The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



It is a melancholy fact that modern researches into primitive thought have led us farther and farther away from any real understanding of foreign cultures and religions. And the reason is not far to seek. The European is hampered by his naive faith in his own system and his own logic as the measure of all things; the missionary and the ethnologist invariably try to force a ready-made scheme on cultures of radically different patterns, in the same way as linguists formerly arranged all tongues after the scheme of Latin grammar; just as the introduction of gerund and supine and ablative only served to obscure the structure of Indian or Australian languages, so our rigid dualism cannot but distort primitive psychology. The Scandinavians, the Greeks, the Hindoos, the Israelites as well as the Indians and the Australians have been examined by the catechism: what do you believe about the soul, how do you conceive the interaction between body and soul, what becomes of the soul when it leaves the body, as if the Hellenistic and European dualism as it is embodied in the catechism and the handbooks of psychology were at the root of all experience. By such an examination from without, facts may no doubt be brought to light, but the facts are often worse than false, because they are wrenched out of their natural coherence. Without an understanding of primitive thought as a consistent whole, our forefathers' talk of life and death, soul and body would be incomprehensible.

All peoples recognise a body and a soul, or rather a material and a spiritual side to everything that exists. The bird has a


body which is lifted in the air, and it has a soul which enables it to fly, as well as to strike with its beak. So also the stone is a body, but in this body there is a soul that wills, and enables the stone to do harm, to bite and strike and crush; a soul which gives it its hardness, its rolling movement, its power of prophesying the weather or showing the way.

Thus far — to the extent of establishing soul and body as two halves of existence — we may safely go in our analysis of the ancient mode of thinking. But as soon as we endeavour to give each half its proper share and delimit its scope of influence as against the other's, we fall from one difficulty to another. If we begin by seeking the soul in the body, we may split and dissect it lengthways and across, we can never attain to set our finger on the spot where it is not, nor on the spot where it exclusively resides. And if we proceed to examine the qualities of the thing, one by one, as a test in the hope of getting the thing separated out into an active, initiative side, that of the soul, and a slower, obedient, executive part, that of the body, we end as surely in arbitrary definitions; we shall soon find ourselves obliged to distinguish on our own responsibility, if we are to preserve the system. There is no seam to be found. A reliable indication of what is soul and what is body in stone or bird according to primitive thought is a thing impossible to discover.

It is not difficult, however, to find the soul; wherever we grasp, be it stone or beast or tree, we lay hold of it. It comes towards us conscious of itself, as a thing that knows and wills, acts and suffers in other words, as a personality. We may add, as far as the Teutous are concerned, that the body is the seat of a soul. That is to say, that there resides in it a little mannikin, which enlivens and sets in motion, guides and directs, and on occasions, impatient of its clumsy medium, sets out naked into the world and settles things on its own account. There is undoubtedly something in the idea that keensighted folk have seen a little sprite, or a little animal leave the body, and slip in again when it thought no one was looking; and this little sprite was the soul. But on attempting to grasp the


soul and draw it into the light so that we can note its form and other peculiarities, we shall soon find that it mocks us by oozing out through the meshes of the web which itself has woven in letting itself appear as a personal being, in human shape or the likeness of a beast. The soul that was but now so firm in qualities, so massive in personality, dissolves away into a mist of power; shaping itself to and filling whatever space it may be, nay, without even the limitation of independence, so that it can be assimilated by other souls as a quality. The soul of a man can reside in a stone or a sword, it can enter as a power into a fellowman by a touch or a breath, adding to the receiver's strength or cunning. The soul that was but a moment ago so independent reveals itself as a neutral something which is the polar opposite of personality.

But even now its tricks are not at an end. Step by step, or by degrees, it slips away between our fingers to more and more spiritual forms of existence; power, quality, will, influence there is nowhere it can be stopped. We are always behind, grasping only its transformation; and when we have chased it through all existences, from that which stands at the transition from material to spiritual, through the more and more spiritual refinements, out to the limit where we think we can check it on the verge of absolute nothingness, it changes over into a state our language cannot express, but which may be most nearly rendered by our word energy, or even principle. It manifests itself suddenly as life. And if we then are bold and crafty enough to grasp at it in order to tear it from its body and hold it fast, lock it away to see what happens to the thing without it, then we find that it was existence itself, the very being, that we caught hold of. It was the soul which made the stone hard, and the bird flying, but it was also the soul which enabled bird and stone to be at all. Without soul, no being; to take the life from a stone is the same as making it vanish into absolute nothingness.

But this is more than lies in our power. Tear up existence this we cannot do. But we can hold fast. Despite all its transformations, the soul is not grown too spiritual for human hands


to grasp. And if we crush it in our fingers, we shall find sooner or later that it hurts. In a little while, life gives birth to a sharp, hard, edged object between our fingers. If we have courage and wit enough to follow the soul through all its forms and hold it unyieldingly, then it must at some time or other resume its first form and answer with all its personality. Then it must stand forth, not only visible and material, but in the form in which it appears as a part of the world.

Not until then is the transformation complete. Now we have learned the secret of life in primitive experience. The soul is something more than the body, as it is seen and felt in space-filling reality, but it is not anything outside the material. When we cannot find the boundary between the inner and the outer, there is nothing to be done but give truth the credit, and say that the body is a part of the soul, or even the soul itself. The moment we grasp a stone firmly in the hand, we have grasped the soul of the stone, it is the soul we can feel. It is always possible for the body to be sucked up by the soul and vanish away, to emerge into the light again some other time. The spiritual can leave the material to reveal itself under other forms; but when it does appear and lets itself be seen, heard, felt, then the manifestation takes place in virtue of that nature the soul possesses. However far away it may go, it still has matter bound up in it. To a certain degree, it is possible to speak of soul and body, but the distinction does not go so deep that it is possible to wrench the one from the other.

A soul cannot be caught in any of our narrow formulæ. Language gives us a hint to build our thoughts wide, and at the same time a warning not to bring along too many of those distinctions which are so useful in our world. We must begin with the material, pass through not round — personality with its will and feelings, from that out into the neutral, what we call life, further again through life into the ideal, existence, being, and only there, in the simple power to be, can we find the limit of the soul.

But when we have reached so far, to the bottom of the single soul, the way stops suddenly, just at the point where


to our imagination all roads meet. When, in our own philosophy, we reach the depth which we call life or existence, we feel ourselves standing at the entrance to the origin of all, the well-spring which opens out into a network of channels from soul to soul. Life is to us a colourless force that is able to inspire any number of disparate forms, and our problem of life lies in explaining how the one and all transforms itself into the manifold shapes of the world. It is otherwise with the practical thinker. For him, all thought ceases at this point. Between the souls, there is set that most impenetrable of all barriers, a gap, a void, nothingness. The separation is absolute, from the very fact that it does not consist in a wall built by thought itself, but in the lack of all conjecture and in the lack of all inducement to speculate, because all the things of the world are complete in themselves. Involuntarily we feel that in the word life, or existence as we should rather say, there lies an invitation to speculate upon the common condition of all that exists. But, in primitive culture, such a question can never arise to demand an answer, because it can find no foothold on the given basis.

Life, existence, so wide is the idea of the soul, but the extent of this sentence is only realised when we turn it about: soul, so narrow is the idea of existence. Life is not a common thing, something connecting, but rather that which makes the greatest distinction in the world; not a universal support, but an individual quality. Life is always determined as to character. It explains, nay rather, it contains all that distinguishes the possessor of life from all other beings, it contains all his qualities and abilities, all his tendencies and needs, it contains him even to the structure of his body.

How deep the distinction is between our thoughts and those others on this point only becomes clear to us perhaps, when we see that the primitive soul reaches farther than the mere person, so as to embrace also the sphere of life. Not only the manner of life of an animal, but also its area of life belongs to its soul. Poetry retains a distinct reflection of this idea of entirety. The raven cannot appear without bringing with it the idea of blackness, of dewy-wingedness; but no less surely


does it bring with it a whole atmosphere of carrion. The poet of the Anglo-Saxon Genesis is altogether in the power of the ancient mode of thought in this respect. In his source it is stated that Noah first sent out a raven from the ark, but it flew backwards and forwards until the earth grew dry, and this forms of itself the following explanation in his soul: “Noah thought that if it found no land on its flight, it would at once come flying back over the broad waters, but this hope failed; it seated itself gladly, the dark-feathered one, upon a floating corpse, and sought no farther.” Blackness and the lust of carrion, the devouring of corpses, even the corpse itself, form part of the raven's soul. When the raven is called greedy of battle, greedy of slaughter, this means in reality, that just as a raven properly belongs to battle, so battle, or rather slaughter, forms part of the raven's life. The wolf, too, is of a carrion nature, it is called the carrion beast, but to this must be added something more, that which is expressed in the name heath-walker, heath-treader. The wilderness is a part of its soul. Or the additional words “in the forest” follow of themselves as soon as the creature is named; the wolf rejoiced in the forest, the wolf howled in the forest, nay, the grey wolf in the forest ran over the heath among the fallen.

The gulf between souls is impassable, reaching down to the very root of the world. All beings rise straight up from the ultimate ground, separate from top to bottom. No bridge is built at any point. There is something misleading to us in the fact that all things, even that we call lifeless, had a soul, and consequently also a life. It might seem to us as if the distance between the different existences was then rather smaller than now, seeing that all things were united in the possession of will and feeling, nay even understanding and the power of expression. But this life was not, as we naturally imagine, a common essence, and far from bringing the thousand things nearer to one another it kept them rigorously apart.

Life is will. All that is, acts because it feels an impulse, feels pleasure in this and displeasure in the other. The soul of the stone, as well as that of the tree and the animal, is filled


with desire and purpose and preference, but the stone's will is not the animal's and neither is that of the human being. Man had soon to discover that every one of his surroundings loves and hates in its own fashion, according to its unassailable principles — after its own kind. It is this discovery which has made man so watchful and sensitive to all manifestations of the souls surrounding him. Woe to him who thought that things had human will and human power! He who is to fight his way forward, and be able to hand over to the morrow his conquests of to-day, he needs first and foremost to understand what it is his surroundings will; all education is directed towards giving the novices soul-knowledge, and thus enabling them to take up the battle of the world. There is then, in the human being, a strong sense of the difference between the passions and the sell-control in himself and the spiritual powers that clash with him on every side. In the variety of his ritual proceedings, primitive man manifests his power of distinguishing between the different wills operating in his world. The ceremonies for obtaining a plentiful downpour of rain are not the same which he employs when he wants to secure the goodwill of the buffalo, and the buffalo rites differ in their turn from his addresses to other animals. We are deluded by our language and our propensity to use all abstract words in the singular; but our singular form “will” is the result of a work of thought which was not carried out at all in those times, when the tree and the animal and the stone were realities, and not, as they are now, mere shadows on the background of nature. We misinterpret what we call natural man's personification of nature, because we view mythology in the light of Hellenistic philosophy; our poetical language, as well as our scientific terminology, is descended from Alexandrian anthropomorphism, and all European speculations on myths and legends have been dominated by the mentality of the Stoics and Neo-Platonists who tried to convert the original Greek thoughts about nature and man into a rationalistic and sentimental system. Primitive words which Europeans translate “soul” take in a large part of the meaning

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