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CHAPTER XI

FOR HARVEST AND PEACE

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The assembling for sacrifice is the glorified form of the common board. The blessing of the blot lies in the fact that the bowl seethes with a special drink, similar to, yet essentially different from the ale brewed at all other feast place, a drink which is nothing other than the peculiar ancestral luck of which the clan itself exists.

When we use the old words – whether it be promise cup, peace cup, or the cup to Odin – there is always a certain unreality in the tone which wafts away what should be the main thing; the promise, the peace, or the god are set above or beside the drink in which they should reside. Such sentences as these: ale is peace, is welling thoughts and memories, is hamingja, soul and divinity, pass through an empty space before reaching us; and the effect of this refracting is a poetic effulgence which effaces the real meaning and replaces it with a suggestive vagueness. Among the Northmen, the usual term for the blot-cup seems to have been full, a word whose old-fashioned structure speaks of age and dignity, and the meaning of which serves equally well to cover fulness, the state of being filled, or abundance, and that which is full. Another sacred word is veig, which, whatever may have been its original meaning, comprises the thought of strength and honour. The southern peoples expressed the whole truth in their holy name, minne.

Minne has a peculiar history. The word belongs as a cult term to the southern branch of the Teutonic stock and bears among the Germans the same meaning as the Old Norse full and veig. When the toast drinking had been converted into a Christian ceremony in the guilds, the word made its way to the north, carried forward by the guild statues, and out of the mediæval usage it was in historical accounts of heathen customs thrown back upon the blot-cup. The author of the Fagrskinna is still aware of the distinction, for in speaking of the ancient arvel, he says that the cups at a feast of succession were poured out “as nowadays is done with minnis”. In the northern languages, the word minni had acquired the sense of “remembrance”, and language in conjunction with Christian ideas led thought more and more directly to the calling to mind as the main object of drinking a toast in the name of God and the saint. In the common language of Germany, minne gravitates towards denoting love, and thus by a parallel evolution the minne cup becomes a loving cup; to drink to the love of the saints – in amore sanctorum bibere – is the Latinists rendering of the custom, but now and again the other phases of the word show forth, so that beside the amor we find a salus, luck and health. In its ultimate origin, minne is closely akin to the Nordic munr, mind, soul, hamingja; it finds its best interpretation in Sigdrifa's words anent the cup: “Ale I bring you, mixed with megin and mighty honour.” The minne cup was simply hamingja in all its aspects.

The effect of emptying the cup was first and foremost a community of feeling – for harvest and peace, runs the wish of blessing. Men drank together and drank themselves together, as the old saying goes, in the ancestral brew of power. The assembly was made one, and this unifying force of the drink is expressed in the ceremonial which requires that the horn shall pass from man to man round the hall; the chain must be unbroken, and close upon itself again – the assembly should be made one. He who refused to answer a toast or passed over his neighbour was guilty of a serious offence against the latter, treating him as a child of evil spirits; but in the person of the offended party, he injured the whole company, by destroying the blessing of the feast. The famous sacrificial feast at Hladi, where Earl Sigurd got Hakon Æthelstansfostri to celebrate a blot, commenced by the earl, as chairman, drinking the first horn to the king, and thus drawing him into the circle of frith. The people of Drontheim watched closely to see that the king did his part, and it is no wonder that they broke out in tumult at his hesitation. If Hakon would not eat and drink of the holiness with them, then he was not of their frith, and who could then trust him to share and answer for their luck and honour? His refusal was a scornful challenge, because the refuser, by sitting there as a dead spot in the circle, broke its cohesive force, and placed the goodwill of the rest one towards another in the greatest peril.

The sacrificial feast was not an institution to mend and patch society, like those meetings of reconciliation where men proclaim eternal peace, comforting themselves in secret with the thought that there is no saying how ill it might go with the world if we did not again and again take the word “eternal” in vain. The feast made for peace, and effected its will unfailingly; its fruit was the inviolability of the clan. The holiness of the feast is a result of the common change which took place in the kinsmen through their sharing the same divine drink and regenerating the hamingja in themselves.

The mediæval exhortations to the guild brothers, to be of one mind, not to come to their drinking with illwill against a brother, but be reconciled beforehand, and let all enmity rest in the holiness, these are juridical ideals based upon realities which did not stand in need of command. And that which the statutes so earnestly laid down as the fundamental principle of the true guild spirit was put in practice out in the country districts at the annual feasts of the common people. The Swedish thing registers know of no explanation – or of any need for such – in regard to the people's trust in the peace-making power of the cup. A case of homicide in Albo anno 1617 is thus reported: While the company were drinking, some dispute arose as to a candle which had gone out and was not renewed quickly enough, whereon Jöns of Ware in his simplicity spoke forth as one knowing a way out of a difficulty: “We will not have such words here. Fetch a can of ale, and let us drink to the Lord.” When the ale was brought, he drank the Lord's minni, spoke such formæli as he could, and drank to Jöns of Tubbemála; the latter accepted the cup, but with scornful words, saying indeed: “If God almighty will not help us, then may the other help us instead.” And this he said three times. Jöns of Ware, good soul, declining to have “the other” as a drinking companion, knives were drawn, and the devil's Jöns was despatched to his due place. So fateful was it to interrupt the fellowship of the cup at a critical moment in Wärend in the 17thcentury.

All through the Middle Ages and far down into the present age, men held by the good custom of making the annual festive gatherings a place of reconciliation, where old quarrels were buried and the soil improved to the end that might bear as few harsh fruits as possible in the coming year. An old priest speaks in praise of the blessings of the Yule cup for Smáland: neighbours and friends go round on Christmas Eve to one another with their best drink in their hands, and drink the health of God in heaven, wishing one another and their families God's grace and blessing. Thus hands are laid together throughout the township; all must then be friends and keep the Yuletide peace; none dare break it on pain of being regarded as a monster and a niding before all men.

However much style and spirit may have changed from the blot the devotions centring about a hymnbook, from the clan to the family of a single household, we still find in the Norwegian Christmas Eve customs a few traits which fit into the old descriptions. Christmas Eve in Norway was used to prepare all minds for the coming year. At the solemn Christmas meal which was served at midnight, the father and mother sat down in the high seat with their sons on the one hand, and daughters on the other, the serving people at the lower end of the table; all drank toasts and a happy Christmas in a common silver cup, husband to wife and so round.

In the old days, the feast was a test of the individual. Woe to him if he did not feel the frith and the ale grip him! He who could not drink himself into spiritual fellowship with the rest must indeed be a man forsaken of luck, a niding. When the gods departed from earth, ale degenerated into alcohol, and divine intoxication gave way to drunkenness pure and simple, and then it sounded strange that the tendency among the guests to shift from the bench to the floor should be a confirmation of the host's good conscience; but there are ancient earnest thoughts slumbering behind the faith of the common people in justification by drink and its effects. If the ale were not good, then the fault lay in the luck, which was slipping away from the house, and all feasting was then in vain. In the days of benighted heathendom, men would probably have fled from such a house of ill-luck; in later times, when milder manners had grown up under the fostering care of Christianity, considerate guests in Norway would sham drunk, and slither floorwards as naturally as their mimic talent allowed, to save the host form anguish of soul. A good taskmaster in the cause of true humanity was of course the regard for one's own good name; for, as our authority further states, if any happened to sit as a sober exception among those otherwise affected, it was held that the curse of God was upon him. “God help the man on whom God's gifts have no effect,” was hissed around him.

The religious flare-up of the fire on the hearth of the clan was brought about not only by the embers being gathered together in a great blaze; a new ignition was looked for, and an augmentation of the fire. It is indeed inherent in the character of frith that the effect of the power of sacrifice was not restricted to community of kin, the intense concentration of fellowship was identical with a re-inforcement of the entire hamingja. By drinking from the horn, the friends grew luckier, stronger to beget and to fight; their memory and the words on their tongue, luck in harvest and luck in spinning, hands of healing and victory, as Sigdrifa puts it, watchful sternness in feud, and inviolable peace among themselves, all were strengthened and enhanced. It was the soul itself which was renewed, it was the human feeling which was saved from slipping away into the dissolution of nidinghood. Without the great renewal of frith which lay in the blot, existence would come to a standstill; men would forget who they were, and their dead would die the second death. The terrible fate which fell upon Hjorleif, who died a double death at the hands of slaves, was – according to tradition – foreordained in consequence of his refusal to take part in the customary sacrifice. Ingolf, his fosterbrother, worshipped with his kin, and had his joy of life.

When Christian worship superseded the ancient blot, the departed were left out in the cold, or surrendered to the mercy of the church. The dying man's life was no longer insured in a clan, and he had to take measures accordingly. His care for the future then breaks out in orders for feasts to be held “to his memory” with drinking parties, and in the bequest of funds for the constant continuation of the memorial feast – or we may safely say, the blot.

For all the pretences of the church, it was in the blot-hall that the question of eternal life and eternal death was decided. And in this respect, the mediæval guilds show themselves most distinctly as the legatees of the ancient sacrificial fellowship. The brethren had surrendered themselves to the tutelage of the church, and the church had its inassailable view as to the manner in which the care of the living might best serve the welfare of the souls in blessedness; and the kinsmen in the world beyond easily agreed to accept the honour in new vessels, as long as they were assured of having what was their due. They always found faithful helpers on this side the grave, who were not only industrious at mass, but also endeavoured to put into it by stealth as much of the old forms as possible. The guilds are punctiliously careful as to their members' loyalty to the past under new forms. The departed shall be given mass for their souls with full attendance of the brethren; their names shall be read out during the drinking at the feasts, to the end that those who have gone before may be present in the thought of solemnity, they are remembered with a prayer in the minni, if they cannot have a minni to themselves.

Not only would the luck resident in man lose its brilliance if the blot were neglected; the swords would rust, horses and cattle fall dead, fields cease to bear fruit. The people of Drontheim had dire experience, when Olaf the Saint banned the old blots and threatened his subjects with fire and sword if then ventured to seek for luck and fertility by the means of their fathers. But what were the good men to do? The king might thunder with his god and devil, but all his thunder did not prevent the crops from rotting in the soil; the peasants were looking at their corn and hearing, moreover, that the frost farther north had gained the mastery over all the men of Halogaland since they had ceased the blot. They still remembered, too, how the earth and the sea rejoiced in luck when Earl Hakon came in and made the holy places true vés, as the poet sings, true places of holiness for the people. No wonder that the sturdy yeomen resolved to set the king's edict at naught and re-open the ancient sources of blessing.

On account of the exclusive character of Christianity, conversion meant secession from spiritual intercourse with the clan, and the deserter brought tragedy into the life of the clan itself. A single man who broke away from the blot-fellowship was not merely cutting himself off from luck; his nidinghood became the ruin of his clan. He “declared himself out” of the clan, dishonoured his kinsmen, and the latters' judgement is concentrated in the solemn word frændaskömm – kin-shame – or, as it may be even more poignantly put, æallarspillir – the ruin of his clan. Treachery to the innermost bond in frith is expressed by the word “god-niding”, or apostate, and this with the more justification since he had not merely offended against this or that god, but had affronted “the gods” and rendered them useless to his kinsmen. It is a duty on the part of the relatives to assert themselves by cauterising the would; this duty was by the Icelandic Al-thing of 997 entrusted to those of kinship more remote than half cousins and less remote than the half cousins' half cousins, a compromising provision which affords a good insight into the feeling of the time for the sacredness of kinship. The story of Radbod, the Frisian king whose soul Wulfram did his best to save, who refused to enter heaven single-handed and stepped out of the font on hearing that his kinsmen sat on the benches of Hell, cannot be re-told in modern language; the true pathos of loyalty is caricatured in our rendering, because we can never be made to feel the anguish and barrenness of spiritual solitude in the ancient heroes. There was but one means of maintaining luck and frith: for the other kinsmen to move over likewise into the new system, and all who were not blinded availed themselves of that means when the inevitable was upon them. The wholesale conversion, which has provoked so many witticisms and so much pious moaning among protestants, was for these men the only possible form of regeneration of heart.

Prior to the commencement of all serious undertakings a blot feast was held where strength was gathered for the coming trial and where the participants put on their supreme holiness. We know from the life of the peasant, how the year is dotted with new beginnings; moving ale, with a cup drunk for tomtebolycka, or luck to the new site, covering-in ale, when the roof of a new house was raised, and all the rest. This is a true picture of life in the old days. While the ships lay ready to put forth on a viking expedition the men drank their parting ale at home, “and there was much drinking with great words,” meaning vows of deeds to be accomplished. It is with the drinking party in the hall that Beowulf's great undertaking against the monster begins: “Sit down at the ale, launch strong deeds among the men, as thy heart prompted thee,” says Hrothgar, and the stout-hearted warriors take their seats in the beer-hall. A thane bears the festive ale-stoups down through the hall and pours out the clear liquor, the singer's voice is heard aloud in Heorot, there is rejoicing among the warriors on the benches, culminating when Beowulf utters his vow. The Queen moves down the hall offering drink, first to the king, then to those sitting next him, one after another, till she comes to Beowulf, greets him with thanks for his coming, and calls forth from him the crowning exclamation, that he will either walk between the giant and his head, or himself let the doom come upon him in the hall. And higher still rises the rejoicing of the battle-heroes, filled now with bliss, until the king breaks up the party, to seek his rest for the night, and Beowulf, alone with his men, lies down to await the coming of the monster.

The feast took place under the shadow of terror. The poet cannot but call to mind how, many times before, great vows had been uttered anent that same Grendel, he cannot refrain from mentioning that every time the end was the same: at break of day the royal hall was filled with blood and gore. But the apparent contradiction between the sad experiences of past endeavours, making it doubtful whether any man could ever deliver the survivors from the doom of death, and the wild rejoicing at the feast, has its explanation in the very fact that discouragement was to be swallowed up in the growth of the clamour. The feast was, to those who partook of it, a re-inforcement in luck, an encouragement in their god. Victory passed through the hall the moment the warriors drank to their setting out, and it was necessary to grasp it forcefully if one would have it. If it did not come into the men so that the triumph burst forth from them, then the feast has been in vain, and they had better creep away to shelter without delay.

Every beginning calls for a blot which can inspire the new future with the reality of luck. If a man were to be adopted into another clan, the ox or the ram must stand ready for slaughter beside the leader of the ceremony, and the shoe be placed beside the ale vat. The wedding guests had to know that they had “drunk that ale” and therefore could answer for the reality of the marriage alliance. But it is at the arvel that we see most distinctly how the blot makes new, how one goes back to the source, and commences life afresh, when the old one suddenly dries up. It has astonished Christendom to mark the gaiety of the heathen, or heathen-hearted, Germanic people in honour of the departed, and despite frequent interference, both personal and official, the habit lasted long enough for the astonishment to unfold all its possibilities; the indignant have objected, the scandalised have entered a protest, and finally, aesthetic logic has made merry over the contrast between the sad occasion of the feast and the untimely exuberance of the guests. The English priest in the 10thcentury receives the exhortation: “You shall not take part in the cries of rejoicing over the dead; when invited to a funeral feast, forbid the heathen songs and the loud-voiced peals of laughter, in which folk take delight.” And about a thousand years later, we are able to enjoy a sympathetic smile at the peasant who resignedly looks forward to the time when “the parish will have a merry day over him.”

The funeral toast was not a melancholy occasion where friends and kin assembled to a common contemplation of their loss with the thought of ploughing through sorrow with their united strength so as to set out again, encouraged by cup and dish, to meet the exigencies of life. But the funeral feast was a serious business, because the hamingja had been imperilled by the inroads of death upon the clan; therefore it was necessary to yoke up joy and let it put forth all its power. It was a question of dragging life safely over a critical point, luck had come to a standstill, the high seat stood empty as a visible sign of the breach in the fence, the kinsmen were too uncertain of themselves to venture to attend any gathering of men. It was only at the funeral feast that firmness was restored by creating the new form for the existence of the clan. For this reason, it would not do to leave it too late, not beyond the end of the year of death, if we are to believe the story in the Fagrskinna, which on this point bears the most engaging lack of resemblance to other accounts of King Harald's arvel, where the celebration is postponed from year to year in order to heighten the dramatic tension of the story.

Step by step, the occasional feasts lead up to the annual cult feasts, which constituted fixed points in existence, where life was regularly renewed and made into a future. In them, men sacrificed to “welcome” the winter, or the summer, as the Northmen put it, and the verb used for welcome – fagna – includes gladness, indicative of the joy that was needed to mark the true beginning.

If the blot had been successful and had accomplished its aim, it gave the sacrificers peace of mind and a delicious sense of security, because it had created a future and started a chain of coming events such as would gladden the hearts of the clansmen. When the sons of Ingimund set out to avenge their father on his slayer, Hrolleif, their chief anxiety was that his mother, the old hag, should get time to prepare a blot for her son. They travelled hot-foot in order to arrive at the homestead before the sacrifice had been brought to a close. “His mother will without doubt blote as is her custom, and if she has her way we shall not have power to accomplish our vengeance,” said Thorstein.

Having succeeded in their enterprises, men sacrifice to make fast the happy events for the future. For the ceremonial duel, a bull or a neat was required, to be cut down by the victor; with this he held blot, and confirmed his victory and the superiority he gained thereby as a permanent state of things for the future. It is incidentally told of a pugnacious Icelander, Vigastyr, that after having successfully disposed of a couple of difficult disputes with his neighbours, he attempted to bar the opposite party's way to restitution by striking down two bulls, so that no vengeance might be taken for the killing. The meaning is that he established his superiority firmly, and forced the future to shape itself according to the pattern he desired; of Styr as the hero who has taken the others' honour and kept it.

Whether the blot had been successful and accomplished its aim or not, could be detected by sure signs. Men went to fréttar, i.e. asked for an answer to questions put. How the asking was done, and in what manner the answers were received, is not revealed to us. What we learn is only this, that the blot-twig was shaken and the blot-chips allowed to fall, and these expressions are not elucidated by Tacitus' description of the priest who “looked up at the sky” and read what was written on the stave he took up from the heap. Whatever we may think of Tacitus, one thing is certain, that the will of the gods was consulted before the invention of runes. The dropping of the twig thus also suggests an observation of the chip in its fall, its position after it had come to rest, and its relation to the motion of the sun, or whatever was reckoned significant. At any rate, whether the lot spoke through runes or through movements, it had its voice from the fact that it had been bloted. It is the luck of the blot that speaks through it, and the same luck spoke through the joy of the guests, in the clear ring of the horns, in the unhampered eloquence of the leader of the banquet; in short, through everything that happened after the power of the blot had taken up its seat in the sacrificers. The best commentary is given in such stories as that of Earl Hakon, who put in to land and held a great blot, and learned from the cries of the ravens that victory would declare for him in case of a fight. The carrion birds appeared as an unmistakable sign that the battlefield was ready for him. The sacrificers did not look to the gods to catch a hint of their being pleased by the blot and willing to grant the request of their worshippers; men spied after the reality which was on the point of being accomplished, to see if luck and fate had been brought to birth, as Hakon truly perceived by the ravens' appearing to greet his army.

There were warning signs which set a “not yet” to the eagerness of the questioner; if he were wise, he would wait until luck had made ready. But the Germanic enquirer setting out to ask a god for his yes or no would appear as a comical figure, and he who went to the blot in the expectation of getting either a good or an evil omen, fell quite outside the sphere of comedy down into sheer madness. The ancients sacrificed in order to crate a good omen by creating a reality wherefrom the omens sprang, they demanded a powerful strengthening affirmative, which could warm luck through and through. If the formæli failed them, then it was firstly a piece of ill-luck, and also an evil omen; it meant that life had not squeezed through the hour of birth, and the sacrifice was wasted.

Earl Hakon is said to have had a prophetic balance, on which he weighed fate. The scales of two weights, in the form of human figures, one of silver, one of gold. And in cases of important matters to be decided, he laid the weights in the scales and declared what each of them should mean; and always, when it turned out as he wished the weight rumbled in the scale, says one tradition. But there is another which shows a far better understanding of what it meant when a man of luck held formæli; it says straightforwardly: “and it always fell out as the earl wished, and the weight rumbled in the scale.” For Hakon was an earl with luck in him, and was called with honour Hakon the Blot-earl.

The answer to the question how to blote can be given in the story of Floki or in the story of the settler in Iceland who took leave of the old country in a blot. He held the sacrifice to learn what was to be his fate; the answer pointed to Iceland, and he carried out his plan in confidence. How not to blote is indicated in the story of Vebjorn, the chieftain of Sogn. He and his kinsmen quarrelled with Earl Hakon and had to leave Norway. They sacrificed in order to find a new dwelling place, and the result showed them that the Earl was sacrificing in the opposite interest; in their eagerness to get away they disregarded the blot, put out to sea – and were wrecked. The limitation of the sacrifice was that the man sacrificing might perhaps not be sufficiently strong in luck to carry out its purpose altogether, and force up life to the pitch he desired. Halfdan the Old sacrificed in order to live 300 years in his kingdom, runs the story in an ancient Norse clan; the answer was, that he should not live more than a generation, but in his family there should never for 300 years be born a man without chieftain's luck and never a woman.

The two sides are combined in expressions indicating the object of the sacrifice; men went to “fetch heill.” No art of translation can render this manner of speech, because it expresses a thing that has now become two, we are compelled to cut up the word in our dictionaries into one meaning of luck and another of omen. A man set out with ill heill when his journey led to a bad result, and here it is no use considering whether to translate the words by bad luck or by bad omen, for heill includes both meanings. For his own heill the settler sent his pillars overboard, to show him the way and point out a good place for a home. 

 

   

 
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