The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[291] position. In fact, it is more than probable that the observation that gave rise to Snorri's elucidating simile lies at the very root of Norwegian cosmological speculation. In the placing of Hvergelmir as the centre of Niflheim there is a precision of statement that not only suggests a dramatic picture, but directly reveals an interplay between ritual experience and cosmological speculation as to the forces at play in the elements of the world. In fact, the legend is created by a man who had seen the consolidating forces of fire and water at work in shaping the world.

The centre of the creative episode of the drama is found in the fire and the sacrificial kettles. Ymir's death is an ancient sacrificial myth that reads like the programme of a creation play; the wording of the legend still bears the impress of its dramatic setting: the gods carried Ymir to Ginnungagap and placed him in the middle of the vast abyss. If we were not left in ignorance regarding the meaning of the names borne by the primeval giants: Bergelmir, Thrudgelmir and Aurgelmir, the features of the ritual act would stand out in higher relief; as it is, we must rest content with a general statement of a symbolical creation ceremony implicit in the cutting up of the victim and its preparation for being cooked.

One single scene appertaining to this drama is still left standing among the débris of mythology, viz, the myth of Bergelmir, which alludes to an incident in the birth of the waters; but unfortunately it is worded in too concise and obscure a form for us to be able to complete the picture. In Vaf. 35 the giant is introduced saying: “the first thing I remember is Bergelmir being born and placed on a lúðr”; this verse evidently reproduces a ritual act of dramatic import, but unfortunately the explanation hinges upon a word of unknown significance. In the Grottasong lúðr means a quern box; like the Darrad Song (cf. here II 220-1) this poem is a free composition inspired by a ceremonial scene: the ritual drama that “ground” wealth and luck for the king. In a scaldic poem a kenning combining lúðr with the word of malt designates the brewing vat (see Lex. Poet. s. v. lúðr). Further lúðr occurs in a formula used to ensure fair weather on sea (Gróg. 11): "gögn — luck, probably sacrifi- [292] cial luck (cf. Thorsdr. 21) — and sacrificial fluid may enter into an advantageous combination for your benefit and procure a peaceful journey”. The upshot of a comparative examination is that several sacrificial vessels were designated by the term lúðr, and we are left in ignorance of its character in the story of Bergelmir.

These stray reminiscences throw a fresh light on the description in the Vsp. of the earliest times. The opening verses lead straight into the hall at the moment when the creative drama is produced: “At the distant time when Ymir lived, there was neither sea nor sandy coast breaking cool waves, no earth, no heaven above, only Ginnungagap where no blade of grass sprouted until the sons of Bur lifted the land and made the fair Middle-garth; the sun shone from the south on the stones of the hall, and the earth was clothed in green herbs”. This raising of the land, the growth of the soil, was probably represented by ritual handling of the cult implements and the body of the victim, by minute gestures and movements of the hand and other symbolic operations, some of which are still discernible; we know from the Grimnismál 42 that the lifting of the kettles off the fire entered into the drama as a creative act: “then the worlds open before the gods, as a new-won possession” (v. infra p. 294). Though the Vsp. cannot add to our knowledge regarding the sequence and character of the ceremonies, its verses introduce us to the scene and setting of the drama; the hall is the world, as the roof of the house is the sky in the scene of the Thorsdrapa; the first rays of the sun strike the flagstones of the sacrificial place. In the description of the earth or land Vsp. makes use of a poetical term, bjöð, probably of ritual origin, which to the worshippers conveyed the vividness of the scene when earth appeared and settled into its place.

According to the Vsp. the creation of the world is succeeded by a scene in which an erratic chaos of heavenly bodies was reduced to fixed order and rhythmic motion. At first sun and moon had no luck and megin (cf. I 249) and wandered vaguely about the heavens, until the gods shaped their courses and ordained them to regulate years and days; v. 6 exposes the ritual [293] in plain words: “The gods went to their seats of council and gave names to night and moon-less dark, to morning and noon, afternoon and evening, for the numbering of years”.

Creation is brought to conclusion by the birth of man, the rise of the clan. Three gods found Ask and Embla on the land, beings that had as yet no luck and no destiny or purpose. Odin gave breath, Hoenir mind, Lodur warm blood and hue: litr, luck and strength (cf. II 235); thus the men grew from fate-less beings into men of honour whose life had a purpose and an aim. This description is throughout reminiscent of the drama; in his introduction of the three gods the poet makes use of a suggestive expression: “three came from that assembly, powerful and gracious” (v. 17); we need no great effort of imagination to see three officiating sacrificers proceeding from the body of worshippers to perform their sacred task.

Another rite suggestive of a hieros gamos is repeatedly hinted at, but never worked out in clear outlines, cf. Lokas. 26 and infra p. 337.


The principle of life, the mode of experience that determines the ideas and actions — and their harmony or interplay —among the Teutons necessarily impart cosmic importance to the blot; this fundamental characteristic of the feast suggests a view of the sacrificial place as a cosmological symbol, and a hypothesis of this kind is borne out by a comparison with related rituals in other parts of the world, not least by the expositions of the Brahmanas concerning the Vedi. The sacrificial place represented a dramatic imitation of the whole world, as it is likely to be expressed in our language, the prototype and origin of the dwelling-place of mankind, as it must be defined by the Teutons and their spiritual kindred. In the North, the fireplace and the kettles together with the ale vat composed a cosmic scene abounding in symbols which took their several parts in the drama; on this stage, or altar, heaven and earth had their substitutes, as we gather from a number of stray allusions. The [294] map of the world unfolded in S E becomes intelligible when it is discovered to be drawn from legends founded on ritual representation. The waters that give rise to all the rivers feeding the earth are found in the sacrificial kettles and still bear names suggestive of their provenance: Hvergelmir, or kettle gelmir, and the two Kerlaugar, or fluids of the vessels (S E 11, 21).

This cosmic character of the altar contributes greatly to the elucidation of several obscure verses in the Eddic poems. Grimnismál 42 suggests a ritual act of dramatic significance; from his place between the fires Odin says: “The favour of Ull and all the gods shall light upon the man who lends a hand at the fire, for open worlds expand round the sons of the gods when the kettles are lifted off the fire”. And the words of the god in a former verse (4): “the land is holy which I see extended near the gods and the elves”, reveal the image of the place round the fire as it presented itself to the view of the sacrificer. Through Hávamál 107 we catch a glimpse of the stirring activity of the scene: “Now Öðrörir has been brought up and placed on the rim of the earth”, the extremity of the sacred place of mankind (according to the cogent conjecture of Bugge). The verse implies a dramatic rendering of Odin's descent into the nether world for the drink of life, as it is related in the Suttung myth; by means of this verse we are made spectators of the final scene, when the kettle is solemnly put into its place in the hall.

By these hints we are initiated into the mythical geography of the altar, and at the same time into the cosmic importance of such acts as the kettles being placed on the fire or taken off. This observation further throws a light upon the composition of the Grimnismál and suggests an inner, associative coherence in what seems at first glance a lumber-house of mythological items. The poet starts by depicting Odin standing between the fires, and proceeds to give a list of the manors and an inventory of their furniture; now we understand that the author's didactic synopsis of divine dwelling-places is motivated by his experience from the blot hall. It is also of interest that he makes use of a ritual term for fire, funi, as does the poet of Fafnismál in an episode of ceremonial origin (vv. 32, 37 cf. Alvis. 26). [295]

The altar contained a symbol representing the useful, fruitful earth, probably consisting of a small heap of mould. The ritual name of this cosmic mould is aurr — “earth is called aurr among the high gods”, we learn from the didactic Alvismál. The aurr is styled white, certainly not on account of its colour, but in allusion to its purity and its holiness, its power of cleansing and blessing. This sacred symbol is further called the power or luck — megin — of earth (e. g. Hynd. 39), and from such formulæ as that mentioned in Gud. II 21, we learn that it was used for purposes of consecration, mixed up with other sacrificial ingredients such as water and fluid from the kettles. This aurr was poured, laid round the roots of the world ash to ensure its being green and fresh (Vsp. 19). Vsp. 14 offers an allusion to this ritual spot when it is said of the newly created dwarfs that “they proceeded from the flagstones of the hall to Aurvanga”, the seat of the aurr-fields, aurvanga sjöt.

The centre of the world is formed by the holy ash Yggdrasil, from the roots of which the life-giving waters take their rise. According to the account of S E (20-1) the boughs of the ash tower up into heaven and spread out over the whole world; it has three wide-branching roots, one among the gods, another among the frost giants in what was once Ginnungagap, and a third one over Niflheim; under this root Hvergelmir flows, and Nidhogg gnaws the root. Under the root stretching towards the frost giants is Mimir's well. The third root stands in heaven, and the most holy well, Urdarbrunn, is under this root. At first sight this description impresses the reader as lacking inner coherence, and possibly it is made up from several legends of different origin; but it is by no means improbable that the altar contained several representations of the water, Urd's well as well as Mimir's well — for Hvergelmir cf. supra p. 288. The sacred tree and the well belonged to the holy place outside, but the principle of the blot rendered it indispensable that they should be represented on the altar. When it is said that the rivers take their rise in the centre of the world, it is identical to saying that they flow from the feast and spring from the ideal —i. e. the real — world situated on the altar in the sacrificial place. [296]

In all probability the tree was carried into the hall in the form of a branch or twig. The cosmos of Vsp. being, as we have seen, drawn against the background of the feast it becomes probable that the volva, who says that she remembers the time when the tree was beneath the mould, has before the eye of her mind a dramatic situation previous to the moment when the branch was planted in or at the side of the aurr.

In Vsp. 27 the tree is honoured by an epithet, heiðvanr, that is certainly not a piece of poetical embellishment. The compound immediately suggests as its meaning: something connected with an object or a person called heid, or possibly — in accordance with a usage like that of Sigrdr. 36: something that wants, cannot do without heid. This word recurs in a couple of mythical compounds evidently of ritual origin. In the first place mention is made of a goat, Heidrun, who feeds from the leaves of Lærad and fills the ale vats from the stream of her udders (Grimn. 25, S E 40); secondly Sigrdr. 13 speaks of some runic lore that Hroptr found in the fluid flowing from the skull of Heiddraupnir and the horn of Hoddrofnir. Regrettably enough the verse is not elucidated by any parallel tradition regarding these enigmatical images, but the context suggests that heid refers to the contents of the ale vessel. We are further led to think of a mythic phrase in one of Kormak's poems (Skjald. 79): gjalda haptsoenis heið; haptsoenis is not clear, but the compound is probably connected with Son, the ale vat. Thus an examination of heid leads to a hypothesis that heiðvanr turns upon a libation of ale performed over the tree that shaded the aurr on the altar.

As already mentioned the waters were represented by the kettles and the ale vat. “All the waters spring from Eikþyrnir's horn: Kormt and Ormt and the two Kerlaugar”, we read in the Grimnismál. Through these kettles Thor went to Yggdrasil, or in other words, the god of the drama passes by the kettles in his ritual procession — “for the bridge of the gods is on fire and the sacred waters are seething” (hlóa, Grim. 29; possibly Hlorridi is a ritual name to be explained in allusion to this rite).

The ale vessels and the meat kettles are hardly distinguish- [297] able in the legends, for this very reason probably that they were identical from a dramatic point of view, representing either the holy waters, or the prototype of the sea and the rivers; their ritual name is lögr (cf. supra p. 284) designating ale and blood, and consequently in the poetical derivation of the ceremonial language: sea and water.

As shown in the text, the treasures and heirlooms of the clan incorporated the life and luck of the family; the ring of the chieftain, at once the symbol of his honour and the warrant of his authority, accompanied him to battle and thingmoot, it was used when oaths were sworn, it rested on the stallr of the blothouse (cf. II 139). From their sacred character we may safely draw the conclusion that the treasures entered the blot; their presence was necessary on account of their incarnating the hamingja of the clan, on the other hand they must, like their wearers, participate in the new birth originating in the sacrifice (cf. 11167). The ritual power of the treasures is transfigured mythically in Draupnir, the ring of the god, that every ninth night sheds eight rings of equal value (S E 58-9, 97 seqq., Skirn.21).

The analogy of Vedic ritual suggests that the gold was dipped into the primeval waters, and this guess is confirmed by the verse of Grimnismál (27), where it is said that the rivers coming from Hvergelmir flow round the hodd or treasure of the gods. In the language of the poets this dramatic scene is fossilised in a number of kennings, paraphrasing gold as the light or splendour of the water (cf. infra 336 and Lokas. init. prose). The oath mentioned in Helg. Hund. II 31: “by the bright water of the light and the cool stone of the wave” possibly alludes to a ceremonial act: words confirmed by the sacred fluid and the gold resting in its midst and thus enforced not only generally by the power of the blot, but also particularly by the actual event inherent in a dramatic scene.

The ritual name for gold and possessions or rather for the luck of the heirlooms and possessions is auðr (cf. Add. Note 2, eadig); to be deprived of audr and joy is the quintessence of human misery, the existence of the niding and the wolf (Helg.

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page