The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[115] among her pagan descendants its significance as the holy place of the homestead, and they fixed on the hill as their resting place after death. We remember that when Thorstein Codbite was gathered to his kin in Helgafell, it was not a spirit wafted into an immaterial spirit host; the vitality of the assembly made a strong impression on the herdsman looking on from afar the night his master was welcomed by his departed ancestors. But we need only, from what we know, consider their personality in relation to the life that inspired them, to understand that the departed rested nevertheless as a potentiality in the stone.

With regard to the local relation between the seat of power and the bodily dwelling place of the dead, our sources hardly give us sufficient information. Thus much we may believe, that the burial-place was as a rule connected with the holy place, whether the two adjoined or were identical. The problem is, however, of less moment regarded from the point of view of the old thoughts than it would be in our world. External contiguity is, as we have seen, of small account in relation to inner identify. The two regions were one in soul, wherever they lay, in the same way as the dead man and his hamingja, as the various treasures, as every kinsman, whether of human race, or beast, or plant, was identical with all individuals of its species in Middle-garth. The mound was called vé, the place of consecration, with the same name which expressed veneration for the divine places, because it was of the same nature, and stood in the same relation to the circle of human beings who died into it. Each clan bad its own resting place, and this insularity in death has obtained far into Christian times, so that the churchyards often became topographical images of the village itself. And the sternness with which the law maintained the sacredness of the clan's right to keep its dead in peace originates first of all in something deeper than the mere aversion from any wounding of the feelings of the living. When a son who considered himself unfairly treated by his brother set himself upon his father's barrow and from there demanded his inheritance and due division, he did not choose the spot on account of the view; the site was calculated to give his claim authority [116] and legal force; his father's hamingja should speak through him. There is also a distinct stamp of authority — of a similar character — in the traditional formula whereby a man counted up his ancestors back to the place where they were buried — “back to barrow”, as it was called in legal language — e. g. in a case of proving uninterrupted possession of disputed land; and when he could thus show that the dead resting in the land were his ancestors, the soil declared itself for him as his right.

In the high seat, in the grove, and on the mountain, we stand face to face with a power which seems never before to have forced itself upon us: that of holiness; but in reality, we have traced its influence at every step. It is luck in its mightiest shape. The connection lies in the name, for heilagr — holy — and heill — good luck or good fortune — are radically akin. From the point of view of form, the one is a derivative of the other: heilagr is that in which heill resides; but the formal relation does not show that the idea of the adjective should be later than that of the substantive. We can get nearest to the spiritual kinship by viewing both as linguistic expressions of the fundamental idea wherein Germanic culture once gathered the innermost secret of life in one sum; heill is humanity, and heilagr is human, in the widest sense of the words.

Holiness is the legal expression for the inviolability of a man and his right to invoke the law as his ally. He is holy as long as he has not exposed himself in any way to an opponent; in case he be slain as holy his value as a man rises up and invalidates his slayer's defence. Dying unholy means that be has challenged fate by some guilt of his own, so that his death is his own fault.

The mark which distinguishes man from the dependent individual who cannot act independently is expressed in the Scandinavian word mannhelg, which means legally: personal rights, and really: his holiness as a man. If a free-born man happens to have fallen into slavery, and his kinsmen wish, to purchase his release, they must first of all lay upon him mannhelg ---i. e. claim his rights as a free man — and offer a ransom, after which he has the free man's right to full fine for any wrong [117] done him. If his kinsmen prove laggards, so that the owner sits waiting in vain for the ransom, he cannot do anything to his thrall until he has first appeared at the law-thing and had his mannhelg removed.

This legal holiness does not depend on any social contract, which has once and for all decreed that the innocent shall be unassailable; like all legal values, it is based upon an experience. The strong luck, that which is whole and without flaw, is what strengthens a man and makes him inviolable, and on the other hand, holiness itself carries with it an obligation; luck is damaged by the slightest blemish, and whether such weakening come from within or from without, by guilt or by an affront, makes at best but a difference of degree. It is the same spirit which inspires the holy man and the holy place. When we find the sanctuary wrapping itself about a fugitive, while his pursuers stand without, at a loss, or at best determined to await the moment when he shall find himself constrained to steal away from his refuge, we think first of all with admiration of the power which can thus tame excited tempers to veneration or even to fear. But in reality, the pursuers have a better reason for leaving him there in peace. It is not only the inviolability of the spot, but also its righteousness, which has communicated itself to him who presses into its frith; luck is right as well as power, and its ward has the advantage of his opponents in every way. It was by no means mythological eccentricity which caused the gods to deal cautiously with the wolf Fenrir which they had suffered to grow great within their own holy grounds. When the wolf discovered signs of mischievous propensities, they dared not kill him, but bound him securely to the entrails of the earth. They knew that in the wolf they were fostering their own unluck, but the holiness of the place permeated him, and could not be removed — to recur to the legal expression. On the other hand, the fulness of luck is an annihilating judgement upon him who is unable to assimilate the blessing; if a niding, in whom the thread of life has been solemnly sundered, presses into the holy place, he defiles the hamingja by his touch, and when the luck is sound and strong, it will repel him. It [118] was useless for Glum to attempt defiance, after his son Vigfus had been judged by the assembled court and outlawed. “Frey would not allow him to remain there at the homestead, by reason of its great holiness," runs the saga.

Holiness is the very core of life in men, the life that is engrafted in a child on the day when it is truly and spiritually born; and when the father recognises an illegitimate child and admits it fully into the clan, he is said to hallow it. Holiness is in treasures, and according to the poetic usage of language which sees in to the innermost, and calls things according to their true nature, cattle and weapons are simply holy. Holiness is the heart of ownership. The special consecration which made a sanctuary of a grove or a hill, and the preparation of the land by fire to make it inhabitable, are two degrees of the same act; from Helgafell, or whatever the centre might be called, holiness spread out without a break, only in ever weakening degree, to the farthest limits of the land. The first thing a settler did was to hallow the land to himself; Thorolf, the chieftain-priest, consecrated his holding to Thor, in the same way as he did his temple. Another of the holy chieftains, Thorhadd the Old of Drontheim, laid the holiness of Mæri on his new land; the holiness which had been the soul of Mæri in the Drontheimfiord be drew forth from the place itself, and carried it with him in the pillars of his high seat and the mould from the place where the pifiars rested in the ground; and when he arrived in his new home, he introduced it into his land around Stodvarfiord. When looked at from the social side the settler's act is simply an act of appropriation, because the essence of ownership was identity between possessor and possessed; and therefore the word helga, to hallow, applies equally to appropriation and to the higher consecration whereby men added the final touch to the temple and dedicated it to the god. The hamingja which held the property together and made it serviceable to man was the same that resided in his own veins, so that blood spilt by an unknown hand upon the soil would be upon the owner's bead and render him guilty of homicide. The poor Frankish homicide who is not able to pay his share of the were- [119] gild took up a handful of soil from his land and threw it on his next of kin before leaping over the fence; the dust of earth here carries with it not only the ownership but also the responsibility of the unfortunate man, just as duty as well as strength is contained in the weapon which goes to the best man of the family. If the slayer should die before having made reparation, his obligations devolve upon his heir, and this is expressed in Norwegian law in this phrase: the heir takes the axe.

Not all the settlers were great chieftains, with splendid temples on their land, and wealthy enough to have a whole mountain for a holy place, but all had their holiness to plant out in the fields, a luck of the same character as Thorolf's and Thorbadd's, only weaker in force. The difference then becomes apparent in the soil. “Half man's worth shall the freedman have if he come upon an earl's land, full and whole if he come upon the king's,” runs an old saying, which has in some inexplicable fashion found its way into the Icelandic law codex of the Grágás, and the words obviously hint at the valueing of a man according to the soil on which he lived. The king's son was born on holy ground, in the poetic language, and the effects manifest themselves in his heroic stature, and we can guess that the fulness of holiness in the earth made demands on' the inhabitants; the ordinary peasant's holding would hardly be as sensitive as Glum's, which thrust an outlaw from it as the plague, or as Thorhadd's on whose fields nothing might ever be suffered to perish save cattle taken for slaughter. In such a general removal as that which took place when families from the most distant parts of Norway settled down side by side along the shores of Iceland, there would necessarily be much readjustment of the old self-estimation. Independent clans from various parts of Norway were shaken up together, and the old, very holy families might find it difficult to maintain that dignity which they had enjoyed in the old country, where veneration had grown with the steady growth of centuries. In the Eyrbyggja saga, we are initiated into a settling of accounts which may have had several parallels. The independent family of Helgafell tried to establish its wonted hegemony within the district, but its supremacy was challenged [120] by the powerful clans settling in its neighbourhood, and the defiance finds its natural expression in the outcry: “Are they to reckon their lands for holier than other lands about Breidafiord?” They enforced their protest by violently entering and profaning the ground, and a battle ensued which led to a settlement admitting the contending clans to equal rights. This conflict implies in reality a struggle for supremacy, but it is naturally described from its religious side, because it is not a quarrel regarding forms, but a trial of strength between two hamingjas.

To unfold the old thoughts and experience we must remain within the hamingja, and let it unfold itself for us. From the centre, a man's holiness spreads out through the house, fills it with its atmosphere and permeates men with its force, so that they are different beings within doors from what they are outside. We can mark this holiness in the “home-frith”, the high degree of inviolability which the law assigns to a man in his own house. He who pursues him beyond his own threshold, and injures him on the bench and by the fire, has dealt him a heavier wound than one who strikes at him upon the open road; be had smitten his luck where it was thickest and bled most violently, and his act is villainy. In Danish law, the more serious character of a breach of peace within the home is marked by its being placed in the same category with killing after reconciliation. In Swedish law, the point of view is so consistently applied, that the judgement passed upon a killing taking place at the gateway of the tún, or enclosure, is made to depend upon the position of the body; if the attacking party lies with his feet inside the enclosure and his head outside, then he is himself responsible for his death; if he fall the opposite way, then fine shall be paid, for “the head fell from there where the feet stood.” German laws can stamp a killing within the home-frith as villainy by assigning capital punishment, and excluding the option of settlement by fine, which was available in ordinary cases of homicide.

Actually, a man was no less holy in another's house; any one attacking him there, offended against the honour and sacredness of the third family concerned, and would by so doing [121] make two implacable foes in place of one. So solid is frith within doors, that the holiness of the slain man suffered no damage from the fact of his having called down vengeance upon himself; unless the pursued were branded with some great villainy, his opponent was required to observe certain formalities before he could remove him, or take him within the house. Only a decree of outlawry could annul his right to any refuge; when his holiness, that is his life, had been removed from him, he fell from the stem and could be disposed of without danger.

In those members of the clan who constantly dwelt within the narrowest circle of luck, holiness was at its strongest. Women were filled with frith to such a degree that an attack upon them did not amount to an injury but an outrage, as we know from the special care wherewith their inviolability was fenced about in the legal decrees; and the strong condemnation of the law finds its best commentary in the insuperable loathing felt by the Northmen for thoughtless breaches of this rule. In the midst of a society in which a man was called to account for every idle word pronounced against his fellow men, a woman stood and took the measure of this world of responsibility, as if a word had never turned upon the speaker again, and she knew her power, when she freely dressed her view of a man's worth or lack of worth in words that hid nothing. He who falls under a woman's tongue and feels her words hailing down upon him, never attempts to stop such fateful utterance with the same means as he would involuntarily apply to a male derider, or, if he forget himself so far as to lift his hand, it is to be hoped be may have a good friend at hand to prevent him from committing that unluck. And yet, the reason for this toleration is certainly not that a woman's words have less force than a man's; on the contrary, be goes his way with especial discomfort of soul, for there is a double point in a woman's words, as in a woman's counsel, they come directly from “the powers”.

The woman also reveals in her activity that she has a closer contact with luck than the man, under ordinary circumstances, can maintain. These premonitions, this unfailing sense of things to come, which is born of the welling up of luck itself from

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