The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

CHAPTER XII

DEATH AND IMMORTALITY

In the unity between the individual and his kin, all thoughts of death likewise meet. For the Northman, a name, a reputation was enough to take away the bitterness of death, because fame after death was a real life, a life in the continued luck and honour of kinsmen.

There has entered a touch of something modern into the Northmen's cry for life; we feel a new time through it. The word fame has acquired a spiritual ring in the viking age, and it cannot be denied that fame after death has bought its delicate sheen at the cost of inner, substantial life; it is risen so high as almost to rend the roots which gave it earthly nourishment. And as always happens when a culture begins to purge its values to super-spiritualism, the ideals ended in something overstrained and vacillating; the cry for fame becomes more and more strenuous, as if the crier were trying to outcry himself. In place of the old-time heroes of honour, we have now athletes in the field of honour, who rush about the country seeking renown, and groan in weariness of life when they can find none with whom to measure their strength. The strained tone in the cry for fame during the centuries verging on the Middle Ages suggests that the roving warriors had partly lost touch with the realities of life. And yet they were not so modern as to grasp the idea that the true and only immortality consisted in people's speaking of one after death. The fame and honour that was to console a man in death must have a compelling force, not only to beget

312

songs, but also to beget a successor in whom the honour shone out anew.

Another trait of the viking ages is the budding anxiety for individual re-birth. In the opening of the Vatsdoela saga we are told how the famous family of Ingimund was founded by the welding of a Norwegian clan with the luck of a royal race of Gautland farther east. The union is dated from a fight between the Norwegian youth Thorstein and a scion of the Gautland kings called Jokul; before dying, Jokul requests his slayer to marry his sister and revive the name in the offspring of this alliance, “and I look for blessing to myself from this”, he adds. Thus it comes that the name Jokul runs in the Vatsdoela family. The same theme occurs in another saga, the Svarfdoela, where Thorolf, a brave youth from Naumudal, who on his very first viking expedition receives a mortal wound, in his dying moments asks his brother Thorstein to transmit his name to posterity: “My name has lived but a little hour, and thus I should be forgotten as soon as you are gone, but I see that you will increase the family and become a great man of luck. I wish you would let a son be called Thorolf, and all the lucky qualities (heillir) which I have had, those will I give him; then I think my name shall live as long as men dwell in the world.” And Thorstein answers: “This I will gladly promise you, for I look that it shall be to our honour, and good luck shall go with your name as long as it is in the clan.” He keeps his promise, and the new Thorolf becomes like his kinsman.

These tales are conventional romanticism, and as far as the Vatsdoela is concerned the story is nothing but an afterthought to explain the actual alliance between a Norwegian and a Gautland house. But this romanticism reflects some tendencies of the saga age. There is undoubtedly in Thorolf's and Jokul's longing to have their name and fame restored to the light an egoistic passion, something approaching the anxious hunger for a future and a hope, which we know from other times and places. But their greed of life is satisfied in the assurance that their honour and luck will not be suffered to 'wither away. They are fully content to re-live their life in another man, and the

313

question of their own identity simply cannot penetrate through the mass of the old premises. In Thorolf's words: “To him (his namesake that is to be) I will give all the luck I have had; then I think my name shall live as long as men dwell in the world,” we have in a way two different modes of thought laid one above the other; the old ideas of luck and soul form the pattern into which new thoughts about the hero's personal immortality involuntarily fit when they come to demand expression.

Immortality, accordingly, consists in remaining in luck and honour and knowing it safe; let the thought of one's own well-being arise as potently as it will, it cannot take this form: what is to become of me? As long as life is inseparably bound up with a whole, so that the individual cannot exist at all as individual, the sting which should set the thought of one's own incarnation in motion is lacking. The dead as well as the living kinsman lives in his kin; he thinks their thoughts and their honour, he wills their will, he feels their feelings, he is their body. He is warmed through by the heart-refreshing honour founded by himself, he is fed with luck, and he acts with them, thinks and counsels. And thus the dilemma: to be or not to be, is disposed of beforehand.

When a man has received the assurance that his luck and honour are in safe keeping, and he closes his eyes, he sets off to the place where his kinsmen dwell, — “sets forth to visit his kinsmen” as Egil says of his son — and arrives there in his whole, full person, with body and soul and entire equipment. Not as a spírit which has laid its case aside and comes with chattering teeth stealing down the road to Hel, but as a human being, with human nature. The whole man simply continues his life, under somewhat different conditions, but always in luck, probably somewhat less than before, perhaps also in certain respects a little stronger. He rides his horse and carries his sword, which he flashes at the armed council where the dead assemble, and for his restless goings about he has need of a solid equipment, a well forged weapon nicely balanced to the hand, such as he is used to. He is a solid person, that one can feel and fight with. We should not, it is true, characterise him altogether from

314

the comically dreadful ghosts which go haunting about in several of the Icelandic sagas, fellows who twist people's necks, or perhaps even run about with their own head in their hands, using it for banging at people's doors. Indirectly, however, these ghosts do reveal something of the nature of the dead; this Glam, who rides on the roof of a house till all the beams creak, and comes near to breaking Grettir's arms and legs; this Thorolf Boegifot, who runs after the herdsmen and beats them black and blue, have little reality about them, but they have a reality behind them; they are descended from tangible departed ones, who were quite capable of coming to grips with living men, and perhaps would not give in until their backs were broken or their heads cut off.

On a single occasion — in the story of Hermod — we read that the dead tread far more lightly on the bridge of Hel than do the living. When Hermod is despatched to fetch the god Balder from the dead, his firm steps on the bridge leading into the valley of death fill the bridge keeper with wonder. “Yesterday,” she says, “four hosts of dead men rode over the bridge, but they made less noise than your single horse's step; nor is your face like a dead man's face.” But this observation is probably only relatively valid. Judging from the experiences of the living who have ventured into the underworld, both roads and bridges were fine and solid, evidently built with a view to good sound footsteps, as against the true spirit-worlds, where everything is a-quiver. The poet of the Lay of Eric attains his introductory effect by perfectly legitimate means, when he lets Odin start up from sleep at the resounding steps of Eric Bloody-axe and his men: “What dreams are these? Methought it was in the dawn, when I made room in Valhal for those dead in arms; I woke the einheries, bade them arise, spread straw on the benches and rinse out the ale-mugs; the valkyries should carry wine around, as if it were a king that had come.” The dream was not an illusion, this he knows from the way it warmed his heart, and he cries out: “What is this heavy sound, Bragi, as if a host of a thousand or more came moving forward?” “The

315

walls groan from gable to gable,” comes the answer, “as if it were Balder returning to the halls of Odin.”

In the verses where dead Helgi is visited in his burial mound by Sigrun, the idea of the viking age as to the reality of the dead has found its ideal expression. Sigrun's slave woman went one evening past the barrow, and saw Helgi riding to the mound with a host of men. She told Sigrun what she had seen. Sigrun went into the mound to Helgi: “Lifeless king, a kiss first, ere you cast bloodstained mail. Your hair is thick with rime, Helgi. You are soaked through with the dew of blood. Your hands are clammy and cold. Tell me what I must do.” — “Now we will taste the cup, though I be driven from lust and land, and none to sing a plaint, though the wounds gleam red on my breast; now is the woman come — and closed the door behind her —into the burial mound to me who am dead.” — “Here I have spread a good couch, Helgi, sorrowless; I will sleep in your arms as gladly as were you alive.”

This Helgi and this Sigrun personify, in poetic transfiguration, the thoughts of viking times as to the relation between death and life. Men thought of the dead as like Helgi, and like Sigrun men maintained a practical footing towards them, even though of course it would be only the exceptions who felt any call to go to bed with them. All that these two say to one another is marked throughout by the romantic, anything but Germanic love tenderness which brings them together. It is, one might say, a new feeling which gives colour to the words, but that which gives them life, and which renders the meeting of the pair so natural and straightforward, is the poet's unreflecting ideas of the dead. There is nothing in these verses to suggest that he is outwardly repeating a literary lesson.

A man remained the man he was in regard to form and shape — somewhat reduced, perhaps, but not changed. And in the same way, of course, he would retain his freshness of soul, as surely as he was an honest dead man; he remained like himself, with the same full honour, the same prejudices, the same family pride and the same family restrictions, as well as the same

316

respect for the realities of life. Here lies the weakness of the comical Icelandic ghosts — they differ from their forefathers in having lost something, and this something is nothing else but humanity; the honour and luck that shut up the activity of the dead in the circle where surviving kinsmen move, and attune the doings of the dead to the aspirations of the living, have faded in them. The author of the Eyrbyggja saga is on surer ground. He tells how a body of men that had been drowned out in the fiord, incommoded the living by coming nightly to sit by the fire. At last a wise man hit upon the device of using the force of law against the intruders. The dead men quietly heard out the son of the house while he brought the summons for unrightful entering of the house, but as soon as judgement had been passed upon them one by one they rose from the warm seat by the fire and walked out into the cold. — The dead man retained his loyalty to the home and his interest in all that went about the homestead. Quite naturally then, he would choose himself a good dwelling place with a wide, free outlook over the neighbourhood and his home. Or he might wish to be as near as possible to the house, so as to be able constantly to attend to his customary work. Thorkel Farserk was a very powerful man, both in spirit and in body; he had voyaged with Eric the Red to Greenland, and once, when Eric came to visit him at his house and no seaworthy boat was in at the time, he swam out to an island in the fiord to fetch a sheep for food. No wonder that he went peaceably about his homestead after death, and made himself useful.

A good illustration of the dead man's unity with his past is found in the one-sided but clear light of the humoresque, when we read in Grettir's saga of Kar the Old's activity after death: he dwelt in a solid barrow strengthened with baulks of timber, and from here led the little war with the peasants of the district, so that, in company with his living son, Thorfin, he extended the family property from a single homestead until it covered the entire island of Haramarsey, near South Moeri. Naturally, none of the peasants who enjoyed Thorfin's protection

317

suffered any loss. Kar was pursuing an exclusive family policy, only with the higher means now at his disposal.

And that which was the free man's mark of nobility, his “gladness”, went with his luck into the higher existence. One might hear the dead man singing from his barrow or his ship about his wealth and his renown, in verses such as that known to have been sung by the barrow-dweller Asmund of Langaholt. This distinguished man had been buried in his ship, and the family had with thoughtful care given him a faithful thrall to share the grave, but this company proving by no means to his taste, he begged to have the grizzler taken out. And then he was heard to sing with the proud boastfulness of life: “Now I alone man the ship; room better suits the battle-wont than crowding of base company. I steer my ship, and this will be long in the minds of men.”


'What life really is, we only rightly learn by seeing its dissolution. It is the nature of health to be coldly unapproachable, and it is thus of necessity, and not from inclination, that the psychologist goes to the sick mind in order to learn what is moving in the sound. If we did not know the ideas of different peoples with regard to death, we should in most cases probably be unable to ascertain their views of life. Dissolution shows us, not only what life is worth to them, but also in what this life consists.

We do not find, among our forefathers, any fear of the ending of life. They passed with a laugh of defiance through the inevitable, we are told; or they faced the thought of an earthly ending with a convinced indifference, plainly showing that they did not attach great importance to that event. Life was so strong in its reality that death simply could not count against it, and could not in any way exert the slightest pressure upon its demands. Defiance was part of honour and of what was demanded of a man, and we are thus constrained to seek the roots of this contempt for death deep down in the soul. And the

 

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page