The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[183] in modern language; the true pathos of loyalty is caricatured in our rendering, because we can never be made to feel the anguish and barrenness of spiritual solitude in the ancient heroes. There was but one means of maintaining luck and frith: for the other kinsmen to move over likewise into the new system, and all who were not blinded availed themselves of that means when the inevitable was upon them. The wholesale conversion, which has provoked so many witticisms and so much pious moaning among protestants, was for these men the only possible form of regeneration of heart.

Prior to the commencement of all serious undertakings a blot feast was held where strength was gathered for the coming trial and where the participants put on their supreme holiness. We know from the life of the peasant, how the year is dotted with new beginnings; moving ale, with a cup drunk for tomtebolycka, or luck to the new site, covering-in ale, when the roof of a new house was raised, and all the rest. This is a true picture of life in the old days. While the ships lay ready to put forth on a viking expedition the men drank their parting ale at home, “and there was much drinking with great words,” meaning vows of deeds to be accomplished. It is with the drinking party in the hall that Beowulf's great undertaking against the monster begins: “Sit down at the ale, launch strong deeds among the men, as thy heart prompted thee,” says Hrothgar, and the stout-hearted warriors take their seats in the beer-hall. A thane bears the festive ale-stoups down through the hall and pours out the clear liquor, the singer's voice is heard aloud in Heorot, there is rejoicing among the warriors on the benches, culminating when Beowulf utters his vow. The Queen moves down the hall offering drink, first to the king, then to those sitting next him, one after another, till she comes to Beowulf, greets him with thanks for his coming, and calls forth from him the crowning exclamation, that he will either walk between the giant and his head, or himself let the doom come upon him in the hall. And higher still rises the rejoicing of the battle-heroes, filled now with bliss, until the king breaks up the party, to seek his [184] rest for the night, and Beowulf, alone with his men, lies down to await the coming of the monster.

The feast took place under the shadow of terror. The poet cannot but call to mind how, many times before, great vows had been uttered anent that same Grendel, he cannot refrain from mentioning that every time the end was the same: at break of day the royal hall was filled with blood and gore. But the apparent contradiction between the sad experiences of past endeavours, making it doubtful whether any man could ever deliver the survivors from the doom of death, and the wild rejoicing at the feast, has its explanation in the very fact that discouragement was to be swallowed up in the growth of the clamour. The feast was, to those who partook of it, a re-inforcement in luck, an encouragement in their god. Victory passed through the hall the moment the warriors drank to their setting out, and it was necessary to grasp it forcefully if one would have it. If it did not come into the men so that the triumph burst forth from them, then the feast has been in vain, and they had better creep away to shelter without delay.

Every beginning calls for a blot which can inspire the new future with the reality of luck. If a man were to be adopted into another clan, the ox or the ram must stand ready for slaughter beside the leader of the ceremony, and the shoe be placed beside the ale vat. The wedding guests had to know that they had “drunk that ale” and therefore could answer for the reality of the marriage alliance. But it is at the arvel that we see most distinctly how the blot makes new, how one goes back to the source, and commences life afresh, when the old one suddenly dries up. It has astonished Christendom to mark the gaiety of the heathen, or heathen-hearted, Germanic people in honour of the departed, and despite frequent interference, both personal and official, the habit lasted long enough for the astonishment to unfold all its possibilities; the indignant have objected, the scandalised have entered a protest, and finally, aesthetic logic has made merry over the contrast between the sad occasion of the feast and the untimely exuberance of the guests. The English priest in the 10thcentury receives the [185] exhortation: “You shall not take part in the cries of rejoicing over the dead; when invited to a funeral feast, forbid the heathen songs and the loud-voiced peals of laughter, in which folk take delight.” And about a thousand years later, we are able to enjoy a sympathetic smile at the peasant who resignedly looks forward to the time when “the parish will have a merry day over him.”

The funeral toast was not a melancholy occasion where friends and kin assembled to a common contemplation of their loss with the thought of ploughing through sorrow with their united strength so as to set out again, encouraged by cup and dish, to meet the exigencies of life. But the funeral feast was a serious business, because the hamingja had been imperilled by the inroads of death upon the clan; therefore it was necessary to yoke up joy and let it put forth all its power. It was a question of dragging life safely over a critical point, luck had come to a standstill, the high seat stood empty as a visible sign of the breach in the fence, the kinsmen were too uncertain of themselves to venture to attend any gathering of men. It was only at the funeral feast that firmness was restored by creating the new form for the existence of the clan. For this reason, it would not do to leave it too late, not beyond the end of the year of death, if we are to believe the story in the Fagrskinna, which on this point bears the most engaging lack of resemblance to other accounts of King Harald's arvel, where the celebration is postponed from year to year in order to heighten the dramatic tension of the story.

Step by step, the occasional feasts lead up to the annual cult feasts, which constituted fixed points in existence, where life was regularly renewed and made into a future. In them, men sacrificed to “welcome” the winter, or the summer, as the Northmen put it, and the verb used for welcome – fagna – includes gladness, indicative of the joy that was needed to mark the true beginning.

If the blot had been successful and had accomplished its aim, it gave the sacrificers peace of mind and a delicious sense [186] of security, because it had created a future and started a chain of coming events such as would gladden the hearts of the clansmen. When the sons of Ingimund set out to avenge their father on his slayer, Hrolleif, their chief anxiety was that his mother, the old hag, should get time to prepare a blot for her son. They travelled hot-foot in order to arrive at the homestead before the sacrifice had been brought to a close. “His mother will without doubt blote as is her custom, and if she has her way we shall not have power to accomplish our vengeance,” said Thorstein.

Having succeeded in their enterprises, men sacrifice to make fast the happy events for the future. For the ceremonial duel, a bull or a neat was required, to be cut down by the victor; with this he held blot, and confirmed his victory and the superiority he gained thereby as a permanent state of things for the future. It is incidentally told of a pugnacious Icelander, Vigastyr, that after having successfully disposed of a couple of difficult disputes with his neighbours, he attempted to bar the opposite party's way to restitution by striking down two bulls, so that no vengeance might be taken for the killing. The meaning is that he established his superiority firmly, and forced the future to shape itself according to the pattern he desired; of Styr as the hero who has taken the others' honour and kept it.

Whether the blot had been successful and accomplished its aim or not, could be detected by sure signs. Men went to fréttar, i.e. asked for an answer to questions put. How the asking was done, and in what manner the answers were received, is not revealed to us. What we learn is only this, that the blot-twig was shaken and the blot-chips allowed to fall, and these expressions are not elucidated by Tacitus' description of the priest who “looked up at the sky” and read what was written on the stave he took up from the heap. Whatever we may think of Tacitus, one thing is certain, that the will of the gods was consulted before the invention of runes. The dropping of the twig thus also suggests an observation of the chip in its fall, its position after it had come to rest, and its relation [187] to the motion of the sun, or whatever was reckoned significant. At any rate, whether the lot spoke through runes or through movements, it had its voice from the fact that it had been bloted. It is the luck of the blot that speaks through it, and the same luck spoke through the joy of the guests, in the clear ring of the horns, in the unhampered eloquence of the leader of the banquet; in short, through everything that happened after the power of the blot had taken up its seat in the sacrificers. The best commentary is given in such stories as that of Earl Hakon, who put in to land and held a great blot, and learned from the cries of the ravens that victory would declare for him in case of a fight. The carrion birds appeared as an unmistakable sign that the battlefield was ready for him. The sacrificers did not look to the gods to catch a hint of their being pleased by the blot and willing to grant the request of their worshippers; men spied after the reality which was on the point of being accomplished, to see if luck and fate had been brought to birth, as Hakon truly perceived by the ravens' appearing to greet his army.

There were warning signs which set a “not yet” to the eagerness of the questioner; if he were wise, he would wait until luck had made ready. But the Germanic enquirer setting out to ask a god for his yes or no would appear as a comical figure, and he who went to the blot in the expectation of getting either a good or an evil omen, fell quite outside the sphere of comedy down into sheer madness. The ancients sacrificed in order to crate a good omen by creating a reality wherefrom the omens sprang, they demanded a powerful strengthening affirmative, which could warm luck through and through. If the formæli failed them, then it was firstly a piece of ill-luck, and also an evil omen; it meant that life had not squeezed through the hour of birth, and the sacrifice was wasted.

Earl Hakon is said to have had a prophetic balance, on which he weighed fate. The scales of two weights, in the form of human figures, one of silver, one of gold. And in cases of important matters to be decided, he laid the weights in the scales and declared what each of them should mean; and always, [188] when it turned out as he wished the weight rumbled in the scale, says one tradition. But there is another which shows a far better understanding of what it meant when a man of luck held formæli; it says straightforwardly: “and it always fell out as the earl wished, and the weight rumbled in the scale.” For Hakon was an earl with luck in him, and was called with honour Hakon the Blot-earl.

The answer to the question how to blote can be given in the story of Floki or in the story of the settler in Iceland who took leave of the old country in a blot. He held the sacrifice to learn what was to be his fate; the answer pointed to Iceland, and he carried out his plan in confidence. How not to blote is indicated in the story of Vebjorn, the chieftain of Sogn. He and his kinsmen quarrelled with Earl Hakon and had to leave Norway. They sacrificed in order to find a new dwelling place, and the result showed them that the Earl was sacrificing in the opposite interest; in their eagerness to get away they disregarded the blot, put out to sea – and were wrecked. The limitation of the sacrifice was that the man sacrificing might perhaps not be sufficiently strong in luck to carry out its purpose altogether, and force up life to the pitch he desired. Halfdan the Old sacrificed in order to live 300 years in his kingdom, runs the story in an ancient Norse clan; the answer was, that he should not live more than a generation, but in his family there should never for 300 years be born a man without chieftain's luck and never a woman.

The two sides are combined in expressions indicating the object of the sacrifice; men went to “fetch heill.” No art of translation can render this manner of speech, because it expresses a thing that has now become two, we are compelled to cut up the word in our dictionaries into one meaning of luck and another of omen. A man set out with ill heill when his journey led to a bad result, and here it is no use considering whether to translate the words by bad luck or by bad omen, for heill includes both meanings. For his own heill the settler sent his pillars overboard, to show him the way and point out a good place for a home.

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