The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


Northern appreciation of life is fully and entirely shown in the picture given by Tacitus of the young men: “If their fatherland grow idle in long peace and inaction, then most of the highborn youths seek their way to such peoples as are at war, because these men are not by nature given to peace and quiet, and because it is easier to win renown where perils play one against another — undoubtedly one of the least romantic of Tacitus' psychological descriptions, and most genuine as to its contents. These “high-born youths” then, would hardly have lived in an environment where death was regarded as an object of dread, a thing that stole up behind men and breathed coldly down their necks.

When a man had received his final wound, and realised that his time was come, he strode with firm steps to the barrow, and settled himself there for the future, well content with the equipment his kinsmen had given him there. But is he not after all become a man of less moment than he was in the flesh? Naturally, he would need to have his luck unimpaired in order to continue his life within the portals of the grave, but this does not imply that he took it all with him. Does he after all become weaker in bodily strength? Will his wisdom, his foresight, sink? Will there be less activity in him? The answers to our questions are perplexingly contradictory. We find indications that death could give a man deeper wisdom and higher insight in the future. Why should Odin go out and question the dead sybil, as he does in the Eddic poem Vegtamskvida, if it were not that the dead at times stood at the highest stage of insight? And Odin's voyage to the kingdom of the dead was undoubtedly modelled on real life. Old Kar seems to have increased his vitality after settling in his grave, but at other times it is clear that a strong man shows a rather marked falling off after his decease. Sometimes life in the transit fell to a decidedly lower measure of happiness. When Helgi meets Sigrun in the barrow, he speaks as if this meeting with all its joy were something he stole from life; he will have happiness, even though he be driven from lust and land. But on the other hand, the pictures of Valhal suggest a tendency to reverse life and death,


and regard the after-state as an enhancement of the sense of life. On the fields of death there grows an inexhaustible crop of honour; this must be the meaning of the daily battle outside the gates of Valhal, and thus we have the clear and strong expression of the conviction that existence does not lose in quality. In the halls of death the joyful intercourse is continued, life in honour and frith with gladness; all that we have found that life, in the eminent sense, depended on, the hero takes with him through the doorway of the grave.

Valhal belongs to a particular sphere of culture. The active, boisterous life of the einheries is hardly imaginable without the exalted and over-hasty pace of life in viking days, where such ideals as honour and fame after death were forced up to such a degree that the root could no longer support them, and they flowered to death. But Valhal could not be built up loosely above the earth, it must have its foundation deeply laid in popular feelings. Prior to the poetical consecration of a heaven of battle there must be a direct faith in the future, and this not a faith vaguely in the clouds, but a sure conviction that man finds himself again in the burial mound. From the story in the Eyrbyggja of the end of Thorstein Cod-bite we can form an idea as to how the einherie dogma appeared as a family myth. It is told that the same evening Thorstein was drowned, a shepherd saw Helgafell open: in the interior of the hill burned great fires — as in the hall, of course — and there came a sound of merriment and the rattle of drinking horns; listening carefully, the man could distinguish voices bidding Thorstein and his companions welcome, and inviting him to be seated in the high seat opposite his father. This herdsman brings us a message from an everyday world and an everyday habit of mind, which but for him would have been lost without a trace. He gives us at the same time the means of understanding what it is that makes the einheries such powerful figures, and the stories of their life with Odin myths instead of poetry. But on the other hand, it is easy to see why the belief in Valhal came to be something entirely different from its premises. The confident faith has become conscious of itself. Before the joy of the warriors


in fighting and drinking in the hall of death — mandream —could become an enhanced enjoyment of life, there had to come a reflection whereby the value of life was loosed from life itself, and regarded independently. The undismayed attitude towards death has undergone the same process as honour and posthumous fame; from being realities, they became ideal values, and ended as qualities of a virtuoso.

And now on the other hand, Helgi's touching lament for what he has lost! The scene belongs rather to Germanic Middle Ages than Nordic antiquity, we may fairly say. The hero's sentiment, his wistful dwelling on his loss and longing is mediæval in its tone. But the wistfulness is nevertheless warranted in the thought of the old régime. The modern element lies in the fact that the contrast between past and present breaks out into a lyrical mood. The contrast does not come in with the Helgi poet, but it takes on a new aspect, because men become conscious of themselves and their feelings. We cannot dispose of the contrast altogether by arranging the stories into historical perspectives. In reality the brighter and the darker view of the state after death are not so wide apart that they can face each other in hostility; they supplement each other, they take it in turns to overlap each other. The difficulty which we feel does not lie in the answers, but in the question. It is natural to us to put the problem generally: is death a boon or a calamity? will death improve the condition of a man or not? and we transfer our problem into the discussion of primitive and ancient peoples and their “view of death”. The Teutons had no permanent ever-valid solution, because they had no everlasting problem; death is to them only a variety of life dependent upon the forces which act in the light of the sun. The dead man lives in his kinsmen, in every sense of the word: his luck is incorporated in those who survive him, and the life he leads in the grave and in the neighbourhood of the grave has now as formerly its source in kinsmen's luck. It means a difference, certainly, if a man loses “land and lust” so to speak without compensation, and merely glides over into the shadow, or on the other hand, fills himself with honour, luck, and life in the very moment of death, falling


in a circle of down-stricken enemies, with whose warm blood he has sprinkled himself, and whose honour he has used as food for his own. But when all is said and done, the hero who takes a host of enemies with him into the grave cannot himself determine whether he is to enjoy his wealth. His power of utilising the abundance gained depends on how far the surviving kinsmen can assimilate the surplus and save it from rotting in stagnation.

A man, then, died as his power of life enabled him. The great man of luck slid with a little bump across the reef, and sailed on. Inferiors, poor folk, might find themselves stranded, to sink and disappear. He who had great store of soul could, according to human calculations, live for ever; the poor in soul stood in sore peril of using up his stock in this world.

The faith in the luck running in the clan can lead to a class organisation, as soon as external circumstances direct the human tendency to draw conclusions towards a social system. The proud men of luck find unity in a common feeling of kinship in life, the lower types join, or are thrown together, in a spiritual middle class, and midway between the two there may perhaps arise a buffer estate of intermediate nobility, aiming upward, but moving inevitably downward. And with this class organisation follows a fair distribution of life here and life hereafter for both high and low, in close agreement with the qualifications of birth. Along this road it is possible to arrive at a system firm and clear as that which obtained among certain of the South Sea Islanders, before European democracy stepped in and ruined

it. Among the Tonga Islanders, immortality ceased midway between the first and third orders of rank; that is to say: the first class, the chieftains' families, would be fully entitled to life in the underworld; the second class of life hereafter would depend upon a sort of personal nobility in the case of the male head of a family in actual service at court, with succession vesting in the eldest son after the father's death — almost in the English fashion. Our authority states, it is true, that among the excluded there were some who preferred the uncertainty of trusting in themselves to the safe and ordered exclusion; the old system, then, was not altogether overcome.


The Northmen never attained to a system of immortality arranged on such beautiful lines. We find here and there an incipient class-formation, as for instance when certain laws set a sliding scale of fines for manslaughter, according to the social position of the slain; the chieftains could perhaps be called men of godly descent, but the great would yet hardly anywhere have reached so far as to occupy their position in virtue of belonging to a category. And the process of development had certainly nowhere advanced to the stage of establishing state control and regulation of the life to come, when that development itself abruptly ended. The arrangement current in viking times of kingly halls for men slain under arms, for drowned men, for honest tillers of the soil, has its roots in the popular belief: it was taken for granted that men in the life hereafter would find one another, drink and pass judgement with one another, and had not lost the need of definite forms and recognised custom which had regulated the gatherings at the law-thing; but the idea of a realm for the dead never went beyond the imagination of poets fired by contact with the Christian eschatology. Each had to arrange for his own future, and would receive hereafter according to his means and power while here. He had still to depend on the luck of the clan. The king lived a kingly life in his barrow; the day-labourer's slender luck would probably but just avail to win him some little span of shadowy existence in the grave. From all we can learn of the thoughts of everyday life in the North, each clan had its own private Hades; and if a clan were not powerful enough to procure a suitable dwelling place for its departed, there were certainly no public halls open to admit homeless souls.

The king sits as a king in his burial mound, and rules in all probability as king from there, just as in life he sat in his hall and by virtue of his kinsmen ruled from there, at the same time letting his clan-luck act upon the neighbours about him. He is king in death by virtue of what he is, not of what he was. And what he is depends entirely on the activity of his kinsmen.

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