The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[196] is itself to be the indirect result of a drinking party where vows were many. The foster-brothers Ingolf and Hjorleif were drive out upon the waters through their enmity with the clan of the earls of Moeri, and that enmity was started at a feast where one of Earl Atli's sons swore to marry Hjorleif's sister Helga. Leif could not but regard such a presumptuous vow as equivalent to the actual carrying off of the girl herself, and on the next occasion when they met, their parting was such that Norway was no safe abiding-place for Ingold and Hjorleif any longer.

Finally we also know that the promise of manhood was a necessary part of the regular blot-feasts of the clan. The Yule vow of the hero has become a standing them in Norse poetry, in later narratives degenerating into a device used to introduce any big event. Angantyr celebrated the eve of the holyday by vowing to win the daughter of the Upsala king Yngvi, or die; on the first Yule evening we find, in Hord's saga, the heroes stepping “on stock,” and vowing to break open the barrow of the viking Soti and seek out the barrow-dweller in his fearful majesty; and it is at Yule that Hedin's infatuated vow to steal his brother's promised bride is uttered. The conventionalism of these examples is fairly obvious, but nevertheless the artificial motif is rooted in reality. The pious saga writer is thus on firm ground when he chooses a Yuletide evening as the background for this cry from a seeker after truth: “This evening many vows are uttered in places where men are no better off than here, and therefore I vow to serve the king who is highest, and him alone,” – better ground, indeed, than in the longing for Christianity with which he credits the speaker.

Beside the promise cup, there is another form for the test of luck: mannjafnad, or matching of heroes. This consisted of a spiritual duel, where deeds done – or perhaps contemplated – took the place of blows; a man compared himself with his opponent, or his own hero with the other's. This form of contest might easily arise where two bands of warriors came [197] together on the bench, each jealous of its own honour, but it certainly had its very good place as a feast game, in the cult sense, to the honour of the gods; the game must then have been played in such a manner that stroke and parry were made real by draughts of the godly drink. An allusion to this sort of game is found in an Anglo-Saxon poem in which a God-fearing man has set down what good Christians ought to think of the manners of the hall. Often proud fighters, glib of tongue, sit over their cups, uttering weighty words and trying to find out how skilful are the men of the house in wielding ashen spears, and the house is filled with uproar and bawling; thus he complains, and warns his hearers that such ungodly boasting and arrogance cannot fail to land a man in the deepest part of hell where the worms gnaw their hardest.

In the late Orvarodd's saga, there is a sensational scene in which the mannjafnad is put to use for effect. The old hero comes staggering in, unnamed to a homestead inhabited by the most supercilious people possible, of course, and suffers himself to be led to a seat at the lower end, in the draught from the doorway. He is ostentatiously humble when the talk runs on accomplishments and pastimes: in such company, where doubtless all present would be masters with the bow and arrow he dare hardly pretend to ever having aimed at anything, and he is naturally lot to show himself off to their derision, but if they insist upon having their fun he may as well amuse them by tugging at the instrument. Speaking of swimming, he cannot call to mind that he had ever so much as put his big toe in the water, but after some considerable time he is persuaded to try what it is like to swim. And his feats are, needless to say, rather astounding, to put it mildly. The present saga belongs to a group of literature in which ancient legends are recomposed and melodramatized for peaceful citizens who want strong romance for their leisure hours after dull toil; the hero must shed his modesty layer by layer, for he is acting before a public which delights to see virtue and vice in disrobing scene. But strangely enough, after all, the decisive trial of strength in which he rises to his full height, is a duel [198] with words and ale, a mannjafand where the strokes are driven with a hornful. Across the floor two flyting heroes stride, horn in hand ,and stop in front of Odd, singing their own praises and derision of the guest. And Odd empties the horn, then strides up before their place, reveals his magnificence in verse, and drinks to them. And thus Odd wanders up and down, the others down and up, till the stranger sits victorious in the seat chanting the end, while the others lie downcast in the straw, neither chanting, hearing, nor drinking.

In the saga literature, the mannjafnad, like the Yule vow, is reduced to the humble office of starting events; its religious colour is paled, but something remains which determined the cult value: the test is a judgement of the man. This little reminiscence of Odd, faint and washed out thought it be, serves to paint the background for the vikings' parting ale: when the ships lay ready, the warriors, as we have seen, indulged in a great feast, rehearsing their coming deeds at the ale cups through mannjafnad and great vows.

In modern civilization, founded principally on the experience of the trader and the artisan, life has split up into two parts, the physical and the spiritual, on one side sheer animality, on the other side pure, refined soul; and consequently, the very possibility of giving the training of the body, or games and playing, an organic place in culture is gone for ever. In face of the religious earnestness of Greek and primitive games, modern men have only a helpless politeness; and they will never be able to understand the deep pathos of the story telling how Eindridi was converted by the dazzling accomplishments of King Olaf. The king had tried several sports with the aspiring youth, and though the boy had not been able to hold his own, he was not convinced; but on seeing the king walk on the oars of a rowing ship juggling with swords, he found full assurance of the new faith. The young chieftain-to-be looked at the king, when, after the feat, he stepped up on deck; looked at him and was silent; he was feeling right down in the depths of his soul for the confession that in his faith [199] there was no god nor any angel that could support a man in the air.

But when man is a whole, and no boundary has been set up between the physical and spiritual culture, the love of strength and skill can never prejudice the value of poetry; on the contrary, the poet is a source of strength where his modern compeer is only a jester or a comforter. The literature of the Icelanders originates, like that of the Greeks, in festival exhibition; in the feast holiness was laid the foundation of their mastery in the telling of legend and saga, in the ceremonial praise of the chieftain and his hamingja, the poetry of the north was born and shaped into the heavily ornate form which proved its death.

The forms of life are reproduced with ideal convention in the Beowulf, where the victory over the monster drives the people to a festive tumult. In the midst of the praises of this hero beyond other heroes the horsemen dash off racing over the field, and a king's man who knows a store of ancient songs and legends begins to weave the poem of praise, briskly word for word telling of the wanderings of Sigmund the Volsung, which only he and Sinfjotli, the two firm companions, knew, in battles with men, in battles with giants, gaining deathless fame by slaying the dragon and carrying off its gold in the rock.

Unfortunately, we lack all means of transforming these ideal pictures of what feast ought to be into realistic descriptions of precedence and proportion; the last blot-feast had been celebrated before there was anyone to immortalise it. The history of the clan and all that was important to remember was, at the feast, brought forth into the light, and we need have no doubt as to the reason, when we know what it meant. That which the kinsmen had at heart must force its way, because the things of the past did not come as something called forth from the half-dark of respect and remembrance, but was the soul itself, needing life. There was honour in hearing oneself or one's own people sung of, and one's saga renewed, and that honour was of the same consistency as all restitution; it went into the soul, and made the man healthier. Egil was [200] able to chant new courage into himself after the death of his son; as he recited his “Sonatorrek”, the “Lament for Sons”, his vital force rose, and when he had ended, his determination to die was forgotten, and he stepped into his high seat. Men gained comfort in earnest for the loss of kinsmen, on hearing the praises of the dead declared. Volustein's son Egil once came to Gest Olleifson, a distinguished man of wisdom, and asked if he could not find some way of easing the gnawing sorrow that oppressed his father since the death of his son Ogmund. Gest undertook the task, and composed at once the beginning of the Ogmund drápa.

The dead come to the poet and the story-teller with their thanks for life, as Vatnar of Vatnar's hill came to a merchant sailing by, who had told his comrades tales of the dweller in that barrow they could see on the shore. “You have told my saga; I will reward you,” said the dead man, “dig in my barrow, and you shall find reward for your trouble.” The old Vatnar felt life grow in him when that which had been was renewed, and from this we know what it was the blot brought to the departed as well as to those present, who lived the life of their ancestors over again. Vatnar is raised up, and so also every past had to be reborn if it were to be saved from perishing. Part of the attention due to the dead was the making of an erfidrápa, or song of succession, which was presumably delivered at the arvel; in this song, the foundation of posthumous fame was laid, when the poem was made the formæli at the drinking, and inspired with reality by being enveloped in the blot.

The Beowulf poem ends at the grave. When the old hero king had met his fate, the Swedes raised a mound on the ness, visible far out over the sea. Round the hill rode the battle-bold, bewailing their king, weaving the speech of verse about the dead man. They exalted his chieftainship, cried aloud his deeds of strength, as is fitting for men to honour their leader and king when he steps forth from the body. Of all the kings in the world he was gentlest, open-handed, most beloved and greediest of fame.

Thus the old time rings out beyond the North Sea.

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