The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

Chapter XIII

Sacrifice

The word to blote (Anglo-Saxon blótan), that word which in the Nordic is the principal term for men's active relation to the gods, contains the full potency of the religious act. It expresses man's power to transform an object of ordinary holiness so that it becomes filled with the power of divinity, and passes on strength into the human world. When Floki was about to set out for Iceland, he held a great sacrifice and bloted three ravens which were to show him the way. Then he built a cairn on the spot where the blot had taken place, and put to sea. As far as the Shetlands and Faroes he knew the route to be followed, but as soon as the last known reefs vanished from sight, he put up his ravens. And they found the way by roads his luck had never known before. No other instance among the Germanic people shows us more clearly the mighty human power of uniting it's soul with a soul outside, employing it not as a slave, but as part of oneself; man draws the peculiar qualities of the alien hamingja into himself and uses them, he lays himself into the other and makes it's will his own - and the raven-man flies with sure instinct over the seas.

To the same category as Floki's ravens belong also the blot-cattle which the people worshipped in secret when the storm of conversion raised by the Olafs raged at its worst over the land. In the propaganda writings of the Olaf sagas, the blot-cattle have an honourable place among the instruments of hell, and often enough the work of conversion had to make [202] a detour via the cattle-sheds in order to get at the master in the house. There is a piece of missionary history concentrated in the furious great ox which Harek of Reina had to confess to at one of Olaf Tryggvason's visits; The man would not admit the charge of worshipping the beast, but tried to convince the king that it was merely the remarkable affection of the animal for himself which awakened his love in return. But Olaf had himself been heathen enough to know what such love meant, and did his best to make Harek transfer his affection to a higher sphere.

There is a story of King Ogvald of Ogvaldsnes, which gives us a glimpse of those souls wherein the whole past stood poised behind the thin wall Christianity had built between past and present. The promontory of Ogvaldnes was called after Ogvald, we are told, a king who put his trust in a cow. For topographical reasons one would be inclined to think that Ogvlad might have trusted in all sorts of other things, but when we read the story as a whole, we realise that the cow was actually the principal personage. One easter, when Olaf was visiting at Karmt, it happened one evening that Odin came wandering in, quite innocently, as one of those queer vagabonds who tramp about the country with no earthly possessions beyond a ready tongue. The strange guest knows such a host of stories of the olden times, and tells them in such a lively fashion that every mother's son near enough to listen pricks up his ears. The king forgets the time and his sleep, even forgets to mark the displeasure of the court bishop. After much question and answer, the talk turns on the spot where they are staying and it's history: this too the guest knows. The place is named after King Ogvald, he can tell, who put his faith in a cow, to such a degree that he took it with him wherever he went, on land or sea, and thence arose the proverb, which the king might have heard many a time, that carle and cow shall go together; at last Ogvald was laid to rest in a barrow in the promontory, and the cow in another. The art of narrations achieved by the ancients never better achieved sly humour, and the reader feels that this making fun proceeds from a mind which, albeit with some [203] yearnings for the past, yet contents itself fully with things as they are; it is the expression of a resignation which is not melancholy, but a frank acceptance of the fact that bygones are bygones. Men evade old vital thoughts when they are dead, they stamp furiously on them when they still show a slight trace of life remaining in them, but when they are securely bound, one is inclined to exhibit their strength with a jest - as in this story. In face of such champions of faith as these Olafs were, Odin and his fellows would have to humble themselves, and be glad if they could now and then find an opportunity to gain a little jesting triumph over the Christian god. The wisdom of the old god is become the wisdom of the dwarf; and sure of it's aim, it bores it's way in at the very point where the most stubburn thoughts of the past lay bound.

For the blot-beast is man's way of raising himself up beyond his limitations. To blote is to increase his qualities to the extraordinary, nay to the divine. We know that there were degrees of holiness among cattle. Noble beasts such as Brand's Faxi stand high above the common herd of milch-cows and beasts of burden, and above the noble one's again stand the holiest of all, the bloted animal. In Christian times, the participle "bloted", used as a living or non-living being, comes to mean bewitched, enchanted: quite naturally, the bearer of a superior power of heathen origin is degraded to the instrument of the powers of evil under heaven. It was a condition for the selection that the animal should be by nature distinguished by it's size and beauty, but it followed from the consecration that it's power expanded into outward magnitude. Harek's blot-ox struck all with astonishment, at its enormous limbs. From the firm ground of reality, fancy shoots up into the wild extravagances such as that of the boar which the people of Spain bloted and invoked as a patron saint at the time of Olaf the Ssaint's exploits in that part of the world. The king encountered the savage beast out in the forest, and himself saw how it's bristles swept the topmost branches of the trees. And as the size increased, so also did all power; the blot-cattle loomed higher and higher in the imagination of the epigons. A king [204] such as Eystein of Upsala, where the blot was more impressive than any known elsewhere in the northern lands, could keep a cow so bloted that none could endure hear it roar. As soon as the Swedes saw a hostile army approaching, they loosed the beast before the array; ordinary mortals fled when they heard it's course utterence, and what it's victorious voice spared fell before it's horns.

In the same way as the consecrated beast was lifted up over the everyday existence of a domestic animal simply, so also the blot-man was from his childhood set apart and made a holy man of God. Thorolf gave his son Stein to Thor and called him Thorstein. This Thorstein had a son who, on being baptised with water, was called Grim; the father gave him to Thor, decided that he should be a priest of the temple (hof-gothi) and called him Thorgrim. Another of Thorolf's sons likewise bloted his boy and gave him to Thor - and thus men had done from the earliest times. The bloted man was pure untroubled luck; it was true of him that he had an eye which could see through everything and foresee everything - "nothing came upon him unawares." He had the corresponding power of body and spirit, and could avert the inadvertible and manage the inevitable; he bore a spiritual armour, impenetrable to all hostile luck.

The bloting of sons belong to such great chieftains families as that of Thorulf Mostrarkegg, who owned the important holy seat of Mostr; generation after generation consecrated itself in one of it's members, naturally in the man who promised to be the luckiest of the kinsmen - the chieftain of the clan, as he may be called. The consecration implied an assumption on the part of the clan; in its holy chieftain it proclaimed to the world the exceptionally strong character of its hamingja, and at the same time the act contained an explanation of the family's right to occupy a leading position in the social and religious life of the district. In glimpses here and there we find the relics of these prominent families, which were distinguished by their gods and their pious power, clans which boasted of being great blot-men [205] - that is to say, holy, divinely strong men. Harald Hilditonn's invulnerability and great war luck is due to the fact that he was 'signed' - or charmed, as it is called in the Christian rendering; and this clan mark is so permanently attached to him and his that the Hyndlyljod in its reckoning up of Ottar's kinship can emphasize that branch of the family which extends up to Harald, as god-signed man.

The consecration made itself apparent in the names. These Thorsteins and Thorgrims and Thorolfs in the Mostrarskegg family are of more importance than all the Thor-combinations which flooded the North in the following centuries, when the meaning had grown faint. A bold man of Sogn, a blot-man by name of Geir, was proud of his vé, and his entire flock of children bore it in their names: Vebjorn, vestein, Vedis, Vegest, Vemund. The position of this clan in the district lies indicated in the cognomen borne by the eldest son: he was called "the trust of the people of Sogn".

It is the solemnity of the consecration which gives the story of Eyvind Kinnrifa it's lofty tone. Eyvind was specially consecrated from his mother's womb, and therefore excluded from the going over to Christianity. The pious chroniclers of King Olaf revel in the description of this heathen's end, and at every new version of Eyvind's story, he comes to resemble more and more these caricatures of "poor benighted heathen souls" which now gladden the hearts of the contributors to Christian missions. We recognise the psychological enormities peculiar to stories from the missionary field, when we read that Eyvind is the fruit of witchcraft wrought by "Finns", or Lappish wizards, and that these Finns had demanded that he should always serve Thor and Odin. But Eyvind's great confession has never-the less not been carried so far away from reality that we cannot discern what it was that bound him, making him not only defy the kings "gentle words", his "stately gifts" and "great grants of land", but also the great dish of glowing coals which was laid on his belly and burst it. "Take away the dish a little while," he prayed at last as the end drew near, "and let me say a little thing before I die." And then he revealed his secret [206] to the king. His parents had long been childless, until at last they sought counsel in rites and incantaions (fjölkyngi). After that a son was born to them, and they gave him to the gods. And as soon as he himself was come to years of discretion, he had repeated the consecration in manifold wise, so that he had now no longer human nature, but was bound with his whole hamingja to the old religion.

This is Eyvind's "Here I stand, I can do no otherwise," and on the strength of it he should be suffered to live the life of his fame after his death.

The blot-man was not of divine strength for his own dear sake alone; his power was to the good of the whole clan, and more than that; the people put their trust in him. And it goes with the faith of the clan in it's dead that men did not turn their backs upon the blot-man because he was gathered to his people. The dead could be bloted as well as the living. It is related of Halfdan the Black that his luck in harvest and his popularity made him an object of strife after death. The men of Westfold, and those of Vingulmork and those from Raumariki all wished to have their chieftain among them, and the upshot was that they divided the body and set up a barrow in each district, "to trust and blot for the people". And it was not only great kings who enjoyed the honour of being contested for after their death, there was a settler in Iceland whose grandfather had been so beloved that after the end of his blessed life he was bloted. No one, however, was bloted because he was dead. In a Vebjorn, Vegeir's son, Vestein's brother, as in a Thorolf, father of hof-godis, the blessing lies assured in the clan-luck to which the barrow-dweller belonged, that which he personified in its most splendid form. There was no gulf between the departed and the living, and thus no specific difference in the blot-relation to the two; the dead man was not ranked higher because he was dead, on the contrary, his dignity probably would not last beyond the time when a living representative appeared who could be raised to the same pitch of the hamingja. [207]

Such supreme holiness could not be borne as a hidden life, acting unperceived; with the highest luck went also greater separation from the rest. The specially holy station or ox had to observe certain considerations, imposing on itself greater self-denial and demanding greater attention from it's surroundings than ordinary beats. Hrafnkel, the godi of Adalbol, had consecrated himself and all that was his to Frey, and had in particular marked out a stallion, Freyfaxi, which was consecrated to serve as the bearer of divinity. It went among the mares, but suffered no man on it's back; when once the herdsman at a pinch had laid hold on it with a view to going in search of some strayed cattle, it ran home at full speed, and by unmistakable gestures informed its master that something terrible had happened. "It touches my honour, this thing that has been done to you; it is well that you were able to tell me yourself, and vengeance shall be taken," said Hrafnkel consolingly. Whereupon Freyfaxi went back to it's grazing and it's mares.

Undoubtably also, the greater gift of grace in the chieftain-priest carried with it special obligations, in the way of refraining from various everyday occupations and holding by certain ritual observances, which ordinary men only occasionally had to do with; in a word, the blot-man had to behave all his life as if the whole year from end to end were one long festival.

The sacredness of the elected chief may encroach upon reality and turn to priestly segregation. From the highest pinnacle of the human there is but a short step to the inhuman, and it needs but a tiny shifting of the weight within a culture for the highest service to be transformed into something dangerous. When the epoch of work is on the decline, there comes a generation which has not shoulders strong enough to bear the great responsibility, or, expressed in a different fashion, culture comes to the point where it is not fully occupied with serving as the motive for action. When it no longer acts as a compact mass of impulse, the seperate sides of it grow out of proportion, until the harmony is broken. Then, the highest is set under protecting isolation. The chieftain is thrust out from his high seat and over into the stillness of the temple,

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