The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



The ancient view of life necessarily leads thought beyond the individual; one always looks about among the family to find the sources of his will and his fate. That honour which the individual bequeaths to his successor with the prayer to have it raised on high like a banner in the light, is after all only an individual's share of that honour which all the kinsmen combine to guard and unite in enjoying. This grandiose manner in aim and fate and will, to be never content with less than a kingdom, ever constrained to know one's fame the greatest within the horizon, — this is indeed, no less than the keen eyes, something appertaining to a whole circle of men. The father's eye is gladdened when he sees himself and his kinsmen again in his sons, when, as the phrase runs, he can “see the luck of the family” in his son.

They all had one hugr in common, shared one mind among them. The walls of the brain formed no boundary for thoughts; what was warmed in the mind of one kinsman did not come to the others with the cold of strangeness. They were one body as far as their frith and honour extended. The kinsmen were identical, as surely as the single deer leaping across the path was identical with all its fellow deer, and bore in itself the whole nature of deer, the whole great deer-soul. And the pain that ran round the fence of kinsmen when one stave in it suffered a blow was something more than a spiritual suffering. Limbs as well as hugr gave notice when a misfortune had chanced, long before any messenger came running with the news. The


same peril of death threatened them all. They had one life together. It may be said of two contemporaries, father and daughter, that they had one life and therefore died on the same day. This community of life is but a stronger form of that which is found among all kinsmen. True, the whole family would not die with the father, not immediately, at any rate, but we know already well enough how fatally the falling away of one affected the future of all members of the family, how careful all had to be in regard to their spiritual health, how eagerly they sought after increase of soul, “restitution”. The frith-fellows of a dead man were “fey”, and their life could only be saved by energetically combating the germs of death in the organism of the clan.

In a Welsh story, the king says to an unknown kinsman: “Who are you, for my heart beats toward you, and I know you are of my blood.” These words might be the simplest expression of an everyday feeling, and date from a time when every kinsman knew by experience the peculiar beat of frith in his breast. “The hugr told him,” a Northman might have said, for he felt by the movements in the luck within him, that luck of his luck was approaching, as also he would perceive the approach of an enemy by an alien luck “lying upon” his and disabling it. A good woman, Orny, the daughter of the distinguished chieftain Geitir, had been seduced by a guest from Norway, and when the child was born, her brother ordered him to be carried out and left to his fate. But the boy was found by a neighbour and adopted by him, and in his early years he ran about the homesteads, and might also come as a guest to Krossavik, his mother's home. One day, he came running headlong into the room, as a child might do, and fell full length on the floor; then it chanced that his grandfather burst out laughing, while Orny burst into tears. Little Thorstein went straight up to Geitir, and wished to know what he was laughing at. But the old man said: “It was because I saw something you did not see; when you came in, a white bear ran before your feet, and it was that you stumbled over, because it stopped suddenly at sight of me; I should fancy you must be of higher birth than you are taken to be.” This sight of the boy's fylgia


was enough to awaken the feeling of kinship in Geitir, and when the boy was about to go home in the evening, the old man bade him come again often, and added: “I should think you have kin here.”

Kinsmen make one soul together and yet they were naturally so or so many individuals. The clan is not a whole in the sense that it can be compared to a being with many heads. Nor do the kinsmen stand as shareholders in a fund of life which they agree to administer. The community lies far deeper, so deep that all conflict between the individual and the clan as a whole is out of the question. Nor can we find the truth in a compromise which reduces the claims of one side or the other. The individuals are each a separate reality, each is a person, and both reality and personality are so marked that they can come to stand against each other as will against will. But the personality which makes the one kinsman a character is the same which gives his brother and his son their silhouette-like sharpness. The kinsmen own one another, they are one another, every single one of them encloses the whole soul in each of his acts.

The only way to re-experience the peculiarities of this common soul is probably to see how the unity of life affects men's practical doings. In the kinsmen's social state of mutual dependence, as in their individual independence, the thought is vitally and faithfully illustrated. The old community allows the personality no importance whatever in itself. A man thinking and acting alone is a modern conception. In former times, the solitary had no possibilities. His ideas, even though amounting to genius, would perish, just as he himself perished, leaving no trace. The fir that stands alone decays, neither bark nor leaf clothe it, says the Hávamál; and the words bear this literal meaning, that the tree which stands alone in the field can only fade, it uses all its force to delay the decomposing action of wind and rot a little while. The individual could not exist save as thrall or niding, in whom only the animal part of human life remained, and barely that. A freedman was the imperfect creature he was, because he had not properly any clan. The


man of family is free; because he stands in the fence of kin, he has no weight crushing him from above; it is otherwise with the freedman, he stands alone, and therefore must have a power above him.

And to stand in the fence of kin, means forming part of a solid order, which no genius and no strength of mind can change. We have really no word to measure such habits as bend the will of every man the way it would not go, as if it were acting of its own accord. What we want is a word to express a law that works its will not by hindering or repressing the plans of the individual but by lending itself as a force and an initiative in the thoughts and ambitions of every wilful single man who is under the sway of the rule. Frith lays the regard for kinsmen into the plans while they are still in process of conception, and when it happens, as it may very well do, that a member of a clan is inspired with a spirit of opposition against the nearest of kin, his refractory desire comes into the world with the will of his antagonists imbedded in it as its innermost self. A change in the inherited honour, that which one's forefathers had regarded as right and useful and needful — whether the change were one affecting relations with men, or an alteration of what we call methods of working, sacred customs — such an alteration was hardly to be effected by one man's will. In a sense the laws governing our relations to our fellow-men are stiffer and less plastic than the social rules of ancient society, but they correspondingly leave a way open to artifice and persuasion. We can get round the law if it is too narrow to have room for conscience, we can render it lip-service and without breaking it save our souls; we can maintain our position in humanity by living an official outward life, and thus save ourselves from spiritual isolation, and gain that contact with the neighbouring community which is necessary if a man is quietly to get on with his own work. In those times, a man could not, whether by craft or defiance, break through the constitutional laws of life without getting strangled in the process. A man stood in the fence of kinsmen, and only that


which could be attained without breaking the chain was attainable at all.

But on the other hand it would be rash and contrary to all experience were we to conclude that the clansman is necessarily duller and less of a character than the isolated individuals of modern times, or that he has fewer possibilities of working out what we call his personality. As long as the strength is turned outwards and does not attack the unassailable frith and honour, the clan has no choice save between defending the unruly members and cutting them off from itself, and a healthy stock will be slow to bleed itself. As long as the undertakings of the individual are inspired by the honour and “fate” that is within him, and his ambition is the prolongation of his ancestors' deeds, he can let himself go and drag his kinsmen along with him. Frith lays the kinsmen at the mercy of the individual and his initiative. He can screw up honour as far as he pleases; the others have no choice but to follow; they cannot force him down, they have nothing to trust to against him beyond the power of words to persuade; they may try to talk him over, but if he be not amenable to reason, then they are obliged to enter into his undertakings and make themselves participants both in the responsibility and in the risk. The fact of his being a part of the soul himself enables him to coerce the whole soul. The man who has a tenfold or hundredfold soul not only possesses an inner strength that is lacking in a man whose life is confined to his own single body, but he also has deeper opportunities of becoming a rich and many-sided character.

Frith was a constitutional law harder than we can easily find nowadays, but then again, it was a power that could be used, both for good and evil. A man can force his way into the centre of luck and appropriate luck to himself, he can assimilate the souls of others and make them dependent on his own, and then fling men forward toward whatever object he pleases, as long as he is sure of himself and his luck. There is hardly any formal authority which the strong man can take up and


inspire with his peculiar gifts, his courage, his initiative, his craft, his wit, his insolent self-reliance; but he has that which is better; he makes the others parts of his thought and will, and digests them as it were, into his soul; the strong man uses his fellows as his own limbs.

The authority in such a clan-society is of a peculiar sort, it is here, it is there, it is everywhere, and it never sleeps. But there is no absolutely dominant power. The circle may perhaps have its leader in chief, but he cannot force anyone to his will. In Iceland, this lack of subordination appears in the crudest light. Iceland had men who gladly paid out of their own purse for the extravagances of their restless kinsmen, if only they could maintain peace and prevent futile bloodshed; but their peacemaking was an everlasting patchwork. There was no power over those who did not seek the right. To take firm action against them was a thing even the most resolute of their kin could never do, for it was out of the question for the clan to disown its unruly members and leave them to the mercy of their enemies. When Chrodin, a man of noble stock, was chosen, for his cleverness and god-fearing ways, to be majordomo in Austria, he declined with these significant words: “I cannot bring about peace in Austria, chiefly because all the great men in the country are my kinsmen. I cannot overawe them and cannot have any one executed. Nay, because of their very kinship they will rise up and act in defiance.”

Primitive soul is generally described by European historians as something exclusively belonging to mythology and religion; but to catch its true character we must recognise that it is a psychological entity as well. It is so far from being dependent on speculation and belief that it is first and foremost an object of experience, an everyday reality. The thrall has no soul, our ancestors say; and they know, because they have seen that it is lacking in him. When a thrall finds himself in a perilous situation, be goes blind, so that he dashes down and kills himself out of pure fear of death. How a soulless man would naturally behave we can learn from the story of the fight at Orlygsstad, where the wise and noble chief Arnkel met his death. When


Arnkel unexpectedly found himself attacked by a superior force he sent home his thrall to bring aid. On the road the messenger was accosted by a fellow-servant — and willingly fell to helping him with a load of hay. Not until the evening, when those at home asked where Arnkel was, did he wake up and remember that his master was fighting with Snorri at Orlygsstad. There is no need of any hypothesis as to soul and life to make clear the fact that the thrall lacked hugr and hamingja; his soullessness is discernible by the lack-lustre of his eyes. The only possibility for a thrall to rise into something like a human being is by inspiration of his master's luck and life, and thus faithfulness and devotion are the noblest virtues of a bondman.

An excellent illustration of the way a thrall is able to reflect his master is given in a short story from Landnáma. One autumn a body of men who were shipwrecked on the Icelandic coast sought refuge at an outlying farm belonging to Geirmund, a noble chieftain of royal birth. The bondman steward invited the whole company to pass the winter as the guests of Geirmund, and on being asked by Geirmund how he had dared to fill the house with strangers he answered: “As long as there are men in this country people will not forget what sort of man you were, since your thrall dared do such a thing without asking your consent.”

Absolute unity, community of life within the clan, must find its justification in absolute unlikeness, essential difference from all other circles. “Our” life is not only peculiar in character, it has its own stem, its own root, and drinks of its own wells. There seems but one inference possible viz. that our ancestors narrowed humanity down to their own circle and looked upon all persons outside their frith as non-human; but this inference that presupposes our pale but extensive category humanity, does not hold good in ancient or primitive culture. The question as to human beings and non-human beings, human life and non-human life lay outside the plane where their thoughts moved; the problem could not be set up in the form it involuntarily assumes for us, still less could it be answered.


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