The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[253] on the literature, have pushed Odin and the Valhal pantheon so far into the foreground of the posthumous mythologies that the divine family holding court like earthly kings have overshadowed the venerable powers of the chieftains and petty kings and sunk their names into oblivion. In some cases the local gods have been allowed to live, because they could be used as a foil for the brilliant new-comers, by being reduced to half-trolls or giants, and sometimes they are even completely transformed into some sort of demons, implying of course that their worshippers were nothing but wild tribes, as we should term them now. An illustrious case is that of the goddess Skadi who is made the daughter of a giant; her place and position among chieftains of northern Norway is sufficiently indicated by her characteristics as ski-runner and hunter, and further by the fact that she figures in the genealogies of such clans as the earls of Hladi. Another goddess has obstinately held her ground in the memory of men, viz. Thorgerd Holgabrud, though she was never brought into relation with the courtly pantheon. The reason of her isolated persistence is not far to seek: she is the tutelary deity of the earls of Hladi, and launched into history by its most distinguished son, Earl Hakon, who vied with throned kings and held all Norway for a length of time. But little is known beyond this fact and the indication hidden in her name, which means simply: the woman of the men of Halogaland, or the woman of Holgi, the eponyn of the district. As we have seen the Christian sagamen still knew that the spear “which had belonged to Holgi” rested in a temple dedicated to Thorgerd and owned by Earl Hakon. Thorgerd went to Iceland with the branch of the family that emigrated, as we learn incidentally from a saga; for Grimkel is said to have had the goddess in his temple, and we know that he descended from the famous clan of earls.

The handful of titles which can be culled from northern sources is swelled by the indications sometimes lying hidden in local names and still more by monuments and classical texts relating to the tribes bordering on the Roman empire and often taking service in the legions of Rome; but failing [254] all historical and mythological information, the names are to us but empty words. They may command interest insofar as they lend a faint tinge of colour to the picture we gather indirectly from popular literature of the clans and tribes worshipping, each within its own homestead and sanctuary, the powers of their fathers; and thus serve to dispel once and for all the chimera of a common Teutonic pantheon or a set of mythological tenets universal throughout the Teutonic territory.

A peculiar class in the world of gods is formed by the divine beings who are only impersonations of a phase in the ritual. During the blot, the whole is pervaded with god, and all actions or states may crystallise into a personal appearance of the divine power, or in other words every acting person is a personification of the divine act furthered through his interference. The gods Hoenir and Lodur, whom we have met in the creation legend, are pale shapes, as we say, because they have no existence beyond the ritual observance necessary to complete the sacrifice. The most interesting person among these cult shapes, because comparatively well known, is Heimdal. His character is sufficiently indicated by his cult epithets; he resides in the victim, for he is called the horny one and thus identified with the original and most common sacrificial animal, the ram. He is born by nine mothers whose names are preserved in mythological lists: among these are found the giantesses killed by Thor on his visit to Geirrod in the cattle fold, and it is a safe guess that all the nine sisters are impersonations of some incident or other during the blot. The myth of his birth then describes the literal truth that the god is called into being by the preparations of the feast. He is nourished by the blood of the victim and by the megin of the earth, i.e. he grows as the preparation of the meat and the sacrificial hearth proceeds. He is the watcher of the gods on the rim of the world; he is the father of the “holy host” that assembles in the blot hall. Heimdal is the blot itself, the stillness and the peace, not in modern abstraction, but as the power which resides in the house and which comes in the men, constraining them to forbearance against each other and to anxious observance [255] of the rules necessary for the happy proceeding of the sacrificial acts; he is the spirit guarding against mishaps and inroads from powers hostile to the blot, and watches on the rim of the world or the cosmogenic hearth. We are led to infer that the skull of the victim was placed near or on the fireplace, and performed a symbolic part in the sacrificial drama, and when it is said that in poetical language Heimdal's sword is called his head, the meaning is probably that he was represented by the skull with its horns attached, and that this skull was a ceremonial weapon turned against the powers of evil. But this symbolic impersonation does not, of course, exclude the possibility that one of the officiants may have played his part in the cultic observances, just as the chief who performed the slaughtering and battle with the giants in the cattle fold and in the hall impersonated Thor, the god of the clan who had his abode in the sacred hammer.

To this class of divine apparitions also pertained the daughter of Thor, Thrudr, who is “power”, and his sons, Modi and Magni, who are his powerful courage and resolution. To understand these personifications it is necessary to realise the difference between primitive psychology and modern abstraction, and to bear in mind that psychic states were experienced as attributes of the soul; all virtues and passions are instinct with personality, because they represent men in a peculiar state of courage or fear rather than passions loosened from the substratum by analysis as in our psychology. In Modi lives the resolution which makes Thor and his human representative go on with the fearful work of killing the sacred animal and combating the demons.

Among the gods, Loki occupies a place of his own. His part in the sacred drama is that of the plotter who sets the conflict in motion and leads the giants on to the assault that entails their defeat. His origin and raison d'être is purely dramatic; like his confreres in other rituals and mythologies he is a child of the “games”, and herein lies the cause of his double nature. As the wily father of artifice whose office is to drag the demoniacal powers into the play and effect their down- [256] fall, he comes very near representing evil, and he is thus mythically related to the unheore ogres with which the gods contend; from his is born the serpent whose head Thor repeatedly crushed, as also the wolf Fenrir, the adversary of Odin. But as the sacred actor who performs a necessary part in the great redemptory work of the blot, he – i.e. his human impersonation – is a god among gods, beneficent and inviolable. He is the humourist and jester of the rites, foul-mouthed and ever fertile in contrivance. Under the influence of Christian ideas and legends, this double-faced originator of fateful events naturally expanded into a personification of the evil principle in existence; the legends in which he played a prominent part were so pregnant in character that they needed no forcing to develop into the life story of a malignant demon. Loki came near to becoming a counterpart of the Christian devil, but his origin rendered him far superior to the father of evil in subtle shades of character. It is party due to this intensely human and thus eminently demoniac figure that the eschatology of the viking age acquired depth and grandeur excelling the rigid dogmatism of its model, or rather inspiring example, the apocalypse of the Christian church.

The sacrificial feast now lies open to us in its whole depth. The blot is the transfiguration of life, and we shall see without wonder the mood of the participants spreading out over the entire scale of life. The feast comes as a stoppage in the current of events, which causes life to flow on and fill man with its might, until he almost lifted from his seat.

There was a great tension in the soul, which meant that luck had power far beyond its daily measure in the men, that the high holiness reigned in them according to its will, and did not leave them free to act upon the casual impulse of the moment. All motions of the soul and body were stronger than usual, but also heavier. The holiness bound them. Men moved in the daily holiness as in something great which fitted, the life of the feast was felt as the greater thing that overshadowed.

Every act and every word is eternal, working, not as in [257] daily practice upon a finite and circumscribed object towards a particular goal, but as we should say prototypic; proceeding from the hamingja as a whole and influencing its fate as a whole. The blot is creation in the deepest and widest sense of the word. By sacrificing, men draw the gods into themselves and scoop life-giving draughts from the source of the hamingja; and on the other hand they create the gods and life itself. By slaughtering and eating, they absorb life from the sacred animal, the repository of the hamingja, but none the less they create the herds and make them advance into new and fruitful existence. When all is said, the truth comes out; the blot is not men creating gods or gods creating men, but a creative act out of which gods and men and everything proceed. The fundamental experience of primitive life often expressing itself directly in the spirit and morphology of the language is: being and becoming, doing and suffering, whereas to us, life centres round the individual who is or becomes, the doer and the sufferer; our sentence is centred in a subject governing the verb, but behind the language lies another type in which the verb is the soul, men being rather manifestations and mediums than subjects. The best illustration of this view is contained in the Nordic words denoting gods: ráð and regin, both of them neuters, meaning power or hamingja, the powers who possess the quality of personality but are personal in virtue of something deeper and broader (cf. II 246).

There was something more, a solemnity of tension which accompanied every little detail in the actions of the cult-fellows, because a future whose horizon was the world and the extinction of which was the shattering of that world, was eased over, little by little, through the ceremonies, from the world of possibility to the world of reality. From man to man the horn passed down the hall, one by one the glances of those present were drawn up, and the voice of the standing drinker sounded through a silence of anticipation; whether his words flowed from his lips without stammering, whether he drank properly, whether he drank the whole cup; these things decided both luck and honour. [258]

There was tension at the sacrifice, but not fear. Certainty as to means and end was a necessity for the blot-man. He could not step forward and deliver his formæli if he did not feel in himself that which made his words whole; as soon as the mastery of the world failed him, the time of blot was for ever past for him and his clan. But the certainty had its strong religious glow, because it depended on men's will and power to submit to a definite order of things, which meant strength to him who stood in the centre, but death to any who chanced to turn athwart the law.

All this is contained in the word blot. Its latent fervour can be felt when we witness it serving the experience of Christianity. Most tribes discarded it as being too strongly imbued with ancient ideas and emotions; the Goths, however, enlisted it into the service of the new god, using the blótan of worshipping God with a holy body acceptable unto God, applying it to Anna the prophetess who served God with fastings and prayers night and day, and to the true worshipper of God who doeth His will.

A peculiar stillness was required at the blot.

The devotion of the blot feast did not ring out unheeded, we find an echo in the provisions of the mediæval guilds regarding the brethren's habits of drinking. Everything is carefully thought of; that first of all the minni cup shall be carried round without interruption, that all shall sit in quiet anticipation paying full attention to the act, neither leaving their place nor going to sleep on the benches during the solemnity, that the individual shall rise and perform rightly and to the full the religious duty with the cup before sitting down again; provision is also made for the case of any who should let the minni cup slip from his hand, or refuse to accept it when his neighbour hands it on, or scorn to rise and celebrate the minni when he is addressed, or stand on the floor and chant the minni with his dagger on and his head covered. In these orders as to what is to be done and what avoided when the minni is being blessed or sung, lies the veneration of the cult; indeed, the fact that the rules of propriety should be enforced or in [259] case of need upheld by punishment, cannot but enhance the impression made upon us; for many of the rules were purely traditional, so that the observance of them is only a testimony to deeply ingrained custom.

But the stillness had to have its precise counterpart in festive tumult, the rejoicing aloud at the victory of life. The feast had to be drunk with strength, all must feel that the god was in the house. There was little joy at the feast, runs the lament over a blot that failed.

As the symbol of the toast-drinking, the introductory verses of the Sigdrifumál have a claim to be heard; they are a poetic fantasia on the ritual of life, generalised into a picture of two heroes, i.e. typical human beings, under the sacredly powerful forms which held their culture together.

When Sigurd had slit Sigdrifa's byrnie with his sword, thereby releasing her from the enchanted sleep, she sat up, looked at the man, and said: “What by my byrnie? What loosed me from sleep? Who freed me from slumber-pale spell?” He answered: “That did Sigmund's son and Sigurd's sword – newly has it spread a feast for ravens.” Then he asked her name. Whereupon she took a horn of mead and gave him a minni-drink: “Hail day, hail day's son, hail night and night's kinswoman; with gentle eyes see hither and give victory to those sitting here.Hail ases, hail asynies, hail many-useful earth, grant gift of speech and man-wit to us two athelings, and hands of healing as long as we may live.”

To translate this heill, wherewith the gods are given luck and praised for luck, would be equivalent to transforming our culture to that which in its late flowering produced these verses.


It is a task of almost disheartening difficulty to interpret the culture and religion of a primitive race in modern language. Our words are incapable of expressing ideas that are not only divergent from our own, but run in totally different dimensions. In order to reproduce the intellectual life of these races, we must unlearn our psychology, and learn another, no less reasonable but differing in its very principles. Primitive ideas and sensations and sentiments have a harmony and tension of their own, because their holders group the harvest of experience according to another point of view, bring it to a consciousness under strange aspects and construct a reality so alien to ours that words like god and man, life and death, as they are understood by Europeans, carry no meaning in their language.

In preference to the term of primitive – conveying the preposterous idea of something incipient and consequently less “developed” – I would suggest the use of “classical” to indicate the type of culture confronting us in the ancient peoples of Greece and Rome and India etc. as well as in contemporary races beyond the pale of European civilization. A nomenclature allusive to the antagonism between ancient Greece and modern Europe is better suited to bring out the vital characteristics of the classical, realistic, all-embracing harmony of experience as opposed to our romantic civilisation, the reality of which is centered in the human soul and embraces only the reactions of mind on a shadowy world outside in the form of ideas, sentiments and moods.

The antagonism between classical and romantic culture is most keenly felt in the circumstance that the former presup- [261] poses a conception of time and space incompatible with our most elementary ideas and still more irreconcilable with our actual experience. In our experience the primary property of bodies is extension, whereas in classical culture it is primarily a force or life that governs all ideas; the earth is not principally the expanse of fruitful soil, but soil, fertility itself, and the reality of the spacious earth is as wholly present in a clod resting in my hand as in the fields stretching far and wide; a mouthful of water is water in the same sense as all the rivers and oceans of the world. In the same way, time is, in our experience, a stream of events descending from the unknown mists of beginning and running in a continuous flow down the future into the unknown; to the men of classical ages the actual life is the result of a concurrent beginning and has its source in the religious feast. The festival consists in a creation or new birth outside time, eternal it might be called, if the word were not as misleading as all others and as inadequate to describe an experience of a totally alien character. When the priest or chieftain ploughs the ritual furrow, when the first seed is sown while the story of the origin of corn is recited, when the warriors act the war game, they make history, do the real work, fight the real battle, and when the men sally forth with the plough or the seed or the weapons, they are only realising what was created in the ritual act. As with the future so with the past: the religious events constitute reality, and actual life acquires reality insofar as it develops the experience acquired in the world of the gods, into successive incidents and definite particulars. During the festival the gods take possession of the whole place; everything is filled with divine life, creating power: mean and their belongings, the house in which the sacrifice is held, the time from the opening consecration to the last ceremony of consummation; the events are eternal and dynamic like a germ that hides a coming plant in its core. The acts that fill up the time may differ in degree of holiness, but there is no difference in kind; one and all they print ineffaceable lines on the physiognomy of the future. This pregnancy of life during the festival makes itself felt in the anxious care of the worshippers – as [262] manifested in strict rules of conduct – to eschew any occupation likely to influence the coming time to its disadvantage. The road of the sacrificers is marked by prohibitions as well as by injunctions; it is a road leading to gladness and strength, but lined with tabus indicating dangers to be avoided.

Consequently, classical culture is essentially active. In our experience time and history are given facts: a destiny linking the life of the individual to the lives of his predecessors; time being a flow of events, we cannot help but being waves in the stream borne along by the sheer weight of the past. Primitive man feels the importance of past events as keenly as we do, and he appreciates their determining impulse still more keenly, but to him the past is energy; he embraces his destiny, or rather the destiny of his race as it has manifested itself in the ancestors, as his own will, and instead of reacting upon the past he acts from it and remoulds it into living actuality.

Hence it follows that his religion is dramatic in character; his piety does not find an outlet in devotion and surrender, in praying and receiving, but in action. Life must be won, death, sin, evil must be conquered. To form a true idea of this conquest of life, it is necessary, however, to bear in mind that classical thinking is concrete in its very essence; in our experience, life is something abstract, power or energy entering into a variety of forms, whereas in classical culture it is “luck and honour”, life as it manifests itself in the character of the race, in its history, in its traditional friendship and enmity towards other circles of men, its individual relation to the powers and beings of nature. The festival covers the history of the clan or the people from its very beginning to the day of the feast, concentrated into one tremendous event. It recreates life, not as a plastic possibility, like clay ready to be moulded into any shape, but as a destiny, as a definite sequence of events, made up of war or husbandry, of marriage and child-bearing or formation of friendships, as history went onward into the future. The person who fights in the ritual is the god, the clan personified, as we say, in one heroic figure, and his antagonist is the enemy, all the enemies of the race, spiritual as well as material, imper-

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