The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[305] in luck and showing a generous hospitality, than by courage in action. When the connection with daily occupations and obligations had been severed, as it had to be in armies settling on foreign soil, war filled the scene, and the truest, nay the only proof a man could give of his gentle-ness consisted in deeds accomplished with the axe. These gallant knights were sometimes fain to pour contempt on the patient toil of the bread winner as in the epigram of the Harbardsljod (24): “Odin owns the earls who are slain in battle, Thor owns the race of the thralls”. According to ancient custom war and feast were inseparable; at the courts of sacred kings the horn circled in ceremonial fashion every night; when the king's hall was transplanted into a foreign country and his luck plucked out of the fields and grazing grounds surrounding his manor, life necessarily became a round of battles and drinking feasts.

At the homesteads luck and honour were a family treasure handed down from one generation to another to be maintained by the united strength of all the clansmen; abroad every man more or less had to carve out his own fortune and maintain the standard of his kin single-handed. And just as the athlete of asceticism strives to outdo himself because he has lost the sane measure of social intercourse, so the viking is tempted to overshoot his own mark: his honour becomes more exacting and often roars like a rapacious beast that never knows when it has had its fill. Many a viking had seen kingdoms won and kingdoms falling, and that man was reckoned the greatest character who said: a kingdom is lost, but there is time to win another. When moral strength showed itself not so much in the man's proving himself worthy of his honour as in acquiring glory, it was just as great and possibly a greater act to die than to conquer; survival on the tongues of coming generations was the fairest and surest gain. Honour had been the daily bread of the clansmen, now it turned into the strong drink of immortality that threw open a world of bliss beyond the portals of the grave.

The influence of history on the intellectual life of the viking age has left its strongest mark on the conception of fate. In the old country destiny was bound up with the luck of the clan, [306] the norns shaped —— “chose” — the life of the child by adding substance to it: a measure of years, events to fill them and aims to make striving worth while, and their “choice” was not accepted as a decree but embraced and acted upon as will. In the life of the viking fate asserted itself as a deity with a will of its own and as often as not struck the weapon from his hand; true to the spirit of his ancestors he accepted the ordinance of fate as inevitable and made it a point of honour not to wince at meeting this arbitrary power which one day raised a man into the royal seat and another day drove him to sea with a ship and a handful of men at its oars. A man proved his moral strength by his skill to sail before the wind so long as it filled his sails, and to go down smiling when his “day” had come.

Nowhere in the viking age is there any breaking away from the principles of Teutonic culture; the conquerors and kingmakers wholeheartedly uphold the traditions of their ancestors. The keenest scrutiny will never disclose any change in thoughts and feelings, in ideals or institutions; but there is a new pitch, the old emotions are heightened into a hectic glow and transfigured by their very intensification. And consequent on this spiritualisation religion takes on a new aspect; through the shifting of the accent the ritual and its underlying ideas acquired a new import in the same way as social forms came to serve new purposes. When the Scandinavians went beyond the sea their migration meant more than a change of place. At home the world, large as it was, could be surveyed from the homestead with the eyes of the mind, but as one horizon burst on the view and another closed in to take its place the ancient Middle-garth lost its definiteness and made way for something more akin to our universe. This change of outlook gave birth to a new conception of gods and men. The local deities whose power was coextensive with the territory of their worshippers were replaced by a corporate body of gods ruling the world. The holy place with its blot-house which had formed the centre of Middlegarth, was raised on high and turned into a divine mansion. Time-honoured myths setting forth the doings of mutually [307] independent deities were worked up into a poetical mythology, a divine saga, on the same lines that had been followed by an earlier race of vikings, the Homeric Greeks.

This religion brought a new god to birth: Odin, the leader of men, the lord of the battlefield. Odin is young in the same sense as his followers. He sprang from a clan of chieftains in the South, being the incarnation of their hamingja, and the history of his growing from a local deity, resting in the holy place of the clan, into a warlike genius is identical with the history of his people. The place where he was born must at best be a matter of conjecture; from ancient time he is at home in the legends of Sigurd and his kin, but we have no sure means of settling the identity of the Volsungs or even to decide whether the Volsungs were the original impersonators of the drama. Thus much is clear from the hints of history and legend that during the centuries of upheaval that preceded the birth of mediæval Europe the influence of Odin spread by means of alliances between the leading houses. From the pedigrees and family traditions it is evident that the ambitious princes among the Scandinavians eagerly sought for alliance, by way of matrimony or in other ways, with kingly clans who could boast of possessing the hamingja of the Volsungs.

In the religion of Odin, the ideals of the warriors are transfigured into the laws of the world. War is the meaning of life, the years are measured by their harvests of fame, death is celebrated as the entrance to the paradise of heroes, in which the joy of battle is renewed day after day and the ale flows every night. Valhal is a divine counterpart of the court: the god presides in the high seat, the warriors circulate the cup in memory of past deeds and in still higher expectations of the future, bathed in the light of the fire reflected from swords and shields that embody the luck of their chieftain.

The god wears the features of the high-born king. He is called the Wanderer. He appears on the battlefields in all parts of the world and makes his power felt by a wave of the hand; he knows of no joy but that of hearing the swords clash and seeing men meet to give and take the gift of an honourable death. [308] He sets kings on to fight, eager to fill his seats in Valhal with einheries. “I roamed in Valland haunting the battles, I egged on kings and never worked for reconciliation”, such is his confession according to the knightly poet of the Harbardsljod (24).

Odin strides from one battle to another, but he also goes from one love assignation to another. In the Harbardsljod 18 he makes a boast of his conquests in the way of love — “I enjoyed to the full their goodwill and their delight” — and his boasting is borne out by the number of escapades recorded in his legends. The Odin myths reflect the boisterous mirth of the court, its idealisation of war, its jests and quips, its dare-devil humour and its admiration for the poet.

The same tendencies that deified the king also pushed the poet into the foreground. When he stood forth and extolled the prowess of the king the verses were not meant to please for an hour: their heavy ornaments and exuberant imagery served to make the drapa an everlasting monument to the king and his body-guard. The change of tone that had come over the ideas of luck and honour effected a new orientation of the cult; the cup which had formerly overflowed with fertility in man and beast and field as well as with success in fighting, now bubbled with illustrious deeds of arms and undying fame. And when honour crystallised into posthumous fame the poet grew into the priest of honour who made the king immortal by his verses, and literally shaped the body in which the warrior would live among coming generations. This transformation puts its stamp on the legends: Odin usurps the place as the bold robber of the ale of life and immortality, but the kettle which he carries up from the world of the demons and triumphantly deposits on the edge of the sacrificial hearth now contains inspiration for the scalds. The version of the legends handed down to us bears the impress of the viking age; with sly humour Snorri retells the myth, how the god capped the wiles of the demons with tricks of his own, in desperate boldness forced his way into the rocky cave of the giant, blinded his daughter with his love and took his flight with the precious liquid safely lodged in his belly; he winds up his tale with a compliment to the poets [309] who have been favoured by the god with free access to the true source of inspiration.

The version of Snorri echoes the self-consciousness of the court poets; but belonging as he does to an æsthetic age, he improves on the story with a touch of literary criticism: Odin luckily evades the pursuit of the demon in time to make use of the vessels his brethren hastily produced, as he swooped over the fence of Asgard, but in the need of the moment some parts of the mead took a wrong turning, and these drops are left unguarded; thus we know where bad poets go for inspiration in their verse craft.

The god in the high seat bore the features of the king, it was said, but the lines in his face are deeper and carve a countenance mysteriously disclosing and veiling a mind that takes counsel of its own thoughts and keeps that counsel to itself —the same wayward mystery which the warriors have seen in the face of Fate. His decisions are inscrutable or rather capricious like the decrees of fate: he marks the men for victory or for death, according to his own good pleasure, he chooses his favourites among the kings without regard to right and worth, humouring their wildest ambition, thwarting their plans in the very moment of success, always directing with a high hand, according to the good pleasure of his will.

This religion of the vikings is built on ancient foundations, and as far as its forms are concerned its creators stand acquitted of innovation. The constant celebration of the ale feast in the king's hall, the importance for posthumous life of poetry or ritual recitals, the robbery of the mead, the drift and contents of the legends, even the love motifs in the chronique scandaleuse of Odin: wherever we look we are confronted by time-honoured elements of ritual and drama. And yet everything has changed. Life has swung over into a new rhythm, and with the altering of measure a new harmony imposes itself. When thoughts and feelings and deeds interact in another equilibrium, they may give out a tone as strange as, or stranger perhaps than any revolutionary doctrine is able to produce. In the life of the viking fighting and honour make up what we call fundamental [310] values of existence as in the days of old, but now they are exalted into being the very rules of the principles of life governing the universe: through his living and dying the warrior — qua warrior or man of the sword, it must be added — has contributed to the shaping of the destiny of the universe.

The poems of the viking age resound with the thunder of war and the breaking of shields; they are illumined by the blaze from burning towns. But the boisterous and rather shrill hymn of Odin singing the beauty of war and the majesty of death when met courageously, has an undertone of tragedy and almost of sadness. The men who were caught up in the whirl of conquests sometimes paused aghast at the revolution, mental as well as social, brought about by this breathless struggle for power and fame. In the course of expeditions and especially in the settlements abroad, men were uprooted from their traditional surroundings, thrown together in a fellowship which as often as not overruled or at least put a strain upon the obligations of kinship. In their pursuit of dominion, brothers would be whirled into antagonism, and the self-seeking might grow to such excessive heights in the individual that his ambition broke through the restraint of frith. The Teuton could not find words more poignantly expressive of dismay and utter despair than those verses by the Voluspá poet: “brothers fight one another, cousins do not trust one another”. In the feeling of kinship ethical life had its origin and being, and when the root of all virtues was poisoned the very will to honour was dissolved. When brothers fall out there follows not only an age of sword and axe but an age of wolves, as the Vsp. has it: whoredom is rampant, treachery, breaking of oaths and treacherous murder. Moral dissolution strikes at the very root of life, the poet continues; for the enjoyment of life, fertility and all blessings, material as well as spiritual, are bound up with honour, and on the failing of honour luck, the effectiveness of life, is blighted. The age of war lapses into an age of storms, of blasted crops, of frost and winters lasting all the year round, in the words of the Vsp.

Beneath the glorification of war as the measure of men and [311] death as the appraiser of human worth, there is found lurking a note of suspense as of fate brewing into a tempest that will burst in a sudden eruption and shatter the whole world with its lightning. The story of Balder's death as it is handed down by the Icelanders, is a poetic work inspired by the tragic mood of the viking age. It is overspread by a sinister, fateful gloom radiating from the central scene of the tragedy, in which the gods throng round their kinsman's body, speechless with an agony of apprehension. When blood was shed within the clan the deed threw a shadow of coming disaster across the possessions of the kinsmen; here the shadow is so broad that it envelops the whole world in the blackness of death.

The story of Balder is founded on ancient myth. It abounds in legendary features sufficiently clear to warrant the hypothesis that it is moulded upon a sacrificial drama, probably akin to the ritual of Frey as it is worked out f. i. by Neckel in his book on Balder (G. Neckel: Die Uberlieferungen vom Gotte Balder, 1920); but we have no means of reconstructing the original form and contents of the legend. An unnamed poet of the viking age has steeped this matter in his own experience, transformed the myth into a poem with a purpose, as we would say. By concentrating the scenes around the idea of a divine outrage — niðingsuerk -- so that the anguish of the gods standing with drooping heads and faltering hands steeps every word with an icy dread of coming events, he has changed a fertility drama into a poetic symbol implying that the course of history is tending irresistibly towards a day of doom.

The poet of the Balder story was not a solitary figure in those troubled times; the literature of the viking age proves that other minds had caught a comprehensive view of history as a cosmological drama — in the modern acceptation of the word — tending towards a catastrophe and finding its consummation in a trying of conclusions between the gods and the evil powers. In the light of this idea, fate — or the will of Odin — is unveiled and discovers a far-reaching purpose. The eyes of the god peer into the future and read the signs on the horizon, he knows that the destiny of the world will depend on the depths of his

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