The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[122] the depths, is strongest in her. A wise man would not disregard what his wife said upon any serious matter; we know from the sagas how great was the weight of her counsel in men's deliberations; and a man would be even more disposed to listen when the ring of her voice told him she was prophesying. Therefore, the prophetess has become an historical figure in the Germanic past. Tacitus knew her, the virgin of the people of the Bructuri, who with advice and prophecy led her tribesmen's campaign against the Romans, and received the best of their plunder as a gift of honour. Almost divine, he calls her, sacred in her inviolability, and he has summed up his impression in general of woman's position in the unquestionable words that the Germani saw in her “something sacred and foreseeing”. Long before Tacitus' day, his countrymen had with a shudder seen old women moving, barefooted and white-clad, among the hosts of the Cimbri, doing prophetic service by reading omens in the sacrifice of prisoners.

Full holiness demanded many considerations and much care. The greater luck a man had gathered in himself, the greater power in his movements, but also, the greater danger of any false step. If he failed or sinned, the act was more momentous, and consequently his guilt was more immediately fatal and the wound less easily staunched. The women had their place in the holiness of the home, they were not to carry luck in earthen vessels out into life, they were not expected to possess the lightning adaptation to the need of the moment, which might lead a man to forget the caution due to holiness. The men, on the other hand, lived on the outer boundary, and in order to be able to move easily in their daily doings, outside the house, they had to leave behind them something of their garment of luck, and choose a lighter dress for unemcumhered action. Therefore, manhood begins with a liberation: the youth is freed from the unhindered obedience to frith, and moved down to an inferior, masculine degree of holiness.

There were two ways possible in dealing with children; either they might be kept throughout their childhood outside the hamingja, as a sort of aspirants to humanity, — in which case [123] they would, as regards principle of life, and probably also conditions of life, rank with the thralls, so that their soul was first given them on consecration to manhood; or they might be admitted right into holiness, and kept there until manhood opened for them. We cannot venture to say that all the Germanic peoples chose the latter alternative, but many of them did so. The transition of youth from a largely dependent grain of luck, to the state of a self-conscious agent and maintainer of luck, is denoted by the cutting of the hair; until the day of admission to the circle of men, a youth wore his hair long, like the women; his locks marked him as holy and inviolable in the highest sense; from that day forward, he confirmed his utterances in manly wise, by grasping the honour in the weapon, while the women, who all their lives bore their luck concentrated in their hair, took oath with one hand about their plait. What took place with the boy, is sufficiently indicated by his spiritual kin by their veneration for beautiful hair. A penalty was decreed for cutting off a youth's — or worse still, a maiden's — hair without consent of their kin. A mother such as Gudrun, who lived to see her daughter trodden underfoot by horses, sits moaning over the hair trodden in the dust. “This was the hardest of my sorrows, when Svanhild's fair hair was trodden under horse's hoofs,” runs her plaint. “Locked” was used as an official title, unmistakably distinguishing the ruler from all other mortals, and men were ready to recognise, in the royal wealth of hair, a higher power. So sensitive was royalty, that a Frankish prince was never allowed to cut his hair; according to the description of a contemporary, evidently that of an eye-witness, he wore his hair parted in the middle and flowing loose over his shoulders. If a razor were applied to his head, he became as one of the ordinary plebs, to quote the words of Childebert when he wished to indicate a means of placing an inconvenient pretender beyond all pretensions to royalty. After Chlodomer's death, his brothers, Childebert and Chlotachar, considered the world by no means too wide for two, and their mother's regard for her son's little boys was, according to their view, only serving to keep open a possibility which were better closed. They got [124] the boys into their power, and sent the queen a sword and a pair of scissors, that she might look at them, and choose for herself which implement should be used upon the lads. “I had rather see them dead than shorn,” she cried, “if they are not to have the throne.”

It is fulness of soul which unites the youth and the woman and the greatest man of luck, who, all his life, or at any rate from the hour he becomes chief of the clan, retains the intensity of holiness. The peculiar array which distinguished the priests of the Nahanarvales was regarded by Tacitus, doubtless with more reason than he knew, as a womanly fashion; he states that the master of the temple was a priest in woman's garments, and we may believe that the holy man, when attending at the altar, wore his hair loose, and thus enveloped himself in the strength of holiness. What it meant when the women loosed their hair, this too we may learn, if we will condescend to seek the information from witches; the Swedes were severe upon women who ran about with their hair down while good folk were in bed.

Cutting the hair, then, must have been a real offence of some sort against holiness. A piece of the boy was cut away. As far as we can make out, the operation was always entrusted to a stranger, or at any rate one not belonging to his nearest of kin, and the reason for this was probably no other than the natural unwillingness of the family to cut their luck, however needful the operation might be. On the other hand, it was necessary to be fully assured of the operator's goodwill, before he was entrusted with the carrying out of so important an act as the removal of something holy; and the close contact created a mutual obligation in frith, so that the man who cut a youth's hair became his foster-father and gave him gifts. Undoubtedly the opportunity of requesting a man of position to act as a sort of godfather was utilised to a great extent, as offering the possibility of an alliance and increase of power both for the youth and his kin, and in the great ruling families, hair-cutting became a state act, significant enough to be immortalised history. Paulus Diaconus relates that the Frankish prince Charles [125] sent his son Pippin to Liutprand, that the latter, according to custom, might take his hair. And in cutting the hair from his head, he became his father, gave him royal gifts and let him return.

But although men in daily life tucked up their skirts, so to speak, for greater freedom of action, a man could always put on his greater holiness. The man who stood up on the stone in Thord Gellir's hall to swear mighty oaths, and the fugitive seeking refuge in the sanctuary, show us the Germanic type raising itself to a superhuman dignity. When he is standing on the holy place, both he himself and that which proceeds from him will be stronger than usual; soul wells up from the source, pressing forth in his words, filling them to the uttermost corner, so that they fall from his lips with weight and ringing tone. The words are whole — true, as we should say — only that truth in the old reality is something active; they have power. A man steps on stock, i. e. puts his foot on the setstocks round the hearth, when he utters a vow that men shall hear of him in the future, and his innermost life is in the declaration, nay more, the whole power of the kinsmen inspires it. No recantation is then possible, that is to say, the word goes ahead carving out a way for the deed, but also, it draws the speaker with it, because his word would be lost and involve his hamingja in its fall if it were not redeemed.

A similar transformation — less drastic in force, but identical in character — takes place in a man the moment be grasps the treasure, sword or spear or ring, and strengthens his words; by his oath be overwhelms his opponent who has attacked his manly worth. His words are eminently true and strong, so that nobody can help being convinced, because in him and in his speech there seethes an honour and a luck which bears down all before it. But the vow or oath he proffers also binds himself by chaining him to the reality of his proclamation; if he vows to do such and such a deed, the deed must be done; if be says such and such a thing is true, it must be true, because his life is bound up with this truth. His words become an inspired value, a thing to be grasped and held, a thing that can be used [126] and a thing that can hurt. As he swears, he counts for more in the judgement, being to an eminent degree himself.

Even in the Christian form, several of the Germanic laws recognise the oath “with armed right hand”, or the oath sworn upon sacred weapons — where the word sacred is doubtless an echo from the old days; and this gesture in swearing was a thing to catch the eye of the stranger from other lands. The educated Southerners tell one another of these barbarians, the Quadi, who swore by their swords, which they regarded as gods; and when the Germans became a civilised people and wrote ethnographical notes concerning that land in the north where men were wont to swear by weapons, naturally enough, the observers of these queer foreign customs were struck by the gesture which was the highest symbol of supreme reliability, and outsiders would hardly be aware that the oath among the barbarians was not an isolated form for settlement of conscience. The oath passes by imperceptible degrees into more everyday declaring truth, and it is immaterial, whether we say from an external point of view that the Germanic swearing was merely an emphatic form of utterance, or we express it by saying that they swore their way through life from day to day. Wherever a definite utterance is called for, some material corroboration takes place. The Frank who had some claim to make against his neighbour, and felt that he must get greater men to take an interest in his case if he were to gain his rights, presented himself before the Count, or royal official for the district, grasped the staff and begged him as the guardian of the law to do his duty and deal with the recalcitrant fellow-citizen: “I stake myself and all I have on this my word, that you can safely distrain upon him.” And this ceremony is merely an adaptation to new conditions of the old power of a word to move the world. Before the order of society was placed in charge of royal officials the Frank would go to the law-thing, and clench his hand about the staff or spear to let his words ring out over the assembly with the justifying and compelling power that must set all present in motion, and make existence insecure for the person attacked, until he had struck it down with his defence. [127]

The Swedes also confirmed their agreements “by the shaft”. He who acted, and with him all his witnesses — as they later become, — grasped the shalt of the spear thus strengthening the word uttered by their spokesman, so that the formula of the bargain had power both over themselves and over all others, and became an assurance for the receiver of the promise.

The man who had laid aside his sword was another than the one who a moment before had stood with it in his hand; he was as a bow with loosened string. So too, it made a difference whether a man still had his foot on the spot, or had regained his earthly footing; but a man would yet hardly be quite the same as before at the very moment his foot shifted from the holy place or stepped down from the high seat; it would probably be some time before he became like his fellows again. A man did not always wish to get rid of his manly holiness so soon; on the contrary, one might purposely fortify the holiness in oneself. At critical times, when it was a question of straining luck to the utmost of its power, one could put off all that pertained to everyday life, and live solely as the initiate of luck. Prior to the setting out of an army, certain ceremonies unknown to us took place, which transformed the warriors into a sacred host, and the effect of that consecration appears in the frith which united them into a whole of the same solidity as the community of kinsmen. A breach of solidarity would then be the utmost villainy, and the land lay in solemn silence; the law holds, that all legal business is suspended while the army is in the field. Tacitus knows that when the gods were in the camp, the power of judgement slipped from the hands of the leader of the army, and passed into those of the priests, the sacrosanct chieftains of the temple. The same consecration is indicated by unhindered growth of the hair. After a great defeat such as that which the Saxons suffered at the hands of the Suevi, they swore a solemn oath not to cut hair or beard until they had avenged the shame; they consecrated themselves and strengthened them selves for the great task, as Civilis when he vowed death to the Roman legions, and as Harald Fairhair when his plans of conquest had taken hold of him. [128]

Among the warlike Chatti, the young men went through a sacred period of youth as warriors, when no razor touched their head; for the majority of these youths, their first killing was the introduction to a calmer life, but many made it a matter of honour to extend the strong and arduous life as sacred to war, until their strength failed them in old age. Similar bands of warriors were found as far as the Germanic peoples extended, and in the traditional laws of the vikings of Jomsburg, there remains an echo of the stern ethics of those consecrated to war. The root of the law was the “warrior's frith”, or inviolable peace within the ranks; personal connections and personal preferences counted for nothing compared with loyalty to the band; even kinship and its obligations were dissolved; all questions were referred to the leader's decision, and plunder was shared. This sacred unity cut men off from the rest of the world, and especially from the normal life of everyday, where work and the breeding of children took place; the warriors were forbidden to sleep outside the camp, and none was allowed to have any dealings with women.

Among the songs of the Edda there is preserved a poem which may be called the epic of warrior holiness, the Hamdismál, but unfortunately the old thought has slipped away from the poet, — unless it be the incomplete form in which it is handed down which renders it vague; the prose narratives of the contents afford us little help, as later saga writers had evidently lost familiarity with the then obsolete technique of war. This much we know, that Gudrun, on sending out her sons to avenge their sister, consecrates them in invulnerable mail and gives them rules to observe which they dare not break. With irresistible force the “battle-holy” men force their way into Earmanric's hall, and strike him down despite the efforts of his retainers till he lies as a shapeless mass, without hands or feet; but they had broken the commands laid upon them, and therefore were bereft of victory, Sorli falling at the gable end of the hall, Hamdir at the rear wall of the house. Disaster came upon them at the moment Hamdir, in his boasting, forgot his mother's order to observe silence during the fight; then Earmanric gained [129] mind and speech, and was able to urge his men to see what stones might avail against those whom iron would not scathe. But the misfortune must have begun earlier, perhaps on the way, when the two met their brother Erp and slew him in a dispute; but the killing itself was probably not their only crime. Whence had Earmanric the happy idea of seeking help from stones? Odin, the saga men would naturally say, having recognised once and for all that the god is wont to come and go where men are fighting; the original story would have said something else, as for instance that the two brothers had themselves challenged stones to enmity; before reaching the king's hall, they must in some way or other have offended the stone hamingja, which the mother had probably won over to their side at the time when she made their mail proof. But wherein the infatuation lay, whether the spilling of Erp's blood upon a stone, or some act we do not know of — this must remain a mystery till the end of time.

Then too, where men assembled for purposes of friendly contest, in hunting or fishing, they invoked luck and placed themselves under its sole dominion. Quarrelling on the fishing grounds rendered all their trouble vain, we are told, and we may know that the will to avoid failure found other expressions than a mere pious attitude of mind. Therefore the crew of a ship was holy, and the ship itself a spiritual counterpart of the house — we find here the same deep connection in the thoughts of the poet when he calls a house the ship of the hearth. The ornaments at the stem of a ship carried the power of a high seat; the ship's side rendered the words of one making oath whole and full just as did spear and shield; sojourning on or by a ship gave a man the value of home frith.

In times of great strength and renewal in the life of the clan, holiness would thicken in the house and embrace all with its whole force. Home frith grew into feast frith, and the inviolability was intensified into sacrosanctity. In the case of a killing taking place at time of sacrifice, at a wedding, or funeral ale, the offender found no place of repentance, but became a niding for ever, “a wolf in the holy place”. Holiness then was so close [130] that it could even penetrate into the thralls and communicate to them life of human life, as is shown in the Swedish laws by the edict calling for full fine for the killing of a slave at one of the great festivals. Here, the word holy reaches its richest, but also its sternest ring, as when the Swedish laws speaking with venerable weight, call the bridal pair holy, and the seats they fill holy.

With the frith of the feast, the perfection of home holiness, we are introduced into the stillness that reigned in the holiest of houses, where no weapon might be carried over the threshold. As far as to the point where the temple door opens, luck is explained in itself, but there is something more, and to reach it, we must step from the temporal into the religious. But in reality, the step exists only for us; to the Germanic mind, the transition from human life to the divine was an unbroken continuation. If we begin in the religious sacredness, men's preparedness in face of the gods, we are driven ere we are aware up into the teaching of men's social settlements with one another at the law-thing, their dealings and their bargains. And though we keep strictly to the worldly side of buying and selling and bartering, we shall yet discover, one fine day, that there are other traces there than those of men alone. There falls a gleam of the divine over all the legal artfulness we have been toiling through.

In holiness, men meet with the gods. The holy place was the place where “the powers” dwelt.

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