The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[171] narrower sense that he "spoke for". After him, each of those present repeated the sacred words, presumably without any alteration. What we still lack in our knowledge of the cult formaeli we may add from a comparison with the legal formula, the two were in one spirit, and with the inner community went the sharing of outward form. As this consisted of a definitely marked, permanently valued series of words, so also the other was repeated year after year and time after time with the same unaltering text, where inspiration had no more scope than the regard for actuality might demand. And with this permanent form there went a particular manner of dictation, which always accompanied the solemn rhymed speech, whether the words were legal formaeli or laudatory verses or strong charms. The man who stood with the horn in his hand would recite - kveda - in a tone which is technically unknown to us, since it is invariably described only by its effect upon the hearers, but which is after all noted in the short, striking verses with the strongly marked alliteration. In the mediaeval guilds, and among the Norwegian courtiers, the minni was chanted. All the brethren stand up and chant, after the pouring out of the highest minni, or, as the Danes express it, the brethren receive the cups sitting, and having received them rise up as one man and join in the minne. We may probably regard this liturgising of the toast as an attempt to mould the ancient custom into church form, and in some districts this singing of the minni established itself as the festive form of conviviality, and remained so as long as the custom was held in observance at all; men drank to one another "with the verse of a song", and the minni actually ended, among the peasants, in echoes of folk-songs or rhymes from Scripture history. In Scandinavia, the word kvaedi persists right down to our own day as the technical term for toast ritual, , and even after the formaeli had degenerated into a free oratorial contribution, men still held by the custom of calling it rhyme or kvaedi. The formaeli has a double aspect. Firstly it confirms to consecration act which has taken place: now the ale is divine; and secondly it determines whither the god and his strength go. [172] And the two sides are from the nature of the case one, because the force residing in the words and in the acts of the sacrificer is divinity bent upon creation of future luck. The formæli, then, covers all that words can add to an act, from the great consecration of the drink and initiation to a definite purpose, to the friendly greetings and blessings of one companion for his neighbour at table. Its power to bind is one with its life-giving quality. A promise such as that regarding the bridal pact, or the bride's morning gift must, by co-operation with the horn, be made a positive luck if it were to be of any value for the receiver, and it must also be hardened to honour in the party promising in order to bind his will. The Swedish Östgötalag knew what was required, and states it in words which are of religious significance as well as of social importance. How shall one marry? is asked, and the answer runs: “they shall hold two law-drinkings, at the one bringing forward the request for the maiden, and promising the morning gift; and when the request has been made, then they shall drink the second, and with this the giver in marriage (the guardian) shall give away his kinswoman in marriage. They shall then have the weapon cup, and that from the same vessel they drank from before.” This is the manner of procedure when a man's words are to be made holy, and consequently binding.

It comes naturally to call the formæli the prayer at a feast, and the comparison is furnished by history itself, for the Christians used the same word, mæla fyrir, of offering up prayer. But the old formæli is as far removed from the Christian prayer for God's blessing and God's mercy, as from all chaffering with an invisible over the acceptance of a sacrifice in return for favour shown. When the formæli was to serve the new god, it had first of all to be deprived of half of its content. The in-vocation remained, but the ancient boldness and confidence, which forced its way in violently and wrested out the fulfilment for itself, had to be cast aside. In the solemn: “mæl heill” translated: “be this said by you in the power of luck a cry that came as an exclamation of joy on hearing welcome news, or on the occasion of great vows, declarations, or warnings, we [173] have the old, strong prayer, and as a prayer it might also be regarded alter the introduction of the new religion, but when the Christian ekes out the words with: “And may God let it succeed,” he reveals what separated the heathen from the Christian; the former calmly waited for the effects of his words to appear, the latter could only hope and trust the wilful god would accede to his wish.

It is no easy matter for us on the spur of the moment to give this form of religious invocation its due place in the world of prayer; but in order to understand its effect, it is enough to know luck and its nature. If the formæli has nothing to do with a creature poor in soul kneeling in the dust before a Lord who gives to whom he thinks fit and refuses whom he pleases, it is no less far removed from the magician angling in a lake of darkness with his wizard's hook. The formæli is a hamingja. Where the Jew strives with his god in prayer, the heathen uses the prayer as a fighting weapon and flings it right into the lace of his opponent. And like every other weapon, it calls for skill and strength on the part of him who wields it, and to use it with effect he must be in contact with its innermost being; the weapon must be soul of his soul, so that it does not merely lie in his hand, but forms a prolongation of his arm, and derives its force from his very heart.

When Egil fell out with King Eric, he raised a cursing pole and flung out his formæli against his enemy: “Here I raise a cursing pole, and aim this curse — nið — at King Eric and Queen Gunhild, aim this curse at the gods that dwell in this land,” in order that the words may effect what they express: to render all gods dwelling in that land lost upon their ways, so that they may never find the road to their refuge until they have driven Eric and Gunhild from the kingdom; and if he who uttered the curse did not know that the words would go forth and grasp the gods, confusing their minds and making the luck of the land as a troubled sea under the king, he would not utter them at all, rather would he shun the words in a secret fear of exposing himself to some fateful influence. For a man only utters that which he feels himself lucky enough to make [174] good; it is the community with the powers and the consciousness of being upborne by their strength that lets the formæli glide smoothly from the tongue, and gives it power to drive a future before it towards whatever goal its master may please.

The alteration which took place in the formæli under the influence of Christianity is very closely connected with the fact that the word was deprived of its position as an adjunct to action — or that it was at any rate forced into the possibility of standing alone. To the modern mind, the prayer is confined to the words, for the heathen, its essence was rather that it was an accessory to a ceremonial act. When it did carry with it its own fulfilment as a matter of course, it was because the words implied accomplishment through action. The speaker has the horn in front of him, or even in his hand, he speaks over the drink, and does his duty by the horn before passing it on down the ranks. The formæli and the drinking are more than of equal weight in the modern sense, they are one, as are name-giving and name-confirmation, agreement and completion of the bargain, promise and fulfilment of the promise, because the one is all, its counterpart included, and without its counterpart is less than nothing, to wit, unluck and offence. The duality which invades so many of the ancient customs as soon as they are expressed in our tongue, disappears when the old pictures of men acting are put before us in their totality. “Wes hale (wassail),” says he who drinks first, “drink hale,” answers he who is waiting for the horn. Here we have the old prayer as well as the old sacrifice.

The most scathing affront would be to offer a cup with a curse, thus proposing to the receiver to sign his own doom. In the legend of the unhappy lovers Hagbard and Signe, the hero is literally invited to drink the cup of bitterness. When Hagbard stands under the gallows the queen avenges her two Sons slain by the doomed man, by offering him a cup and speaking for it in these words: “Drink the cup of death, and when you have quaffed the liquor descend into the realm of death.” Hate can go no further than inviting a man to drink to his own damnation. [175]

An alien has often to go the opposite way to that of the native, and understand the rule from the exception. It requires some intimacy to estimate the value of respect for the power of the word, when fear and self-defence find outlet in accepted forms, when for instance a summons served in legal language forces a man to defend himself at law; but in such extraordinary cases as when Æthelfrid charges down upon the priests at their prayers, it makes itself palpable. In the same way, the application of sacrificial form under conditions lacking the everyday natural background can suddenly reveal its forces with almost experimental distinctness. It was in reality the blot which helped the Greenland voyager Thorgils — Christian as he was, and Christianwise as he believed himself to be acting — through the last of his sore trials in the Arctic Sea. Starving and exhausted, his men toiled at the oars to work their way on to the mouth of a fiord without making headway, and all the while their strength diminished, and their thirst grew worse. At last one of them said: “I know that men aforetime, when in greatest peril at sea have mixed their own water with sea water, and saved their lives.” Thorgils dared neither say yes nor no to the proposal, and looked in silence, while they filled the dipper; but just as they were about to drink, he checked them with a word: “Give it to me, and I will speak for the cup (mæla fyrir minni): Troll of illwill now hindering our way, you shall not bring it about that I or any of us here should drink of our own uncleanness.” And at the same moment a bird like a guillemot flew screaming northward from the boat, and the men reached land and found a spring. To be sure, Thorgils did not complete the libation, indeed he intended by his act to frustrate the ungodly procedure, but his words had their effect, because they were uttered in sacrificial form.

From the extraordinary element in this happening we learn to understand the natural fulfilment of the blot, which does not burst forth so tangibly out of the moment, but with no less inevitable force is completed in what we call the natural order of things, that earth grows fruitful and the sun shines.

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