The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


of ideas between achievements of youth, winning one's place in the family, and taking up one's inheritance.

It is perhaps not unlikely that the Germanic people, like so many others at a corresponding stage of civilization, demanded a proof of manhood in some sort or other, before receiving their youths into the circle of the men. What applies to the sons of princes must also have applied to free men of lower rank. Cassiodorus' epigram: “To the Goths valour makes full age” has perhaps more of truth in it than one is predisposed to think of anything coming from the pen of such a deft phrasemaker.

The games of children reveal the manner in which adults regarded one another; little Thorgils had attained the age of five without having struck down any living thing, and had to steal aside and redden his spear upon a horse, because his companions had decided not to accept as their playfellow anyone who had not shed blood. The men took care that none should enter their company with virgin weapons. Naturally, the baptism of blood takes a prominent place in a community such as the Germanic, where battle and war stand in the foreground as a man's proper trade. The deed of arms, the test of arms is, by the forcefulness wherewith it reveals ambition in a flash, well suited to form a sacrament of initiation; cognomens such as Helgi Hunding's bane, Hygelac Ongentheow's bane compress the whole epic into a name. In the old conception of blood as a powerful dew of life, lie harsh materialism and heroic idealism naturally and inseparably interwoven.

Vengeance for a father slain, or vengeance for a kinsman in the wider sense, was often enough in those unruly times the means whereby youth showed its right to a seat in the home. But to regard honour as solely and exclusively in the sign of slaughter leads after all to a too restricted estimate of life. More was demanded of a well-born youth than merely to be a slayer of men. He claimed his place, and held his place in the family by his generosity, hospitality, helpfulness or readiness to take up the cause of kinsmen and fugitives, by nobility of manner, and magnificence. And eyes were watching from every side to see that he filled his place in every respect. The place he had to fill


was the broad, spacious seat which his fathers had judged necessary for themselves. Ancestral ways, ancestral measures constitute the standard; on this point, Ketil Raum speaks as the man of experience. Olaf could find no better way of expressing his sense of duty than by saying: Harald Fairhair's inheritance. And men of lower rank could find no other way of determining what was good for them, than by saying: “Thus our kinsmen of old would never do” — or — “Thus our kinsmen of old were wont to do.”

Family tradition constitutes the entire ethical standard. A fixed line of demarcation, separating evil from good, was not known. There was, of course, a broad average, as among all peoples. The Germanic people knew that certain acts, stealing first and foremost, murder, and some few others, brought dishonour upon a man, whoever the culprit might be; just as they knew that killing was killing, injury injury; but that did not mean that any one keeping himself free from such dishonest acts was to be regarded as an honourable man. His tradition told him what was evil for himself and what was good — this distinction taken in full and complete moral adaptation. To accept blood-money, for instance, was for most people honourable and decent enough; but if one came of a stock that boasted of never having carried its kinsmen in a purse, or always having demanded double fine for a kinsman slain, a breach of such tradition was actual meanness. The constitutional honour of the race could not bear such a departure. The Icelandic verr feðrungr comes gradually to mean a scoundrel, an immoral person, in other words, a niding. This transition has doubtless its deep motives, or may at any rate have such; it stands in complete agreement with the spirit which inspires clan morality. The ethical standard is not based on what is generally applicable to all; the indisputable, that all agree to call right or wrong, is only a crude average formed by the individual “honours” in juxtaposition. Each circle has its own honour, an heirloom, that must be preserved in the very state in which it is handed down, and maintained according to its nature. Honour is the patch of land on which I and mine were born, which we own, and on


which we depend; such as it is, broad and rich, well stocked with cattle and corn, or poor and sandy, such is our honour. Honour is a spiritual counterpart of earth and its possession, wherein all cows and sheep, all horses and weapons are represented, and that not as a number, or a value, but in their individuality.

And as the individual items of the property have each their counterpart in honour, so, naturally, are the kinsmen themselves personally represented. Honour forms a mirror, which retains the images of those it has reflected. There stand all the kinsmen, in their finest array and with their finest weapons, and the more costly their armour, the more precious is the honour. There are all the happenings within the family as far back as man's memory can reach; all great deeds, all costly entertainments, every magnificent piece of hospitality —- they stand there, and demand their rights. There too, everything degrading will appear, and woe to him who shall look therein without finding relief for the eye in mighty deeds of restitution. “Woe,” said the Swedish peasants, “to the race that sees one of its own buried without the churchyard wall.” This was the greatest misfortune that could fall upon a house; even when the dead man lay buried outside in unhallowed soil on account of his sins, his kinsmen would not rest until they had bought him a place within the churchyard. And this not alone, or even principally, out of regard to his future rest in peace, but in order not to hand down a shame to posterity. Thus the peasants of the North, even in late centuries, felt kin-shame as an intolerable burden, a thing that had to be lived through again day after day.

Honour is so far from being something ideal and indeterminate, that it can be actually reckoned up and felt. Honour is the property of the family, its influence; it is the history of the race, composed of actual traditions from the nearest generations and of legends of the forefathers.

Honour is the cattle and the ancestors of the clan, because both live just as much in the kinsmen as outside them. Livestock, like weapons and jewels, exists in the kinsman's soul not merely as an item of this or that value; it does not hang on externally by a sense of proprietary interest, but lies embedded in feelings


of a far more intense character. The ancestors fill the living; their history is not sensed as a series of events following one on the heels of another; all history lay unfolded in its breadth as a present Now, so that all that had once happened was happening again and again. Every kinsman felt himself as living all that one of his kin had once lived into the world, and he did not merely feel himself as possessing the deeds of old, he renewed them actually in his own doings. Any interference with what had been acquired and handed down, such as raiding and robbery of cattle or property, had to be met with vengeance, because a field of the picture of honour was crushed by the blow. But an openly expressed doubt as to whether that old grandfather really had done what he was said to have done, is just as fatal to life, because it tears something out of his living kin; the taunt touches not only the dead man of old, but still more him who now lives through the former's achievements. The insult is a cut into the man himself, it tears a piece out of his brain, making a hole which is gradually filled with ideas of madness.

By an injury a piece of the soul is torn out, with the thoughts and feelings attaching to it. And the wound produces the same vertigo as a mother feels when robbed of a piece of her soul by the death of her child; a whole portion of her thoughts and feelings becomes superfluous, her instinctive movements become useless; she reaches out at night into the dark, grasping at something, and her hands are filled with emptiness. The void in the soul produces a constant uncertainty, as one might imagine if one's natural adjustment were disturbed, so that the hand misses its mark every time it reaches out for an object. Such a void in the soul wakes fear in its wildest form. If the mother imagine to herself that someone has killed her child, or that she herself has taken its life, or if she fears that the world is about to crumble to pieces, we know that these feelings are only the food with which her head is trying to sate her fear. She must grasp at all sorts of dreadful imaginings to appease for a moment this craving of dread; and there is, from a psychological point of view, no disproportion between her feeling and


the thought of the world coming to an end. If the breach is not closed, the soul dies of that intolerable hunger, and her sorrow ends in madness.

This comparison between the clansmen's loss of honour and the mother's loss of her child is exactly to the point, because it illustrates an identical psychological state manifesting itself under different conditions. The bereaved mother is on the point of becoming a niding in the old sense of the word; in fact, she would be a niding in the old days, if she did not obtain restitution; and that which takes place in one whose honour is wounded, is just such a displacement of the entire soul, a spiritual earthquake shattering a man's self-esteem and moral carriage, and rendering him not responsible for his actions, as we should say.

Only in the very extreme cases of our civilization can we find anything that covers the experiences of the ancients. For the innate depravity of shame lies in the fact that spiritual life was then dependent upon a certain number and a certain sort of ideas. Good breeding was a family treasure, possibly not differing greatly to our eyes as regards the different families, but in reality distinctively marked from earliest youth, stamped by traditions, determined by environment, and consequently not easily changed. Personality was far less mobile than now, and was far less capable of recuperation. If a kinsman lost an idea, he could not make good the loss by taking up ideas from the other side; as he is bound to the family circle in which he grew up, so he is dependent upon the soul-constituents fostered in him. The traditions and reminiscences of his people, the enjoyment of ancient heirlooms and family property, the consciousness of purpose, the pride of authority and good repute in the judgement of neighbours found in his circle, make up his world, and there is no spiritual treasury outside on which he can draw for his intellectual and moral life. A man nowadays may be excluded from his family, whether this consist of father, mother, brothers and sisters, or a whole section of society; and he need not perish on that account, because no family, however large, can absorb the entire contents of a reasonably well-equipped human being's soul. He has parts of himself placed about here and there; even


nature is in spiritual correspondence with him. But man as a member of a clan has a void about him; it need not mean that his kinsmen lack all wider interest, it does not mean that he is unable to feel himself as member of a larger political and religious community; but these associations are, in the first place, disproportionately weak, so that they cannot assert themselves side by side with frith, and further, they are only participated in through the medium of kinship or frith, so that they can have no independent existence of their own. A man cast off from his kin cannot appeal to nature for comfort, for its dominant attribute is hostility, save in the form where it faces him as inspired by humankind, cultivated and inhabited; and in the broad, fair fields it is only the land of his inheritance that meets him fully and entirely with friendly feelings. It will also be found that in cases where a niding is saved to the world by being received into a new circle, a family or a company of warriors, he does not then proceed by degrees from his former state over to the new; he leaps across a channel, and becomes a new man altogether.

Honour is identical with humanity. Without honour, one cannot be a living being; losing honour, one loses the vital element that makes man a thinking and feeling creature. The niding is empty, and haunted for ever by the all-embracing dread that springs from emptiness. The despairing words of Cain have a bitterness of their own in the Anglo-Saxon, steeped as they are in the Teuton's horror of loneliness: “I dare not look for honour in the world, seeing I have forfeited thy favour, thy love, thy peace.” He goes full of sorrow from his country, and from now onward there is no happiness for him, being without honour and goodwill (árleas). His emptiness means, in a modern phrase, that he has nothing to live for. The pains he is to suffer will cut deeper than before, seeing they are now all heaped up-in himself alone, and they will produce more dangerous wounds,. since there is no medicine to be found against them. Thus it is literally true, that no one can be a human being without being a kinsman, or that kinsman means the same as human being; there is not a grain of metaphor in the words. Frith and honour


together constitute the soul. Of these two constituents frith seems to lie deeper. Frith is the base of the soul, honour is all the restless matter above it. But there is no separation between them. The force of honour is the feeling of kinship, and the contents of frith is honour. So it is natural that a wound to honour is felt on one hand as an inner decline, and on the other as a paralysis of love. By the import of honour we learn to know the character of the gladness which kinsmen felt when they sat together by the fire warming themselves in frith.

This interpenetration of frith and honour makes itself apparent, for instance, in the use of the Anglo-Saxon word ár. When an exile comes to a king to sue for ár, the word may be translated by favour or protection; but we must bear in mind that the acceptance by the king, the ár given him by the king, procures for him peace and human dignity. In Christian language, God is the giver of ár, grace, making the lives of men prosper. Ar thus embraces luck and honour and mutual goodwill, and the translator of Old English poetry is constantly brought to a standstill for want of a comprehensive term in his own language. Thus says Hrothgar's queen of her Sons' cousin, Hrothulf: “I know my Hrothulf the happy, know that he will hold the youths in honour (ár), if you, king of the Scyldings, go out of the world before him. I think he will return good to our sons, when he remembers how we gave him ár when he was small, to his joy and his exaltation.” When there was strife between Abraham's and Lot's men, the patriarch's love of peace is expressed by the Anglo-Saxon poet in the following words: “We two are kinsmen, there shall be no strife between us,” and the Englishman adds by way of explanation: “ár dwelt in his mind”.

Insight into the nature of honour opens a way to the understanding of the character of gladness. The sentences which have been quoted, referring to men's living in happiness and honour, when they sit in a circle round the fire with happy, fearless thoughts, have now obtained their full meaning, which cannot be exhausted in modern words.

Honour implies vengeance in ancient society, but honour,


as we have seen it up to this, does not elucidate what made the shedding of blood so powerful a medicine for spiritual suffering. Honour contains much which points out beyond the limits here drawn, and which can only find its explanation in a still wider view of the spiritual life of these men.

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