The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[208] his weapons slip for ever from his hands, the acts which should for safety's sake be avoided increase in number, until he, if the culture be given time to run it's course, sits like an incarnate captive, preserved in holiness. The Northmen never got so far as this; their kings were and ever remained holy warrior princes, who went on ahead, drawing events in their train. The Anglo-Saxons were a good way down along the road, as we see; they had priests who might never ride a stallion or wield a spear. Regarding the southern nations, our information is too meager to allow any generalisations.

In another sense, though of course proceeding from the same idea of consecration, men are bloted to the gods and killed. Prisoners of war, that is, incarnations of a hamingja conquered or to be conquered, are given to the gods to insure that the enemy is broken in his innermost luck and bound hand and foot under the will of the conquerers. The spoils are consecrated to the gods. We know from Tacitus, how Arminius crushed the legions of Varus, not only on the battlefield but also later at the holy place, by hanging the prisoners and dedicating the Roman eagles and weapons to the deities and suspending them in the sacred grove. In this case, the dedication combines, according to our ideas, making holy and rendering abominable, but within the ancient experience such a mode of cursing and placing under a ban means really consecration, in that the spoils of war were set apart from use and given over to the gods that the hamingja therin contained might be swallowed up in their power. In special cases of guilt, when the injury involved extraordinary danger to the community, the culprit was put to death that the source of weakness might be entirely removed, and the peril of cantagion broken. But the killing of a man who belonged to a community of frith, even if he be carefully severed from the stem, and all the bonds connecting him with his fellows of kin and law be cut off, must always remain a matter of careful handling. In order to ward of any unhappy consequences, the execution had to be carried out by unanimous consent and in a state of holiness: the sinner was in reality killed by the gods. [209]

From the same stratum of thought proceeds the manner of suicide recorded in the north: hanging oneself in the temple or in the holy place; in this manner the individual who took his own life presumably insured himself by giving his life up to the gods and thus guarding himself against the possibility of being severed from the hamingja of the clan.

One step farther into the sanctuary, and we stand face to face with the gods. To blote the gods or in the grove and the rock are expressions altogether parallel to the consecration of men and cattle.

In the religion of the Teutons, such terms as worship and adore, atone and propitiate in the Jewish and Christian sense are empty words, they slip powerlessly aside; the discrepancy between the fundamental need of religion and their meaning makes them empty and superficial. The worshipper went to his grove and to his gods in search of strength, and he would not have to go in vain; but it was no use his constantly presenting himself as receptive, and quietly waiting to be filled with all good gifts. It was his buisness to make the gods human, in the old, profound sense of the word, where the emphasis lies on an identification and consequent conjunction of soul with soul. Without mingling mind there was no possibility of union here in Middle-garth, he who could not inspire his neighbor with himself never became his friend, and no will could reach from the one to the other. The gods themselves could do nothing then, nay willed nothing before those who invoked them had rendered them living, as Floki bloted the ravens. It was men who rendered the gods gracious, not by awakening their sympathy, but by inspiring them with frith of their frith. This active co-operation is the origin of those epithets "gentle", "mild", "good to the people" which we find in the Nordic as used of the gods, praises which are therefore at root different from the thoughts which ascend towards our gods borne by these words. But even more was expected of a man when he bloted, - he made the gods great and strong. It called for more than [210] manly courage, and more than common siegcraft to assail a city known to be a "great blotstead" or a place where powerful blots were commonly held. The gods who were much bloted were - according to Christina authors - worse to deal with than ordinary supernatural beings.

With regard to the ceremonial acts which brought about the fusion of the human and divine, we have but scanty information. Gods and men no doubt shared their meat-offering; the greater part of the sacrificial meat found it's way to the table at the feast, and a portion, we may suppose, went to the blot-house. When the legends show Thor standing in the hof with the hammer in his fist, and with the imperturbability of the graven idol consuming his daily ration of four loaves of bread with meat, we can easily recognise the authorities; the good saga writers had not studied church history in vain. Possibly an unsophisticated heathen would not have understood that he was the object of their laughter when the churchmen cracked their time honoured jokes about mumbling sculptures, but all the same, he used, no doubt, to share the common board with the gods.

The centre of gravity in the sacrifice lies in the character of the animal being slaughtered. If this had not had in it something more than mere animal nature, the sacrifice would fall to the ground, and the stronger its hamingja or divinity, the mightier frith was brought about between gods and men. There was choosing from among the herd at feast time. The boar which figures in the legends as the traditional sacrifice was, as the name sonargoltr implies, the leader of the herd - qui omnis alius verres in grege battit and vincit - which according to the Lombardic edict was sacred against theft or robbery by being valued at a triple fine. In extraordinary cases, where there was need of a mighty increase of the strength of the feast, even the most lordly representatives of the livestock on the place might come to honour the feast with their meat.

The blood of the victim was a means of communicating the power of holiness. It was poured over the stone of heap of stones - stallr or horg - in the sacred place. The chief- [211] tain's ring which reposed in the sanctuary was reddened on solenm occasions, and we learn in one place about two Icelandic claimants to the rank of priestly chieftain (godi), that they procured themselves to the holy power by reddening their hands in the blood of a ram. The omen-twigs, like the ring on the stallr, were dipped in the sacrificial blood, and thus bloted to do their business among the people. When the Swedes drove out the Christian king, Ingi, from the gathering of men, and set up Blot-Swein in his stead, the change, according to Hervor's saga, was confirmed by a sacrifice; and there is no ground for doubting that the saga is right in particulars when it says that a horse was led in to the law-thing and hacked to pieces, it's flesh being divided up for eating, and it's blood used for reddening the "blot-tree".

In the poets images, we may find reality spontaneously revealing itself. A legend told of the Swedish king Egil that he met his death from his own blot-ox. "It happened in Sweden," runs the literary form, "that an ox which had been marked out for blot, was old, and fed so eagerly that it became fierce; and when men attempted to capture it, it broke away to the woods and caused great damage among men and cattle." Once Egil met it while out hunting, and before the king could defend himself, it had gored both horse and rider. This, in the verses by Thjodolf on the Ynglings, is put as follows: "The ox which had long borne the projecting horg of it's forehead about in the eastland, reddened the spear of it's head upon the king." The bloted ox, the horg and the reddening were not three disparate ideas shaken loosely together in a couple of metrical lines; the metaphores evidently were suggested by a picture which stood before the poets eyes.

In the course of the blot, too, gods and men may have become united in the same holy juice, if we may believe the Heimskringla, which offers a detailed description of the use made of the blot-house at the sacrificial feast: "All the blood from the beasts of sacrifice was gathered in bowls, and in these stood twigs made like brooms: with these the stallr was to be reddened, and the walls of the temple inside and out, and the [212] people also sprinkled." The description is evidently warped, because the author consciously shapes his picture in the likeness of Christian sprinkling with holy water, and his evidence must be discounted accordingly.

In the word blot, then, are contained all actions designed to call forth the uttermost strength of the hamingja pregnant with life. Men blote the gods with sacrificial beasts, with food and drink, or by consecrating men or animals or things. "Men blote heathen powers when they sign their cattle to others than God and his holy men," runs the definition of the Christian Gragas of the Icelanders, denouncing heathen abominations.

Men blote with words; in the post-heathen speech, and in Swedish popular language even now, the word blota is a strong expression for abusing and cursing, that is etymologically speaking, to assert something about someone, and by the words force a quality into them. By the blot, a full and complete unity was established between men and gods, and the object bloted served as a link and a medium of using the powers of holiness. Without any considerable change of meaning, the verb to blote may be replaced by give. When a son or a treasure is given to the gods, the giving renders the gift useful in the highest degree, because giving means strengthening the intimacy of the parties, and the gift assumes the megin of the possessor. To understand the abysmal difference which separates the religious meaning of gift from our ideas, we must bear in mind the character of the ancient soul and it's experience: communion implies unity from the innermost recesses of thought and intertwining of luck to external responsive acting.

The condition requisite for making a consecration effective was that it could be made whole or real by an ale, and the force of the ale depends on the gathering of men into unity. He who wished to live for ever did not fool himself by merely ensuring his enjoyment for food and drink after death; he demanded that there should be held drinking parties of men to his memory. The secret of the blot is that frith which was the first condition of life. The unanimous act of all kinsmen is what gives all the other parts of the lot their value. While [213] vigja denotes the making holy, as it might perhaps also be accomplished by an individual, the word blóta carries with it that irrevocable change which is brought about by the consecration's taking place in supreme holiness, by a man who has purified himself, at a place filled with divinity, and with the strengthening assistance of a holy festive gathering, which acted - not symbolically but in the literal sense of the words - of one heart and of one soul.

To breathe freely and happily, the individual must take part in the blot; the individual could not do without the company, but on the other hand, the company was equally unable to do without the individual. Thus far, it is true duty to every kinsman to attend the annual feast, but he needed no command to remind him. From the centripetal force, or perhaps rather from the habits which it had worked into the sould, descend the standing commands in the guild statutes to attend at the feasts, and the strong condemnation of brethren who idly or obstinately keep away, or even spitefully leave town at feast time.

On the other hand, the door of the festival was barred to all strangers. these assemblies, where men poured out from the source of strength with full bowls, were only for the members of the clan, the true kinsmen or true companions. The festival aloofness caused not a little inconvenience to the scald Sigvat, on the mission which he undertook early in the winter for Olaf the saint to earl Rognvald in Gautland. He and his followers sought shelter one evening at a homestead, but the door was locked, and the people inside said that the house was holy. At the next place they came to, the mother stood in the door-way and bade them stay outside, for an alfablót (sacrifice to the elves) was in progress. On the following evening he tried four homesteads, at the forth of which, moreover, lived the best man in the country (i.e. the most hospitable, according to the Nordic meaning of good), but none would let them in. It was an unpleasant experience in winter time in somewhat desolate and inhospitable regions; the cold nights which Sigvat [214] and his fellows spent out in the woods stamped certain sides of the alfablót deeply into their memory: not one of these children of the devil but was given to deeds of darkness each in their respective homes, and none dared let honest folks see what they were about, - such were the reflections of the poet outside the barred doors of these heathen foreigners.

We can see that Egil told his circle something similar from his experiences in Norway when he described his dealings with Bard of Atley, though the point has been lost in the composition of the saga writer and replaced by some rather poor psychology of his own making. One evening, Egil came to the king's farm at Atley and was received by Bard, who showed the travellers to an outhouse and regaled them with sour milk. The host much regretted the poor fair he had to offer, but ale was not to be had -- the rascal, he was expecting his master, King Eric, on a visit, and had the house full of the loveliest brew. Later on, Egil and his comrades were, at the special command of the king, invited to a seat in the room, and found excellent opportunity of rinsing the taste of milk from their mouths, but Egil was never one to let his own politeness make up for others lack of it, and the end of his visit was an incurable hole in the body of poor Bard, together with much ado in quest of the turbulent traveller who had rendered King Eric poorer by the loss of a good steward. The author of the saga knows that the feast held in the house was a blot, and that the horn passed "round the fire" in festive wise: he knows too, that the host blessed the horn before passing it to Egil, and he may be right in that it was not the sweetest of tempers wherewith Bard seasoned the drink, but he knows no better than to make it a case of poisoning. So far he keeps to tradition, because the incidents were needed in order to make events move on; as to the cause of the host's inhospitality towards Egil, however, he is at a loss and tries to make sense by painting Bard in very black colours as a stingy fellow, but indirectly he happens to give evidence of the fact that a blot was not an occasion on which casual strangers were admitted.

The feats lasted as long as the ale held out. Not until the [215] holy drink had been drained off and the last remains perhaps disposed of on the fire of the blot-stead, could men put off their holiness, open the doors, and begin the new year which had been "welcomed", or prepared for, at the feast. At least no remainder could be kept for use at the daily board, thus much we may surmise on analogy, and such a guess is corroborated by a tradition purporting to go back to the earliest times of Norwegian mission. It is related of Hakon Aethelstansfostri, when he was endeavouring to edge in his Christianity upon the men of Norway, that he first had the Yule feast moved forward to the time of the Christian holyday, and "then everyman should feast with one measure of ale, and keep holy as long as the ale lasted." Whoever may have credit of this proposal, the reformer was a wise man and a master builder. By utilising the prevalent religious feelings, he could make sure the holy Yuletide should be kept and Christ be honoured to the full, for all people immediately understood that everyday matters should rest and feasting rule as long as ale was in the house.

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