The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[158] gaiety. In Gothland, when Mary's minni had been drunk, anyone was at liberty to leave; it being understood that good people would be well advised to avail themselves of this ceremonial valediction.

As long as the feast was an act of worship, all those taking part in it were necessarily obliged to remain for the whole of the function, if they did not wish to harm themselves and all their fellows there; and before leaving, they assured themselves that everything right and needful had been done, so that the party could disperse without prejudice to the blessing. The individual guest drank himself into the dark, and in the great weapon-cup there lay a final assurance that all the guests took with them the blessing. The Swedish law still hints at its religious meaning, when it prescribes that it shall be drunk from the same vessel as the guests had used for the wedding drink.

While the townsmen utilised the final toast for police purposes, the peasants sometimes turned it to account for promoting hospitable cheer; it might for instance be called in as an aide to the ready will, when it was a question of smoothing out the last crease in the jerkin. At weddings in Ditmarsk, they feast concluded with the drinking of the toast of the Holy Spirit, and the joint was forced down with a warning cry of “the Holy Spirit is at the door”; when all had to avow their impotence, and only then, the cup the Holy Ghost's minni was poured out with the wish: “May this be a glad year for you with the Holy Ghost.”

In the guild statutes, we see ancient tendencies and a new spirit working together, and the inner conflict between them has set its mark upon the words, so that enjoyment is often formulated as a duty, whereas in earlier times participation was at once an enjoyment and a necessity. The Middle Ages had need of the toast to create order, both as a means of ascertaining that the brother fulfilled their obligation – this is the ancient feeling – and as a preventive against their doing too much beyond what was demanded of them. When culture had grown so far out of the old system that the centre of gravity [159] had come to lie decisively in the thought of Christianity, the moderating qualities of the toast would predominate; but the change in religious tone would at the same time dissolved the very power that had made the drink a means of restraining the exuberant hilarity of the brethren.

For him who would grasp the whole as a whole, and not squander his attention on mere details, the testimony of the guild statutes and the customs of the common people unite in a sufficiently complete picture of the blot-feast. The horn was the heart of the feast; the hours were held together and made a living whole by the horn passing slowly round from hand to hand. The life of the blot was concentrated in some great toasts in which holiness was strained to its highest pitch. These principal cups gathered the details of the blot into a festival rhythm, and it is possible that the mediæval tendency to find rest in a triple chord of minnis was rooted in an ancient respect for the triple as perfection, even though perhaps it might have been strengthened by Christian ideas. But the ceremonial suggested by these Northern authorities was not a pattern which must externally fit all times and places; rather it represents a system inwardly felt, which holds the ceremonial together. Within the framework of the principal toasts there must be room for a varied multiplicity of detail. All the solemn moments in the life of the clan, which we have learned in part to know from the social side, were sacrifices, blots, and the character and purpose of the meeting determined the relative weight of the various toasts. According to time and circumstances, this or that minni would be elevated to greater or less official importance. At the arvel, the promise-cup derived a particular significance from its emphasising the entering into authority of the successor; and his declaration of his life's programme threw its own light upon those who, having likewise made their vows, gathered about him and honoured him, either by making his cause their own, as did Bui with Sigvaldi, or by entering the lists against him, as did Sigvaldi with Swein. In the bridal house, the cup of contract would necessarily take [160] first place as a condition for good fortune in the alliance entered upon, as also for the safe relationship between the two houses thus united under one shield. A feast of faith and alliance would be nothing without the cup of agreement – and thus each feast day had its own care. In the feasts of worship proper, it was luck in its supreme generality which determined the course of the proceedings, but it lies in the character of the family hamingja that it was dependent upon the actual, the “fate” of the clan.

The toast gave the blot feast its character. Uniting as it did all those taking part, it gathered the spirit of the whole company into one. And the all-comprising holiness residing in the company as a whole did not loose it hold of the participants, until the last cup of the blot was drunk.

At ordinary drinking feasts, the company would at a certain point break up into groups; friend drew friend forth from the general brotherhood of the festive spirit and drank himself nearer to his fellow. We se him, in the Icelandic sagas, stepping down the floor with his horn, drinking til móts with the other; that is to say, drinking half, and handing the rest in the horn to his comrade. Or those sitting side by side would turn towards each other and form pairs; in the Nordic, this is called drinking tvimenning, when men shared one horn together two and two, or now and then a man and woman together.

We may assume that the blot proper was carried out under stricter rules, and here, we can set certainty in place of mere assumption. In the period of the saga writing, it was still not forgotten that sacred feasts were denoted by the progress of the horn round the hall; the horn should be “borne around the fire,” we are told, that is to say, that only the sacred vessels were used, and these carried by the cup-bearer from man to man throughout the hall, then passing round the long fire and up along the opposite side of the hall.

At this point, woman contributed her holiness to the feast; the “ale-goddess” she is called in the scaldic poetry, and the name is rich in significance, being inspired by deep experiences. The immediate charm of a woman stepping the house-wife's [161] way through the ale-hall is but a faint reflection of the majesty which woman's holiness and the holiness of an assembly shed on her in the eyes of those present. In reality, it is a description of a blot which lies in the verses of the Beowulf anent the queen handing her husband the first cup, and thence proceeding down the rank, from man to man, until she comes to the guest. “In man shall battle thrive, and deeds of arms, but the woman shall grow in favour among men; in the mead-hour of the house-earles greet firstly the prince, hand the horn to the king”; thus the custom of the king's courts is expressed in poetic conciseness, with the “shall” which denotes the normal course of life, and the lines may without exaggeration be called a part of the sacrificial ritual.

In the saga which tells of the homecoming of Olaf the Saint after his glorious expeditions abroad, it is noted a s proof of Sigurd Syr's magnificent hospitality towards his step-son, that he entertained him and his followers every alternate day with festive cheer, meat and ale, and let the horn go round in the manner of a great banquet, whether it were a holy-day or not. He made the day a feast. The more festive ceremonial included the richer fare, for when drinking minni, each man had the horn filled for his own mouth as often as it came to him.

But the feast demanded also co-operation of all those present every time one of them drank. As long as the blot was in progress, no one could let the cup life and go through a personal experience for a moment, whether in his own thoughts or in his own drink. The current of minnis must not be checked, and whether the cup were one for the whole company, or in honour of a single individual, whether it were bride-cup or parting cup, it was passed along a row of standing and blessing drink-fellows, the company attending in rapt anticipation. We know for certain at what time the Norwegian court was grown so modern that it superseded the slow and heavy older fashion and gave itself up freely to the pleasure of drinking. Before the time of Olaf Kyrri, it was the custom for the horn to pass round the fire in the hall, from the king to the next in rank and so on; but Olaf let loose personal feeling, and introduced a new mode, [162] whereby each man might follow the dictates of his own conscience, and drink as he pleased. Among the common people this emancipation was long delayed, and when, for instance, a bride's guardian in Ditmarsk in the 16the century drank the bride to her betrothed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, all present did their duty by the action in drinking off a toast from the same vessel.

What was expected of a man in connection with the parting cup none can tell better than Thorstein Boejarmagn, who had been a guest of Geirrod, rule of giants, in Jotunheim, and had there seen people drink from the horn Grim. It must indeed be difficult to express in sober everyday phrases what took place between such mighty personages as Geirrod autocrat over all giants and sprites, and Gudmund of Glasisvellir; and we gain, from the author's endeavor to express the inexpressible, a lively impression that things generally were on a larger scale, more wonderful altogether, among the giants than in ordinary households of the North. When Grim is carried in, in its full breadth of majesty, the whole people of giants and goblins fall on their knees; they knew, of course, that their master needed but to bend his ear toward it in order to gain knowledge of the most secret of things. The horn first makes for Gudmund, as the highest in rank among the guests, the cup-bearer waits till he has emptied it, and then goes to the host. Before him, Grim is filled again, and Geirrod turns the point upward, the contents pouring like a wave of the sea down his throat. While the hero drank, he fixed his glance upon Earl Agdi, and it was now his turn to take a fresh filling; the poor earl did all that duty demanded, but was forced to draw breath twice in the process. “Age and manhood do not go together,” said Grim; for the horn had more than human understanding. The remainder of the company were not judged capable of such superhuman achievement, and were suffered to fulfil the law two and two. Our authority lets this parting drink embrace two other toasts besides both Thor's and Odin's cup, and the effect on us modern readers is not only that we come to regard Earl Agdi with a fellow-feeling that excuses much, but also [163] that we suspect the author of having, like so many of his compeers among the late compilers of romantic stories, reconstructed the past a trifle too much per intuition. In one thing, however, he has the advantage of us; he knew the customs of his own time, and even where his imagination runs most freely, he cannot go beyond its conceptions. He sees the whole affair as a series of minnis; and he is awed by the divine power residing in the horn which makes it a vehicle of prophecy.

It was the presence of supreme holiness that necessitated a stricter ceremonial. The warrior host lived under the rule of the greater holiness, and would thus be for ever excluded from the more informal fashion of drinking; they were never allowed to drink in pairs (tvimenning). The sacred men-at-arms must quaff their cups ritually whenever they assembled, or in other words, their meals were always sacrifices. “It was viking law to drink all together in company, even when they came to a feast,” we are incidentally told. For the same reason, the war-sacred drinking feasts at the king's court were always held with ceremonial strictness of form; the king's retainers were vikings all the year round, and lived constantly before their gods. It is possible that the supreme holiness made itself externally apparent in the use of the divine goblets, so that free intercourse could not take place in the hall as long as they were to the fore and went in the hands of the drinkers.

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