The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


expression of the value of the name is found in the ancient exhortation to warriors, as we find it in the Norse hirðskrá --- the law of the king's body-guard —: “Have in mind, that be who once dies as a niding, he shall never another time (i.e. again) become a brave man, but as he dies with that name, so with that fame shall his memory live.” Here, the old sense of reality still speaks dearly. If we can bring ourselves, with our mind filled with those praises of fame after death, to take this exhortation literally as it stands, then we shall ourselves feel both the solemnity and the vital seriousness of the ancient longing for great renown.

The name, then, goes out from him who bears it as a conqueror, and lays the world at its feet, goes forward undeterred by life or death, because it has in itself, nay, is in itself, the soul. If the man dies in body, then all life contracts in his honour, his fame after death, his name, and lives its life therein undisturbed; it can at any moment fill out a new body and inspire it to a life in honour and luck. When the name is given to a kinsman, the soul emerges into the light again, as if nothing had happened. He is come again, men said.

Another word designating the human soul is Icelandic aldr, Anglo-Saxon ealdor, which from the point of view of our languages. must in some places be rendered by “age, life-time” and in other places simply by “life”. The texts speak of losing age, staking age, taking age from another man. A man can hazard his aldr and lose it, he can take another man's aldr from him in battle. Aldr is the fjör residing in the breast, which the sword can force its way in to bite. But this soul, or life, does not exist merely in a pale generality, as a white board on which the world casts its shadow. It has some contents, it is a fate. According to the Lay of Helgi, the norns came to the homestead of the hero on the night of his birth and created, or formed, his age; they bade him become the most famous king, greatest in renown among princes.

A man's age is determined from his birth, say the Norsemen, meaning thereby, that one's history, as we should say, or one's fate, as they themselves would put it, is a given thing;


through such and such happenings he is to be led to his end. One can recognise a hero of the past in one's contemporary, by his courage, and by the contents and strength of his honour, but also his career provides its evidence, and this perhaps of the clearest, as to the connection between past and present. When we know what sort; of a soul there is in a man, we can say with immediate certainty what awaits him, and what his end will be. A man's fate is predetermined, and therewith both friends and enemies, alliance and conflict, tradition and aim; and with the characteristics of a race there follows, in rhythmic repetition, the same history. Atil Hasteinson refused, after the fight with Hrafn, a friendly invitation from Onund:

he would rather go home, for in all likelihood it would follow from his name that he should die of his wounds, as did his father's father, Earl Atli, whose name and life he bore.

The truest commentary is furnished by this paragraph in the Snorra Edda: “Good norns of noble birth create a good aldr, but if men fall into unluck, ill norns were at work.” The norns were at heart nothing but the manifestation of the kin's luck and history.

Our word fate is scarcely applicable to the thoughts of the ancients as to life and its course in so much as we chiefly apprehend fate as a mysterious and incalculable force; the fate of our forefathers was a being with impulses, passions, peculiarities: a tendency always to choose one particular side of a thing, to choose combat and the decision of arms rather than discussion, or always to look about for possibilities of negotiation; the tendency rather to kill one man too many than one too few, or an inclination always to do that which serves one least. We have always to deal with an individual fate, that which belongs to a single man, and distinguishes him from all others, and this fate may fairly claim to be called nothing less than soul. It can proceed out from him and communicate itself to others, and it can find an individual re-birth. According to the prose passages of the Helgi Lays in the Edda, Helgi Sigmundson and his love, Sigrun, are supposed to be reincarnations of Helgi Hjorvardson and Svava, and then to be reborn themselves


in the persons of Helgi Hadingjaskati and Kara Halfdan's daughter. We have here three parallel legends, of a hero whose mighty and hasty pace of life is due to a semi-supernatural woman. Helgi Hjorvardson is awakened to action by the valkyrie Svava, and consecrated to death by his brother's reckless vow to cheat him of his love's right. Helgi Hundingsbane, in the course of his warlike expeditions, wins the love and protection of Sigrun, daughter of Hogni, but for her sake he is driven to slay Hogni and thus prepares his own downfall. The third legend is known only from a dim reminiscence in a mythical saga where Helgi, striking too high, wounds his love and protectress, and thus forfeits luck and life for himself. How the separate parts of this trilogy stand one to another as regards origin and contact we do not know; only this we can see, that the reason of their being so threaded together lies in the similarity of the fate which unites the pair. Helgi and Svava do not enter into life again, but life has reborn the group, hero and valkyrie maiden, and their love with its tragic result.

Whoever interpolated these prose passages into the poems would hardly himself have arrived by speculation at this hypothesis of re-birth; but whether there were some germ of combination in the legends themselves or not, these lines of prose have their authority in the ancient thought. Life is known by its doings. The soul has a course of life inherent in it, as one of its qualities. Fate, or as we also might say, history, is not, any more than luck, a thing lying outside a man; nor does it merely hang about him as a necessary result of his character. It is luck itself, it is his nature. It is born out of him in the same way as fruitfulness and victory. It is on this identity between fate and will that the bold fatalism of the Northmen depends.

And so it is not from resignation that an Atli speaks as he does. The Northmen did not let themselves be dragged off by fate, they went willingly, chose themselves that which they knew was their destiny, chose the inevitable of their own free will, paradoxical as it may sound. Fate was to them a necessity man could not avoid, but they felt it nevertheless as a matter of will. They took up the counsels and plans of their kinsmen


as warmly as their own, and in the same way they lived through the fate of their forefathers with eager appetite. They grasped firmly at their destiny with a will that is the will of fate itself — here lies the secret of their sturdy sense of life, the imperturbable contentment with the solidity of existence that keeps them from ever going into the depths to search for treasure, while on the other hand they never think of dreaming and consoling themselves away from what is and must be.

Name and fate interpenetrate. The name was a mighty charm, because it carried the history not only of the bearer, but of his ancestors and of the whole clan. Deeds lie concealed in its sound and they may blossom out into an addition, so that the name becomes an epic in brief. Such names as An Bow-wielder, Sigurd Fafnirsbane or Hroerek Flinger of the Bracelet are the nuclei of family legends.

But there is still a whole side of the soul untouched. Nature needs a body. When the mother had given birth to her child, it was carried to the father, that he might see which of the old kinsmen it was that now appeared in the light again. Possibly his keen eyes could discern the character of the departed in the movements of the child. Some children came into the world with clenched fists, others uttered the cry of a hero at the very commencement of their career. The child looks promising, men say, he will be a hard fellow, but true to his Mends. But first and foremost, the father scanned the new-born child for likeness in features, eyes, and build. The soul did not alter. Powerful limbs, sharp eyes, waving fair hair were not accidental attributes of the hero-soul any more than the hardness and cold of a stone are accidental qualities of the body which a stone-soul takes for its garment. It is a standing expression in the sagas, that the young chieftain to be is distinguished by his eyes. He has keen eyes, he whets his eyes after the manner of true princes of war,— so we read of Helgi Hundingsbane. So also of the birth of Sigurd Fafnirsbane: The king was glad when he saw the sharp eyes in his head, and said that none would be his equal. These eyes are in poetry the chieftain's patent of nobility: a glance that could tame or cow both men and beasts. Sigurd's murderer had to go out of the chamber


twice without achieving his aim, for the eyes of the Volsung were so keen that not many dared gaze into them. The horses dashed aside and would not tread on Svanhild, as long as her eyes were open. Saxo's description of Olo Vigetus is a study in the glance heroic: his eyes were so sharp that they smote the enemy harder than other men's weapons; the boldest cringed under his glance. He comes, unknown, to the king's court. The king's daughter was accustomed, in passing round the hall, to observe the guests; from the features of their faces she could read their quality and standing. But at sight of Olo's countenance, she falls three times swooning to the ground. “Here is a kingly-born hero”, she says, and all cry to him to throw aside his hood. When he obeys, all the men present sit staring in admiration at his beauty and his yellow locks, but he kept his eyelids lowered deep “lest they should see and be afraid.”

Saxo, modern as he is, wonders at the girl's perspicuity; at any rate, he thinks it as well, with such a remarkable piece of divination, to put it, as it were, in inverted commas with a “men believed” that she could read the standing of the guest from his features. But as a matter of fact it needed no great art to point out a king. It is hopeless for him to disguise himself. Let him put on the kirtle of a slave, and a kerchief about his head, and set himself to turn a mill; it will yet be seen that the wench has sharp eyes, this young blood is never come of cottar's stock; he cannot help turning so that the stones fly asunder and the casing is sent flying. Such an appearance, and such strength, belong once and for all to his luck, his nature. Tall, stately, handsome — handsome, that is to say, without the labourer's features of the peasant type — he must be to be a chieftain, and could not be otherwise if chieftain he were. When the soul is reborn, it shapes a human form about itself with such limbs, such eyes, such hair, for it cannot do otherwise. Or let us perhaps rather say, that the soul itself is yellow-haired, blue-eyed and strong of sinew — this after all is the true meaning.

All these individual determinations of the being of a soul fuse in one single word: luck. The soul is luck in the all-embracing


sense that opens before us when we follow patiently its activity throughout the full circle. When luck is at an end, then, we know, life itself is ended, not because it was dependent upon certain external conditions, but because it was existence itself that ceased when luck broke off. To be in luck, to show oneself in luck means the same as to step forth in light and life.

This vitalising power of man which thus manifests itself under different aspects is, according to our terminology, appropriately named soul, but we may call it life or existence without changing the point of view. Here the radical difference between the primitive and modern experience makes itself felt. When we set our reflection to explore the premises which lie at the bottom of our talk of the power that moves in us and moves us, it arises with the idea of a clear, transparent stream taking up in its course feelings and moods; life is something we have in common with all other creatures, and it becomes man's life by taking on or evolving purely human elements. It is otherwise with the life which bore forward the actions of our fore-fathers; life to them was purely human, and not only a merely human but a personal thing, as personal as a nickname. Force and effect are to our experience so far apart that we can interpolate the question: let us see what effect comes of this force; to primitive experience, power and its result are one, and grow together.

As soon as we replace our “soul” by the word hamingja, the thought is translated from our pale view of life to the full-blooded and muscular view of the past. Hamingja is a nature that can only act in its essentially determined manner, and only to the end that lies in itself. Hamingja is a character which can only manifest itself as these or those particular persons, but must on the other hand produce its predetermined effect: this particular honour, will, and fate, and must create these or those personalities, in their peculiar relations within and without. Therefore it comes now as a man, now as something human, now as a personality, now as a force — and always it is itself, never more and never less. Whether it march at the head of an army, in bodily manifestation of one sort or another,


or it emanate from man into the soil and make the germs sprout through the mould, makes no difference to its nature. Luck constitutes, we know, a close whole, alike throughout and indivisible. Therefore, every single quality of man possesses the whole force of the hamingja; fame after death bears in itself a living soul or a living human being. In this homogeneity of life is implied the necessary condition for such expressions as the Old English: “The heathen fell frithless on the field of battle,” and “The time came for him to suffer a parting from frith.” These passages are not understood when taken one-sidedly as evidence that life on earth was, to the forefathers of the Anglo-Saxons, first and foremost a common life, a frith; nor can they be taken as instances of poetic use of frith in the sense of soul. The explanation lies deeper; frith was really a form of life, and that, in the Germanic thought, means the soul itself, and thus to lose frith and luck was literally to die.

Here, the contrasts which are of primary importance to us lose their authority. Body — soul, neutral — personal, whole —fraction, these definitions have a place in ancient thought, but they are not fundamental. When we read of a man's hugr that it meets his enemy in the shape of a ravening wolf, then we know that it is a personal soul; if we are told that a man has a bold hugr, then we know, or think we know, that it is a quality of character that is spoken of. But in other cases we are tortured, perhaps, by an unpleasant sense of doubt; if a man feels himself impelled by his hugr, or warned by his hugr, is it then the spirit — his mind, as we should say — or a spirit — his genius, in other words — that speaks within him? As long as we take it for granted that the two exclude each other, we can only hesitatingly weigh pro et contra on reading a verse such as that which Gro sings over her son: “If enemies bar your way, with evil in mind, then let their hugr change over, to your service, and their mind be turned to peace.” Now all either— or disappears; hugr is everywhere as personal as it is impersonal.

The ancient thought does not oscillate over the contrast between soul and body. There is a contrast between the material

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page