The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



The longer we gaze at the blot, the larger it looms before the sight. A circle of men are seated about their ale-bowl, and gods are born; men fall to wrestling, or tell true stories, and the gods feel the blood flowing more powerfully through their veins. The sacrificial feast embraces heaven and earth.

No wonder that mighty events proceed from men's gathering in the blot hall, for the blot is life itself, concentrated in the festive moment as a ball of strength. The concentration is felt in the all-pervading holiness, which is at once great power and extreme risk. We know that the soul is a homogeneous whole, and the fate of the hamingja is at any time bound up with all its manifestations, so that a single word or a single act may involve fatal consequences; if a ring breaks or a beast falls dead, if a kinsman dies, or taunting words are levelled against the kin, it is a sign that luck has been broken, and more mishap will follow if the unluck is not checked. The unity of man's soul is so absolute that there is no distinction possible between misfortune and sin. We may express the fact of decay from within, and say that weakness and ill hap are guilt caused by the hamingja being vitiated; or we may look at matters from without, and say that sin is a breach opening to the centre of the soul and showing that the hamingja had a flaw which was sure to manifest itself sooner or later. In sin and suffering the unhealthiness of a man reveals itself; the unluck lurking within his constitution “comes forth”, as the old saying goes.

Therefore a man shapes his future by all he does, but his [217] actions increase immensely in importance at the great moments of the feast, when man is filled with more soul than ordinarily and the whole hamingja acts immediately with all its might through all he says and does. He is immensely strong, and must therefore be proportionately careful not to compromise his strength. If he be tainted with sin when in the state of holiness, the effects will be dangerous, perhaps fatal, because the act immediately involves the whole hamingja; if he be touched by anything unheore, such as witchery or putrefaction, the consequences will spread to the core of life at once.

In the festival, men are raised to the highest pitch of life; through the blot, all the hamingja is called forth and made to fill the participants and their surroundings. The blot creates gods. When Floki bloted the ravens he did something more than uniting the ravens with men; he made them his gods. The requisite condition was that he should be able to concentrate his whole personality and that of all those belonging to him in the animals. Behind the simple words: “he held a great blot,” lies the fulness of life; a party with festive shouting, with the renewal of the past, with ale and vows. “There where the blot had been, they built a cairn” as a sign for those who should later come to the spot to tread cautiously, for it was holy; a hamingja had come down into the spot and made it a god's house.

In one sense, it may be said with some truth that man creates his gods in the festival; viewing the matter from another aspect, we may with equal truth aver that the gods create man in the blot — neither proposition, however, contains the whole truth. The character of the feast lies in the fact that individual men are completely set aside or disappear, and their place is taken up for the time by that which is supreme, ever-felt reality: the clan or its hamingja, its past and present and future ages in one.

In primitive experience, life is always divided into two strata. Behind the living circle of men and behind their daily occupations lies a fund of strength on which they are constantly drawing. The happenings and events of everyday [218] routine constitute but a small section of life, so that the life of actual men and their doings extend backwards into a great depth of existence. This principle does not depend on speculation, as is apparent from its finding a natural vent in practical action and religious customs; it is simply experience working in accordance with all other experiences. To us man is a single individual, shut in by the bounds of birth and death and circumscribed as against his neighbours by the limits of physical personality; and personality, in the sense of character, means, according to the conditions of our existence, the sum of experience which man is able to store up in his isolated brain in a short span of years. But in primitive culture where experience is gathered on the broad base of community instead of being piled up in a slender obelisk on the individual, man is an eternal personality, living through uncounted or undefined ages of time, changing in outward manifestation, but none the less continuous and unbroken for the generations replacing one another. His personality is not confined to his body, or to the thoughts and feelings shut up within his solitary frame; his soul is in accordance with the working of his mind extended to ideas, emotions, ideals, traditions, belongings which exist independently of his private being or not being. In point of psychological fact, the centre of his personality lies outside his body, in the ideas and things that persist from one generation to another, while the individual existence dissolves and revives. In the perseverance of the family, in its heirlooms, its land, even in its herds of cattle, primitive men naturally see stronger manifestations of their life than in themselves, just as, from identical mental experiences, the monk's life is swallowed up in the cloister and the church. We experience our being isolated, in fact cannot help feeling the limits of our person as the decisive gaps in existence, because the individual represents our arrangement of the facts of existence, the ground on which our life is built up, the base on which our forms and institutions are founded, the reality on which our joy and sorrow must feed. In the same way, primitive man lives and experiences his own eternity, arranging the facts of existence from another [219] end, practically and theoretically. The actual man has his existence through derivation from the great man of his community, and even all the men of the clan, taken collectively at any given moment, form outwardly but a small part of the whole hamingja. In the festival, the source is opened, and the entire man enters into possession, acting through all, not only the bodies and minds of living clansmen, but through their belongings and surroundings. The house is filled; the benches and the pillars, the fire and the atmosphere become living. There are no men, neither are there strictly speaking gods, but only god or divinity.

This is the reason why all words and acts are fraught with infinite consequence; the space is filled with creation, and every act gives birth to events to come. When men assemble for war or sacrifice, enveloped in the power of holiness, the future is born of their actions. It was a custom from early times to commence a battle by a duel between two selected champions. The two who stepped forward in front of the warriors' line to fight out their own battle really decided the will of the day; and if the fate of the whole had been laid in their hands there was nothing for the rest to do but to await the outcome, and then either set up a shout of victory and demand tribute, or carry off the dead man and bow to necessity, for victory had declared itself. We are taken nearer the blot hall by the description in Tacitus of the preparations for war; the Germans took a captive of the enemy people, and set him to fight with his own weapons against one of their own men, and the result of the duel showed them whether their luck was in the ascendant or on the decline. Possibly the tales of combats in front of the army are in the main reflexes of such ritual preliminaries for going to war. But we miss the real excitement of the scene if we merely view the ceremony as an attempt to discern the will of the higher powers; in the individual, a fate is striving to gain the mastery over its opponent fate. The champion could create victory and create defeat in the coming battle, because he stood as the corporate representative of a whole army's hamingja. Another rite was for the leader of the army [220] to fling his spear out over the enemy's ranks before the battle began, til heilla; this “for luck” means at once as a good omen and as the beginning of victory. About the beginning of our era the Hermundures were able to gain a decisive victory over the Chatti because they dedicated the hostile army to the gods and the whole of the spoil, horses, men and all else to destruction.

These scenes from the practice of war illustrate the comprehensive blot in which the whole future was created and took form according to the behaviour and movements of the sacrificial brethren. The test of manhood, in the game or at the vowing cup, was the pattern into which aftertime must accurately fall. When the Norse bridegroom struck his sword into the roof-beam and thereby created for himself a marriage luck precisely the depth of the scar, there is something of the old feast-fellow about him; in all modesty he may be named by side with Hakon who bloted and perfected the battle within his luck, so that the ravens came flying even before the enemy had appeared.

We can reach somewhat nearer the blot hall by listening to the Darrad Song, as it was sung at Katanes in the north of Scotland, on the day Sigurd, earl of the Orkneys, fell in Ireland. A man saw twelve women sitting in a house; they were weaving with entrails for a woof and an arrow for a shuttle, and as they wove, they sang the spear-song, the Darradsljód:

“Spear shall ring, shields clash, axes smite upon iron.

Weave, weave Darrad's web; after we follow the prince. Where men's shields show bloody, valkyries guard the king.

Weave, weave Darrad's web, the king's it was aforetime; forth will we stride, storming to battle, where friends' weapons move.

They shall rule land who shivered on the shore; a king, a mighty one, I promise death; now is the earl felled by the steel.

Now is web woven, battlefield reddened, death-tidings fare over land.”

And when they had woven their web of victory, they rushed away six to the northward, six to the south, on horseback. [221] The song slips from past to future, for there where these valkyries weave there is no such thing as time; the battle is really fought while the women are singing, and very soon their song of victory will “come forth” and appear on the battlefield. One of the verses reveals the connection between this poetic symbol and reality; the women say at last:

“Truly we sang of the young king songs of victory a many; let us sing with strength; and let him who hears mark the many spear-songs and tell them forth to men.”

Who is this king over whom the songs of victory are sung we do not know, but one thing is certain, the valkyries here show that they have taken the words out of the blot-man's mouth. Not in the sense that the Darrad Song should be a cult poem, it is rather a fantasy, conceived in some mind where the mood of the blot-feast reigned. The formæli of the sacrificers, the song of women at the loom, battle-ruling valkyries and the timelessness of fate have crystallised into a poetic picture, such as could perhaps only be made when the poet was half emancipated from the ancient religion. But even though the poem strictly speaking does not contain one actual formula, the verses are built up over the formæli, and, in particular, it is the spirit of the formæli that inspires the flow of the words. It is the power of the blot which fills the women when they sing “with strength”, for this translation is but a poor substitute of words meaning: with the force of fulfilling luck.

From the blot, good seasons and well-being are led out to bless the coming year, but the fertility is not created generally, as the European cannot help thinking from his abstract presuppositions when observing primitive cult. In the ritual man assumes the power of creating life, but he does not conceive life as a plastic possibility lying newly created like formless clay to be moulded later on at will into concrete events. The creating hamingja is individually marked by its contents and its aims, it is not luck, but clan luck and fate aldr. Fertility means that our fields grow and our cattle propagate according to their kind; and only when we call to mind primitive ideas of soul can we make the meaning of “our” sufficiently pregnant [222] and precise. Clan luck means birth of children, but they are children of our stamp in body and aspirations and traditions. Battle luck means victory over our particular enemies, power and supremacy in our actual disputes and ambitions, luck on the lines laid down by the owners' individual gifts, as we should say. Through the acts and words of the sacrificer, not only the contents of the future but also its form and the concatenation of its events are preordained. Thus the formæii and the consecration of the holy drink is seen to be in reality one, though it seems to our eyes twofold: making the ale divine and prescribing the aim for its power.

Not only the future needed creation, the past too had to be renewed in the blot to retain its reality. The eternity of life lay not in the fact that it had once begun, but solely in the fact that it was constantly being begun, so that the blot-man's sacrifice points back as well as forward. In order to do justice to the meaning of the blot, we must say that it not only condenses and renews the past, but in true earnest creates it over and over again.

This reiteration or renovation, as we should call it, is not a repetition of an act primarily and for all time created years or ages ago. The present re-acting is as primary, as original as the very first acting; and the participants are not witnesses to the deed of some hero or god, not reproducers who revive the deed, but simply and literally the original heroes who send fateful deeds into the world, whether it be battles long ago or the creation of Middle-garth. In the recitation of the legend, in the ceremonial act, the earth is prepared for the living of man, raised from the deep, made heore and fruitful; through the ritual procedure the people is born, the enemies are cast down, and honour is gained. Be the world created, be the battle gained ever so many times before: any subsequent creation and victory is as original as every one of its precedents.

Life and history start from the blot. Time is not experienced by primitive men in the way we feel it, as a stream running along from the origin of all things to the end of the universe.


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