The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

CHAPTER XV

THE GODS

Little need be added as to the nature of the gods.

In their nature, combining the neutral state of power with personality, they evince no particular divine gift, for this is the nature of life in all its manifestations. They reside in the holy place and in the holy treasures, but they may at any moment come forth and reveal themselves to their friends either in dreams or in the light of day. As power or luck the gods are in Old Norse called ráð and regin; ráð means rede: wisdom and will, the power of determining and powerful determinations; regin simply expresses luck and power. In their personal aspect, the gods are named ases, or in southern dialects anses, which name is elucidated by the observation of Jordanes to the effect that among the Goths the chieftains in whose luck the people conquered were called anses. In shape the gods are in some clans male, in other families and localities female; their manifestation as women is naturally founded in the fact that woman generally represented a higher form of holiness than average man. The question whether the gods did assume the shape of animals is scarcely to the point. True, the divine power of the hamingja walked the fields in the herd and prominently in the holy heads of cattle that were consecrated and qualified to be leaders of their flock or mediums of blessing; and in the sacrificial hall the godly strength filled the victim of the feast. The beast was god, but it was not the gods, nor have we any indication that the powers took animal shape when they appeared to their friends. [247]

Between man and god there exists no difference of kind, but there is a vital distinction of degree, the gods being the whole hamingja, whereas men are only part. The boundary between gods and men is permanent, but varying in place; it is shifted downwards when men go about on their daily round of business, and it may be pushed upwards when they assume their garment of holiness and sally out in a body to fight or to fish. Only in the blot is the boundary line obliterated, but then during feast time there are no men, because the hamingja is all and in all. The divineness of men when in a state of holiness is revealed by the metaphors of poetry; when the warrior is called the god of the sword or the god of battle, the expression is nothing but matter-of-fact description. The same reality appears in the naming of woman as the goddess of trinkets, and still more significantly as the ale-goddess, referring to her holy office in the drink offering.

The only way of elucidating the nature of god is by saying that the divine element may manifest itself in various incarnations, stronger and weaker, more encompassing or more limited, as more god than man or conversely as more man than god.

A continuous line of ascending divinity runs from mortal men through woman and chieftain to the eternal powers issuing from the sanctuary. An intermediate link between men and gods is formed by the fylgia or tutelary genius who illustrates the plasticity of the hamingja. When the fylgia is spoken of as belonging to an individual it means, like the Roman genius, the man's own soul and something additional. In accordance with the special Roman experience and the strictly patriarchal construction of the Roman family, genius is the soul or hamingja of the pater familias, who is the representative of the clan, and during his lifetime gathers up the hamingja of the house in his person. Through his genius he merges into the timeless personality of the subsequent generations, in its strength he worships and governs; the pater honours his own genius because it is the family residing in him, and his dependants worship his genius because he is the link connecting them with the [248] hamingja of the house. So too, the fylgia is the soul of the man in close touch with the luck of the race, albeit with significant variations, characteristic of the Teutonic system, which was less rigidly patriarchal than the Roman family. The Teuton freeman in himself impersonates the clan, and is not dependent on a pater for his self-assertion, but at the same time the hamingja is stronger in the leader or chief of the friends, and consequently his fylgia is a fuller embodiments of the clan's luck and power. In a story like that of Vigfus' fylgia who passed over to his daughter's son Glum on the demise of the old man, fylgia approximates to the dignity of the Roman genius, carrying in fact the authority and responsibility together with the higher force residing in the chieftain of the family. The poet Hallfred died on a voyage from Norway to Iceland; when the end drew near, “they saw a woman stride after the ship, she was tall and was mail-clad; she trod the seas as if it were firm ground. Hallfred looked towards her and saw that she was his fylgia woman. He said: I renounce all connection with thee. She turned to his brother and said: Wilt thou welcome me, Thorvald? He refused. Then young Hallfred said: I will welcome thee. The woman disappeared. Hallfred said: I give you the sword King's nautr, my son, but the rest of my treasures are to be placed in my coffin, if I die on board.” In Hallfred, the struggles between his love of the Christian king Olaf with his white Christ, and his hankering after the ancient powers had been severe and never ending, and his last words of renunciation were surely dictated by the fear that his fylgia should drag him along with her into regions uncanny for a baptized man, but nevertheless the old feelings and ideas reassert themselves in his dying commands: his treasured weapon is to go along with the fylgia to the man who has the will and the power to uphold the honour and luck of the clan. When the divine patron is spoken of as the fylgia of the clan, or in the plural as the fylgias of the clansmen, these powers “who accompany the friends” come very near to being identical with the gods; in fact they are the divine powers in their everyday aspect, guarding and leading the clansmen outside the holy time of [249] the blot, inspiring them with prudent thoughts and warning them in dreams. The fylgia might as well embody itself in the shape of the holy animals, and appear as an ox or a ram, or in other cases as a wolf and a bear when the clan's hamingja had a strain of wild nature in its blood. In regard to the numerous dream fylgias that run to and fro in Icelandic sagas we must, however, discount a good many of the descriptions as late pieces of wit and symbolism, when the hugr of a warrior is likened to a ravening wolf and that of a crafty man to a fox, so that dreaming of wolves means war, and dreaming of foxes is taken as a warning against foul play. Nevertheless this symbolism is illustrative of the nature of the hamingja, the imagination being inspired by a fundamental fact, viz. that there is a mingling of mind between the warrior and the beast of war, and that there is identity between the clan and its cattle.

The hamingja as it reveals itself in its human representatives is concentrated in the ancestor, who was present in the blot, acting the deeds of the past through his friends. He is god and he is not god, according to our nomenclature. Like the ring and other treasures which are at the same time earthly life wedging into the invisible and the invisible thrusting into the everyday, the ancestor may be regarded as the divine reaching into man or man extending into the divine. The ancestor bears a name indicative of the clan; he is Yngvi among the Ynglings, Scyld among the Scyldings; Geat in the Anglo-Saxon pedigrees and Gaut, which has fastened on to Odin as an epithet, is the Geat or Gautish man. He is the ideal owner of the family treasures as well as of the history and fate in which they manifested themselves. The family which later sprang into fame as the earls of Hladi descended from men residing at Halogaland, north of Drontheim; its ancestor was Holgi, the Halogaland man, and we are told that the spear which had belonged to Holgi was deposited in the blot-house of Earl Hakon. The ancestor in history took over the features of the father of the clan, i.e. the grandfather or perhaps great-grandfather according to circumstances, and might appear under a name celebrated in the family. We have met him in Ketil Hæing of the Hraf- [250] nista men, and in Olaf Geirstadaalf of the Ynglingatal; we see him in Halfdan the Black, the father of Harald Fairhair, who is historical in the old sense of the word, meaning that the individual experiences of a single man have been swallowed up in the history of the family.

In primitive religion, all question of monotheism or polytheism is idle, because there is no footing in the facts for the dilemma which is evolved from the contrast between Hellenism and Christianity. The divine power may manifest itself as one or as many according to circumstances. The hamingja or divine power of course carries personality in all its functions, and so we may presume that the various places in the house had their tutelar deities; our information on this head is very scanty, but as a suggestive instance may be cited Snorri's dogmatical proposition about the goddess Syn: she watches doors of the house and keeps it shut against unwelcome visitors. The act of promise in the feast which sealed the alliance between husband and wife appears in the goddess Vár, “troth”. The phrase occurring in the most nuptials of the Thrymskvida: Place the hammer in the lap of the maid, consecrate our union with the hands of Vár – intimates that the person officiating represented the divine power of troth, or what is the same thing, that he was Troth in person, because the words became living in his person.

The divine power of human acts manifests itself wherever men have dealings with one another. Syn, or “warding off”, is also entrusted with the task of acting on behalf of the defendant at court against unjustified charges, and she was surely not the only divinity present in the moot place. Forseti, “the chairman”, has been translated by the mythologist into a heavenly abode, but his prototypes no doubt were working on the law hills, and tried their best to pacify the contending parties so that “all departed at peace with one another”, to quote the mythological catechism of Snorri.

The continuity of the gods is not dependent on their living the lives of persistent personalities from one end of the year to another. In the intervals between their manifestations, they [251] repose in the stone or the hill, and every time they come forth they may well be said to be born anew. This mode of existing, common to all beings, may have been particularly marked in the case of the great gods of the community. History shows that the gods of the kingdom or earldom were generally those of the ruling family, and for the common mass of people they sprang into existence only on those occasions when the whole population assembled for blot or for war. But we are not entitled to say that the Teutonic state always implied dependence on the royal family, and the holiness of the common meeting or law-thing naturally had its powers, representing the frith which temporarily consolidated all the clans held together by community of law and legal proceedings. Ancient culture, in all its aspects, is rooted in facts spiritual: no proof being valid unless it represents an internal reality in the men who have bargained, no alliance taking effect as real unless it be founded in the mingling of hamingja. The law-thing and the community of which it is the social and religious centre exists only at those periods when people assemble to judge matters, or when the army is called out to united action; at other times it might be called into existence by any member who declined to take revenge for an affront and instead bound himself and his antagonist to the mediation or the judgement of the thing fellows, by lodging a complaint in formal words against his opponent and summoning him to appear before the community. During the intervals between the law moots, the clans formed free unities, without any other interdependence than that created by alliance and intermarriage; and in their killing and making up they were not interfered with by an legal system, nor did they override any law, written or unwritten. The state slept in the meantime, but it was a living reality at the very moment a man sent round the arrow summoning the whole community to the law-thing; when peace was proclaimed, the men coalesced into one brotherhood, and a common hamingja sprang up, no less real than the soul which moulded all clansmen into a solid body. The peace of the thing or law assembly and of the army was no formal etiquette, but a living soul having [252] for its body all the member through whom it operated, and in its holiness strong gods necessarily lay hid. At the times when the law moot was in abeyance, these gods dissolved or ceased from their being – our vocabulary lacks a word for expressing this state of sub-existence – but they leapt into life the very moment the law-thing was summoned and the soul of the community was re-born. Their birth manifested itself in the -bands or holy ropes which were put up to fence off the thing place and mark it as sacred and fit for legal business, and from this manifestation is probably derived the name of bonds – bönd – by which the gods are sometimes designated in Scandinavian literature.

Generally the gods had no names, or more truly perhaps: they needed no names; they were simply the gods of the clan, our gods, and the women (dísir) of the clan, the dises who have accompanied our kinsmen. But they might any time be marked off by some reminiscence of the past or some particularity in the honour and luck of the clan; the Saxons for instance called their divine progenitor Saxneat, the wielder of the short sword, the sax.

The families who leapt into historical grandeur also lifted their gods into fame, and in the unruly times of raids and conquests the conqueror ases of the viking prince obscured the dignity of the homely power. Odin carried the world before him because he led the warrior hosts across the sea and raised petty kings from the high seat of their fathers into a royal throne to command over nations; the upheaval of this deity of the Franks proves how dear spiritual alliance with the mighty conquerors in the south was to the ambitious houses of the north. The uprooting of the viking adventurers from the native soil and the metamorphosis of the ancient honour into an insatiable thirst for glory inspired the poets to re-create heaven and earth in the likeness of the royal mead hall, and seat the god in its high seat after the manner of the usurpers who sat in alien lands and planned ever new undertakings by land and sea.

The predominance of the conqueror kings in the viking age, and overpowering influence that their courts exercised

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