The course of events is alike in all matters of honour. Whether the injury be a killing, a slander or anything else, it brings about an emptiness in those who suffer it. And if they do not gain their right before the seat of justice, either by laying the


offender low, or by clearing themselves of the charge, — and obtaining restitution, — then they must perish, and it is immaterial whether the defeat be due to lack of will or of power or of good fortune. The great terror lies in the fact that certain acts exclude beforehand the possibility of any restitution, so that the sufferer was cut off from all hope of acquiring new strength and getting rid of the feeling of emptiness. In a case of kin slaying kin, the helplessness is increased, for here something is to be done which cannot be done. The kinsman's arms fall down if they move to touch the one responsible. And even if the slayer's kinsmen could bring themselves to attack him, there is no restitution for them in shedding his blood. It cannot be used to sprinkle their honour and give it new life.

We should probably feel this helplessness in ourselves as a strife of the soul, where the will itself is consumed in an inner conflict. Thus we can undoubtedly come to experience something of the dread our forefathers felt for nidinghood, but the question is if we can penetrate into the centre of suffering by so doing. The thing that weighed most heavily upon them was their powerlessness; the issue in their soul was between the will to act and the inability to act; the symptoms of nidinghood thus consist at once of fear and dulness. For the soul torn by inner strife, helplessness can be a relief, but for the Germanic character, the culmination of despair was reached when action was impossible because it had no aim. It was impossible to take vengeance on a kinsman. But what difference did it make if the slayer were kinsman or stranger, when the latter, for instance, was a slave without honour, or a vagabond without kin? When one could not reach beyond the slave to a master, or beyond the beast to its owner, or beyond the solitary individual to a group of warriors, one was left to bear the wound, and the wound meant emptiness in any case.

Any breach in the frith raised the same feeling of dread. In effect, there was no such thing as a “natural” death: however the breach were made, it was felt as a peril, a horror and an offence. Egil's despairing cry against the “ale-maker” sounds indeed to a certain extent modern — it is man asserting his

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