The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



The most thoroughgoing attempt to enter the kinsmen into a comprehensive system was made in Norway. In its rules for the payment of weregild, the Gulathing's Law arranges the participants into three groups of men, each of whom has to pay or receive one of the principal rings, but to these “ring men” are added three classes of other kinsmen who are called receivers — uppnámamenn — because they can lay claim to certain additional fees. In the first group of receivers are gathered such as father's brother, brother's son, mother's father, daughter's son; the second group is composed of brother's daughter's son, mother's brother, sister's son and cousin through father's sister and mother's brother, and finally in the third group meet mother's sister's son, cousin's son, father's cousin, mother's mother's brother and sister's daughter's son. Apart from these receivers there are some additional parties to the cause called sakaukar, additional receivers; among them are counted the son and brother whose mother was slaveborn, and half-brothers having the same mother. But the enumeration is not yet complete. The law still adds a new group consisting of men attached to the clan by marriage; the man who has a man's daughter, he who has his sister, further stepfather and stepson, sworn brother and foster-brother.

These tables are complicated enough to produce something of a roundabout feeling in a modern head, unaccustomed to following family mathematics beyond sums with two or three factors. What a relief, then, to be able to settle down among


the Norsemen's less ingenious brothers, with the reflection that artificial systems must have their root in artificial forms. But simplicity — that is to say, something convenient to the pattern our brains are built on — is unfortunately after all no infallible criterion of age. Complications also arise when a complex feeling, which in practice always goes surely, has to reckon out all its instinctive movements in figures, and struggles with itself until it stands agape before its own inscrutability.

Before accusing the Norwegian lawyers of modern tendencies or of innovations we must first make sure that their ingenuity has effected a system running counter to ancient clan feeling and affirming a modern family conscience, but the rules for distributing the fines are particularly designed to place all these people in categories running athwart all calculations in lines and degrees. They are herded together — father's brother, brother's son, daughter's son, mother's father by themselves, mother's brother, brother's daughter's son, sister's son by themselves — in groups that certainly cannot have been invented for the purpose of schematising nearness of kin according to our genealogical principles. And it ought to give us pause that the lawyer in another place, after having struggled to gather the rules of inheritance into a regular system ends with a resigned appeal to individual judgment of actual cases: for the rest each must manage to make it out for himself, “so manifold are the ways of kinship between men that none can make rules for all inheritance, a cause arising must be judged as is deemed best according to its nature”. The group arrangement is undoubtedly based on a principle having broad premises in the Teutons' mode of thought.

It is obvious that here is a man who struggles to force refractory ideas into a system that was not made for them. And this is the difficulty more or less of all Teuton laws, that they are put to the attempt of transposing clan feeling into a reckoning of kindred in degrees and generations that was foreign to indigenous ideas. Latin civilization made history grow like branches or twigs on family trees, and in the relations of men one with another it recognized only the formula: father


begot son and son begot son's son. The Icelanders learnt the art of making chronological history and genealogical trees, and even rose to be masters of the profession, their wits being considerably sharpened by the revolution in all family matters that was the consequence of their emigrating with kith and kin into a new country and their minds being enlightened by intimate intercourse with people of the western isles. Thus it comes that the family history after the colonisation of Iceland is a system of clear genealogical lines, while all history before that event is conceived in another spirit and expressed in myths, as we call a form with which we are unfamiliar. On the emigrants' island, the simplest peasant knew every detail of his status by descent and by marriage from the first settlement in the country, whereas among the first settlers themselves very few knew more than their grandfather, and all the prominent figures of history are introduced with a father and at most a grandfather.

Even in the royal family itself, Harald Fairhair's father represents the end of history. Harald's contemporary, the powerful earl of Moeri, can hardly be said to have more than a grandfather; the same applies to Earl Hakon of Hladi, while his most dangerous opponent, Earl Atli of Gaular, is registered in history as his father's son. The noblest born of all the original settlers in Iceland, Geirmund, whose forefathers were kings by full right, had to pass down into history as merely the son of Hjor. All that lies behind these two or three prehistoric generations is myth. And while the Icelandic peasants, with their pride of race, made themselves leaders of Europe in scientific accuracy of reckoning, we find in Norway no great change in men's genealogical sense; as late as the eleventh and twelfth centuries, we find prominent families entering into history in a strangely abrupt fashion.

“A man was called Finnvid the Found; he was discovered in an eagle's nest, swathed in silken garments. From him descends the family called the Arnunga race. His son was Thorarin Bulliback, his son Arnvid, who was the father of Earl Arnmod. He is the ancestor of the Arnmodlings.” This is the simple


genealogy of Norwegian grandees of the 11th century. Generally the pedigrees lead through a couple of links to a barrow, as for instance Bardi, the princeling who was buried in Bardistad, or Ketil, who lies in Vinreid. Exactly the same peculiarity is met with in the Anglo-Saxon traditions about the ancestors of the kingly races in Great Britain.

New organs did not grow forth suddenly in the brains of Englishmen or Icelanders. They had learned at home to keep faith with the past, and steadfastly to keep it alive; they only re-shaped the old tradition on a new basis. Earlier, too, men had cherished their family history, handing it down from generation to generation, but in a form that fitted with a view of time as a plane, and the soul as a thing ever present.

Luckily we are not left to speculate vaguely how the North-men reckoned their kin before becoming acquainted with the genealogies of the South. Among the literary remains of Scandinavia are found a couple of poems which introduce us to the circle in the hall of the chief, listening when his mighty hamingja is praised and his ancestors enumerated. The Eddic poem of Hyndluljód is certainly not as it stands a pure family piece; it has been retouched by a poet versed in the poetic fashions of the viking age, and by him embellished with some additions from the mythological stock-in-trade. But the additions only affect the framework of the poem; the core is a Norwegian family pedigree as it used to be cited in the ancestral hall. The centre of the poem is a young atheling called Ottar, evidently belonging to a noble race of Western Norway, and the words, slightly abreviated, run thus:

“Ottar was born of Innstein, and Innstein of Alf the Old, Alf of Ulf, Ulf of Sæfari, Sæfari of Svan the Red.

Your mother's name was Hiedis; a woman in noble rings and necklaces she was whom your father took for his honoured wife. Her father was Frodi, and her mother Friaut; all that race were reckoned among the great.

Formerly lived Ali richest of men, and earlier still Halfdan highest among Scyldings. All can tell of the great battles that the bold hero held.


He joined with Eymund, high in worth among men, and slew Sigtrygg with cool sword edge; he brought home Almveig, high in worth among women; eighteen sons were born to that pair.

Thence came the Scyldings, thence the Scilfings, thence Audlings and Ynglings; from them proud franklins, from them chieftains — all these are your race.

Hildigunn was her mother, daughter of Svava and Sækonung — all are your kin. Mark well, it means much that you know this; and now hear yet more.

Dag married Thora, mother of heroes, in that race were born champions before all others: Fradmar and Gyrd and the two Freki, Am, Josurmar and Alf the Old. Mark well, it means much that you know this.

Their friend was called Ketil, Klyp's heir; he was mother's father to your mother; there was Frodi and before him Kari and earlier yet was born Alf.

Then Nanna, Nokkvi's daughter — her son was kin by marriage to your father; it is an old kinship; and yet more I can count, both Broddi and Horfi — these are all your kin.

Isolf and Asolf, Olmod's sons, with their mother Skurhild, daughter of Skekkil. To many men you may count yourself akin. All are your race, Ottar.

In Bolm in the East were born the sons of Arngrim and Eyfura, the berserks who rushed destroying over land and sea as fire leaps.

I know both Broddi and Horfi; they served among the king's men of Hrolf the Old.

All born from Earmanric, kinsman by marriage to Sigurd who slew the dragon.

This king was descended from Volsung, and Hjordis (Sigurd's mother) was of Hraudung's kin, but Eylimi (her father) was descended from the Audlings — all are your kin.

Gunnar and Hogni, heirs of Gjuki, and Gudrun their sister . . . . . . all are your kin.

Harald Hilditonn born of Hroerek, son he was of Aud,


Ivar's daughter, but Radbard was Randver's father. These men were consecrated to the gods — strong, holy kings — all are your kin.”

The poet then passes on to the enumeration of the gods of the clan.

The reckoning up of Ottar's ancestors is not based on conceiving and begetting. The poem enumerates a number of hamingjas which belonged to Ottar and his kinsmen. In the middle stand, as the main stem of the clan, Ottar, his father and mother with their nearest of kin, and about them are ranged a multitude of circles overlapping one another, some based on begetting, others on marriage, others again perhaps on fostering. Among these hamingjas are pure Norwegian clans such as that Horda-Kari clan indicated by Klyp and Olmod, a famous race which attained renown in Iceland with the lawgiver Ulfljot, and wrote itself into Norway's history as Erling Skjalgson of Soli. There are families from the East such as that who is introduced by Angantyr of Bolm in Sweden. There are Danish stocks such as the Scyldings; and the connections of Ottar even reach beyond the frontiers of Scandinavia and draw the luck of Volsungs and Burgundians into his soul.

Within these circles there may occur some indications of fathership and sonship placing the men in relation to one another, but parallel to these indications run phrases that merely affirm how this or that hero “was” or “lived” in former times, or state that “this is an old kinship”.

Another poem recording the pride of a Norwegian family is the Ynglingatal. This monumental poem is composed by one of the greatest scalds of the ninth century, Thjodolf, in honour of a petty king called Rognvald Heidumhærri. In this poem, the kinsmen of Rognvald are reckoned up in a direct line to the divine kings of Upsala, and though there are no indications in the verses that one king begot the next, the commentators are perhaps not so very far from the mark when they suppose it to have been Thjodolf's intention to connect the ancestors into a genealogical line. Probably the Ynglingatal is a compromise between the old system and the more fashionable


form of pedigrees that was coming in. This way of translating ancient facts into modern style can be illustrated by the Anglo-Saxon pedigrees in which the groups of ancestors are piled one on another into a ladder; the original arrangement sometimes shows through the fact that a founder of a race or a god is automatically put into the middle of the list and made the son of mortal men. Thus also Thjodolf's Ynglingatal shows traces of the process of adaptation: the old circle system peeps through the lines.

The verses of Thjodolf are compressed and often obscure — to us — because the poet, as already indicated, was not compiling an historical narrative but hinting at facts well known in the hall of his employer. Snorri has added a commentary which is partly drawn out of the verses by an ingenious reader, partly no doubt rests on additional data which he has evidently elicited by interrogating persons acquainted with the family.

After the poet has, in the first verses, proved divine descent from Frey through Sveigdir and Fjolnir, he begins with Vanlandi the series of the earthly kings; and baldly paraphrased the poem runs as follows:

Vanlandi met his death through witchcraft. The troll-born ‚woman crushed him with her feet, and the king's pyre flamed in the banks of the river Skuta.

The commentary adds: Vanlandi was crushed by a night-mare. He had married a Finnish princess and had left his bride never to return; his wife hired a sorceress to draw him to Finland by charms or else to kill him.

Visbur was swallowed by the fire, when the sons urged the mischievous destroyer of the forest against their father, so that he bit the great prince to death in the hall.

Comm.: Visbur deserted his first queen, and her sons avenged her.

In former days it came about that sword-men reddened the earth with their own lord's blood, when the Swedes, in hope of good harvest, bore bloody weapons against Domaldi, hater of the Jutes.

Comm.: Starvation reigned in the land, and when all other means to stop the misfortune failed the Swedes sacrificed their king.

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