The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


experiences as a weight — and bear in mind withal, that no scales and standard weights can here avail; all must be weighed in the hand. Experiences are too many and various to be expressed in numbers and measurements at all. They consist not only of the impressions produced by the external eye, but have also an inner reality. When we learn that the ancients imagined the limit of the world as situate close outside their village, we are apt to conceive their horizon as narrowed accordingly; but the decisive point in their view of the world lies rather in the fact that the contents of their horizon was far deeper than we think. How large is the village? Meeting the question in words of our own, but as near to the thoughts of the ancients themselves as may be, the answer must run; It houses ourselves, it is filled with honour, with luck, with fruitfulness — and this is equal to saying, that it is the world. Yes, the village is Middle-garth itself. How large, we may also ask, is the sacred tree that stands in the centre of the village, the tutelar tree of the clan? In virtue of its sacred character and power of blessing, it bears up the world with its roots and shades the world with its branches. And so, it is the world-tree, and what matter if the eye can take in its visible shadow at a glance?

The discussion of luck and honour has given us the experiences of the ancient Teutons; we need only to let them act upon us in their full weight. On the one hand human beings and human life, as deep as it goes in its intensity; on the other, the giants, the luckless nidings, the luckless land. That part nearest to us, the playground of men, is impregnated throughout with luck, with heore, while yonder unheore increases in density and ill-favour the farther we move from the homes of men. Farthest out, it fills all there is, until it becomes personified in material shapes of mocking mimicry, such as one may find at nights or in the forest. Who is there but knows the boundary of his land, there where his luck ends? Who but knows the boundary of the land of men, where all luck ends? Do we not stand, at every moment, in the midst of our luck, looking out to every side where the unheore rises as a barrier against our honour and our will?


Such experiences, gauging by depth and constitution as well as by dimensions, feeling night as a boundary of such kind as that formed by a mountain range, could not be at ease in a geography determined by measurements of superficial area. Topographical reality is not set arbitrarily aside to give place to an imaginary landscape, but to give a true likeness of the Teuton universe, it must be adapted to include also the spiritual reality — if we can use such a word as “adapt” without necessarily supposing a conscious rearrangement of observations. In the question as to the relative position of the two realms and the nature of their boundaries, all accidents of place must give way before the overwhelming influence of difference in character. The land of luck is a whole, which is not and cannot be broken by enclaves of unluck, unheore. And all that is unheore has its place as a whole outside, something only to be reached by passing beyond the landmarks of Middle-garth. Far from needing any subterranean connection between the cave under the earth and the land beyond the horizon, the fact is that in the conception of the Teutons they are one and the same place, also in the geographical sense. To go out into the night is travelling in demon-land.

Despite all the power of demons and of Utgard, this truth still holds good, that Middle-garth belongs to men, and belongs to them because they are the strongest, the conquerors. When witchcraft ventures forth into the domain of the sun, it comes but to be crushed, and in its downfall glorify the light. The Beowulf was not written with a view to numbing poor victims for the sacrifice by filling them beforehand with a surplus of horror and dread. In the Germanic stories and songs, men make short work of witchcraft; they carve it small, burn it and bury it under solid cairns of stone, and rejoice at the fame accruing.

There is this momentous difference between the realm of the sun and the frosty dark, that in the former, men stand as those fighting on their own ground, with a host of allies about them; trees and stones, animals and weapons, the land itself is on their side. They know all they see, know that all is what it seems, know there is order in which they can trust; they


have the secret of the things about them, and can thus force nature to furnish aid. If by some carelessness they stumble, they can rise to their feet again; they can find counsel and make good damage done, and in case of need obtain restitution; but out yonder, the slightest false step places them at the mercy of unknown powers. The tree-trunk against which they stumble holds them fast and throws them to the stone, the stone again to its neighbour, and this again casts them at the feet of some vampire, where they end as bloodless carrion, sucked dry. Out there, they move among a horde of wild beasts, never daring for a moment to lower their glance, and withal unknowing what danger threatens; here, nature bids them welcome at every step and puts itself at their disposal.

They know the nature of everything, possess its secret, or more: they hold its soul in their hand. They know their world right in to its innermost corners, are intimate with all creeping and walking things that live in its many dwellings. If a beast leaps across the path, they know with a fair degree of certainty whence it comes and where it is bound for, and why it took that road. Their knowledge is more a sort of personal familiarity than any lore of nature.

There are, of course, a host of things which a man must see and know as long as he stands face to face with nature, himself exacting tribute and taking what he needs. He must know, and does know, where to find the plants and animals that provide him with food and implements; he must be able to follow on the heels of the higher animals and outwit them by craft. And he must have a sure knowledge of nature's ways. and whims, so as to take his measures accordingly. A dearth of food is not uncommon among the poorest and the none too rich — the earliest gods gave man, among a wealth of other gracious gifts, the belt that could be drawn tight to assuage the pangs of a hungry belly — and had these strivers not been able to adapt themselves to nature, exploit its most secret sources of supply, and reckon out the rhythmical march of the


seasons, their saga would soon have ended. Game laws and protective measures for instance, owe their origin undoubtedly to those same gods who gave the wonderful belt.

Naturally, however, they notice much more than is strictly needed for self-preservation. They are not content with superficial observation of the fact that certain insects have spotted wings; but they count the spots, after the manner of simple folk in the North, and note the difference in number as between different individuals, taking measures for the time to come according to the hint conveyed in the number of spots. The natural science that lives in these men knows no lacunæ, for their observations are not gathered at haphazard, but guided from the very first by tradition. The senses of youth are not only trained and attuned to yield their utmost, but are set to work in unity. Young men are taught not merely to lie in wait, but to go raiding themselves and capture the swiftest, the rarest creatures in flight. Naturally, the observer's knowledge of nature extends only so far as his eye and ear can reach; where observation ceases, there his knowledge ends abruptly. When the birds of passage fly away before the winter, and creeping things seek refuge underground, then only guesswork can help natural observation over the gap. Then man puts forward his hypothesis, and — forfeits all the prestige which his observations have gained with modern scientists. We come prepared by the ignorance of the town-dweller to admire the man 'who knows the nature that surrounds him, but also with a brain alert, from the fruits of hand- and text-book study, to pass judgement on the results of any knowledge, and so we are apt to misjudge the wisdom of primitive man. But though we may grant the truth that the hypotheses of the primitive observer of nature cannot compete with empirical science, yet it is no less true that his guesswork bears the mark of his familiarity with nature; and the more we emancipate ourselves from the authority of our age, venturing to regard its wisdom as relative, and not as the standard whereby all else must be judged, the easier we find it to respect the simple myths, and


the relative and forward-pointing character they often show. Properly viewed, they hide within themselves a depth of knowledge and insight.

It must be so; primitive men — in the sense of people daily at grips with nature, not in the mythical sense accorded to the word in modern science — primitive men must know their surroundings thoroughly. Such people are not to be judged solely by their literary expressions of natural science. No doubt their familiarity with nature is clearly indicated by their stories and explanatory myths; as to whence the various birds have their particular cries, why one sort of creature brings forth a whole brood of young at a birth or lays a nest full of eggs, while another struts about with its one ugly offspring; in their riddles, as for instance that of the Northmen about the spider: a marvel with eight feet, four eyes, and knees higher than its belly, or of the ptarmigan: play-sisters that sweep across the land; white shield in winter time, but black in summer. But such myths and riddles float after all but on the surface of men's knowledge, and only exceptionally give any indication of the depth to bottom; they hint here and there at what was seen but give no clear showing of how men saw it. The hunting implements and hunting methods of a people, their sense of locality and their protective measures for game are evidence of their intimacy with the most secret ways of nature. Perhaps also their games. If we would realise the infinite sensitiveness of the “wild man's” brain, and how faithfully it can hold this medley of memory pictures clear and alive, the best way is to see him at play, giving mimic exhibitions of his surroundings; the gestures of bird and beast, their gait, their fear, their prudence, their parental cares — these he can reproduce with the highest art, or the highest degree of naturalness.

It is a cause of wonder to European observers that the intimacy of primitive man with nature's ways seldom, if ever, embodies itself in impressionistic description or representation. It seems as if the art of realistic narrative is rather an exception among the unlettered peoples of the earth whose songs and stories have been gathered up by the missionaries and ethno-


logists of modern times. And our supposition that man has been slow in acquiring the skill of painting things as they are seen, is confirmed by the epic poetry of races who, like the Greeks and the Teutons, have been able to turn their folk-poetry into literature before their thoughts were drawn into philosophical or theological channels. Judging from Homer, the Beowulf and the Edda we can, apparently, with perfect right declare our forefathers lacking in realistic spontaneity.

In folk-poetry we find no reflection of the changing and many-shaded life without; here, all is art, style. Earth may be called perhaps the broad, the far-pathed, and these epithets are then repeated with wearying zeal as often as earth is mentioned in the verse; day invariably dawns with the dawn-red spreading its rosy fingers out from the horizon. When our forefathers set about to describe their battles, they can find nothing better to say than that the wolf stood howling in anticipation toward the approaching warrior, the feaster of the grey beast; the raven fluttered in the air and screamed down to his grey brother, and at last came the hour when the bird of carrion swooped down upon its prey and the grey beast ran splashing about in blood. This schematic description is used without regard to the character or outcome of the fight. Wolf and raven stand for battle and slaughter, whether we have armies in collision and their leaders filling the beasts with food, or a couple of men descending upon a third “giving him to the wolves”; “there you can hear the ravens croak, eagles croak glad in their food: hear you the wolves howling over your husband”, — thus the poet announces the murder of Sigurd by his brothers-in-law. Folk-poetry exists upon regular, as it were coined formulæ for the various actions of life, hunting and battle, feasting and going to bed. Persons, animals, things are distinguished by standing epithets bearing the stamp of their qualities once and for all.

Oxen invariably come “dragging their feet”, whether the spectator have or have not any occasion to notice their gait —nay, they must drag their feet, even 'when they appear in a situation where it is impossible for them to move their legs;


did not the suitors of Penelope waste the property of her husband by daily slaughtering his sheep and his foot-dragging cows? When a man rises in an assembly to speak, he stands there as the swift-footed, or the chariot-guiding hero. A man's ship is swift-sailing, seafaring, as well as curved, straight-built, many-thwarted; and he can, indeed, when he has drawn up his vessel on land, sit down beside the moorings of the sea-cleaving craft, and here receive the strangers who come walking down to his swift-sailing ship. It is as natural for Beowulf to fit out his sea-traversing ship as in Icelandic poetry for the horses of the rollers or props to gallop over the sea. The vessel that carried Scyld's dead body out to sea is called ice-clad, but if a modern reader should thence infer that this event occurred during wintry weather he would pretend to more knowledge than the poet of the Beowulf was possessed of.

An Old English poem gives a picturesque description of warriors hurrying to battle as follows: “The warriors hastened forward, the high-minded ones, they bore banners, the shields clanged. The slender wolf in the forest rejoiced, and the black raven greedy of slaughter; both knew that the fighting men had in mind to bid them to a feast of those doomed to death; at their heels flew, greedy of food, the dew-feathered, dirt-coloured eagle”. On closer examination, we find convention apparent in every single connection: thus and no otherwise is a poet required to describe the setting out of an army. The anticipations of bird and beast set forth as such length do not indicate that the battle is to be fiercer, the number of the slain greater than in other battles, — no, wolf and eagle are always looking forward to the coming feast. The eagle here is not “dew-feathered” because this particular battle opens in the early morning, it comes sweeping on dewy wings in the hottest noon; dew forms part of the picture where an eagle is concerned.

In the Icelandic, the “pine-perched watcher”, to wit, an eagle, can despite his lofty situation still tear the bodies of the slain if need be. Shaker of branches, or branch-scather, is the

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