The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



The assembling for sacrifice is the glorified form of the common board. The blessing of the blot lies in the fact that the bowl seethes with a special drink, similar to, yet essentially different from the ale brewed at all other feast place, a drink which is nothing other than the peculiar ancestral luck of which the clan itself exists.

When we use the old words – whether it be promise cup, peace cup, or the cup to Odin – there is always a certain unreality in the tone which wafts away what should be the main thing; the promise, the peace, or the god are set above or beside the drink in which they should reside. Such sentences as these: ale is peace, is welling thoughts and memories, is hamingja, soul and divinity, pass through an empty space before reaching us; and the effect of this refracting is a poetic effulgence which effaces the real meaning and replaces it with a suggestive vagueness. Among the Northmen, the usual term for the blot-cup seems to have been full, a word whose old-fashioned structure speaks of age and dignity, and the meaning of which serves equally well to cover fulness, the state of being filled, or abundance, and that which is full. Another sacred word is veig, which, whatever may have been its original meaning, comprises the thought of strength and honour. The southern peoples expressed the whole truth in their holy name, minne.

Minne has a peculiar history. The word belongs as a cult term to the southern branch of the Teutonic stock and bears among the Germans the same meaning as the Old Norse full [177] and veig. When the toast drinking had been converted into a Christian ceremony in the guilds, the word made its way to the north, carried forward by the guild statues, and out of the mediæval usage it was in historical accounts of heathen customs thrown back upon the blot-cup. The author of the Fagrskinna is still aware of the distinction, for in speaking of the ancient arvel, he says that the cups at a feast of succession were poured out “as nowadays is done with minnis”. In the northern languages, the word minni had acquired the sense of “remembrance”, and language in conjunction with Christian ideas led thought more and more directly to the calling to mind as the main object of drinking a toast in the name of God and the saint. In the common language of Germany, minne gravitates towards denoting love, and thus by a parallel evolution the minne cup becomes a loving cup; to drink to the love of the saints – in amore sanctorum bibere – is the Latinists rendering of the custom, but now and again the other phases of the word show forth, so that beside the amor we find a salus, luck and health. In its ultimate origin, minne is closely akin to the Nordic munr, mind, soul, hamingja; it finds its best interpretation in Sigdrifa's words anent the cup: “Ale I bring you, mixed with megin and mighty honour.” The minne cup was simply hamingja in all its aspects.

The effect of emptying the cup was first and foremost a community of feeling – for harvest and peace, runs the wish of blessing. Men drank together and drank themselves together, as the old saying goes, in the ancestral brew of power. The assembly was made one, and this unifying force of the drink is expressed in the ceremonial which requires that the horn shall pass from man to man round the hall; the chain must be unbroken, and close upon itself again – the assembly should be made one. He who refused to answer a toast or passed over his neighbour was guilty of a serious offence against the latter, treating him as a child of evil spirits; but in the person of the offended party, he injured the whole company, by destroying the blessing of the feast. The famous sacrificial feast at Hladi, where Earl Sigurd got Hakon Æthelstansfostri to celebrate [178] a blot, commenced by the earl, as chairman, drinking the first horn to the king, and thus drawing him into the circle of frith. The people of Drontheim watched closely to see that the king did his part, and it is no wonder that they broke out in tumult at his hesitation. If Hakon would not eat and drink of the holiness with them, then he was not of their frith, and who could then trust him to share and answer for their luck and honour? His refusal was a scornful challenge, because the refuser, by sitting there as a dead spot in the circle, broke its cohesive force, and placed the goodwill of the rest one towards another in the greatest peril.

The sacrificial feast was not an institution to mend and patch society, like those meetings of reconciliation where men proclaim eternal peace, comforting themselves in secret with the thought that there is no saying how ill it might go with the world if we did not again and again take the word “eternal” in vain. The feast made for peace, and effected its will unfailingly; its fruit was the inviolability of the clan. The holiness of the feast is a result of the common change which took place in the kinsmen through their sharing the same divine drink and regenerating the hamingja in themselves.

The mediæval exhortations to the guild brothers, to be of one mind, not to come to their drinking with illwill against a brother, but be reconciled beforehand, and let all enmity rest in the holiness, these are juridical ideals based upon realities which did not stand in need of command. And that which the statutes so earnestly laid down as the fundamental principle of the true guild spirit was put in practice out in the country districts at the annual feasts of the common people. The Swedish thing registers know of no explanation – or of any need for such – in regard to the people's trust in the peace-making power of the cup. A case of homicide in Albo anno 1617 is thus reported: While the company were drinking, some dispute arose as to a candle which had gone out and was not renewed quickly enough, whereon Jöns of Ware in his simplicity spoke forth as one knowing a way out of a difficulty: “We will not have such words here. Fetch a can of ale, and let us drink [179] to the Lord.” When the ale was brought, he drank the Lord's minni, spoke such formæli as he could, and drank to Jöns of Tubbemála; the latter accepted the cup, but with scornful words, saying indeed: “If God almighty will not help us, then may the other help us instead.” And this he said three times. Jöns of Ware, good soul, declining to have “the other” as a drinking companion, knives were drawn, and the devil's Jöns was despatched to his due place. So fateful was it to interrupt the fellowship of the cup at a critical moment in Wärend in the 17thcentury.

All through the Middle Ages and far down into the present age, men held by the good custom of making the annual festive gatherings a place of reconciliation, where old quarrels were buried and the soil improved to the end that might bear as few harsh fruits as possible in the coming year. An old priest speaks in praise of the blessings of the Yule cup for Smáland: neighbours and friends go round on Christmas Eve to one another with their best drink in their hands, and drink the health of God in heaven, wishing one another and their families God's grace and blessing. Thus hands are laid together throughout the township; all must then be friends and keep the Yuletide peace; none dare break it on pain of being regarded as a monster and a niding before all men.

However much style and spirit may have changed from the blot the devotions centring about a hymnbook, from the clan to the family of a single household, we still find in the Norwegian Christmas Eve customs a few traits which fit into the old descriptions. Christmas Eve in Norway was used to prepare all minds for the coming year. At the solemn Christmas meal which was served at midnight, the father and mother sat down in the high seat with their sons on the one hand, and daughters on the other, the serving people at the lower end of the table; all drank toasts and a happy Christmas in a common silver cup, husband to wife and so round.

In the old days, the feast was a test of the individual. Woe to him if he did not feel the frith and the ale grip him! He who could not drink himself into spiritual fellowship with the rest [180] must indeed be a man forsaken of luck, a niding. When the gods departed from earth, ale degenerated into alcohol, and divine intoxication gave way to drunkenness pure and simple, and then it sounded strange that the tendency among the guests to shift from the bench to the floor should be a confirmation of the host's good conscience; but there are ancient earnest thoughts slumbering behind the faith of the common people in justification by drink and its effects. If the ale were not good, then the fault lay in the luck, which was slipping away from the house, and all feasting was then in vain. In the days of benighted heathendom, men would probably have fled from such a house of ill-luck; in later times, when milder manners had grown up under the fostering care of Christianity, considerate guests in Norway would sham drunk, and slither floorwards as naturally as their mimic talent allowed, to save the host form anguish of soul. A good taskmaster in the cause of true humanity was of course the regard for one's own good name; for, as our authority further states, if any happened to sit as a sober exception among those otherwise affected, it was held that the curse of God was upon him. “God help the man on whom God's gifts have no effect,” was hissed around him.

The religious flare-up of the fire on the hearth of the clan was brought about not only by the embers being gathered together in a great blaze; a new ignition was looked for, and an augmentation of the fire. It is indeed inherent in the character of frith that the effect of the power of sacrifice was not restricted to community of kin, the intense concentration of fellowship was identical with a re-inforcement of the entire hamingja. By drinking from the horn, the friends grew luckier, stronger to beget and to fight; their memory and the words on their tongue, luck in harvest and luck in spinning, hands of healing and victory, as Sigdrifa puts it, watchful sternness in feud, and inviolable peace among themselves, all were strengthened and enhanced. It was the soul itself which was renewed, it was the human feeling which was saved from slipping away into the dissolution of nidinghood. Without the great renewal of frith which lay in the blot, existence would come to a standstill; [181] men would forget who they were, and their dead would die the second death. The terrible fate which fell upon Hjorleif, who died a double death at the hands of slaves, was – according to tradition – foreordained in consequence of his refusal to take part in the customary sacrifice. Ingolf, his fosterbrother, worshipped with his kin, and had his joy of life.

When Christian worship superseded the ancient blot, the departed were left out in the cold, or surrendered to the mercy of the church. The dying man's life was no longer insured in a clan, and he had to take measures accordingly. His care for the future then breaks out in orders for feasts to be held “to his memory” with drinking parties, and in the bequest of funds for the constant continuation of the memorial feast – or we may safely say, the blot.

For all the pretences of the church, it was in the blot-hall that the question of eternal life and eternal death was decided. And in this respect, the mediæval guilds show themselves most distinctly as the legatees of the ancient sacrificial fellowship. The brethren had surrendered themselves to the tutelage of the church, and the church had its inassailable view as to the manner in which the care of the living might best serve the welfare of the souls in blessedness; and the kinsmen in the world beyond easily agreed to accept the honour in new vessels, as long as they were assured of having what was their due. They always found faithful helpers on this side the grave, who were not only industrious at mass, but also endeavoured to put into it by stealth as much of the old forms as possible. The guilds are punctiliously careful as to their members' loyalty to the past under new forms. The departed shall be given mass for their souls with full attendance of the brethren; their names shall be read out during the drinking at the feasts, to the end that those who have gone before may be present in the thought of solemnity, they are remembered with a prayer in the minni, if they cannot have a minni to themselves.

Not only would the luck resident in man lose its brilliance if the blot were neglected; the swords would rust, horses and cattle fall dead, fields cease to bear fruit. The people of Dront- [182] heim had dire experience, when Olaf the Saint banned the old blots and threatened his subjects with fire and sword if then ventured to seek for luck and fertility by the means of their fathers. But what were the good men to do? The king might thunder with his god and devil, but all his thunder did not prevent the crops from rotting in the soil; the peasants were looking at their corn and hearing, moreover, that the frost farther north had gained the mastery over all the men of Halogaland since they had ceased the blot. They still remembered, too, how the earth and the sea rejoiced in luck when Earl Hakon came in and made the holy places true vés, as the poet sings, true places of holiness for the people. No wonder that the sturdy yeomen resolved to set the king's edict at naught and re-open the ancient sources of blessing.

On account of the exclusive character of Christianity, conversion meant secession from spiritual intercourse with the clan, and the deserter brought tragedy into the life of the clan itself. A single man who broke away from the blot-fellowship was not merely cutting himself off from luck; his nidinghood became the ruin of his clan. He “declared himself out” of the clan, dishonoured his kinsmen, and the latters' judgement is concentrated in the solemn word frændaskömm – kin-shame – or, as it may be even more poignantly put, æallarspillir – the ruin of his clan. Treachery to the innermost bond in frith is expressed by the word “god-niding”, or apostate, and this with the more justification since he had not merely offended against this or that god, but had affronted “the gods” and rendered them useless to his kinsmen. It is a duty on the part of the relatives to assert themselves by cauterising the would; this duty was by the Icelandic Al-thing of 997 entrusted to those of kinship more remote than half cousins and less remote than the half cousins' half cousins, a compromising provision which affords a good insight into the feeling of the time for the sacredness of kinship. The story of Radbod, the Frisian king whose soul Wulfram did his best to save, who refused to enter heaven single-handed and stepped out of the font on hearing that his kinsmen sat on the benches of Hell, cannot be re-told

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