The Religion of the Northmen
EXPLORING THE FUTURE; DIVINATION
The investigation of the Future was most intimately connected with Sorcery.
The heathen Northmen believed that there were means by which man could prevail on the Gods to make known their will, or to reveal things which otherwise, in the order of Nature, must remain hidden from the human understanding. This kind of inquiry was named, sometimes, frétt---an interrogation, investigation---(from frétta, to ask), and to undertake it was "at ganga til fréttar," to consult the oracle; and sometimes it was termed spá, or plural, spár---prophecy, divination---and to make application to it was "at spyrja spá," to inquire out the prophecy---or "at lyða spám," to listen to prophecies.
Concerning the mode in which this kind of inquiry into the Future took place, our old manuscripts give no special information. It appears to have been most usual for the explorer of the Future, while invoking or sacrificing to a deity, either to demand as a response some signal which he left to the God himself to decide upon, and which he recognized in any remarkable event occuring at the time, and then interpreted in such a mode as appeared most probable according to the circumstances, or else to decide upon the signal himself by which the divinity was to answer him.
We have seen that the zealous Asa-worshiper Hákon Jarl made use of the former mode when he sacrificed to Odin before his bold march through Gothland, and he interpreted it as a promise from the God of success in the expedition, when two ravens during the sacrifice came flying along and screaming loudly. When the Icelandic chieftain Thorkel the Tall invoked the God Frey for vengeance upon his enemy Viga-Glum, and at the same time demanded a signal that the God had heard his prayer, he regarded it as a favorable response of Frey when the ox, which he had led out as an offering, immediately fell with loud bellowing upon the ground and died. (1) The latter mode we find applied by the emigrating Northmen, in choosing their places of residence in foreign lands by direction of the Sacred Columns. In this they believed that the Gods, whom they invoked beforehand, directed the columns to a place where a prosperous abode was vouchsafed to them and their descendants.
An important ceremony of measurement which was employed in building a new house, in order to find out what fortune was in store in it for its future occupants, was also of the same character. This ceremony was performed by measuring the foundations repeatedly---say three times---and very carefully noting whether there was any difference in dimensions between the first and last measurement. If the last was greatest they believed it to forbode increasing prosperity to the occupant of the home; but if the contrary happened, then they believed it would always go down-hill with him.
The second above-mentioned mode of consulting the Gods appears to have been the most generally employed. Two kinds of exploration of the future are mentioned in the Sagas, which may be referred to this class, namely, by means of sacred leaves or slips (blótspánn) and by prophetic lots (hlotar or hlutar), both, doubtless, a species of lot-casting in principle, but practiced by different modes.
To consult the Gods by the first-named species of oracle was "at fella blótspánn," i.e., to drop the sacred leaves. Although this is very often mentioned in the old manuscripts, yet the details are nowhere described. We must, therefore be content with probable conjectures to which the ancient name, compared with descriptions of similar modes of consulting the Gods among people nearly related to the Northmen, may lead us.
The expression "at fella blótspánn" seems to imply that the exploration was effected by the casting of consecrated slips or pieces of wood.
We find the casting of lots (Sortilegium, of the Romans) employed as a means of divination among many of the nations of antiquity---the Greeks, Romans, Scythians, Alani, Germans, and others. Of the mode of foretelling events by casting lots, as employed by the Germans, the near kinsmen of the Northmen, we find the following account by Tacitus: "They (the Germans) pay strict attention to omens and the casting of lots (sortes). The usual mode of casting lots (sortium consuetudo) is simple. A bough cut from a fruit-tree is divided into small slips (surculos), which are marked, each with its sign, and cast out at random upon a white cloth. Thereupon the State Priest, if the consultation be public, or the master of the household himself, if it be private, makes a prayer to the Gods, and, with eyes uplifted toward heaven, takes up every twig three times, and explains them according to the marks set beforehand upon them." (2) Of the Alani it is said by Ammianus Marcellinus, "They explore the future by a remarkable method. They collect osier twigs (virgas vimineas) which are tolerably straight, scatter them about for a certain time, while they sing mysterious incantations, and then they know with certainty what they signify." (3) By this is meant, no doubt, that after thus scattering the twigs about, they foretold the future by the relative positions in which they settled.
If we turn to these descriptions for explanation of the old Norse expression, "at fella blótspánn," it will appear highly probable that this expression denotes a prophetic lot-casting precisely similar to that employed by the Germans and Alani. Besides, if we take into consideration the use which the heathen Northmen made of runes, as well as the nature of these characters, this supposition is strengthened, and even passes over into a certainty.
Of the employment of runes in sorcery as magic characters, we have before spoken; that they were also applied to the art of divination, so nearly allied to sorcery, can hardly be doubted. Each runic character has a name denoting some object of importance in life, something to be desired or feared, concerning which it might, therefore, be desirable to consult the Gods. Thus, for instance, the name of the character A is ár, a year, fruitfulness; I is ís, ice; F is fé, cattle, money, (pecus, pecunia), &c. Moreover, all runes are formed by a combination of right lines, whence no doubt their name stafir, sing., stafr, a staff, stave. Thus, when a number of straight sticks were thrown up, they might very easily fall in such relative positions toward one another, as to form runic characters, and from the significant names of these figures a prophecy could be traced out. No doubt an improvement was afterward made in the matter, by carving a rune upon each of the sticks. By scattering them and afterward either blindly picking them up one by one, after the manner of the Germans, or by viewing their relative positions as a whole, it was easy to fabricate a prophecy quite satisfactory to the superstition of the times.
Such was, beyond all doubt, the nature of the divination by blótspánn employed by the heathen Northmen. That they also invoked the Gods thereby, and sang magic songs and incantations, like the Germans and Alani, is highly probable.
The second species of exploring the future, i.e., by means of divination-lots, is found more minutely described in the Sagas. In the three most detailed accounts we have of the invasion of Norway by the Jomsburg sea-rovers, it is related how Hákon Jarl, in order to gain over the Skald Einar, afterward surnamed Skálaglam, presented to him a costly divining-balance, with the accompanying weights. The best descriptions of this divining apparatus are in this wise: "Then the Jarl (Hákon) takes a good balance-scale (skálir góðar) which he had in his possession. It was made of burnished silver and was all gilt. With it there were two weights (met), the one of gold, the other of silver, upon each of which there was a figure wrought (a human figure according to the other two accounts). They were called hlotar (by the others, hlutar) and were in reality lot-casting weights (hlutir; Latin, sortes) such as people of that thime used to have. A great power lay hidden in them, and on all occasions which were deemed by the Jarl to be of importance, he made use of these weights. He would then place them in the scales, appointing at the same time what each one was to decide for him; and always when the throwing turned out well, and the one came up that he desired, the weight indicating his choice was restless in the scale and turned gently about in it so as to give out a clinking sound. This treasure the Jarl gives to Einar, and Einar is greatly rejoiced therewith. (4)
This sketch, although not in every way satisfactory, gives an idea of the divination-weights of the heathen Northmen. We may imagine the two weights to have been precisely equal, and the balance upon which they were thrown very delicate and easily turned. The one was made to denote what the person wished for, the other, what he did not wish. It was probably imagined that that would happen which the weight that rose up in the balance indicated; and which of the weights this might be depended entirely upon chance. The human figure, said to have been stamped upon the weights, probably denoted the divinity from whom they demanded a response by the casting of the lots. The special power that lay in Hákon Jarl's divining-weights, appears to have been chiefly in the sound which it was imagined was to be heard in the scales when the good weight came up.
They also sought information concerning the future from men who, by being gifted with superior powers---and this mostly by the aid of magic means---were believed to be able to penetrate the hidden decrees of Fate.
Seers (menn framsýnir, menn forspáir) are frequently mentioned in our ancient Sagas. Their gift of foreseeing and foretelling certain things was usually regarded as inborn. What brought them into repute was, doubtless, in most cases, a keen understanding, a more than ordinary knowledge of nature, a deeper insight into human character, and an attentive observance of past and present events in their causes and effects. More was not required in those unenlightened times to bring one into notice as a prophet or prophetess, especially when a certain natural or assumed mysteriousness, and a wise application of circumstances, were added. Such seers were believed to have a presentiment of coming events of importance, and to be able to see by one's features and manners what his fate would be. That both these species of prophecy should often hit the mark is not so wonderful, when we consider on one hand the intimate relation between the Past and Future, and on the other, how strongly the character of a people of inferior cultivation is usually expressed in their features, and also how common it is that a man's disposition shapes his good or evil destiny. Whatever might be wanting in the accuracy of the supposed prophecies, was filled out by the superstition of the age, which often, when the event had actually happened, involuntarily adapted to it the words with which the seer might be supposed to have announced it beforehand. His fame thus grew sometimes without his own cooperation; his contemporaries listened to every expression that fell from his lips, as to the response of an oracle, and After-ages ascribed to him prophecies which in all probability never came from his lips.
Many of the seers of heathen times believed, probably by the aid of a certain enthusiasm, that they actually received higher revelations, but there were also many, doubtless, who were fully conscious of the true state of the case with their gifts of prophecy. It is, however, easy to imagine that the latter seldom opposed the superstition concerning their supernatural powers, for the distinction which the fame of their prophetic faculty conferred upon them was too alluring, and they were also influenced by baser motives. A good prophecy was mostly well rewarded, while a prophecy of evil was a grand medium for striking terror where revenge and delight in mischief could not by any better means be appeased.
1. Viga-Gl. S. 9. [Back]
2. Tacitus: Germ. c. 10. [Back]
3. Ammian., lib. 31, c. 2. [Back]
4. Jómsvíkínga S. 42 in Fornm. S. XI. p. 128. [Back]