The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



Luck is the ultimate and deepest expression of man's being, and that which reaches farthest. We cannot get behind it; however far we may go into the human soul, we can never get sight of luck from behind. First and foremost, the feeling of kinship is an outcome of luck, and when illwill and villainy break forth, these disorders prove that the heart of that family is ruined, and we can then with absolute surety foretell that the one villainy will be followed by others, and the work of that race be barren. Thus naturally the people argued in the case of Sigurd Slembi, when, after having killed his brother, he claimed the title of king: “If you are truly a son of King Magnus, then your birth was unlucky (and iflboding, úgiptusamligr), and thus too it has fallen out, if you have murdered your brother.” The unluck is by no means a consequence that comes halting along in the wake of misdeeds or dishonour. The Germanic mind actually counts on the fact that unluck sooner or later will arise in the place where dishonour has manifested its appearance, for the very reason that the concatenation of events was not dependent on God's keeping a strict balance. Fault and retribution are not connected by an intermediate link, that may perhaps be sundered.

Luck, then, is the power that inspires a man and emanates from his person, filling his words and his deeds; it comprises all the requirements of the family, its powers and possibilities, its accomplishments and its hope, its genius and character. Luck contains the very existence of the clan; the family is called


kynsæll, lucky in kinship, when kinsmen are numerous and new members are constantly being born to fill the places falling vacant. In Anglo-Saxon, the same idea is expressed by tuddorspéd, which means luck in offspring and power of cohesion. In luck there lies, moreover, existence from the social point of view, the outward esteem in which the family is held. Prosperous kinsmen are said to possess man-luck (mannheill), i. e. the luck to have the friendship and affection of others, and luck of fame (orðheill), so that people speak well, both in goodwill and with respect, of them. In the Anglo-Saxon Genesis, God promises Abraham's son freondspéd, luck in friends, or, as we might equally well translate it, a wealth of friends. Finally, luck involves honour, both that which shines out in the splendour of renown, and that which lies compressed to a power of tension in the human soul.

Luck sets its stamp upon a man outwardly. Whence had the Northmen their keenness of vision, which enabled them to apprize a man at a glance? At the first meeting they would say either: he is a man promising luck and honour (sæmligir and hamingjusamligr), one luck is to be expected of (giptuvænligr), or: he bears the mark of unluck (úgiptubragð). Partly on the strength of intuition, as we say — or, as the ancients put it, because the mind of the beholder told him what to think of the stranger, but partly on external criteria; luck manifested itself openly in the newcomer's mien, gait, behaviour, bearing, and not least in his well-nourished appearance, his health, his dress, and his weapons. Only a family of wealth and speed is able to send its youngling out in many-coloured clothes and with a splendid axe, an “heirloom” of a weapon.

When Njal's Sons with their friends made their famous round of the booths at the Al-thing to gather supporters for the decisive suit, Skarphedin managed to stifle the dawning goodwill of one great man after another, because he could not repress his ironical smile and bitter words of scorn. The keen-sighted chieftain Snorri Godi discovered the secret of Skarphedin's failure when he said: “Doughty you look, Skarphedin, but your luck


is near its end, and I should think you have but little of life remaining.” At earlier times, when the words still retained their original force, a man's doom was contained in the single sentence: Luck forsook him.

This luck — or in another word, hamingja — comprises all, body and soul, that made up a man's humanity; and to gather the full value of the term, we must bear in mind that this hamingja constitutes a whole, homogeneous throughout. Even though it may manifest itself in different forms, according as it makes its way out through eyes, hands, head, through cattle or weapons, it is one and indissoluble. Behind the visible man, or more correctly, behind the visible circle of kinsmen, there is a spiritual sum of force, of which the kinsmen are representatives. In a trial of strength, the whole hamingja is at stake, and in the result, it emerges, either stronger and more handsome in all its limbs, or palsied throughout.

It is this compact strength which makes king's luck so invincible to ordinary men. “You have not luck to measure yourself against the king,” one may say; and this means, you have not kinsmen enough, not wit, courage, war-speed enough; your power to victory is too slight, your gift of fertility too weak. While you sleep, the king's hamingja will take yours by surprise, blind it and confuse it; his hamingja will pit itself against yours in other men's minds and cripple it, and before you come to face each other in open fight, you will be a paralysed man. The Northmen have an expression, etja hamingju, literally, to urge luck with a man, just as one might urge a horse with him, let one's war stallion bite and try its strength against his. Indeed, every trial of strength between men was a strife between two powers of luck, a spiritual conflict. The result of the fight depended to a great extent upon the man's quickness and agility, just as the luck of a horse depended on its owner's ability to support it and urge it on; but there was still something stronger which filled the scene, the struggle between the combatants was only part of a contest fought in a larger field of battle by powers who never slept.

“You have not luck to measure yourself against the king,”


said Kveldulf to his son Thorolf, when the relations between the king and the young chieftain drew nearer and nearer to open conflict. But long before that time, the old man had warned his sons against having anything whatever to do with Harald:

“My mind tells me that we kinsmen will not have luck with this king, and I will not fare to meeting with him.” The saga lets Thorolf's brother make use of the same expression in his explanation to the King, when the latter is half forcing him into his service: “Thorolf was a far more notable man than I, and he had not luck to serve you. I will not serve you, for I know that I have not luck to yield you such service as I should wish, and as might rightly be expected.” The fact was, that these big yeomen had not the aptitude for such a position, or, which comes to the same thing, they had not the will to adapt themselves to it.

And here we come to a deep-rooted peculiarity in the psychology of the ancient character. The idea that if one but earnestly wills, then the power will come, or vice versa, that the power perhaps may be there, but the will be lacking, had no validity for the Northman. All his peculiarities were due to the nature of his luck; obstinacy as well as courage, pride as well as inclination to serve the greater man, violence and intractability as well as fearlessness. Luck is the nature of the mind, the character and will. With our ideas as to the reciprocal effects of desire and will, we must again and again in these old sagas find ourselves face to face with insoluble riddles. It often seems as if men would gladly relinquish destructive undertakings, as if they would gladly clear away misunderstandings and enmity, but something invisible leads their endeavours to miss the mark. We may say: they cannot because they will not, or they will not because they are not able, for both sentences are equally true. When we, in such cases, call in the idea of trust in fate and servitude to fate, it is easy to lose sight of the true reason why these men cannot resist fate, viz, that they will their own fate. It is the will in them that forces them up against desire and calculation and brings their most serious plans to naught, because the will has its nature, and cannot act beyond


the limits drawn for it by its own character. The luck of Kveldulf's Sons was once and for all of such a character that it could not fit in with the king's; and therefore it was best to keep them apart. It was not so much the difference in strength which determined the relations of men one with another in the world, but quite as much the dissimilarity in character between them.

The luck of the chieftain was of a far different volume from that of the peasant. “You are rich in luck” (lit. your luck goes a long way), “and all turns out well in your hand,” says Sæmund characteristically to the old Vatsdoela magnate Ingimund, when he himself can no longer manage his headstrong kinsman Hrolleif, and begs Ingimund to receive him. The secret of the chieftain's power to achieve the impossible lies, however, not in the bulk of his luck, but in its distinctive character.

This peculiarity of luck constitutes the natural foundation of a Germanic king's authority and influence. He has very little formal power, or hardly any; whether men will obey his commands or not depends on their inclination at the moment.

The Southerners observed the anarchy that displayed itself in the Germanic hosts, and gave up all attempt to find any common sense in the Teutons' monarchical principles. These barbarians, say the classical writers, show no respect to their prince, they do not salute him; if the king's decision displease them, then they surround his tent and force him with loud cries to alter his plans; they bring matters to war where he wishes peace, and peace when he desires war; it may happen, that in a fit of dissatisfaction with him, they simply drive him out. — Behind the words of the Romans we seem to catch an ironic question: what on earth do such creatures want with a king at all? We have no reason to discredit the observations of our authorities; they are for the most part made with the intelligence that comes of a cultured mind, and with the cultured mind's watchful interest in barbarians pressing ever closer on the frontiers of civilization. It is another matter, that the observer only saw the outward movements, and by his very culture was prevented from perceiving the nervous system that produced them. These statements must stand in some relation


or other to the no less undeniable fact that the Germanic royal families possessed a remarkable toughness. We find tribes drifting vagabond fashion about over the greater part of Europe, now fighting for their lives, now sitting comfortably at ease in conquered territory, but always, century after century, under the same race of kings.

Procopius gives a priceless narrative of the Herules' fidgety experiments in kingship, wherein both the front and the reverse of barbarian loyalty are portrayed with the keenness of caricature. The Herules, he says, one day hit upon the idea of trying what it was like to live without a king; accordingly, they took their only royal personage and slew him. No sooner had they tasted the sweetness of freedom, however, than they discovered that it did not agree with them. Regretting what they had done, and feeling that they must get back the old state of things at any cost, they sent an embassy from the Mediterranean countries up to the North, to fetch them a king of the old stock. The ambassadors go trapesing through Europe, and find a prince in Scandinavia; unfortunately, he dies between their fingers on the way. Undismayed, they turn back for a new specimen, which they manage to bring safely through to the south. Meanwhile, the others at home, having plenty of time to reflect, took it into their heads that in a matter of such importance it would be wrong not to consult Justinian; and surely enough, the emperor happened to know a native Herule living at the court of Byzantium, whom he could-therefore highly recommend. But just as everything is going well, comes a message to the effect that the Scandinavian previously requisitioned is on the way. The Herules, having put Justinian and his good men to such inconvenience, can do no less than show themselves worthy of the confidence shown in them; they follow their ruler with enthusiasm into the field, ready to put the late-corner to the right-about. Unfortunately, they have a quiet night to think matters over, and this they utilise to go over to the side of the traveller from afar, leaving the Imperial candidate to find his own way home to Byzantium.

A most curious history, this, but one bearing the stamp of


verisimilitude. Such kaleidoscopic characters are only to be equalled in the accounts given by Europeans of what they themselves have seen among savage and barbarous peoples. The analogy with the researches of modern ethnologists increases the likelihood that Procopius is merely relating simple notorious facts, but this comparison also suggests the possibility that Procopius has missed some hidden principle guiding the acts of the barbarians. The explanation lies partly in the political relations between the Herules and the emperor of Byzantium, partly, and chiefly, in the people's spiritual dependence upon the right king; king by the grace of God, as we might say, or by the grace of luck, as the Herules might have said. Jordanes has formulated the monarchical principle in his simple, mediæval manner: The Goths regarded their noble families as more than human, as demigods, “those in whose luck they, as it were, conquered.”

In Sweden, the king and his people lived an open and honest life together, without any illusions. The fundamental paragraph in the part of the Westgöta law treating the king's rights and duties, runs: The Upper Swedes are to take the king, and to drive him out. And if we compare this pregnant maxim with the description given by the historian Snorri of the thing-meeting at Upsala, we may find here a powerful historical illustration of the rule. On this occasion, Thorgny the Lawman addresses the angry king as follows: “Now we yeomen will that you agree with Olaf the Thick and marry your daughter to him.

But if you will not have it as we say, then we will all go against you and kill you, and not suffer you to disturb the law and the peace of the land. Thus our forefathers did aforetime; they cast down five kings into a well because they were swollen with overweening pride, as you are now to us. Choose then at once what terms you will.”

There is nothing very splendid about a royalty whose representative must suffer such a form of address. But when the lawman gives historical precedent for such obedience on the part of the king, he is unwittingly presenting the relation between king and people from another side. Thorgny gives King Olaf to


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