The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[284] fact, that the drink of life was inspired by the blessing created by the sacrifice, is clothed in a mythical formula by a verse in the Grimnismal (25): the mead runs from the udders of the goat Heidrun. It is further developed in the myth of Kvasir whose blood ran into the ale vat (S E 60, 71, 79); Kvasir is called the wisest of beings, he was killed by dwarfs who collected his blood in a vessel, mixed it with honey and in this way made the precious drink of mead; later on they were compelled to give it up to the giant Suttung in ransom for their lives.

The ale was ritually called lögr (Sigrdr. 8, 13, Alvis. 34, Hym. 6), and judging by the kennings this term applied to the blood of the victim as well.

In the ritual connected with the brewing of the ale and its offering up in the drinking feast the victory was won and celebrated; the drama inherent in the ceremonies is transcribed in a myth telling how Odin robbed Suttung of the life-giving fluid. Snorri (S E 60) has retold the myth with sly humour in a version containing numerous reminiscences of the ritual, worked up with elements of fairy tales into an intricate whole that defies our attempts at analysis. The main features recur in a group of verses incorporated in the Hávamál, 104 seqq., and this version evidently keeps much closer to the original form of the legend: “I paid a visit to the ancient giant and now I have returned. I won small gain by holding my tongue, by a good many brave words I showed myself off. Gunnlod placed me in a golden chair and gave me a drink of the precious mead; she was niggardly rewarded for her true spirit and her great love. I let Rati gnaw a passage through the stone, above and below stood the roads of the giants; I risked my head in the deed. I have happily enjoyed the drink happily won, a cunning man accomplishes his aim. Now the kettle Óðrörir has been brought up and placed on the holy spot of men. I had hardly escaped from the seat of the giants even now, if Gunnlod had not given me her assistance, the noble maiden who rested in my arms. The day after, the frost giants strode into the hall of Hár and asked for Bolverk, whether he dwelt among the gods or had been slaughtered by Suttung. I think Odin swore an oath on his [285] ring; who can trust in his covenant; he betrayed Suttung for his ale and left Gunnlod weeping”.

This version displays its authority, by its succession of ritual dialogue and ritual images, as a reproduction of dramatic scenes. Snorri completes the allusions by describing how Odin forced his way through the rock – the roads of the giants – by means of a gimlet, Rati, and further by the information that Odin in his disguise had assumed the name of Bolverk; but he has dropped such ritual reminiscences as the chair on which Odin was seated and the final scene when the giants enter to ask for compensation are once more cheated out of their right.

The deed of Odin is perpetuated in a number of kennings. These poetical heirlooms of the blot have degenerated into poetical tinsel, but now and again the original stamp shines through, for instance in the prologue of Eyvind's Háleygjatal (Skjald. 68); he apostrophizes the god Odin as the god who bore the weregild of the dwarfs on mighty wings from Surt's gloomy vales in the nether world, ór Surts Sökkdölum; Sokkdalir and Sokkmimir occur elsewhere as ritual names of the nether world and its prince (Grim. 50, Ynglingatal 2, S E 197).

The viking age celebrates the drink mainly as the source whence poets and wise men drew their inspiration. From earliest time the cup flowed with ráð: speech, powerful words, wise thoughts – the power of the ale made the traditions of the clan ever fresh and strong – but this blessing was part of a more comprehensive luck, rich enough to renew the clansmen, body and soul, as well as their labour and possessions. In their onesided praise of the inspiratory ale, the scalds obscured its value as the drink of life. Snorri's version of the Suttung myth reflects the sentiments of the viking age, whereas the verses of the Hávamál have retained a truer conception of the mead, that of an invigorating draught which colours the checks with the hue of blooming health, the sign of youth and strength, and makes the blood run warm and red in the veins. “I happily won litar and happily enjoyed them”, ruse the verse (107); litar means simply hue, strength, and health. [286]

The great moments in the festival, such as the sacrifice, the meal and the drinking ceremony, are but religious peaks towering above and descending by numerous degrees into a maze of ritual moments, from the very first preparations to the dismissal of the worshippers. Every little piece of arrangement: the brewing of the ale, the rinsing of the vessels, was carried out with the gravity of ceremonial, and each moment of ritual employment is implied the dramatic motif of the feast. Concerning the ceremonies of preparation we have only one piece of information in a legend connected with bringing out the ale vat and making it ready for use. Hymiskvida – in form one of the most literary poems of the Edda, but nevertheless firmly rooted in ritual legend – presents us with the programme of the brewing process or part of it. The gods decided upon holding an ale feast and took omens to the effect that Ægir ought to prepare the ale. On his protesting that he lacked a proper vessel Thor set out to win the ale vat from the giants. This legend shows how the holiness and luck of the brewing and of the utensils were vindicated; its ceremonial import further manifests itself in the fact that the conquest of the vessel is closely bound up in the legend with the god's struggle against the Serpent of Middle-garth.

By means of a comparative examination of the evidence contained in the myths and of the information conveyed by the poetic vocabulary, we are able to form an idea of the ritual drama among the Northerners, exhibiting the features which are typical of primitive or classical religions. The events which form the theme of the drama are living in the worshippers, their memory and imagination are filled with images ready to emerge at the slightest allusion. They saw the god striding across the bleak, forbidding fells of Utgard, through fearsome ravines swept by fierce hurricanes, wading through icy rivers, which cut into his flesh with corroding venom and slicing swords, to seek out the giant in his monstrous grandeur and grimness; these visions were illustrated or rather realised in the scene when the victim collapsed and the blood spirted from the wound. The images stored in memory are called into life by the triumphant joy of victory and emerge in the objects handled [287] during the ceremonies, in the acts and gestures which were necessitated simply by the requirements of the sacrifice. The drama was largely made up of such ritual functions as did not owe their existence and dramatic force to any histrionic or artistic impulse; on the other hand purely ceremonial operations shade off imperceptibly into poses and attitude of marked dramatic character, of the kind hinted at in 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”. But even in these cases the attitude had primarily a ritual and religious purpose, as we see from analogous forms in other religions; in order to carry out the sacredly outrageous attack on the animal the officiant must do violence to his feelings and ceremonially stiffen or harden himself, and it is this ritual necessity which gives the gesture its dramatic force. By degrees the ceremonies pass off into genuine mimicry and imitative acting; the drama underlying the Hrungnir myth probably found outlet in a scene more closely related to our ideas of symbolic representation, and, reticent as are our sources of information on this head, the intimations of this story taken in conjunction with other allusions are sufficiently clear to complete the picture.

And yet, in this attempt to realise the sequence of ideas in primitive or classical culture and to translate the psychology underlying those ideas into modern forms of experience, we are putting the cart before the horse. We insist on explaining the spirit of the drama on lines natural to us, as if the memories stored in the minds of the worshippers were evoked by means of the suggestion of the ritual in the shape of a dramatic experience of the myth; but what ranks as secondary to our mode of thinking is primary from a classical point of view; the drama constitutes reality, and imagination or recollection are nothing but the reflexes of the mighty events experience in the drama.

Probably the demons, too, were symbolically represented in the ritual drama, but on this head our information is extremely meagre. It is worth noting, however, that gandr, the staff or magical instrument of witches, makes it appearance in mytho- [288] logy and probably in ritual as a synonym of demon. It is applied to the Serpent of Middle-garth – Jormungandr – and to the Wolf, in the compound Vánargandr, which contains an allusion to the river Ván of the nether world (S E 35 cf. Solar. 54). The Gosforth cross presents the demons in the characteristic shape of broad bands intertwined and terminating in a gaping head; there is a possibility that the carver chose this ornamental pattern because it resembled or recalled the customary figure in the blot hall.


The sacrifice brought about a rebirth of life; the worshippers renewed their hamingja or luck, and this renewal implied that the world was created afresh, that the “usefulness' – benevolence, fertility of nature – was called into new life. Through the blot this fair earth with its leaping and flying and growing beings and the heavens with sun and moon, light and heat were saved from falling into the hands of the demons and turning unheore; in the language of myth: the world is won from the giants, rising fresh and strong out of their death. It is an obvious conclusion that the Nordic drama included a creative act, giving birth to the world and to the clan, or the people, as is the case in other religions of similar type; this conjecture is justified by legends that evince a vigorous sense of drama and, what is more, bear marks of their having been ritually staged. For our knowledge of the ancient cosmology we are mainly indebted to the account of Snorri in his Edda; Snorri evidently worked scattered traditions up into a comprehensive history of the world, and his version bears the character of a harmonised text, but upon the whole the original features of the legends are forcibly brought out in his reproduction.

In the beginning of time there was no earth and no heaven, no sea washing a shore, but in the middle a vast abyss, Ginnungagap. To the north loomed the icy Niflheim where grim storms raged in the misty darkness; in the middle of Niflheim the well of Hvergelmir surged and sent out a multitude of ri- [289] vers; to the south Muspellheim shone out, so glowing hot that none but the natives were able to dwell in it scorching fire. Surt is the guardian of this land, and his sword is the fierce flame.

Before the gods were born the ice swelled in Ginnungagap; for raging rivers gushed forth, and in the brooding and drifting mist over Niflheim the streams congealed like slag running out of a fire, the ice gathered into heavy glaciers advancing wave upon wave, and settled into Ginnungagap. The mists and rain that sagged over the ice hardened into a cover of rime. But from Muspelheim a hot wind struck against the ice of Ginnungagap and stood quivering as the air on a sultry summer day. When the rime met the heat it melted and dripped living drops, and the drops took the shape of a man. Thus arose an immense giant, Ymir, who is called Aurgelmir by the frost giants. While he was still asleep a perspiration started all over his body; in his left armpit a man and a woman grew out, and his right foot begot a son on the left. From these children of the primeval monster a brood of giants descended which very soon filled the world.

The crust of rime still melted and dripped, from the drops a cow sprang, Audumla, and by her milk Ymir was fed. While the giant sucked her udders, she licked the salt stones sticking out of the glacier; in the evening a man's hair came out of the stone, next day it had grown into a head, and on the third day the man leapt up and stood free on the ground. He was handsome, of great statue and strength, and his name was called Buri. Buri's son Bor wedded a woman from among the giants and became the ancestor of the gods: Odin, Vili and Ve.

When the gods grew and gathered strength they slew Ymir, and his blood flowed in torrents and drowned the world, so that the whole of his kin perished in the flood. One only, Bergelmir, climbed for safely upon a lúðr and was saved along with his wife; the couple gave rise to a fresh brood of giants, and these compose the race that sill plays mischief in this world. The gods carried Ymir into the middle of Ginnungagap and made the earth of his body; his blood flowed out into rivers and the [290] sea, his flesh became land, his bones mountains, his teeth and broken bones were scattered as boulders and pebbles. The gods led the waters forth until they flowed all round the earth in a ring, and thus they fortified the abode of gods and men with the great ocean. They raised Ymir's skull above the earth and made from it the roof of heaven, and they placed a dwarf to guard each of the corners, east and west and north and south; under heaven the brain of Ymir is drifting, and that is the reason why the clouds are cold and grim like giants' thoughts.

The sparks which originated in Muspelheim and whirled in the air were placed in the sky to give light to the earth. The gods ordained a fixed course to all the heavenly bodies and made them advance in regular order as day succeeds day and year follows year.

Thus it came about that the earth rests in the midst of the deep sea. On the rim of the ocean the gods settled the giants, but in the middle of the earth they hallowed a land and surrounded it with the eyebrows of Ymir for a wall, and this enclosure was called Middle-garth, the abode of men.

This account is supplemented by a verse in Vaf. (29) adding the names of the successive generations of giants: Aurgelmir, Thrudgelmir and Bergelmir.

This graphic description of primeval history, when the inhabitable earth grew into shape through the contending forces of heat and cold, represents the Northern view of nature; the men who formed these legends had the roar of the ocean in their ears, they had felt, too, the forlorn bleakness of the fells and the cold gusts sweeping down from the glaciers. Their conception of the forces at work in the world does not, however, originate in abstract speculation, neither does it issue from vague floating theories of a hypothetical state of things; whether the cosmological view of the world includes an element of speculation or not, it settles and clarifies into images drawn from the drama and from the sacrificial place. The illustration in S E of the glaciers advancing like the slag flowing from the fire is certainly not due to the stylistic ingenuity of Snorri; the trait goes back to the legends on which he moulded his literary ex-

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