The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


covered by our words “existence” or “being”, but on the other hand, all primitive existence is life.

If we would know how despotic is life in Middle-garth, we should do well to ask for instance, if the stone is not a dead thing. Judging by all analogies from other peoples, and from the hints contained in Teutonic poetry and customs, our forefathers would have shaken off this paradox with a gesture of displeasure, as a thing not merely idle, but altogether meaningless. Death, in this connection, had no significance for them. They would not oppose the idea, for they would simply fail to understand what lay in the question.

Man's task has been to think his way forward to the conception of lifelessness, and he has found the task a hard one indeed. Again and again he manifests his astonishment at the phenomena which seem to oppose the reality of life. He prefers to wrestle with hypotheses of transformation, metamorphosis, the changing of life into forms acting in other wise. And the roads here are long. It takes centuries before he has explored them so far that he is forced to turn about and face the problem as a merciless enemy. The closer it presses in upon him, the more he places himself in stubborn opposition; he denies death, declares it an impossibility. He will not even admit that the termination of life forms part of the order of things; in face of the hard facts, he falls back upon the explanation that “death” came into the world through a misunderstanding. Now it is a violent assault on the part of something outside the home of men, which has brought about this disturbance in the original state of things; now it is man's own foolishness that is to blame, in that some race long past made a false step at some critical moment, and by neglect of some rule of life reduced the general vitality. And only very slowly is this “death” which to him is and remains a seeming only, deepened down towards an annihilation; that is to say, he thrusts life over the salient point, and dumps it down into a nothingness, which he again and again conceives as something positive, a nothing in being, a massive hole. Death itself he has never found.


It is thus not by any deduction from himself to others that man sets a foundation of life under existence. When he says life, he does not utter the word as a discovery the extent of which he realises. Life is a sine qua non for everything. Man has no more discovered life than he has discovered light. In modern thought, lifelessness is still only a modification of life reached by gradually shutting out the most prominent qualities of organic being, such as moving and feeling; we try to reduce life into lifelessness, but all we can attain to is a negation, we are never able to establish an existence of another order, and consequently the characteristics of life turn up as soon as we start speculating on matter and death. The great difference between primitive speculation and modern thought does not consist in our saying existence where the myth-makers say life, but in our extending one sort of life to all things, and so making life the basis for an hypothesis of unity. European philosophy has emancipated thought from experience to such a degree that it becomes possible to picture all nature in the likeness of man. We have discovered, or rather learned from the Greeks and carried the discovery farther, that it is human life and human existence that resides in plant and stone. For the last three centuries, the task of philosophy and science has been to deprive life and existence of the most prominent human features and reduce them to vague colourless ideas applicable to all organisms, and in a wider sense to all phenomena, but even if life and existence have changed name and are now called force or tendency or law, they have not changed character, and in the formulæ of the evolutionaries — to name but one instance, in the struggle for existence and the groans of nature — pure anthropomorphism comes to the surface. On the strength of this anthropomorphism we have established an inner relationship between all things of the world. All questions are thus gathered up into one problem: the origin and nature of life, the meaning of the world. Here the difference comes in that makes it so difficult for modern men to understand the thoughts and the problems of primitive culture. Life, existence, being, soul, body are naturally used by us in the singular form, conveying a


generalisation of experience that has no counterpart in the myth-makers. To primitive man life is not one but legion, the souls are not only many but they are manifold.

In order to understand the thoughts of foreign peoples, we must necessarily convert their self-revelation into our own terms, but our words are apt to carry such a weight of preconceived idea as to crush the fragile myth or philosophy in the very act of explanation. If we want to open up a real communication with our fellow-man, we must take care to revalue our words before clapping them on his experience. As far as possible we must hold back our set formulæ until we have walked round the object he is confronted with and looked at it from every side. But analysis will not carry us all the way to intimacy. Culture is not a mass of beliefs and ideas, but a balanced harmony, and our comprehension depends on our ability to place every idea in its proper surroundings and to determine its bearings upon all the other ideas.

Primitive ideas about life and existence are neither congruous with our concepts nor diametrically opposed to our science and psychology. The belief in souls does not include personification of natural objects, but on the other hand it does not exclude the possibility that Sun and Earth may assume a human-like appearance. In Scandinavia, nature is peopled by powers in human shape. Up from the earth and out from the hills elf and dwarf peer forth, a host of giants bellow from the mountains, from the sea answer Ran's daughters, those enticing and hardhearted wave-maidens, with their cruel mother, and at home in the hall of the deep sits venerable Ægir. Over the heavens go sun and moon; some indeed declare that the two drive in chariots with steeds harnessed to their carts; the sun is chased by two wolves eager to swallow its shining body. Of the sun and the moon it is said, both that they were given and taken in marriage, and that they have left offspring.

In the old Norse series of small poems called the riddles of Heidrek the wave-maidens play with the freedom almost of nymphs.


Who are the maidens that come mourning; many men have sorrowed for their coming and thus they manage to live.

Who are the maidens that come trooping many together, they have fair locks wrapped in a white kerchief; no husbands have these women.

Who are the widows that come all together? Rarely are they merciful to voyagers; in the wind they must keep vigil.

Who are the maidens that come in shifts of breakers moving in through the fiord; the white-hooded women find a hard bed, but little they play in a calm.

But these verses express only half the thoughts of the North-men; the other half lies indicated in the names borne by those fair-haired cruel ones: one was called “Heaving”, another “Heaven-glittering”, a third “Plunging”, a fourth “Cold” and a fifth “Bloody-haired”. And these two halves must be joined together if we are to get the true value of the ancient descriptions of the sea. Modern readers unconsciously re-model the pictures of the riddles under the influence of contemporary poetry of nature. Our rendering changes the perspective of the scene, because our words are fraught with other associations, and when joined together they create an atmosphere foreign to the old poems. In reading these descriptions of the waves breaking on the shore or of the billows chasing one another in long rows, we enjoy the sight of clear-cut shapes, and we sniff in the salt spray of the breakers, but this reconstruction of ours is at once too plastic and too impressionistic, because according to our mode of experience it is the overwhelming sense of the moment that seeks an outlet in poetic images. The ancient words do not reproduce the impressions of moods of the moment, and in order to recapture the depth of the old picture we must replace the modern allusions and their emotional values with the hints conveyed in the names of the wave-maidens, Plunging or Cold or Bloody-haired, which break the pretty picture of clean-limbed nymphs and at the same time banish all emotions roused by the momentary beauty of the sea. “Much has Ran reft from me; the sea has riven the bonds of my race”, thus


Egil wails when his son has been drowned, and his words may be taken as meaning that he has seen Ran standing as a fearsome woman with hands grasping that which belonged to him. “Ægir's wench” he cries to her in his challenging defiance. But the poets could, even in late historical times, speak of Ran and Ægir as the sea they were, without veiling their personality. “The horse of the sea-hills tears his breast out of white Ran's mouth”, says a scald speaking of a ship ploughing its way through the sea; another describes a vessel plunging heavily, in these lines: “The wet-cool Ran leads time after time the vessel down into Ægir's jaw.” The poet of the Lay of Helgi now hears Kolga's (i.e. Cold's) sister and long keels rushing together with a roar of breakers, and next moment sees Ægir's fearsome daughter endeavouring to capsize the ships, sees the beasts of the breakers (the ships) wrenching themselves loose from Ægir's hand.

In the same way Earth is at one time a woman, screaming, threatening or conceiving and giving birth to children, at another time she is capable of fading or of burying men in her womb. One moment a river rises like a man to challenge the wader, the next moment it rushes like a flood at its enemy and drowns him in its rage of waters. In a laudatory poem on Earl Hakon, Hallfred seeks to impress on his hearers that the upstart chief of the North has really conquered Norway, and by his victories has established his right to govern the country in spite of the hereditary claims of the fallen kingly house; and he is not content until he has twisted the fact about and shown it in four different poses. The main theme is that the Earl has won Earth and drawn her into a firm alliance. The warrior was loth to let And's fair sister sit alone, and he used the sword's speech of truth upon leafy-haired Earth, the promised bride of Odin. Thus the marriage was concluded, they entered into a compact that the earl, wise in counsel, won for his bride the only daughter of Ónar, the forest-clad woman. He has enticed the broad-featured daughter of Báleyg with the compelling words of steel. In his eagerness to extol Hakon's might and right, the poet exhausts the metaphors of the language, and unintentionally he gives us a catalogue of the family relationships


into which Earth entered with other powers; and though Onar and Aud and Báleyg are little more than names to us now, we need not doubt but that these persons and their intercourse with Earth were founded in ancient belief and true myths. Hallfred does not force the language when he represents Norway as a kingly bride worthy to be wooed by an ambitious earl like Hakon, but the attributes of the queen are not those of a human woman. Onar's daughter is the “forest-clad”, Báleyg's woman is “broad-hewn of feature”, Odin's betrothed is “leafy-haired”, and in this embellishment Hallfred also draws upon the conventionalities of poetic speech.

The same versatility and deftness in juggling with traditional words is shown by a fellow-poet, Eyvind, in the mocking songs he sings of Harald Greyskin, the close-fisted king, who, after the manner of small freeholders, hid his treasures in the earth. In the days of Good King Hakon, he cries, the rings shone on the arms of his warriors and scalds; the gold is the sun that should shine on the hawk-hills — the arm of the warrior where the hunting falcon perched —; but now it lies hid in the flesh of Thor's mother.

The courtly poetry of Norway is hardly illustrative of ancient Teutonic imagination in general; the metaphors were to poets like Hallfred and Eyvind more like parts of speech that could be mixed freely by an ambitious scald to show off his ingenuity. It is not only that art has degenerated into artifice; the poets often manipulate the words to produce novel and startling effects. The contrast between the golden sun on the hills and the dark womb of the earth is a pretty conceit which proves that Eyvind is a modern poet with an imagination touched by western civilization. But these mediæval scalds of Norway cannot cut themselves loose from the traditional language prepared for them by men of the past; they try to work out their individual fancies and conceits in the material that lay to their hands, and thus their verses exhibit the working of ancient imagination as it was embodied in phrases and figures.

When earth is called the wife of Odin, the mother of Thor, when wind is styled the son of Fornjót and the sea is conceived


as Ran, the wife of Ægir, the myths are not anthropomorphism or personification in the modern and Alexandrian sense. Human-likeness is joined to the other qualities of natural phenomena or, more truly expressed, human appearance enters as a quality among other qualities into the soul of earth, wind and sea, but it does not in the least interfere with the impersonal workings of the forces of nature. There is no contradiction between subject and verb in the scald's description of the winter gales: “Fornjót's Sons began to whirl,” nor is there really any breach of common-sense in a storm scene such as this: “The gusts carded and twined the storm-glad daughters of Ægir.” The moon gives birth, the earth is a mother, stones bring young into the world, and that is to say that these beings beget, conceive and are delivered, for thus all procreation takes place under the sun. But this does not imply that earth must transform itself to a human being and seek a couch to bring forth its children. The little we know as to our forefathers' practical relations with the world about them indicates, as will soon appear, that they did not appeal to the objects of nature as pseudo-personalities; like their primitive brethren all over the world, they tried to win the friendship and power of animals and trees and stones by much surer means. When the poet lets Frigg send messengers about to fire and water, iron and all kinds of ore, to stones, earth, trees, sicknesses, beasts, birds, to get them to swear they will never harm Balder, he has plainly no idea in his mind of such messengers going out to knock at the doors of nymphs and demons; his hearers must have been familiar with a method of appealing directly to the things themselves, to the souls.

To get the whole idea as it lived in the minds of the Teutons we must try to fuse elements that are incompatible in our thought, and still more we must discard our habit of looking at nature in the light of the moment. The word “storm-glad” applied to Ægir's daughters, that now calls up to our fancy the playfulness of the waves, had a more intense and far less instantaneous meaning, as we partly understand by comparing it to the war-gladness of heroes in ancient poetry. The modern substitutes can never capture the energy of the Teutonic words;

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