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CHAPTER XIV

THE REALM OF THE UNHAPPY DEAD 

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In the army of the dead then, we find all in whom life is found wanting. There are those who are luckless by nature - cripples, cowards and fools for the first essential of luck was a sound body and sane wits. Even in modern times, the peasants of the north have been inclined to place the deformed in the same ill-omened class as thieves and honourless murderers; and when in olden times care was taken as far as possible to avoid the entry of such wretched beings into existence at all, it was because any lack of the full external human character was regarded as a crime, and not as a misfortune in the modern sense. Others again, were born lucky, and then one fine day before they were aware, came the giant thrusting his head up in the midst of their luck. Death could leap out on a sudden, so that the man without warning felt his soul sundered. A defeat was peril enough. If the strong man met a stronger, who drove him suddenly out from land and luck, then he sank down, surely and beyond help, into the base estate of a niding, gradually losing both will and power to assert himself. Among the defeated and captured, all nobility was forced out by servile fear and inactivity. There is a force of reality in Fafnir's words when he reminds Sigurd that his father fell unavenged, and that his mother had been taken as a slave: “Had you grown up in the circle of kinsmen, one might see you in mighty strokes; now, you are a thrall and a captive, and men know that one in bonds is ever trembling.” — When the Norwegian poet, filled with the Christian conviction of the uncertainty of earthly things, seeks an instance from life showing the falseness of riches, he says: “They did not believe, Unnar and Sævaldi, that luck could fail them, but they became naked and bereft of all;” and the thought of its own speed tears him headlong into the concluding line: “and they ran as wolves to the forest.”

We can hardly wonder, then, at the restless eagerness with which Earl Hakon the Younger thrusts aside the thought of lucklessness when Olaf spiritually follows up his victory over him by saying: “It is no lie that you kinsmen are handsome men, but there is an end of your luck (hamingja).” “Nay,” answers Hakon, “nay, this is no unluck (unhamingja) that is come upon us, it has long been so, that chieftains have taken victory by turns; I am as yet hardly grown beyond child's years, and we were not prepared to have to stand on the defence; we did not look for strife, and it may yet come about that we prove more fortunate another time.” The feverish breathlessness of these words betrays a lurking fear, which the experiences of the past have stamped down into the soul. And on the other hand, if the wreck of life were not so unmistakable a fact, there would have been no room for the paradox that men at times lost their freedom and yet seemed to retain something of their luck. “She was the queen's washing maid — or slave woman — and yet not altogether luckless,” says a Norse version referring to Alfhild, Olaf's mistress and mother of Magnus the Good.

Or the fall might come stealthily, as when powers and fortune in some inexplicable fashion withered away, and a man felt his leap and his blow fall ever wide of their mark. In the Beowulf's description of King Heremod we feel the growing uneasiness of the body-guard, as they watch the niding grimace day by day showing through the features of the prince: “He did not grow up for the joy of the Scyldings, but for slaughter and bitter death to the Danes. Swollen with ire he caused the undoing of his board-fellows, his shoulder-companions, till he passed, the proud king, lonely from this joyful world. And yet the mighty God had raised him high above all men and strengthened him with power and blissful command, but in his breast grew blood-fierce thoughts. He gave no rings to his Danes, as was due. Joyless he bided the time when he gathered the harvest of his deeds: long-lasting war in the land,” — when he, as it is actually stated, “fell among giants”, the rabble of Utgard, and ended his life as a niding.

From Iceland, we have, in the Grettir saga, the story of a man in whom barrenness grew from early times. He was strong and quick-witted enough to all appearance, fearless and active, but his counsels and his actions always went apart, so that the results recoiled upon himself. It would seem as if his great struggle with the monster Glam formed the commencement of his unluck, and this is also a good old thought, which naturally finds expression in the curse of the dying creature, when he declares that his conqueror's every plan shall from thenceforward turn to misfortune and dishonour. But even before this fateful event the marks were visible in Grettir. There is a record of the words his uncle spoke before the combat with the monster: “It is truly said that luck is one thing, quickness another,” and again: “There are men who see a little way ahead, but cannot guard against what they see.” And far earlier even yet, wise men such as Thorarin the Wise had seen enough to beware of the wild fellow with his iron strength; when his foster-son Bardi has engaged Grettir's help for his great expedition of vengeance, Thorarin earnestly protests: “True enough, Grettir is a man far beyond others, and weapons will be slow to bite on him if his luck holds, but I have no faith in that luck; and it were well for you not to have only men of ill luck in your following.” And it was settled as Thorarin advised.

As Glam had prophesied, so it came about. When Grettir once, at a critical moment, saved the life and health of his companions by swimming across to the mainland of Norway and bringing back fire to the outlying rocks where they were near to perishing, he brought about, against his will, a misfortune that gained him many bitter enemies in Iceland. When he came rushing into the house, covered with ice, the people thought him a monster, and laid about with sticks and brands from the hearth, so that he barely managed to escape with the glowing embers he had taken, but the sparks had caught the straw on the floor, and in the morning nothing remained of the place but a heap of ashes. And among those burned to death were two sons of Thorir Skeggjason of Adaldal, a powerful Icelandic yeoman. Grettir obtains permission from King Olaf to clear himself of suspicion by the ordeal of fire, but in the carrying out of the test, his “unluck” runs away with him, and he strikes a boy who jeers at him, knocking him down, and this in God's house. Again the melancholy word is spoken of him: “You are a man of sore ill luck, Grettir, and it will not be easy to amend it.” And now he drifts irresistibly into endless outlawry, farther and farther into nidinghood, till he ends as the miserable victim of witchcraft.

This showing of the growth of nidinghood in Grettir is one of the greatest and most poignant pieces of evidence as to the power of mortal fear upon men's minds. One might go so far as to admire the freebooter, but one could not wrest the thoughts and words in which admiration must be clothed up out of the deep soil of uncanny gloom in which they were rooted.

Typical too, of northern modes of thought is the disinclination to stop at a certain deed as the starting point of nidinghood; men felt constrained to hark back and find the symptoms in earlier acts. Thus when Sigurd Slembi, the Norwegian pretender of the 12th century, came to claim the crown to which he considered himself sole heir after the killing of his brother, his unlucky deed at once sets folk thinking of his birth: “If you are really a son of Magnus and Thora, then your birth was unlucky, and so also it has fallen out, if you have slain your brother.” True enough, the single act, or refraining from action — a murder, cowardly behaviour, breach of oath, unavenged killing, stealing — form an absolute beginning, giving birth to nidinghood in the life of the person concerned; it is the source of his unluck, as men say in Norway. The Northman would thoroughly understand, and heartily agree with, the utterance of the Anglo-Saxon anent those retainers of the king's who by their base flight brought shame upon their race; when he says: “No more shall any of their clan now grasp joyously at the gold”, this “now” would strike the Northman's ear with all its fateful weight. But the “source” sets thoughts on the look-out for earlier symptoms. It was the man's misfortune that he failed to take vengeance, but why was no vengeance taken? Well, there is not time to ask for an answer, for all remember at once something that happened long ago. The niding's whole past is raised up to witness against him, because nidinghood, when all is said and done, is but the outcome of an inner flaw in luck. He would never have committed this first villainy of his, if he had not been inwardly marked by his constitution. What the Northmen mean by source is really this: at this moment the villainy that lay hid in him came to light in this act, and from this act his whole life was infected.

Moreover, death can just as easily strike from behind upon the doer of quite harmless acts. If the clan have not strength to carry through their kinsman's cause by force of arms, or at worst by a fine, and therefore buys peace by sacrificing the culprit, then he becomes a hopeless niding and a wolf-man for such honourable acts of aggression as homicide or open violent attack upon his neighbour's goods. And the peril lies in wait for a man beyond the grave as well as here. A hero who prefers death to a life in shame, and buries himself under his honour and his luck, has not by any means ensured his existence for ever. If he be given up by his kinsmen, or fall as the last of his “people”, so that none is left to take up the inheritance, then there is every danger of his turning evil, and haunting men and beasts as a demon the more terrible in proportion to his might in the days of his life. It is not only the thoughts of the living that are bewildered by pain when the clan is obliged to leave one of its members unavenged — when they must let him lie unholy, as the Northmen said, with a word intimating that the unavenged is deprived of his dignity and worth.

The dead man sickens and pines away with the living, and the future before him when life stops is so horrible, that the fear of the family's dying out can throughout many centuries compete with all the terrors of hell and deprive them of their power over men's souls. And the danger will at all times be equally great, however many happy years the dead man may have behind him. There are nidings yonder, out in the world of night, who were once honest dead; they have not found reincarnation, because the clan declined and became extinct; they have not been kept alive by clever and careful kinsmen, and then comes the time when men learn who it was that lived on the place in former days.

There is no terror in the dweller of a barrow when he can be proved to be a kinsman. In the saga, Hervor goes out confidently to her father Angantyr's barrow and greets him as one of her own; and the dead warrior has not forgotten his frith and his honour; he gives friendly warnings and hands out his wonderful sword as a free gift. If, on the other hand, there lay strangers in the barrow, whom none living could reckon as kin, then the place was simply unsafe and unheore. In the dragon stories, we find, under the somewhat foreign dress, homely experiences of the fact that every lonely or forgotten hero takes on habits of ferocity. The cruel dragon that proved the death of Beowulf lay brooding on the remains of an extinct clan. The last man of the tribe hid his treasure in the cave with a lament for the noble heroes whom death in battle had carried off to the last man but one; there he ended his life, and the old enemy, the walker in the twilight, lay down upon the gold guarding the treasure that was no use to himself. We can safely conclude that at first, the hider of the treasure himself, or those nearest to him, once so noble and bold, filled the place of the monster. The Northmen are quite familiar with the idea of a dead man turning into a troll over his goods, and jealously guarding the gold with his niding's venom.

The simple separation from family and land is enough to imperil life itself; no man could live more than a certain time upon the store of soul in himself. “It is ill to live in unland,” said the men of the north, and the word carries with it more than an indication of the character of unease. The ancients had no doubt their homesickness, but such a popular word is not calculated to give any idea as to what it was that rose and fell in the mind of an exile when he sat, like Hengest — in the Beowulf — far from his ancestral seat “and thought of home”.

The Icelanders said that landmunr was at play in the guest, and with this word, the longing for home is at once drawn in upon a definite cultural background; for this munr (Anglo-Saxon myn) contains in itself not only the meanings of love and will, it denotes a whole which these qualities fit: soul, life. And we are brought still nearer to the reality by the Anglo-Saxon use of feasceaft of an exile. The joylessness that lies in this word is not of the gentle melancholy type that inspires poets, it is a sickness of the hugr, which makes loneliness a thing simply ugly and nothing else. Feasceaft is a word that fits equally well applied to the outlaw, and to the monster Grendel himself, the dweller in Utgard.

Banishment was an amputation, only the worse in that it was not a limb, but the whole man that was amputated; and a man from one of the Germanic tribes taken by force from the circle of his kin and set down in some civilized inland town as the guest of the Roman people — as the Sigambrian chiefs were by Augustus — might well arrive at the point of preferring death. Or did he perhaps take his own life for fear of death, because he saw no other way of slipping back into life again, than by letting his soul return to its proper environment? The southern peoples understood but little of the feelings of a couple of native chiefs, and did not care to understand more; they knew that the barbarians could not endure the state and killed themselves “from disgust of life”, as Dio Cassius says. But their sufferings become more acute when we have the sentence translated into the language of those cast out.

Outlawry, then, is a terrible weapon in the hands of society against criminals who will not do right. The weapon hits so hard because it strikes the very nerve of life itself. The outlaw is thrust out, not from society, but from life. But then again, the effect of the sentence depends entirely upon the condemned man's kin, whether they will execute the curse by severing his vital artery. For though the whole known world excommunicate a man and declare him given over to all the evil spirits, it has not the slightest effect upon his spiritual welfare as long as his kinsmen maintain him and suffer him to drink of their source of life — always provided the kinsmen themselves have a luck strong enough to ward off the mighty force of words that pours in upon them.

Among our forefathers we may find lofty examples of submission to the general will, side by side with astounding contempt for law and order. Their social conscience was more active, and therefore more elastic than it can ever be among people who seat a judge upon a codex and place a regular policeman behind the offender, ready to deal with him according to instructions. Nowadays the ideas of right are more or less uniform throughout the whole of a population; the fear of justice hardly attains to anything that could properly be called veneration, and defiance dwindles for the most part to an uncertain taking advantage of circumstances and searching for loop-holes in legal paragraphs. In the Germanic society, the means of law were legal adaptations of everyday forms and drew their force from the inner experience of the parties at law. Consequently the feelings of men face to face with legal condemnation were of a wider and more plastic character than nowadays. Men could feel themselves enslaved by a word, and they could with sovereign contempt disregard the most solemn anathema; one would be stricken numb by a sentence of outlawry, while his neighbour regards it as a mere insult, possibly even of too slight a character to awaken his interest. If the means of law take root, then they hold with a terrific strength, but where they fail to grasp honour they drift empty away. Obedience to law and defiance of law — words only applicable in the looser sense are alike in power, because they come from the same stratum of the soul; they do not annul each other, but can exist side by side, even in one and the same person, without any sense of schism.

We know that far into modern times, the common people have preserved their old estimate of outlawry. The kings were generally progressive men in league with the ideas of law and royal rights that were propagated by western civilization and the Roman church. The peasants stuck to the old law that lived in the hearts and not in books. No wonder that the king's conviction that right is right and must be right comes fiercely into collision with the peasants' failure to get beyond the fundamental morality that right must be felt to be right, or it does not exist. The slayer sits at home under shelter of old-fashioned kinship, and the king sits in his court in the light of modern culture, ransacking the language for words strong enough to use for these obstinate fellows who let a decree of outlawry pass over their heads without moving from the spot. “It is insufferable that they should prosper in their unrighteousness,” says Hakon Magnusson in 1315. And in 1315, the king is right; the peasants are in process of becoming defiers of the law, not because their feeling and sense of right have altered, but because the law has changed; it has at last been liberated from the tutelage of experience, and placed under the mighty protection of logical conclusions. But yet the peasant had no feeling of being wrong, because the experience of the ancestors was still strong within him. A man is no outlaw as long as there is a body of kinsmen willing and able to keep him; not until he has been severed from life does he become a dangerous being, driven out and shunned.

But when the curse has been uttered, and the clan has renounced the condemned man by taking part in the oath whereby the law-thing “swears him out”, or the thing-men by clash of arms have assumed obligations among themselves against him, the outlaw is dead. He is flung out from the life of men, and may be hunted “as far as men hunt wolves”, because he is a wolf, vargr, “void of luck and pleasure”. As an outlaw and a niding he bears the “wolf's head”, that is to say, originally, he is transformed into a wolf, running wild on the heath and rending carrion. And yet he can, by one step across a threshold, enter into life again, if only he can find a circle willing to receive him into its own life and regenerate him into a brother. The moment he is greeted in a house and offered a seat, the bestial nature falls from him, and he is once more a man.

The words uttered by Gudrun in the Greenland Atlamál as to her own and her brothers' achievements in their youth, might indeed be spoken with the literal earnestness of prose: “We freed from the forest him we wished to save, we gave him luck who nothing owned.”

If life and death were the two schematic magnitudes they are sometimes reckoned in a practical sense, they would fill out all existence without leaving space for a thought to lie concealed, and they would then be the safest words to translate from and into any speech. As it is, they are not quantities, but qualities, and the task of interpreting them from one language to another may prove the occasion of years of study. We have inherited the word “to die” from our forefathers, and we use it of the same process as they did, but in reality, its meaning has undergone so great a change that linguistic continuity hardly suffices to unite the two ideas into one personality.

In the Old Scandinavian, it is possible to frame such an expression as this anent the underworld: Men die into that world, and without commenting on the genuineness of this form of speech, we may take the word as a useful hint, indicating that death then was a more complex idea than it is now (or seems to be, for our words are complex in their way, and when we say that a thing is simple the words mean nothing but that we ourselves are placed at the focus of the thoughts concerning it). There was always, in a way, the need of a more precise definition of what men died into. The terms of life and death, which now appear so unconditionally opposite, were rather two groups of states and their reverses, linked into each other. Now, the process means cessation of life, whereas in those days, it was a transition from life to life; now, to die means the great cut into existence, but to the ancients the transition from one state to another that left the life of luck untouched, could never rank as a catastrophe. If then we would not relinquish the essential part of our word, its bitterness, its reference to the end and altering of plans, its regard to the thinning of ranks, its absolute “halt!” then no etymology can help us to equivalents in the ancient tongue. We must give up hope of finding an exact counterpart in that culture, but in the transition from luck to unluck we come nearest to the irreparable conversion, which we denote with that stern word.

This death could befall a man in living life, and he could just as well meet it in the kingdom of death, or at the transition between the two. In this possibility, that to expire might mean the passing of the soul, lie the seriousness and the peril which made the change a crisis, not only for the departed, but also for those nearest to him. Those left behind took all precautions, we may imagine, though we do not know very much about the ceremonies attending death. In the Icelandic literature, we do not find any other precautionary measure directly described beyond the nábjargir, the saving of the corpse, which appears to have consisted chiefly in pressing the nostrils together, but we may doubtless take it that earlier times had a more comprehensive ritual. There was no doubt something of ill omen about a corpse not yet so treated, not least when the catastrophe had been caused by violence, so as to leave vengeance due. Presumably a kind of inquest was held in order to arrive at the cause of death; when the wounds had been counted, one of the assembled kinsmen would solemnly assume responsibility for setting matters right, and place himself at the head of the undertaking by carrying out the nábjargir. In other cases also, where anything unusual in the manner of death might seem to suggest that an unluck had fallen upon the house, there might be reason for care in dealing with the body of the departed. When Gudmund the Mighty, the chieftain at Modruveffir, froze to death from within on hearing a man relate a strange dream, the mistress of the house forbade any to touch the corpse until his brother Einar had inspected it; the latter's wisdom at once discerned the cause, that it was the power of the dream that had turned his vitals to ice, and thereupon he attended to the body. —People who had been slain by monsters were more than others apt to “walk” in an uncanny sense, and the same took place where a pestilential sickness raged. Balance and security were not restored until the funeral feast had been solemnised with due rites and ceremonies, and the dead man had been “shown” to his place, — “shown to Valhal”, as the phrase runs in later language, by a modernising of an ancient formula. Nevertheless, we must not lay emphasis solely on the uncanny side; for with people who were firmly set in their luck, this interregnum was after all only a brief pause, wherein life was brought to a standstill for a while; there were sure means of re-establishing safety both for the dead and the living. In doubtful cases, on the other hand, where vengeance was uncertain, where luck stood but indifferently on its feet, there was death in the house.

The idea of annihilation has shown itself a hard one to grasp, and thought still fumbles without being able to discover pure nothing or sheer cessation. Our forefathers had practical reasons for trying to effect an absolute death. To live in a district with demon souls was not to be thought of; they were too uncanny and too massive. Somehow or other it was necessary to conjure them over into the wilderness of demons, where they had their kinsfolk and acquaintance. But after all, Utgard lay very near to the world of men, and one never knew when these ill-boding creatures would be at one's doors again; none could be sure but that he might find himself squeezed one evening late. It was better perhaps to bind the spook bodily, by heaping stones on him or driving a stake through him, or moving him over to some outlying reef where the excess of moisture would reduce his mobility. But it happened often enough that all precautions proved vain, however thoroughly they might be carried out. Then destruction was heaped upon destruction, the head, perhaps, first chopped off, then the whole body burned and the ashes strewn in the sea, in the hope of thus reducing the soul to atoms so small as to be practically non-existent. But the cessation of existence itself, as the last and decisive opposite to life, was never reached. Thought and hand thrust their object out to a boundary and dumped it down into a mist, but this mist was after all nothing but forgetting. Renown contains, as we have seen, in a literal sense the highest form of soul and the strongest pressure of life, and thus it is also literally true to the ancient sense that the opposite pole of life is a deep forgetfulness where none knows one's name or one's place.

 

 
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