The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[84] of the merchant, who gathers up goods only to dispose of them at a handsome profit.

But the old sense of ownership, which must prove inadequate in reckonings with coinage, places itself involuntarily in a posture of defence, as soon as it is brought face to face with the thing itself. For the present, the Germanic mind cannot go so far as to see things as objects; they were individualities, known and encountered with the reassurance of recognition. The world from which the laws and established customs of these people proceed is one in which articles of value have their proper names and their personality; it is the world where the haughty warrior, strutting about among his former enemies in the spoils of war, gives rise to the exclamation: “Look, Ingeld, do you know that weapon? It was the one your father bore the day he fell.” And wherever these men go, they reveal themselves by their inability to sever altogether the connection between themselves and things. The gift a man had given to another was and would ever be an outpost of his soul in the alien territory, and he had both a right and a duty in regard to it, which rendered his will significant even to later recipients. For an Olaf the Saint, this feeling oneself in the thing was nothing less than a personal experience. One of his men, Brand Orvi, had once received a cloak from the king, and shortly after, given it away again to a poor priest, Isleif, who had come home from his studies in foreign parts and was short of clothes. Olaf had something to say to Brand about this readiness of his to rid himself of a king's gifts, but when he saw Isleif in the glory of his learning and holiness, he realised at once that the cloak had found a worthy wearer. “I will give you that cloak,” said Olaf, “for I can see from the look of you that there is a blessing in being counted in your prayers.” It may be a Christian hope that is here expressed, but the grounds for so hoping are heathen enough.

Apart from the personal feeling of ownership, the importance of land and goods to others besides the nominal owner was a fact not to be disregarded in daily life. As long as a clan was not entirely dissolved, it was difficult to exterminate the right [85] of the heirs to consideration in any transfer of inherited property, whether it appeared as a claim to be heard at the sale, or a demand for right of pre-emption. It may be forced back within certain limits, and then it stands firmly as a claim that not more than a certain portion of a fortune may be given away, and that all beyond the reasonable amount can be claimed as returnable on the death of the giver.

The legal provisions are but surface signs of the anxiety with which the clansmen as a whole watched any transfer which involved spiritual revolutions and obligations. The family never lost touch of its gifts, and the clan could not surrender itself for ever as a passive instrument into the hands of strangers; so they rebelled at the thought that the receiver of a gift should freely dispose of what he had received to a third party.

This kicking of culture against the pricks of alien influence gives rise to a peculiar duality in the character of the trade-loving German people. Their laws for trade and commerce are nearer the commercial routine of a Roman than the chaffering of the true Germanic type; in their wrestling with sale and pledging, hire and rental, their speech is in reality that of a modern society, but they disguise their experienced wisdom in curious terms, which are only properly appreciated when one passes them by and approached them from behind, through the past. There is no getting round the old forms, and consequently, thought and expression are stubbornly in conflict, the meaning ever tugging and straining at the form till it is near to bursting, and the forms resisting, striving to keep the transactions within the confine of the ancient bargain system. It may end by the institution falling to pieces, as is actually the case with the old marriage and betrothal contracts, where the gifts which constitute the obligation have lost their significance as enrichment, and retained a ceremonial value as ved or present, while the pecuniary arrangement has maintained a separate position under or even outside them; a Lombard maiden becomes a bride in virtue of the old-fashioned betrothal, but her main interest lies in the document whereby the husband secures her to a fourth part of his fortune. The result may establish itself as a temporary [86] compromise, as when transactions dealing with things presuppose the seller's obligation to uphold the purchaser's right in face of his own kinsmen as well as of other possible objectors, so that he not only guarantees the rightful transfer of ownership once and for all ,but declares his willingness to accept responsibility for the same as often as opportunity may arise.

But here and there, half or more than half stifled beneath all this flourishing legislation, we find an occasional etiolated shoot of the prehistoric idea of trade. Provisions such as those of the Grágás: A giver cannot revoke his gift, but if he gave in hope of return, or if the receiver have promised value in exchange, then the giver has a claim to as much as was promised, -- or as that of the Östgötalag which provides that ownership can be asserted by saying: he gave and I rewarded, -- contain in reality the Germanic trade legislation. They hark back to the idea of exchange of gifts as the true mode of procedure when things change hands; an object in one man's hand proffered a suit to an article of property that belonged to the neighbour. The gift which a Swedish suitor carried in his hand in token of his wish to marry into the house was characteristically called tilgæf, meaning a gift (gæf) for the obtaining of (til) a desire. The suitor for friendship, who gives his gift in order to obtain a certain thing in return, and the giver who prophesies blessing in the article transferred, have in reality long since told us all there is to say anent Germanic sale and purchase, and Gjafa-Refr, the Gift-Fox, is as a trader, the highest type of Teutonic bargaining.

Thus all distinction between unselfish desire to give and egoistic lust to possess, between an offer of friendship and haggling over a bargain, between noble self-surrender and ignoble demands for payment, melt away. Germanic culture knew no better than that possession was obtained by means of an offer of friendship, and neither affection nor cupidity were lessened thereby. To a Teuton, love and interest could no more be separated than were the soul and the body of the ring or axe. When, then, Gunnar, in the Edda, says: “One thing is better to me than all, Brynhild, Budli's daughter, she is above [87] all women; sooner will I lose my life than lose that maiden's treasures,” there is true pathos and depth in his words, and in no other way could the passion be adequately expressed.

On this point, the ideas of the barbarian and of the educated man clash more helplessly, perhaps, than anywhere else. Tacitus has seen the guest emerge on departure with his arms full of costly gifts, and has seen the host remain behind content with a little mountain of souvenirs, which he had begged of those who had rejoiced his heart by accepting his hospitality. “It is customary to speed the parting guest with anything he fancies; there is the same readiness in turn to ask of him,” he says, but adds: “gifts are their delight, but they neither count upon what they have given, nor are bound by what they have received.” If he had been able to peep a little more closely within doors, he would have been considerably taken aback on observing how carefully the cheerful givers saw to it that nothing remained to enter in any account. The same thing has happened to many Europeans endeavouring to understand the ideas of savages as to the value of a thing between brethren. Here comes a native with his present, freely offering his friend the one lamb he has, and lo, shortly after, points out to the grateful colonist that he has forgotten to requite the little attention by giving, for instance, in return that very nice gun there. Then the white man is sorely bewildered, and sometimes becomes a ready convert to certain philosophical systems, which teach that the nobler characteristics of man do not fall in under innate ideas; it is only a pity that European speculation is too provincial to be able to feel with the native, who is shaking his head just as energetically over this remarkable world, in which people can go about and grow up to manhood without understanding the simplest things.

There is soul in the greed of the ancients, and so their desire rises to the level of passion, or should at least retain its sole right to that noble word. It comes over them whey they move about the object of their cupidity, looking at it from every side, and unable to take their eyes off it; they cannot resist, they must have the owner's friendship, or take by force that [88] which they cannot win – and let the man of violence look to it thereafter, if he can force the acquisition to obey his will. Because desire comes from such a depth, therefore a refusal strikes at it as an affront. The calm and self-possessed chieftain of the Vatsdale, Ingimund the Old, had an experience in his later years, concerning a weapon. One summer, a Norseman, Hrafn, was staying with him as a guest, and this Hrafn always went about with a most excellent sword in his hand. Ingimund could not help casting sidelong glances at the sword; he had to borrow it and look at it, and he was angry in earnest when Hrafn flatly refused his eager offer to buy it. Days went on, Ingimund grew more and more interested in the Norseman's stories of his travels and viking adventures – had had been young himself once, and known the thirst for adventure – Hrafn talked, Ingimund listened, and in course of conversation Ingimund, lost in thought, stepped into his sanctuary, Hrafn following. Then Ingimund turned on him indignantly, for in a temple it was the custom to enter unarmed, not thus to challenge the gods; if a man forgot himself, he would have to make amends by offering the best he had, and begging one who knew the gods to take his case in hand. Thus Ingimund gained possession of the sword Ættartangi.

Desire can do more than set the passions moving, it creates the true tragedies in our forefathers' lives. When the old one-eyed god came into the hall of Volsung and struck the sword deep into the tree-trunk as a gift to the strongest, none but Sigmund could move it, but there was one, his brother-in-law Siggeir, who cast longing glances at it. He offered three times its weight in gold, but the gold left Sigmund unmoved. Siggeir then angrily left the place before the end of the feast, but in return, invited his wife's kin to his place, and there he gained possession of the sword, after having killed his father-in-law and set his sons, ignominiously bound, as food for the wolves in the forest. One after another the grey one took the young men, only one, Sigmund, the owner of the sword, was left; by the help of his sister, Signy, he got back the sword, saved himself and avenged his father – and it was this sword which Odin [89] himself struck from his hand in the battle, which Regin forged together for his son, which served to slay Fafnir; the weapon of Sigurd Fafnirsbane. So one treasure after another comes with its tragedy. The collar of the Yngings, the arm-ring of the Scyldings, the Andvari hoard, -- in these names are indicated not only the tragedies of the Germanic people, but the tragic element in their life.

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