The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



Against this background the old poet-chief of Borg, Egil Skallagrimson, stands out in his true tragical grandeur, when he keens for his drowned son and defies the wench of the sea as he sees her erect on the headland or fiercely rocking the dear corpse in the deep. In a world where all is hamingja, his words find their true violence and their true sadness. Not for nothing does the word titanic rise to our lips in regard to his challenge of the heavenly powers; for titanic defiance is our highest expression of human helplessness; a titan, in our world, is he who has renounced the task of moving the world, and purposely crushes himself in order to demonstrate that our heads are only made to be broken against that which is stronger. But the contrast between our world and that in which Egil moves, is brought out sharply when we compare the modern titan who is set outside the world as a unit against the dumb and blind powers of the universe, with an Egil standing as representative of a world in which man is the core and ties nature to himself by strong bonds of soul. It is not titanic obstinacy, not defiance, not megalomania that inspires the old chief, but the simple reality that man's hamingja is large enough to include the sun and the moon and the whole world, and can challenge gods on equal ground without any titanic hint of magnificent absurdity. Perhaps there is a modern touch in his despair; Egil belongs to an age in which contact with western Christianity called forth strange revolutions in the minds of men, but at the very moment when the spiritual community


seems to link up between him and us, the character of his melancholy severs all intimacy. He is helpless because the luck and hamingja of his family has failed; he has few behind him, so runs his plaint, and that means that there is a paucity and lack of strength within him. It is not because his foes are gods and he but a man that he despairs, if he were but enough he would stand by his word and take up the combat with the powers who have stolen his son.

It would seem that even if all other ideas that issue from human brains will always bear the restricting stamp of time and place, the sphere of numbers should be a common ground where folk of all races and tongues could meet. And yet even here we do not escape the Babel of culture. To have many kinsmen and many children was a necessity of life under the old regime, a numerous clan was a sign of great luck. This seems easy enough in alien words, but the thing no alien speech can express is the intensity of this need of kin. Tacitus can say of the Germanic type that the more kinsmen he has on his father's and mother's side, the happier an old age he can look forward to. But for the Roman, the many were stronger than the few, whereas the Germanic idea held one of many as stronger in himself than one of few. We add the numbers up one by one to a total, our primitive cousins see the number as something that puts force into any member of the numerous clan.

But after all has been heard, and the question: what is the family? has been answered, we come to the next: where is it? We have described the contents of the soul, but the problem remains: how far does it go, which people belong to it, and which stand without?

Several investigators have wrestled with this problem in one form or another, when they moved in regions where the population marched up against them in tribes and clans and families. And they have perhaps often enough given up the task, contenting themselves with a definition which at best covered the bulk of the facts and left the remainder to find a place for themselves. They have perhaps had to deal with


a tribe, a clan or whatever it may properly be called, which was united by the bond of blood and by vengeance to an indissoluble whole in face of all the rest of the world; and the savants have seen with dismay that this indissoluble whole suddenly fell asunder in two parties which bravely enough by internecine strife helped one another to keep manhood and the feeling of blood alive, when peace became too oppressive about them.

Facts will continue to contradict one another, and the problem will remain unaffected by all solutions, as long as we — like the Neo-Europeans we are — start by supposing that a solid whole must be expressible in a definite figure, and take it for granted that the family must be transposable into a reckoning up of generations.

The secret of primitive society is to be sought not in outer forms but in the energy of the clan feeling. The one and unchangeable reality is frith and solidarity, and this reality is so strong that it makes one body and one soul of the kinsmen; but the extent of the soul is determined by the needs of the moment. At one time a body of men will act as a homogeneous clan, next time they will split up into a couple of conflicting groups. The secret of the force contained in the principle of frith is not that it demands a fixed number of men to be effective, but that its power of tension acts unswervingly on the circle so far as the occasion gives it scope to act.

It is, then, not the construction of the soul that makes the difference between them and us. The life of modern man too has many axes and rotates in different circles. One day he is a family man, next day a citizen of his country; one hour he acts as a member of a corporation, another moment as his own very self, as an individual, and his thoughts and feelings vary in force and content according to the task allotted to them. The difference between modern individuals and primitive clansmen lies in the character of the circles and in the intensity of feeling. In our lives, the single self of the isolated individual is the strongest and most vivid of all selves, and all the other modes of life draw their power of thought and their warmth of feeling from the experience of the soul when it is alone and


concerned with its own private happiness. The true religious man is he who cares immensely for his own salvation, and thus learns to take an interest in other people's souls. In primitive culture, the current works the opposite way. The circle can never be narrowed down to a single soul, and the most potent motives in the individual arise from the life he has in common with his brothers. Sympathy in us may be strong and comforting, but it is too vague to need definite forms, and it is too inarticulate to be able to create social institutions; in primitive man, sympathy is so overwhelming and so fundamental that it will determine all the forms of society without exceptions, and life within the different circles is so intense that it will realise itself in outward forms and laws.

The problem of primitive society cannot be solved by our hunting for a typical nucleus of society, either family or clan or tribe or horde, and explaining the manifold forms in existence as variations or evolutions of a fundamental system. The question before us assumes this form: how far will the inner force work in an actual culture? How small can the circle be, and what is its extreme possibility? What can the clan include and what is excluded beforehand?

If we watch the recurrence of names throughout the clans we can gather an idea of the possible extent of kinship, because a family could not appropriate a name without the right involved by spiritual alliance. In the customs of name-giving as they shaped themselves in Scandinavia, we find some indications of the plasticity of the soul. The habit of naming after former kinsmen shows that to the soul belonged first and foremost blood-kin in the direct ascending line. Often grandfather and greatgrandfather are resurrected in the infant, when their demise occurred prior to his coming into the world, and with the same frequency grandfather's and father's brothers are called into life once more as soon as they have gone away. Furthermore the luck of the brothers-in-law is eagerly drawn into the clan, the child being named after its mother's father, mother's brother or more distant kin on the distaff side; but the naming is not restricted to direct regeneration through


the person of the mother. All the hamingja that belongs to the allied family lies open to the clan. Very often younger brothers and sisters of the bridegroom or the bride will appear as living witnesses to the bridal pact between the two families, their father will freely remember his newly acquired brothers-in-law in children born after the marriage of his son or daughter. And even more prominent is the tendency to name children after people whom we might call secondary relatives-in-law, perhaps even in the third or fourth degree. After the alliance, the clan drew as a whole upon the brothers-in-law as a homogeneous whole.

In several of these respects the Vatsdoela family provides a comprehensive illustration, filled out as it is by family traditions which, whether historical in our narrower sense of the word or not, show what men thought of their own names. The first man of the family standing forth in the full light of history is Thorstein, a Norwegian who according to family tradition won a bride from the kingly house of Gautland. When a son was born to Thorstein he wished to nail the luck of the Gautland nobles to his family at once, and called the boy Ingimund after his wife's father. The fundamental truth of the family-legend is vouched for by this name, which is decidedly not Norwegian but has a Gautland ring. Ingimund continued the two strands in his children. First he remembered his own late father Thorstein, then in his second son he raised Jokul, the brother of his mother, and when a daughter was born to him he called her Thordis after his own mother, the Gautland princess. With his son Thorir he sealed his own relationship with the renowned earls of Moeri in the west of Norway; Ingimund was married to a daughter of Earl Thorir the Silent. And with his other children he reached out far into distant circles of kinship. Through an Icelandic branch of the Moeri family he became related to a prominent chieftain, Thord Illugi, and when an illegitimate son was born to Ingimund he called him Smidr after Thord's son, Eyvind Smidr. Now Thord Illugi belonged directly through his father to the widely spreading family which was proud of tracing its descent back to Bjorn


Buna, a petty king in Norway, and when another daughter was born to Ingimund he remembered a Jorun of that ilk. Finally his son Hogni is witness to the fact that Ingimund felt all the relations of the Bjorn Buna descendants as his kin, for one branch of that house intermarried with the descendants of a famous house of Norwegian kings in Hordaland, rich in legends that find an echo in Half's saga, and in this clan Hogni the White was a prominent figure immediately before the time when Iceland was colonised. Thus the Vatsdoela family gathered up luck and hamingja through a multitude of channels.

But the circle is not completed with mother's and father's side. The step-father's family may contain a fund of luck to which one would gladly have access; such a custom accounts for the fact that Erling Skjalgson, who married a daughter of Astrid and Tryggvi and thus became brother-in-law of King Olaf Tryggvason, names one of his sons after Astrid's subsequent husband, Lodin. Erling's daughter was named Geirthrud, and there is a strong probability that this name, which is unprecedented in Norway, is derived from a queen Geira whom Olaf Tryggvason is said to have married in Vendland during his exile from Norway. So also former marriages may have laid the foundations of an honour which it was desirable to preserve for oneself and one's kin. When the poet Hallfred took unto himself a Swedish wife, he called their son after her former husband, and thus kept up the luck of the deceased Swede. The unruly Icelander Glum had a daughter, Thorlaug, who was married several times; in her last marriage she gave birth to a son, and she renewed in him the curious name of her former husband, who was called Eldjarn.

Name-giving would undoubtedly reveal still further possibilities for the healthy greed of the soul, if our material were more extensive, or at any rate, in several respects allowed us to link up a connection between the dry registers of names and the history of the bearers. We may regard it as certain that both adoption and fostering have left their traces in the family archives, but indisputable instances can hardly be cited.


As far as these possibilities go, so far kinship has weight, and the moment frith is appealed to, men enter into a compact body in which no account is taken of far and near, but all are simply kinsmen to one another. Before a court of law, the individual's oath was valid only in as far as it carried with it the will of a whole family, and had therefore regularly to be supported by a circle of ,,compurgators” who confirmed with their conviction the assertion of the one who swore as principal. Here, the law can safely be content with demanding so and so many men of his kin, trusting that life in each individual case has beforehand determined who shall be included under that heading, and that the name of kinsman always covers a man who can take his place in the chain of oath.

The action of these kinsmen inwardly shows very soon that they are not a loosely assembled troop, held together by a vague feeling of opposition to all others. The unity they form has sufficient practical firmness to carry out the functions of a social organism. When it is a question of arranging life for a minor or giving away a kinswoman in marriage, then one of the clan stands forward as bearing the responsibility, viz. the natural guardian, or, if he should fall away, then the nearest of kin — son after father, then brother, and so on to the more distant kin, as the rules may run. But behind the individual we discern for the most part a definite circle of men, and we constantly find, in the indications of the laws, the kinsmen stepping forth out of the gloom, revealing themselves, not merely as interested parties in all important undertakings, but also claiming respect for their participation. When it is hinted that wards can seek protection among their kin against unwarrantable interference on the part of the guardian, or that the clan can step in where a guardian is found to be plundering instead of guarding, this precautionary right is only a pale survival from a time when the clan exercised the guardianship and the individual, even the father himself, only acted as the representative and executor of the kinsmen. The Anglo-Saxons express the full reality when they bring forward, at the ceremony of betrothal, the kinsmen of bride and bridegroom respectively

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