The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[34] the fact that they use language as a damper to give emphasis, are content with the simple indication that the gifts seemed worthy of a great man, or that they were considerable. To Egil, the ring and the silver were true gifts of honour, an addition to his self-esteem, he straightened himself up under them, just as does the wife at the moment of receiving her “morning gift”, wherewith a man honours his wife, as the Uppland Law of Sweden puts it. The receiver, indeed, obtained a solid lump of honour; he laid hands on a piece of precious metal composed of old achievements, old high-mindedness, old chieftainly prodigality, the glory of the owners and the words of praise uttered by admirers. The old fashion of speech, to the effect that “boldness went with the treasure” and passed into the ownership of the new possessor, is to be taken literally as it stands. And when a man set out in a fury on the track of a thief, endeavouring by all means to outwit him ere he had found time to profane what he had stolen, it was literally because he wished to get back his honour before it had been soiled, harmed, or possibly turned aside from its rightful owner by secret arts.

It was shame to lose one's weapons, even in battle, no less a shame than a misfortune. And it was shame to be wounded by one's own weapons, even though no lasting harm appeared to be done; and so we can perhaps have some idea of what untameable feeling boiled up in men's mind when a kinsman's blood was shed by a weapon belonging to the family itself. When a villainy had been committed, it entered into the weapons of the family, so that the kinsmen wielded them in fear, as if, in some inexplicable fashion, their own flesh and blood would come to lie in the wound; they never knew what moment the weapon might turn back as it swung, and strike its owner in its fury. The imprecation: “May the sword you draw never bite save when it whirls down on your own head,” only discloses the lamentable state of the villain who has forfeited his luck and lost touch with his own possessions.

And if men's honour lay in such treasures, then, too, both frith and fate must lie there concealed. In sword and pick, the kinsmen took firm hold of luck itself, and if they kept their [35] grip, the implement would carve and hew the same way out for them that their kin had gone.

Upon this experience, that history and fate are bound up with the possessions, the Northmen have founded their most famous poem, that in which they have gained representation in the literature of the world. The Volsungasaga is interwoven throughout with the fate that begins when Hreidmar, on the point of death, invokes vengeance upon the son who has slain him. Again and again this fate marks its passage by an “ill-fortune”; the death of the patricide Fafnir, planned by Regin, his brother, and executed with the sword forged by Regin himself, Sigurd's fall, due to broken oaths, and the final settlement, when his perjured brothers-in-law, the Niblungs, are lured to their doom by Atli, and perish as his guests, one in the king's hall, the other in his den of serpents. And the fate, which unites these links into one continued hamingja, lies in the gold which Andvari cursed in long days past, which Hreidmar kept from his sons, which Fafnir hoarded in his dragon's cave, and Grani bore to Gjuki's home, the treasure of the Niblungs, that at last drew fate to rest with it at the bottom of the Rhine.

Less spiritual, and more bound to the clan, altogether more original, we find expressed in Hervor's saga the old truth that possessor and the thing possessed supplement one another; that only the treasure can explain the man, and only by the man can the treasure be explained. The saga writer sees first the sword, Tyrfing, and beyond it the men who own it. In all its fearfulness it rises up; victorious, ever unconquerable, so fierce that its slightest nip carried death, and it never paused in its stroke till it touched earth; wilful, wayward, so that it would not endure to be bared out of season, and must ever have its fill of blood ere it would return to the sheath, and yet recklessly ready to rush forth into the light without need; and its fate was ever to bring down villainy upon the head of him who bore it. Thus was the family, ranging from Angantyr through Hervor down to Heidrek, composed of violent characters throughout, fighters from inner necessity, whose luck in light and dark kept pace with the fierceness of Tyrfing itself. Of Angantyr we know [36] little more than that he had borne the sword all his life, and took it with him into his barrow, not knowing that he had any offspring to succeed him; from the burial mound it is fetched away by his posthumous daughter, Hervor, and the ancient heirloom is thus brought back to life. But no sooner is it back in the world of humankind again, than it forces its will to the front; Hervor must punish curiosity with death when a man gives way to his unseasonable desire to see the naked blade, and by that killing she is entered to the wandering life of a viking. The time comes for her to fulfil her destiny, and raise the family to new life; she bears two sons to King Hofund, and in the younger, Heidrek, she finds one to whom she dares entrust the sword. At once it rushes out of the sheath under his hand, and he turns hamramr, like his ancestor, and is forced to leave home after having slain his brother. Tyrfing carves him a way to honor anew, and a kingdom into the bargain, but not until he had betrayed and slain his father-in-law. At last he is slain by his own thralls, who carry of the treasure, but the king's avenger finds them, and brings home the sword in token of the deed's accomplishment. And here the saga of Tyrfing comes to an end. With Heidrek's son, Angantyr, the saga moves over into other, as we might say, more historical subjects, and in that continuation, Tyrfing appears only as a sword among other swords.

The main stem of that race which was known to posterity as the Ynglings, and which ruled over the Upsala treasure, is composed of a series of bold men, who were unfortunate in their relatives-in-law, a fate which rendered women's counsels rarely to their advantage. Vanlandi harried Finland, and there took wife to Drifa, daughter of Snow the Old; she waited for him from spring to spring till ten winters had passed, then sent witchcraft to seek him, and the mare trod him to death. Visbur took up the inheritance after the father, and inherited also his vacillating temper: he left his first wife for another, and also kept back her “bridal gift” – mundr wherefore she egged on her sons to burn their father in his house. The fate of Vanlandi and Visbur is repeated line for line in that of Agni. He went [37] on an expedition to Finland, and there took Frosti's daughter Skjalf against her will; but on the night when he celebrated her father's “arvel” and had lain down drunk to sleep with Visbur's necklace about his neck, Skjalf tied a rope to the collar, and set her men to hoist the king up to the roof tree. Of Agni's two sons, Alrek and Eric, we learn only that they were found in the forest with their skulls split open, and each with a bloody horse-bit in his hand. Alrek's two sons, Alf and Yngvi, who ruled after him, pierced each other through at home in the hall, because Alf's queen too often reminded her husband that she would be a happy woman who should marry his brother. Tyrfing, in the Hervor family, has its counterpart in the family of the Ynglings in the necklace in which Agni was strung up. Visbur's sons uttered the curse that in their father's race, peace should ever be broken, and ill-fortune ever lie in that ornament which the king had withheld from his wife.

In the legends, the identity between the psychic and the material is clearly apparent. The poets call gold the ore of strife in the emphatic sense that the treasure was the cause and necessity in the actions of the parties concerned; but the fate is inherent in the owners: the kinsmen are in the power of their treasure in the same way that they are slaves to their own will. In spite of curses all are eager to gain possession of the rings and weapons. Given a gentle warning, the recipient would answer exactly as does Sigurd, that every man will have wealth until the inevitable day shall come, or as the Gjukungs: “It is good to rule over the Rhine-gold, with joy to possess wealth and enjoy luck.” And thus they relegate the curse to its proper place as something in, and not above, the hamingja, the shadow of great strength. Hervor goes to Angantyrs barrow to demand the old weapon of her clan, -- allAngantyr's warnings are wasted on her. Tyrfing will destroy the whole of her race. – but she does not listen. With the sword in her hand, she breaks out into verse ringing with the old joy of race: “you did well, son of vikings, thus to hand me the sword from out the grave, there is more joy to me in the feel of it in my hand than in having all Norway for my own. Now the chieftain's maid is [38] glad at heart, little I fear what is to come, what reckoning my sons may take one against another.” And Angantyr cannot but join in: “You shall bear a son, the time shall come when he shall bear Tyrfing safely in strength; greater luck than his is not born under the sun.” When later Heidrek slays his brother with the sword, the shame of his black deed cannot break through the all-surpassing joy; his mother bade him never to forget what bite there was in his sword, what renown had followed all those who bore it, and what greatness of victory lay therein.

Ultimately, it is the feeling of community between man and thing which is the decisive factor. Angantyr is in dread lest his daughter shall be lacking in knowledge of how to treat the sword, but he knows that if she do as she should, and is capable of carrying out what she undertakes, she carries with her “the lives of twelve men, their fjör, their power and strength, all the good that Arngrim's sons left behind” -- the whole treasure of the race. Angantyr and his eleven brothers, the sons of Arngrim, really step from the barrow to enter on a new career, when Hervor carries out their sword and flashes it in the light of the sun once more.

Beautiful as the fate poems are, sure as we may be that save for the aid of the immortal exceptions we should never participate in the unspoken element that bears the life of the common man, there may yet creep into our minds at times the wish to exchange one of them for an outburst from some clan that did not aspire to the fame of tragedy, but was content to conquer in order to live.

Fortunately the yeoman has left behind his history. A large number of highly respected families in Iceland were proud to claim kinship with the Hrafnista men, sturdy fisherman-peasants from the outlying islands in the northernmost part of Norway, and had their traditions registered in series of small sagas. And though the late story-tellers of Iceland, intoxicated with the glamour of the mediæval romances that poured in from England and France, have tried their best to spoil these homely records by polishing them up into fashionable literature, those ancient roisterers were too stubbornly real to be transformed into [39] wandering knights. The seafarers of the northern waters, Keting Hæing, Grim Lodinkinni and the rest go adventuring with a truly Arthurian swagger, but the motives that lead them into thrilling adventures are anything but knightly. Generally it is simple hunger that rouses their spirit of enterprise, for in their northern home the crop fails often as not, and then everybody, chief and peasant alike, must harvest the sea for daily bread. And for these heroes to rise to the full of their adventurous activity needs the inspiration of an actual famine year in all its glory, when the seed freezes off and the fish move away from the shores, so that food is far to seek. It is on the fishing grounds that the combats take place, where the young Hrafnista man sits a whole day to catch one poor scraggy cod and afterwards takes vengeance on the other fishermen for their jeers by consecrating the catch to them, and sending the cod over into their boat, so deftly that the blow whisks the steersman overboard. The adventures that keep their heroic powers on the boil are fights for a stranded whale on desolate coasts; voyages in rowing boats in foul weather, when whales with human eyes pursue the boat, and the fisherman ends on the rocks among the wreckage of his craft. And the men answer to their experiences; not sword-wielders but archers and hunters, who may well have learned of the spirits up in the Finmark, to follow up their prey and hit what they aimed at; a race of brawny, fearless North Sea fishermen, who showed their prowess by launching big boats single-handed, and whose luck consisted in getting a fair wind the moment they hoisted sail, and bringing down by their arrows any edible creature of earth or air. And their world then is not to be mistaken. When Hallbjorn teaches his son of the waters to the northward, his words are uttered with the reliability that stamps one who knows: “First comes Næstifiord, thereafter Midfiord, and the third is Vitadsgjafi.” This world is a landscape of fiord on fiord and fiord again, each more terrifying than the one before; on the narrow beach at the inner end of the fiord are huts, where the fisherman can lie and listen to the air above him wild with the passage of monsters; he never know what unbidden guest he may find in the hut, and [40] the farther the place, the more surprising are the creatures that receive him with the inhospitality of the usurper. It consists of a strip of coast, where men rule as long as they have power to strike, and a hinterland of barren mountain, inhabited by ogres and ogresses greedy for human flesh, coming down often enough to take possession of the fiord and islets. True dragons of the established type are to be found in that happy land which the sagas call indiscriminately Gautland or Valland (Welshland) or Blackman's land, if one will but step a little out of the way to seek them; up here, one meets with monsters both when one is in the mood for something a little out of the ordinary, and when one is properly engaged on other matters; and one must take them as they are by nature, as horrid ogres and nothing else. Now it may happen that a fisherman comes out in the morning and finds two ogresses busy shaking his boat to pieces, now it is a monster taking up its post by the spring to drive him home in a fright with his bucket unfilled.

These stories are not like legends that can enter the service of whatever hero it may be; they are firmly fixed to the ground, and attached to men. We can see, too, from occasional hints in the saga literature, that the memories as well as the peculiarities stuck to that clan which traced its descent back to the Hrafnista men. The craft of archery ran in the blood, in fact most of the noted bow-men in Iceland, including Gunnar of Hlidarendi, have Hrafnista blood in their veins. Despite the fact that Orm Storolfson has become an ornamental figure of adventure, he stands out clearly none the less as descended from Ketil Hæing; a mighty archer who astonished Einar Thambarskelfir by letting him find an arrow in his bow, and the bow drawn to the arrow's point; a wielder of baulks who showed Earl Eric how one man on a ship against fifteen could set the water alive with swimmers if he had but a thirty-foot beam in his hand. And that Thorkel Thorgeirson, who had a carving made on his high seat showing his battle with the trolls on the evening when they sought to hinder him from filling his water pail, he too could rightly reckon up his pedigree to the Hrafnista father. [41]

The treasures of the Hrafnista family were the sure-flying arrows Flaug, Fifa and Hremsa, which were always ready to hand for use whether against men or giants. They were called Gusisnautar, and the legend can account for their name and their origins as well, recording the happy hour when the earliest of the kinsmen met the Lapland king Gusir up in the Finmark, and the two shot each other's arrows down in the air, until Gusir's shot flew wide, and Ketil's struck him in the breast. In them lies the simple luck of a clan, without any tragedy or curse, the fate of going forward from strength to strength, to live long, have children, and see kinsmen's luck in the them, to rejoice in one's fame and taste the sweets of renown – as every man himself would choose his fate if he could. We must not be led astray by our predilection for the interesting, and forget that the essence of culture is the everyday. In viking days, men listened with delight to stories of the tragedy that balances its way between luck and unluck, but they did not conceal the fact that they wished for themselves swords and arrows free of curse, without anything “laid upon them”, as the saying ran. The perfect man of luck, he it is who deserves the place of honour in the history of culture, and we shall hardly come so near, to the normal human life as in these homely legends.

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