The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


The ancient world was divided differently from ours. The difference lies not so much in the fact that the boundaries ran otherwise, as in the fact that they were of another sort. On one side, man was separated from nature by a deep sense of strangeness, which he might break through at certain points, but could never overcome. On the other hand, when he has bridged the gap between himself and the souls of his surroundings, the strangeness is converted into close friendship. If he has overcome his aversion in regard to this or that animal, he at once goes to the other extreme and calls the beast his brother, and this with an unfigurative earnestness that plainly shows he does not regard human dignity as a class privilege that shuts certain two-legged creatures out as a caste apart and assigns to them a standing over and above all other creatures. He does not feel the distance between himself and the bear as greater than that between bear and wolf; each of the three is an independent existence, and their relations one with another can thus never be expressed in any fixed constellation as with us 'who invariably set man uppermost and never between the two. The living and non-living things of the world do not form a scale starting out of the inorganic world and rising through degrees to man as the crown of the creation. Nature is to primitive man a realm filled with free self-existing souls, human and non-human, which are all on the same line of existence and can enter into all sorts of combinations through bonds of friendship or kinship. Among primitive people a worm is no farther and no nearer to man than a tiger — no being is classed beforehand as low in the scale. The thrall does not stand outside humanity in our sense of the word, only he has no life of his own and so does not count as a soul. His existence is so faintly marked that be cannot even do wrong and cannot be summoned to account, whereas animals, on the other hand, are not excluded from the honour of being called upon to defend their actions and suffer judgement.

When we cross the frontier that separates our civilization from primitive culture, we pass into a different world altogether. The world inhabited by souls does not form a wide plane in


which creature touches creature edge to edge as in our universe, where things and beings are viewed chiefly from without as space-filling bodies. Our fathers' horizon was apparently far narrower than ours, thought reached earlier to the walls of the world; but the smaller circle held far more than we could crush into a corresponding area. In reality, the capacity of Middle-garth is unlimited, for this folk-home consists of a number of worlds overlapping one another, and thus not dependent on space for their extent.

In Middle-garth, the animals do not run in and out one among the rest crowding for elbow-room. The wolf is called heath-walker, because the heath is part of its soul, but this does not necessarily make it akin to the deer, that is called heath-treader. The haunt of the wolf is not necessarily the same as that of the deer, however closely they may coincide geographically. The heath, as heath, was a thing by itself, an independent soul as well as a space; but when we say heath-walker, or heath-treader, we only get to it through the animal that fills out the foreground, now through the grey, carrion-eating, “bold” wolf — when the heath is an attribute of unluck, —now through the “antler-crowned”, “oak's shelter-seeking”, “head backward-curving” deer — and the heath is then a soul-quality.

In the sphere which is dismissed summarily by us with the formula day and night there was room for a number of souls meeting one another as independent beings whole to whole instead of limiting one another. First day and night live there. Day is the light or shining one and the beautiful one, but he has other characteristics, as the Anglo-Saxon language intimates by calling him noisy or the time of bustling, the time of men being astir. Independently of light and day the sun has his going among men, and his individual nature is expressed in the names: ever-shining, terror of the giants, fugitive. The sun drives his steeds, Arvakr and Alsvinnr, with the same right as day drives his Skinfaxi — to emphasise their mutual independence in the mythical language. The essence of night is darkness and blackness, sleep and dream, but its nature


also includes anxiety and the uncanny — therefore it is derived from the home of the giants. But its soul goes still farther; dominion over time must have been part of night's luck, since our fathers reckoned by nights. Moon, too, is a hastener, but it has other powers of its own; it counts the years and wards off evil thoughts; and thus it is wholly different from the other light.

Next to these great gods must be added a series of smaller divinities, which to us are only names save for some shreds of myths. Ny, the waxing, brightly shining moon, and Nid, the dark moon or the moonless night, live as “dwarfs” in an antiquarian's catalogue of minor mythological beings. We should not wonder at finding the phases of the moon as beings apart from the moon itself and having their own nature; their former independence has left its mark faintly in the verses of the Voluspá about the gods who gave Night and Nid their names, and in the teaching of the Vafthrudnismál as to the gods who set up Ny and Nid as a means of counting the years. Of Bil and Hjuki, two beings connected with the moon, we should know nothing if they had not slipped into history because in literary times men could remember a legend of their past, when they went to the well and were stolen away by the moon. It is possible that Bil represents the relation between the moon and woman's weakness — though this is nothing but a guess suggested by the myths of other peoples.

Under the heavens fare roaring storms, driving snow, and these are not merely servants carrying out the will of a greater, any more than Ny and Nid; they are independent souls whose nature is indicated by such names as: boisterous traveller or breaker of trees, and they have their own origin, being called Sons of Fornjot. Nevertheless, heaven itself has as its megin both light and wide extent, clouds, storm and hard weather, clearness and drift and close heat, as we see by the names applied to it in poetry; possibly too the sun formed part of its power. And in the same way the moon, as the reckoner of time, included the hours of light and day in itself, without encroaching upon their independence as souls; this side of the


moon's personality is expressed in a myth that makes Day the son of Night by Dellingr.

For a modern mind approaching the question in the assurance that the parts of existence are dovetailed into one another, it is dangerous to venture out into Middle-garth. If one cannot change one's being and become as one of the natures in this kingdom, then one is crushed between the soul-colossi that fill that little space. The souls come, growing apace, with an unlimited power of filling new spaces, and overwhelm the inexperienced from every side. So great is the independence of every soul, that the recalcitrant souls are not even fused together by having a common origin; if ever anything came into being — if not rather all things simply were from the beginning —then day and sun, moon and night alike arose independently. The sine qua non for finding oneself at home in Middle-garth is to see everything, each thing by itself, as world-forming and world-filling, and not as part of a world. Neither animal nor tree, heaven nor earth is regarded as occupying a greater or smaller portion of space in existence, but as a great or a little world.

In the same way, the souls overlap one another among men. Each clan contained the luck and soul of neighbouring clans, and was in turn contained by its friends, without in the least hazarding its independence as a person. Where people meets people or tribe meets tribe they are not men-filled surfaces cut across by a political or linguistic line; the two circles have an earthly boundary between them, but this line of demarcation is only the upper edge of their mutual contact. Below it stand friendship and enmity, intercourse and feud, with all the shades that the character of honour and luck gives to these relationships. For one who, himself a soul, regards the others as souls, friends are not something outside him; their self, their honour, their work, their forefathers enter into him as part of his nature. And the others again possess him and his, not as tributary or subject, but as contents of honour. Each people — larger or smaller according to the intensity of intercourse — is the world, its folk takes up the


earth, partly as inhabited land, partly as waste land, and fills it out to its farthest bounds. Our folk is Middle-garth, and that which lies beyond is Utgard.

Moreover, the earth itself is not an area in which many tribes are huddled up, but as we have seen, a living being conceiving from the plough and the sower, a woman and yet the broad, green expanse of soil and “roads”. And this broad, teeming, immovable earth is part of the soul of each tribe, not a common mother of all, as is seen in the legends and cults, when every tribe tells its personal story of the origin of earth without questioning the right of their neighbours to give their account of how the world, or rather, how their world arose. So it is among primitive peoples whose cosmogonies are better known, and so it was among ancient peoples in the north, as the spirit of their myths and the diversity of their traditions bear witness.

The question as to human being — non-human being thus disappears in face of the simple fact that all which is not our life is another soul, call it what we will. Foreigners have no legal value. In later times they were accorded only an illusory recognition in law and judgement, in older times their life and right was a matter of indifference. One does not kill an animal, or cut down a tree, out of sheer idleness, without some reason or other, whether this consist in the harmfulness of the thing while living or in its use when dead, and to understand these strictures we must remember that primitive men are far more careful about destroying souls than men of civilization who feel no responsibility whatever towards the creatures round them, because they recognise only their value as things. In the same way formerly one would hardly strike down a barbarian for simply existing. But killing a stranger did not differ in character from violating one of the innumerable non-human souls in existence.

Within the misty horizon formed by the hordes of the mumbling or speechless men, stands a community where the individual has a certain legal value, characterising him as a being of the same sort as the being who attacks him. The member


of a community has the right to possess his own in peace. His life is costly. But within the narrow circle that is held together by a common law-thing, common chieftain, common war and peace, homicide is after all not a crime against life itself, not even to be reckoned as anything unnatural.

On the other hand, from the moment we enter into the clan, the sacredness of life rises up in absolute inviolability, with its judgement upon bloodshed as sacrilege, blindness, suicide. The reaction comes as suddenly and as unmistakably as when a nerve is touched by a needle. With this slight movement from society over to clan we have crossed the deepest gulf in existence.

Such is life in primitive experience — not a mere organism, not a collection of parts held together by some unifying principle, but a unique soul apparent in every one of its manifestations. The being is so homogeneous and personal that all its particles, as well as all its qualities and characteristics, involve the whole creature. When a man grasps a handful of earth, he has in his hand its wideness and its firmness and its fruitfulness; we may explain the fact by saying that a grain of the soil contains its soul and essence; or we may say that the fragment is the whole — both expressions are right and both are wrong insofar as the fact is not expressible in our language, but only to be got at by resurrection of an experience foreign to us. When a man eats an animal, or drinks its blood, he assimilates bearness or wolfness, and by his act he not only assumes the ferociousness and courage of the beast, but its habits and form as well; the bodily shape of the animal enters into his constitution, and may force itself out in some moments, even perhaps to complete transformation. You cannot mimic the gambols of an animal but an inner adjustment takes place, any more than you can behave like a woman without inducing a mood of feminine feeling, for by the dramatic imitation the dancer evokes the being which expresses itself in those movements, and takes upon himself the responsibility of giving it power to manifest itself. It is told of an Icelander that he killed a man-eating


bear to avenge his father and brother; and to make the revenge complete, he ate the animal. From that time he was rather difficult to manage, and his nature underwent a change which was nothing else but the bearness working within him. And similarly, by striking up friendships, men are vitally associated, more or less strongly, with their fellow men; as the brethren of the clan are not only one soul but one bone, one flesh, in a literal sense that escapes modern brains, so the soul of the clan is really knit with the souls of its neighbours and friends, to quote an expression from the Old Testament, which has now lost the force it originally carried among the Israelites as well as among the Teutons.

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