The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[270] its interest, in fact, from the circumstance that the issue was of greater moment than all secular decisions, that the perils exceeded all possible risks in daily life, that it had practical results of far more vital importance than any successes achieved by work. The joy of playing is rooted so firmly in passionate earnest that it would lose its spice in the event of its being turned into mere make-believe; heaven and earth, luck and honour, past and future, happiness, in body and mind, hang in the balance and are won – or lost – by the game. No wonder that the play ends on a note of triumphant, overpowering joy: there was gladness in the hall.

A statement that the emotions called up by the festival were intensely, even exclusively of a religious character, thus amounts to saying that they included what we call an aesthetic enjoyment of the scenes as art and of it language as poetry. The ritual moves in a region of speech above the commonplace dialogue of every day; it gives birth to a vocabulary abounding in metaphors and images, in stately solemn phrases bearing in their very rhythm and cadence the weight of chanting. This formal speech is poetry because it is the passionate language of life at its highest and strongest moments; not the cry of a soul artificially and aesthetically exalted to a tension, partly delight and partly pain, by high-strung emotions and raptures of ecstacy, but the soberly fervent words of life in the throes of new birth, hovering on the brink of tragedy and triumphantly redeeming itself. Classical poetry voices the experience of history – the history of the clansmen – coming to life and through its new birth gathering strength to achieve greater and more ambitious objects. The poetical language differs from habitual speech in being more ornate in dress as well as more passionate in spirit, but not in being less true to nature; its images and metaphors stand out from the homely phrases of the day, because they illustrate the facts of life as they appear on the ritual stage: life as it really is.

Among the Teutons, poetry has preserved the ritual language in its kennings and epithets. The principle of style, obtaining in the scaldic poetics, that warriors are correctly para- [271] phrased by a divine name, as f.i. the Tyr of the sword, is derived from the ritual fact that men were gods during the festival; when woman is called the dis or goddess of the ale, we catch a glimpse of the sacred figure carrying the cup round the hall along the row of worshippers. By the eleventh century the poetical language had become a literary idiom, or rather jargon, and most of the kennings are little more than clichés, but these very clichés owe their currency to the pageant of the ancient drama. When gold is called the light of the water, the shield is styled the ship of Ull, the sword is paraphrased as Heimdal's head, and Odin is charcterised as the friend of Hoenir, the kenning is nothing less than a dramatic scene – and a myth – crystallised or rather stylised into a compact figure as a picture in so-called conventionalised art.

In the court poetry the kennings were reduced to poetical equivalents of the naked word, to be used at random according to the demands of rhythm and rhyme; originally their use was determined, not by aesthetic fancy, but by truly artistic, i.e. religious reality, to illustrate an actual situation or to reproduce an actual picture from the dramatic scene. The literary craftsman would make Odin the friend of Hoenir when metrical or aesthetic reasons demanded variety or the poet felt that his verses needed a little polish; in ritual poetry the kenning reflects a scene in which Odin and Hoenir acted together, and thus add precision to the imagery of the drama. In a paraphrase like that of Odin as the robber of the ale or mead, professional poets saw no more than a pretty substitute for a rather hackneyed name; in the legend it conjured up a scene of vital influence, and consequently of overwhelming power over the imagination of the listeners. The original force of the poetic language is recognisable in the verse of Grinmismál (50) in a list of Odin's names: “I called myself Svidurr and Svidrir in the house of Sokkmimir, when I concealed my name to the ancient giant and slew his son Midvidnir”. The earliest scalds had not wholly emancipated themselves from the reality of the festival; frequently a display of flowing poetic draperies has replaced the clinging metaphors of legendary poetry, but occasionally the [272] clear–cut images of the drama shine through the elaboration of their comparisons. An excellent example is furnished by the opening verses of Eyvind's Háleygjatal, cf. infra. p. 327.

The dramatic character of the festival is attested by the style of the Eddic poems which still bears witness to its origin in the stirring spectacular life of the drama. It has none of the characteristics peculiar to epic poetry, its slow, steady stride, its attention to the things marking its way. The Eddic poems do not even tell the story; one scene leaps forth after another, evoked at times by a lightning revelation of an attitude or of a sword descending on a head, at other times by a piece of a dialogue. The sequence of the pictures suggests a chain of events composing a forcible, passionate story, but it is left to the memory -- not to the imagination – of the reader to supply the links between them.

In its suggestiveness and its allusiveness, its appeal not to the imagination but to the memory or to an imaginative power or recollection, in its vividness of effect, this style represents the language of the legends, though in various stages of evolution, as becoming a literary medium. Some of the poems are all but pure legends – the only unadulterated legends left to us – others are so far evolved as to be poems founded on legend and displaying odds and ends of ritual material.

The character of the sacrifice among the Teutons is further indicated by the word in use for play or game; leikr – A S lác – denotes play and sacrifice (f.i. Gen. 975, 1497, 2843, 2933; applied to mass: Guthl. 1084; hence the meaning of gift as in Beow. 43, 1863, B A Po. III 183(1); cf. infra p. 278). In Norwegian leikr enters into kennings denoting battle, a fact indicative of the holiness of the warriors and the religious character of war (Hildar leikr etc.); cf. Beow. 1561 etc.

Our hope of forming an idea of the ritual among the Northerners is founded on the examination of these reminiscences preserved in poetic similes, completed by that of the legendary material embedded in the myths. On account of the abrupt, allusive and partly obscure character of the remains, the traces of the drama would scarcely be recognisable, if the eye of the [273] examiner had not been trained by experience in other parts of the world, where religious forms are presented in their integrity and effectual power. The fragmentary state of the material will never admit of reconstructing the ritual drama as a whole, but the fragments should be numerous enough to reproduce a variety of scattered scenes sufficient to reveal the character of the blot. At times our information is such as to lead us to the very threshold of a hypotheses and mockingly to leave us standing in the dark with one foot seeking for a hold in the void. The material examined here is far from being exhaustive; I have given no account of a great many expeditions that landed the investigator in hypotheses that had nothing to recommend them but the possibility that they were true; but I feel confident that a greater amount of ingenuity and constructive power will succeed in gathering together into an orderly pattern threads that have here been left hanging loose.


The dominant motif of the Northern drama is the struggle between the gods and the demons. Under the hands of later redactors and not least through the narratory skill of Snorri the myths of Thor have been transformed into subtle works of art, but for all the literary skill of the antiquarian the stamp of their origin as legends or programmes for ritual dramas is not entirely effaced, and in some cases the allusions to an underlying drama are plainly visible – preeminently in the myth which relates Thor's visit to the giant Geirrod.

Once upon a time the god was enticed by Loki into setting out for the realm of the giants without his hammer and customary accoutrements of belt and gloves. On his road he put up, along with his companions Loki and Thialfi, at the house of a giantess who was called Grid and was the mother of Vidar. Grid warned the god against the perils awaiting him in the homestead of Geirrod and supplied him with a girdle and a pair of iron gloves and in addition with her staff, Gridarvolr. Thus equipped Thor sallied forth and reached the bank of a [274] broad river called Vimur. He put on the girdle of Grid and waded into the stream steadying his stride by thrusting the staff into the bottom against the force of the waves, and supporting his friends who caught hold of his belt. In the middle of his passage the river swelled to such a degree that its waters rose over his shoulders. Casting a glance up the mountain he saw that the daughter of Geirrod was standing astride the river, and ceased from wondering at the mighty flooding. A river should be stemmed at its source, he exclaimed and flung a stone at her with the result that the waters subsided and he was able to lift himself and his companions out of the stream. This incident explains why the rowan is called the saviour of Thor. On his arrival at the residence of Geirrod he was shown into the goat's house, but no sooner had he taken his seat than he felt the chair being raised under him, and he only saved his head by thrusting this staff against the roof and pushing back, and instantly a loud outcry was heard, for by forcing his chair toward the floor he had broken the backs of Geirrod's daughters. After this Thor was invited into the hall; he found fires burning down the length so of the room and the inmates engaged in games. He was placed opposite to the giant, and Geirrod took up a glowing bolt of iron and hurled it at the god, but Thor caught it with his gloves and raised it ready for striking. Frightened by the threatening attitude of the god the demon hurried behind a pillar for safety. Thor threw the bolt with such force that it went through the pillar and killed the giant crouching behind it.

By analogy with the rites of other religions – first and foremost those of the Aryan brethren of the Teutons in Greece and India – we are justified in supposing that the combat of the god was dramatically expressed in the slaughtering of the sacrificial victim, and in Snorri's version of the Geirrod myth there are still some traces of an ancient legend, clear enough to show that the struggle between Thor and Geirrod was enacted during the festival. On his arrival Thor is shown into the goat's house and from there into the hall where games are going on: in other words, the scene of the story is in the sacrificial feast. [275] The narrator evidently believed that the reception was meant for a gesture of contempt, and by a rather scatter-brained copyist goat's house has been altered into guest's house; but Thor's visit to the small cattle may safely be regarded as anything but a romantic episode in the career of the hero god. The legend alluded to a dramatic scene of slaughter in which the god, or in ritual words the representative of the god among the sacrificers, started with his assistants for the fold to kill the victim and, symbolically, to slay the demon. For this purpose the leader of the ceremony was furnished with a staff. As a rule the glorious killer of the giants wields a weapon of more impressive appearance, and the myth supplies an explanation how it came about that the god was unprepared for action and had to put with this quaint substitute for his famous hammer. This episode of the visit to Geirrod intimates that the sacrificer in this part of the drama was equipped with a cult instrument of a peculiar character, and thus furnishes a parallel to the Frey myth explaining that the god had to kill his antagonist with the horn of a stag, because he had parted with his sword (S E 38). In reality this part of the myth, or rather of the legend at the back of the myth, is not explanatory, but reproduces a ceremony introductory to the sacrifice in which the officiating person was consecrated for his task and invested with the sacrificial implements appropriate to the act. The ritual character of the staff is sufficiently marked by its name; in the first place staff is expressed by a ritual word, völr; in the second place its character is defined by its relation to a power that can only be characterised as the friend of Thor.

As to the shape of this implement the first part of the myth may perhaps offer some intimation. We find there a graphic description of Thor's journey into Utgard, where his progress is hampered by foaming rivers which would have swept him off his feet if he had not thrust his staff firmly into the bottom. In all probability this part of the god's exploit, his braving the streams that flowed icily cold with venom and cutting swords, had its representation at the sacrifice, at the moment when the blood spirted from the victim. The shedding of the sacred [276] blood was an occasion for anxiety and solicitous care, and it is probable that Thor's perilous march has been dramatically and symbolically rendered in the rite that was necessary to prevent the blood from running outside the vessel and being wasted. The connexion between legend and rite is seen in the trait that the god lifted himself out of the river by grasping a rowan – probably the sacred staff had to be made of rowan's wood; the words: “rowan is the rescue of Thor”, read like a ritual formula or a poetical kenning based on the ceremonial phrase.

As it happens, this legend has received poetical treatment in a poem which has come down to us: Eilifs' Thorsdrapa. A scrutiny of the verses reveals that the poet was in touch with the language of the drama and very probably had himself seen the myth enacted; his kennings are not mere pomp of words gathered at random from the vocabulary of courtly poets and put together according to the demands of style and metre, but for the greater part at least are chosen to fit in with the situation of the drama. In Eilif's metaphors the foaming rivers are called the blood of the giantess, the spirting jet of her blood, the sword-produced fluid. True to the ritual representation he designated the sky as the roof the hall. In v. 7 he has preserved part of the sacrificial formula; the only resource – ráð – left to Thor when the stream all but overwhelmed him, was to cry out: “My megin shall grow up to the roof, unless the blood of the giantess is stilled”. The version of Snorri translated the formula into an epic piece of mythology: “Do not swell further, waters of Vimur, I must wade your stream unto the seat of the giant; know, if you grow higher, my asemegin will grow as highs as heaven”. The matter is identical in the poem of Eilif and in the myth of Snorri, but in the poetical version the incident is drawn from the stirring scenes in the sacrificial hall.

As to the ritual handling of the staff we are left in ignorance by the myth, but some hints, if not a complete explanation, may perhaps be sought in a story incorporated in the Landnámabok. An Icelandic peasant, Lodmund, was involved in a conflict of long standing with his neighbour, Thrasi. One day the latter became aware that a flood of water was coming

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