The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[319] sarily precede the ceremonies; there the gestures and formulæ are rehearsed in order to ensure a performance without any hitch or stumbling, there the prospective officiant is nominated — in accordance, of course, with a fixed routine — in other words, he went to the rök seats to be invested with authority to carry out his sacred duty (cf. the opening verses of the Hym.).

The same seats served for pronouncing sacred formulæ, for the recital of traditions and genealogies, for the repeating of rules and wise sayings: all the wisdom that belonged to the clan and was necessary for right living, was here brought into close contact with the ceremonies. In the Voluspá a list of names is appended to the scene of the dwarfs being called forth from the “foaming” blood of the sacrificial victim, and there are other hints of the rehearsal of mythological lore as an accompaniment to the dramatic performance (cf. 18, 20, 37). Such ceremonial recitals furnished the pattern for didactic handbooks on mythology and cosmology, such as Grimnismál, Vafthrudnismál and Fjolsvinnsmál, or on ritual terminology such as Alvismál. From these poems we get the information that the recitals generally took the form of a dialogue, one of the officiants questioning and thus drawing forth the ritual wisdom of the leader — hapta snytrir. When the Hyndluljod is examined in this light it becomes probable that this poem reproduces the genealogical recital of a Norwegian clan, at most slightly touched up to fit into the literary forms of the tenth century. The collection of didactic and ritual pieces called Hávamál, too, preserves for us the forms of ritual pronunciation, and part of this miscellany is no doubt culled directly from ceremonial texts. In fact the poem closes with the ancient formula that wound up the recitals by “fastening” the luck of the words on the sacrificers: “Now Hávi's words are spoken in the hall of Hávi, useful to the sons of men, unavailing for the children of the demons, heill for the man who spoke, heill for the man who knows, full enjoyment of the words to the man who learned, heill for those who listened”. (For the meaning of enjoy = njóta cf. II 16, 80).

Through the Voluspá we are moreover led on to the dis- [320] covery of the technical term denominating these ritual discussions and proclamations, viz. doema, “deem”. Drinking and deeming, drekka ok doema, is a formal compound denominative of the proceedings at the feast, note e. g. Rig. 31, Sigurd sk. 2. The slaughtering is preceded by a scene where the men deem before starting for the sheep fold. The clansmen deem in the Hyndluljod of kinship and relations, in Hávamál of runes, and when the gods meet after the battle of Ragnarok they deem of the mighty events and of the gigantic Serpent of Middle-garth.

The corresponding nomen is dómr, which naturally signifies ritual speech as well as ritual event, viz, the holy history inherent in the scenes of the festival. The rejuvenated ases recall the momentous dómar they have passed through. The famous verse of Hávamál 77: “Cattle will die, kinsmen will die, you will die yourself, one I know will never die, the dómr of a dead man”, thus alludes to the fame — eptirmæli as it was perpetuated in the blot. Norna dómr, the judgment of the norns, is identical with the destiny or luck originating in the well at the foot of Yggdrasil and manifesting itself in the omens received from that place during the sacrifice. When the Christian gospel required a name that sounded familiar to the ears of the Northmen, it was naturally called hinn dÿri dómr, the precious “doom”, the words and deeds of the new god (Lex. Poet. s. v.).

Now the name, too, of the divine seats is clear; rök is a synonym of dómr: ritual speech and hence the holy events which were embodied in the drama. “You know all the röks of the gods”, are the words which Odin makes use of to draw out the giant in Vafthrudnismál (38, 42), and in the Alvismál Thor incites the dwarf to trot out his learning by a piece of flattery, thus: “you know rök fira”, the ceremonial knowledge necessary to the sacrificer.

The locality of the rök seats is not far to seek, they were found near the spot where the holy luck, the blessing of the feast, was concentrated: at the foot of the tree by the well within the sacrificial enclosure. In the language of the legend, Thor and the ases go to Yggdrasil to deem, this phrase of the Grímnismál carries a hint of the ritual praxis when the gods [321] went to their rök seats. Another picture of the ceremonial procession to the rök seats is furnished through the mythology of the same poem (29): “through these — the holy waters — Thor wends his way every day to Yggdrasil, for the bridge of the Ases is on fire and the holy waters are seething”; we see the sacrificers passing along the fire to the rök seats at the back of the seething kettles overspread by the holy branch symbolising the world ash.

One of the speeches of the Hávamál is introduced by this formula: “Now is the time to rehearse sacred words — þylja —from the speecher's seat — þular stól — by the well of Urd”; this verb evidently indicates ritual speech not in dialogue, which was pronounced in a chanting voice from the holy place —it is used of poets reciting their poetry and of people talking to themselves (Háv. 111, v. Fritzner s. v. and cf. Danish runic inscr.).

When Eilif, the poet of the Thorsdrapa, had embraced the new faith of Christ, he voiced his reliance on the new god by saying: “Christ is sitting by Urd's well in the South”; in translation Rome was the place of the precious dómr, the rök of Jesus, his words and deeds.


From our point of view the gods divide themselves into two groups: the god of the clan, the divine representative of the kinsmen's luck or hamingja, and the ritual god representing a phase in the drama. Properly speaking, the whole festival: the circle of worshippers, the house in which the blot took place, the ceremonial implements and acts and words are god, but this divinity assumes a personal appearance or crystallises into a character in every act of moment, as is dogmatically illustrated by the functional gods of the Romans. This ritual manifestion of the hamingja in a definite attitude is actually identical with the sacrificer who performs the sacral action and pronounces the formula appropriate to the ceremony. Such ritual divinities are not possessed of any individual permanence outside the [322] scene in which they act; their particular existence begins and ends with the episode and thus will never acquire what we call a distinctive personal character.

In poems and fragmentary myths, in kennings and lists of names there is preserved a great number of cult epithets, more than sufficient to prove the intricate structure of the drama, but in most cases such names are nothing more to us than cues to scenes that have been irretrievably lost. At times we dimly recognise in the epithet a cult title expressive of a duty incumbent on the god, or his impersonator, as f. i. when it is said of Odin in Grimnismál (v. 50): “I bore the names of Svidurr and Svidrir in the house of Sökkmimir”.

This class comprises the triads mentioned in connection with the fight with the demon and the creation. Hoenir discovers himself as the blower of the sacrificial fire and the giver of life; Voluspá introduces him as “choosing” the omen-sticks, thus alluding to another of his functions in the blot. The quaint remark of the Heimskringla (113) that Hoenir as a ruler was dependent on the wisdom of Mimir and in every difficulty appealed to him with the words: “let others decide”, may very well be a rationalistic interpretation of a ritual fact.

An interesting epithet, belonging, so far as we can make out, to Hoenir and referring to still another function of his, is Meili; the name implies a ritual cooperation with Thor in his fighting the demon. In the poetical terminology of Haustlong, Thor is called Meili's kinsman (14 cf. Harb. 9). The name recurs in a compound, Fet-Meili (Haustl. 4), the walker or strider. From these indications we may form a tolerably clear idea of the significance of the title. Like Vishnu in the Vedic ritual Hoenir has to perform a ceremonial pacing in order to hallow the place, to make it safe and to ensure the success of the sacred acts performed on the spot; one aspect of this ritual walk finds a parallel in the procession round the territory by which a squatter appropriated a piece of ground. The same ritual duty is hinted at in other kennings designating Hoenir: the fleet áss and the Long-foot (S E 84). The epithet aurkonungr (ib.) indicates a connection with the aurr. [323]

The god Ull probably belongs to the group of ritual gods. The facts to be drawn upon for the explanation of his character are firstly that he is called the stepson of Thor, and secondly that he is closely associated with a shield, and these two facts form parts of the same evidence. The first datum indicates his place in the drama as the companion and helper of Thor — in the same way as Hoenir, but in different situations; in the Thorsdrapa the relationship between the two divinities is defined by a ritual word of unknown acceptation: gulli. The character of their cooperation is sufficiently indicated by the shield that plays a part in either drama, in the former the shield on which Hrungnir was slain, in the latter the shield that saved the companions of Thor from being drowned when crossing the infernal river. The programme of these scenes is given by S E (115): “shield may be called the ship of Ull or paraphrased in allusion to the foot of Hrungnir”; from this note we learn that a shield was a ritual implement in the drama, and further that the functional divinity of this shield was called Ull. The passage in the legend of Hrungnir stating that the giant thrust the shield under his feet or, as Haustlong has it, that he was slain on the shield, indicates the ritual staging of the act. Probably the shield and the shield god, as Ull is poetically named, performed in situations other than those accidentally mentioned in mythological literature, as it has come down to us.

Grimnismál 42 adds one more item to our knowledge concerning the part played by Ull in the drama; the verse (v. supra p. 294) intimates that the god was connected with the sacrificial fire and the kettles. This hint is probably elucidated by Baldrs Draumar v. 7, whence it appears that the holy vat of ale was covered by a shield: “Here stands the mead brewed to welcome Balder, pure drink covered by a shield”. Further epithets belonging to Ull are bow-man, ski-runner, god of chase, but in default of explanatory legends or other hints, the significance of these names must be left undecided. The remark of S E (31) that he is worth calling on before entering on a duel probably hinges on his ritual role as Thor's helpmate.

If our knowledge of the god Ull must remain somewhat [324] vague and circumstantial, we are on surer ground when we approach the figure of Heimdal. Though our material does not furnish more than broken glimpses of his position in the ritual, the rays of light are so numerous and play upon him from so many angles that we get a pretty clear view of his character and sacral importance. According to the rather systematic account of S E (30), he is the warder of the gods and sits by the rim of heaven to guard the bridge against the giants. When this mythological image is translated into a ritual fact, the meaning is that he is the protector of the holiness of the feast. Like Varuna in the Vedic ritual, Heimdal is the personification —the functional god — of the feast frith; he keeps watch over the worshippers so that no member of the sacred circle may infringe the rules and tabus on the observance of which the blessing of the blot was dependent, and through his insubordination lay the holy place open to the pernicious influence of the demons. In this character he is called the white ase (S E 30, 83, Thrym. 15), the whitest and purest of the gods, and from another point of view: sif sifjaðan, the incarnation of frith and the solidarity of kinship (Hynd. 43).

The sacrificers are called the sacred kin or sons of Heimdal (Vsp. 1), because they are consecrated and thus subjected to the rules of the feast frith; actually it means that Heimdal's Sons or kin is the sacral name for the congregation during the moments when the ceremonial hints at or turns upon the consecration and moral duties of the feast, in the same way as the circle of worshippers in Vedic ritual appeals to Varuna and Mithra as the guardians of the sacrifice.

The sanctity of the feast implied euphemia: ritual silence and devout attention, during the performance of the ceremonies and the chanting of the sacred texts; in the sacral language this euphemia is called hljóð, and hljóð is bound up with the horn of Heimdal, the symbol or incarnation of his authority. The horn is simply called his hljod and according to Vsp. (27) it is hidden — i. e. it rested — beneath the world ash in the sacrificial place. Vsp. opens with the verse: “I ask for hljod from the sacred kin, the sons of Heimdal”, lines in which a [325] ritual formula is paraphrased or more probably directly transcribed.

In the poetry of the viking age the horn of Heimdal figures as the trumpet that heralds the battle of Ragnarok. Whether this fanfare is a poetical invention due to the battle-heated imagination of the Ragnarok poets or it has its origin in ancient ritual is a question that must be left in abeyance; the ritual epithets never allude to the blowing of the horn, but their silence is no proof that it cannot have been in use as an instrument of music.

The ceremonial and dramatic appearance of Heimdal is not obscure; he was present in the horn resting on the place of sacrifice. The scene is pictured in the kennings of the scalds that render the sword by “the head of Heimdal”; we learn moreover that the symbol consisted in the horn of a ram, the sacrificial animal, for Heimdal is a ritual and poetical name of the ram, and hallinskíði, “ram”, is an epithet of Heimdal's, cf. III 80, S E 30, 209. S E (83, 145) proffers the information that the head of Heimdal is called sword on account of a story to the effect that he was pierced with the head of a man, lostinn mannz-höfði í gögnum, and in continuation of this startling piece of news we read: “that is the reason why the head is called Heimdal's mjötuðr or destiny, and sword means the destiny of man”. It is evident that there is a hitch somewhere in the chain of reasoning, at any rate the author has made a mess of two kennings or epithets, viz, that the sword can be styled Heimdal's head in allusion to a ritual scene turning on the horn of a ram, and on the other hand that the god was pierced with a man's head; and the summing up of the author in the form of a logical conclusion: head is the destiny of Heimdal, sword is the destiny of man, therefore head is sword, looks pretty like an artificial makeshift. In all probability the sentence is the outcome of the author's attempt to make sense of an epithet the meaning of which was lost or obscured, but this does not exclude the possibility that he had at his disposal two different kennings which had got mixed up. This being the case, the latter epithet alludes to an unknown rite suggesting the legend of the kettle being called the pledge of Odin.

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