The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


it is not enough to add that the adjective was formerly more powerful or that the joy of battle was more violent. To our feeling, the ecstasy of fighting arises out of the collision between the warriors; in the ancient psychology, joy of battle and the battle itself are a permanent quality in the man or part of his soul. In the same way, storm-gladness is an inherent quality in the soul or nature of the waves. When the wave is called cold or Ran is called wet-cool, the adjectives do not mean that the woman is cold as the sea, but that she has the cold of the brine in her; the shivering iciness belongs to her soul just as oldness or long-living belongs to the bear's nature, for which reason he is called in Anglo-Saxon — and still in popular speech — “the old and terrible one”.

We can piece together primitive soul, but we can never succeed in expressing its living unity in our language, because our words are modelled upon totally different ideas, and resist all attempts to switch them off into another plane and joining them into a new pattern. But to understand the ways of primitive man we must to some degree be able to realise his experience. We must see that the soul or idea of earth is a whole, spanning from being many-pathed to motherhood without a break. The Northern Hel is death, just as neutral as we are able to think death, but Hel is also a realm for the dead, and she is a real person, not a pale personification, one who acts as death and is putrefaction itself, blue and black of hue. Hildr means battle, that is the clash of arms, the surging mass of fighting men, and it means battle-maiden too.

Anthropomorphism has its root in primitive experience, because personality lies in the being of every soul from the beginning, but it cannot make its way through until thought is emancipated from experience. Not until man is so firmly established in his place that he does not need to be fixing his surroundings every moment with a dominating glance, not until he begins to look his own nature more consciously in the face and starts speculating on the processes going on in his interior, does the inclination arise to humanise the universe. Then he becomes a nature-poet. Only when this standpoint


is reached can he venture to face his environment as his equal, meting out to it the same treatment that he himself appreciates and bows to. Before this revolution he knew only too well that in order to exploit the goodwill of nature and guard against its power to harm, it was necessary to know the character of souls. Anthropomorphism true and proper is born when man ensconces himself in towns or castles, shutting out nature by means of thick walls, and confining himself to social intercourse with his fellow-men.

The great change takes place at the moment when the personality, from being dependent on the natural qualities, turns to acting from purely human prejudices. When the soul is emancipated, so as to stand above its phenomena, then, and only then, is it a human being. When nymphs no longer ripple, when earth can no longer hide its children in itself, when the sun stands up in a chariot, guiding a gleaming pair of steeds, which he can put into stable together with all the qualities of sun, then nature is broken, and personification is born.

It is a difficult matter for us to get such unconditional ideas as life and existence narrowed down to the small circumference they must have in order to be applied to the soul of the past, without letting the depth disappear at the same time. We can perhaps get nearest to the old thoughts by saying that life and existence were in those days a nature — nature understood in the old sense, as something included from birth or from the first origin of a thing, something that goes with it inseparably, and determines not only its appearance but also its essence and characteristic features. A nature can only bring about certain definite results, namely those which lie in itself, as for instance, four legs of that particular sort a wolf has, together with such and such a smell, jaws that open and close in such and such a way, a tendency to thieving and sneaking about in wild places. Another nature can only produce something rugged, hard and heavy, which under certain circumstances will roll down and bite off the toes of a man standing in its way. But then too, it is inherent in nature that it cannot refrain


from producing its effects. Wolfness may indeed exist as soul, but sooner or later it must manifest itself as a biting beast.

Wherever character is different, the be-souled are divided by the impassable gulf which separate life denotes. The incombinability of nature outweighs and overshadows all external, as well as all inner similarity. The nature of the tree, its character, will be judged from its appearance: whether it have rough bark or smooth, leaves round or long, whether it shoot up to a height or spread broadly around, but also from its ways: one tree has bark that glistens in bad weather, that of another will turn dark and threatening; one tree rustles its leaves, even when the weather is calm, another flings its arms about wildly in a storm, but otherwise hangs dully drooping. There is in this habit of the tree a revelation of its innermost soul, and much luck of wisdom consists in being able to read the soul of a tree from its behaviour. It is known that one tree possesses a knowledge and a power of divination which the other does not exhibit, or not in that distinct manner.

And finally, the usefulness of a tree is part of its soul. It is in the nature of oak to sail, as in that of ash to form spearshafts. The specific classification of trees and bushes in the ancient languages is based upon their importance to human life; they are divided into trees with hard wood and trees with soft; the barren and the bearing, such as cast fruits to men and beasts; also perhaps into those good for fire and those which burn slowly. From the Anglo-Saxon runic catalogue we gain a picture, weak and fractional though it is, of the souls of trees. The yew is “rough on the outer side, hard, firm in the soil, feeder of fire, deep-rooted”— and something more which we do not understand. The birch is “fruitless, yet bearing branches without offspring; it is fair in twigs, gaily decked as to the crown, swelling with leaf, intimately responsive to the air”. The oak serves “the children of men to feeding of the flesh, often it voyages across the sea, and the wave puts its firmness of core to the test”. The ash is “greatly high, dear to men, firmly it holds its place in the ground, even though many men make onslaught against it” — and, we must add, or the meaning


will be but partial, it holds its own stoutly, whether it be rooted in rocky ground, or as an ashen spear, in the warrior's hand.

Stones, too, have their nature, which gives them their sluggish-ness and their hardness, as well as their power to move at times, their keenness in biting, their power to crush — each stone according to its kind The unfailing sense of locality among these people is due to the fact that they know from their childhood every tree, every stone, every little rise of the ground; they are accustomed to carry what they have once seen so accurately impressed upon their memory that no slight variation escapes them, and the slightest change is noticed. Then too they know well that stones on open ground have their different character, manifest not only in their shape, but also in their 'ways' perhaps in the power of pointing the road.

The mountains and hills that form the horizon have, as he who has observed them year after year will know, each their own peculiarities, they are all susceptible to what happens in the air, but they do not prophesy the day to come, its weather and its events in the same way, perhaps not always with the same wisdom. Several of them are entrusted with the task of pointing the time of day, according as the sun is on this or that point of the horizon, so men apportion their daily work and their hours of rest, and their nature is indicated by such names as The Hill of Noon and The Peak of Even.

Our forefathers, it would seem, followed with especial confidence the counsels and warnings declared by running water; and there are indications that they read with keen insight the souls through the form and movements of the mountain streams, perhaps also listened to peculiarities of voice in the falling waters. A poet who felt himself beyond the childish wisdom of the world, the bishop Bjarni Kolbeinson, defends himself, in the Jómsvíkingadrápa, expressly against the suspicion of having drawn his wisdom “beneath waterfalls”; as if his conscience writhed under all the paganism he must allow to pass his lips when he made poems in the ancient form. What Plutarch tells of the Suevi of Ariovistus is perhaps more widely applicable; they prophesied from the eddies of streams, and


from the curves and foaming of the waters. At any rate, even if the sentence were born as a whole in Plutarch's brain, and not authorised word for word in the thoughts of the barbarians themselves, it may doubtless be taken as expressing the essential element in the mind of a Germanic observer watching attentively beneath a waterfall.

In our minds, animals are catalogued according to their teeth and morphological structure, and we carry our zoological or botanical systems with us when we set out to investigate the world as it is seen by a Hindoo or a Buddhist, by an Australian or an Indian. With a charming naïveté we break up into fragments the information obtained from other peoples, to make it go into ready-made categories, thus making nonsense or superstition of all the mythologies of the world. What is wanted in all parts of the world is patient study of primitive and non-European experience. The ethnologist must learn bow to see and what to see; he must observe every animal with the eyes of the natives without any reference to his own textbook, and thus piece together a new zoology and botany and mineralogy, or rather as many zoologies and botanies as there are different observers. On the prairies of North America he must discard his popular notion of the radical difference between flying and running creatures, to learn that the crow and the buffalo are related in the same way as the wolf and the heath in the North of Europe, because it is an inherent trait of the crow's character to hover over the herds of buffaloes and indicate their presence. Among the Scandinavians be must slowly piece together his view of the moon by learning that it marches, it counts the years, it determines luck and unluck, and it sends disease. To understand what a Teuton meant by “oak” we must simply learn that seaworthiness belongs to its qualities as well as its gnarled stem and eatable fruit. Prophecy is included in the nature of running streams in addition to swiftness and coldness.

There is no other way for outsiders than gathering facts piecemeal and combining them into a new totality; taking every hint that falls from the stranger's mouth when he is looking at things, without any magisterial distinction between


details according as they fall in with our ideas or clash with our natural philosophy. In the North of Europe, our material is scant and fragmentary, but nevertheless we are able to piece a likeness together from the remnants of poetical and legal speech. As to the sea, we learn that it is cold, salt and wide; further, it is called by the Icelander coal-blue, by the Anglo-Saxon fealu, fallow in words that suggest other associations than those of mere tints. Fallow possibly conveys an intimation of the barrenness of the deep, like the Greek epithets. It is cruel, and possibly coal-blue carries some hint of its deadly power. It is the road of the land of gulls, swans and gannets, the land of seals, whales and eels, the road of the ship and the seafarer. And to these epithets must be added the picture of Ægir, the man of the sea, and Ran, the woman of the deep. Earth is wide, great, enormous, spacious; it asserts itself as immovably steady. It is called the green — even the evergreen

— and the growth-giving, bearing, nourishing; “as wide as the world grows” is a northern expression for “all over the world”.

But it is also part of earth's nature to be farable; in offering tracks and free stepping space to men's feet it wins the name: road or roads; and here we can see with our own eyes how deep the words go down into daily thought. In verse Odin can say, referring to his experiences when he crawled through a fissure in the mountain to woo Gunnlod, the giant bride, that over and under him stood “the roads of the giants”, and in everyday speech Norway is simply the North-ways, and the East-ways denote Russia. “Green tracks” is in Norwegian a name designating Middle-garth as contrasted with the barren Utgard; in the compound two qualities of the earth join: her fruitfulness and her farability, the teeming and the wide-pathed. To these intimations must be added the hints from practical life. We hear that men called in the power of earth in cases of need either to ward off the effects of strong drink or to guard against evil influences. In an Anglo-Saxon formula, direction is given to take earth in the right hand and place earth under the right foot and say: “Earth has power against all manner of beings, against envy and forgetfulness, against the tongue


of a mighty man”. The verses are included in some instructions for farmers when their bees have swarmed, but the matter of them appears to suggest their applicability to many other circumstances of life. Possibly the idea of firmness and of the fruitfulness of earth meet in this incantation. Finally earth is a woman who conceives and gives birth, who hides men and things in her lap or in her body.

In bearness, wolfness, ravenness, in oakness, beechness, elmness, the soul ends on one side. But when we turn about to look for the limit of the soul on the outward side, toward the light, we soon find that the road is longer than we thought. The two flanks of nature, that which goes down into existence, and that which goes out into manifestation, must be of precisely the same length; as far as Nature goes — that is to say, as far as qualities and appearance are the same,— life is identical. All wolves, all oaks, all stones, have the same soul. And not only are all members of a class partakers of a certain kind of soul, shareholders, as it were, in a fund of vital force, but they are identical both in body and soul, so that they suffer one another's sufferings and feel one another's offences and anger and goodwill. Primitive thought regards separation in space as an insignificant accidental circumstance; one might be tempted to express it thus: it feels the solidity of matter, of the body, but is blind to its extent in space, and perhaps that expression is more than a paradoxical image.

In the primitive experience of life, identity has a deeper foundation than mere continuance. We combine our separate sensations and make a whole of them by conjecturing that the world is filled with individual beings and every single individual lives a linear life of its own; when the animal Slips out of our view we fancy that it trails a line of existence somewhere hidden among the thousand things of the earth until it reappears across our path. The universe is crossed by millions and millions of threads, each one spun by an isolated individual. According to primitive experience, the facts arrange themselves into a different pattern. All bears are the same soul and the same body, and every new appearance of a bear — whether


it be no other than that we saw yesterday, or the most distant of all among the kin, as we reckon it — is a new creation from the soul. A bear is a new birth every time it appears anew, for the deep connection in the existence of the soul is a steady power of regeneration. In our observation, animals are either counted or they are lumped together in a collective genus or type; we speak of a wolf, of wolves and of the wolf; but in primitive language and poetry, the animal is neither this particular wolf nor the wolf that crowns a chapter in natural history, but wolf simply. It is this individual and yet all-embracing personality that forms the subject of the Anglo-Saxon gnomic verses such as this description of the bear: the bear shall be old and terrible, or paraphrased into modern words: old age and terror is his nature or soul.

The popular tales have retained the ancient mode of telling, and under cover of the traditional language still persists a vague reflex of the old idea: the wolf that swallowed little Red Riding-hood is surely not a particular beast that had taken its station in that part of the wood, but the wolf of the wood.

The sun also is the same from day to day, for there is not more than one sun-soul; but when it is said in legal language of some thing or other agreed on that it must be carried out before the fifth sun or on the day when five suns have come to an end in the sky, then the words do really mean that there comes one sun to-day, another to-morrow, and finally a fifth to shine over the completion of the undertaking. And it is no matter for wonder to find oneself suddenly, in a ritual or a story, brought face to face with a whole series of sun-gods. Every day is a fresh birth, but all days are nevertheless Dagr, Delling's son, to speak the language of Northern myth, just as winter is the son of Vindsvalr and summer the son of Svasudr. The myths are simple statements of fact when they create, as they sometimes do, a great being, the chief of all bears or the father of sun and of moon, who incorporates the life of bearness or sunness and sends his messengers out into the world. But when we approach the mythical idea from the angle of poetical thought, we need no reminding that fathership is tote coelo


different from our begetting, which presupposes individual life as the line on which existence is built up. The “Wind-cold” who is winter's father and the “Sweet-breeze” who is summer's father are nothing but the everlasting soul that bursts into appearance at the proper time.

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