Index | About | Mission | Vor Vegr | Resources | Contacts | Book Store | What's New |






 Death was not dangerous — for those who had something to live on.

Death held more possibilities than it ever can embrace with us; it opened up prospects of broad well-being as well as every possible degree of bodily and spiritual poverty, it opened the vista of power as of total extinction. In face of so arbitrary a master one might think there would be room for many kinds of feeling, for the boldest confidence as for the most miserable wailing; but all the evidence goes to show that the fluctuations were not great, and we have full authority for speaking of serenity in face of death as a mark of Germanic culture. There is nothing to suggest that the feeling ever sank below the dispassionate taking things as they come. In all the monuments preserved there is, as far as I know, no trace of any dread at the change, still less any shriek of horror. From the equanimity of the Germanic attitude, where life and death weigh so nearly equal that a transposition can hardly bring about any violent concussion of the soul, there is, then, a far cry to dread, or rather illwill towards the great change which stands out so crudely among many other peoples, an unwillingness towards death as something unnatural, a thing only to be explained as arising out of malice on the part of other human or spiritual beings. On closer scrutiny, however, there is after all a nearer relationship between the two modes of regarding death than would appear at the first glance. They can after all be traced back to the same soul stratum. The gladdest of the bold admit to the wretches who run about trembling for their lives, that the actual transition from one state to the other involves a certain risk.

The ancient language has a special word for the man who has the germ of death already in him, one whom death has already touched: he is called “fey” (Anglo-Saxon fæge, Icelandic feigr). A fey man does not make a good comrade; there is no luck in him. Such an one is known, indeed, by the fact that his counsels turn awry, his wit fails him, he cannot even make use of the wisdom of others. When the enemies of Njal rode up in sight of his house, the old man ordered his sons and his followers indoors. Skarphedin, who did not like being shut up in an inflammable building instead of fighting in the open, shakes his head at his father's demand: “Our father is marked for death now” it seems to him, and he adds resignedly: “still I may well humour my father in this by being indoors with him, for I am not afraid of my death.” To this may come even one so wise in counsel, so far-sighted, one whose resourcefulness never failed before; the approaching death so dims his eyes that he cannot foresee the house being fired over his head. In a former chapter it has been told how the proud woman Thurid, the Great Widow, brought about an unlikely revenge on the slayers of a kinsman of her husband's; her deep schemes were hurried on by the colossal blindness of her adversary, Sigurd; he would have his brother Thord marry her in spite of all scruples, and he would visit her in spite of all urgent representations. “You must be fey, to rush on like that,” says Thord resignedly. The uncanny character of feydom is also plainly evident in the close relationship it bears to outlawry the two words are often classed together. Thus fey naturally comes to mean unhappy, useless and craven — in fact: luckless.

Death is earnest, this the Northmen give us plainly to understand. And even the merriment at the arvel, or feast of succession, is in itself evidence of danger near. The time of death amounts to a crisis, which may lead to the worst results, unless due precautions be taken. All those who were joined in frith with the departed stand poised on the verge of misfortune. Contempt of death is based solely and entirely upon the fact of having all measures for surety in one's power. The scorner of death is at one with him who fears it in regarding death itself as an irruption into luck, an offence against life, which must be repaired as soon as possible. And when there is none who can be called to account, it may happen that fear takes the form of fury, even to the point of rushing headlong against the invisible. The dirge of Egil contains a soul-stirring confession that terror stands just without the gate and can at any moment make itself felt as the superior.

In normal cases, death means a stranding of life, and if the individual stricken by the change, as well as his kinsmen, shall get afloat again and sail on without harm, there must be reparation of some sort or another, to remove the germs of unluck. If it were a death that called for vengeance, and vengeance were not taken, then the future loomed dark for the departed.

The terrible menace lurking in death is made manifest in the story of Hjorleif, who was murdered by his own thralls shortly after having settled in Iceland. The Norwegian youth who landed in Iceland together with his foster-brother Ingolf, might claim to be reckoned among the great men of luck. He was descended from a family of high standing, and had himself increased his inheritance of honour by yearly expeditions throughout his youth. Immediately after landing in the new home he built himself a house and remained there quietly through the winter; but at the commencement of spring he began to cultivate the land, and having only one ox, he set his Irish thralls to pull the plough. They wearied of the work, and killed the ox in order to lure their master away in chase of the bear supposed to be prowling about the place. While he was alone in the forest they fell upon him and killed him, and his body was left lying in the open until Ingolf came and made a grave for him in spring. “Wretched fate for a brave man, that slaves should be his bane;” this lament of Ingolf's tells us that a great misfortune has happened, but if the saga writer had left the matter here, our farthest-reaching guess would hardly have reached the full extent of the grief that weighed on Ingolf. The land was desolate when Ingolf found it, the thralls having fled after committing the misdeed, and desolate it remained for a very long time, for Hjorleif became an evil sprite haunting the neighbourhood and making it unsafe — unheore — so that none could dwell there.

It may be, then, that in our asking after death we have not touched the true goal, in using the word death in our own sense, as implying the stillness of the heart. We have only reached the possibility of death, not death itself. To exist in a clan meant to have a share in an individual life, with its sum of enjoyment and activity; and the common possession of life was thus not broken by the conclusion of one's existence in this light, if the dead man left kinsmen behind him to keep up his honour and maintain connection with all his fellows, both those here and those elsewhere. But the fellowship could be sundered. The isolation of the niding was a thing which rent the vital artery in twain and uprooted every hope; and looking now, we can discern enough of the fear of death among our forefathers, enough of that barren terror of death that stifles all there is of nobility in man and leaves only the panic cry of the beast in him, or perhaps brutalises him beyond the beast.

The niding is he who rightly should bear the name of dead, for he is the exact opposite of the living human being. In his life, the human hamingja turns its wrong side out. His weapons have no bite. His ship can never find a wind. The current of power that gave success to the tilling of the soil stops: his fields burn dry, his cattle drop dead.

In the curses upon those who have sinned against life we find the picture of the niding clearly translated. “Let the ship never stride that strides under you, even though the wished-for wind blows from behind. May the horse not run that runs under you, even though you be fleeing leap on leap before your foes. May the sword you draw never bite, save when it swoops down on your own head.” Thus Sigrun says to her brother Dag, when he has slain his brother-in-law.

A corresponding dedication to the “life” of a niding is found disguised in the first book of Saxo, where the curse is invoked upon Hading by a woman, after he “with many strokes had slain a beast of unknown sort”: “Whether you stride on foot over the hand or hoist sail at sea, the hate of the gods shall follow you, and everywhere you shall see the elements oppose your aim. On land your foot shall stumble, at sea you shall he tumbled about; an everlasting storm shall howl about you where you go, and never shall the ice thaw from your sails. No roof shall give you shelter — if you creep under one, it shall fall before the gale. Your herd shall perish of frostbite. All things shall fade and moan that your breath has touched them. You shall be shunned as one stricken with the plague, — no sick man shall be more foul than you.”

The story, as it stands here, is not clear to us; possibly the fact was that Hading and the beast, or more probably society and the beast, had mutual obligations; Hading's “unluck” would then consist in his having, willingly or unwillingly, broken in upon something inviolable, upon which life and welfare in that land depended. At all events, the description of the effects of the deed give as good a characterisation of the external curse of villainy as could be given: luck in battle, in industry, luck of the wind, all are gone. All that the man touches falls to pieces, for in place of life, death goes out from him.

The niding's plans are futile. Even though they appear sound and wise enough, and seemingly laid with all cunning, all the tension is gone out of them. It will prove in the event that in despite of all human calculation they, like his weapons, strike back upon his own face instead of forward. This reality of spiritual death barbs the point of such a curse as that the old crone calls down upon Grettir in his outlawry: “Here I declare over you that you shall be forsaken of luck, of fortune and blessing and all guardian strength and wit, the more for all your length of life.” 'When Grettir starts up at the words as if stung by a serpent, it is not so much because he knows that one may expect all sorts of arts from such a witch-wife, but rather because she, with devilish insight, strikes with her mighty words at his vulnerable point, and with one poisonous sting paralyses his resistance against all witchcraft. She begins by summing up quite soberly his present state: “These men (Grettir and his brother) might yet be luckless in their boldness; here good terms are offered them, but they thrust them aside, and nothing leads more surely to evil than being unable to accept good.” Roughly translated into modern speech: “You can see what is the matter with him; he is out of his wits, he is branded.” Here she hits the outlaw, the man society has declared a niding, and all she needs now to do is to leave the words fixed in the wound and let them act of themselves. When in a young saga we read that a certain outlaw saw everything in advance, but could do nothing for it, this is but a new proof of how instinctively sure an understanding men had in Iceland of what was handed down: the sentence contains the negative to the proud luck of the sons of Ingimund.

To the eyes of the niding, all things are wrapped in a mist. He does not know what will come of his doings. His acts are not charged with the lucky power of will which guides them to their goal. The mark of the nìding is that with him, boldness and luck, power and success no longer go together. When a man loses his footing and is on the point of slipping from human life, his moral habitus is aptly expressed in the words: “He was brave enough, but no man of luck.”

But the cleft in the niding goes deeper still, it cleaves the soul, so that will and hugr cannot reach each other. We read in an Icelandic saga of an outlaw who himself could say: “It goes against my will to share in plunderings and harm with these ill-doers” — and yet he stayed with them. The source of luck is dried up altogether. The niding has no hold on himself. He has no honour, and so all moral judgement is void. He becomes a coward, and he grows malicious. All that an honest man eschews will be habit and custom to a niding; to break oaths and promises, to slay women and the unarmed, to murder in gloom and dark, to betray those who trust him, to violate frith. He has no frith. All are his enemies. His friendship is like that of the wolves, who run in bands together, but rend one another in time of need. The Anglo-Saxon Gnomic verses describe his state, putting with a peculiar yet natural lack of distinction between outlawed man and outlawed beast, the position thus: “Friendless, unlucky man takes wolves for his fellows, the treacherous beasts, often his comrade rends him asunder. It buries dead men in itself and howls with hunger. It sends up no complaint, no wailing of woe over death, the grey wolf; nay, ever it wishes more.” Or, as we find in the Old Icelandic with even more marked emphasis of the lack of frith feeling: “Are we to bear ourselves as wolves, quarrelling one with another, as the dogs of the norns, the gluttons, begotten of the wide waste?”

The niding hacks about him in a blind fury of destruction. Old Swedish records of judgements show him still in all his horror as the etos-forsaken beast he is, when he flings his spittle full in the face of the living God, swears as if he had all the devils at his call, and challenges all without respect of person. There was one such on a time who forced a priest to give him ale, and rode off to the churchyard with the mug, to drink to all the devils he could name, and offer to fight them. It is related of another that when captured, he freely admitted all his mis-deeds, and was only plagued by the thought of all the evil uncommitted which he was now prevented from accomplishing; if he could only have managed to gain his freedom for a single week, to arrange matters so that he had something to die with, he would have been content. Such a madness of evil is the state of the old outlaw; and though its symptoms among the peasantry of Smáland in the 17th—18th centuries may be regulated by somewhat other conditions — Christian if we like to call them so - the, nature of the madness yet remains unchanged.

Compared with the frozen despair of this unheore niding horror, the Icelandic outlaws appear almost to pale. As is but natural, a saga is not written about a specimen of human refuse; no pathos is to be extracted from vileness and bestial cunning; the pathos of life itself is, as the records of judgements distinctly say, too hard for any idealisation to work in it. The Icelandic robber stories originate in feelings of kinship and friendship, depicting, or glorifying, the human element in the outcast, and approaching more and more the modern type of bandit legends, in which the exception claims a certain romance purely and solely by virtue of his exceptional position.

The greater, then, is the effect upon the reader of the discovery that the narrators cannot clear their heroes from the brand of Cain! So deeply rooted is the feeling that the transition to the state of outlawry is an alteration of character, that the Icelanders, even in the romantic days of epigon art, cannot hold a character unchanged through its passage beyond the boundary. No healthy Norseman behaves as Gunnar of Hlidarendi when he went about Iceland as an outlaw who had broken his own promises: he accepts Olaf the Peacock's invitation to seek safety at his homestead, and when the time comes, he remains at home, simply because he lacks the will to go; or, expressed in terms of literary history, no story-teller would think of ascribing to a man of luck the instability which was characteristic of the niding. And an admired popular hero like Grettir loses ethically — in the old sense of the word, of course — in the course of his outlawry. In the light of beautifying sympathy, the tragic element only appears more bitter, when a man enters upon base robbery and villainy with mingled feelings in which the two components: self-scorn and recognition of the futility of resistance, accentuate each other.

Self-assertion is only found where luck is, where there is an honour to fight for, and where the fight leads to an increase of honour. With the niding, who lives but a fiction of human life, battle and defence are but a blind biting and snapping and snarling as of a beast, or rather, as of certain beasts, the niding beasts. The more he toils, the greater dishonour he brings upon himself. Not even the last resource open to any living man, of gaining honour in defiance by his death, is here available; there is not sufficient honour in him to make him worthy of vengeance. To slay him is merely putting him out of mischief.

Without frith and without joy — here we have the end of the niding's saga; these two “withouts” fix the gulf between kinship and nidinghood. Without the life that consists in the feeling of kinship, in the tacit recollection of kin-luck's history in oneself and one's kin, in the family pride's faith in the future, none can have the signs of life: the well-being of converse when stretched on the bench, and the half scornful, half rejoicing boisterous laughter, produced, apparently, by the mere movement, when a man “proud of his strength” breaks out into a run. A man cannot fill his lungs for a burst of laughter when the arteries close their valves. In the niding, the vital artery is sundered, and therefore, all power of joy rapidly ebbs away.

Death, rightly considered, means a state without luck. We must remember that the word is to be taken absolutely, so that there is no room for intermediate states and the thought of a transition form cannot find a way in. The poor men of low degree had but a very slender luck, so slender that seen from above it might perhaps be invisible altogether, but none could be called a man of unluck as long as he owned house and home and kin, and still felt himself as the defender of an honour. How poor a man might be without falling out of humanity I do not know; the boundary lay probably now higher, now lower, according to the state of things in society. But even the very poorest must, as surely as they were alive, possess a luck on which they lived, and which they cultivated with religious intensity. Not even thralls can be taken as a sort of transition form, for they are wholly and completely outside all forms of luck. They have no life in themselves, but are inspired by the power of their owner, and remain in equilibrium as long as it is suffered to act through them. There is no other intermediate state but that in which young men found themselves in the time intervening between the slaying of their father and the taking of vengeance; a period when they went about as shadows, in all the ghastliness of a shadow-life, making wide circles to avoid any meeting of men. The transition, which with the sureness and inevitability of time completes itself merely by being left to itself, is the only intermediate state between luck and unluck.

In the modern languages, misfortune has something positive about it. Our civilization has imbued calamity with a sort of nobility, or at least clothed it with a sentimental pathos. But in ancient times, unluck, or lucklessness, as the Icelanders call it, was altogether evil, a denudation, and a negative where all ideality sank through without finding foothold. The fearfulness of death consists in its annihilating humanity and setting something else in its place. The niding is not a mere nothing which one can pass through unscathed, as one cleaves a spirit. To the Germanic mind he was abhorrent, the most contemptible of all beings, but he was even more feared than abhorred.

Mighty powers are let loose in him. He could not tame them if he would. But he will not. He who is bereft of honour has no will in the human sense; but then there is another sort of will, or rather an impulse, that holds him and rules him. Our forefathers found the opposite of will not in slackness and lack of will-power, but in something which must rather be called witchcraft, the meaningless, mad wickedness which is accompanied by mysterious powers of mischief. We know from the sagas what an atmosphere of dread environed these real wizards and witches; and we know that the devilish element in them lay not in such simple arts as that of acting at a distance, sending their will through the air, changing their shape and travelling through time as well as space. Whether their actions and movements are externally more or less akin to those of human beings is really immaterial, because they invariably take place in other dimensions than the human, and are inspired by other and alien motives. The characteristic feature of the wizard is the evil aimlessness that marks his whole mode of action, in contrast to the man who is conscious of his aim in all he does, whether for good or ill. A man's weapons may indeed have the peculiarity that no wound from them can heal; but it is luck which gives the power, and luck may be gained from the blood of the owner, when he is slain in revenge. A wizard, on the other hand, has poison of the soul both in his hand and in his weapons, and his blood is a pestilence that one should beware of touching with one's hands or one's clothes. This is why his eyes are so evil that a glance from them is enough to scorch away the fertility of a region, and it is this perverse nature of his soul which makes his mere presence give rise to optical delusions in all bystanders. He can be exterminated, but poisonous as he is, his destruction must be prepared and carried out with the greatest care, so that one can go home afterwards with the assurance than none of his venom has been left in one's garments, and that he is altogether effaced from off the earth. Men try to burn him to dust, to pile a mound of stones upon him, transfix him with a stake to the ground, or drown him far out from land —no precautionary measure is too great.

The fear of the wizard, the nature of the hatred, the eagerness to have him exterminated — all these are applicable to the niding. The peasants have still retained their fear of the uncanny vagabonds in the human world, whose mere presence brings misfortune. When a thief, a murderer, a whore, a witch, that is to say, in the old tongue, nidings, look at the naked breast of an infant, the child will fall into a decline; or, still nearer the old mode of thought, if a whore strike a man, he will never after be able to defend himself against an enemy; all that is in him is poisoned by the pest. The curse of Hading lies not only in the fact that wherever he goes he carries with him misfortune that falls upon others by mistake, — he simply exhales pestilence. The infectiousness of the niding is the reality of life behind the law's anathema of the outlaw. None may have intercourse with him, sit or sleep in the same house with him, and this prohibition arises out of the deeper fact that people will not allow his company to poison their bread and sleeping place.

The distinguishing mark of the niding is that one never knows what he will do; in him appears the same unreliability that stamps the demoniac character of the giant. Nothing in him, nothing about him is what it seems, but always something else. Outlaw, or breaker of peace, and unheore are words that suggest one another when people talk. When the Anglo-Saxon poet comes to describe the fate of Ishmael, who was the opponent of his own kin, he calls him unheore and battle-wild. The man of unluck is regarded with the same mixture of hate, contempt and horror as the real giants of Utgard, for no other reason than that he belongs to the host of the monsters. An essential change has taken place in him; the healthy blood has dried up, and dangerous fluids have taken its place; venom instead of blood flows in his veins, as with the giants.

It is related of a strong man called Thorstein Oxfoot, that he had a nasty tussle with a giantess, and after that time he was a little strange, with a touch of something uncanny about him. The narrator leaves it an open question whether his misfortune arose from his having swallowed some of her spittle during the fight, or if it was a sickness dating from his earliest days, when he was carried out to perish as a child. It is of interest to note that the state of a child who has not been regularly born into a clan is placed on a line with the powers that are abroad in the world of the night.

Utgard, then, is not only a power standing without and pressing upon human life; it thrusts itself into house and home if men are not careful. No wonder that the fight against a thing so horrible should be waged with the greatest force. If the evil one be a king, then so much the greater peril for his surroundings that he should lie at the very centre of luck like a venomous worm brooding over the treasure of kings. It is a matter affecting all when his luck is dissolved, and — as we read in Busla's curse over King Hring — “mountains stagger, the world is disturbed, the weather turns ill, and those things happen which should not.” To avoid being stifled in the breath that goes out from him, and seeing all possessions withered in frost and rime and barrenness, there is no other way but to efface him from the earth. And he was indeed torn up by the roots.


back                                 index                                next