The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[138] his blot-house to procure blessing for him before sending him out on a dangerous expedition, and that the blessing was contained in a ring resting in the sanctuary. Genuine too, that is in the true spirit of ancient life, are the words: “The Earl said that Sigmund was never to part with this ring, and Sigmund gave his promise.” In almost all the Norse recollections from the age of Olaf and Hakon, we can trace the mediæval display of miscellaneous reading and the indomitable tendency of the scholars to apply what they have learned. Nevertheless the clerical imagination has in most places a traditional foundation to build upon, and hardly anywhere do we see more clearly where reality ends and imagination begins than in this description of how Sigmund was “led to the horg” by Earl Hakon.

We know but little as to the other Germanic temples, and this little fits without effort into the traditional picture. The only instance we have in history of an English temple is given as of a horg with an enclosure, and the horg is a place roofed over, a sacrificial hut. Bede shows us the converted heathen “bishop,” when in his first eagerness he charges upon the old gods. “Who is to be first in throwing down the altars and the horg with the fence about them” is the question, and the “bishop” answers: “I.” And then he broke though fear and veneration by casting his spear into the horg, and his fellows completed the work by tearing it down and burning it with the surrounding fence. – The Roman indications are scattered here and there; now a casual observation as to the site of a temple, now an equally casual note as to the fact that a temple could be razed to the ground – so that the isolated details cannot be pieced together into a coherent picture. The temples we hear about lay in groves, i.e. immediately on the holy place; there were no buildings to prison the divinity within, says Tacitius, and we must doubtless suppose that he had some authority for this remark, even though we may not let ourselves be dazzled by this generalisation. Certainly the horg often stood in the open, this we can surely read between the lines in the description of the Roman soldiers' meeting with Varus' lost legions; the bleached bones of the warriors lay [139] on the field side by side with fragments of weapons and dead horses, severed heads hung in the trees, and in the grove close by were altars where Roman officers had been sacrificed. Since, on the other hand, we are told of sacrificial feasts in the grove, and of temples levelled to the ground, we may doubtless conclude that houses of some sort or another were erected in the vicinity of the horg; naturally all holy places worthy of being mentioned in a highly official history must be centres of great communities, and consequently of a more elaborate character than the humbler sanctuaries of the clans.

Inside the blot-house stood a stone, says Hord's saga, and this boulder is a good evidence that the narrator wove his descriptions of Thorstein at his morning devotions about a real tradition, for without such a rein to hold him in check, he might equally well have given the worshipper an “idol”. Through the medium of this stone, the future was revealed to Thorstein in a verse on his approaching death, and on his way back across the open space, vengeance fell upon him. This block, too, being the seat of the gods, is one in essence with the horg and with the stone that was the dwelling place of the holy power of the house of Hvamm, the homsestead of Thord Gellir.

Such a block was called a stallr, and it is again and again compared with the alien altar. One could tread upon it, in order to enter into connections with the power and set them in motion. On it lay the holy things, the chief treasures of the warden of the temple, first of all the holy arm ring, which on all important occasions represented the gods and great holiness. On this ring great oaths were sworn, and it was worn by the chief when the warrior host marched out in holy battle array. Fortunately – for us – the temple ring once saved the master of Helgafell, Snorri Godi, when Steinthor's blow after the fight at Kársstad struck his arm; for it is this ineffective stroke we have to thank for being now in happy possession of an historical fact in place of a necessary assumption. We knew that the priest wore the ring at the law meetings in token of his authority; now, we know that it went with him wherever he drew upon his great luck. And then we understand at [140] once why warrior and ring go so inseparably together. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle tells of some wicked Danes whom Alfred and brought to reason; they vowed peace upon the sacred ring, an honour which they had never before conceded to any people. Tacitus had heard, regarding the self-consecration of the Chatti to a warrior's life, that they took the ring and wore it as a sign of their right to front rank in the battle, and of their indifference to peaceable occupation, in other words, the ring was a token that they belonged to a holy host set apart from the ordinary round of lie.

This treasure was as far beyond ordinary possessions as the great holiness was beyond the ordinary blessing of everyday, and from it all other valuables derived their power; the sacred object was the fountain head of the riches belonging to the family, as is expressed mythically in the legend of Draupnir, Odin's ring, that is said to drip eight rings every nine nights. The religious character of the temple treasure shows through the monk's account of the ring which Earl Hakon took from the arm of Thorgard Holgabrud and gave his friend to have and to hold. Sigmund had to promise the Earl never to give it away, and he kept his promise, even when sorely tempted. After Hakon's death, when Sigmund had become Olaf's man and God's, it chanced that the king caught sight of the heavy gold ring. He looked at it closely, and said: “Will you give that to me, Sigmund?” But Sigmund answered frankly that he knew the giver's luck and friendship were too goof for him to give away the treasure. “It may be that you think well both of the ring and of the giver,” said the king, “but that luck will not avail you, for the ring shall be your death.” And so it came about. Olaf was right, one cannot bear God's strength in one's limbs and Hakon's sacrificial ring on one's arm.

Of like importance with the Norse accounts of the ring on the stallr is Tacitus' description of the holy “signs” in the form of animals which were taken out from the grove in time of war and borne among the people. The Northmen also knew such treasures of chieftains, “banners” or more properly 's, which could both show the way to an army in battle and turn [141] luck as they pleased. Harald Hardrada had a banner called “Land-waster”, and this impressive winner of battle had surely had many forerunners resting in blot-houses at the homes of the great warrior chiefs. The unity of the banner with the holy places is implied in the name , which is used indiscriminately to denote the banner and the secret enclosure.

That it was particularly the rich and powerful who built themselves special temple halls is due to something more than the fact that they possessed the means of doing something out of the common. Luck made the clan great, augmented its wealth, and gave rise to the need of a spacious place of assembly for all kinsmen when they gathered from far and near to strengthen their common life. When a branch of the family detached itself to lead an independent life, it would probably fetch holiness from the ancestral horg and plant a daughter sanctuary in its own midst, but the feeling of community was not sundered with the dissolution of the narrower unity in common memories and common aims. At the great festivals, all assembled in the holy place from whose strength the new centres of luck had been formed. And on the spot where the clan was wont to meet from old time a great hof was raised, large enough to admit all who confessed to the same hamingja – and with them other clans who had sought shelter under the gods of the mighty. Such hofs were those which Thorhadd and Thorolf took with them on board; for from the context it is plain that their temples were of importance to others beside the little party that set out on the long voyage; Thorolf and Thorhadd had in strength of their luck been chieftains in their ancient homes, and as soon as the pillars of their high seats were set up in the new country, the power of the temple to attract people made itself apparent. The petty kings of the mother land became leaders among the settlers, and their sacrifices were attended to by all who acknowledged their supremacy.

But the hof was not a necessary condidtion for the worshipping of the gods, and we have no right to draw a line placing on the one side great men with a hof, and on the other smaller folk with but a blot-house. The growth of a clan did not necessar- [142] ily disturb the old relation between the sacrificial hut and the feasting hall; and even when the number of clansmen led to the erection of a special house of assembly, the extension would not inevitably mean building a temple of the Icelandic hof type. Possibly the Icelandic device of combining the hut with the hall was suggested to the settlers by their acquaintance with the Christian houses of worship which a number of them had seen during their stay in the British Islands; an innovation of this kind might easily occur to a population which had to begin life afresh in a new country. The relations of the dealings that the reforming kings of Norway had with their stubborn subjects in matters of religion do not contain a hint of church-like buildings. When Olaf remonstrated with the idolators of Drontheim for their old-fashioned practices, they could – according to the saga – pose innocently as no more than good comrades who liked to meet occasionally at a friendly feast. “We had Yule banquets and convivial drinking all about the district, and the yeomen are not so niggardly in preparation for their Christmas but something is left to make merry with afterwards. And as to Mæri (the ancient place of sacrifice) it is a big place with plenty of room, and the neighbourhood is largely peopled, and men think that drinking in company adds to the mirth,” – thus the yeomen blandly met the king's accusations.

In the Laxdocla, we read of an Icelandic chieftain, Olaf the Peacock, who had by his personal qualities raised himself above his father's social position; after a while, his tents grew too small for him, and he therefore built a banqueting hall at his homestead, the splendid decorations of which are praised in Ulf Uggason's poem, the Drapa of the House. People who had seen the wood carvings of Thor's fight with the Serpent of Middle-garth, and Balder's burning, maintained that the hall was more beautiful in its bare state than covered with hangings as was customary at great festivals. This house is clearly not a hof, and the saga is probably quite right in describing Olaf's great deed as a purely worldly undertaking; but naturally such a feasting hall is the place for sacrifical assem- [143] blies, and the building at Hjardarholt may have been typical of a certain sort of larger homestead.

A century after the first settlement in Iceland, all sacrifices ceased, but they did not leave a blank behind. The wealthy men continued long after to call their friends and kin together to a feast at harvest time. And in the festival hall, the old pillars of the high seat would here and there remain as a link between the present and the past.

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