The Religion of the Northmen
INFLUENCE OF THE ASA-FAITH UPON THE NATIONAL SPIRIT OF THE NORTHMEN
That the Asa-faith exercised a mighty influence over the character of all the nations who were its adherents, is manifest. As to the Northmen, it is only necessary, in confirmation hereof, to take a comparative view of the doctrines of that faith and of the popular life in heathendom, as portrayed by the Sagas. By this, however, we would not say that the popular character, individually and collectively was created by that faith; that the virtues and vices of the people originated in it alone. In that case we might fancy that the Germanic nations, and especially the Norræna branch, had received the Asa-faith as a comparatively finished system of religion. But this would certainly be an incorrect view of the subject. This people, at its separation from a larger whole, took with it only the germs of that faith which afterward became developed in a peculiar direction, under the influence of the popular life and the action of external circumstances upon that life, but which also reacted upon that life with a power which increased in proportion as the system acquired by development a more decided character. In this we can perceive an active reciprocating influence between the religion and the popular life, analogous to that operating between the soul and the body.
When we find, for instance, that the doctrines of the Asa-faith concerning Odin as Val-father, Valhalla, and the Einherjar, contains a strong incentive to warlike deeds, we must not, therefore, imagine that the warlike spirit which displayed itself so powerfully among the Germanic tribes in general, and the Norræna in particular, had its origin in this doctrine precisely, or that this doctrine consequently forms any part of the real basis of the religion. Rather may we conceive that the inherent physical power of these tribes, set in activity by casual outward circumstances, by hostile conflicts with other tribes and intestine quarrels among themselves, called forth the warlike spirit from the beginning; that this spirit in turn stamped itself upon the religious doctrines, and finally, that the religion, after having received characteristic impress, again reacted to sustain and still further inflame that warlike spirit.
The influence of the Asa-faith upon the popular spirit of the Northmen must be regarded from quite another point of view than that of Christianity at a later period. The Asa-faith was, so to speak, inborn with this particular class of people and this particular nation, as it had developed itself from certain germs and taken form with the popular life itself, almost unknown to it. Christianity, on the contrary, was imparted to the people as a religious system complete in itself, appointed for all the nations of the earth; one which by its own divine power opened for itself a way to conviction, and through that operated on the popular spirit in a direction pointed out by the fundamental principles of the religion itself.
As the system of the Asa-faith arose without any conscious object to be effected in morals, therefore it did not embrace any actual code of morals, in the higher sense of the term. The Asa doctrine does not pronounce by positive expression what is virtue and what is vice; it pre-supposes a consciousness thereof in its votaries. It only represents in general terms Virtue as bringing its own reward, Vice its own punishment, if not here upon the earth, then with certainty beyond the grave. This is contained in the doctrines of Valhalla and Helheim, of Gimli and Náströnd. For the rest, the precepts relating to life which are propounded as divine in many of the heathen poems, especially in Hávamál and Sígrdrífumál of the Older Edda, (1) constitute a collection of prudential maxims rather than a system of morals. But these maxims, inasmuch as they were thought to proceed from the Gods, or from superior beings nearly related to the Gods, are combined with the Asa-faith, and express the ideas of a rational and worthy life which were developed among the Northmen under its influence.
What these rules of life, which are uttered in apothegms, mainly inculcate, is briefly as follows:
The recognition of man's imperfection, which should challenge in him a struggle against his own evil propensities and forbearance toward the weakness of others.
"Vices and virtues are borne by the sons of men blended in the breast; no man is so good that his faults do not follow him; no one so bad that he is good for nothing."
Courage and strength, both in bearing the hard decrees of fate, and in fighting against enemies.
"The unwise man lies awake all night, and ponders over all things: then he is weary when the morning comes, yet his sorrow remains as it was."
"Silent and thoughtful should be the sons of princes, and bold in battle."
"The timid man thinks he shall live forever if he keeps away from battle; but age gives him no peace even though the spear may spare him."
The struggle for independence in life with regard to knowledge as well as fortune, an independence which should, therefore, be earned by a love of learning and by industry.
"A friend more trusty can no man ever have than a good understanding."
"Happy he who has law and understanding of himself while he lives; for evil counsel has been often found in the breast of another."
"One's own home is the best though little it may be; every man is master in his own house. Though he have but two goats and a cottage thatched with boughs, is it better than begging?"
"A bleeding heart is his who has to beg his bread for every meal."
"Early shall he rise whose laborers are few, and see to his work; many things hinder him who sleeps away the morning. The half of riches depends on quickness."
A strict adherence to oaths and promises:
"This I counsel thee secondly, that thou swear not an oath unless it be true; cruel fetters shall bind the traitor; wretched is he who breaks his word."
Candor and fidelity as well as foresight in love; devotion to the tried friend, but dissimulation toward the false and war to the death against the implacable enemy.
"To thy friend shalt thou be a friend, to him and his friend; but no one should be the friend of his friend's enemy."
"Hast thou a friend in whom thou hast full confidence, and thou wilt receive good from him, then mingle thy thoughts with his, exchange gifts with him and visit him often."
"But hast thou another in whom thou hast not great confidence, and yet will receive good from him, fair words shalt thou speak to him but falsely think, and reward loose speech with lies."
"Never be the first to break off rashly with thy friend. Sorrow consumes the heart when thou hast no one to whom thou canst open thy whole mind."
"Make thy friend's misfortune thy own; but give thy enemy no peace."
"If thou wilt find a good wife, to be a pleasant companion and to bring thee joy, make fair promises but hold them in good faith; no one is made weary with good."
"Hast thou a friend in whom thou hast full confidence? go often to see him; for the weeds grow and the high grass in the path where no one treads."
"Once I was young; I traveled alone through wild paths; I thought myself rich when I met with others. Man is a joy to man."
"That is a communion of soul where each can say confidentially to the other all his thoughts. Anything is better than to be false. He is not a friend who speaks only fair words."
"Let no one trust the words of a maiden nor a woman's speech; for upon rolling wheels their hearts were formed, and inconstancy lies in their breast."
"Never rejoice at the misfortunes of others, but let their prosperity please thee."
Respect for Age.
"Laugh not at the gray-haired speaker. That is often good which the aged have to say. Often from the wrinkled skin come forth words of wisdom."
Hospitality, liberality, and charity to the poor.
"Fire is needed by him who has come in and is chilled at the knees; food and clothing are needed by the man who has wandered over the mountains."
"Water he needs who comes to thy table; a towel and a hospitable welcome. By good treatment thou shalt win from him good words and kindness in return."
"With arms and clothing shall friends gladden each other. They who give and receive gifts in return, are friends the longest, if all other things be well."
"With scorn and laughter mock not the stranger and the wayfarer. He who sits at his own door is often uncertain who it may be that comes by."
"Scoff not the guest nor spit upon him from the window! Be kind to the poor."
A prudent foresight in word and deed.
"The wary guest who comes to the banquet is not wasteful of words; he listens with the ear, he sees with the eye; thus the wise man feels about him."
"He talks too much who never ceases his vain flow of words. The flippant tongue, unless it be checked, often runs itself into mischief."
"From thy weapons on the field move not a foot-breadth; for it is uncertain how soon upon the way out the spear may be needed."
Temperance, not only in the gratification of the senses, but in the exercise of power.
"No heavier burden is borne by man than immoderate drinking; nor is ale so good as it is said for the sons of men. The more one drinks the less he knows, until his understanding is gone."
"The bird of forgetfulness hovers over the drinking room and steals away the senses of men."
"The herd knows when to go home and it leaves the pasture; but the foolish man knows not the measure of his stomach."
"The gluttonous man, unless he makes use of his reason, eats his own death. To the Wise the stomach of the stupid man often brings laughter."
"His power the wise man shall wield with moderation! This he finds when among the brave he has come, that no one excels in everything."
Contentment and cheerfulness.
"Prudent and generous be the sons of the freeborn, and bold in battle. Cheerful and glad let every man be to the end of his life."
"The heart only knows what dwells the heart nearest; it alone can betray itself. There is no disease worse for the brave man than to be discontented with his lot."
"The master of the house should be cheerful at home, kind to his guests and circumspect; let him be attentive and affable."
Modesty and politeness of intercourse.
"Thou shalt no maiden entice nor any man's wife, nor urge them to wantonness."
"The fool stares when he comes a guest; he talks with himself and murmurs. If he gets a drink his whole mind is opened."
"Washed and sated should a man ride to the assemblies, even though he be not finely dressed. Of his shoes and breeches let no one be ashamed, nor of his horse, though it may not be the best."
A desire to win the good will of our fellow men, especially to surround one's self with a steadfast circle of devoted kinsmen and faithful friends.
"The tree pines away which stands within the village; no bark nor leaf remains to shelter it. So is it with the man whom no one loves; why shall he live long ?"
"Seldom stands a monumental stone by the wayside, unless by kinsman raised to kinsman."
"Bear thyself irreproachably toward thy kinsfolk; be slow to avenge thyself on them, even though they injure thee: this, it is said, will profit thee in death."
A careful treatment of the bodies of the dead.
"Carefully gather up the dead wherever on earth thou may find them, whether they have died by sickness, by the sea, or by arms. Raise up a mound for the departed, wash the hands and head, comb and dry it before it is laid in the coffin, and pray for it to sleep in peace."
The remembrance that earthly riches are perishable, and in connection therewith, the struggle to gain a good reputation and a renown which shall reach beyond this life and be cherished and honored by posterity.
"Wealth is like the glance of the eye, it is a most unstable friend."
"Riches depart, kindred die, man himself dies also; but a good name dies never for him who gained it."
"Riches depart, kindred die, man himself dies also; but one thing I know of which never dies: the Judgment of the Dead."
These rules of life were variously understood, and as variously carried out into practice. But on the whole we find them reflected in the popular character of the Northmen, such as history teaches it to us during heathendom. Bravery, prudence, and a love of independence are its bright features, although bravery often degenerated into warrior-fierceness, prudence into dissimulation, and the love of independence into self-will. If on the one hand we find a noble self-command, devoted faithfulness in friendship and love, noble-hearted hospitality and generosity, a love of right and of legal order, we also see on the other, unyielding stubbornness, a fierce spirit of revenge, a repulsive arrogance, a far-reaching self-interest and an excessive dependence upon the formalities of the law. A cold and unmoved exterior ofen concealed a soul torn by the bitterest of grief, or stirred up by the wildest passions. A passionate outburst of joy, or of grief, was considered undignified. Few words, but energetic action, was esteemed in conduct, and complaint was silenced in order that vengeance could strike the more surely and heavily. Under a tranquil, indifferent mien were concealed the boldest and most deep-laid plans, and the real intentions first came to light in the decisive moment. On the whole there was certainly an impress of rigidity, insensibility, and self-goodness stamped upon the popular character; but this stamp was more upon the outside than in its innermost character, more the result of inordinate prudence than of an evil disposition; and through all its failings there shines forth a dignity of soul which ennobled power and held up glory in this life and in after-ages as the highest object of human undertakings.
1. In the Hávamál---which name signifies either the Sublime Discourses or the Discourse of the Sublime Being---Odin himself is represented as the speaker. In Sigrdrífumál it is the Valkyrja Sigrdrífa, who gives counsel to Sigurd Fafnisbani. [Back]