The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



We have in the North a historical instance of a people having to tear up its existence out of the earth and move it over to another laud — not gradually planting it out, and thus gaining new ground for the ancient culture, but stowing it away in the hold and setting out with it across the great sea. From the stories of Thoroif and Thorhadd we know what was the emigrants' last thought in the old country, their first in the new —and we know then at the same time what was their innermost thought as they went about at home in the undisturbed routine of everyday. It was no light matter to wrench up the pillars of the high seat and scrape together mould from the holy place. It could never be a place like other places, and there were doubtless profound reasons for the Icelanders, as soon as they grew up, to turn their faces toward the land of their fathers. The accounts of Icelanders' pilgrimages to Norway date from Christian times; and in them, we cannot expect to find anything about the attraction of the ancient holy places. There is, however, one little trace, weighty with meaning, which has slipped into the Landnáma; Lopt made a 'voyage to Norway every third summer, on his own account and that of his mother's brother Flosi, to sacrifice at the temple which Thorbjorn, Flosi's mother's father, had tended at Gaular.

There was undoubtedly in the minds of many a fear of rendering themselves and their ancestors homeless in this world, in sailing away to a land they did not know, and where no place knew them. If then, as it seems, their determination [132] altogether swallowed up their fears, it must have been because they could safely trust, nay, knew, that if they acted as they should, their gods would go with them, and they could then raise up a new Bethel; the sanctuary was centred in the things, and one could let it make choice itself of a new spot – often enough, no doubt, it would be on similar in situation and appearance to the old abiding place of the clan – and the holiness could then be led in and made fast there.

The heathen worshipped trees and waterfalls and stone, say the Norwegians of their unenlightened forefathers, when they have themselves forgotten, or wish to have forgotten, that these same trees and waterfalls were no less human in their holiness than they were divine; no man shall sacrifice to false gods, or put faith in grove and stone – thus Swedish law-men threaten their benighted contemporaries. The Law of Gothland defines all religiousness in one weighty paragraph: “None may invoke holt or hill or heathen deities, neither nor fence,” and their saga translates the imperative to the historie by saying: “Men believed in holt and hill and heathen gods.”

In the South, there are practically no remains of human holiness attaching to locality; the better, then, did men remember the more impressive fact that the gods dwelt in the holy place. Unfortunately, many of these alien accounts are so conventional that they might apply to the majority of people on the earth, and the commonness is often due to the fact that the narrator does not feel called upon to honour the individual facts with a description, but merely uses old catch-words to comprise the heathendom he sees before him, in the same condemnation as all other heathen abominations. When the writer gives a heathen this simple character; he trusted in sticks and stones, neither he nor his hero can properly fit into a monograph on the subject of our forefathers' religions; for this deep, but somewhat general truth naturally applies to all the heathen of scripture history down to our own times. Moreover, the worthy fathers copies one another's epistles and adjurations and synodic resolutions, with a zeal almost suggesting they were purposely [133] striving to husband their own originality as much as possible; and forms of anathema suited to the spiritual needs of Greek and Italian had to serve as best they might farther north, the borrowers not even troubling to lay on a touch of local colour. The cleric did not pretend to enter into any heathen's mode of thought; there wa s general belief in the power of a common medicine to find out sickness by itself; but that the sickness largely consisted of a tendency to run about among stones and trees, is the incontestable presumption for these shepherds' care of souls.

Thus much is plain, from the various indications, that the nature of a locality was not in itself decisive. The Northmen looked to the single stone or rock as well as to the great mountain, to the waterfall as well as to the spring or the brook. And it was the same in the South. Agathias informs the educated world, which in his day, the sixth century, had personal reasons for interest in the red-haired peril, that the Alamanni worshipped certain trees, rivers, hills and ravines. Judging from the sacred biographies, the missionary in Germany had first of all to contest with trees; an axe was an indispensable part of his equipment when setting out for the dark places, and conversion falls into two parts; one prior to the fall of the holy tree, when the fear of the people was manifest, and one after, when the people wondered, and realised their error. In the Life of Boniface, we recognise at once, in many traits the regular course of procedure which was so necessary to the writing of legendary history; but the wonderfully powerful Jupiter oak, which he so dramatically felled in the land of the Hessians has at any rate typical reality. Partly with reason, but a great deal more without, the forest has assumed a dominant place in the idea of early Germanic worship. The cult which has in our days grown up about this Gothic natural church is a thing for which Tacitus is to a great extent responsible. It is he who made the Germans appear as mystics, by his profound observations anent the “invisible, viewed in the spirit”. Not content with telling what might be plainly told, that they assembled in a grove sacred to Hercules, that their god Ner- [134] thus dwelt in a consecrated grove, or, in general, that they regarded grove and copse as holy – he attempts to tell his readers something about the nature of holiness, and, like the late romantic that he is, he replaces the description given by his authorities into sentimental lyricism of his own.

The peoples dwelling among plains and hills venerated the grove – a section of the nature that surrounded them – in the same way that rock and fall and mountain would be the most frequent – thought not the holy – dwelling place of luck for mountain races. The Swedes went as a rule to the holt – the woody hillock or hurst. But the holy place was not the spirit or idea of the grove, the shadowing, wind-breathing – it was the spot; the soil as well as the stem, the spring bubbling up out of the turf as well as the leaves; even though the grove spread out wide on every hand, its nature did not differ from that of the little spot that bore a stone, a rock, or a solitary tree.

Round about the place ran the fence of staves, the sacred enclosure, which in itself embraced as great holiness and “atmosphere” as the most mysterious spot in the darkness within. The Law of Gothland has to note the fence expressively, bracketed in honour after the , or consecrated spot, itself. “If there be frith-geard – fence of frith or peace – on any man's land about a stone or tree or a spring or suchlike ungodly foolishness . . . “ thus thunders an English edict, and it is no use wasting ingenuity on the question whether the denunciation primarily aims at the paling or at the space which is hedged off; for the two are identical, and equally inspired with holiness.

The place was not pure nature, it was marked as belonging to the world of man, and the mark seems generally to have consisted of a heap of stones; when Aud's prayer-hill was promoted to the rank of family temple, her wooden cross was replaced by a pile of stones, or horg. The laws particularly note the horg together with the hill: “We shall not sacrifice to heathen gods or heathen demons, neither to hill nor horg.”

To the holy place is added the holy house. Again and again we read in the Landnáma of this or that distinguished settler, [135] that he build a great hof, or temple. And in the saga of the Breidafiord settlers we find a detailed description of the building which Thorolf set up at his homestead, Hofstad, when he consecrated Thorsnes with Helgafell. The temple was a great house with a door in the side wall towards one end of the house. On entering by the door, one saw, over against the side wall opposite, the high seat, with its pillars on either side, and beset with nails for token of power. Farthest inside was a small apartment, goes on the Eyrbyggja, like the choir in a Christian church, and there stood a stallr – a stone or block – in the middle of the floor as a high altar. The temple, then, consisted, if we may build upon the antiquarian knowledge of the saga, of a small god's house and a banqueting hall, or place of assembly. The excavations of ancient Icelandic hof sites have confirmed this description. The remains of the foundations indicated a large space, up to a hundred feet in length, oblong in shape, and at one end a separate chamber with a door of its own opening to the outer air, but apparently separated from the long hall by an extra thick, unbroken wall. The great hall in the hof, the feasting hall, differed in no way from the ordinary gathering place of the family; it was in fact a duplicate of their parlour. Here the participants in the sacrifice met on the great festivals, but in smaller homesteads, the gathering took place with the same solemnity and with the same effect, about the everyday hearth. The common room of the homestead was the original temple hall, and remained so in many homes throughout the whole of the heathen period. Egil came one day, we are told, to a farm where a sacrifice was going on, and was allotted quarters in an outhouse, as the sacrificial feast was taking place in the house proper.

When a special feasting hall was built, it was connected with the sacrificial chamber, af hús or side apartment, as the Eyrbyggja calls it with an expression derived from comparison with the Christian churches. Generally , the homestead would have its little temple, a place of sacrifice, the seat of the gods, or rather, of divinity. In the story of the night visit of the sons of Ingimund to Hrolleif and his mother, Ljot, we are given [136] an outline of the localities; on entering the courtyard they first of all perceived a small hut outside the entrance, separated off from the house door by a little space, and Thorstein said at once that this must be the good people's blot-house, or sacrificial hut. And this is by no means the only occasion on which we hear of such blot-houses set close to the dwellings of men. On the night when the sons of Droplaug lost their way in the storm, they discovered their whereabouts by fumbling about round a building which suddenly appeared before them; on coming to the door, they knew if for Spakbessi's blot-house. When Hord's saga lets Thorstein go off to his blot-house and offer up a sort of morning prayer before a stone, the narrator's thoughts move as his own religious customs suggest to him, but has undoubtedly an ancient tradition in mind, which recalls the former arrangement of the place. In the erection of churches, men probably followed for the most part, or often at least, the same old rules. The description of the drinking hall and the church at Jorfjara, in the Orkneys, is strikingly suggestive of Ljot's homestead; there, the drinking hall had a door in the eastern end wall, at the south end of the building, and the church lay before the door to the hall, so that as the place was built on a slope, one would walk down from the hall to the church.

The blot-house represented the holy place; according to old ideas, they were identical, but this does not necessarily imply a literal identity of site. The blot-house is in its being the same as the horg, and has also a right to the name, when hof and horg form a permanent connection to denote the entire temple – sacrificial hut and banqueting hall together. The curious investigator who subjects such sacred terms as horg and vé to a comparative linguistic examination in order to use etymology for the purpose of charting the Germanic holy land, will arrive at a miserable result for horg, which in the Nordic is the cairn of stones and the house marking the holy place, is among the southerners the grove itself. The secrets of structure are not to be drawn from the words, but for him who wishes to know what there is, and not what he thinks there ought to [137] be, they are full of information. What the hill and the grove, the horg and the blot-house actually are, is vé, the holy, the holy place, the well-spring of power, and the reference to a definite form, such as house or heap, as fenced enclosure or fence forms but a shell about the great kernel of meaning; there the name glides imperceptibly from the one thing over to the other, and therefore the word can apparently take on the vague application which leaves us ignorant as to the picture intended at the moment by the text. On Aud's prayer hill there rose a horg to replace a cross, and perhaps too the horg was covered by a house; we have seen that Thord Gellir was consecrated chief of the house by being led “up in the hill”, and these words might probably apply to the blot-house. The Norse Law threatens with dire penalties the man convicted of having erected a mound or a house and calling it horg, and is here undoubtedly aiming at the various forms of belief in holy places.

The blot-house doubtless stood on the site of the holy place itself when the latter, as it might do, immediately adjoined the dwelling house. On the other hand, the horg at Aud's old place, Hvamm, seems rather to have lain somewhat apart. Earl Hakon's blot-house was reached, according to the information furnished by a saga writer, by going out from the courtyard into the wood, first along a broad road, then branching off by a little foot-path. The path ended at a clearing, in the midst of which stood a house surrounded by a fence of staves. Inside this enclosure there was, according to our authority, a house with so many glass windows as to leave no shadow anywhere. The room was filled with a host of gods, and in their midst throned a goddess with a ring on her arm. The Earl threw himself headlong on the ground before her, heaped a multitude of silver before her feet and thus obtained that the goddess slowly relented so far as to open her hand and permit the Earl to draw the precious ring off her arm. This description of the interior smacks of mediæval book learning and of clerical imagination, but the monk evidently weaves his fancies about a body of fact, viz. that the Earl led his friend Sigmund to

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