The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


of life — always provided the kinsmen themselves have a luck strong enough to ward off the mighty force of words that pours in upon them.

Among our forefathers we may find lofty examples of submission to the general will, side by side with astounding contempt for law and order. Their social conscience was more active, and therefore more elastic than it can ever be among people who seat a judge upon a codex and place a regular policeman behind the offender, ready to deal with him according to instructions. Nowadays the ideas of right are more or less uniform throughout the whole of a population; the fear of justice hardly attains to anything that could properly be called veneration, and defiance dwindles for the most part to an uncertain taking advantage of circumstances and searching for loop-holes in legal paragraphs. In the Germanic society, the means of law were legal adaptations of everyday forms and drew their force from the inner experience of the parties at law. Consequently the feelings of men face to face with legal condemnation were of a wider and more plastic character than nowadays. Men could feel themselves enslaved by a word, and they could with sovereign contempt disregard the most solemn anathema; one would be stricken numb by a sentence of outlawry, while his neighbour regards it as a mere insult, possibly even of too slight a character to awaken his interest. If the means of law take root, then they hold with a terrific strength, but where they fail to grasp honour they drift empty away. Obedience to law and defiance of law — words only applicable in the looser sense are alike in power, because they come from the same stratum of the soul; they do not annul each other, but can exist side by side, even in one and the same person, without any sense of schism.

We know that far into modern times, the common people have preserved their old estimate of outlawry. The kings were generally progressive men in league with the ideas of law and royal rights that were propagated by western civilization and the Roman church. The peasants stuck to the old law that lived


in the hearts and not in books. No wonder that the king's conviction that right is right and must be right comes fiercely into collision with the peasants' failure to get beyond the fundamental morality that right must be felt to be right, or it does not exist. The slayer sits at home under shelter of old-fashioned kinship, and the king sits in his court in the light of modern culture, ransacking the language for words strong enough to use for these obstinate fellows who let a decree of outlawry pass over their heads without moving from the spot. “It is insufferable that they should prosper in their unrighteousness,” says Hakon Magnusson in 1315. And in 1315, the king is right; the peasants are in process of becoming defiers of the law, not because their feeling and sense of right have altered, but because the law has changed; it has at last been liberated from the tutelage of experience, and placed under the mighty protection of logical conclusions. But yet the peasant had no feeling of being wrong, because the experience of the ancestors was still strong within him. A man is no outlaw as long as there is a body of kinsmen willing and able to keep him; not until he has been severed from life does he become a dangerous being, driven out and shunned.

But when the curse has been uttered, and the clan has renounced the condemned man by taking part in the oath whereby the law-thing “swears him out”, or the thing-men by clash of arms have assumed obligations among themselves against him, the outlaw is dead. He is flung out from the life of men, and may be hunted “as far as men hunt wolves”, because he is a wolf, vargr, “void of luck and pleasure”. As an outlaw and a niding he bears the “wolf's head”, that is to say, originally, he is transformed into a wolf, running wild on the heath and rending carrion. And yet he can, by one step across a threshold, enter into life again, if only he can find a circle willing to receive him into its own life and regenerate him into a brother. The moment he is greeted in a house and offered a seat, the bestial nature falls from him, and he is once more a man.

The words uttered by Gudrun in the Greenland Atlamál as to her own and her brothers' achievements in their youth,


might indeed be spoken with the literal earnestness of prose: “We freed from the forest him we wished to save, we gave him luck who nothing owned.”

If life and death were the two schematic magnitudes they are sometimes reckoned in a practical sense, they would fill out all existence without leaving space for a thought to lie concealed, and they would then be the safest words to translate from and into any speech. As it is, they are not quantities, but qualities, and the task of interpreting them from one language to another may prove the occasion of years of study. We have inherited the word “to die” from our forefathers, and we use it of the same process as they did, but in reality, its meaning has undergone so great a change that linguistic continuity hardly suffices to unite the two ideas into one personality.

In the Old Scandinavian, it is possible to frame such an expression as this anent the underworld: Men die into that world, and without commenting on the genuineness of this form of speech, we may take the word as a useful hint, indicating that death then was a more complex idea than it is now (or seems to be, for our words are complex in their way, and when we say that a thing is simple the words mean nothing but that we ourselves are placed at the focus of the thoughts concerning it). There was always, in a way, the need of a more precise definition of what men died into. The terms of life and death, which now appear so unconditionally opposite, were rather two groups of states and their reverses, linked into each other. Now, the process means cessation of life, whereas in those days, it was a transition from life to life; now, to die means the great cut into existence, but to the ancients the transition from one state to another that left the life of luck untouched, could never rank as a catastrophe. If then we would not relinquish the essential part of our word, its bitterness, its reference to the end and altering of plans, its regard to the thinning of ranks, its absolute “halt!” then no etymology can help us to equivalents in the ancient tongue. We must give up hope of finding an exact


counterpart in that culture, but in the transition from luck to unluck we come nearest to the irreparable conversion, which we denote with that stern word.

This death could befall a man in living life, and he could just as well meet it in the kingdom of death, or at the transition between the two. In this possibility, that to expire might mean the passing of the soul, lie the seriousness and the peril which made the change a crisis, not only for the departed, but also for those nearest to him. Those left behind took all precautions, we may imagine, though we do not know very much about the ceremonies attending death. In the Icelandic literature, we do not find any other precautionary measure directly described beyond the nábjargir, the saving of the corpse, which appears to have consisted chiefly in pressing the nostrils together, but we may doubtless take it that earlier times had a more comprehensive ritual. There was no doubt something of ill omen about a corpse not yet so treated, not least when the catastrophe had been caused by violence, so as to leave vengeance due. Presumably a kind of inquest was held in order to arrive at the cause of death; when the wounds had been counted, one of the assembled kinsmen would solemnly assume responsibility for setting matters right, and place himself at the head of the undertaking by carrying out the nábjargir. In other cases also, where anything unusual in the manner of death might seem to suggest that an unluck had fallen upon the house, there might be reason for care in dealing with the body of the departed. When Gudmund the Mighty, the chieftain at Modruveffir, froze to death from within on hearing a man relate a strange dream, the mistress of the house forbade any to touch the corpse until his brother Einar had inspected it; the latter's wisdom at once discerned the cause, that it was the power of the dream that had turned his vitals to ice, and thereupon he attended to the body. —People who had been slain by monsters were more than others apt to “walk” in an uncanny sense, and the same took place where a pestilential sickness raged. Balance and security were not restored until the funeral feast had been solemnised with due rites and ceremonies, and the dead man had been “shown”


to his place, — “shown to Valhal”, as the phrase runs in later language, by a modernising of an ancient formula. Nevertheless, we must not lay emphasis solely on the uncanny side; for with people who were firmly set in their luck, this interregnum was after all only a brief pause, wherein life was brought to a standstill for a while; there were sure means of re-establishing safety both for the dead and the living. In doubtful cases, on the other hand, where vengeance was uncertain, where luck stood but indifferently on its feet, there was death in the house.

The idea of annihilation has shown itself a hard one to grasp, and thought still fumbles without being able to discover pure nothing or sheer cessation. Our forefathers had practical reasons for trying to effect an absolute death. To live in a district with demon souls was not to be thought of; they were too uncanny and too massive. Somehow or other it was necessary to conjure them over into the wilderness of demons, where they had their kinsfolk and acquaintance. But after all, Utgard lay very near to the world of men, and one never knew when these ill-boding creatures would be at one's doors again; none could be sure but that he might find himself squeezed one evening late. It was better perhaps to bind the spook bodily, by heaping stones on him or driving a stake through him, or moving him over to some outlying reef where the excess of moisture would reduce his mobility. But it happened often enough that all precautions proved vain, however thoroughly they might be carried out. Then destruction was heaped upon destruction, the head, perhaps, first chopped off, then the whole body burned and the ashes strewn in the sea, in the hope of thus reducing the soul to atoms so small as to be practically non-existent. But the cessation of existence itself, as the last and decisive opposite to life, was never reached. Thought and hand thrust their object out to a boundary and dumped it down into a mist, but this mist was after all nothing but forgetting. Renown contains, as we have seen, in a literal sense the highest form of soul and the strongest pressure of life, and thus it is also literally true to the ancient sense that the opposite pole of life is a deep forgetfulness where none knows one's name or one's place.

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