The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[277] down from the mountain above his homestead; he conceived the bright idea of turning this natural phenomenon to account and by some art known to himself he led the water so well and wisely that it bore down upon the farm of his adversary. Lodmund was sitting his hall when one of this thralls came panting in and shouted to his master that a sea was making for the house; the old man, who was blind, rose and bade the thrall lead him to the brink of the water and thrust his staff into the stream, then he gripped the staff, set his teeth in a ring attached to it, and the water turned right about taking its course towards the fields of Thrasi. Thrasi accepted the challenge, and now the pair of sages followed and directed the stream turn and turn about, until they met at the brink of a chasm and agreed to let the river find the nearest way through the cleft to the sea. This story, or legend as it should be properly called, reveals that the staff, cunningly applied, had power over flowing waters, and may be read as an intimation of its use in the sacrifice to guard against the blood running outside the vessel in which it had to be caught.

The myth of Geirrod affords a glimpse of a sacral art involving the use of a staff, adding by way of a commentary that his rite implied a symbolic representation of the god's journey into Utgard. This myth covers one moment only of the proceedings, the collection of the blood; the killing of the victim, and by implication the slaying of the demon, must have had a legend of its own, now lost. As a matter of course the incidents of the journey also symbolised the victory over the demons – an illustration of the comprehensiveness or fulness of the dramas alluded to above – but from the breaking of the giantesses' backs we can draw no conclusion as to the mode of killing the victim; a dramatic concept, as expounded in the legend, is not pictorially identical with the rite and cannot be used as the point of departure for a guess at the form of the ceremony. The kenning of Eitif alluding to the blood as “sword-drawn fluid” clearly points to other incidents in the sacrificial drama.

The scene in the hall of Geirrod is no less pregnant with allusions to the drama. We are told that Thor was invited into [278] the hall to take part in “games” and was seated opposite to the giant. In the episode of the iron bolt the motif of the fight insists upon a fresh representation, and once more the character of the rite behind the legend is revealed to us by the poem of Eilif. The corresponding verses in the Thorsdrapa imply a description of the scenes all but identical with the version of Snorri, but the kennings in which Eilif clothes the contest bridge the gap between the myth and the drama in suggesting the dramatic setting of the story, and thus indirectly bring out the original legend.

We know that the sacrificial meal was initiated by a ritual testing of the entrails or some parts of the intestines which were considered eminently vital and sacred – Homer's spl£gcna p£santo– and on account of the holy virtue of these portions the act of tasting gave divine strength to the sacrificers and consequently dealt a crushing blow to the demons. In Eilif's metaphors the red-hot piece of iron – or mass of red iron as it probably means – is characterised as “a piece of meat cooked in the forge”, as “the red bit of the tongs”, as “the mouthful raised aloft”; and correspondingly the gripping hand of Thor is paraphrased into: “Thor gaped with the mouth of the arm and swallowed with the eager jaws of the arm”. Finally the piece of meat is rendered by segi, a word of ritual provenance, the sacral signification of heart; it recurs in a scene of ritual character in the compound fjörsegi, the flesh of life or heart Faf. 32, v. infra p. 333). The kennings are so peculiar and consistent – in their very artificiality drawing upon traditional ideas – that they disclose a dramatic core within the mythical rind; we are justified in supposing that the poetic language of the drama is refracted through the other parts of the poem, even if the scantiness of supplementary evidence prevents our understanding the allusions. Euphuistic as the Thorsdrapa is, it differs from the artificial poetry of the eleventh century to the extent that the poet does not go to mythology as to a storehouse abounding with masks and gorgeous dresses, but in the choice of his images is aiming at actual dramatic situation. It is a safe guess that he composed amidst the scenery of the ancient cult. [279]

Another form of the battle with the demon is recounted in the myth of Thiazi. Once upon a time when the gods Odin and Hoenir and Loki were engaged in roasting an ox, they had the misfortune that the meat would not cook. They became aware than an eagle was perched on a branch over their heads; he discovered himself as the giant Thiazi and told them that the hitch in the preparation of the meal was due to his influence. The gods agreed that he should get a share of the meal, but when he caught up at one grasp the hams and the shoulders of the ox Loki flared up and aimed a blow at him with a bough. The bough stuck in the eagle, and Loki not being able to free himself was dragged over stones and stumps until he begged for peace. Thiazi released him on the condition that he enticed Ydun, the goddess of the life-giving apples, out of Asgard and left her to the mercy of the demon. On the disappearance of the goddess the gods turned grey with age, and they compelled Loki on pain of death to set out for her rescue. He accomplished his task and carried the goddess off from the giant in the guise of a falcon; when Thiazi pursued Loki over the wall of Asgard, he was caught by the flames of a fire the gods had lighted in the courtyard, and was killed,

This myth turns upon a later moment in the sacrifice and reflects a rite used at the lighting of the fire to ward off the influence of the demon and to secure the preparation of the sacrificial meat. In this ceremony the staff of some similar instrument makes its reappearance as a cult instrument. The danger lurking in the design of the demon comes out in the latter part of the myth; if he had succeeded in his scheme and gods and men were deprived of the sacrificial meal, they would lose all luck: youth and health. This myth finds its commentary in Thjodolf's poem of Haustlong; the design of Geirrod is branded in the Thorsdrapa by the kenning: the robber of the sun; in Haustlong the demon is characterised as the thief of the treasures.

In the former legend Thor plays the leading part, whereas Odin is the principal character in the latter; this divergence only indicates that the myths represent ritual dramas originating with different circles of worshippers. Harbardsljod 19 witnesses [280] to a form of the Thiazi myth in which Thor is the central figure. The legends agree in representing the god acting in concert with two fellow gods, thus reflecting the circumstance that in some rites the officiating chieftain was assisted by two acolytes in the performance of his task. This rule that certain ceremonies required three officiants or, from a dramatic point of view, three actors, each having his particular duty allotted to him, is vouched for by a variety of myths; here it is Thor, Thialfi and Loki or Odin, Hoenir and Loki (cf. Regin.); or Odin, Vili and Ve. One of Odin's ritual titles is Thridi, the third and by implication the most important person of a triad, another Tveggi, which probably means the god who acts in collaboration with another. In their kennings both Thorsdrapa and Haustlong hark back to the actuality of the dramatic situation; so far from being mere poetic titles their metaphors are used to give actuality to the scene in alluding to a cooperation between the gods, characteristic of the moment; Loki and Odin are “the friends of Hoenir” as Hoenir is “the friend of Odin”, and it is no straining of a hypothesis to assume that the rest of the kennings – as f.i. Loki being called “the kinsman of Farbauti” – do not owe their introduction to poetic fancy.

Concerning the ritual task of these actors the legends are not very informative. The character of Loki is apparent in the myth; he is the stirrer up of strife and thus the provoker of victory, but as to the rites expressive of this activity we are left in ignorance. From the Haustlong we learn that Hoenir had the ritual task of lighting and blowing the fire: Hoenir hlaut blása, it is said v.4, and it is worth noting that the verb hljóta is ritual in tone. The refrain of the Thorsdrapa: “angry the brother of Roskva was standing, the father of Magni was victorious, neither the heart of Thialfi nor of Thor was trembling”, is anything but poetical padding; the words indicate a ritual attitude which the officiating persons were bound to assume in order to ensure a happy result. Finally the Haustlong presents us with a number of kennings expressive of the gods' activity in pronouncing the appropriate forumlæ; they are called segjandi, speakers – segja [281] denotes ritual or legal speech; Odin is named hapta snytrir (v.3), the instructor of the gods, or in other words the leader of the sacrifice (cf. infra p. 319); sagna hroerir (v.9) probably signifies: the god who is spokesman or recites holy texts.

The slaughtering of the animal is a sacred act necessary for the preservation of life and luck; to procure the sacred meal the animal's life must be taken. At the same time it is a proceeding fraught with danger and in its principle nefarious as encroaching on something holy and divine; it implies a violation of the inviolable, no less portentous and appalling for its being inevitable – XXX. To ward off the evil consequences and the guilt involved in the act, the slaughtering is confined to strict ritual forms; moreover the recklessness and fearfulness of the act is dramatised in a ceremony which is reparative as well as exculpatory and expiatory as f.i. in the ox-killing in Attica, where the sacrificer had to undergo a mock-trial for murder before a ritual tribunal. In the legends the reverence of the worshippers finds expression in a statement that the god is struck with fear and hides himself, like Indra after he has killed Vrithra, or flees and goes through a ritual of purification, like Apollo after the slaying of the Python.

Dramatically the sacrifice symbolised victory over the demon, the power of evil, and consequently the rite of atonement implicitly stood for a form of redress, or paying of weregild, due to the adversary of the gods for the act of violence. The remains of his body or his bones were revered as sacred, objects of reverence and worship, which is identical with the part of the victim, not eaten, being sacrosanct. The Norwegian myth of Skadi turns upon an expiatory ceremony of this kind. When Thiazi had been slain, we are told, his daughter made her appearance in full panoply to ask for weregild; the gods received her with fair words and made an offer of reconciliation and reparations giving her free choice of one of the gods for her husband with one reserve only, that nothing but their feet should be on view. She chose the fairest pair of feet among the company under the erroneous belief that they could belong to none else but Balder, the perfection of beauty; instead Njord [282] leapt up and claimed her for a bride. In addition she made her consent dependent on the gods making her laugh, and Loki satisfied her on this point by a piece of buffoonery; this legendary description of Loki's little joke evidently forms the programme of a dramatic “game” performed to restore the gladness of the sacrificers after the gloom of the slaughter or in other words to demonstrate the success of the expiatory ceremony – a parallel to the well-known scene in the Eleusinian drama.

The myths here mentioned cover only part of the ritual required by the slaughter of the victim; probably each moment of the ceremony might give rise to a legend, and one of the series is preserved in a myth relating to the cutting up of the victim symbolising the creation of the world, v. infra p.288 seqq.Another form of the divine battle is reproduced in the myth treating of Thor's fight with Hrungnir (S E 85 cf. 115, Skjald. I 17, Harb. 14). The giant made a boast that he would kill the gods and carry off the goddesses Freyja and Sif, and he challenged Thor to meet him in single combat on the border at Grjotunagard. The giants knowing that their very existence hung on the success of Hrungnir, made a man of clay, nine miles high and three miles broad across the chest, on the field of battle, but could not find a heart big enough, until they cut one out of a mare and placed it in his breast. Flanked by this clay giant Hrungnir took his stand covered with a shield of stone and carrying a hone for his weapon. Thor drove along in thunder and lightning, but in the nick of time Thialfi ran on in advance and fooled the giant into pushing his shield underfoot by shouting at him that the god had gone underground and was attacking him from beneath. Thor hurled his hammer from afar, and the weapon was met in its flight by the hone, but nevertheless it reached the head of the giant, and while he sank on his shield Thialfi made short work of the clay man. In falling Hrungnir crashed down on Thor, one of his feet pressed down the neck of the god, and none of the ases was able to free their brother until his son, Magni, came up and threw off the foot at one pull. A bit of the hone stuck in Thor's forehead and was never removed. [283]

This legend contains several allusions to a dramatic enactment in the sacrificial hall: the features that the giants raised a man of clay and furnished him with the heart of a mare, and that his fall was identical with the fall of Hrungnir, obviously originate in a ritual arrangement; moreover Hrungnir's head is said to have been of stone and three-cornered like the sign “called Hrungnir's heart”, a ritual symbol, in fact. The circumstance that the demon is slain on a shield directly reproduces a ceremonial act. Haustlong simply states that he fell on a shield, with no other explanation than: “thus the gods ordered, thus the dises arranged”; the death of the demon, then, took place on a shield.

The demon appears in the guise of a serpent or dragon in a myth telling how Thor killed the Serpent of Middle-garth, but this myth has come down only in a literary, rather etiolated form (Hym. Cf. S E 54 seqq.). Thor accompanied the giant Hymir on a fishing expedition, baited his hook with the head of an ox and angled for the Serpent; when the Serpent's head appeared above the surface, Hymir was so alarmed that he cut the line. Thor hurled his hammer at the disappearing head, but nobody can tell whether it took effect. In the drama Thor had to kill the demon, and the original version is implied in fragments of Thor poems (Skjald. 132 cf. 129). The fight is commemorated in Vsp. 56, where it must necessarily conform to the religious views of the poet; but though the idea of the poem requires that the gods and the demons should kill one another, the author gives Thor time enough to enjoy his victory for a few moments.

The drinking feast that succeeded the sacrificial meal runs on the same dramatic motif; when the ale was consecrated and the horn emptied, the demon suffered defeat. This scene is literally illustrated on the Gosforth cross, where the sacrificer is depicted standing, horn in hand, beside the dead body of the demon (Aarb. for nord. Oldk. 1902 p. 161 and reference; also Haas: Bilderatlas zur Religionsgeschichte I nr.49).

The episode of the ale feast was intimately connected with the sacrifice: the ale spiritually drew its power and luck from the killing of the victim and the shedding of its blood. This

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