The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


right in face of everyone, though it be a god. In point of form, his challenge also seems rather to belong to a transition age, when gods and men had somewhat lost touch with one another. But Egil's challenge really contains a highly primitive element. Beneath the late form lies an old feeling of death, primeval fear and primeval defiance. Death was an anomaly, a thing unnatural and incomprehensible; one peers around to find who has brought it about, and if no slayer is to be found in the light, one seeks him in the dark. One seeks, perhaps, for the worker of this “witchcraft”. The oppression of natural death has, in the Germanic mind, been lost in care for the future of the dead; but again and again the old despair can rise up again in a feeling of injury to frith. Egil here shows himself as the most original, the most ancient of the northern characters. His exclamation: “If I could pursue my cause..." has in it quite as much of hopelessness and helplessness as of defiance. It is a sense of nidinghood lying in wait that gives his words their bitterness. But Egil is strong enough to conquer helplessness; he rises, through the feeling of solitude, up to the defiance of resignation. The downfall of frith forces his spiritual individuality forward in self-defence. He boasts of what his poetry and his will can achieve over men, even though they may be powerless to move the god; he will now sit and wait till Hel comes, unshakably the same as he has always been. In this assertion of his personality, Egil reaches far ahead of the culture in which he is spiritually set. As long as frith was the indispensable foundation for all human life, such trials could never lift a man up. Then, sorrow was merely a poison, that ate its way through frith, sundered the family, and set nidinghood in place of humanity. From the moment kinsmen declared themselves unable to find anyone to serve as the object of their vengeance, they sealed their death-warrant spiritually as well as socially.

If the shame be due to spiritual suicide, then there is no restitution to be found in all the universe. The loss remains irreparable. Only one possibility remains, as the only way of saving the family; the extirpation of the evil-doer. The dishonour


can be burned away before it poisons the whole body, but it needs a terrible effort to break through the frith and lay violent hands upon oneself.

The Balder poem gives us here once more a poetical expression of the feelings at issue among the kinsmen. Or here we should perhaps say: one of the Balder poems; for from all appearances there were two. On the one hand, we have the version followed by the author of the Gylfaginning, where the slaying of Balder is linked up with the sending of Hermod to the underworld. The other form seems to have connected Balder's death with the myth of Odin's and Rind's son, Vali. Unfortunately, we never get the connection in full, but are forced to make do with our own conclusions, drawn from scattered hints in ancient literature. The poet of the Voluspá, in his allusive manner, compresses the entire episode into the following lines: “Of that tree which seemed so slender came a fateful arrow of sorrow; Hod loosed it from the bow. Balder's brother was born in haste, he, that son of Odin, wrought night-old his slaying. He washed not his hands, combed not his head, ere he bore to the flames him who had shot at Balder.” And in another Eddic poem, Balder's Dreams, the avenging of Balder is prophesied as follows: “Rind gives birth to Vali in the Western Halls. That son of Odin wreaks night-old his slaying; washes not hand, combs not head, ere he bears to flames the shooter of Balder.” Saxo has heard the story in this form. He lets Odin, who “like all imperfect deities often needs aid of men” learn from a Laplander that in order to provide an avenger for Balder, he must beget a son with Rind, a Ruthenian princess. He gives us, further, a detailed description of Odin's difficulties as a suitor in the Western Halls, where he tried his luck as a hero, as a goldsmith, and when neither heroic deeds nor golden rings made any impression on the maiden, as a leech, who both produced and cured the sickness. But whether these calamities properly belong here, where the question is only of an avenger for Balder's death, we do not know. Unfortunately, we are left without any indication as to how and where this myth was fused into the legend of Balder, but it certainly looks


as if the poet who worked up the story was playing upon primitive notions. He felt the need of an avenger who was a kinsman and yet not a kinsman. The young hero carries out the deed before he has washed or combed himself — i.e. before he has become a human being. In any case, even though we cannot arrive at any certainty regarding the feeling of the viking age in connecting the two items, we may take the story as a symbol of the helplessness of kinsmen when their honour has been injured by one of their own; their feeling of helplessness in themselves and the sense that the trouble must be got rid of.

One thing we can say for certain: when it was a question of wiping out the shame, of extirpating the author of the shame, the kinsmen would hardly in any case have called in human help; they have opened the way out into annihilation, or the way to the forest. They have not, properly speaking, cut him off from themselves, but rather indirectly forced him to cut himself off, and not until the evil-doer had torn himself away from the family did they lift their hands and declare him solemnly as outside the pale of frith and humanity, and his place empty.

As long as there was the slightest possibility of preserving the vitality of the family without violence to its organism, the painful amputation would probably be postponed. In the case of members who by cowardice and inactivity were gradually bringing dishonour upon their kin, the others would probably first make trial of all goading and inciting words. This was the women's great task, and from all we know, they proved themselves equal to it. We have illustrations enough to make plain the influence of Germanic women over their husbands and brothers and fathers. They could etch in the details of an injury, stroke by stroke, as when Gudrun says to her sons: “Your sister — Svanhild was her name - Earmanric had her trodden underfoot by horses, white horses and black, along the road of war, grey horses, broken to the rein, horses of the Goths.” They could use living illustrations, more striking than those of any Jewish prophet, as did the fiery Icelandic widow Thurid, who set a joint of beef on the table, carved into three


pieces only, and let the sons themselves call forth the interpretation: “Your brother was hacked to larger pieces.” After the meat, she had a stone to follow as an after-dish; this was to mean that they were as fitted to be in the world as stones on the table for food, “since you have not dared to avenge your brother Hall, such a man as he was; ye are fallen far from the men of your race . Sigrid, sister of Erling Skjalgson, accompanied her brother-in-law, Thorir Hund, to his ship after having showed him the body of her son, Asbjorn, who had perished in all but open revolt against King Olaf, and before Thorir went onboard, she spoke her mind: “Ay, Thorir, so my son Asbjorn followed your kindly counsel. He did not live long enough to repay you after your deserts, but if I cannot do so as well as he would have done, it shall not be for lack of will. I have a gift here I would give you, and glad should I be if it might be of use to you. Here is the spear that went in and out of his body the blood is on it still. It fits the wound Asbjorn bore, you can surely see. . ."

Thorgerd, wife of Olaf the Peacock, was a daughter of Egil, and had her father's pride of race. One day she bade her sons go with her on a journey to the westward, and when the party arrived outside the homestead of Tunga, she turned her horse and said: “What is the name of that place?” The sons answer:

“That you surely know, it is called Tunga.” “Who lives there?” “Do you not know that, mother?” “Ay,” answers Thorgerd with a deep breath, “I know it full well; there lives he who was your brother's bane. You are little like your brave kinsmen, you who will not avenge such a brother as Kjartan. Egil, your mother's father, would not have acted thus; it is ill to have deedless Sons — ay, such as you are, you should have been your father's daughters and given in marriage. What says the proverb, Halldor, there is a dullard in every family; one misfortune Olaf had, it is not to be denied, his sons turned out badly. And now we can turn back; it was my errand to remind you of this, if you did not remember.” Halldor is right when he says: “We shall not hold it any fault of yours, Mother, if it pass from our mind.”


Nor were the women afraid of using eloquent and easily interpreted gestures. Procopius relates how the Goth women, seeing what little fellows their husbands had surrendered to, spat in their husbands' faces, and pointed with scorn at the triumphant enemies.

These examples form a mighty responsory to all the foregoing, explained by and explaining it. Through the words and actions of these women there speaks a feeling of the enormous tension which the life of honour produced in men, and therefore the words have a meaning beyond the individual situation to which they are applied in the saga. They give us the certainty that such honour's need could drive men to their utmost. There is in them an indirect suggestion of what might happen if the incitement failed of its effect.

In one case we know for certain that the party concerned speedily proceeded to forcible amputation, and wiped the shame off the earth. When a woman had been dishonoured, her kinsmen's endeavours were directed first and foremost toward obtaining honour from the offender. But this was not as a rule the end of the matter. The dishonoured woman was reckoned a shame to her kin; she was a burden upon the race, and brought its honour into the same danger as did a craven among the men. Even after a woman was married, her kinsmen were responsible for her. The husband would lay the dishonour upon them, and bid them cleanse themselves and her. Gregory of Tours gives an instance of how such a matter was dealt with in those days — an example typical in all essentials of Germanic thought and action. A woman was said to have deceived her husband. Then his kinsmen went to the woman's father and said: “You must cleanse your daughter, or she must die, lest her fault should smirch our race.” The father declared himself convinced of her innocence, and in order to stop the accusation, offered to clear her by oath.

If the kinsmen cannot clear themselves, then they must bear the shame with her; they must let themselves be made nidings or else put her out of the way. There was a family, says Gregory, which learned that one of their womenfolk had


been seduced by a priest; all the men hurried to avenge the blot upon their race, by capturing the priest and burning the girl alive.

The family undertook this uprooting for its own welfare, from the instinct of self-preservation. The necessity for the deed has left its mark in the laws, and we even find traces indicating that the right was once a duty. Rothari's edict to the effect that the authorities shall intervene if kinsmen do not avail themselves of their right to take action against a kinswoman who has misconducted herself with a man, is doubtless an emphasising of an ancient sense of right. Swedish laws refer to the right of parents to drive their daughter away.

If a woman has dishonoured her father's or her husband's house, she is whipped from house to house, or forced to take her own life — thus Boniface describes the domestic rule of the Saxons in pagan times. The latter alternative points back from the judgement of society to what we have called racial amputation; the shame is wiped out, without any direct violation of frith on the part of the kinsmen.

The reason why the family took such extremely harsh measures against their womenfolk was not that the Germanic standard regarded woman's frith and inviolability as inferior. On the contrary, since woman occupied, so to speak, the very innermost place in their frith, the danger arising from a decay of her honour was the greater. Therefore the misfortune caused by a wife or a girl must be checked at once and effectively. But we have indications sufficient to show that men with fatal shortcomings were cut off too with the same rude hand, but also with the same wariness, lest any guilt of blood should attach to the survivors.

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