The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[19] with old Grimkel, Signy gives her brother all she possesses, with the exception of two treasures, a neck ornament and a horse, which she valued most. And in what manner she valued them appears from the course of the story. She is angered at her own son, Hord, when he, having but late learned to walk, on his first expedition across the floor towards her, stumbles and grasps at the ornament lying on this mother's knee, and breaks it. “Ill was your first going, and many such shall come after, but the last shall be worst of all,” she exclaims. The prophecy is fulfilled, in that Hord is outlawed, and obliged, much against his will, to take up robbery. The chattel is Signy's, but the luck that is bound up in it affects the race.

As the Volsungs, as the descendants of Viking Kari – Vigfus and Glum – so also each family had, in ancient times, its lucky things, which it regarded as security for good fortune and prosperity; but the luck was not of any other sort than that which inspired all family belongings, down to the humblest implement. The sword and the cloak represented the wealth of the family, that is to say, according to the old mode of thought, that they held in themselves the power of wealth.

Luck was not restricted to such valuables as were stored within doors, it might also be out in the fields. Answering to valuable articles of property were such lucky beasts as not only counted for more than ordinary cattle for the welfare of the herd, but were also an assurance to the peasant of life and blessing. One of Signy's valuables was an ornament, the other a stallion, and when the latter perished on her way to the wedding, she would have turned back at once, knowing that nothing but sorrow and misfortune awaited her in that marriage. A good friend of the sons of Ingimund, Brand, had a horse named Frey's Faxi, which once did what an ordinary horse would be equal to. Jokul and Thorstein were most anxious to be up to time, and not to fail the other party at a single combat, which had been offered and accepted with many sounding words; the more so since, from the snow falling ever thicker about them, they could see that certain persons were [20] evidently eager that they should not appear, and were doing all in their power to make them call a halt on the way. In spite of all difficulties Faxi forced their way through, set them down on the spot, and took them back home again, after they had set up a cursing pole – niðstöng – the sign of derision, for the laggard to find when he appeared. Brand knew what he was talking about when he bade them leave all to himself and his horse, when it was a question of making their way onward through obstacles of witchcraft; and others too, no doubt, knew what they were saying when they called the yeoman after his beast, and changed his name to Faxibrand. It is such chieftains among the livestock of the homestead which are honoured with gold ornaments on the horns and plaitings on the mane.

In many stories we have to read our way to the truth through the distortions of superstition, or those of Christian zeal. The account of Olaf the Peacocks's terrifying dream has itself perhaps taken on something of a legendary fashion, but there is no mistaking the reality. At Olaf's homestead, there was a huge ox that went about as an object of general, and perhaps somewhat timorous, respect on the part of the men about the place. Olaf at last decided to have it slaughtered, and then there came to him in a dream a woman, who declared herself to be the mother of the ox, and warned him of the approaching death of his favourite son.

Half myth, half fairy tale is the story of the good ox Brandkrossi, which caused the yeoman Grim so great a sorrow; he had taken special care of it always, and could not do enough for it; and then one day it set off out to sea and did not return. All attempts at consoling the peasant for his loss, urging that he could easily get another, that he might be proud to think that the bay which had seen the ox disappear should for the future bear its name, Krossavik: all went in one ear and out the other; Brandkrossi was lost, whatever they might say. We further learn that the peasant would not rest until he had journeyed to Norway to make enquiries there about his precious ox, that he at last found it in a giant's cave, and that the giant's daughter became the founder of the an Icelandic family. Behind [21] this rather confused narrative we clearly discern a family legend – or a tale founded on a family legend – connecting the origin of the race with the existence of a cow, and the animal's desperate fondness for long distance swimming is probably due to the necessity of linking the emigrant family with their ancestral seat in Norway.

Even though several of these lucky beasts may be but pale and washed-out ghosts of reality, they have faithfully preserved certain links with their home; there is a relic of life in the faith which united them to their owner; he trusted in them, we are told, and in the same way, the dependance of the owner may be emphasised in the words: this was a treasure, he set great store by. These eminent animals were doubtlessly hedged about with special protective measures in the way of fines, out of regard to their importance for the welfare of the whole herd; but what was their protective and guiding power save a higher expression of the owner's cattle-luck as well as his honor? It was not an accidental coincidence that Faxibrand's horse was a mighty combatant at the horse-fights, strong as a bear, and at the same time especially dear to his master. In the generalised decrees of the laws, the direct relationship to man cannot appear, but on the other hand, the laws were not able altogether to overcome the personal element. Not only were the cattle of the Frankish king valued at a higher fine than those of other men, but his oxen were more costly than his horses, and we recognise their dignity in the oxen that drew the car of the Merovingians, when the chieftain set out upon a ceremonial procession.

In the carefully weighed words wherewith the law set a thief apart as a monster, deserving of no human consideration, the jealous regard for the luck in things finds a more passionately moved expression than any poem could give. Woe to him who lays a man in bonds, but a thief is dragged to the law-thing with his hands bound behind him. He is treated as a being beyond the pale of humanity, one who can be stricken down as a monster or even mutilated as to his person as a spectacle unto the world. A thief is always a thief. The law can attain to the establishing of a practical distinction between theft on [22] a large scale and petty larceny, but the distinction affects only the external consequences of the action; the fundamental point is common to both; there is no right in a thief. His act is that of a niding, and he is classed together with the murderer, who steals upon his victim in the dark, and slips away without leaving his weapon in the wound to tell the tale, whereas the robber, who openly falls upon his fellows and snatches their goods out of their hands by force is reckoned one with the homicide, who takes life. The intense Germanic hatred of one whose fingers are longer than his courage originates in the fear of secret wrecking of honour and luck. These men know, as did the men of southern Sweden in later times, that he who steals a man's fishing gear impairs its power of capture, and destroys the owner's fishing luck, just as one who uses a strange bull without leave robs the beast of its reproductive power. The niding-like character of attacking a man through his cattle or his good lies in the fact that the criminal attacks him from behind, and steals strength from him at a moment when his is unable to defend himself and show his right.

Attacks on cattle were no less hated than feared. Cattle-wolf, cattle-niding (Icelandic gorvargr, Danish and Swedish gorniðingr) is the name given in Scandinavian laws to him who secretly interferes with another man's cattle. The names tell us that the act is reckoned worse than homicide, for vargr and niðingr are particularly used to denote one who commits a crime against honour, as distinct from one merely offending. The Icelanders recognise the right of vengeance on the spot, but in certain cases, punish the act with unconditional outlawry. In the Norwegian laws, we still find indications that the deed was reckoned beyond the limits of a fine, sending the criminal irrevocably to the forest. And the Danish Erie's Law has the principle clearly, when it states with regard to killing of cattle to the value of half a mark, that “this is villainy, and villainy shall be paid for to the king”.

In order to understand the people, it is not enough to know what the law condemns, but one must also see the motives which impel a man to break the law. The calculating criminal's [23] estimate of the value of the crime itself displays, at times, the most powerful testimony as to the secret strength of the offence, and its depth. There is a story from Iceland which, from the very fact of its having, so to speak, one leg outside strict morality, exposes the person, and shows something in him lying deeper than the average of social morality. In the history of Iceland, the “fight on the heath” about the year 1015, stands out as a notable event, which stirred men's minds to a great extent, and also had its effect upon the public life, -- the nearest Al-Thing was reckoned one of the most remarkable ever held, not because Bardi, who here avenged his brother Hall and took nine men's lives in exchange, was at all a prominent character, but because he, by the help of his foster-father, the wise Thorarin, had carried through his cause in the face of almost insuperable difficulties. He had no influence, he was, as he himself says, not a man of money, whereas his opponents, Thorbjorn and Thorgaut, were men of standing, with a host of friends, who had already long forced the young heir to Asbjarnarnes to bear with insult and be treated as an inferior. But in return, the vengeance taken in this affair was established firmly with all the luck of careful precaution. It was due to Thorarin's depth of wisdom in counsel that the day of reckoning came upon the opposite side like a thief in the night. To being with, he put a stop to all great assemblies in the district, the nurseries of rumour; then he spirited away a couple of rare horses, “all white, with black ears” which belonged to his neighbour, and further kindly undertook to search for them far and near; for if one had to have spies out all the time there in the south, it was better that they should be out on a respectable errand, than merely wandering about in search of a couple of old hacks – as he explained to his young friend. Naturally, the owner was pleasantly surprised to get his horses back – when Thorarin had no longer any use for them; as to the matter of a reward for having found them, there was no need to trouble about that; and so the foundation of one useful friendship was laid. When Thorarin had accomplished his preparations, he had about him, in the neighbouring homesteads, a little army of friends and willing helpers, [24] who needed but a word of reminder when the time came. But with all these preparations, Thorarin did not forget to arrange matters so that the vengeance could have an overweight to make up for the delay in effecting it. When Bardi, after riding round to gather together all those helpers whose assistance had been arranged for, met his foster-father, he noticed at once that the old man was sitting with a strange sword across his knees. Thorarin answered the thought before it was uttered: “You have not seen that sword before? True, I have not had it very long; let us two exchange weapons and then you shall hear whence it comes; my son has another, that really belongs to Thorbjorn; this one is Thorgaut's.” Thereupon he told of the pleasure he had in making the acquaintance of Lying-Torfi. Torfi was a kinsman of the opponents mentioned, a man with a crafty brain and a brave tongue, and was also to be trusted as one entirely free from any conscientious scruples. How he had lied and how he had wriggled need not be told; here was the sword. “And,” said Thorarin, “it is most fitting, to my mind, that their insolence should be pruned with their own knives; you could take no better vengeance for the dishonour they have brought upon you and yours.” On the field of battle, Bardi proudly dashes forth and treats his enemies to a sight of their own weapon in his hand, he moves it hither and thither goading them into fury with “that they surely know,” – and “there they both were slain with their own weapons.”

Even though one read with half-closed eyes, one must perceive that the story differs from ordinary stories of theft in something more than the rank of the thief and his superior art. In watching Thorarin, we have the same uncanny feeling as when we see a human being procure demoniac power by stealing into another's soul and using his innermost secret to crush him helpless to the dust.

Thus enlightened by the tricks of Thorarin, we find it easier to understand a sort of invulnerability, which might otherwise easily appear as the privilege of half or wholly supernatural beings. An ogre like Grendel or his mother can only be overcome by mortal heroes with the aid of weapons wrung from [25] the very hand of the enemy, or found in the beast's den. The Northmen have the same explanation of this phenomenon as that which contents the Anglo-Saxon heart; it is not merely the hardness of the bones that turns the edge, there is witchcraft behind it, they say. But the reality of life shows through the romantic element, when we read in a fairy tale of a family of half-trolls, that the father had sung himself and his kin to invulnerability against all weapons save their family sword, Angrvandill. Men with a good stout luck went unscathed from fight to fight, it was necessary to wait until, like Glum, they left themselves open, and when all is said and done, the surest way to deal a man a mortal wound is to strike him with his own weapons, or in other words, to use his own power against him.

In a tale such as that of the viking Svart Ironskull, who asked all his opponents if they knew Bladnir, trumped up and sophisticated thought it is, there is then an easily recognisable undertone of everyday fact. Bladnir was a family weapon, which, when Svart last heard of it, was in the possession of his brother Audun, and Svart was always on his guard against the chance of its turning up against him; it was plainly a case of gaining time, in case of need, for using some magic formula which should render it harmless in the hand of a robber. But he was overcome by craft at last, and that, shame to say, by the treachery of his own brother. Audun had once given Bladnir to his friend Thorgils, and then it came about that Thorgils one fine day was staying at a place where Svart had announced his own coming to visit the daughter of the house, and he willingly undertook to do the honours for the guest. The night before the meeting, he was surprised to be visited in a dream by his friend Audun, acquainting him with his anxiety with regard to this brother, a good-for-nothing, who simply wandered about the country making the place unsafe for the daughters of honest men. Bladnir could overcome him if only one were careful to place it in the sand of the fighting ground, and then assure the other party that one did not know its hilt was above the ground.

Many a man behaved in real life as did Arngrim in the saga. Arngrim harried the land of Svafrlami, and when they met in [26] battle, Svarflami wielded his famous word Tyrfing. Svarflami struck at Arngrim, but he met the blow with his shield and the sword slashed off the tail of the shield and fastened in the earth. Arngrim severed the hand of the king, snatched up Tyrfing and dealt his enemy his death-wound. And the supposition that such a manner of death might prove fatal to the family's hope of vengeance is hardly so bold as it is at present unfounded.

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