The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

CHAPTER XII

PLAY AND VOW

A feast where men strengthen themselves in their god calls for something more than sacrifice. After the meal, the people rise up to play. When men have set their comrade in his resting place in the barrow, shown him to the spot where he will thrive, and given him due provision for the road, then they may hold races and singing contests. And whether the desire for play be ascribed to consideration for the god, or the dead man, or the living, the explanation works out into the fact that the sport is of the same power and the same effect as the feast in the house — it is a part of the sacrifice.

We know that all kinds of sport were customary at gatherings of men in the ancient days. Playing ball, horse fights, wrestling often occur in the saga accounts of feasts, for the very good reason that the Icelanders' blood often came to such a heat that the effect was visible in the settlement long after. We have good technical information as to the Icelandic horsebaitings; we are told how the stallions were led forward against each other by the respective owners, how they rose on their hind-legs and bit, while the leader with his horse-stave supported his beast in its upright position, urging it at the same time to its wildest onslaught. These fights served as trials of honour, the owner was spiritually present in his fighting horse, so that its victory meant his growth, its defeat the wreck of his honour, and not infrequently, the decision of the stallions would be followed by a more than accidental meeting between the men with their weapons.

We do not, however, find any [190] reference to connection with worship of the gods: apparently, the contest had passed over into a popular amusement.

The Norwegian form for horse contests retains distinct recollections of its original association with the cult festivals. These skei, as they were called, took place every year, in Sætersdale on a Saturday in August, in the Telemark on St. Bartholomew's day, and were evidently, to begin with, part of an ancient religious local festival. The stallions were led out two by two, excited by the presence of a mare, and after the fights, there followed wild rides on bare-backed horses. And it was known that “when the horses bite well it means a good harvest.” In this double play between the interpretation of the action as a test of manhood and an assurance of luck, there is very likely a glimmering of old sacrificial ideas.

From the point of view of culture history, it is an important trait that the word leikr, Anglo-Saxon lác (play), in the Germanic languages may denote sacrifice, and on the other hand it is equally characteristic of the culture that the word also serves as a paraphrase for fight. “Hild's play” is not the whimsical imagery of the poet, the expression has a deeper necessity. Men played a great deal in those days, and always gripped hard, but the hardness was not entirely due to the horny hands. The note in the word which now has decisive significance, the abstraction from reality, is nothing less than a denial of that which was the soul of play in the old days. It had to be earnest, or it had no justification, and would be dullness itself instead of a pastime. The more fiercely the parties went for one another, the greater pleasure had they and the onlookers in the meeting. “Now they have amused us; let us now amuse the others,” said the Icelander, when “they” — two of the company —had manhandled each other to such effect that one of them was left dead on the ground. Grettir found himself once, in the days of his outlawry, surrounded by a grateful people. It was the time when he had stolen in disguised to a village, where men were assembled for games, and by his strength, rendered the contests more than usually heavy-handed. When he left the party, hearty thanks were expressed for his having [191] contributed so highly to their amusement, and there is nothing forced in this expression of thanks, as among people who put on an expression of appreciation in order to make a show of manhood. The einheries of Valhal, who enjoy the good fortune of waking up every day with the prospect of killing one another completely were, like everything perfect in this world, created in days when men could no longer master life as a whole or get the prose and the poetry of life to march together with even steps, and needs must create something called the ideal. The men of the viking age were an æsthetic race who left out the struggle for daily bread, and refined life into straining after undiluted honour. For all their glamour, the einheries are of the silver age. There is something einherie-like too about the Norwegian and Swedish peasants of later times, who celebrated their feasts with knives and axes; they drove in triumph to a feast and whetted their knives well beforehand; their women were careful to take winding sheets with them to the meeting, that they might sit at ease without the disquieting thought that they might at any moment have to get up and hurry away to get their husbands home before they were turned quite stiff and cold. They ask after the number of killed, before judging of the success of the feast. We marvel at the calm of mind wherewith the peasant went to his sowing, when his prospects of bringing the harvest home depended on whether his neighbour married in the interval; uncertainty is the first thing we see, but for them, it was the tension and the trial of strength which dominated all thoughts of gatherings for amusement.

The peasant culture is another silver age, but it is a silver age of stunted growth, a decadence long drawn out. The ancient ideals and mode of living held their own, but the harmony is broken, because the lower culture is cut off by civilization and official religion from exercising all its functions, and must adapt itself to a fraction of life, and however small the change in outward appearance, life is warped into a caricature of its former self. But if the einheries are of the silver age, it is because they yearn for something that came naturally to the golden [192] age, and therein lies indeed a valuable testimony to the culture whence they proceeded. They cannot conjure up the ancient feast before our eyes, but they hammer in the festival anticipation.

The feast was to be an event, that was the requirement of the ancient time. Something had to happen. Therefore men gathered about the story-teller and the singer, who let happenings past take place over again. To experience heroic deeds, experience battles and victories, that was the joy of the listeners, that was the delight of a feast.

As the feast above all feasts, the great blot must be permeated throughout by the light which glorified life. The mighty honour side in the soul must find its counterpart. It was not enough to feel the presence of luck, the comrades had to see It act. It had to be practised and shown forth. The sword was brought out and shown to the party seated at their drinking; its owner praised it and spoke of its peculiar luck, and let it once more go on its way in boldness for battle, as the Anglo-Saxon has described. Treasures had to produce evidence of their power — whether in a weapon dance, at horse-races and horse fights, or in other festive wise, we must guess for ourselves. And an exhibition is nothing if it be not therewith a test and a proof, a straining of the hamingja to its uttermost limit.

The great, properly festive form for achievement is called vow. It appears in its most impressive form at the feast held for the departed.

To gain its end the arvel must needs contain a creative deed. That the feast was to be a restitution, is emphasised by the law which considers the arvel as the legal demonstration of the successor's right to his place; consequently, the ancient word for inheriting — erfa — means at once to drink the funeral ale and to take up the inheritance. From the manner in which the arvels, famous in history and legend, of King Swein and of King Ingjald are described we see too that the feast of restitution concentrates upon the cup drunk to the memory [193]

of the departed. At the moment the bragar-cup is borne forward and the vow is uttered over it, comes the decisive turning point whereby the clan gains a head, and life begins to flow anew. At the commencement of the feast, the heir sat on the step before the high seat, but as soon as he had uttered his vow and drunk the cup, he was led into the place his father had held. “Then he had right to inheritance” after him, “then he should be come into inheritance and honour after the deceased, but not before,” say the authorities, and we may venture to look closely at the words, for the expression does not proceed from a tradition, which replaces as best it may what it has lost on the road, but is chosen by men in whom that which was to be indicated was still living.

That one pace, from the step to the seat, presupposes a revolution in the innermost nature of things; nothing could lift up the son from a place among the ashes on the floor to the seat between the inspired pillars if the actor had not there himself put in a stake which brought forth the dignity in him. Indeed, the aim which the promiser had to fulfil, and which he did fulfil, is marked both in the name bragarfull and in the Anglo-Saxon gilp; the former means simply manhood's cup or deed-cup, the latter refers both to the promise and to the honour and renown produced by the deed.

Undoubtedly there were empty promises and true ones —the latter were distinguished in particular by having their warrant in the vower's past, including of course his ancestors. The moment a youth promised not to be “less of a man than his fathers” he had taken up his ancestral luck and entered himself as one of the clan. But we have by no means exhausted the fulness of the moment, if we merely think of the conditions requisite to give birth to the deed. A man uttering such promise drank off a cup into which his forefathers had brewed their fate; he tasted their hamingja of holding great feasts, of gaining victory on the battlefield, of sailing boldly and skilfully on the sea, favourable winds always standing full into their sails; and in so doing, he had made all feasts and all victories his own. He was now the incarnation of the clan, he counted as [194] the one who had achieved the past. Without any boasting he could now, like Thorkel Hak, let the fight with the monster be inscribed upon his high seat pillars, and say: “I was there.”

Our forefathers were not inclined to accept a loud crowing as equivalent to the doing of the deed. These men who, in disputes at law as in friendship, demanded the clearest proofs of their neighbour's intentions before they would lift a little finger, held also here in the blot-hall as anxiously as any sceptic by the principle that the result is the beginning of faith. No promise could dull their watchfulness in the slightest, it only served to direct it toward the point where the decision would fall; they saw to it that the heir drank, and that the emptied his cup. “Drink well,” cried those present, adjuring him with the same meaning as with a “fulfil well”. Thereupon they took a share in the deed themselves, as blot-fellows, by emptying the same cup. “This cup all present at the feast must drink” in order to make it good. If the kinsmen did not make themselves one with the heir, the arvel would have no power of restoring the clan to its former health, and the effect of the feast and the promise would thus be void.

Thus the vow is sealed in the gods, and thus it becomes a future, a fate. The story of Hedin Hjorvardson is based upon the experience that a vow made over the bragar-cup makes itself the will of him who utters it, and holds him fast from within. Blinded by some devilish inspiration, Hedin had boasted on the ale-bench that he would win his brother Helgi's betrothed, and it is in vain that he treads wild paths to find his brother and bemoan what he has done. Helgi knows but one thing: “Ale-words come true, Hedin.” This power over the future is the principle of the vow's worth as an act of worship, it can create that joy which is the answer to the blot. The son who vowed to bring home a harvest of honour, made the feast great, prepared for a good year, just as did the rider who rode most valiantly, or the stallion that bit most powerfully. “Launch strong deeds among the men,” as Hrothgar says to Beowulf – this is the true greeting to one when he goes forth to take [195] his promise seat by the ale, and the proper answer to the wish is the “shouting of the victorious host”.

Without doubt the uttering of a vow plays a special part at the arvel owing to the critical character of the feast; but the emptying of the promise cup is not peculiar to the heir succeeding. It was a regular thing at the leave-taking of vikings setting out from home, as well as at such a feast of preparation as that in Heorot. Swein's vow of conquest has its counterparts in the assurances the retainers gave with their ale at their lips when they cried that they would avenge their king and never flee as long as he remained standing; from east and west we hear of battlefields where words were made good which had been uttered at a time when the men lay stretched at their east upon the benches. In poetry and history we naturally hear only of vow that were large enough to fill out the blots of kings and conquerors; but we are not left wholly without evidence of the bragging in the yeoman's homestead where the sacrificial vow conformed to the local ambitions of the peasants. An Icelandic saga describes the train of events that were set going at a wedding held at Grund, a farm in Svarfadardale. When the son of the house felt his spirit moved by the ale, he called to mind his dispute with a neighbouring chieftain, Ljotolf Godi, and promised to set a coward's mark upon him before three years were past. A younger kinsman followed his lead and boasted that he would gain Yngvild Faircheek for his mistress without asking leave of her brother Olaf or her intimate friend, Ljotolf Godi. The bridegroom pledged himself to sail whither he pleased and land in any harbour he might choose regardless of wind; these words, too, were a malicious lunge at the high and mighty godi and his retainers, hinting as they did that Ljotolf in his enterprises and dealings with men had repeatedly been reduced to taking and putting into chance havens. – From this little piece of daily life, embedded in a late and rather confused saga, we realise that the promise cup was liable to cause a stir in the life of the village, and might give rise to great events. According to the ancient tradition, indeed, the colonisation of Iceland

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