The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

235

the watch-word running through our time, and it looks as if this commandment sympathetically strikes the heart-note of our culture and ever sets the pace not only for its actions but also for its speculations. All hypotheses anent past ages in the history of our race hinge on the assumption that man has made his way through an everlasting battle, and that civilization is the outcome of man's struggle for existence. But modern civilization with its cry for mastery and its view of life as a continuous strife is too narrow a base for hypotheses to make history intelligible. The evolutionary theory of an all-embracing struggle for food and survival is only an ætiological myth, as the ethnologists have it, a simple contrivance to explain modern European civilization by throwing our history, its competition and its exclusive interest in material progress back on the screen of the past. When ancient and primitive cultures are presented in the light of modern economical problems, all the proportions and perspectives are disturbed; some aspects are thrown into relief, other aspects are pushed into the shade, without regard to the harmony inherent in the moral and intellectual life of other peoples; and the view as a whole is far more falsified by such capricious playing of searchlights than by any wilful distorting of facts.

        The key-note of ancient culture is not conflict, neither is it mastery, but conciliation and friendship. Man strives to make peace with the animals, the trees and the powers that be, or deeper still, he wants to draw them into himself and make them kin of his kin, till he is unable to draw a fast line between his own life and that of the surrounding nature. Culture is too complex — and we may add too unprofitable — a thing to be explained by man's toil for the exigencies and sweets of life, and the play of his intellect and imagination has never —until recent times perhaps — been dominated by the quest of food or clothing. The struggle for daily bread and for the maintenance of life until the morrow is generally a very keen one in early society, and it seems that the exertion calls for the exercise of all faculties and powers. But as a creature struggling for food, man is a poor economist; at any rate he is a bad hand

236

at limiting his expenditure of energy to the needs of the day. There is more than exertion in his work; there is an overshooting force, evidence that the energy which drives him is something more complex than the mere instinct of existence. He is urged on by an irresistible impulse to take up the whole of nature in himself, to make it, by his active sympathy, something human, to make it heore.

Primitive man has never been able to limit his needs to what is strictly necessary. His friendships among the souls are not confined to the creatures that are useful to his body or dangerous to his life. When we see how man in his poetry, his myths and legends creates an imaginative counterpart of his surroundings, how he arranges his ceremonial life, at times indeed his whole life, according to the heavens and their movement, how at his festivals he dramatizes the whole creation of his limited world through a long series of ritual scenes, we gain some idea how important it was to him to underpin his spiritual existence. His circle of friends spans from the high lights of heaven to the worm burrowing in the soil; it includes not only the bug that may be good to eat, but also innocuous insects that never entered into his list of delicacies; it comprises not only the venomous snake, but also harmless crawling things that have no claim on his interest save from the fact of their belonging to his country.

The traces handed down from our forefathers of their ritual life are slight and few, but numerous enough to show us that they communed with things high and low. They were able to make friends among the leaping and growing creatures, as we have dimly seen. Their life was both a sun-life and a moon-life. The sun had entered into their soul to such a degree that actions were orientated from east to west. If there is to be luck in an undertaking it must be done sunwise, from east to west. The Swedish king had to ride his “Eriksgata”— a sort of triumphal progress from town to town throughout the kingdom —sunwise through the land; and sunwise, we may presume, men carried the fire when consecrating a new homestead and drawing the waste land into their luck. When Iceland in course

237

of time had grown more thickly populated, and land was not so plentiful, it was decided that no man should take more land than he could compass with fire in one day. The procedure was to light a fire while the sun was in the east, move on and light another within sight of the first, and so continuing until the last fire flamed with the sun in the west. Even down to matters of everyday life the law of the sun holds good. Sunwise the drinking horn is to pass from hand to hand round the hall. Under ordinary circumstances, it seemed, men would walk sunwise round the house, to judge from a passage in the saga of Droplaug's sons. Grim and Helgi lost their way in a blizzard, and had no idea of their whereabouts, when they suddenly came upon a house wall; they walked sunwise round the place and discovered that it was Spakbessi's place of sacrifice. Their walking thus was, according to Bessi's view, the cause of the storm's continuing for a fortnight. If we may believe that the saga writer knew what he was talking about, it must be the actual movement about the temple which gave the weather so powerful a forward thrust that it could hardly stop. On the other hand, by going against the sun, men can throw nature back upon itself in such wise that it breaks and is put out of joint. In Iceland, we learn, witches were able to cause destructive landslips by walking round the house. The sorceress Groa, who had a grudge against the powerful Sons of Ingimund, prepared a feast of death and sent a gracious invitation to her victims, but as usual, the luck and wisdom of the family proved too strong, and the guests were prevented by dreams from attending. After sunset Groa walked round her house, counter-sunwise, looked up at the mountain-top and waved a cloth in which her gold was tied, and with a sigh: “It is hard to stand against the luck of these sons of Ingimund,” and the wish: “May that now come to pass which has been prepared,” she closed the door after her. Then came a landslide down upon the house, and all perished. The same device was used by Audbjorg, to avenge the degradation of her son upon Berg Shortshanks. She could not sleep for unrest at night. It was calm, with a clear frost. She went out, and walked counter-sunwise round

238

her own homestead, lifted her head and sniffed at every quarter of the horizon. At once the weather changed, a drift set in, the wind brought a thaw, and a snowslide came down over Berg's dwelling, so that twelve men met their death.

For one who understood the business, this counter-sunwise movement need not perhaps have unnatural effect; it might even, if wisely directed towards a certain end, do good. At any rate, we read of a man who calmed a storm by walking against the sun around a circle formed by his companions; that he should find it necessary to talk Irish while so doing, is probably nothing more than an indication that culture proper was at an end, and the time come for mysticism to replace the simple meaning culture had taken with it to the grave, by its practical or speculative abracadabra. The action in itself might well have its authority in culture.

The close association between man and sun is also indicated by legal custom. Legal acts and bargains were not valid unless they had been accomplished in the light of the sun or in broad daylight. It is unlawful to take an oath by night after the sun has passed below the wood, to cite a Swedish instance. Killing by night ‚was deemed murder, and the reason is not to be sought for in the secrecy of the act. What was done in the dark is altogether different in character from what was performed in league with the sun or in the spirit and power of the sun. To catch the full weight — we may say the psychological force — of the saying “night killing is murder” we must remember that murder is a dishonourable act, a niding's deed, and undermines the doer's moral constitution; it discloses, some morbid strain in his character or, as the ancients would say, some taint in his soul. Consequently acts done in night time lack the sound, honourable initiative that needs the full luck of the doer, and in the temporary weakening a demon element may insert itself.

With regard to the moon, Tacitus informs us that it served to regulate the popular assemblies; at new and full moon men assembled at the law-thing, “for in all undertakings they regard this as the best beginning.” Cæsar's observations also, anent

239

the Germanic choice of days, is evidently very significant: “Ariovistus and his people knew, from the prophetic warnings of the womenfolk, that they could not hope for victory if they opened the battle before new moon.” We might easily add to these casual hints from modern popular superstition with its hundreds of rules for what shall be done at the time of the waxing moon, and what be postponed till the moon is on the wane; and with caution, we can draw so much wisdom from this thickly muddied well, that the influence of the moon was not restricted to matter of public life, but penetrated the whole of life, even in everyday affairs. Unfortunately, however, the insight into the being of the moon is lost and its character stands now as a dark riddle. Only this much we know, that it was the moon—the year-teller — which determined the passage of time and days, and thus gave day its force by giving it of its soul; the luck of time thus ebbed and flowed with that of the moon.

We cannot be in doubt as to the importance of sunwise moving thoughts; men accept and fix the sun's nature in themselves. In this wise they must have gathered enormous powers and great luck; but if they gained good fortune by such friendship, they would necessarily acquire something more, to wit, peace of mind. That the ancients felt veneration for the sun, feared it and sought to enlist its strength, that they wished to use it to their advantage, win its favour and force it in under their own will — all this is true, for it is all one and the same thing; what men strive for, and what they attain, is frith and mutual responsibility. Without kneading natures together no kinship is possible. Men make nature part of themselves by engrafting of their own life upon the alien element, or, what is the same thing to them, drawing something of that alien life into themselves.

But man has a wider object in sight when be concludes friendship and mingles mind with the souls around him. By weaving a web of community be introduces peace and order in the world. The Northmen say that there was once a time when the world was unheore, the giants ruled as they pleased, spreading themselves as masters throughout all existence. But

240

a race of mighty and wise beings came down upon them, and now the spawn of the ogres sit beyond the frontier, gnawing bones and biting their nails. Thus land is marked off from unland, heore from unheore. But even to this day the frontier is only held by strict watchfulness. The gods, it is said, instituted the first massacre of the monsters, slew the primeval giant, so that hosts of the brood were drowned in his blood, and swept the rest away out of Middle-garth. Even now Thor, the guardian of Middle-garth, still makes his exterminating raids; there is still danger, even for sun and moon; now one, now another dweller in Utgard has sought to yoke them under his giant will. The present order and beauty of this “fair world” has not instituted itself; it is brought about by the care of some god or hero. And in this view the Northmen are in accordance with peoples in other parts of the world. The poet of the Voluspá, who was a mediæval philosopher with ideas of his own, but drew upon ancient myths for his material — has rescued an account of the state of the heavens as it was before the arranging powers had manifested themselves: “The sun knew not where were its halls, the moon knew not what strength (i.e. luck, determination) it had. The stars knew not where were their places.”

In the legendary shape which the myths took on when they were reduced to stories by the philosophy of a new religion, it would seem as if the fateful trial of strength took place between gods and giants, while the dwellers on earth were left to look on with bated breath. The poet gives his narrative in the past form as if it were something over and done with; from the form of the words it might seem as if the listeners enjoyed an enhanced sense of security by calling up the memory of a moment when the fate of the world hung in the balance and then swung over to the proper side. But the literary form which the myths acquired in the hands of the poets during the Viking age and later obscures the actual meaning that was plain to the listeners, when the legends were recited at the feast and illustrated, or rather supplemented, by rites and ceremonial observances. The fight is waged from day to day in the midst

241

of the human world, no one is sure of keeping the light and the warmth, unless he and his fellows by some ceremony or other are ever strengthening the bond between themselves and the high-faring lights. If the alliance fail but for a moment, then the heavenly bodies will lose their way, and then sets in the state which the poet of the Voluspá still knew, and could describe.

And the peril that hangs so threateningly in the sky lies actually in wait for every soul in Middle-garth. Behind all security there is this grave fact, that natures have potential hostility in them; they can run wild, they can become unheore. And they do so at times, when men fail to maintain themselves and their luck, and thereby their alliance with their environment; then the clammy soil grows barren, then cattle lose their power of yielding, and trees become bearers of ill-luck; the fish move in dense shoals out to sea, while the waters fling destruction upon land. If the peace of the world is to be maintained, there must be great self-restraint among men, and at the same time great watchfulness and care to do all that is fitting at every festival and ritual beginning.

Without this intimate connection between man and the other natures about him neither he nor Middle-garth could exist. The myths tell us, if properly read, that man has created a habitable well-ordered world in the midst of chaos, and that to live and thrive he must for ever uphold his communion with every single soul and so constantly recreate the fixed order of the world. Primitive man never thought of pointing triumphantly to an eternal order of things; he had the sense of security, but only because he knew how the regularity of the world was brought about, and thus could say how it should be maintained.

Man is never able to embrace all beings and draw the whole round of creation into his sympathy and understanding. The beings left out cluster on the borders of reality as a threatening and disquieting force. Through all cultures runs a chasm separating the warm friendly reality from the cold strange fact — the known from the unknown, or in Old English words, the heore from the unheore. And deep-rooted in all humanity

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page