The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[49] be secured without loss or infringement in his successors, is barely indicated in isolated survivals, such as that rule which assigns the weapons to the chief avenger. The intricate systems of the mediæval law-bookss regulating the order of succession give practically no positive clue to ancient custom; what evidence they contain is of a negative character insofar as the weak points of the systems sometimes suggest spontaneous assumptions from ancient times, which were but slowly and laboriously overcome by the Roman principle. The difficulty which the mediæval lawyers had in recognising the son's son as rightful heir is an instance of ancient prejudice obstructing a smooth adaptation of the simple rule of succession.

If we wish to view this field in its proper foreshortening, we must set aside the human being as the central point in inheritance, and look at the thing itself. The only possible order of succession was hand reaching over into hand, and the life of grandsons was best guarded by their grandfather's adopting the fatherless, as seems to have been the Iceland custom.

In modern times, inheritance is a question first and foremost of preventing the property from being left without an owner; the general endeavor concentrates upon the providing of a clear and legally defined way for the money to take, along which it can roll according to the law of gravity from man to man, until a hand is reached than can rake it in; on no account must the fortune be left idle and ownerless in the market-place, as a proof that gold can really exist without belonging to anyone. The Germanic mind was never troubled by a conception of property as a casual possession, and consequently it was difficult to realise that an inheritance could go a-wandering after an owner or jump gaps. In ancient society, inheritance is not a question of finding a place for a fortune, but of obtaining a prolongation of life, and the step that seems so natural to us, over to the next of kin, was no solution to the difficulty. The chain of life must remain unbroken, and the natural, almost necessary presumption was that every man had a successor, a son who took over his father's valuables, because he continued his life. [50]

There is no problem of succession as long as the hamingja proves healthy; it arises only when life and luck had failed, and the difficulty consists in procuring a man to fill the gap in the clan, not in hunting out an heir. When the hope of offspring in the flesh was extinguished, a man was given birth to in order to provide a successor; then the widow or the mother or the sister of the deceased hand to raise up the clan and bear a son who should be able to wear the cloak and wield the sword of the father. In the Eddic poem of Reginsmál, Hreidmar cries for a son to his daughter, one who could help in the hour of need, when his own sons have cut themselves off from family relationship with him by conspiring against him; and in his deathly fear he adds to his daughter: “then give birth to a daughter, if you cannot have a son, and get your girl a husband that this need may be met, then her son will avenge your sorrw.”

In the Salic law, there is a paragraph which cannot be derived from the actual requirements of the Middle Ages, and which therefore necessarily must lead back to the customs that came most naturally to the people, as long as they followed the ways of their ancestors. It says, that the dead man's mother is nearest heir in absence of sons, after her come brother and sister; failing these, then the mother's sister, and not until she fails does the inheritance fall to the nearest of kin. And then it adds significantly that this rule only applies to personal affects, goods and chattels; land can never pass down through a woman's hands. The daughter is not named, the old legal provisos never start from an abstract standpoint; a particular ease is supposed, and the words arranged to fit it, and the case is here evidently that of a young man dying childless. On this piece of law we cannot at any rate establish any dissimilarity between Frankish and Norse custom. Nor can we from this positive rule draw the negative conclusion that the Franks would not acknowledge the solution which evidently comforted the Northmen, that the wife might raise up seed to her husband. Glum's daughter, Thorlaug, renewed, as we know, her husband Eldjarn after his death in the first son by her marriage with Arnor Kerlingarnef. [51] According to the Salic idea, then, the mother is nearest to the task of giving the son new birth, and we have every right to believe that the mother's duty held valid whether the father still lived or were dead, whether the widow continued to dwell in his house, or went back to her kinsmen, or perhaps from them into a new marriage. After the mother, the dead man's sister is next called upon; she has to look to the interests of the deceased before bearing a child for herself and her husband. From her, the duty passes to the one who was nearest to the mother, and not until woman in the nearest family community is altogether wanting the hope of continuing the branch of the family is relinquished, and the family takes the hamingja contained in the chattels into itself.

The woman's inheriting means that she took over the treasures of the dead man in trust for the son to be born, and brought them out when he had reached the years of maturity. In such a way the famous sword of the Vatsdoela men, the Ættartangi, came to Grettir through his mother, Asdis, daughter of the son of the old Jokul. When Grettir left home to travel and cut out a path for himself, his mother went with him along the road to give her parting salutation. She took from under her mantle a precious sword and said: “This sword has been the possession of Jokul, my father's father, and of the ancient Vatsdoela men, and it carried victory in their hands; I will give you the sword and bid you use it well.” The last words contain in exhortation and a blessing, or rather, an induction to the right and enjoyment of the power inherent in the weapon; the power of the sword be yours to use! In this case we know that Asdis had a brother, and the reason why the heirloom went into the distaff line is to us obscure. As an illustration of the inner meaning we may cite a scene in Glum's saga. When Glum visited his mother's father in Norway, Vigfus, the old man invited his grandson to settle in his maternal home and succeed to the chieftainship after his kinsman, but Glum wished for some reason to visit Iceland and look after his paternal inheritance before emigrating. When they parted, Vigfus said: “I think it is your fate to raise a family out there, I will give you some [52] treasures, a cloak and spear and a sword in which our kinsmen have put trust.” This means really that the Norwegian chief awaits a future for himself in the offspring of his daughter's son, and in point of fact the hamingja or genius of Vigfus appeared to Glum in his sleep; when he saw the mighty woman stride up the valley he knew at once that she announced the death of the old man and had come to dwell with him for evermore. Another family legend tells how Olaf the Saint got the sword Bæsing, the old family heirloom. When Olaf was eight years old, he excelled all boys of his own age in wit and skill. One day his mother, Asta, opened a chest and the boy espied a glittering object among its contents. What is it? -- It is the hilt of a sword. --- Whose is it? – It is yours, my son; the sword is called Bæsing, and it has belonged to Olaf Geirstadallf. – I will have it and wear it myself. And Asta gave him the sword.

These passages are prosaic parallels to the high-strung words of the legend, where Hervor transmits the famous sword which had belonged to her father, Angantyr, and had first gone with him into his barrow, to their son, and begs the young hero ever to bear in mind how keen is that sword of his, how much prowess had manifested itself in the men who had borne it, and how victory was bound up with it. We recall the words of the dying youth who prayed his brother to raise up seed to him: “And to him will I give all the luck I had, and then my name shall live as long as the world stands.”

The question we have to solve is now that arrangement the ancient Teutons made regarding inheritance, but what inheritance meant in their case. Through all branches the same clan luck flowed down to posterity, and it would be misleading to interpret the exclusion of women from inheritance in later times as indicating that the sons assumed all the riches themselves and abandoned their sisters to the luck of strangers. Through the gifts wherewith a maiden was attached to the bridegroom's clan, and probably also by further exchange of valuables by gift, the daughter's sons were bound to their mother's father and their mother's brothers by the very strongest bonds. But [53] the central treasures in which the hamingja was found at its purest and strongest descended from father to son as the string of life that linked one generation to another. How the matter was settled in detail between brothers we have no means of ascertaining; thus much only is certain, from the hints in law and history, that the insignia, the weapons and ornaments which contained the chieftains luck of leading the clan went to the son who made promise to be a fit representative of the hamingja. This would normally be the eldest heir, but it would be merely drawing upon our own prejudices, were we to lay down a hard and fast line of law where procedure was always governed by the firm but plastic laws of life. There may be a kernel of truth in Tacitus' casual remark as to the Tenchtri who were addicted to riding and gave their horses after them to the finest warrior among the host of sons; at least it is not out of keeping with the intimations of history and legends.

Should it come to so ill a pass that the clan dries up, then the last of the race hides its barren luck in the earth, no other shall enjoy it; he says – if he be an Anglo-Saxon --;

“Now hold thou, Earth, the heirloom of athelings, since the noble no longer can hold it. On thee it was won by the brave. Battle-death, the fierce life-destroyer, has reft away my people to the last kinsmen . . . . There is no one left who can wield the sword or grasp the cup richly chased, the precious beaker. The manly host was hurried off afar. From the hard helm, embossed in gold, the plating will part; the mindful owners sleep who should burnish the battle-mask. The coat of war which offered itself to the bite of steel in the battle at the clanging of shields crumbles with the bones of the hero. The rings of the byrnie do not fare abroad on the breast of the chieftain . . . . There is no delight of the harp, no hawk winging through the hall, no fleet horse stamping in the courtyard. Dire death has carried off the host of men.”

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page