The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



Besides honour, man needs something which in the ancient language is called luck; our translation, however, which draws the sense of chance into the foreground, fails altogether to indicate the true force of the word. The associations of the modern term, stressing the sense of chance or fortune, all run counter to the spirit of ancient culture, and there is no other way of reaching a full understanding than by patient and unprejudiced reconstruction of Teutonic psychology.

Whichever way we turn, we find the power of luck. It determines all progress. Where it fails, life sickens. It seems to be the strongest power, the vital principle indeed, of the world.

When a man's fields yielded rich harvest, when his lands were rarely visited by frost or drought, he was said to be ársæll, i. e. he possessed the luck of fertility.

When his cattle throve and multiplied, always returning sale and undepleted from their summer grazing grounds, then he was fésæll, i. e. he had the luck of cattle.

The dweller on a barren strip of coast had little use for luck in the fields, but would on the other hand probably be lucky with his fishing, or he would be byrsæll, that is, he would always have the wind in his favour. There was a famous family in the north of Norway, the men of Hrafnista, of whom it is related that as soon as they hoisted sail, a wind sprang up, even though it had been perfectly calm a moment before. Hading, too, had, according to Saxo, a peculiar power of making best use of a wind, for though his pursuers were running before the same


wind and had not fewer sails, they could not overtake him. This trait is in the North not a fairy tale motive, nor the invention of an imaginative saga writer; the Olafs of Norway likewise had the reputation of being favoured by the weather, and this undoubtedly with full historical justification. Olaf Tryggvason was so much more byrsæll than other men, that he sailed in one day as much as others in three. In the list of the kings of Sweden there is one Eric Weatherhat, so called from his having, as it were, the wind in his hat; he could change it by turning his headgear about.

This particular form of luck was not lost when the coast-dwellers of the Northern Sea moved over to Iceland. It is told of an Icelander that he was so byrsæll, he could always determine 'which harbour he would make; and of another, that he sailed in one day as much as others in three.

Other men, again, had as their dominant attribute luck of battle. When professional warriors, like Arnijot Gellini, seek to express their faith in a few words, they can find nothing to say but that they trust in their strength and their sigrsæli, their gift of victory. Among the chieftains, this gift of victory shows in its full splendour. We find men of military genius, who bring victory in their train wherever they go. All the Norwegian kings of Harald Fairhair's race had this great gift of victory. And when Earl Hakon was able for a time to fill the place as ruler over Norway, it was due not least to his luck in winning victories, in pursuing and killing. It kept the people on his side, for they held that no one could be like him in respect of this particular gift. A like tone is apparent in the opening of the story in the Beowulf, about Hrothgar's kingdom; unto him was given war-speed, and battle-honour, so that his kinsmen followed him until the younglings were waxen and gathered about him in their host.

“Winner of battles” the king is often called in Anglo-Saxon, and the name expresses what the Germanic people asked of, and trusted to, in a ruler, both in the great leader of the land, the king himself, and the minor leaders, local princelings as well as freebooter kings without land. The presence of the chieftain was a guarantee to the people of victory in the fight.


The Anglo-Saxons gathered boldly to oppose the foreign vikings, if only they had a man of chieftain's rank to take the lead and call the local forces together; as long as he was standing, they would fight with scorn of death, for hearth and home. But when word went round to assemble in mutual aid, without the inspiration of a born leader, they would remain at home, or they would run off to the woods and leave the invaders to work their will in the village.

Once, when the East Anglians were attacked by Penda, the victorious and generally feared king of Mercia, they found no other resource in their need than to go to their old king, Sigeberht, who, out of love for the heavenly light, had renounced the throne and shut himself up in a monastery. They begged him and implored him to come out and lead the host, and though he thrust aside the weapons, with uplifted hands calling to witness his monk's vow to God in Heaven, they forced him into the battle. This picture of the king in monk's cowl, dragged into the fight with a willow-stick in his hand and there slain, is the more touching for its deep historical significance.

“And when they saw that their leader was fallen, they fled every man” — this sentence occurs again and again in the sagas, and its truth is confirmed again and again by history. If the great man's war-luck failed, what could the lesser luck of lesser men avail? Gregory relates that Chlodevech won the decisive battle against the Alamanni by vowing himself to Christ when things were at their worst; hardly had he turned his mind in the right direction when his enemies took to flight. “And when they saw their king was fallen, they surrendered and begged for mercy.” The opening of the narrative agrees but poorly with the sequel. The fact is, that the pious tendency of the historian has had its way at the first, and that required only Chlodevech and Christ; in return, history has its way with the clerk in the after-sentence, and gives the king of the Alamanni his due. But even admitting that the myth of Christ as the giver of victory is but ill grafted, the pious author is intrinsically right in making Christ manifest his glory in displacing the power that had been strongest among the heathen, viz, the king's luck.


These little pictures from life transfer us at a stroke to another world. Luck is working before our eyes with all the power it had over men's minds, to strengthen and to strike with numbness. In its foremost representative, the king, its peculiar character is properly revealed. The king's war-luck can prevail against an army. When the king comes, surrounded by his little host, the peasants are scattered like lambs at scent of a wolf. This happened constantly in an age when every man was a warrior from his youth up. It is not very likely that the king's retainers should be very far ahead of the well-to-do yeomen of the country in respect of courage and skill at arms, for the king's body-guard was in Norway, and as far as regards the earliest times, among the other Germanic peoples as well, composed for the most part of young volunteers, each of whom served a number of years till he had attained such a degree of training and renown as he considered fitting for his position in society. Throughout the first two centuries of Norwegian history, that is to say, the childhood of the kingdom of greater Norway, when the sovereignty was literally speaking never left ten years undisputed, tradition records hardly a single battle wherein a peasant army succeeded in offering effective resistance to the body-guard, led by the king himself. The victory at Stiklestad, where the yeomen won the day over the king's men, is a triumph almost unique in history; the victors fled from the field in panic terror, and the conquered prince went out of the battle as a demigod. When Olaf showed himself amid his array, the peasants' arms “fell down”, their minds were confused in a moment, and they were on the point of running away every man; strenuous urging and incitement, with reminders of Olaf's hated rule, were needed to keep them in their places. And if we may believe the saga's description of the fight, the courage of the peasants was rather a sort of desperate convulsion in 'which their fear found vent, because their legs refused to carry them from the field. Olaf's fall let loose a panic in the peasants' army; the men scattered and ran to seek cover in their homes, and six months later, the king was adjudged a saint.

Whether the saga men are to be taken as recorders of fact


or as imaginative poets, the value of their sketches as psychological documents remains unimpaired. In the minds of the North-men, the battle of Stiklestad, and the days preceding it, were clothed with a mystic spell, and the memories were condensed into a picture, at once soberly realistic in details and mythic as a whole. In Olaf, the ancient king's luck was transfigured; in the strength of his luck he was exalted to martyr's glory, and his saintship bridges over the gap between the old faith and the new creed. The Christian poets praise the king saint for giving all men harvest and peace.

To get a comprehensive view of the king's luck, we have to ask: what was demanded, in the old days, to make a man a true king? War-speed, the power of victory, is but one of the distinguishing marks which place the leader in a class apart from everyday characters. His constitution is marked throughout by greater strength and hardihood. Life is more firmly seated in him, whether it be that he is proof against weapons, or that they seem, perhaps, to turn aside from the spot where he stands. The first time Olaf Tryggvason misses his mark is when he aims his bow at Earl Eric. “Truly, this earl's luck is great”, he exclaims. In the ancient wise, it is said of Harald Hilditonn, that Odin had granted him immunity from wounds, so that no cutting edge could scathe him. And even though perhaps such a degree of hardiness was only found among the very few particularly favoured, we must presume that the king had this advantage over ordinary warriors, that his wounds healed more easily and more completely. At any rate, he possessed a healing power which could be communicated to others. The Germanic chief had here at least one qualification for saintly rank, and one that counted for much in the early Middle Ages, when Christianity justified itself to a great extent by its power over sickness. There is no doubt but that these germs of saintliness in the kingship were eagerly fostered, we may perhaps venture to say, with unconscious purpose; the miracles and legends of southern Europe cling easily to Olaf, and it came natural for people to seek healing at the king's resting place.


At the time when Olaf's brother Harald Hardrada and his son Magnus reigned jointly over Norway, a mother came with her son, who had lost his memory, to ask advice of King Harald; the king opined that the patient suffered from dreamlessness, and counselled her to let the boy drink of Magnus' washing water, and thereafter sleep on Magnus' couch. The effect was instantaneous: both kings appeared to him in a dream, and said: the one: “Have health,” and the other: “Have quickness and memory,” and then the boy woke laughing, having recovered the power of remembering. The kings of the Franks had not less of this healing power: a mother cured her son with a decoction from the fringe of King Gunntbram's cloak. In earlier times, it was presumably a common belief that the king had “hands of healing”, as we find in the invocation of Sigdrifa: “Give us two athelings (herself and Sigurd) speech and wit and hands of healing, while we live.”

The most violent attacks of nature, too, fell scatheless upon the king's luck. “Kings never drown," said William Rufus when he put out into the Channel in a boat during a gale, to quell a revolt in Normandy on its first outbreak. Olaf the Saint, on his crossing to Norway, was in great danger during a storm, but “the good men with him, and his own luck, brought him unscathed to land”.

With equal right, an Olaf might have said that kings were never weather-bound. At any rate, it was one of a chieftain's natural attributes, that his luck always gave him a favouring wind. The waters, too, carried shoals of fish in to the ruler's lands, we may suppose; it is said of Earl Hakon, that in his time, fish came up into all the fords. Luck of fertility prevailed over his fields, giving close ears of corn and good weight in the ear. Lucky in seasons and in procuring peace are the titles given to the mythical kingly ideal of the Swedes, Fjolnir Yngvifreyson, and if we add sigrsæll — victorious — we have the triple chord that embraces all life. A king without wars might be an exception; but he must be friðsæll — mighty for peace — in the sense of keeping the war outside his own frontiers, or at least preventing it from harrying the fields. War is to throw up a flood of


honour and renown about him, heap up jewels and spoil, but not fail destructively upon the lands swelling with corn, and the cattle heavy with fat.

“It is hard to fight against the king's luck,” and “Much avails the king's luck”; thus old saws sum up the hardness and the massiveness of the chieftain's gift, and the wisdom implied in these sayings amounts to such sage counsels as this: One must not set oneself athwart the great man's luck, but let oneself be borne on by it. When a man entered the king's ranks and let his own war-luck be inspired by the higher, he became, in the most literal sense, worth more himself. The king was so full of luck that he could radiate it out to all those near him and could even send it away to act at a distance. If one could get a chieftain to approve an enterprise by his words:

“I will add my luck”, then one had his war-luck in one's weapons, his weather-luck in one's sails. Of such a man it can simply be said: “He goes not alone, for king's luck goes with him.” And a request to undertake a desperate enterprise on the king's behalf was often granted with the words: “I will attempt it with your luck”. A man in the king's favour, as for instance Hallfred the Wayward Scald, lived all his life in the shadow of the king's luck. When on one occasion he was attacked from behind, he prayed to Christ for aid, and succeeded “with God's help and by Olaf's luck” in beating off the attack. His opponents knew him for a man protected by special favour, and were cautious in attacking him; his bitter foe, Gris, whom he had injured most bloodily by ravishing his wife, was glad of a chance to avoid meeting him in single combat, and declared that he was "loth to fight against the king's luck”.

The belief in the king's power to put his luck into others and their undertakings is worked up by the Icelanders into an amusing tale about a poor man, Hroi, his failing and success. Hroi was a skilful smith and an enterprising merchant, brave and “born with wits”; but somehow Fortune declined to favour his plans. However much gold he might amass, it went to the bottom as soon as he put to sea, and when he had forged his way up again by skill at his trade, he lost all his savings in his

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