The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[326] But we get a little nearer by examining the word mjötuðr, that is used by the author in support of his logic. Mjotudr is a ritual expression for luck, or destiny, i. e. the future as it is bound up with the sacrifice and created by its proper performance. This fate is concentrated in the sacrificial place, as we have seen, by the well; it is thus closely connected with the horn of Heimdal, and with the world ash that shades the sacred spot. The tree is said to possess this mjotudr — the power —among men, to help women in the throes of birth (Fjols. 22). Vsp. (2) offers a parallel form, mjötviðr, that should mean the tree of destiny, but this compound is possibly due to a late rationalistic redactor who tried his best to make sense out of an obscure text. According to Vsp. the battle of the gods and the demons is ushered in by the mjotudr bursting into flames by the ancient Gjallarhorn, when Heimdal raises the horn and blows a loud blast. The phrase is not clear, but it evidently turns on the fact that the tree is called mjotudr, in the same way as Heimdal's horn is called hljod as being the “symbol” of euphemia.

Heimdal is called the warder of the gods sitting at the rim where heaven joins the earth: a mythical expression of the fact that he rested við jarðar þröm (Hynd. 35), at the edge of men's holy place, viz, the sacrificial place where the real or eternal world was found. There he dwells in close contact with the sacred aurr; Loki twits him with leading a dog's life, his back soiled with mud: aurgu baki (Lokas. 48), a travesty that finds a mythical parallel in the Grimnismál 13: Heimdal drinks joyfully his mead at Himinbjorg.

The consecration of Heimdal or mythically speaking his birth, is described in words that reflect the ritual with its formulæ. According to Hynd. 38 his power was created from the megin of the earth — jarðar megin that resided in the aurr —the cool waves and the fluid from the sacrificial kettles. He is the son of nine mothers. Through these abrupt phrases we catch a glimpse of the ritual that initiated the feast and constituted its frith: the horn of the ram is carried forward and deposited on the “altar”, consecrated to be the guardian of the blot, [327] born by nine mothers, nine ritual acts, as in default of better knowledge we must be content to say. Later on a series of ceremonies proceeded from this guardian, or had his symbol for their centre, as is tantalisingly hinted at in obscure allusions to his horn.

In the prose sentences introducing the Rigsmál, Heimdal is identified with Rig, the father of men, but the evidential value of this gloss is rather doubtful. It is not intrinsically impossible that the identification may be inspired by a genuine tradition, that of Heimdal taking part in the dramatic birth of the clan, but the poem itself contains no intimation of Rig being looked on as an avatar of Heimdal.

So long as the feast lasted the congregation was under the protection of Heimdal, but during the moments when holy words were spoken from the rök seats, the solemnity of the hour found expression in another ritual word. The recitals are Hávi's speech, the congregation is Hávi's hall, and from such formulæ we learn that another ritual god, Hár or Hávi, presided over the chanting and watched over the correct enunciation of the sacred texts (Háv. 109, 111, 164). A ceremonial formula relating to this aspect of the blot crops up in the poem which Eyvind composed in honour of Earl Hakon: “I ask for hljod in Hár's assembly” (Skjald. 60 cf. or þvi liði, Vsp. 17 and Háv. 111).

The opening verse runs as follows: “I ask for attention in the assembly of Hár while I raise the mead — the weregild of the giant — and reckon up the kin of the Earl to the gods in Odin's kettle's fluid — lögr — which he bore on mighty wings from Surt's deep, gloomy vales”. Even though we were to strain our words to the point of breaking, we should never succeed in reproducing the precise import and significance of these verses; the only way of approach is possibly to describe the setting of Eyvind's poem. He had composed a poem in honour of the Earl of Hladi taking for his theme the traditions of Hakon's race; in his verses he gives a list of the earl's ancestors or a compendium of his hamingja, the names of the genealogy naturally implying the history represented by these several [328] figures. Such a poem makes up a rök or dómr; it gives real honour to the Earl by calling the fame of his family into new being and thus increasing his strength and luck. Hence it follows that it could only be recited at a feast as a piece of worship, baptised and made “whole” by the sacred cup. As a matter of course Eyvind opens his poem with a ritual allocution, addressing his listeners in a ceremonial phrase allusive to their holiness “in the hall of Hár”. Further he clothes his opening phrases in images referring to the ale indicative of the feast in which his poem makes up a formæli. It is not an idle poetical metaphor when his poem and the legend of the ale combine into a comprehensive idea, that of reciting the drapa and that of serving the ale; thus we are led to feel the force of the kennings in this verse: He who bore the ale up from the dim vales of the nether world king.

All that can be said of the god Vali may be expressed in one word: the avenger. According to the legend, he was begotten by Odin for the sake of revenge, and he placed his antagonist on the pyre at the tender age of one night, before he had washed his hands and combed his hair; this mythological biography is sufficiently elucidated by his dramatic function: he is the god who restores harmony after the slaughtering of the victim, he is “born” to his task, like Heimdal, and he has no personal existence outside the scene of restoration (S E 83, Hynd. 29, Bald. 11, here I 100-1).

To the same category belong gods like Modi and Magni, divine strength and power or megin, representatives of some situation in the drama; the remainder of ritual gods are but names to us and must be left in the twilight of a broken tradition.

The principle of the ritual drama involves an inner tension that — to our view — brings about a bewildering intricacy in some of its scenes, as of a double fugue running upon discordant themes. The body of the sacrificial animal is the Holiest of Holies, at the same time playing the part of the demon; the explanation is to be found in the creative power of the ritual in which the fundamental sentiment of the Teutons finds ex- [329] pression: to be pure and true, life must again and again be snatched out of the reach of the giants, to be good and fruitful, earth must be built on their dead bodies. In S E 11 the question is raised: What did Odin do before the world was created, and the query elicits this answer: He dwelt among the frost giants. These words originate in an ancient legend and reproduce the proceedings of the ritual. Not only such grand objects as heaven and earth, sun and moon, but ritual symbols, the ale vat and the ale itself, must be reft or acquired from the demons. The myths frequently allude to a ritual connection between the divine powers and forces of demoniacal appearance, to matrimonial or amorous alliances between gods and maidens belonging to the world of the giants, f. i. Thor's friendship with Grid that resulted in the acquisition of the Gridarvolr — according to S E Vidar was the son of Grid — the love affairs between Frey and Gerd, Odin and Gunnlod (cf. Hym. 8).

Thus it comes about that the ritual demands the cooperation of figures — whether human actors or acting implements —who are at once holy and accursed; accursed because they have to impersonate — for a time — the mischievous influence of the evil powers, holy because they have to appear in the drama in order to be overthrown, and cannot take part in the ritual unless they belong to the body of consecrated worshippers. Their task consists in representing objects or forces that have to be made heore, nýt, and it must never be forgotten that the creation of the world, the conquest of the gold or of the ale, the slaying of the giant, are not so many pieces of make-believe.

This category of ritual persons includes the giant's maiden, whose part was to initiate the ceremony of atonement; in the legend we see Skadi mounting the stage with the object of giving the gods an opportunity to cleanse themselves of the guilt incurred by the death of Thiazi. Haustlong and Thorsdrapa still preserve the ritual name of this figure: Mörn, and we catch a reminiscence of the drama when the demon is styled the father of Mörn. This ceremonial title crops up in Volsathattr, a piece of Christian persiflage on rustic idolatry, in which, moreover, we are presented with a formula containing the name: [330] “Moernir accept this blot”. To all appearance the title reappears once more in a magic verse composed as a lampoon against a Danish king.

The Skadi of the legends certainly hails from a drama belonging to a group of worshippers in the Drontheim parts of Norway; the importance of this figure in the ritual is vouched for by the fact that she gives birth to the clan of the Earls: Odin and Skadi were the progenitors of this race.

In the council of the gods there is no figure more arresting than that of Loki. He was a favourite of the poets in the viking age; they gave him an ample chance of playing the villain in the piece, and in their poetical myths extracted the full measure of slyness, double-dealing, cock-sureness, effrontery, cunning, cowardice and foolhardiness that lay hidden behind his sleek, ingratiating features. He becomes the leading character in the tragedy of the world, the most entertaining person in the history of the gods and at the same time the sinister power who shapes the fate of the world by his strength of weakness and his daring of cowardice. The threads of a destiny involving gods and men meet in his fertile brain and are twined by his ready wit and spiteful cynicism into a net that draws the whole world into the abyss of death. Double of tongue, glib of speech, never at a loss for a jest and a trick, he passes backwards and forwards between the gods and the demons; again and again he lures the gods to the brink of destruction; every time he contrives a way out for the sake of saving his own head; by his double-dealing he slowly but surely prepares for the day that shall set free the enemies of life and is to see him marching at their head into the battle-field.

This subtle friend of the gods is rather refractory to a sober method of analysis dividing him into mythological and folkioristic elements. As a matter of course he has been caught time upon time and placed on the anatomist's table, has had his body dissected and his inner organs numbered as belonging partly to a corn spirit, partly to a spirit of nature and partly to something else; but the analysis has never succeeded in depriving him of his deftness and agility, he slips from under [331] the hands of the anatomists and springs to his feet ready with a shocking jest. The only explanation of his character is the momentous drama of history in which he plays the leading part. The viking poets anthropomorphised the gods and all but turned them into studies of character, but their subtlest art was lavished on this divine jester and trickster, so as almost to make him a symbol of the mysteriousness of the human soul. There are few figures in the human portrait gallery to match the sly judge of humanity, or, rather, divinity, bewilderingly complex in his straightforward spitefulness, possessed of a foolhardiness equal to his cowardice, carrying the sharpest steel of subtle cunning in a sheath of cynical garrulity and abuse, handling his weapon with magisterial obsequiosity — a sly rogue who loves a trick disinterestedly for its own sake, able to turn his very blunders to account, spending his time in getting into scrapes to provide an opportunity for testing his wits in getting out of them and never alighting more gracefully than when he has been hoist with his own petard.

This figure of demoniacal humour is not evolved out of nothing by sheer psychological ingenuity; matured as his powers have been, he is of ancient dramatic extraction. The poets manufactured Loki, but they did not create him. To put the matter briefly, he was the sacral actor whose business was to draw out the demon, to bring the antagonism to a head and thus to prepare for victory — hence the duplicity of his nature; to act the part he must partake in the holiness and divinity of the sacrificial circle, and when this ritual fact is translated into the language of the legend, it assumes this form: Loki is of giant extraction, born in Utgard and admitted to the company of the gods on his entering into friendship and a blood covenant with Odin. In the Lokasenna he triumphantly claims his seat on the strength of this covenant, and reminds Odin: did we not mingle blood in ancient times, you made a vow never to touch the cup of ale unless I had a share. The “ancient times” — árdagar —alludes to the origin of time in the sacrifice — cf. esp. Vaf. 55, Hynd. 35 — and this verse of Lokasenna is probably a reminiscence of a ritual scene, a council, held in the rök seats in prepara- [332] tion of the ceremonies. Such a figure has to bear the blame of the tricks and feints necessary to provoke the conquest of life, he becomes a comic figure, the trickster who is predestined to be overreached. The philosophical poets of the viking age paint their Loki on the canvass of old stories, and we may believe that the humour of this figure was foreshadowed in the ritual character. The scenes presenting the demon tripped up by his own stratagems and hurled head over heels into destruction were imbued with grim humour, but the bantering, laughing scorn had in it a clear ring of triumph, coming as it did from men who were able to do justice to the dangerous strength of their enemies. The worshippers did not sneer at the demons, for in overcoming the onslaughts of evil they had to put forth their utmost strength, and through the perilous contest they had tasted and got to know their own power and the might of their gods.


The sacrificial drama covers the history of the clan from the very birth of time to the actual present of the blot — hence the pregnancy of its several scenes — and makes up a whole repugnant to the very idea of a distinction, in our view of fundamental importance, between cosmic or mythical events and historical incidents. The fight with the demon spells victory over the enemy in every shape, the overcoming of enmity; in this act the clan wins all its battles for ever. This implies to our understanding a twofold or rather manifold meaning to the legend, because we are unable to grasp a mental attitude of such a complex or, rather, of so condensed a character; our experience being directed from a chronological standpoint prevents our conceiving history as a totality or fulness that never loses its inner coherence, even if it readily splits up into episodes when any incident is brought back to memory.

In the dragon fight the traditions of the clan are transfigured and celebrated, and the scene is consequently distinguished by an individual tone according to the experience of various

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