The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



Twice, three times a year, perhaps more, men gathered in the main room of the house, or in the temple hall, to hold a sacrificial feast, a blot.

The period of the sacrificial feast stood out among the other times of life as something lofty, holy and stern, happy and perilous. It comprised both wild rejoicing and determined earnest. And that which at these times gave men's souls their spaciousness and tension was the presence of the highest. Then the gods, or the powers, as the Northmen put it, took entire possession of the home, uniting men and women under the responsibility of supreme holiness. The holy place spread out over all the land.

We would fain have known a little about the ceremonies wherewith men carried the holiness of the sanctuary into the house, and placed the room under the unrestricted dominion of the horg, -- but all memories are buried, and the mediæval dislike of paganism and its works lies like a stone above the grave. We have our suspicions, as to the participants treading the way to the holy place, or the blot-house, taking up the divinity in limbs and garments. We read also, in one place, of a private blot – that held by Ljot, when the witch tried to make her son invulnerable against the enmity of the sons of Ingimund – and here, it seems that the young man concerned in the act of sacrifice was led between the homestead and the blot-house in a special dress of red. In this little family festival there are several irregularities, which make us hesitate [145] to call the promising youth and his enterprising mother as evidence for the procedure of honest folk in the feasting halls. The saga writer looks askance at the proceedings in the small house that stood a little way off by the gate, as witch-practice of a suspicious character, and he has more than Christian right to his opinion, for secret blot is more than half witchcraft. But it is doubtless equally undeniable that the blot was formally kept within the traditional forms. The way Thord Gellir went at the commencement of his manhood's work must have been trodden many a time, and in all probability at the very time of the great feasts.

Fortunately, there was much of the heathen doings that could be rendered harmless, nay, even sacred to the Lord, and from the moment the party is assembled in the room, the old blot lies open to us.

We can safely say that the feast opened with a solemn consecration, declaring peace upon the participants. A feast and a law meeting were related in their innermost being, in their dependence upon the highest frith, and from all we can gather, they were allied in form. In Iceland, the priest “consecrated” the law-thing, and the effect was at once apparent in the thing-men's augmented holiness, which made any injury done to them twice as costly an affair as misdemeanour at other times. In the spirit of the law-thing, we find in the Grettir saga, Hafr consecrating the games held at Hegranes, where the outlawed robber comes in disguise to seek admittance, and there is still, in Hafr's words, something of that rush wherewith the spirit of holiness swept down upon the people, bringing all to utter silence: “Here I set peace (grið) between all men, all chieftains and brave yeomen, all the common host of men able to bear arms and fight . . . for pleasure and sport, for all delight as for their seat here and their going home . . . I set peace for us and our kin, friends and allies, women as well as men, thrall and wench, serving men and masters alike.”

Even though nothing of what is offered us in these lines can be directly applied to the sacrificial feast, the formula gives a breath of that spirit in which a meeting of men opened. [146]

While the words of the declaration filled the ears of those present, their eyes were undoubtedly full of the reality of the blot; it stood a little way apart in the filled vessels. Beasts were slain for the feast, animals great and small, huge cauldrons of meat were set on to boil, and we know from the experience of Hakon Æthelstansfostri that the eating of the sacrificial meat was a necessary condition for participation in the blessing. But there was something else, and something more than this to occupy eyes and mind. In the dwelling place of the gods, Sæhrimnir, the boar that never grew less for all the slices cut off from his fat sides, formed, as we know, a costly centre; but in all his fat splendour he lacks the majesty which shows in the fact of having a history. There may indeed have been myths about his past, but at any rate the origin of the meat did not move the curiosity of after-times to the same degree as did the refreshing drink that rejoiced the minds in the hall of the gods. In the intentness wherewith the myth dwells on the rich past of the mead, those people have indirectly shown that despite all their joy in the flesh that simmered in the kettles, they looked forward to something happier and stronger. It is about the filled horns that the holiest part of the feast is centered.

That it is the ale bowls which dominate in all thought of feasting together shows through the mere names of the banquets. A homecoming was celebrated by a welcoming ale, and when the guest left he was sped on his way with a parting ale, life commenced with a christening ale, and passed by way of betrothing ale and bride ale, drinking ones' wedding, to the arvel or burial ale – a series of “ales” to fit each particular occasion. It is with good reason that the frith which embraces the parties at a feast is called ale-frith, and the feast day mungátstiðir, i.e. ale days.

The North-European brotherhoods, or guilds, plainly show their Germanic origin in their dependence upon the banquet, the sharing of food, as the uniting, solidarity-inducing element, and despite all the wise care of the Middle Ages to have something solid on the table, it is soon evident from the formulæ and symbols of these boon companions that drink is a more [147] important item in their spiritual economy than food. The drinking party really provides the formal setting for their entire organisation. The meeting is called “the drinking”, to hold a meeting is always called “to drink a feast”, even where the object of the assembly is something more practical. “The feast was celebrated and drunk with force” is a regular form of entry in the minutes after an eventful general meeting. The brother present is denoted, in contrast to an absentee, as one who “drinks the feast”, and the time reckoned by the “first time the feast is drunk” or “before second feast-drinking”; a matter is postponed “to next feast”. The new brother is placed before the head of the guild and drinks his mug of entry to whole and true brotherhood. We understand then, that drawers, butlers and tasters occupy a prominent place in the organisation; their dignity lies not in the fact that they act as useful brethren, taking care that the body as indispensable companion of the spirit, is encouraged in its service; in reality, they are the corporeal expression of the idea of brotherhood.

Answering to these formal memories we have our direct communications anent the prominent place of drinking at the old cult festivals. In the traditional picture of the feast at Hladi, it is Earl Sigurd's imposing figure, sacrificial horn in hand, which forms the centre-piece; and when the new regime grumbles at the heathen assemblies, the illwill circles plainly enough about this “ale” consecrated to the gods' the arch enemy of Christ resided in the cup. A promise in need referred to goods and ale. When an Icelandic party lay weather-bound off the coast of Norway and for good reasons feared the visit of the king on board they vowed great drinking feasts to the gods; Frey was to have the ale if the wind blew towards Sweden, Thor or Odin if it were easterly, we read. And when the word blot passed out of the current vocabulary on account of it strong associations of heathenism, samburðaröl (club-ale: a feast to which each of those partaking constituted a share) shoots up in its place as the technical term for the Yule feasts, both in the heathen form and in the Christian continuation of the old solemnities. For in Norse Christendom, drink was [148] recognised as the essence of worship. The church organised the old need of blot in order thus to rule over it and make it subject to the church itself; and with that wisdom which seems to follow the Catholic Church during the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages, the spiritual lawgivers understood not only how to respect the inevitable, they had the higher insight which told them that one annexes souls by annexing the needs of the souls as one's own commands. The formula wherein the taking over is declared stands, as a document of culture, far above all the accounts of antiquarians, because the fall of the words shows the sureness with which it strikes exactly upon the essential. Three peasants at least – runs the command – shall bring together their festival ale, one measure of ale for husband and one for the wife on each homestead, and hold a feast upon the holy eve to the honour of Christ and of Saint Mary, and if a man live so far away on an island or in the mountains, that he cannot get to his neighbours, then he shall himself make an ale the size of three. Neglect is first to be paid for with a fine, and then be made good by a drinking party post festum; but if a sinner continue in his dryness three long years in succession, then king and bishop are masters of his house, and he must find himself a country outside Norway, where the godless may thrive.

It was not only the Northmen who gathered about the ale vessels when they felt themselves impelled by the gods to hold a sacrifice. So also did the Franks. A man of high standing, Hocin, invited Chlotachar the First and his courtiers, with the holy Vedastus, to a feast. The festival ale stood set out in the middle of the house, but out of regard to the mixed character of the company it was divided into two camps, one part comprising the ordinary brew for Christians, and thereto some “consecrated in heathen wise” for those who held by the old mode of life. Fortunately for us, the spirit moved the holy man to attend that feast, or the brew would never had entered into the account of the saint's life and good deeds; for when he saw the pagan drink he made the sign of the cross upon it, so that the vessels burst and the heathen were converted. [149] In the life of the missionary Columbanus, there is mention of another vessel, instinct with the same explosive force. This time, it was among the Suevi that a holy man found the assembly holding a feast; they sat about a great vessel “which in their tongue is called cupa, containing about 26 measures, and it was filled with ale, which they would consecrate to their god Odin.” The saint blew the vessel to pieces, making manifest to all present that the devil was in the cask, lying in wait for Suevic souls. Whatever the people really said, and the saint did, the pious biographer must be right about these ale-vessels and their central position at the feasts, for such an abnormal form of worship the clerical chroniclers could certainly not have imported from any source but that of reality.

Unfortunately, the Christianity which conquered our southern kinsmen seems to have lacked the proper eye for the power of ale bowls to further piety, or at any rate, it saw its way to make good Christians without them; but even so, the descendants of the Alamanni and the Suevi never quite forgot to assemble for edification around the cupa. Here and there the Germans give us to understand that they knew well the longing for St. Gertrud's minni, when the mind was restless and needed company, or sighed for comfort on departure, for reconciliation, for blessing generally. Johannesminni, Johannessegen, is the name of another good drink, the effects of which have been preserved by cleverly adding a touch of the Christian bouquet; when there is a wedding, men let the priest consecrate amorem Sancti Johannis in the church to the bridal pair, and he willingly makes a little speech anent the blood of Christ and the wedding feast at Cana; he cannot, however, entirely transform the ale to wine, since the Johannesminni must be drunk from pure wordly [sic] vessels. Elsewhere, the Johannestrunk has preserved its social character as a power to unite men in circles of frith, when the neighbours seat themselves in a host about the board in the open air and drink to good neighbourliness. There is no Germanic heathendom to be found in the blessing of the Johannesminni – the Christian faith of the Lord's Supper and the ancient custom of offering libation [150] have permeated the drink; but we may still doubtless assume that the actual manner in which the blessing is here obtained has its roots in ancient home custom.

The combined testimony of joyous brethren and stern saints will not prove to us that the drinking blot was ever at any time the only Germanic form for worship; it merely indicates that the drink, throughout the whole Germanic region was, right down to the last age of heathendom, at the centre of the old cut, and there it probably stood ever since the gods revealed to our forefathers the powerful secret of ale. It was evidently natural for the contemporaries of Tacitus to assemble for a drinking about in the sacred grove, and we are thus hardly going too far in concluding that the mighty drinkers which the Germans were had practised the art under the auspices of the gods themselves.


When Vedastus stepped in as a guest among the Franks, his eye was at once caught by the great vessel. It stood in the midst of the circle; and a similar prominent place must have been occupied by the Norwegian skapker, from which the sacred drink was served out. The power which evinced itself in such uncanny wise to the man of God made itself also distinctly remarked in the North, for beside this skapker stood the shoe into which a person adopted had to tread on admission to the clan. The vessel was sacred, and its place was sacred and powerful. But the feast also called for pure drinking cups in the hand, horns which in point of holiness answered to the blessing they were to bear around among the company. Beyond all doubt, the everyday bowls, like all new-fangled inventions, were excluded from the high days of festival. The feast had to be drunk in the venerable cattle-horn – something of this indeed, is indicated in the antiquarian observation as to Olaf Kyrri's breach with the past; prior to his reformation of the court ceremonial according to modern ideas, we are told, it was the custom of kings to drink from the horns of animals;

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