The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



Treasure and man are one; but the man has his time, and that done, another succeeds him; the treasure remains, handing on the luck to his successor. Man comes to his appointed day; by virtue of his luck he makes his way across into the other existence; but he does not take the whole sum with him; part, and that no insignificant part, remains in the things he leaves behind him, there to await the man who follows. With very good reason, then, weapons, clothes, household implements may be called bearers of life; not only is the sword a lasting thing, it is a well of life, whence a man may renew his store, through which he can draw up power from the primeval source. The settler stuck his axe into the new soil to mark it as his property, and it has hamingja enough to bring the whole piece of land under its will, making it to serve its owner, and guard him against aggression. The law of Norway retains a memory of the emphatic prohibition declared against unrightful use of land by the owner's placing his mark (called law stick) upon it and thus barring it from all others' luck. Often the weapon manifests its intimate contact with the family hamingja by revealing to the owner some intelligence which his personal hugr was not aware of. The sword knows beforehand when battle or killing is toward, and utters its warning aloud. The victorious axe Skrukke was ever singing loud and cheerily to its owner, the “murderous” Steinar, when the war-path opened before him, just as Gunnar's halberd ever rang out in greeting of news to come. Clothes do not submit tamely to be worn on imprudent expeditions: When [109] Thorgils, despite the warning appearance of his fylgia, had ridden to the law-thing, his cloak uttered warning verses as it hung drying on the wall.

So also cattle are both sharers in luck and a means of luck. There was healing to be gained in the pigsty, even for so serious a disability as the lack of power to see visions in dreams. When Halfdan the Black had tried diverse cures to get rid of his dreamlessness and all had failed, he made his bed in the byre, and presently the splendid future accorded to his son was revealed to him. The regenerative power of animals appears more particularly in certain individuals, of special character, the treasures of the livestock; such cows, oxen, horses, as the owner himself put faith in. He trusted to them more than to others in case of need, and he put faith in their counsels. Thorir, one of the early settlers in Iceland, staked his future on the mare called Skalm; all one autumn he wandered nomad fashion about, following its tracks, and on the spot where it finally lay down under its burden, there he built his home. As early as in the days of Tacitus, there were tribes in the south who had turned the prophetic gifts of the horse to account as regular state oracles; at critical times, when the welfare of the people called for some guide as to the future, the sacred stallions were harnessed to the sacred chariot by the king or the priest, and solemnly led forward until their neighing and whinnying gave the sign expected.

Acting as links between men and luck, such beasts and chattels drew life forth from the ultimate depths of that hamingja wherein they were fixed. But this fund of honour and blessing had other wells too, gaping wide in the house itself. A man could gain new strength and new will by placing himself in the high seat; the ceremony of leading a man into the high seat meant, in the case of a stranger, adopting him into the clan whose centre it was, and in the case of a son, investing him with authority. First and foremost, there is mention of the pillars of the seat, the supports which bore the roof above the master's seat in his home; in these there was wisdom, so that they would move ahead of the venturer when, on nearing the [110] shores of Iceland, he threw them overboard, to guide him to a spot where he might set up his new homestead with good hap. When an Ingolf, a Thorolf, and a host of unnamed besides, so carefully took these pillars with them on board, and so faithfully followed their directions, relinquishing their temporary dwelling the moment news of their finding arrived, it was because the wood contained a guarantee of welfare. The place bounded by these pillars held the seat of the head of the family and was filled with the hamingja of his clan. The peculiarity attaching to Odin's throne — that a man saw all things on seating himself upon it was merely an accentuation of the wisdom and luck which ever went with the place in the high seat. When the heir to the throne was led by his father to the royal seat, he was clothed in power, and at the same time, it was with him as with Saul, when Samuel had anointed him with oil; his heart was changed within him.

In similar wise, luck dwelt in the setstocks, the planks which marked off the floor of the room from the lower central portion where the hearth fire burned. These, like the high seat, could, when thrown overboard, show a way through the sea and find the right place for a dwelling, and, probably, it was due not least to their spiritual powers that Thorgest first borrowed Eric the Red's setstocks, and thereafter refused to give them back, so that Eric had to take them by force of arms.

The whole house is pervaded with hamingja, from the roof to the roots of its uprights, even to the cooking vessels; there is not a corner in or about the home but has its inspiration, from the weathercocks on the gables, that told what weather was to come, to the fire on the hearth, which doubtless also, from its behaviour, indicated any approaching change in luck. Where the fire was carried, it paved a happy way for the clan, and so it was that the first settlers in Iceland, by embers brought from the ancient hearth, planted their luck in the new land, in the same way as their fathers for many generations may have tamed and humanised wild soil. And when it was lit upon a stranger's property, indicating a rightful claim to the ground, it ate its way down and gnawed through the will that had [111] hitherto reigned on the spot, devouring the ground beneath the feet of the former owner. When Glum had made away with the treasures of his grandfather, he was brought so low by his enemies that he had to sell his land, but at the last moment he made an attempt to defy his fate; on flitting day, he remained sitting in his high seat, ordered the hall to be decked with hangings as for a feast, and pretended not to hear the others calling him. Then came the new owner's mother, and greeted him with the words: “Now I have lit fire on the land, and demand that you go out with all that of yours, for the land is consecrated to my son.” Then Glum understood that his right and his luck were gone, it was useless to kick against the pricks, and with a bitter word he rose, and left the place.

The power of the hearth is strongly emphasised in legal language as well as in later custom. The Northman demanded, for rightful transfer of a property, that earth should be taken from those places in the house where it was strongest, and when he mentions the high seat and the corners of the hearth, we may be sure that he knew of nothing holier within the threshold. Nor is it impossible that the hearth among certain peoples, perhaps even in certain families, occupied the place of the Norwegian high seat as the heart of the house, here as everywhere there is, in the midst of homogeneity, scope for the individual character of luck.

When the open hearth in the middle of the house was abandoned for the chimney, the holiness was transferred to the chimney hammer, the cross piece supported by the two side baulks of the hearth; Danish popular custom recognises it as the real foundation of the house, which was conscientiously taken away on removal, and built into the wall of the new dwelling.

In addition to these natural centres, luck might have an individual high seat of its own in the house. At Thord Gellir's homestead of Hvamm there lay in the midst of the room a stone, which was no ordinary piece of rubble, to judge from the fact that great oaths were sworn upon it. And from the stone at Hvamm, one's thoughts turn naturally to Volsung's house. It was, according to the legend, built about an oak, in [112] such wise that the trunk formed the backbone of the house, while the leaves shaded over the hall, and it is added that the trunk which made up the core of the home was called the child-stock. Tradition further relates that Odin appeared in the guise of an one-eyed old man and struck the sword fast in the stock, dedicating it to the man who should be able to wrench it out; from this sword, which came loose when Sigmund tried his strength, proceeded the fate of the clan, made famous through Sigurd the dragon slayer. It is probable that this legend once formed part of a family tradition, but whether such a house ever existed or not, the interest for us lies in the fact that Scandinavian listeners had no difficulty in realising the bearings of this tale.

The sacred customs lead us further afield; outside the house men would point to a stone, a waterfall, a meadow, a mountain, as the holiest of holy things, the true source whence all luck, all honour, all frith flowed out to pulse through the veins of the kinsmen. Thorolf's family had their spiritual home in the mountain that stood above the homestead — Helgafell (the holy mountain) it was naturally called. One of Thorolf's contemporaries, the settler Thorir Snepil, lived at Lund, and he “worshipped the grove” (lund); another, Lodin, acquired the Flatey valley right up as far as Gunnsteinar, and he worshipped the rocks there. Hrolf lived at Fors, and his son Thorstein worshipped the waterfall (foss), and all the leavings of the house were thrown into the rapids.

Helgafell was fenced off from daily life by a holy silence; nothing, neither man nor beast, was suffered to perish there, no blood was suffered to flow, no dirt to defile. But it was not only a place inviolable; it was the place whence luck was brought. When it was a case of hitting upon the right decision in a difficult matter, the discussion was adjourned to the holy place. Snorri Godi, the later master of the homestead, whose “cold”, wise counsels were famous, knew that plans made on Helgafell were more likely to succeed than all others. From the foss came inspiration to the seer Thorstein Raudnef, so that he could always see, in the autumn, which of the cattle would not live [113] through the winter and therefore should be chosen for slaughter. This power of holiness is the same as that which Tacitus heard spoken of among the southern Germanic tribes; in the land of the Hermundures there lay a salt spring, where the gods were to be found, and where men could have their wishes fulfilled. He knew too, that the Batavians assembled in a sacred grove to make plans against the Romans, and if the meeting, which is not inconceivable, took place in the sacred locality itself, the meeting place must have been chosen for the same reason which led Snorri Godi to go up to Helgafell.

On the island of Fositeland, “which lies midway between the Danes and the Frisians”, the missionary Willibrord found a sanctuary. A fortunate hand has preserved to us the account of his experiences during the few days he stayed there, and from the purely external description which the Christian observers could give, the same two features stand out distinctly: the blessing in that spring which was in the grove — for there the inhabitants procured their water — and the peace and solemnity of holiness which marked the resting place of luck. The animals grazed there, sacredly inviolable, all that was found within the boundaries lay undisturbed in its place, while men came and went, the people moved in silence towards the spring in the middle, drew their water, and moved silently away. We also learn that the inhabitants trusted in the power of the place to assert its holiness without human aid; for when the missionaries came tramping in with ostentatious indifference, slaughtered the beasts and baptised in the waters, the inhabitants looked to see the trespassers lose their senses or meet with sudden death. This time, the hope of the natives was disappointed, simply because the luck of the Christians was too strong for the ancient holy place to affect it, but the holiness reasserted itself later on, and forced the Christian God to do the duty of its former powers. Adam of Bremen tells of an island, Farria, where the Christian hermits led a blessed life, untouched by the stormy times about them; not only did they retain their worldly belongings in peace, but even received visits from sea-raiders, who with the deepest reverence paid them tithe [114] of their plunder. It was, of course, God and the good saints who guarded the land, and deprived thoughtless vikings of ship-luck and sword-luck so that they soon perished at sea or fell in battle, when they had offended the peace of the little island by even the slightest foray; but it is perhaps hardly any depreciation of the honour of those high ones to suppose that they had wrested the place from devils, or point out that it was just the luck of the ancient heathen gods which they here turned against these gods themselves.

We perceive that the clan, in times of crisis, when it was a question of making luck to flow into their kinsmen, and powerfully acknowledge a new commencement of their life, took their way to the mount or to the spring, and derived blessing to themselves therefrom. Thord Gellir, a chief of the renowned family residing at Hvamm, was led up into the hill which was the holy centre for the men of Hvamm, before taking possession of his, chieftainship. The ancient formula whereby the purpose of such a visit was expressed, to heimta heill or go seeking luck, has later been applied to the bridal pair's going to church after the wedding, and has been preserved in this form to our own days. In Ditmarsk, the visit is not paid to the church, but to the churchyard, and it is the bride who is led by her sisters-in-law to the holy place — as if she needed to be made familiar with the centre of that home to which she thenceforward belongs.

In the holy place, the store of luck, the life of the kinsmen was hid, and while they, in real life, were mostly seen and mostly active outside the sanctuary, they entered in after death, and fused with luck itself. The settler Kraku-Hreidar chose Mællifell for his dwelling after death, Selthorir and his heathen kinsmen died into Thorisbjorg (Thorir's rocks), Thorolf also intended to end in Helgafell with all his kin. Aud, the Icelandic ancestress of the family residing at Hvamm, had embraced Christianity during her stay in the British Isles, where her husband, King Olaf the White, had carved out a kingdom, and when she settled in Iceland after the fall of her husband, she chose a hill for the scene of her devotions; this place retained

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