The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


Naturally, a chieftain could not be suspicious and always go about scenting danger, for such a craven caution would be an infallible sign that he had not the luck of wisdom, but fumbled ever in the dark. The king simply saw through the shell of things, and knew what lay hidden behind pretended friendliness, and could therefore sit calm and secure where all was well, without letting his comfort be encroached upon by forebodings. When Harald Fairhair had been to Thorolf's splendid feast at Torgar, the two sons of Hilderid came up and wished him joy of his lucky journey, adding: “It fell out as was to be thought; you were after all the wisest and luckiest (hamingjumestr), for you saw at once that all was not so fairly meant as it seemed and we can also tell you now that it was planned that you should be slain there; but the peasants felt a catch in their breasts when they saw you,” they add. It must be admitted that the pair of them knew how to flatter a king.

And if we would see an instance of what lack of luck (gæfuleysi) is, we find an illustration in the saga which treats of the dealings between Hrafnkel and his antagonist Sam. By dint of courage and a great deal of friendly assistance, Sam got the upper band of the powerful and overbearing chieftain Hrafnkel; but when he had got his enemy underfoot, he contented himself, despite all well-meaning advice, with humbling him and forcing him to leave his homestead and the district. Hrafnkel raised a new farm and quietly worked his way up again. When six years had passed, he was strong enough to begin thinking of bygone things, and learning one day that Sam's brother had come home from an illustrious career abroad, be lays wait for him on his very first ride from the landing-place and slays him. Sam seeks out his old friends and helpers, but they meet him with cold words: “We once made all things ready for you so that you could easily be uppermost. But it fell out as we knew it would, when you gave Hrafnkel his life, that you would come to mourn it bitterly. We counselled you to kill him, but you would have your way. No need to look closely to see the difference in wisdom between you two, Hrafnkel and you; he left you in peace and used his strength first to make away with the man


he deemed of most account. We will not let your want of luck bring us to our downfall.”

The Norwegian pretender Olaf Ugæfa — the Unlucky —gained his name from the half-heartedness of his plans when a night attack on Erling Skakki failed. Erling had fewer men, was taken by surprise, and suffered great loss; but the darkness covered him, and under shelter of a fence he slipped away down to his ships. “And this men said: that Olaf and his followers had shown but little luck in the fight, so surely as Erling's party were given into their hands, if they had but acted with more wisdom.”

There is all the difference of luck between rede, good, prudent and successful plans, and unrede, bad plans which may look sound enough, but are wanting in foundation. A wise man prepares his enterprises according to the time and circumstances they are to fit in with. He is capable of looking about him and interpreting what he sees. He does not let himself be confused by possibilities, but with strict logic discerns the actual state of things. When Thorstein judged that the time had come for avenging his father's death, he rode straight to the very homestead where the slayer lay concealed, and called upon his protector to deliver up the wretch; on the yeoman's making a show of innocence, he only said: “You, Geirmund, are Hrolleif's only kinsman of note, therefore he is with you and nowhere else,” and his conclusion had all the surety of a man of luck; it was not a result of suspicion, or supposition or probability, but of knowledge and of insight. But the wise man can do more than this; he judges men beforehand, and thus is not led astray by ill-fated connections with men whose counsels are barren. From sure signs in face and ways and manner he deduces what is hidden in the stranger, whether he is a man of luck (hamingjusamligr), one who will be an acquisition, or one whom it were best to avoid. The very wise man knows also the world outside human life, and can guess the connection between manifestations and actions; he knows the weather, and understands the speech of animals, or knows at any rate what they would say. He has a store of “ancient knowledge” in regard to things and


events of the past, a knowledge which not only gives him dignity and esteem, but also security in his judgement of things now happening, and insight into the nature of things. He sees the past spread out about him in the same way as the present; the two penetrate and interpret each other. But his were a poor wisdom if be had not, apart from the mastery of past and present, also some familiarity with the yet unborn. Keensighted and foreseeing are identical terms among the ancients. The unknown came to the man of luck in many ways. He was a great dreamer, who was aware of things before they arrived, and saw beforehand men moving on their contemplated ways. Hrafnkel Freysgodi's father, Hallfred, even moved his entire homestead because a man came to him in a dream and said: “You are unwary, lying there, Hallfred; move your farm, westward across Lagarfljot; there is all your luck,” — and the same day as he had brought all his goods into safety, the place was buried under a landslide. Thorstein Ingimundson, also, avoids the machinations of a witch-wife through a vision in a dream, and she may well say, when she finds he is not to be drawn into the trap: “It is hard to stand against the luck of these sons of Ingimund.” But to dreams and clairvoyance must be added the direct knowledge, which may be expressed in the words: “few things come on him unawares, surprise him”, or in the simple form: “my mind tells me”.

Therefore the “wise” man can follow his plan beforehand through time, test it and adapt it before it is despatched, or hold it back till the way is ready. But if wisdom could go no farther, then his rede or counsel would after all be only as a boat thrust out on the waters without a crew, entrusted to favourable current and favourable wind; the wise and strong man's luck followed his plan, steering, pushing on and keeping it towards the goal. The thought goes forward, doing with force and effect what it was sent to do. It is as if it had eyes to see with and sense to speak for itself, and at any rate it can force its way into folk's minds and turn them as it will. All that it meets on its way through the world it takes to itself and uses as its implement.


The success of a plan depends wholly on what it has in it from its first outgoing, for it has its origin in a conception that gave it life and inspired it with luck, The projects coming from the greatest minds are at one and the same time the boldest and the safest of execution. The king's luck takes form as mighty thoughts of conquest — as when Harald had the luck to make all Norway one — and as inventions of genius, as for instance when a war-king conceives the idea of the wedge-shaped phalanx, which is mythically expressed as a device suggested by a god.

If a man have not luck enough in himself to foster such a “counsel” as he needs, he goes, presumably, to a man of might and begs him to put something of his own virtue into the undertaking already planned. And naturally, if one went to a man about some difficult business and asked his advice, one expected to be given good, i. e. lucky counsel (hell ráð) and not empty 'words that one had oneself to fill with progress and blessing. Empty, luckless folk might come to grief with spiritual values because they did not understand how to use them; if properly handled, the counsel must return with fruit. Naturally the ancient word rede or counsel comprises several meanings which are sharply differentiated in our dualistic culture; plan and resolution on the one hand, and advice on the other, are nothing but luck applied to one's own or to other people's affairs.

If a plan really has life in it, then it can only be checked by a greater luck killing it. A thought from some greater wisdom can go out and offer battle. The higher wisdom need not wait until the counsel has been despatched, it can lay itself like a nightmare upon a poorer man's luck and make it barren and confused. Thus it happened, to quote an instance from life, to the wise Thorleif of the Uplands, when Olaf Tryggvason, for very Christian reasons, sought the life of the obstinate heathen chief, and sent his faithful servant, Hallfred the Wayward Scald, to carry out his design. When the poet hero turned up in disguise at Thorleif's homestead, the old man asked what news he brought, and more especially if he knew anything of a certain Hallfred, for “he has often appeared to me in dreams; not that it should be strange for me to dream, but there will


come king's men to this place ere long, and as to this Hallfred, I can never properly make him out from what folk say, and my luck is at an end in the matter of what is to come”. In other words: I may dream of him; but I see nothing in my dreams but a veil over the future.

When a man brought forth speech out of his store of words, the hearers could discern whether he were a man of luck. The Northmen, and probably also the Germanic peoples generally, cherished a great admiration for art in words; encomiums of fine oratory are frequent in their literature, and their delicate wording, together with keen judgement of effects, almost makes us sharers in the complacency with which the listeners settled down when a man stood up among them who had luck to send his words safely into what harbour he pleased. The lucky man's speech would fall in those short, sharp images that the Northmen loved; the well-formed sentences leading one another forward instead of stumbling one over another, just as the separate movements, stroke and guard, fitted together when executed by a lucky body. The words of luck found vent in such proverbial concentrations of speech that struck at the very centre of a difficulty and cut at one sharp blow the question in dispute. Luck inspired a man at the moment of his fall to utter words so pregnant as to be held in memory to his honour. But words, if uttered by a man of great luck, had likewise the double edge peculiar to the weapons of victorious fighters: they struck down among men, loosed the spell of lukewarmness and lack of courage, or made open foes of secret haters, as Egil thanks the gods that he could do. There was a great difference between what a king said and what a peasant said, even though they meant more or less the same thing. When Olaf Tryggvason stood up at the law-thing, where men crafty in words were gathered to oppose him, all were cowed out of opposition by the utterances of the king.

Words were dangerous. They could bite through luck and fix themselves in a man. They were not to be likened to sharp arrows which wounded, but might then be drawn out and flung to the ground. For they had life in them, they would creep


about inside the victim, hollowing him out till there was no strength left in him, or they would change him and mould him according to their own nature.

It was often a good plan to belabour one's enemies with words before attacking with weapons; one could in this wise weaken the opponent's watchfulness, blunt his courage and adroitness and dilute his invulnerability. In Saxo's narrative of Fridleif's fight with the giant, the king commences the combat by uttering taunts, for, according to the mediæval monk, the giant was easier to cope with when he had first been irritated by scornful verses: “You three-bodied giant, almost knocking your head against the sky, why do you let that foolish sword dangle at your side? . . . Why cover that strong breast with a frail sword? You forget how big you are, and trust in that little dagger. I will soon make your onslaughts vain, when you strike with that blunt edge.” Now there is danger that the sword may prove too light, and its edge unable to cut through. “Seeing you are such a timid beast ... you shall fall flat on your face; for in that proud body you bear a craven and fearful heart, and your courage is not equal to your limbs . . . Therefore you shall fall without fame, having no place among the bold, but set in the ranks of those whom no man knows.” Now it were best for the giant to look to his courage and his honour, and strike ere the words have taken effect. He will be robbed of his courage if the power from without be not flung back as quickly as possible.

Once, when the Britons were attacked by the king of the Northumbrians, they had taken a whole little army of monks with them, and placed them in a safe spot, to pray during the fight. King Æthelfrid, with practical sense, first sent his men to cut down the monks, and then proceeded to deal with the warriors. “If they call on their god to help them against us”, he said, “then they are fighting against us, even though they use no weapon, since they oppose us with their prayers.” Granted that such prayers were actually addressed to God, Æthelfrid yet knew that even though the strong words made a slight detour, they would certainly end in the men for whom they were intended.


The power of words is such that they can transform a man when they enter into him, and make a craven or a niding of a brave man. The insinuation does not merely depreciate him in his neighbours' eyes — nay, the reverse, the contempt of the world is a result of the taunting gibe having entered into the man, attacked his manhood, and in the truest sense rendered him a poorer creature; it eats its way in through honour and frith, and will not rest until his humanity is bitten through at the root. The greater the tension in the sender's luck and honour, the stronger the word, and the more dangerous the wound. The utterances of petty folk, with little mind beyond their needs to lay in their words, might perhaps be taken lightly; certain great men, indeed, might ignore them altogether. But if there were luck behind the words, it were wisest to lose no time in rendering them harmless and getting one's honour back by vengeance. The counsel offered by Norwegian and Icelandic laws for cases of milder, everyday misuse of the vocabulary, viz. to answer back word for word, is only valid to a very limited extent, and must be received with the greatest caution; one must never forget that answering back does not give reparation, and it is well then to consider whether one can afford to forego a strengthening of one's honour.

But words can of course equally well carry a blessing with them. A good word at parting is a gift of strength to the traveller. When the king said “Good luck go with you, my friend,” the man set out carrying a piece of the king's power in him. “Luck on your way to your journey's end, and then I will take my luck again,” is a saying still current among the Danish peasantry. A good word given on coming to a new place meant a real addition to one's luck. When Olaf the Peacock moved into his new homestead, old Hoskuld, his father, stood outside uttering words of good luck; he bade Olaf welcome with luck, and added significantly: “This my mind tells me surely, that his name shall live long.” Orðheill, word-luck, is the Icelandic term for a wish thus charged with power, either for good or evil, according as the speaker put his goodwill into his words and made them a blessing, or inspired them with his hate, so that they acted as

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page