The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



In the midst of the world of souls stands man, and he stands there in virtue of a soul, a life. This soul can bear precisely the same antitheses as the other souls or natures in Middle-garth. One may quite well begin in the Anglo-Saxon riddle-fashion by saying: “I know a strange thing: it is invisible, yet stands forth before the eyes of all men in the hall; it is no more than six feet tall, and yet none can see more than one end of it; it can be felt with hands and without hands, and yet none can grasp and hold it fast; it goes over heath and breaking wave as swiftly as cloud before the storm, and a dog can overtake it; it flies in the air, and yet lies sleeping in the hall” It is bound to matter, and free to move about in spite of time and space and gravity. It is formless as the heat that passes in a grip of the hand from one arm up into the other, and invisible when it spreads as a force from a warrior to all his host and inspires them all as one man. And it is obliged sooner or later to take shape.

If we want to know what human life is, we must first of all discard our preconceived notions about soul and body and their antagonism and simply look out for the distinguishing signs of human nature, or in other words, for its modes of manifestation.

We may call it by the name of megin; in this word there lies an idea of power, and in this word all living things meet. The soul of the earth, its megin, is often spoken of as a costly essence. A drink with which earth-megin has been mixed is


stronger than any other liquor, while earth-megin on the other hand seems to contain a spiritual strengthening to counteract the too powerful effect of ale. “The weather too has its megin,” the megin of the weather is the clouds, it is said. In the earliest days, before the world was fully set in order, moon and sun existed, but they knew not their soul, their megin, they did not know what was their power, their purpose, their career.

These suggestions will help us to understand man's megin. Man's megin is his power — and first of all his bodily strength. But there is something beyond muscle in man's megin; there is power, action, victory. And finally, megin reaches up into the strength of the soul, so that he who loses his megin will fall unconscious, as we should call it.

That which distinguishes the god or ase --- from all other beings is naturally the fact that he has ásmegin, the soul of an ase, or god, with its mighty qualities. “If you grow, Vimur, then my asemegin grows as high as the heavens,” cries Thor when he stands midway out in the Utgard river and it swells up till it foams about his shoulders. Thor had, in the course of his perilous wanderings, plenty of occasion to put on his full asemegin, when the giant powers gathered thickly about him, and we understand that his godhead swelled out not only in marvellous strength and wrath, but also in divine greatness of stature.

Again, the soul is called by the name of fjör, a word which practically became extinct with the passing of the old world. Fjör is life, that which enables a man to walk and speak and have his place in the light. Fjör is also the soul, that soul which sets out upon its own ways after death. Fjör is the self, that which makes man a man, it is the man himself, and can therefore be applied to the body, even after death has touched it. And it is luck hearing its man, giving wings to his wit, giving him thoughts, sustaining him, and equipping his plans with progress. When Hakon Athelstansfostri came back to his own country as a claimant for the crown, it seemed for a while as if the elements would overpower him; his fleet was scattered, and the rumour spread abroad that Hakon was lost


with it. King Eric took the message as a welcome certainty, but Gunhild, his queen, shook her head; she was a sagacious woman and knew that Hakon had fjör,— and as it proved, he did arrive in Norway with his ship safe and sound.

The soul is called hugr, Anglo-Saxon hygi, thereby indicating it as desire and inclination, as courage and thought. It inspires a man's behaviour, his actions and his speech are characterised according to whether they proceed out of whole hugr, bold hugr, or downcast hugr. It resides in him and urges him on; thus ends Loki when he has said his say among the gods: “Now I have spoken that which my hugr urged me to say,” thus also Sigurd when he has slain the serpent: “My hugr urged me to it.” It sits within, giving counsel or warning; “my hugr tells me,” is a weighty argument, for when the hugr has told a thing, the matter is pretty well settled. “He seems to me unreliable, you will see he will soon turn the evil side outward; it is against my will that he is with you, for my hugr tells me evil about him,” thus Ingolf exhorts his brother to turn away a vagabond who comes to the place. A winter passed, and Ingolf could say that all had fallen out as his hugr had warned him. And Atli Hasteinson, of noble race, confidently gives directions to his household after the fight with Hrafn: “You, my son, will avenge your father, if you take after your kin, and my hugr tells me you will become a famous man, and your children after you.” And when the hugr is uneasy, as when one can say with Gudrun: “Long I hesitated, long were my hugrs divided in me,” then life is not healthy. But when a man has followed the good counsel from within, and attained his end, then there rises from his soul a shout of triumph, it is his hugr laughing in his breast.— Now and again, the soul has its knowledge directly, as we should say; at times it has acquired it by spying out the land, and then it may chance that the enemy has seen his opponent's hugr coming towards him, whether in human form or in the shape of a beast. He dreams of wolves, and is told that it is the hugrs of men he has seen.

Finally, we encounter the soul as mód, as the Anglo-Saxons have it. A man's mod is his mind, the will and strength of him,


the long-remembering, that which keeps both injury and friendship alive in the foreground of his consciousness, and the boldness, which will not suffer will and memory to consume each other in indecision. Mód is quite properly the soul in its fully awakened state. When Thor is altogether himself, he appears in his godly mód (ásmóðr); the giants put on fiendish mód when they assume their full nature. When the gods hired a builder to raise a wall round Asgard, and promised him the sun and moon with Freyja into the bargain for the work if it were completed before the first day of summer, they knew not with whom they were dealing. The work went on with terrific haste, the builder's stallion drew whole fragments of rock together in the night, the master himself piling them solidly up during the day. When he had compassed so nearly round that they could begin to take measurements for the gateway, the gods held a council, and it occurred to them then that Loki had been the intermediary when the agreement was made. And Loki was forced to promise he would find a way out of the difficulty. Thus it came about that the stranger's horse went rutting, and dashed away in chase of a whinnying in the woods. Its master ran all night, but failed to catch it, and next day he stood looking at the gap; there were but two days now till summer and no hope of finishing the work then he burst into giant's mód. But when the gods were aware that it was a mountain giant who had come, they waived all questions of a compact and called for Thor to settle the account with a blow of his hammer. To assume giant's mód or bring it into play is understood to imply all such peculiarities — violence and ferocity as well as features that show him a being of demon land.

We are led farther and farther toward the holiest centre of the soul. Life is recognised by honour. We have learned how intimately connected are luck and honour, or rather, we have seen that the two are only sides of the same thing. The ancients were quite certain that the moment they allowed their good repute among men to decline, the moment they neglected the reputation of their forefathers, when they failed to maintain


their own fair fame, when they committed any dishonourable act — then their luck would sicken. Their certainty was based upon experience. They had realised the importance of a due regard for honour in its effect upon the health and initiative of the coming generation, its stature, muscles and courage; they knew, indeed, that dishonour could kill a child in its mother's womb and render women barren. Honour was nothing less than life itself, and if a man kept his soul in a half-stifled state, then his descendants would be hampered in their growth, coming into the world as weaklings, crippled, and without boldness. If, on the other hand, a man had nourished his soul and enriched his life by gaining dominion over others' honour, then heroes would be born in his house, men keen of eyes and mighty of strength, children who reached out after weapons before they were well out of the cradle. Night-old the hero appears in mail, one would be justified in saying of an Ylfing; more in everyday style, perhaps, we may read that the boy sternly pulled his chastiser by the beard, and achieved his first killing at an age when other children hold by their mothers' apron-strings. Or perhaps there would be such strength in the children that they themselves craved life. We read of a boy named Thorstein, son of Asgrim, a prominent man of the Telemark, that he was to have been exposed to perish at birth; but in the meantime, while the thrall was preparing to carry out the child and bury it, all present heard the babe sing: “Let me go in to my mother; it is cold here on the floor; what other place is fitting for a boy than his father's hearth? Leave that whetting of steel, leave the turf in peace — I have a future among men.”

But even though children may be a sure indicator of the state of the soul, this does not mean that one has to wait for the coming generation to see how dishonour gnaws at the vital root. To the Icelander, the two combinations: “preserve one's honour” and “preserve one's luck” are synonymous; when he says: “I do not think I can maintain my honour if I sit idle in this matter,” then his words have a weight which proves.


that this sentence, for the heart if not for the brain, is equal to avoiding death, maintaining one's existence.

Honour has the reality of life, or soul, and therefore the bitterness of death is removed by a hope of resurrection in fame. The hero rejoiced to think not only that so and so many would utter his name hereafter; his confident faith in the future lay in the certainty that in this naming and this praise his innermost self spread out, ruling and enjoying, living life. When the Northmen say: “Kine die, kin die, man too must die; this I know that never dies, dead man's renown,” or when Beowulf comforts the king in his distress with his: “Sorrow not, wise man; better it is to avenge a kinsman than to sorrow much for him; each one of us must see the end of his life in this world; let him who can, win fame before death, this is the greatest joy for a warrior when life is ended,” the words, at the time when they were pronounced, perhaps mean nothing more than we approximately read into them when we repeat the lines; but they have their power for that age from a reality extending far beyond what we can imagine in posthumous fame, a reality which we can only appreciate adequately 'by substituting such a word as re-birth, or resurrection.

To live in fame hereafter, and preferably for as long as the world should last, was the greatest ambition of the Northman. The word comes to his lips of itself in the most solemn moments of life: when Hoskuld welcomes his son with a blessing at the son's new homestead, his wishes for welfare shape themselves finally thus: “This I surely believe, that his name will long endure.” And throughout the whole of the Germanic region runs this thirst for fame. The cry for posthumous honours, for something which shall last beyond the hero's day, rings out as insistently through the Christian verses of the Heliand as ever it did from the lips of any heroic poet. “It is man's pleasure to stand firm with his lord, willingly to die with him. This will we all, follow him on his going, counting our life of little worth, and die with the king in a strange land. Then at least there will be left us honour and good fame among those


who come after us,”— thus Thomas encourages the other disciples. The Anglo-Saxon Seafarer, who cannot quite get his Christ to command the waves, whether those within or those without, clings to the same faith in the judgement passed on the dead. For him the whole world lies mournful and hopeless, as a chaos of toil, hardship, want, broken hopes and parting where one looked for meeting. He can find nothing lasting. Sickness and age and battle vie with one another in plundering mankind. There is, then, nothing else to build upon but the praise of posterity. His advice is: make use of time before the end comes, to manly faring against enemies and devils, that the children of men may praise thee, and thy fame live among the angels. Late-born as he is, he regards the manly age of the world as at an end; the time when men lived and had faith in life, gave jewels and throve in luck because they were strong, that time is for ever past and gone — so runs his plaint. And with the inconsistency of bitterness he brings his accusation against existence itself, and holds up its unalleviated wretchedness before the eyes of all. But though the cynics of all times are alike, their resignation yet bears the stamp of their age and place. One says: Well, let us eat and die, another: Let us think and die, the Seafarer says: Let us die and be remembered.

If we take the word fame as meaning something lying solely in the mouth of others, something dependent upon the goodwill of strange people and their power to appreciate what was great, then it would after all have been too uncertain a value to reconcile the Teuton with death, or even make of death a gain. The joy in a great renown had its indomitable strength and its ideal value from the fact that it was based on a reality. The life of fame after death was a real life.

It is easy enough for us to grasp the enthusiasm in the ancients' pride of death. We are quick to see what is flaming and bright in the words, but we are hardly able now to feel their power of spreading warmth. The modern reader probably thinks he is showing the poet all possible honour in taking the words in as spiritual a sense as can be, but actually, he is merely killing their true life by his ideal admiration. Another

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