The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[151] but after his day, the king and his distinguished guests were served in beakers. When the house had been consecrated and adorned for the feast, the finest drinking vessels of the household were brought forth; and we may glean some idea of the reverence shown to these horns, and what men thought of them, when we note the position they occupy in the legends, right down to our own times. They formed part of the family treasure as pledges of life and luck, they revealed hidden thoughts and plans; they had a personality which called for a proper name; and their handing down by inheritance through the clans was watched over with jealous care. Olaf Tryggvason had two pair of such horns, the Grims and the Hyrnings, the former of which he had once obtained in marvellous wise from Jotunheim. One evening at the time of the Yule feast, two men came to the king's court, both calling themselves Grim, and brought with them a pair of splendid gold-decked horns with a greeting form Gudmund of Glasisvellir. Gudmund was an individual whom Christians were loth to have greet them, and the heathen manner of the strangers also made itself plainly apparent when a drink, consecrated in Christian wise, was offered them; they vanished with a clap of thunder,; and when the lights were lit again, three of Olaf's men lay dead in the hall. The king, however, kept the horns. In this story – and adaptation of old legend – the admiration of the myth for the treasure and for its supernatural origin appears in conflict with the Christian inclination to tread the devil underfoot, and the legend has only half subdued the stubborn material. It shows, indeed, after all, as a glorification of the horn, declaring that wherever its deftly wrought ornaments gaped across the bench, men felt divinity issuing forth toward them.

At the commencement of the banquet, a row of small low tables stood in front of the benches, the food was served out on plates, and the guests helped themselves as long as they were minded. When all had satisfied their lust for solid food, the tables were removed, and then the drink began its round. So also in the feast above all feasts; at the moment when the horn came forth, the sacrificial feast was at its highest. A strict [152] ritual regulated every single movement with the drinking horn. It was first carried to the highest in rank, the man who occupied the high seat, and when he had consecrated it, he drank to the next in rank, and so the horn went steadily on from man to man. On receiving it , one rose – Harthaenut was struck by apoplexy as he stood at his drink, and fell down dead with the vessel in his hand; throughout the Middle Ages, men held firmly by the good custom of showing reverence for the drink by standing. With a word expressive of wish and promise the horn was emptied, and on passing on to the next man, was again filled, that he might do his duty and pass it on. From man to man it has to pass, going round with the sun, none of those present being suffered to show preference for any particular companion at table; any attempt at passing by one's neighbour and drinking forward beyond him, amounted to an affront to the one so passed, and was a serious breach of the sacred law. And the link between them was not a table, but hand reaching out to hand; “the horn goes in the hands of men” is the true expression for a drinking party, and to set down the cup instead of handing it on to one's neighbour was a great offence. “If a man put the cup down instead of handing it to his neighbour where people are drinking, he is to pay according to ancient law one shilling to the master of the house, six shillings to the offended man and twelve shillings to the king” according to the Anglo-Saxon law of Hlotære and Eadric. This means, reduced to an older form, that the offender has sinned not only against his partner and the host, but also against divine authority.

Priscos has given a description of the rule for feasting at Attila's court, and a comparison of the Byzantine' account with northern sources shows plainly, not only that the great Hun ruler based his court etiquette upon Germanic models, but also that the ceremonial observed in connection with drinking was the same north and south of the Baltic. Priscos was invited, together with the other members of the mission, to a banquet given in their honour, and the first man they met was naturally the cup-bearer, who handed them a goblet which [153] they were to drink off with a good wish, before sitting down. When the meal commenced, a servant appeared before Attila with a bowl of wine, he took it, and greeted his neighbhour; every man so accosted over the cup rose, and was not allowed to sit down again until he had take a mouthful, or emptied the cup and handed it back to the cup-bearer. Thus Attila paid due honour to each man in turn, by taking the cup and drinking to him with a wish for luck and good fortune. When at last the entire company had been thus favoured, the first dish was brought in . But after each course of meat, the same ceremony was repeated from one end of the hall to the other, and each time, the party had to empty the bowl standing, one by one.

Amid the festive spirit of the occasion several particularly marked cups were drunk – “minnis” as they are called in mediæval term. In these, the sacrifice is concentrated, and the anticipation of the banquet is at its utmost tension. The account of the famous feast of succession, which Swein Forkbeard held after the death of his father, suggests that in the old days, there were at least three main toasts at such a blot. True, the Fagrskinna only says that on the first evening when men were assembled at a funeral feast, they had to fill many cups “in the same way as with minnis nowadays”, and these cups were dedicated to the mightiest of one's kin, in heathen time, to Thor or others among the gods. At last the bragarfull – promise cup – was poured out, and on drinking this, the giver of the feast was expected to make a vow – and with him all those present – and having done so, sit down in the high seat of the departed. Snorri, on the other hand, gives a detailed and more precise account; he states, that on the first day of the feast, before King Swein stepped into his father's high seat, he drank his minni-cup and vowed that ere three winters were past, he would go to England and slay King Æthelred or drive him from the country. This cup all present had to drink. But thereupon, all had to drink Christ's minni. The third was Michael's minni, and this was drunk by all. After these, Earl Sigvaldi drank his father's minni and made his vow that ere [154] three winters were past he would go to Norway and slay Earl Hakon or drive him from the country. After him, Thorkel, his brother, vowed to accompany Sigvaldi to Norway and never flee as long as his brother was fighting. Then Bui vowed to go to Norway in their company and stand up in fight without flinching against Earl Hakon, and thus one followed another in due succession.

Swein's arvel has shared the fate of so many good stories which history, out of due regard to chronology and textual criticism, has had to turn out of the house, or at any rate receive only as proxy for some unknown and more sober fact; but how much or how little these cups and vows are to be reckoned by writers of political history – they were doubtless a salient point in the imagination of the Middle Ages and earlier times. And even though the various authors may have lacked all authentic report of what took place at the court in that unforgettable year, they found no difficulty in giving a trustworthy picture of what might have taken place, for they had themselves taken part in funeral feasts to the memory of friends and kin. The discrepancy between the two versions is due to the difference of method. The description in the Fagrskinna is intended as a piece of antiquarian information regarding drinking customs of our forefathers; the saga writer has a delicate conscience in the matter of culture history, and endeavours to prevent his listeners from thoughtlessly applying their own ideas to ancient times. Snorri, on the other hand, describes the scene as a stylist and an artist, chiefly concerned with the dramatic element, and to him, Christ and Michael are as good as gods and kin. He writes more directly from his own premises, and therefore, we find embedded in his version a fragment of culture history, to wit, the mediæval adoption and adaptation of the ancient sacrificial rites. But this does not necessarily imply that the author of the Fagrskinna ousts Snorri as a witness to the past. The triple form so markedly emphasised in the Heimskingla was not created out of regard to style or dramatic effect; the guild statutes, which contain the result of the drinking cup's conversion to Christian custom, con- [155] tinued the sacred rite of ancient times in regard to table, and here again we find the triple chord, in such a manner as to produce a distinct impression of a convention rooted in ancient observance. In the Gothland Karin's guild, three “minnis” had to be observed: “Our Lord and brother's minni, Our sister and Lady's, and St. Catherine's minni.” The Danish Eric's guild had for its patron saints St. Eric, Our Saviour and Our Lady, while the Swedish Eric's guild mentions only St. Eric's minni, which is declared at the stroke of six, and All Saints' minni, on the stroke of nine. The Swedish St. Görans' Brotherhood succumbed to the mediæval temptation to enrol as many saints as possible in their heavenly guard; not content with Our Lord, Our Lady and St. Göran, they enlisted St. Eric and St. Olaf, as well as the Holy Rood, and all the saints together, besides St. Gertrud and St. Bengt especially. All nine are remembered in the cups, but three and three together, so that the minnis after all fall into a triad. These guild customs give the Heimskringla a certain weight, when, in connection with Earl Sigurd's blot feast at Hlada, it makes the feast centre about the cup to Odin for victory and power to the king, that the Njord and Frey for harvest and peace, and the Bragi cup with the minni for powerful kinsmen; even though we, on seeing bragarfull falsely interpreted Bragi's cup parallel to that of the other gods, may have some slight suspicion with regard to this highly departmental sense of order.

On the other hand, the Norwegian guild statutes are apparently unanimous in restricting the number of cups to two: The Onarheim's guild drinks Mary's minni and Olaf's minni, while the Olaf's guild, strangely enough, only mentions Christ and Mary, disregarding its own patron saint. And the form for Christian festival drinking in Norway which was granted the highest sanction of the church is also based on Christ and Mary as the object of the solemnity. As these forms are not designed to initiate proselytes into the mysteries of the cult, they do not need to tell everything, and we have not far too look before we find lacunæ where something or other may perhaps be understood which is not stated; even allowing for all possibil- [156] ities, however, we cannot lose sight of the fact that two of the minnis are singled out for particular mention.

But to get their proper weight, these isolated toasts must be viewed against the background of the sacrificial feast, where minni follows minni in unbroken succession. Odin's and Frey's cups are the great minnis, being more important than all others, for the cup special, or toast, was not an exception in the ordinary course of drinking, but constituted the actual standard of form for all the drinking that took place. The horn on its round was the focus of the feast, each individual ceremony lasted until it has passed the whole way round, and the feast itself consisted in a repetition of the circular movement. “Many horns went round,” we are told, on that last evening at the court of the Gjukings, before Gunnar and Hogni set off on their fateful journey to Atli; and having learned this, all know that the feast of those bold men was a great feast, and lasted long. Therefore, Egil's saga could not have characterised the mighty blot at Atley more correctly than when it says: “Many a minni went round, and a horn should be emptied at every one.”

Wherever the mediæval records mention a feast, it is this very chain of minnis that is implied in the word, and so the amount of drinking allowed can be regulated by fixing the number of toasts. In the Middle Ages, kings and lawyers were busy arranging the lives of the citizens for them, prescribing what finery was proper to be worn, and how many days decent Christians were to carouse. The good Gothlanders were, at the time when their law was written down, under a taskmaster; there were rules for how much liquor was proper for a wedding, and what degree of dryness could be tolerated at minor feasts. On assembling at a wedding, the drinking of Mary's minni was the end of all drinking, but before it was brought in, the host could call as many toasts as he wished. This of course is practical expression of the view that the party may drink as much as it pleases until the inevitable moment when, according to the rule of ceremony, Mary was honoured by a toast, and then the drinking had to cease, no [157] additional cups being allowed. By such principles, it is possible to regulate also the duration of a drinking bout, and its intensity, by providing that three minni cups, and no more, are to be drunk on bringing home the bride's portion.

Out from this stream of minni there rises again one particular cup as the cup beyond all others, the true core of the feast. Presumably, the “highest minni” of the Middle Ages goes back to the principal cup in the heathen drinking hall, either as a direct adaptation, or a s a substitute for something customary. In the guilds it is the divinity, either the chief god, Christ, or the local god, the patron saint, that receives chief honour. The Brotherhood of St. Göran with its arrangement into a triple trinity, finds room for the god and the goddess and the patron saint in highest minni, and this was drunk “especially with torch and trumpet”, i.e. in more festival fashion than the other toasts. At the banquets and Yule feasts held by the common people, men continued to drink the toast of God or the Holy Ghost, even after it had been found necessary to add a word of excuse to the Highest for offering him the honour due to him, and it might seem as if the toast before all others was just this one for Our Lord.

The feast did not terminate informally. It would be opposed to the character and purpose of the blot to let it flicker out like a dying candle. At the Swedish wedding feasts, the guests were handed a weapon-cup at the conclusion of the entertainment, the host at the same time handing them their weapons, which had been laid aside during the feast. The mediæval guilds kept to the old custom, and at times, the last of the three great minnis is made to serve as an amen. The statues of St. Göran put the matter as follows: “St. Bengt means leavetaking and good night.” After the three main toasts had been drunk, one should not inconvenience those who served at the table – unless all the guests were agreed that they were too comfortable as they were to break up the party; as one passage thoughtfully adds. When legislation came to regard it as one of its many tasks to guide people in the conduct of their feasts, the minni was made a kind of police full-stop to

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