The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[223] Time begins over and over again. The festival forms what we should call a stage above the flow of hours and years, a sort of condensed eternity, in which past and present and future are undifferentiated and felt as immediately actual through the tension and strain of the sacrificers. And from this very beginning, time, that is the subsequent year or six months, will flow out, made pregnant with the power and the events of blot hours. Thus it is also literally true that the real deeds are done in the blot hall, the battles and the harvestings of the outer world being but the external fulfilment of actions done during feast time, or the evolving of ritual acts. The field is actually ploughed when the priest or chieftain thrusts his ploughshare into the soil and lets the oxen draw some three ritual furrows with appropriate formulæ and the recitation of the legend of the first ploughman, whatever the ceremonial may be. The battle is veritably fought and won in the war dance, or in the vow washed down with a hornful of ale, and the rest will follow as a matter of course, or will come forth, if the hamingja is able to fulfil what it proposed; and if the clansmen could not make good their endeavours when they acted in all their strength, they will not avail in the trial of material weapons.

Now we shall be able to look for the gods where they are really to be found. They are present as power in the events and as persons in the sacrificers. When the chairman acts and speaks, when his fellows follow his lead with horn and formæli, when the singer recites his verses, they are capable of making past events living before the eyes, because one and the other is the ancient hero, performs his acts and sweeps all his comrades into the flow of happenings as active performers, whether they gesticulate outwardly or not. The reciter and the ritual agent is no less the subject of the poem than the original hero himself, and no less responsible for the happy issue of his enterprise of conquering either the giants or mortal enemies. What the clan's past will be in the days to come, hangs on the victory or defeat in front of the sacrificial bowl.

This view suggests another type of history and another [224] kind of poetry than ours. In reality, ancient history cannot be translated into our terms because it is not a theory but an experience; by saying that it is the projection of the actual upon the screen of the past we do nothing but replace fact with a travesty, setting up our system as an exclusive pattern of history. History was ever changing, inasmuch as it was plastic, but it was no less constant because it had its foundation in the clan's sober sense of the reality of its ancestors, and in its sane conscience that deeds and ancestors cannot be faked into existence. In order to act the events of the past, it was first of all necessary to own a past containing such deeds; to live the ancestors over again one must have the right of doing so, and right is, as sufficiently shown, never a formal affair in primitive society — it is only made good by proving itself a fact. But achievements did not belong to individual men, only to the hamingja, the clan personality which acted through individuals, and thus the feat may pass, as we say, from one hero to another within the bounds of kinship.

What we call poetry and myth is nothing but history. But to read the meaning of the tradition as it was handed down in the festival it is not enough to understand the words spoken or sung; the ears must be assisted by the eyes. For the participants themselves, the story was made up of acts complemented by formælis and verses. This means that we shall not be able to gather the meaning either from the words only or from the action alone; both must be taken together to bring out the whole. It is this duality which gives rise to the apparent abruptness and incoherence of all ancient and primitive poetry as long as it has not severed its connection with the festival and entered upon an independent literary career. But even when taking action and word together we shall possibly be at a loss to understand the purport without further help, for the sacrificers did not act and speak to tell a story, but to experience a fact; the plot lived within all present as something self-evident, and the procedure in the blot hall served only to call forth the past and open a way for it into new life. To us, the scenes are nothing but a series of glimpses from a play going [225] on in the unseen and now and then breaking through the veil in moments of intense concentration.

On the other hand, we must not expect to find in the ceremonial acting a continuous tale, running on methodically from act to act, or from scene to scene. If we append the name of drama to the ritual narrative, we do so on the authority of historical development, insofar as comedy and tragedy have evolved from ritual acting on the decline of religion, but in applying our term of drama to the rites of religion we must give a new meaning to the word, because all the elements of the modern stage are lacking in the original performance. Our drama is a plot progressing within the dramatic whole; the dramatic pregnancy of a poetical subject shows its power by exploding in a sequence of serried events. In primitive drama, the theme pervades the whole performance as an ubiquitous spirit, exploding in every act and making each incident a concentrated drama in itself; though any rite may have a definite value and import of its own in the evolution of the plot, it is nevertheless inspired with the total idea, so that the legend is evident in one single gest and formula to the men initiated.

The significance of the gests is not dependent on any histrionic attitude of the performer; though mimicry may enter into the performance, the act, intensely suggestive as it is to the onlooker, need not be marked off from other acts by any dramatical flourish, whether imitative or symbolical according to our acceptation of the words. In fact, primitive drama does not rest entirely on the human performers, or in other words, there is no definite boundary between actors and theatrical properties; the god may be equally represented by a living man and religious implement, shifting from one impersonation to another during his operation. The dramatis personæ being only the hamingja in its various manifestations, it acts indiscriminately through men and their treasures; the hammer of Thor, the skull of the victim and the victim itself during subsequent stages of life and death are as much real actors as are the men who put them into different positions. Speaking [226] dramaturgically, this means that the centre of gravity lies in the words and the acts, not in the actors and speakers.

Whereas the modern playgoer derives his pleasure from the opportunity of being initiated into alien scenes and passions, the tension, enjoyment and edification in one experienced in the sacrifice, resulted from the close familiarity with the action taking place; the scene lay within the worshipper, and whether he officiated directly or merely assisted at the rites, he was part of the drama, and not an irresponsible onlooker. The scenes enacted before his eyes made up the vital drama of life, and thus it becomes intelligible why every act was watched with jealous care and the least slip of hand or tongue drew forth an inadversion and misgiving in all concerned. The horn that created past and future events became the judge of men and the test of their righteousness, for the flaw in the luck or character of a man would come out in the highest moment and make his tongue trip on the fatal words. Now we understand that it was a matter of moment to empty the horn, so that men of merit were compelled to resign from the court when their breath became too short to drink minni properly. Now we too perceive fully the ignominy of the defeat which Thor sustained in the hall of the giant, when he was obliged to give up the horn without finishing his drink; the triumph won by the ogres was but an illusory one, because they had only been able to overcome their dreaded foe by tricking him with a horn one end of which opened into the ocean, but at the moment when the god handed the vessel back after his third attempt he felt his luck and divinity staggering under the leers of the gloating trolls.

The legend or myth has a place of its own, apart from the ritual text. In the myth, the story inherent in the acts and in the words, or rather lying at the back of the drama, is paraphrased into an explanatory tale. The legends will not tell us what happened some year or other according to chronology; in our craving for a kernel of historical truth in the myths, we naively insinuate that the myth makers ought to think in a system unknown to them, for the benefit of our annalistic [227] studies. The myth reveals what happened when the deed was really done, viz, at the feast, where the battle was won and the earth made inhabitable; and thus the sine qua non for understanding its revelation is insight into the cult, its procedure and contents.

Apart from the central ceremony of the ale horn, the Teutonic ritual is lost, and we shall never be able to reconstruct the rites in their sequence; only the myths or rather some legends that struck the fancy of posterity are left to us, and through these tales we can only discern the ritual dimly as through a veil. The poems of the Edda and the stories retold by Snorri in his handbook for poets are far from being cult monuments and cannot even in all cases be called myths. The verses and the prose are deeply tinged by the new spirit of the viking age; and what with their love of story-telling and the ready receptivity that laid them open to the inspirations of the west, the men of the transition age created a brilliant literature out of the ancient material. But the mark of being born in the mead hall is still discernible in the style of the stories, and though the poets have woven the legends into tales, the abruptness or glimpse-like character of the ritual setting forth makes itself felt in the technique of the composer. In ritual, the scenes and verses and formulæ are episodes in which an underlying coherent theme flashes out for a moment and immediately closes upon the glimpse; in the poems, the flashes are continued into a progressive revelation, but the original mode of representation shows through in the episodic character of the telling and in the abrupt introduction of dialogue.

As a work of art, the Voluspá is at once the most advanced and the most conservative of all the Eddie poems. The author is a radically original thinker, neither Christian nor heathen; he has a philosophy, one may perhaps say a religion, of his own, and in his poem he discloses his anguish and his hope under the guise of a cosmology and an eschatology, unfolding the history of the world from the time when nothing was to the end of days, when, after sin and guilt, struggle and death, [228] the new world and the new god rise above the horizon. It is a vision unparallelled in literature, beheld by a prophet who had been so deeply moved by the Christian apocalypse, that thoughts and musings of his own were raised out of his experiences. His anxiety at seeing the old ties of frith being dissolved by the ambitions of the crusading adventurers — brother fighting with brother each to further his own ambition, kingdoms founded on moments of conquest and kingdoms crumbling into naught by the fall of a solitary hero — springs under the fertilising heat of Christianity into a judgement of humanity; through his obscure verses he proclaims history as a progress from frith and honour into guilt, from guilt into dissolution, with every man battling against his kinsman, from dissolution through the last fight of gods and men, through universal death and destruction into a final state of peace and honour without blemish. But in constructing his picture, he makes use throughout of ancient matter, in fact of cult scenes, and by ranging the mythical scenes into a new constellation he changes their import from within and inspires them with a new meaning in regard to the whole, without materially altering the words. Thus we look through his descriptions into the blot hall as for instance in his picture of the new earth and its happiness. Then the god Hoenir can choose the omen-sticks — in these two lines is compressed the perfect state of humanity, that of the hamingja never failing to achieve its wishes and fate, always finding in the stick sure signs of its creation having succeeded; the point of the phrase lies in the verb, kjósa, which means outwardly to receive happy omens, but inwardly to have strength to create the event which breaks out into good signs. And the pregnancy of the verse intimates that this scene was the expression of victory in the ritual of the blot hall. Another picture is contained in the last verse, by the position in the poem converted into a prophecy that death shall be no more. “The gloomy drake comes flying, the glistering snake from the nether mountains, and he carries corpses in his plumes, the dead men's ravener Nidhogg; he flies past skimming the ground, now he will sink.” No doubt the wording of this verse owes [229] its grip to the imagination of the poet and the inspiration of western visions, but the scene itself, no doubt, goes back to the ritual of the sacrifice, where the blot-men have seen the snake brushing past, conjured up by some ceremonial gest and sinking to the sound of some compelling words.

In other poems we observe the ancient ritual underlying poetical composition, as the substratum on which the poets have moulded a literary form; when for instance the Eddic description of Sigurd's dragon-killing and wooing of the sleeping woman in armour culminates in a ritual toast where she tends a horn to her deliverer and precedes his drinking with a formæli, the succession of the scenes is probably governed by the procedure of the feast. Through the poetical device we look into the blot hall at the moment when the events of the past were celebrated and made real by the circulating horn; the affinity between the literary mould and its ceremonial prototype is closer than immediately appears, because the poet indirectly describes the deeds as they happened in the festival where the reciter and the drinkers acted as impersonations of the ancient heroes. The legend or myth is passing into epic, but the underlying type has not yet been broken.

Even though the absence of all direct description prevents us from reconstructing the temporal sequence of the rites, the ritual of the feast nevertheless glimmers through the myths and the poetical vocabulary in tolerably clear outlines. The first act of the sacrifice was played in the cattle fold when the divine slaughterers went out armed with a hallowed instrument to kill the victims singled out for the feast. The dramatic intensity of the slaughtering is expressed in the myth of Thor's voyage to the giant Geirrod, in which all the incidents of the killing are translated into cosmogonic significance. Thor and his two followers force their way through many obstacles into the abode of the giant. The god has started from home without his hammer, and borrows on the road a staff from a friendly giantess, as the legend tells, thus indicating the peculiar character of the ceremonial implement used in the taking of the victim's life. Farther on, the gods are on the point of

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