The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[237] was covered with green leeks. The sun knew not its place, the moon knew not its megin. The gods went to the seats of fate and gave night and morning, midday and evening their names. Thus the mighty cosmological drama opens. The verses open a view not into the chaos of nowhere and nothing, where later Christian poets beat the void with the wings of imagination, but into the clearly defined surroundings of the blot fellows. The new sun strikes the “flags of the hall” with its first beams; in the verses relating how the gods lifted up the land and went to the seats of commanding fate, the words have an exact and at the same time far-reaching dramatic import.

Possibly the myths have in their late forms been affected by the influence of Christian creation legends, but the modifications have not eaten into their core, and they still bear the unmistakable stamp of living ritual. Our analysis, however, is apt to be warped by our traditional ideas of creation, once for all, out of naught, which presuppose a period in chronological time when the world existed only as a future possibility. In primitive language, creation means a becoming like all former becomings, an ever-new and ever-repeated organisation which makes existence real and reliable. Our conclusion that before something came into being a nothing must have prevailed, has no place, because the premises that make this inference necessary to our chronologically progressive thought were lacking in primitive experience. To be of value, the answers men give to their problems must be latent in the question; to us the natural problem is: what was before the present world was made? primitive experience prompts the query: what would be if creation failed? This gap out of which the world rises by the mighty doings of the gods is, like the robbery by the giants, the dim possibility of chaos which is constantly warded off by the blot. Creation means victory over the formless destructive powers, it means making the world heore, and therefore the cosmological drama opens with the killing of the giant and with the destruction which the drowning torrents of his blood wreaks upon his kin. [238]

The ritual included an act which may be called the hallowing or fructifying of the treasures. Gold, whether a ring or some other precious object, was obviously placed on the hearth or dipped in the kettles, as is indicated by some stray lines as well as by the stock metaphors of the poets. Gold is conventionally called the flame of the deep or the fire of the river, meaning that it is born and made lucky by being laved in the prototype rivers flowing through the world from the kettles; this ritual incident is mentioned in a verse of the Grimnismál, saying that the rivers flow round the “hoard of the gods”. What part this manipulation of the gold played in the cosmogonic drama we cannot say for sure, but knowing the profound significance of the treasures as vehicles of the hamingja, and bearing in mind the embracing width of the clan's luck, we may form some guesses as to the representative import of gold in the cosmological drama. It may have impersonated the riches of men rising from the primeval root of things implying all its manifestations from the fertility of the soil to the sun. The effect of the ritual is suggested by the myth of Draupnir, the ring of the gods, which was placed on the pyre of Balder and sent back from the underworld with the power of dripping fresh rings in the night.

As to the appearance or pageantry of the drama we have no indication beyond that contained in the terminology of the myths. The placing of earth on the hearth and the putting on of the kettles, manipulation with the treasures and skulls and passes with the “hammer of Thor” as well as the lifting of the horn, were actions fraught with meaning, but we can know nothing of the manner in which they were performed. And as to the words accompanying the acts, we can only guess that they ranged from short verses or measured formulæ to recitation of genealogies and chanting of legendary songs. We may perhaps conclude from the traditional form of the Eddic poems that the ritual partly proceeded in the form of responses. From the fact that the sequence of question and answer regularly crops up in the neighbourhood of ritual passages, we need not draw the inference that the blot was carried on [239] catechetically, but no doubt this mode of conveying mythological lore has established itself on the base of some time-honoured allocution; we know how the chairman “signed” the horn, and rendered the draught eventful by his formæli, and from this picture we may imagine a scene where the fellows watched their brethren handling the ritual objects and waiting for the formula which explained and completed the act.

The view we get through myth and language is rich in suggestions but no less blurred in outlines, and a representation must be modelled on the material; a description is the truer when it opens up the depth of pathos and significance contained in the blot without any arbitrary hardening of the contours.

Such are the main themes of the ritual, varying no doubt in details and pictures from one place to another, but identical in ideas and in general character. And into this ceremonial scheme entered the history of the clan. The voices of the ancestors were heard blending with the speaking of the gods; from the fight with the giants, the deeds of former generations dealing with mortal enemies sprang forth. All the acts of the ritual were probably instinct with a collateral historical meaning, clearly understood by the men in whom the past was a living plastic force, whether it only asserted itself in implications or shaped itself into direct allusions to familiar reminiscences or broke forth in recitation and poems of praise. In this form, the ancestral traditions of the Volsungs are handed down to posterity; the achievements that laid the foundation of the clan's fame and power are perpetuated in the legend of the ancestor's fight with the dragon Fafnir and his conquest of the fateful hoard of Andvari. The historical proportions of the tale are intimated by the incidents: Before Fafnir turned into a serpent and crept upon his gold, he had killed his father to get possession of the riches that had come from the gods, and Sigurd, the dragon slayer, is reared by Regin, the brother of Fafnir, to execute the revenge pined for and yet execrated by the clansman. When the deed has been accomplished by Sigurd, while Regin hides his head behind the bushes, the dark double dealing schemes of the instigator, who necessarily [240] resents the murder of his brother, are revealed to the hero by the birds twittering over his head, and he boldly completes his work by sending the plotter on the heels of his brother. Then he loads the treasures on his horse, leaps on its back and rides forth to adventures brave and new. The marks of the family tradition are evident, but the historical events are disguised out of all recognition, because they are reproduced in the setting of the blot. The legend does not merely reflect the external facts, but retells the story as it unfolded itself through ritual words and deeds during the feast, when the feats were made real in the presence and power of the gods. In the Nordic poem, Fafnir and Regin are called rime-cold giants, which means that their lives are taken in the killing of the giant through the slaughtering of the sacrificial victim. Further, Sigurd cuts out the heart and broils it over the fire, and he drinks the blood of the slain — a scene which reproduces the ritual tasting of the intestines and the sprinkling of the sacred blood that ensures complete casting down of the enemies of man, whether human or demoniacal. Though the poem as it now stands has become a mere story, it indicates in the form of its telling how the two sides, the one which we call historical, and the other which we style ritual, did coalesce in the drama of the blot hall: purely human outbursts of grief and defiance and triumph sprout organically forth from ceremonial manipulations with the flesh of the victim and the fluid of the beer cask.

In the history of the sacrificial hail, the individual warrior is sunk in the god, or, which is the same thing, in the ideal personification of the clan, the hero. This form of history causes endless confusion among later historians, when they try their best to rearrange the mythical traditions into chronological happenings and the deeds of the clan into annals and lists of kings, and the confusion grows to absurdity when rationalistic logicians strive by the light of sound sense to extricate the kernel of history from the husks of superstition. In a kingly figure like the famous Froda of the Heathobards, political deeds are inextricably mixed up with ritual incidents. On one side he is an [241] earthly king pure and simple, when he wars and intermarries with the neighbouring house of the Scyldings, on the other he is a personification of the peace ruling through feast time, when he is extolled as the ideal peace-maker. During his reign, we are told, the country was so safe that a ring would lie untouched for years on the high road, and no killing was heard of; even the avenger would suffer his brother's slayer to go unharmed. The giver of peace is nevertheless no other than the mighty warrior king: his reign is appraised through the terms derived from the festival. No clear line marks off the god from the prince, and the historian who starts from modern principles will be led on according to his point of view, either to interpret the human element as disguised myth or to force ritual to give up a symbolic history; and in both cases he will be landed in insoluble difficulties. This incongruity, caused by the fact that history is transcribed in ritual language, cleaves to the whole mass of ancient legends, and makes it a bone of contention between the profane historian and the student of the history of religion, as long as religion and history of life are considered as two separable constituents.

In primitive culture, religion stands in touch with everyday reality. In the feast, the whole of existence, with its working and fighting, fishing and hunting, eating and begetting, is lifted up and intensified without being spiritualised out of its matter-of-fact substantiality. There is a poetry of life lived through and not merely imagined and sung: poetry and art have a tangible form in the festival which includes tragedy and farce, entailing the fullest enjoyment because life and success depend on the play and the jests. This artistic principle allows of no differentiating between the poetic or imaginary world of fine feelings and the drab prose of daily existence; a purely æsthetic valuation of beauty and art, such as became necessary when religion was severed from life, is inconceivable among ancient and primitive peoples, where religion is the transfiguration of the totality of life and its needs. The words of poetry are beautiful and inspiring when they are real and react upon the innermost springs of existence and create luck; [242] the verses are powerful and useful when they move the hearts of men, steeling their courage and inspiring their hopes. The poetry of words is nothing but the language of life when it pulsates most strongly and fully, it is the language of the feast, and thus imbued with the spirit of the blot; its metaphors reproduce the suggestive pictures of the sacrificial hall, and therefore it becomes to us a repository of religious ideas and practices.

There is one department within the region of cult which has a character of its own, namely the ritual designed to form a connecting link between men and the yellow-haired goddess of the glebe. The ritual of the Teutons, like that of their cousins, the Homeric Greeks and the Vedic people, centres in the cattle luck, and in many regions the herds remained the principal stock of wealth. Goats are frequently mentioned from various places of the Teuton territory as forming the substance of the sacrificial feast, and in myth and ritual the ram occupies a prominent place to the exclusion of the heifer; later on, the meadows of greater folk were filled with cows and even horses, but in poorer regions small cattle continued to be the main support of the population.

But the art of making the earth fruitful by tearing her body with the ploughshare and impregnating her with living seed had come in from the south in prehistorical times. And in primitive culture the introduction of new implements and methods involves spiritual expansion as well as material progress. The use of the plough and the knowledge of its religious content and ritual mode of handling are inseparable, for no man can obtain results by mere mechanical manipulation. Learning husbandry means being initiated into a ritual, and so the ceremonies of the corn spread through Germany and Scandinavia in very early times; agricultural rites were framed into the customary blot and vitally fused with the ancient acts and formulæ, stamping them more or less superficially according as husbandry became the predominant occupation or merely played an accessory part in the life of the people.

In the broad fields of southern Scandinavia and of central [243] Sweden, the influence of the rites on the fields was more extensive, and coloured the feasts more intensely than in Norway. We must bear in mind that agriculture was not introduced once for all; rather it filtered in, one invention after another, each carrying a fuller ritual along with it. This immigration of rites has continued for thousands of years, as we learn from the modern customs of the peasants, which make clear that the influence of Mediterranean religion was not exhausted by the victory of Christianity, but went on through the Middle Ages, forcing its way sometimes in spite of the clergy but more often perhaps helped on by the formal reception of pre-Christian rites into the routine of the church. In Sweden, the hereditary blot was so effectively coloured by agricultural additions of the alien element, that certain princely families called their god by the name of Lord, Freyr; in the pedigree of the Ynglings, who may in earlier times have resided in the south of Scandinavia but later at least founded a kingdom at Upsala, Frey is placed immediately above their ancestor, Yngvi.

The more elaborate ritual carried with it ceremonies strongly tinged with sexual passion and feverish emotion. In the traditions of the North, the rites at Upsala stand out as eminently dramatic and exuberant in character, filled with lascivious dances, obscene songs and the killing of human victims — according to late compilers of historical information, such as Saxo and Adam of Bremen.

The drift of the ritual is sufficiently apparent from these intimations to warrant close affinity with the customs well known on the shores of the Mediterranean; but our material does not enable us to reconstruct the actual procedure. From Tacitus we catch a glimpse of processions in which the goddess Nerthus rode on a wain through the district, greeted with ebullitions of joy wherever she went, and finally disappearing in the gloom of the grove, where mysterious rites of washing and killing took place. From Norway comes a most edifying tale of some amusing and at the same time improving adventures that befell a Norwegian youth in Sweden. The run-away falls in with a handsome priestess and is by her dressed up to imper- [244] sonate the god Frey in his progress round the country, after he has manfully punched the ancient devil of a malicious idol to atoms; the new god is very determined in his demands to have the victims commuted into offerings of gold and portable property, and gladdens the hearts of his worshippers by getting his bride with child. At last he escapes, and not only succeeds in removing the spoil, but ensures a happy enjoyment of his riches withal by being baptized. — The controversial character of the tale renders its value doubtful as evidence, beyond the fact that ritual journeys of the Nerthus type were common in some parts of Sweden and unfamiliar in Norway.

The legend of the war between the Ases and the Vanes bears upon a conflict between two clans or peoples differing in matters of ritual, the Vanes being a tribe of Njord-worshippers or tillers of the soil par excellence. This people must have been materially and religiously prominent in some part of Scandinavia, since their name has passed into tradition as the appellation of the godly race connected with tillage and harvesting. Frey and Njord — closely akin to the Nerthus of Tacitus — and their kin are termed Vanes or Vane-gods in the mythology of the Middle Ages, their worshippers being lost in oblivion. The myths likewise couple these gods with the ideas of great wealth, thus perpetuating the memory of the prosperity and luxury of the peoples tilling broad fields, and especially of these unlocated Vanes who probably at some time or other had their home in Sweden, and combined husbandry with profitable expeditions at sea and merchandising on a rather large scale. The myth of the marriage between Skadi, an ancestral goddess of northern Norway, and Njord, substantiated by some hints in historical literature, imply that the part of Norway around Drontheim had some intimate intercourse with the Frey-worshipping folk in Sweden.

In the wake of the agriculture and fertilisation ritual followed naturally the swine, which is everywhere the household animal of the peasant. Just as Thor, the personification of the indigenous powers, is inseparable from the ram, so Frey is everywhere accompanied by the boar. In the circles of Frey-worshippers, [245] and wider still, the boar might replace small cattle at the sacrificial meal and take over the ancient rites of the sacrificial blot.

The ecstatic tension of the fertilising ceremonies, spanning over the extremes of sentimental longing and sensuous transport, such as we find it elsewhere among tillers of the soil, who go forth and weep bearing precious seed and bring in their sheaves with rejoicing, is reflected in the myths relating to Frey, which bear a character curiously out of harmony with the soberness of social life among the typical Teutons. In one of the Eddic poems, the Skirnismál, the fervour, at once languid and ardent, of the rites which golden-haired earth excited in her lovers is turned into a divine love poem unparallelled in Northern literature.

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