The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[103] Slowly and steadily our forefathers' life moves forward, we may even find the pace desperately slow. These people appear to us to be stuck fast, writhing in a web of forms. Hesitatingly, unwillingly, ever considering and estimated, they move, for every step is rendered a matter of grave moment from the effect which every act might have upon an immeasurable future. There is no way of breaking through the ceremonial; without these forms and fashions there is no possibility of any intercourse between human beings at all; again and again men have to go through them in order to reach other's thoughts. Even the most fleeing encounter presupposes in a certain degree alliance and compact, -- not for nothing did the custom demand so great a reserve on the part of host and guest, that they entertained and partook of entertainment for days together before they could bring out their errand. When a first acquaintance could have such pronounced effects as this, that the host was compelled to take up his guest's suit, and prosecute it as his own, despite his inclination; even, indeed, when this new interest was so opposed to his own former obligations that wit and luck were needed to avoid catastrophe – then circumspection and diplomacy must be a sure growth among the people.

Then we may perhaps be surprised to find that caution has an opposite with features no less marked.

Not enough that a host is in the power of his guest – after all, every man is more or less at the mercy of any passer-by. The guest is the stronger; he can force his way in by violence and snatch a man's friendship; he can manage by stealth to procure a mouthful of the luck of the house, and then the hamingja itself takes up his cause and forces it, by the action of the pulse, into is representatives in the flesh, driving them whither they would not. Once inside the door, he has no need to crouch and humbly hide his existence in the gloomiest corner, still less sneak about in borrowed clothes; boldly he holds forth his business in the light, and asks his hosts when they are really going to make an effort and gain him his rights. The guest's authority is so strong that when he throws himself on the mercy of the man he has wronged, he can insist on the bond of hospi- [104] tality; it is a great shame to wrong a man who has placed himself in one's power – with these words he points his request.

There is a remarkable story of the young Lombard prince Albuin. In order to gain the distinction among aliens which was required to give a man full dignity in his own home, he set out resolutely with a chosen following to the court of Thurisind, king of the Gepidæ, whom he had rendered poorer by a son in a recent battle. As a guest of the highest birth, he was offered a seat in the empty place next to the king, and the meal proceeded in due form. Thurisind was silent for a long while, and all were careful not to utter their thoughts; but when the king broke out: “Gladly I look upon that seat, but it is hard to see that man sitting there,” the hall burst into uproar. The Gepidæ jeered at their guests, and called them mares with white socks, -- referring to the white bands they wore round their legs. The Lombards asked whether they had fought at Asfeld and seen the mares strike out with their hoofs, and the Gepidæ suddenly called to mind more than they could control. But the king dashed out into the midst of them, warning and threatening any who should dare to tempt the patience of God by striking down a guest in the house itself. The men calmed down, and the feast proceeded “with gladness”. Thurisind took down his son's weapons from the place where they hung, and set them upon Albuin himself.

Here, hospitality is seen in conflict with great and powerful feelings, and it gains the victory.

Caution was great, but hospitality was greater. The wayfarer was always certain of being received. Tacitus gives his readers the impression that the table is laid as soon as the mere shadow of a stranger falls through the doorway, and he is right when he states absolutely that none need wait for an invitation. “It is villainy to refuse shelter,” runs the popular saying in Norway; having tendered hospitality, the host is at once involved in the difficulties of the guest. Headlong we should call these Icelanders, who almost drag in the man pursued, when he comes one evening and knocks at the door as one in a hurry to find himself within doors; who, despite their own opinion [105] of the man, risk their life and welfare to protect him, openly and secretly; who send him with a recommendation to their friends and kinsmen to look after. But Cæsar had already met men who were the equals of the Icelanders, and he has revealed his insight into their ideas of hospitality by saying simply: “These people consider it shameful to affront a guest. Whoever he may be, and whatsoever grounds may drive him to seek the hospitality of others, they protect him against wrong. He is sacred; all houses are open to him, and food is ready for him.”

Only by living through the contrasts to their extreme consequences can we partake of the harmony wherein this culture rests. All that a man is he must be wholly, within a luck or outside it – there is no tangent middle stage. When a man stands face to face with his nieghbour, one of two things must happen; either one casts words to him across a great, bottomless gulf, and the words then necessarily become weapons, or the two mingle mind, and the words become ready messengers of goodwill. The guest who has tasted of the fat of the house, is really within the soul, for a visitor who fails to let himself be entirely swallowed up by the luck of the house is unimaginable, since no home could tolerate such a dead spot within its organism.

The manner in which later times held, as a matter of course, the master of a house responsible for all that proceeded from his house is but a faint expression of the host's personal feeling of the guest's actions as deriving from his own will, or in other words, as those of a kinsman. He must protect the guest to the uttermost of his power, because the stranger's misfortune will drag the whole house with it to its fall.

Procopius tells of Thorisvind, King of the Gepidæ, who was once tempted by the emperor of Byzantium to hand over a foreign pretender, whom fate had driven to seek refuge among the tribe. As a widely travelled man, who had learned the strange ways of civilized nations, he was able to realise that the old-fashioned principles of morality would not serve in cases of political complications, and he endeavoured to make his people [106] understand that an agreement paid for with something which one did not own was clear profit. But through the words of the alien historian there still runs audibly the people's refusal: “Far be it from us! Better that we should perish with our wives and children.” In face of the old-fashioned doctrinairism of the people, the king with all his enlightenment can make no headway – he is forced to settle matters privately with the other party, and attain his end by stealth, as progress often must when seeking its way in the world.

What we call form was reality itself. The intercourse of the ancients did not take place under certain forms, but in them, they lived life itself in the slowly circulating ale-bowl, they shared mind as they drank fellowship together, exchanged fleeting thoughts in the cup as they exchanged winged thoughts in their words; they tasted the honour and the memories of the house in its food, at the same time feasting their eyes with the heirlooms and trophies in the hall, and drawing in the atmosphere of the clan with their breaths. It was an experience unlike all else to handle weapons when they came to the hand so heavy with spirit as to force the owner to open his lips and say: “This byrnie Heorogar bore throughout a long life,” – “this sword belonged to my grandfather Jokul, and the ancient Vatsdolea men before him, and kept them in conquest.” It was a unique feeling to own a thing of value, when its nature was to such a degree fate, past, present and future, that the gift not only set the receiver's soul vibrating, but inspired him to a poem on the giver.

Ceremonial forms are the stream of life itself, not narrowing banks against which life grinds in its passage. They are solemn because they are necessary; they are necessary because they come into existence merely from the fact that men do not offer resistance to the need of life, to develop itself. To go with the sun, to grown and let grow with the moon, to carry out the ritual whereby kinship, whether with men or with nature, is strengthened and renewed, whereby the sun is held to its course and earth and heaven preserve their youth and strength, to effect honour and luck, to give the child its name-gift, to drink the [107] cup of brotherhood – this is to live. It is forms which divide the living from the dead. One cannot forbid an outlaw of the woods to eat, and there is no idea of cutting him off from food, but real food, that which carries with it all gladness and thoughts, from this is he excluded. He is thrust out from forms, into the formless.

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