The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



For an implement to be serviceable it must have luck in it or it would be idle and good for nothing. To the luck of a sword pertained sharpness, beauty, a good hilt, and then of course the corresponding quality of victory, progress. Once when the Vatsdoela Jokul was exposed to more than usually powerful witchcraft, he was surprised to find that his sword, the family blade called Ættartangi, failed him; though he struck his mightiest, he was not able to draw blood; he looked at the edge in wonder: “Is luck gone from you, Ættartangi?” In the same manner it happened with Beowulf's sword in the fight with Grendel's mother; for the first time it failed him; its dóm, its honour and power, were at an end. A ship must have luck to behave well in the water, to utilise a wind to the best advantage, both when tacking and when sailing before the wind; it must not be given to letting in water, or running in where landing was dangerous. The Vatsdoela family had a perfect ship of this sort, which Ingimund had obtained from King Harald. It was called Stigandi, “the smart ganger”, and was unusually good at keeping up into the wind and with great luck in faring.

But we know that there was great difference between sword and sword. Some might simply be called weapons of victory, as the Beowulf calls them: such as assured their owners progress wherever they went. In the Nordic we mostly find, with a broader characterisation, “And there was this about the sword that he gained victory who bore it into the battle”, or “It bit through iron as it were cloth, would not rust, and victory was [28] with it in battle and in single combat, whoever bore it”; but Thorarin, speaking to Torfi, can also explain his wish to possess the strange swords by merely saying, he had heard they were “victorious”. Undoubtedly there was victory in spear and sword, and favourable wind in a ship, and he who acquired those prizes, enriched himself thereby with lucky qualities. Hence the eagerness for items from the burial mounds; the mounds were dug up, and if needed, the searcher entered upon a bout with the grave-dweller into the bargain – if we may trust the sagas – in order to possess himself of an old and tried weapon of victory. The good sword Skofnung, which was the pride of Midfjardarskeggi, and played a certain part in the life of his successors, was brought from the barrow of Hrolf Kraki himself; Skeggi had been in person to fetch it, and had seen both Bodvar Bjarki and the King; Bodvar was for attacking him, but the King held him back. The prize was undoubtedly worth while; so fierce was it that it would never return to the sheath without first having penetrated into living flesh; it declared of itself when the stroke was well delivered, by singing aloud, and no wound from it would ever heal; but on the other hand, it had its own ways; would not suffer a woman to see it drawn, nor bear the light of the sun on its hilt. --- Down in the south, Paulus Diaconus reminds his readers that “in our time, Giselbert opened the grave of (the Lombard hero-king) Albuin, and took his sword . . . and thereafter with his customary vanity boasted to the common people that he had seen Albuin.”

But we must not imagine that such a treasure could be used by anyone; that the sword laid about it in battle and let the man simply follow. “The sword fights of itself – when it is wielded by a skilful hero,” says the Skirnismál, and the sword Hrunting, Beowulf's faithful companion, “never failed in battle him who bore it, when he dared to go the peril-bristling way through the host of his foes.” In everyday life, a homelier form of expression was generally used, but more precise; the weapon would be handed over with a warning to the effect that only a “skilful and fearless” man could use it. Stress was laid upon the needful harmony between the user and the thing used. [29] Ingimund once arranged a test for Stigandi; he wished to ascertain if it would ride the waves when he himself was not present; and the attempt succeeded; the crew returned from Norway with nothing but praise for the vessel. But it might also happen that both weapon and ship refused their service, as in the case of Olaf Tryggvason's ship, the Long Serpent, which declined to answer to the rudder after the death of Olaf. It was always a question whether one was skilful enough to “take” the weapon in the proper way, if one knew its luck, and respected it, or – expressed from another side – it was a question whether one's own character and that of the sword could agree. When Kormak wished to borrow Skofnung, Skeggi was very loth to allow it, for the very reason that he had doubts on this point: “You are a quick-tempered man, but Skofnung is of the cooler mind.” And it is certain that Skofnung and Kormak could not get on together, with the result that both suffered from the incompatibility.

The sine qua non, for using another man's weapon was that one had either wit to make its soul one's friend or power to compel it. One might perhaps be surprised by a sudden stubbornness on the part of the treasure, a dark will that ran athwart one's own; this was the spirit of the former owners, suddenly made manifest. A will once engrafted into the sword was hard to overcome; when Geirmund “lays this charge” upon Foot-bite, that it shall cost the life of the best man in Olaf Peacock's family, then the sword will have its will sooner or later. Bolli must one day come to wield it against his cousin Kjartan, and will be driven to use it for that deed which should “be long in his mind”. The good sword Greyside, in the possession of Sur's sons, had been give the word by its former owner that it should bring days ill-pleasing to the kinsmen. After a long time it was turned into a spear, but before its transformation it had witnessed strife within the family, and afterwards caused the death of two men bound to it by friendship and marriage. Therefore it was, that on the transfer of a sword or necklace, its history was given; the receiver was made to understand what a treasure he was getting, what honour and luck were stored in it, but also [30] its nature, the will inherent in it. “This coat of mail was given me by Hrothgar, the wise king, charging me first to tell you what was its goodwill; he said that Heorogar, king of the Scyldings, had borne it for a long span of time,” with so much ceremony does Beowulf offer his kinsman the coat of armour he had brought with him from the seat of the Scyldings.

A weapon called King's Bane or Sel's Avenger – the spear with which Selsbane had been avenged – tells its past history at once in its very name. The Anglo-Saxons, with their epic composure, have time to enroll the whole tale; in the little moment when Wiglaf springs forward to aid Beowulf, the poet finds time to call attention to the sword Wiglaf bore: “He drew the sword, a relic of Eanmund, Ohtheres son, the friendless, the exile, whom Weohstan slew in battle, and he took home his dark helm, his ring-woven mail, his old sword forged of giants; that Onela gave him, and spoke not of feud though it was his brother's son that was fallen. The treasure he held many years, till his son was able to do great deeds like his father before him. Then, in the midst of the Geats, he gave him wargarments unnumbered, and so he strode forth out of life.” The sword, then, had come into the family when Weohstan, Wiglaf's father, slew Eanmund on the field of battle; and Onela, in whose host Weohstan stood, left him the prize, despite the fact that the slain man was his own brother's son.

It is, then, no abstract blessing, not mere good fortune in the ordinary sense, that abides in these heirlooms, but an actual luck, the soul of a particular clan. In the words of Grettir's mother, when she hands him the precious family relic Ættartangi, the stress is also laid upon the community between the sword and its owners: “This sword my father's father, Jokul, owned, and the ancient Vatsdoela men before him; and victory went with it.” And this is the same as when the legends say that only the right man can take possession of the sword. The sword which Odin brought into the Volsung's hall and struck fast in the beam was sought after by many, but it would not yield to any until Sigmund came; and when Bodvar Bjarki, following the advice of his mother, comes to the cave where [31] his ill-fated bear-father had hidden his weapons, then the sword falls loose into his hand, as soon as he grasps the hilt. The first of these legends is doubtlessly fashioned in the form of a family myth, the second is composed as a fairy tale, but both are based upon thoughts familiar to all; when like met like, the two sides of the hamingja slipped into each other.

Praise of the sword's power to bring victory emphasises but one side of its being, the side facing outwards towards the rest of the world; in the respect for its dangerous quality there is understood a more characteristic, more personal estimate of the value of the thing as being bound up with a particular family. However lucky the average man may be within his own limitations, he would hardly have every sort of war-luck with him, and it is only the weapons of a chieftain that held in themselves every sort of victory and every manner of fighting. So that the addition with regard to Tyrfing, that it was lucky both in battle and in single combat, is not so idle as might seem. But on the other hand, the gift of victory attaching to a weapon presupposes versatility like that of the kinsmen themselves; both sword and spear and shield must possess the entire luck of the clan, also its healing power, fertility, food-luck, and wisdom. I should imagine that a sword or a hammer as well as a cloak could open the womb of a woman when more offspring were needed; she could be wrapped in the garment as in a cloud of power, she could receive the hammer into her lap, as the bride does in the Thrymskvida. I should also think that dipping the spear into a milk pail might ensure luck in preparing the food, and give all their fill at the table. In Norway, down to the latest times, the use of heirlooms in the daily economy of house and homestead was known. Here and there would be a family with an old knife, which healed all sorts of agues and cramp by the mere touch; and in a direct line with these knives is the victorious axe Skrukke, which has left behind it so mixed a record among the good people of Kviteseid in the Telemark. In the first place, it was largely responsible for the fact that the village was never overpopulated, secondly it was used to relieve the survivors from boils, and such pains as might be [32] brought on by the touch of certain nightly wanderers; it needed but to stroke the tender part some few times a day, and the limb would soon be as good as ever.

An explanation of the fact that the Norwegian knives and axes have retained their healing power so far down through the centuries might be sought in the numerous bones and fringes of saints, splinters of the Cross and evangelical books, which served throughout the Middle Ages to maintain the health of Europe. One thing, however, the instruments cannot have obtained from without, and that is their inner justification in the minds of those who used them, to wit, the fact that their power was derived from honour. Men had faith in the power of the knives to cure the palsy, for many men had been slain by them, that is to say, in old-fashioned words, they had wrought many great deeds, and drunk much blood – fjör. Skrukke had a remarkable power, because it had belonged to a very stern and murderous person.

In the Icelandic sagas, we learn but little of the daily round and everyday doings, which are now of particular interest from the point of view of culture history, because they were undertaken by all. Both the contents and the style of the sagas are marked by the concentration of life; they invariably show honour and luck in closest tension, and everyday happenings are never included for their own sake; only when they serve as springs to great deeds do they enter into immortality. Our knowledge of life in saga times is therefore not one-sided, but strangely fragmentary. We learn sufficient as to what a feast might give rise to, but curiously enough we do not know how an Icelandic wedding took place – not the smallest fragment of the ceremony is handed down to us. We hear enough about an heirloom to enable us, with our knowledge of the nature of luck, to form sure conclusions as to its value at home, but if we want authentic illustrations, we must look for them elsewhere than in Icelandic literature, and perhaps after all have to content ourselves with the peasants' doing as their fathers did. Yet we have one piece of evidence from the ancient times, which may be placed beside the Norwegian experiences of Skrukke and the [33] knives, and the memorial is the more engrossing from the fact that it refers to the birth of Olaf the Saint and his relations with his departed namesake. In the days when Olaf, later called the Saint, was awaiting birth, one of the former Olafs of the race, Geirstadaalf, appeared in a dream to a good man of the Uplands, named Hrani, a close friend of Olaf's father and mother, Harald Grenski and Asta. Geirstadaalf confided to Hrani his own history, and begged his aid to the securing of its renewal; he told him where and how he was buried, and urged him to break open the barrow in order to find a gold ring, a sword and a belt. He had even – if our story-teller be well informed – an intricate plan ready made, whereby Hrani was to secure the needful assistance; the barrow dweller himself would take good care to frighten the helpers off in a hurry as soon as they had rendered the service required of them, and ease Hrani of their prying curiosity. Whether now the good Geirstadaalf was so particular as to details, or whether he, after the manner of the departed, left something to the initiative and boldness of the mortals concerned, it is at any rate certain that Hrani managed to secure ring, sword and belt. He went with the treasure to Harald Grenski's homestead, where he found Asta lying on the floor unable to be delivered; and as soon as she heard of Geirstadaalf's wish, she promised willingly that Hrani should be entrusted with the business of naming the child. He then went up to her and set the belt about her waist, and at once the child was born. It was a boy, and he called him Olaf, and gave him, from his namesake, the sword Bæsing and the gold ring.

As soon as we pass over to honour, the ancient time steps in with its many-tongued testimony. Through the life of viking days runs the keens sense of gratification at being honoured with gifts; how often do we not read that guests were honoured with gifts on their departure, and went on their homeward way in the well-being of that honour. The Anglo-Saxons, who are prone to use the most high-sounding words, let Beowulf tread the greensward forth from Hrothgar's hall proudly rejoicing in his treasure; the Northmen, on the other hand, whose strength lies in

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page