The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


a curse. There was man's life in words, just as well as in plans, in counsel. Thoughts and words are simply detached portions of the human soul and thus in full earnest to be regarded as living things.

The ancient word rede — Anglo-Saxon ræd, Icel. ráð — is a perfect illustration of Teutonic psychology. When given to others, it means counsel; when applied to the luck working within the mind, it means wisdom, or a good plan, and from an ethical point of view, just and honest thoughts. But the word naturally includes the idea of success, which accompanies wise and upright devising, and on the other hand power and authority, which are the working of a sound will. Men setting about to discuss difficult matters stand in need of rede and quickness of mind, says an Old-English writer. According to the Anglo-Saxon poet, the lost angels fell because they would no longer keep to their rede, but turned away from God's love; they did that which was sinful, and at the same time ill-advised, and thereby brought about their own undoing. And Satan complains that Christ has diminished his rede under heaven, rendering him powerless. A redeless man is weakened by lack of will, lack of power and lack of self-assertion. The poet of the Anglo-Saxon Christ uses this expression in order to depict the abjectness of the damned, when they stand on the left side at the Judgement Day, and hear the Lord's command: Go hence, accursed ones: “They cannot withstand the bidding of the king of heaven, bereft of rede” as they are. Not until we have mastered the whole content, can we realise the depth of Satan's exclamation: Why should I serve, I can raise myself a higher seat than God's: strong companions, famed heroes of unbending courage, that will not fail me in the fight, have chosen me their lord, “with such one can find rede”.

To feel the force in the ancient thoughts we must take care that our dynamic theories are not allowed to slip in; rede is not energy residing in the words, but the words themselves as well as the soul. Luck stretches in one unbroken continuity from the core of man's mind to the horizon of his social existence,


and this, too, is indicated in the meaning of rede, which comprises the state or position of a man, his influence and competence.

The inner state of a man in luck is described in Icelandic as a whole mind, heill hugr, which of course comprises wisdom as well as goodwill and affection. The man of whole mind is true to his kin and his friends, stern to his enemies, and easy to get on with, when lesser men come seeking aid. His redes are really good gifts to the receiver — whole redes, in Icelandic heil ráð.

Outwardly, luck is dependent on the mutual love of kinsmen. With the flourishing of frith go luck and well-being. And in the opposite case, when men cannot agree, all life sickens and fades, until everything is laid waste. This rule applies to all frith communities, not only the family, but also temporary connections in the sign of frith (and under any other sign no alliance was possible). When men united in any undertaking, fishing or other occupation, the result would depend upon the power of the individuals to maintain friendly and sincere relations with one another. In the Laxdoela Saga, we chance upon this piece of information: “Wise men held it of great weight that men should well agree when on the fishing grounds: for it was said that men had less luck with their catch if they came to quarrelling, and most therefore observed caution.”

The state of honour likewise determines the rise and fall of the family. The man who gains renown, wins not only the advantages that go with the esteem of his fellows — he augments the blessing, the power of growth and fertility both in his cattle and in his fields; he lays the foundation for new kinsmen in the family: the women will bear more easily and more often, the children be more hopeful and forward. Even in late centuries, the reciprocal responsibility of honour and luck were so rooted in Norwegian popular beliefs that men could say: No man has luck to gain and keep wealth until he has slain two men and paid for the deed to the heirs and to the king. And the same association of ideas underlies the faith of Norwegian peasants in the luck and healing power of families descended from stern


and murderous men, whose honour could be proved by numerous killings.

If frith and honour sicken, the result is a decline in all that appertains to the family, decline and finally downfall. The Beowulf has, as we have seen, already given a description of the effects of villainy; the dying out of the stock and the wasting of its goods. These verses wherein the wages of cravenness are so depicted, no doubt allude primarily to the sufferings originating in men's contempt for lack of honour; but the picture can be applied word for word to an earlier and more original view, according to which the social consequences of shame were only correlative to its directly destructive effect: “Never more shall any of that race grasp gladly the gold.”

The northern description of the last things is only an enlarged form of this curse: men grow poorer and poorer, their power of action, their courage, confidence, mutual feeling and feeling of frith are scorched away; “brothers fight and kill each other, cousins rive the frith asunder, whoredom great in the world . . .no man spares another” however near of kin they may be; the heat of the sun declines, the earth grows cold and bare, early frost and late frost bite off the young shoots; summers grow weaker and weaker, winters more and more stern.

The poet of the Voluspá is certainly inspired by contact with Christendom for his eschatological vision; but there are only insignificant traces of direct impulse from Christian ideas. The inspiration caught from the West has worked so deeply in the poet that the ancient legends and images rise up and take on a new significance. His faith in the old ideals and his anguish at seeing them crumbling in the turmoil of the viking age impregnate one another, and at the touch of Christianity, this interpenetration of ethics and experience produces a coherent view of history on the strength of a leading idea. The poet's vision, which moulds the traditional legends to its purpose without in any perceptible way changing their contents, and wields a mass of disparate materials into unity, is the accumulation of guilt, that drives the gods through one disastrous deed after another into their doom. And to the poet, guilt is identical


with breach of frith and honour. The force of his idea reveals itself in the fact that he has placed the myth of Balder's death in an intimate connection with the tenet of doomsday. The picture of the gods killing one of their brothers is given a central place, so that it gathers up the force of the events going before, and ushers in the twilight of the gods and of the world.

That luck and progress are dependent on frith and honour was a maxim borne out by experience, but the sentence could with equal truth be read conversely: Luck is the condition that determines frith and honour.

When frith is broken, so that kinsmen forget themselves towards one another, the fault lies in luck; either it has in some way suffered scathe, or it is by nature inadequate, leaving men helpless and without bearing. A good woman by the name of Saldis rejoiced in the two sons of her daughters; they were both promising lads, and moreover they loved one another tenderly. One day, Oddbjorg, a woman who could read the future, walked into the homestead; Saldis presented her grandchildren to the guest with pride and bade her prophesy, adding: “See to it, that your words turn out happily.” “Ay, promising are these two lads,” Oddbjorg admitted, “if only their luck will last, but that I do not see clearly.” No wonder that Saidis spoke harshly to her; but the other only answered: “I have not said too much; I do not think their love will last long.” On being pressed further she blurts out: “They will come to seek each other's lives.” And so it happened. — When Sverri delivered the funeral oration over his kinsman and opponent, King Magnus, he began thus: “The man by whose bier we now stand was a brave man, gracious to his men, but we kinsmen had not the luck to agree well together,” and so on, “with many fair words, such as he knew how to turn the way he would.” It is instructive to see how this highly accomplished and reflecting struggler Sverri, again and again in his calculated endeavours to speak in a popular tone, has recourse to the old ideas; he himself is modern throughout, and purposely joins his cause with Christianity and the strong element that has a future before it; but to get a grip


on men's minds, it is necessary to speak in a popular form, he knows. And he understands bow to do it.

To form a happy couple, the bride and bridegroom need luck. Hrut, an Icelander of unusual qualities and high extraction, and also a man of great insight, was late in marrying; one day his friends proposed a match with a lady of good family, called Unn. Hrut entered upon the plan, but rather hesitatingly, saying: “I do not know whether we two will have luck together.” Hrut did not know at the time, that he would fall under the spell of an imperious woman, but on a visit to Norway he found favour with the Queen Mother, and their intimacy embittered the subsequent conjugal life of Hrut and Unn and finally wrecked their marriage.

Villainy, the act and state of the niding, is identical with unluck. “Late will that unluck pass from my mind,” says Bolli when Gudrun congratulates him on having killed his cousin Kjartan; and in the Volsungasaga, Sinfjotli is taunted with his violent career in these words: “All unluck came upon you, you killed your brothers.” Strikingly effective is the outburst of feeling in Kalf Arnason's words after the battle of Stiklestad. Kalf and his brother Finn had fought on opposite sides in the battle, Finn being a staunch supporter of the king, whereas Kalf occupied a prominent place among those who worked for his downfall. When the fight was over, Kalf searched the field and offered help to his brother, who lay severely wounded. But Finn aimed a blow at him, calling him a faithless villain and a traitor to his king. The blow failed, and Kalf gratefully exclaimed: “Now the king is watching over you, not wishing you unluck, but knowing that I needed care.” Kalf, who had been Olaf's bitterest opponent, now extols the fallen king's luck as being strong enough to prevent the unbounded sorrow and anger of a king's man from turning to villainy.

In Gisli's saga, there is an exchange of words where “unluck” and “villainy” are used alternately with equal force. After Gisli had killed his sister's husband, he was hunted from one hiding place to another; but the incessant pursuit of his enemies was for a long time successfully thwarted by the exertions of


his wife, Aud. On one occasion, when Eyjolf, who leads the avenging party, tries to drive her into giving up her husband, she pours out her scorn and insults him so cuttingly that he shouts: “Kill the dog, even though it be a bitch.” Thanks to a brave man of the party, Havard, Eyjolf was saved from the ignominy of laying hand on a woman; on seeing Eyjolf forgetting himself, Havard exclaimed: “Our doing here is shameful enough, without wreaking such villainy as this; up, and do not let him get at her.” Eyjolf now turned his wrath upon his friend, saying: “It is a true word: choose your company badly at home, and you will rue it on the road.” But the saga proceeds: “Havard was much liked, and many were willing to follow him; also, they would gladly save Eyjolf from that unluck.”

When villainy is called unluck, the latter term is not to be taken as an excuse; on the contrary the word conveys a strong condemnation of the man who is denounced as being unlucky. When King Hakon, in the previously mentioned condemnation of taking vengeance on the wrong man, calls such an act unluck, he is choosing the very sharpest term he can find in his vocabulary, the word that comes nearest to the idea of deadly sin. Unluck is mischief, and an “unlucky” man is the same as a niding, or in certain cases, a potential niding. The bluntest way of refusing a man who appeals for friendship, is by saying: “You do not look to be a lucky man (úgæfusamligr), and it is wisest to have no dealings with you”; these words simply imply moral as well as prudential misgivings; to draw out the full import of the sentence we must give two parallel renderings: you have no luck in your doings, and cannot bring those about you other than ill-fortune, — and: you are not to be trusted, a man may expect anything of you. And even when Njal says of his sons that they are not men of luck, the sentence had probably at that time a bitterer undertone than we now at once perceive; it implies, that the young men want wit and forethought, and it means further, that they are lacking in self-control and moral restraint.

The uncanny symptoms of villainy lie in the fact that luck and honour are identical. Luck is the combination of frith and


honour seen from another side, and unluck, in the old sense, is simply the reverse of that feeling of kinship we have now learned to understand.

It is luck which enables men to maintain their frith, their friendship, to keep their promises, and refrain from dishonourable acts. But luck is more. It gives men the will to act morally, or rather, it is moral will itself. When Hrut utters his misgivings: “I do not know whether we two will have luck together,” he is thinking of their power of having and keeping mutual love, and their ability of creating frith in their home, as much as of their power of enjoying each other and having offspring.

In the Germanic idea, the moral estimate is always ready to rise to the surface; in fact, for the expression of goodness, piety and uprightness, the Teutons have no better words than lucky (Anglo-Saxon sælig, Gothic séls and similar terms), which embrace the idea of wealth and health, happiness and wisdom. In later linguistic periods, the ethical side of the idea often becomes dominant, and determines the use of the word in Christian writings. Thus the Gothic séls and the opposite unséls, are for the translator of the Bible the best equivalent for the “good” and “evil” of the New Testament.

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