The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[230] being overwhelmed by the swollen torrents rushing down from the mountains, and the dramatic character of these torrents is established by the language of the poet, who calls them the blood of the giant, or in other words the blood from the victim impersonating the foes of mankind. The god staunches the flood by some ritual action with his “staff”, the character of which is unknown; possibly it had some relation to the sacred vessel into which the holy fluid was received. After having penetrated into the cave, the god is assailed by the daughters of the giant, and nearly crushed to death against the roof; this attack he also meets with the staff — according to the myth, he sets his weapon against the rafter, and putting all his weight upon it, forces his chair down, till a mighty roar announces that he has broken the backs of the giantesses who had concealed themselves underneath. What this incident means in tangible fact relating to the ritual treatment of the victim can only be vaguely guessed at, but the meaning is unambiguous: now the victim is finally disposed of, and through the animal the enemy has been vanquished.

The next scene takes place in the blot hall, or as the myth expresses the procedure: when Thor first arrived he was shown into the goat's house, but after the feats accomplished there the giant Geirrod invited the god into the hall to take part in the games, and there were large fires burning through the length of the house. Here the crowning victory was fought, and the powers unheore utterly overcome. Geirrod took up a redhot iron bolt with a pair of tongs and hurled it at his guest, but Thor caught it as it flew, with his iron grips or gloves and sent it back, transfixing the giant together with the pillar behind which he crouched. The poem describing the achievement of the god contains in its metaphors a lucid explanation of the dramatic form in which this fight was carried out; the scathing bolt was the heart of the victim taken steaming hot from the kettle and consumed or tasted by the human incarnations of the god. By this sacrament with the vital and most sacred part of the sacrificial victim, power was assumed, and the adversaries of life cast down for ever. [231]

The subsequent scenes clustered about the kettles in which the holy meat was boiled. The myths hint at games and beer joy: the preparation of the godly food was guarded and facilitated by a drink and a performance accompanied by sacred texts. Again and again the battle is renewed, at each point the aggression of the demons is warded off and the superiority of human luck confirmed. A legend relating to this part of the festival is reproduced in the story telling how three gods defeated the giant Thiazi. Once upon a time Odin and Hoenir and Loki went hungry during a journey and killed an ox to make a repast. They cut up the meat and made a cooking oven — evidently an archaic trait going back to an ancient mode of preparing meat by burying it in hot steam. When the gods opened the oven they were astonished at seeing that the meat was still raw, and looking round, they espied a giant watching them from a tree in the guise of an eagle. The hostile onlooker frankly admitted that he had caused the mishap and claimed admittance to the feast. But when the guest openly showed his greed by snatching up the best part of the ox, Loki in wrath struck him with a pole, the result being that one end of the pole stuck fast to the eagle and the hands of the god cleaved to the other end. Loki was trailed over stock and stone by the flying eagle, till he was mad with pain and readily complied with the giant's suggestion that he should entice the maid Ydun out from the precincts of Asgard and deliver her up to the enemy. Ydun was the goddess who guarded the youth-giving food, and at her disappearance the heads of the gods turned grey; very soon suspicion fastened upon Loki, and he was compelled to set out on a fresh expedition to steal back the maiden. The wily god changed into a falcon and succeeded in carrying away the goddess in his grip, but his flight roused the giant to pursue him in the guise of an eagle; when, however, the foe came booming over the wall of Asgard he was suddenly surrounded by flames; the gods had been ready shaving chips from their spears, and at the critical moment they set light to the heap, so that the fire flared up and scorched the wings of the intruder. — In this myth we have the ritual of the lighting of the fire, which [232] is the means of forcing back the powers of destruction or infirmity that lurk behind all things in Middle-garth and thus keeping the creative kettleful for the maintenance of men and their luck.

In another legend it is Hrungnir, “the thief of Thrudr” (or power), the daughter of Thor, who 'is mightily vanquished. Still other cult myths explain how the would-be robber is frustrated in his designs on Freyja, the maiden with whom the light of the world is bound up. Whatever form the myths take, they indicate the background of the ceremonial battle, expressing what would happen if the holy work were not carried to a happy finish. It was this great, timeless creation during the blot, and the vanquishing of the powers of chaos thereby, that rendered gods and men lords of the world and held the giants lurking in impotent rage beyond the border. The rite confirmed the victory, and the legend celebrates the effective 'exertion.

In the struggle for world mastery, the victim impersonated the enemy, and the slaughtering represents the killing of the unheore fiends. But there is another side to the drama expressing the holiness and blessing residing in the sacrificial animal.

The myth of Thor giving his rams to be slaughtered for meat, and reviving them by a flourish of his hammer above the bones and skins, introduces us to a central scene in the killing of the victim. The animals slain were not heads of cattle picked out of the fold and killed off; they represented the holy herd that gave of its essence to the sacrificers as an inspiring and invigorating food, without incurring any loss of vitality; the life returned to its source, and gushed out in fresh abundance. Therefore it was necessary to pour out the blood of the victim in the holy place, and preserve certain parts of the bodies as the seat of the regenerative power. The fact that one of Thor's rams limped because one of the eaters had broken a bone to suck the marrow shows that the bones of the animal sacrificed were commonly held sacred and inviolable. The myth draws out the inner meaning — as is its wont — by [233] pointing out what would be the result if the ritual failed to achieve its aim or were made ineffective by neglect of some creative requisite. Slaughtering was, in fact, so far from being an infringement of the cattle's luck and persistence that it involved a new birth to the herd as well as to the men partaking of its meat; the herd was born through the ceremonial consecration of the victim by the hammer or some other object being waved above the carcass.

The myth obviously gives a realistic description of the scene: the bones were collected and laid out for blessing on the skins. We may draw the further inference that the skull was given a prominent place in the hall during the feast, and that it played a part in the dramatic proceedings. This conjecture is corroborated by some hints in ancient literature as to a mythical head which Odin consulted in hours of need, and it acquires still more force by some declamatory words of Gregory the Pope; the holy father is shocked by the unseemly behaviour of the Lombards who are said to run round the head of a ram, celebrating it with songs of abomination.

It is necessary to kill the animal, because the creation and upholding of men and their world is dependent on its life-nourishing flesh; but imperative though the measure may be, the assault on the vehicle of the sacred hamingja nevertheless involves not only a terrible risk but also an act of aggression bordering on outrage, nay it would be sheer sacrilege if it could not be justified and expiated through subsequent acts of blessing. The myth of Thiazi alludes to expiatory ceremonies whose character is unknown; after having told how the giant was killed, it proceeds to relate that his daughter Skadi armed herself and appeared among the gods in full panoply of war to demand weregild for her father. The gods accorded her full restitution by offering her a divine husband, and we are elsewhere told that Thrymheim, the seat of the old giant Thiazi, is now occupied by his daughter Skadi.

In a burlesque in which a zealous Christian has travestied a scene in the ritual, the Volsi story, we learn that sometimes at least the reproductory organ of a horse was used in a ceremony [234] implying impregnation; the scrappy and rather poor piece of satire is of considerable interest as giving us an inkling of the place poetic formulæ occupied in the blot. Everybody present, we are told, took the object in his hand and uttered a rhythmical formæli alluding to procreation, ending with the words: Moernir receive this bloting. The Volsi ritual is represented by the author as a rural worship invented by some benighted heathens in an outlying farmhouse; more probably it is a reminiscence of an act in the sacrifice representing the real begetting when the fertilising seed entered the wombs of women and beasts, thus making any subsequent impregnation fruitful.

The preparation of the beer cask, or in earlier times the mead vat, is only commemorated in a single legend that tells how Odin tricked the giant Suttung out of the mead, by boring his way into the cave where Suttung kept the precious fluid, and beguiling his daughter by protestations of affection. This story, handed down in two versions, one fragmentary and abrupt in Eddic verse, the other retold or rather recast by Snorri into a humorous tale, can do little more than hint at the existence of an elaborate ritual, but scarcely gives us any clue to its character.

But the ritual did not stop short at the battle with the giants. In the midst of the hall, the whole world was dramatically exposed, arching its heaven over broad expanses with far flowing rivers; the earth and all the waters of the earth were contained in the kettles and the fireplace, and over it waved the branches of the world tree Yggdrasil, shading with its wide arms the homes of gods and men and giants. The hall and the fireplace, as it appeared to the blot-fellows who saw the underlying reality before the external appearance, is described by Snorri on the authority of ancient verses. The boughs of the ash extend out over all the world and reach across the expanse of heaven; downwards it strikes three wide-spreading roots, one is among the gods, the second among the giants and the third ends in the realm of the dead. Under the roots are wells, one is the well of wisdom, another, the Urdarbrunn, is the well of life and fate. [235]

To understand what ancient eyes saw we must replace our geographically and spacially confined experience with the reality of primitive senses. The megin of the earth, its largeness and breadth, is contained in a handful of soil, heaped up on or around the fireplace, the stem and foliage of the tree is altogether present in the slightest branch; just as any part, such as for instance the skull, exhibits the whole living animal, its flanks quivering with the beats of life, its legs vibrating with unleapt bounds — nay exhibits the whole species of panting and leaping beasts. The scene describes at once the tutelary tree standing in front of the homestead with its deep well underneath, and the ritual counterpart of the tree and the well now transplanted into the cult hall, because the two are identical; both are holy, i. e. the prototypes or teeming wombs of the world, and through the power of the feast the entire hamingja is concentrated in the sacred spot, so that it becomes not only the protoplast of all things existing, but the world, excelling the mere space of earth and heaven in profound reality.

But the world is not laid out on the hearth as something simply existing. As the ritual proceeds, the earth rises and shapes itself into the happy abode of man, and the heavenly lights go forth and arrange themselves into their daily procession. As the victim is cut up and disposed into the kettles, the primeval giant Ymir is killed by the gods, who create the earth from his body, the waters from his blood, and heaven from his skull. Next the race of men, or rather our race, takes its rise by the process described in the Voluspá: three gods came to the house and found on the land Ask and Embla, powerless and without fate; Odin gave spirit, Hoenir wit, Lodur the sap of life and the flush of health, lá ok lito góða. How the latter part of creation was ritually carried out is suggested by the language of the scalds, in a poetical metaphor, coined in reference to the ritual, the contents of the horn being alluded to under the same appellation — which is used in the Voluspá to designate the sap of life. A further commentary is furnished by an Eddic verse in which Odin rejoices because he [236] has brought the mead from the realm of the giant and placed it on the “rim of the sanctuary of men”, he exults in having tasted “luckily acquired colours”. The ritual significance of the phrases discloses itself in the recurrence of the term litr that is employed in the verse of the Voluspá.

The creation of the world through the cutting up of the victim was no doubt seconded by other pictorial incidents; the myths hint at white soil being used to “pour over the roots of Yggdrasil”, and in a catalogue poem it is said that the earth is called aurr by the great gods, which probably means that aurr is a ritual designation. We learn too that “megin of earth” goes to make the ale strong and health inspiring, and from this hint we learn that the earth must be represented in the ritual, if the blot were to be full and complete.

According to the creation legend, the world arose in the middle of Ginnungagap, the gaping void between the glowing half in the south and the icy northern part; the sparks from the heat collided with the venomous drops from the cold and the mist ascending from the glacial rivers, and the whole congealed into a mass of matter like the slag from a fire. The gods placed the body of the slain giant Ymir in the midst of Ginnungagap to build the inhabitable world, and the flying embers fixed themselves in the heavens and became stars and luminaries. This legend is the text of the creation drama that takes place on the hearth, in the play of the fire and the soot encircling the sacred kettles, with the creative victim placed in the middle.

Now the inner truth of the Voluspá shines forth. The abrupt pictures of its first part are glimpses of scenes from the blot hall, and from this profoundly suggestive material the poet constructs a progressive historical and eschatological drama. He opens with the time when nothing was, neither sand nor sea nor cool waves; there was no earth, no heaven on high, only Ginnungagap and never a blade of grass. It was in the times of yore when Ymir lived. Then Bor's Sons lifted up the earth and the gods who created Middle-garth; the sun shone from the south on the flags of the hall, then the ground

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