The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


and the spiritual existence, and the divergence between the two forms of human manifestation is great enough to set thoughts in motion, but not wide enough to range them into two hostile arrays. The tension between existence of the spiritual and sensing of the tangible is not yet grown so strong that the two poles will separately draw experiences to them and hold them fast in two groups, so as to make a breach or a problem. For modern men who are under the sway of Hellenistic philosophy and religion, it seems as if primitive men leap backwards and forwards over a hole from contradiction to contradiction, but there was no gulf and no contradiction in them. The connection has such solidity that it can stand whatever pressure facts may bring to bear upon it. As long as we look at the body, we can dwell as continually and as one-sidedly as we choose upon the corporeal limitations of man; and if we look at man from the spiritual point of view, we need not hedge round our description of the capricious soul with qualifications through fear lest our former words should rise up and witness against us. Indeed, it is only when we have given each its due, fully and uncurtailed what it deserves, that we can maintain the equilibrium between them.

No one will dispute the power of the soul to separate itself from the body in order to live a free, untrammelled existence while the body apparently, and perhaps also in reality, lies idle as a house without a tenant. The soul can go whither it will, set out on its own errands, spying out, preparing and also acting on behalf of the whole person. There is a story to the point about the Frankish king Gunnthram. Once, it is told, while out hunting, he was overtaken by great weariness, and lay down to sleep beside a stream; when he woke, he could still remember how he had crossed a river by an iron bridge into a mountain where lay great treasures of gold. The soul bad seen correctly, for when men went to dig in the place the king had pointed out, they found enormous treasure. But he who sat with the king's head in his lap had seen that out of the king's mouth came, while he slept, a little snake which hurried backwards and forwards along the water, until he laid


a sword across the brook, when it at once disappeared across the bridge and into a little hole in the mountain side, returning shortly after the same way.

We know that the soul — at any rate now and then —can go whither it will; but we know also that it carries the body in it. If that royal snake had met anyone strong enough to do it harm, then the king would have seen the marks on his body when he woke. At any moment, this soul can burst out into a body, as it were turning inside out, and showing outwardly the matter which in its airy state it bears within. And then it appears not only as a vision, a picture of the person, but as a hard and fast, powerful body, a corpus certainly not to be passed through without perceiving it. A man's fylgia —as the soul is called in this state by the Icelanders — can both strike with its weapons and crush with its arms so as to take away a man's breath. It is told of two Icelandic peasants that they met one night in animal shape between their homesteads and fought out the quarrels of the day; and when they awoke in the morning, each lay with battered limbs pondering over the events of the night.

The Northern fylgia stories indicate plainly enough that the soul has an advantage over the person as a whole; it can choose what form it will take. When the body is at rest, the soul sees its chance to take on another shape than its customary clothing, one better suited to the needs of the moment. We hear of men taking the form of birds, either to travel through the air, or to gain entrance through openings not to be reached from any highway but “the bees' road”. When the slaughter of Gunnar and Hogni was imminent, Kostbera, Hogni's wife, had warning dreams of Atli's soul coming into the hall. “Methought I saw an eagle fly in and down to the end of the hall; bitter is that which waits us now; he was dripping with blood; I saw from his threatening looks that it was Atli's shape,” says the verse in the Atlamál, and the words, poetic as they are, reflect an everyday reality.

Gunhild, the queen of the Norwegian king Eric Bloody-axe, was a wise and indomitable woman, whose strong hugr so moved


the imagination of her contemporaries that she has passed into history as a half supernatural being. It happened that Egil, who was no friend of the king's, was shipwrecked on the coast and forced to throw himself on the hospitality of the king. Egil had no other way to buy the goodwill of Eric than by composing a laudatory poem, but during the night, when he sat working at his Hofudlausn — the poem to save his head — he was pestered by a bird which kept twittering at the window, and late saga writers hold it beyond doubt that the bird was none other than the hugr of the implacable queen.

Where strength was needed, the soul would come running up in the shape of a bear, and with a bear's force. “This Hjoryard and his men see, that a great bear goes before King Hrolf and his men and always nearest the king; he kills more men with his paw than five of the king's champions. Sword and arrow turn aside from him, but whether it be horse or man that comes in his way, he strikes them down and crushes them with his teeth.” The bear was Bodvar Bjarki, whose body sat at home in the hall, asleep.

Without doubt this power of taking on another shape is something peculiar to the soul as distinct from the body. The trance, or temporary dying, of the body, is a condition required to give the soul full freedom to exploit that other nature and utilise all the qualities that lie in the shape adopted: its massive manifestation, its peculiar powers, its swiftness and wildness. As soon as Bodvar awoke and drew his heroic body about him, the bear vanished. But we unconsciously introduce our preconceptions in translating these reminiscences of the ancient experience into our modes of thought. The hugr could not take on the body of a bear, unless its luck had something of bear nature in it. The elements of which the soul builds itself a body

hamr, as it is called — are not taken from without; they lie within it and are likewise present in the everyday body; he who really appeared as wolf, as bear, as ox, as eagle, had the character-marks of wolf, bear, ox or eagle in him always. His luck was of such a sort as to imply an essential relationship between him and his beast; he used its strength, its courage,


its wildness, its craft, its power of divination and its power of tracking, also in daylight and in his own body. And when the human shape lies bound in sleep, the other peculiarities that are contained in its nature can realise themselves in exterior form; perhaps we had better say, when the other powers evolve their shape-giving qualities, human form is bound to be in abeyance. And looking more closely at such genuine representatives of soul-force as Bodvar, we can still, despite the fact that the story has been reft from its living soil, discover the birth-marks. The name of Bjarki is nothing else but bear, and the story of his origin still holds, perhaps, some shadowy trace of his having belonged to a bear clan, which had established a state of frith with the bear, as had the Ylfings with the wolf, and cultivated this frith as their mutual luck, by constantly assimilating something of the animal's nature in themselves. His father's name was Bjorn (bear), his mother was called Bera, which means a she-bear, and his father went about in the shape of a bear at the time the son was begotten. The story of his father's unlucky fate when he was bewitched by a step-mother on account of his virtue, is spiced with romance and imagination, but there is a bear in the story from early times. If the form in which it is handed down to us is nothing more than a mediæval tale, the story is moulded over a type of family legend familiar to our ancestors. It is not at all unlikely that Bodvar may have had his mark somewhere about his body, as the Merovingians had their boar-bristles down the back.

In late times, when the ancient reality was weakened into something half imagination, and literature fell under the influence of mediæval poetry, the hamr was sometimes described as a pelt into which the shape-shifter slips and which he leaves behind when be returns into his own body. But this conceit sits loosely on the original idea that comes to light everywhere in the living language. Originally the hamr was, as the poet of the Atlamál is still half aware, the very soul itself, the hugr or hamingja. The man who has suffered scathe in his luck, and thus no longer has his full megin, is hamstoli, i.e. robbed of his hamr; he cannot remember, understand or dream. When


a man took on his hamr he assumed all his strength and put all his powers into requisition. Not all had this power to “ham” (hamask) in the same degree; the strong man, he who had much and powerful luck and could therefore send his will as well as his hugr abroad in mighty shapes, was called hamramr, i. e. strong of soul. The common people have, on this point, preserved the ancient faith that strong characters are able to show themselves in several places at the same time, and according to the unmistakable evidence of viking times, to be hamramr meant having the power to take on another shape and appear as an animal — this is the highest degree of the power in question, — but surely too it was a quality which made itself apparent while the man was in his normal bodily form, as violence in battle, as invulnerability, insensibility to pain, and increased bodily strength. “Then they took their swords and bit the edges of the shields, went round the ship, along one bulwark and back along the other, and slew all the men; afterwards, they went howling up on land,” — this is the Bodvar nature, acting in the full light of day. Such grim warriors were called berserkir arid ulfhednir, because they wore bearskins and wolfskins as an outer garb, and this accoutrement no doubt has to do with their strength and ferocity. Of a man called Odd it is told that he crossed Iceland in a single night from the extreme northern point to the southland, when his sister needed his aid sorely; whether he trotted along as a bear, whether he flew, or used his legs, we do not know; one thing is enough; it was the fact that he was hamramr that gave him the speed.

In Christian times the word hamramr was degraded to serve as a branding adjective, and in its decline it shared the same fate as fjölkunnigr, later used of those individuals who kept to the ancient practices and thus became sorcerers. Properly, fjölkunnigr, or “much knowing”, meant nothing more than: able to use one's luck in manifold wise, as a man would naturally be when possessed of knowledge of things past, and of such insight and sympathy as enabled him to draw strength from the souls about him.

At the time when Olaf Tryggvason scoured the country


to carry the light of Christ into all Norwegian homes and hearts, there was a man in the extreme North called Raud, who stoutly defended himself against royal conversion by setting storms to guard the coast. For a whole week the king's fleet battled against the wind in the mouth of the fiord without making headway, but at last the pagan gusts were overcome by a liberal application of candles and crosses and holy water, and the king succeeded in capturing Raud and despatching him to hell when he proved too obstinate to change his faith on the spot. The sturdy heathen was derided by the king's followers — or by his pious biographer — as fjölkunnigr; but Olaf, who defied the storm till it obeyed him, who sent forth his luck to aid his friends and take the wisdom out of his enemies' thoughts, or even at times appeared bodily to turn a deadly weapon aside from his servant's head in danger, must have been as hamramr and fjölkunnigr as any, as is but natural in a man who comes of good kingly stock. And the by-name fjölkunnigr is returned with proper justice by the adversaries of the most Christian king, when they were mysteriously overpowered by his “luck and hamingja”. Both parties were right. In the case of strangers whose powers and ways are of another kind, fjölkyngi must really be witchcraft, and it is thus no twisting of words when Christians and heathens accused one another of underhand practices. When Christian hamingja and the Christian god remained in possession of the field, the men of the new faith naturally turned the word wholly against their enemies and made it a by-word of reproach for people of the ancient faith.

It is thus clear that there is no contradiction between the neutral life, the spiritual power which a man radiates out to his surroundings, and the personal soul which sets forth on its own legs and grasps at things with its hands. The two are only opposite poles of the same luck. We have seen how a man's hamingja can go out and lay itself like a fog upon another's mind, shadow his far-sightedness, stifle his initiative and suck the strength from his plans; and we have no need at all to imagine the active agent as a man, stifling with hands, sucking with lips or treading with feet. The king's hamingja passes like a


warmth from his hand into the warrior whose hand he grasps; his hamingja enters as a force into men and fills their bodies, penetrating to the outermost joints, and from these over into their weapons. Foresight itself is hamingja, that rises up from the depth of the soul and spreads out in him who prophesies; “I know of my foresight and from our ættarfylgja (that is, the hamingja of the clan) that great sorrow will grow for us from this marriage” — thus warns Signy, in the Volsungasaga, when the marriage with Siggeir is proposed. But at any moment the hamingja can spring up in its full personality; — but a slight turn in the mode of observation, and it changes from a something into a someone. In the same way, the Northman's hugr often passes from the idea of mind, will, desire, thought, to what we understand by soul, in all its shades of meaning, so that such a manifestation of the man outside himself as that described in the legend of Gunnthram, can well be set down in the words: “It is, a hugr we have met.” “Those are hugrs of men,” says a man who has seen his enemies in a dream, and this, in sober words, means that the souls of those enemies steal about him, watching, lying in wait, preparing.

Neither is there any contrast between the hamr and the mód and megin. The giant is instantly recognised when he puts on his full giant's mód, the wild, raging soul of the ogres, just as Thor is able to out-tower the mighty swelling of the river when he puts on his god's megin. The metaphorical expression, that the spirit bears the body bound up in it — if metaphorical it be — is in danger of thrusting upon truth an appearance of profundity; but when we have done everything to remove the temptation of taking the words as a piece of modern wit, they contain just what must be said. And we have undoubtedly the right to use just such a form of speech as this, that the neutral luck bears in it personality as a quality among all its qualities, or better perhaps, that it is impregnated with a personality, just as it is impregnated with victory and fruitfulness and wisdom.

Life is a homogeneous whole, but it is distributable into parts. The soul can be strewn about in small particles. If one has a great soul, such as made a man a king, then he can share


out his soul among his warriors, so that one part goes east to quell a revolt, another westward on an expedition at sea, a third upon some peaceful errand elsewhere. Undoubtedly people would have regarded it as a sorry sign of lacking spiritual force in their prince if one of these souls sent out — whether he had at the time three or seven armies in the field — lacked sight or hearing, wisdom or the power of action. Every one of his “redes” — or powerful thoughts and counsels — indeed, must be equipped with eyes and ears. The entire soul-mass is impregnated with humanity in the same way that a stone is with hardness, the tree with treeness, so that the man is mortally vulnerable in every little part of his honour. It is possible to kill a man bodily by slaying one of his “redes”. If a chieftain be divided temporarily into four parts, then no doubt his body will be present as a whole with one of these tetrarchs; but this does not imply that the other three must remain incognito or invisible, or that they are in the least degree inferior to the whole man in fulness of qualities. Each one of them can very well assume the waving hair, keen eyes, fresh complexion and stately limbs of the chieftain's luck. We can, if we will, credit the man with four souls. But each of these four nevertheless contains at every moment its fellow-souls, and is responsible for them in every point. Indeed, in the deepest foundation of the matter they are not separated at all. Separation in space counts for nothing, or almost nothing.

The words megin, mód, fjör and the others do service by illustrating the ways and conditions of the hamingja, but it would be wholly arbitrary to limit the description of the soul to enumerating a string of “animistic” terms. The same comprehensive meaning of “life” as “soul” resides in all words describing processes of mind. Icelandic heipt means enmity or hate, and it is hate felt, as well as inimical thoughts and wishes sent out to enter into the foe's mind as an oppressive force, or despatched to lie in ambush for the hated man; it manifests itself as battle and mighty blows. Munr (Anglo-Saxon myne) means love and pleasure, but it is love as a manifestation of the soul; when the hero in his barrow mourns — as Helgi in


the Eddic poem — that he has lost joy and land (munar ok landa), munr is not to be understood as the joy of life, but as life that is in itself joyful. And in other places we cannot catch the weight of the word without rendering it as soul or life. Ydun who kept the apples of youth is called by a poet: the maiden who increased the mun of the gods — who by administering the immortal food preserved the gods from old age and weakness. In reality, not a single word denoting mental processes can be adequately rendered in phrases of modern psychology without being either unduly widened or unduly narrowed.

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