The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[298] Hund. II 33). This audr is personified and entered into the cosmic genealogy, as a near relative of earth and day and night, in recognition of the fact that audr played a part in the drama representing the creation of the world (S E 16, 92, Skjald. 147).

Analogy from the ritual of other peoples further warrants the conjecture that the cult implements resting on the altar played a part in the drama; they would symbolise a person or a place and could not be handled or moved from one spot to another, taken up or put down, without marking a mythical event. While the gold rested in the middle of the waters it may have represented a world in the process of being created, or a place in the new-born world. Some hints regarding the dramatic employment of the symbols may be gathered from mythology and poetical kennings.

From among the cult objects exhibited on the altar we are not astonished to perceive the gleam of a sword. The Fjolsvinnsmál is a repertory of ritual images, but on account of its abrupt allusive character it presents to us the appearance of a lumber-room of riddles; v. 31 however apparently treats of a hall which constantly — for a long time — quivers on the point of the edge and is surrounded by a fire: vafrlogi (cf. infra 334). This allusion recalls a verse in the Vsp. (37 cf. S E 65), in which we are introduced to the ale house of a giant situated in Ókolfir, the place where it is never cold, and the name of the hall is Brimir (brimis bloði (Vsp. 9, cod. reg.) is irrelevant, being a false reading, cf. parall.). Further we know from Grim. 44 that Brimir is the name of a sword — the most excellent sword, as it is called with an epithet used to distinguish divine or ritual objects. These broken hints fuse and achieve some sort of coherence when they are confronted with a piece of sacral language cited in Sigrdr. 14: “He stood on the hill with Brimir's edges and in a helm, then Mimir's head spoke its first wise word”; this “he” is Hroptr who found runic lore in the drops of Heiddraupnir's skull. This picture reflects the figure of the sacrificing chieftain as he approached the altar and lifted the sword, which was inspired with luck through its sharing in the blot, in order to take omens. In the light of this passage the other verses [299] cited above discard some of their obscurity; the sword — or in Fjolsvinnsmál possibly the spear — might also like the gold symbolise a place in the ideal world.

From these allusions to the role played by Brimir in the ritual we are led on to a verse in Lokasenna (49) suggesting that the fettering of the demon Loki was illustrated by a ritual act in the sacrificial hall, and that this act implied the use of a sword: “the gods will bind you on the sword with the bowels of your frost-cold kinsman”. The myth alluded to tells us that when the gods had caught the trickster they slaughtered his son Vali and tore out his bowels to bind Loki; now the ritual is clear: the demon is chained down by the intestines of the victim. Haustlong offers a glimpse of the sacrificial place at this point in v. 7, elucidated by v. 11, alluding to Loki as “He whom the gods see fettered”; the poem contains a description of mythological scenes painted on a shield, and in the first place this sentence applies to the picture on the shield; but this picture reproduces as is evident from the very wording of the phrase — a scene in the blot hall, where gods and men had the captive demon before their eyes in some symbol or other. This makes clear sense of an obscure verse in Vsp. (35): “She saw lying below the wood of the kettles — the tree on the sacrificial place in fetters something sinister in the semblance of Loki”, viz, a cult symbol of the fettered Loki. From this ritual picture the author draws his inspiration for the stirring prelude to the day of doom: “The ash shivers, the ancient tree, the giant goes free” — the demon, who was lying tied hand and foot under the tree in the hall, breaks his fetters.

The wisdom engendered by the blot was hidden in the holy waters under the tree; good counsels, omens and prophesies flowed from the well to be garnered by ritual means; out of the well destiny was born, or in a mythical personification, the norns, the hamingjas who gave to men the luck of the future. This wisdom or power of good oracle had a representative in Mimir, the counsellor of Odin. Sometimes Mimir makes his appearance as a head, and a myth retold by Snorri explains how it came to pass that his head was severed from his body [300] and was preserved for oracular purposes; the legend is founded on a ritual fact, viz, a head that gave out oracles —to be looked for either in the skull of the victim or in the kettle or more plausibly in either symbol — represented Mimir, the power of wisdom. Mimir's well, the ale vat, was the centre in a ritual scene alluded to in the verse of Vsp. and in the didactic prose of S E, when Odin pledged his eye to obtain the wisdom, but owing to the abruptness of the tradition and the lack of parallels any attempt at reconstructing the ritual act is doomed to failure (Vaf. 49, S E 20, 63, Vsp. 20, 46, Sigrdr. 14, Vsp. 27, S E 21, Heims. I 13).



Through the flotsam and jetsam of ancient literature we are just allowed some broken glimpses of a ritual drama. Luckily there is in existence a work which gives a comprehensive view of the sacrificial feast, viz, the Voluspá, but in order to bring out the evidential value of the poem in its bearing upon the scenes of the blot and their religious importance, it is necessary to form an estimate of the place occupied by its author in the intellectual development of the viking age.

The Voluspá is not intended to be an illustration of the sacrificial feast. Its author is a genius who has pondered deeply on the destiny of men and the meaning of history, and his thoughts flare up into a vision of the cosmic tragedy from the beginnings of time to its fulfilment; to give expression to his vision he assumes the disguise of a volva, the wise prophetic woman of the North, whose eyes pierce through all worlds and search into the future — which has not “come forth” as yet —as well as into the remote depths of the past.

Her memory reaches back to the time when nothing existed, no cool waves, no green grass, no sky spanning a world; nothing but a vast abyss. Out of the gaping void earth is lifted, sprouting with green plants, by mighty beings; the sun shines out of a bright sky and enters upon its orderly course. The gods are [301] seen moving on the new-born earth in the pride of youth; they rear high-roofed temples, they smelt ore and hammer treasures — gold is abundant; they rejoice and sit on the greensward before the door playing at tables. Over their heads Yggdrasil, the world ash, vaults its boughs rustling with evergreen leaves, and from between its roots there ascend the maidens of destiny.

All of a sudden a change comes over the world; the gods are drawn up in battle array against the host of the Vanes. Odin hurls his spear for luck and victory. War has come into the world, and the tramp of warriors is heard.

The eyes of the volva become aware of a ring of sinister faces closing in upon the bright realm of the gods. The gods take counsel about building a wall to keep out the demons and strike a bargain with the giant who is willing to barter his strength against the promise of sun and moon; and when the two ends of the wall are nearing one another, the gods have no choice but to trick the demon out of his wages, if the light of the world is to be saved. For ever after the jotuns are lusting after the heavenly lights and the love of the goddess, and the gods must use the weapons they have forged and tempered with fraud and broken promises to ward off the wiles and brutal force of their enemies. Filled with anxious forebodings Odin goes out to consult the woman sitting out in the dark; she sees the valkyries riding over the ground to the thunder of hoofs.

Destiny is let loose to run its course. One of the gods is seen bleeding in the midst of his kinsmen; Balder descends to the fields of the dead with his brother's arrow sticking in his breast. A voice of weeping is heard, the goddess mourning over the woes of Valhal. And now a view is opened downwards into the bleak region never touched by the rays of the sun; the blighted realm of Nastrond is swept through with fierce rivers swelling with swords and foaming with venom, and nidings, breakers of oaths, unholy murderers battle their way through the whirling, heavy-smiting waves. The door of the hall standing on the bleak ness opens toward the north, and poison dew drips from its roof.

In the wild, impenetrable forest the wolves are breeding; [302] the cubs run up into the heavens snapping at the sun, they gorge themselves with the bodies of the slain, and blood slavers from their jaws down onto the seat of the gods, tingeing the sunlight with a lurid red.

The world resounds with ill-boding voices; the gleeful singing of the demon from his eyrie on the hillock, the crowing of cocks chiming in with one another, out of several worlds — the gold-combed cock that rouses the inmates of Valhal, the bright red cock among the jotuns — down to the soot-red bird crying from the fence of Hel — above the conflicting noises the hoarse barking of the hound in front of the rocky cave echoes through the world.

Life is blighted, and the curse spreads from the gods to the dwelling-place of human beings. The thoughts of men are darkened and confused by the upheaval in nature and the tumult of their own minds, and in their distraction men violate the very principles of life. The bonds of kinship give way to blind passion: brothers fight with one another, kinsmen shed their own blood, no one trusts his fellow; a new age dawns: the age of swords, the age of axes, the ears of men are filled with the din of shields being splintered and of wolves howling over the bodies of the slain.

A shiver runs through the boughs of the ash, the land resounds with the patter of restless feet and with the groaning of the dwarfs outside their rocky doors.

The barking echoes from the rocks, but now the fetters snap, and the Wolf gallops over the land. From all quarters the hosts advance; the Serpent of Middle-garth writhes through the deep, lashing the waves with his coils; dead men throng upwards along the misty road; Muspel's men come rowing from the east, Loki standing at the rudder-oar; Surt hastens from the south, the battle sun glittering from his sword.

Now the anguish over which the goddess has long brooded comes true: Odin faces the Wolf, Frey closes with Surt, gods and demons slay and are slain. Thor wreaks his wrath on the Serpent and carries his victory nine paces over the battlefield.

The sun is darkened, the earth sinks back into the waves, [303] stars rain down, and the flames leap up and lick the heavens. The barking is heard for the last time as the world-fire flickers down. When the roar and the voices are stilled the earth once more rises out of the sea in evergreen freshness; brooks leap down the hills, the eagle wheels on high peering into the streams. The gods meet among self-sown fields, they call to mind the tale of deeds and former wisdom, and in the grass before their feet the golden tables are found lying. A new hall rises golden-roofed and fairer than the sun; here a race of true-hearted men will dwell and rejoice in their hearts' desire.

Then from above descends the mighty one, all powerful. The dusky dragon flies past brushing the ground with his wings weighted down by dead bodies; he sinks into the abyss and disappears.

This vision of the poet is more closely akin to the eschatological history of Christianity than to the cosmology of the ancient Teutons, and there is no mistaking that he has been impressed by the apocalyptic prophecies of the Church. But here as in all other places where we are concerned with men who are living, the words of “loan” and “influence” are worse than useless; the analytical method that sifts out the minds of men into shreds — ideas from somewhere and images or forms from elsewhere — ought to take a rest after having succeeded through the history of religion and literature and other branches of history, in laying waste the world of living men and turning it into a heap of intellectual débris.

So far from being Christian, the ideas and emotions of the poet and the vision in which his hope and fear join issue do not bear the slightest stamp of Christianity. His anguish does not originate in the Christian's dread of sin and the consequences of disobedience, but in the Teuton's anxiety at seeing the reverence for kinship undermined by ambition and thirst for power. He goes to the storehouse of ancient religion for the matter of his verses, and the ideals which animate his images and mould them into a drama of doom and resurrection, have their roots in the faith of his fathers. Horror-struck he looks on the upheaval of the times in which honour, the fountain [304] head of all virtue, is submerged and noble men are caught up in the tempest of fate and whirled on by its blinding fury. It is the holiness of frith that gives dramatic tension to his poem, and it is in the ancient antagonism between the gods and the demons that the catastrophe of his drama reaches its consummation. It is true that the poet has been inspired by an acquaintance with Christian eschatology, from its apocalyptic scenes he has drawn the inspiration to read his own thoughts and to interpret the experience of his own time, the viking age.


The men of the viking age were a race to whom life appealed as being an adventure. Those great kings and petty chieftains who crossed the ocean and fought on many a coast were not mere soldiers of fortune; many of them at least were shrewd politicians who set out into the world to carve out for themselves a kingdom or an estate. But the spirit of adventure is strongest and most true to itself when it is farthest removed from aimlessness and trusting to chance. Adventure ran in the blood of the vikings and engendered ambitious schemes, and the better calculated were the schemes inspired by the spirit of adventure, the greater was the élan of the adventurers.

The life of the peasant at the homestead had a steady, slow-going rhythm; for him, the events followed one another as orderly and regularly as one season succeeded another; the aspirations and achievements of the sons were firmly linked to the deeds of their fathers, grew out of them in fact, being inspired by the traditions and the luck of the clan. Among the roving chieftains, life was apt to turn into a game for renown and power in which the warrior staked his very existence again and again, ever ready to run the risk of all or nothing.

For the Teutons, living implied fighting, man means a living being who keeps his weapons sharp by grinding them on his honour. Nevertheless it was not war but work that determined the trend of life and gave form to institutions, social as well as religious. A man asserted his gentility no less by tilling his land

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