The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[97] It lies in the nature of the drink itself that it should bring with it forgetfulness of something and the better remembrance of other things; in its strongest brew, it assimilated the drinker with itself, and so effaced his past as to make him a new man; it brought that forgetfulness which may suffer facts to stand, but takes away their light and shade and reality. Thus it was with Sigurd, when the queen, in Gjuki's hall, handed him the horn; as soon as he had tasted the brew, he forgot Brynhild and all his promises to her, thinking only how splendid a woman was Gudrun and what fine men were her brothers. The contents of the horn are a cup of memory when it is to wake the soul, and a cup of forgetfulness when it is to shut off the past; the ale in both cases is the same, and the main ingredient in it is the unadulterated homely brew of a strong household beer. The story of Hedin's enchantment, when he slays his foster-brother Hogni's queen and carries off his daughter, needs no more than the simple and obvious explanation that he had once in the forest encountered a woman who gave him to drink from a “horn of ale”, and when he had drunk, he remembered nothing of the past, nothing of having accepted Hogni's hospitality, or become his foster-brother, he had only one thought, that the advice of the ale-bearer woman was the only thing worth having and following in the world.

In the Danish ballad of Bosmer's visit to Elfland, the reality still holds that the drink, in virtue of its origin, contained a certain honour and fate, certain memories and certain aims, which of themselves drove out all else. The symmetrical ballad style is here as if moulded to the theme; before he has tasted the elfin food, he knows that

“In Denmark I was bred and born,

And there my courtly clothes were shorn:

There is the maid I have chosen to wife,

And there I will live to the end of my life,”

and he feels that he has come an evil journey. But the moment he has drunk, the little words turn about: [98]

“In Elfland I was bred and born,

And there my courtly clothes were shorn:

There is the maid I have chosen to wife,

And there I will live to the end of my life,”

It comes about with him, as with Sigurd, that as he

“Held the cup to his lips and drank,

Out of his mind the whole world sank,

Forgotten his father and mother,

Forgotten his sisters and brothers . . .”

Two little grains of Elfland corn dropped into the wine to enhance the effect – nothing extraordinary beyond this, and the grains themselves are, when all is said and done, nothing else and nothing more than an emphasising of the fact that the drink contains the natural product of Elfland.

The ale Sigurd and Hedin swallowed was in the true sense a witch-brew, for it was evil, and carried evil with it. Both come to their senses, and memory finds its way to their former being, but they cannot become their former selves again. They have no will to break, and they go forward unhesitatingly on the road the drink has set them, recognising that which has the foundation of a whole life. Sigurd's loyalty to his brothers-in-law is not loosened after his awakening, and Hedein's contrition at having wronged his foster-brother is not repentance in the modern sense; it can lead him to offer restitution, but when his offer is rejected, he has no chance but to assert himself. The only way for him to stave off nidinghood is by carrying through his present character and making it his honour, just as the owners of Tyrfing must accept the dark fate of the weapon as their own will. The strength, the tragic grandeur of these ancient heroes lie in their single-mindedness; they never try to be two men at a time, and thus they never know the inner discord that consumes modern men who despise themselves for what they are and hanker after what they cannot be – thus never attaining to tragedy. [99]

The home-brewed ale was an elixir vitæ which imperceptibly created the minds day by day in peasant's homestead and king's court. In it frith was born.

If a man died alone in a strange land or on board a ship, it was natural to declare his board-fellow his heir, not because such fellowship was regarded as reflecting the character of family relationship, but because the sharing of food was the heart of the clan, and indeed of every circle whose unity was of the same sort as that of the circle of kin. Without a constantly repeated renewal of frith by the food, and especially by the drink which was permeated by the luck of the house itself, the bond would be loosened and the individual wither; and when we read that none could be declared incapable of managing his own affairs as long as he could drink ale and ride a horse – empty his cup and move among men without help from others – there was an equality between the two items which is no longer obvious. “To sit in the mead-seat” is an expression for being yet among the living, which owes nothing to poetic licence.

Meat and drink can, nay, must, be the sign which distinguishes life from death. When the outcast has been brought to a seat in a stranger's house and becomes a new man, with new life and new thoughts, the transformation has not taken place in any metaphysical sense, he has physically received a luck and taken it in. And when the child had tasted food, it was insured against being cast out, for the simple reason that it had imbibed a reality, and was thus become an unassailable value. It had tasted frith, and was therefore insured in honour, so that not even its parents had now any power over it. There is a story from Friesland of a woman of noble family who had her son's child carried out, in anger at his having only daughters born to him. When she learned that another woman had taken interest in the little creature and cared for it, she sent men with the strictest orders; the child was to be put out of the world; but the men arrived too late; the child lay, licking its lips contently after a meal – and they had to go back to their stern mistress with their errand unaccomplished.

On the other hand, exclusion from the sharing of food amounts [100] to sentence of death upon the outlaw. When the state declares a niding óæll, as it is called in Iceland, one against whom every man's hand and store shall be closed, it means that he is shut out from all continuance in humanity; life is no longer allowed to flow into him.

Having arrived thus far, we look about us involuntarily in search of some ceremonial. Even though the sources, as in almost every case of ordinary everyday things, are apt to fail us, we know that just as luck and honour exercised their vital functions through the medium of gifts, so also must the meal, and the intercourse after the meal, when the drink went round, have had its forms, through which the deep breath of frith was visible. A significant view of the life of a peasant homestead is afforded by a that little passage in the Frosta-thing's Law which decrees that “those vessels wherein the women drink to one another across the floor shall go to the daughters.” At the king's court, where the man was linked up into the chieftain's luck and permeated with his will, “by gift and ale” as the Beowulf says, the queen went her way through the hall at the drink hour horn in hand, and offered it all round the bench, after first letting her husband drink. Thus evidently the queen would go on working days and feast days, whether her mind urged her especially thereto or not. The men claimed such attendance as a right. “We think so well, King Garibald, of your daughter, that we would gladly have a foretaste now of the luck that awaits us; let her then, beloved, hand us a cup now, a she will later come to bear it to us;” thus, with innocent directness speak the little group of messengers from King Authari, as they rested on King Garibald's benches after having gained his consent to the maiden's marriage with their master. The actual spokesman was in reality Authari himself, who, out of curiosity, had disguised himself as one of his own retainers, and now took advantage of common custom to approach his betrothed. And since the forms observed in the king's body-guard were but an intensified image of the customs of the home, we may suppose that spiritual service formed part of the Germanic [101] housewife's duty, was indeed her essential work as a weaver of frith. The saga writer can find no more direct expression for Brynhild's manliness than the fact that she will not allow any man to take his seat beside her, or hand ale to any to drink: her mind is set on war and not on marriage.

There is more detail in the ancient descriptions of feasting at table, especially on such occasions as involved a change in the life of those taking part. The feast begins outside the house, where a ceremonial drink awaits the guests as they arrive. The wedding customs of later times, in Norway, present this ritual in imposing forms. The men assemble at the bridegroom's homestead, there to clinch the fellowship by eating and drinking doughtily together. Then with shouts and cries they set off in a wild race to the bride's home, and having neared the place, send off two heralds in advance to ask a night's lodging. In answer to their request, they are given some bowls of ale, which are carried to the party in waiting, and not until this ale greeting has admitted them into the great community awaiting them, do they ride forward and dismount. This life study from the eighteenth century proves is venerable character by its agreement in every item with the scattered indications which have found their way into the Swedish district laws. According to these likewise, two of the bridegroom's party had, on arriving at the house of the bride, to ask the master of the house for frith for themselves and their companions; and after his had been mutually agreed and weapons laid aside, the first drink round takes place, as an introduction to the spokesman's formal demand for the bride.

Whether the cup of initiation were offered in the open air or within doors, the guest could not avoid it. As we learn in the Hymiskvida, the god, on his visit to Jotunheim, among his mother's people, was met on the floor of the hall by his gold-decked kinswoman with the ale horn in her hand. And the man who had been a guest in Olaf Kyrri's hall, calls to mind his welcome there in the same image: “The prince of battle greeted me welcome with friendly mind, when the feaster of ravens, the master of rings, he himself came forward to meet me with [102] a golden horn to drink with me.” A Byzantine author, Priscos, from the sixth century, has in his recollections of a journey he made as ambassador to the court of Attila, described the trials which an educated man had to pass through for his country's sake. These barbarians had naturally the queerest customs, and the trouble was that one had to agree to their eccentricities if one wished to make any headway at all. He was invited one day to a private banquet with the queen, and was at once overwhelmed with a circumstantial Scythian ceremonial; each of those present rose on the entry of the Greeks and offered them a full cup, which they had to drink off, after which achievement they were rewarded with kisses and embraces from their dear hosts. To all appearances, Attila's court must have been more than half germanised, as it was in fact made up of Teuton grandees, and Priscos had, in this Scythian ritual of the board, a taste of what it meant to live in Gothic fashion.

There is no break between these old scenes from the south and north, on the one hand, and the simply grandiose forms of the Swedish and Norwegian peasantry on the other, when the host comes out on to the steps with “welcome” in his hand, carried, perhaps, in a vessel specially kept for the purpose. And the custom of Ditmarsk again, slips into the whole, almost as an exhaustive commentary on the old indications. We find here, that when the guest has shared the first meal with his hosts, the mistress of the house comes forward and greets him in solemn, traditional formula with fresh ale in a fresh, new bowl; after her come in the same manner sons and daughters, and finally, the serving people likewise show him their hospitable mind.

These ceremonials are more particularly aimed at the guest who does not himself form one of the circle, and has therefore first to be admitted to its life; but in the more general features, the forms obtaining at a banquet are merely an enhancement and adaptation of what is always required. The customs of the ceremonial feast teach us to what extent the forms of food-sharing dominated all intercourse between people generally.

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