The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



At the point where the new-born child is adopted by the clan he is brought into contact with the power that resides in the possessions of the race. When the father gives the little one a name, and thus determines his fate by speaking a soul into him, he confirms his act by a gift, and thus makes his “I look for, I wish”, a reality. The gift is intended to “fix” the name, as the act is expressly called in the North, and what happens at the ceremony is nothing more nor less than this; that the portion of luck and soul which is set in the name is actually hung upon the bearer, and by contact set in himself. If the weapon or ornament wherewith the child is consecrated to its future had been the property of a kinsman newly deceased, one whose memory had not faded away into the common honour of the clan, then the young kinsman steps immediately into the place of his predecessor, takes up his portion, and raises him up; he receives all his heillir, as that youth, thirsting for life, promised the child who should renew his name. In the story of Sigmund's naming of Helgi, we have the transfer of luck in its threefold confirmation; he names, he gives, and he “wishes” that the boy may prove worthy of the honour of the Volsungs. Helgi was born while Sigmund was at the wars, so the saga tells, and the king went from the battle to meet his son with a lily, gave him with it the name of Helgi, and in confirmation, Hringstad, Sülfjoll, and a sword, and wished that he might be furthered in strength and take after the race of the Volsungs. Of another famous Helgi, to wit, Helgi Hjorvardson, we are [43] told that as a youth he was silent, no name was fixed upon him, he was one of those exceptional characters who go about soulless in their youth, as if no luck had entered into them, and as if the name had fallen loose away from them, if they had ever been given one. Then one day while he sat idly on the hill, a valkyrie came to him and said: “You are slow in winning rings and treasures, Helgi.” He answers: “Where is your gift to go with the name of Helgi?” “Swords I know lying on Sigar's holm,” she returns, “one of them is better than all, gold-inlaid, a spoiler of weapons. A ring is on the hilt, courage in the middle, fear at the point, all these he shall enjoy who owns the sword, and along the blade lies a serpent, bloodred, its tail curled about the base.” Then he becomes a human being, and sets out to avenge his mother's father.

As often as the youth shows himself fit to receive more soul, he meets the gift as a confirmation of his kinsmanship. The appearance of the first tooth was regarded by some of the Germanic peoples as a happy event, and was celebrated by a “tooth-gift”. Olaf the Saint's tooth-gift was nothing less than the family belt that had brought about his mother's delivery.

The promotion of a boy to right and seat among the men was probably the next step, and undoubtedly the day he laid aside his childhood for ever was accompanied by an increase of hamingja. Step by step he accumulated honour to himself, until he stands as full personification of the clan.

In the same way as the infant was consecrated, so the grown man had to be born into the clan. Theodoric once honoured the king of the Herules by an adoption; undoubtedly this ceremony, formal as it may seem in our eyes, was for Theodoric himself something more than a mere titular appointment, and the diploma prepared for the occasion by the chancellery of the Goths still bears the old reality stamped in the words: “It has always been regarded as a great honour to be accepted as a son by arms . . . and we give you birth as a son by this gift, as is the custom of peoples and manly fashion . . . we send you horses, swords, shields and the other implements of war.” From Norway, the circumstantial ceremony which secured to the new- [44] comer full right of kinship is known in outline, and we know also that the confirmation of name was not forgotten. When the leader of the clan had uttered the old formula: “I lead this man into all my inheritance, to all the goods I give him, to inheritance and land, gift and return, sitting and seat, and to that right which the law-book provides, and which one so adopted shall have according to law,” he gave power to his words by adding: “and in witness of this adoption I give into his hands a cup.”

With the honourable surname, the giver, by virtue of his own surplus of luck, set something new into the receiver, and he too confirmed his act by a gift. “You are indeed a poet hard to please – a wayward scald, -- but you shall be my man for all that, and you may keep the name,” says Olaf Tryggvason to Hallfred, half in admiration of his obstinacy; and Hallfred at once breaks in: “What do you give me with that name?” The inner connection between the giving of a nickname and the adoption into one's own luck shows clearly through this little scene; both the king and Hallfred quite understand the exchange of words as carrying with it admittance to the king's immediate following.

The Lombards appear to have regarded themselves as the apple of Odin's eye, and the legend wherein they have proclaimed position as a chosen people is itself based upon the obligation of the name-giver towards the named. Odin had once just when they on their wanderings were about to enter upon a decisive battle, called them by name, saying: “What longbeards are these?” And as soon as the warriors heard the voice from above, they cried: “He who has given us a name must also give us victory.”

Any wish, any blessing, was to a certain extent akin to this naming, inasmuch as their power lay in a psychic transference of what lay in the words. The giver must in some way or other make his words whole, and generally speaking, there was a tendency to regard his good will with suspicion, if he did not offer some tangible token of his well-wishing. If a man wished another joy of a thing gained or done, he would be required, [45] in ease of need, to strip the clothes from his body, or, as Harald Gilli, clear the board before him, if he would not stand as an empty hero of words. When Bishop Magnus was about to set off for his see in Iceland, he came to take leave of King Harald, and while the Bishop uttered his parting words, the king was looking about him – what could he give? The treasury, he knew well, was at a low ebb. So he emptied his drinking cup and gave it as a parting gift. The bishop then turned to the queen, who said: “Luck and good fortune on your way, Lord Bishop.” “Luck and good fortune on your way,” exclaimed the king: “did you ever hear a noble woman speak thus to her bishop and not give him something with it?” “What is there here to give?” asked the queen. And the king had his answer ready: “There is the cushion you are sitting on.” – In like manner, we may imagine, the king would give a man something of his own luck to take with him on his way, when he said: “I will lay my luck on it.”

A peculiar position among the goods of the clan is occupied by those treasures which more than others indicated its place in society; they possessed luck, in its purest and strongest form. Generally, they consisted of objects which more especially displayed wealth, the best weapons, swords of victory, very often no doubt in the arm rings and necklaces worn by warriors as marks of their standing. In the North, we often hear about the ring. There was one, according to the legend, in the clan of the Scyldings; it was first in the possession of Helgi, and given by him to his brother Hroar, in place of his part of the kingdom, and when, owing to the envy of his sister's son, Hrok, it had been left lying a long while at the bottom of the sea, Hroar's son, Agnar, fetched it up again, and from that deed alone he attained greater fame than his father.

The collar of the Yngling clan has its counterpart elsewhere in the Germanic world. Among the princely gifts which Beowulf brought home from the Danes' hall, was a precious necklace which he gave to his friend Hygelae, and which the latter wore on the battlefield in that unlucky fight when the Franks took is life and his treasures. And what gold was among the chief- [46] tains, woven fabrics were presumably among the peasantry; here, often enough the valuable – perhaps invulnerable – cloak serves as the bearer of the kinsmen's pride. Sword in hand, necklace at throat or ring on arm, and cloak over the shoulder, this was no uncommon form for the fulness of a great luck.

These marks of distinction pertained to the head of the clan, or its leading man, as the one who bore the greatest share of responsibility for the health of its honour. According to ancient and deep-rooted sense of what was fitting, the dead man's weapons must pass to the most distinguished among his kinsmen, the one who would naturally feel chiefly responsible for bringing about due vengeance for his fall. So said Hjalti, after the death of Njal and his sons, when he took up Skarphedin's axe: “This is a rare weapon, not many can bear it.” “I know one who can,” puts in Kari, “one who shall bear the axe.” -- “Who is that?” – “Thorgeir Craggeir, for him I take now to be the greatest man in the clan.” The feeling of being allied to what is right gives Gunnar's mother, Rannveig, her authority, when she declares her son's favorite weapon is not to be touched by any but him who intends to take full vengeance for him. Codified, this feeling becomes a definition of the law of succession, as we find it in a German law-book. “He who takes the land as his inheritance, to him fall the garments of war, that is the coat of mail, with him lies the vengeance for next of kin and payment of fine.” The transfer of these treasures then, would be equivalent to an act of abdication of a sort, in that the centre of gravity passed from father to son or to some younger kinsman. Glum and Olaf the Peacock had from their childhood part and share in the strength of the kin, but as and when they take up the old heirlooms and put them on, they move into the focus of luck and responsibility, becoming greater men thereby. The great turning point in young Beowulf's life is when he had shown himself worthy of his clan, and his kinsman laid in his lap an old family sword, left by Hrethel, and with the sword gave him “seven thousand with house and kingly seat; to both of them fell the lands of inheritance, though the one of them, foremost in the clan, ruled the kingdom.” [47]

In the treasures of kings lay the luck of a ruler, and when the Ynglings, as the legend runs, so faithfully bore Visbur's ornament, one of the reasons for their doing so was that land and kingdom lay in it. In the princely families, then, such an investiture as that with which Hoskuld honoured his son would mean consecration to rule over peoples. The Vatsdoela sword, Ættartangi, fell, on division of the inheritance, to the second son, Jokul, but his brother Thorstein, who acted as the chief of the clan, and maintained its leadership, wore it when he presided at law meetings. This transference of luck is the reality which lies behind the act of the Frankish king Gunnthram, when he hands his lance to his brother's son, Childebert, with the words: “This is a sign that I hand over to you my kingdom; go forth, then, and take all my cities under your sway.”

The Lombard king Theodoric who adopted the Herule and sent him a patent of adoption in the form of an elaborate diploma, could not, perhaps, any more than Gunnthram, think the thoughts we attribute to them, but they had this advantage over us, that they had no need to think the justification, for the force of the treasures themselves at that time outweighed any lack of understanding as to how this was possible. In course of time, the treasure separates itself from the luck which originally gave it strength, and assumes a self-sufficient might of its own. The spear-shaft becomes a royal symbol, or sceptre, an incarnation of abstract kingship, but a sceptre that has its authority from within, and needs not to draw its right from the jurists' exposition of the meaning of such regalia. The lance, in Childebert's hand, was both an evidence and a power, the mere presence of which closed men's mouths and bowed their head, and of itself added something to the man who grasped it.

In such treasures then, the luck of the clan resides, and in them it is handed down from generation to generation. They form that backbone which keeps the race upright throughout all changes. In the heirloom is gathered together all that men are; and therefore it contains an illustration both of the intensity wherewith men assimilated one another in friendship, and of [48] the complex character of every hamingja. They illustrate how the clan gathered honor and luck from many sources and thus grew and changed in continuity. When the treasure was assimilated by the family it came to carry not only the new conquest but all the ancient deeds and fate as well, since it was filled with the ever prsent hamingja of the circle of men to which it belonged. In such an idea of possession, the distinction between new and old falls away. Poetry rightly honours every weapon with the epithet of old, for even though a sword had been forged but the year before, it assumed its antiquity, and its quality of heirloom, from its companions in the men's equipment. It drew up the ancient strength that inspired all things worn or used by the family, and in the same way, the last adopted is a relic from the ancestors the moment reception has been completed. In fullest agreement with the truth, Grettir's mother calls to mind, by the sword, all the former Vatsdoela men, even though she and all the others knew that Ættartangi had come into the family through Ingimund.

The question of inheritance and order of succession then becomes a vital problem in Germanic society, though in another sense than we are apt to surmise. On this point the laws fail us because their provisions date from Christian times, when the spiritual welfare of men and their life hereafter was looked after by a professional body of dealers in eternal life; the testator was possessed of eternal life everlasting for good and ill, and it was assumed that he had made to himself friends of the mammon of unrighteousness – these words are often quoted in the deeds of gift – to receive him into everlasting habitations, and further that he had handed over a sufficient amount of the dross of this world to the church. The question of inheritance has changed – in the official documents, though by no means in the minds of the people – into a temporal problem as to who was to take the chattels left by the deceased, and the solution of this modern problem naturally fell under the influence of foreign legal principles. The anxiety that formerly overshadowed all pecuniary interest, how the hamingja which had inspired the dead man and resided in his belongings, should

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