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Chapter XIII

Sacrifice

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The word to blote (Anglo-Saxon blótan), that word which in the Nordic is the principal term for men's active relation to the gods, contains the full potency of the religious act. It expresses man's power to transform an object of ordinary holiness so that it becomes filled with the power of divinity, and passes on strength into the human world. When Floki was about to set out for Iceland, he held a great sacrifice and bloted three ravens which were to show him the way. Then he built a cairn on the spot where the blot had taken place, and put to sea. As far as the Shetlands and Faroes he knew the route to be followed, but as soon as the last known reefs vanished from sight, he put up his ravens. And they found the way by roads his luck had never known before. No other instance among the Germanic people shows us more clearly the mighty human power of uniting it's soul with a soul outside, employing it not as a slave, but as part of oneself; man draws the peculiar qualities of the alien hamingja into himself and uses them, he lays himself into the other and makes it's will his own - and the raven-man flies with sure instinct over the seas.

To the same category as Floki's ravens belong also the blot-cattle which the people worshipped in secret when the storm of conversion raised by the Olafs raged at its worst over the land. In the propaganda writings of the Olaf sagas, the blot-cattle have an honourable place among the instruments of hell, and often enough the work of conversion had to make a detour via the cattle-sheds in order to get at the master in the house. There is a piece of missionary history concentrated in the furious great ox which Harek of Reina had to confess to at one of Olaf Tryggvason's visits; The man would not admit the charge of worshipping the beast, but tried to convince the king that it was merely the remarkable affection of the animal for himself which awakened his love in return. But Olaf had himself been heathen enough to know what such love meant, and did his best to make Harek transfer his affection to a higher sphere.

There is a story of King Ogvald of Ogvaldsnes, which gives us a glimpse of those souls wherein the whole past stood poised behind the thin wall Christianity had built between past and present. The promontory of Ogvaldnes was called after Ogvald, we are told, a king who put his trust in a cow. For topographical reasons one would be inclined to think that Ogvlad might have trusted in all sorts of other things, but when we read the story as a whole, we realise that the cow was actually the principal personage. One easter, when Olaf was visiting at Karmt, it happened one evening that Odin came wandering in, quite innocently, as one of those queer vagabonds who tramp about the country with no earthly possessions beyond a ready tongue. The strange guest knows such a host of stories of the olden times, and tells them in such a lively fashion that every mother's son near enough to listen pricks up his ears. The king forgets the time and his sleep, even forgets to mark the displeasure of the court bishop. After much question and answer, the talk turns on the spot where they are staying and it's history: this too the guest knows. The place is named after King Ogvald, he can tell, who put his faith in a cow, to such a degree that he took it with him wherever he went, on land or sea, and thence arose the proverb, which the king might have heard many a time, that carle and cow shall go together; at last Ogvald was laid to rest in a barrow in the promontory, and the cow in another. The art of narrations achieved by the ancients never better achieved sly humour, and the reader feels that this making fun proceeds from a mind which, albeit with some yearnings for the past, yet contents itself fully with things as they are; it is the expression of a resignation which is not melancholy, but a frank acceptance of the fact that bygones are bygones. Men evade old vital thoughts when they are dead, they stamp furiously on them when they still show a slight trace of life remaining in them, but when they are securely bound, one is inclined to exhibit their strength with a jest - as in this story. In face of such champions of faith as these Olafs were, Odin and his fellows would have to humble themselves, and be glad if they could now and then find an opportunity to gain a little jesting triumph over the Christian god. The wisdom of the old god is become the wisdom of the dwarf; and sure of it's aim, it bores it's way in at the very point where the most stubburn thoughts of the past lay bound.

For the blot-beast is man's way of raising himself up beyond his limitations. To blote is to increase his qualities to the extraordinary, nay to the divine. We know that there were degrees of holiness among cattle. Noble beasts such as Brand's Faxi stand high above the common herd of milch-cows and beasts of burden, and above the noble one's again stand the holiest of all, the bloted animal. In Christian times, the participle "bloted", used as a living or non-living being, comes to mean bewitched, enchanted: quite naturally, the bearer of a superior power of heathen origin is degraded to the instrument of the powers of evil under heaven. It was a condition for the selection that the animal should be by nature distinguished by it's size and beauty, but it followed from the consecration that it's power expanded into outward magnitude. Harek's blot-ox struck all with astonishment, at its enormous limbs. From the firm ground of reality, fancy shoots up into the wild extravagances such as that of the boar which the people of Spain bloted and invoked as a patron saint at the time of Olaf the Ssaint's exploits in that part of the world. The king encountered the savage beast out in the forest, and himself saw how it's bristles swept the topmost branches of the trees. And as the size increased, so also did all power; the blot-cattle loomed higher and higher in the imagination of the epigons. A king such as Eystein of Upsala, where the blot was more impressive than any known elsewhere in the northern lands, could keep a cow so bloted that none could endure hear it roar. As soon as the Swedes saw a hostile army approaching, they loosed the beast before the array; ordinary mortals fled when they heard it's course utterence, and what it's victorious voice spared fell before it's horns.

In the same way as the consecrated beast was lifted up over the everyday existence of a domestic animal simply, so also the blot-man was from his childhood set apart and made a holy man of God. Thorolf gave his son Stein to Thor and called him Thorstein. This Thorstein had a son who, on being baptised with water, was called Grim; the father gave him to Thor, decided that he should be a priest of the temple (hof-gothi) and called him Thorgrim. Another of Thorolf's sons likewise bloted his boy and gave him to Thor - and thus men had done from the earliest times. The bloted man was pure untroubled luck; it was true of him that he had an eye which could see through everything and foresee everything - "nothing came upon him unawares." He had the corresponding power of body and spirit, and could avert the inadvertible and manage the inevitable; he bore a spiritual armour, impenetrable to all hostile luck.

The bloting of sons belong to such great chieftains families as that of Thorulf Mostrarkegg, who owned the important holy seat of Mostr; generation after generation consecrated itself in one of it's members, naturally in the man who promised to be the luckiest of the kinsmen - the chieftain of the clan, as he may be called. The consecration implied an assumption on the part of the clan; in its holy chieftain it proclaimed to the world the exceptionally strong character of its hamingja, and at the same time the act contained an explanation of the family's right to occupy a leading position in the social and religious life of the district. In glimpses here and there we find the relics of these prominent families, which were distinguished by their gods and their pious power, clans which boasted of being great blot-men - that is to say, holy, divinely strong men. Harald Hilditonn's invulnerability and great war luck is due to the fact that he was 'signed' - or charmed, as it is called in the Christian rendering; and this clan mark is so permanently attached to him and his that the Hyndlyljod in its reckoning up of Ottar's kinship can emphasize that branch of the family which extends up to Harald, as god-signed man.

The consecration made itself apparent in the names. These Thorsteins and Thorgrims and Thorolfs in the Mostrarskegg family are of more importance than all the Thor-combinations which flooded the North in the following centuries, when the meaning had grown faint. A bold man of Sogn, a blot-man by name of Geir, was proud of his vé, and his entire flock of children bore it in their names: Vebjorn, vestein, Vedis, Vegest, Vemund. The position of this clan in the district lies indicated in the cognomen borne by the eldest son: he was called "the trust of the people of Sogn".

It is the solemnity of the consecration which gives the story of Eyvind Kinnrifa it's lofty tone. Eyvind was specially consecrated from his mother's womb, and therefore excluded from the going over to Christianity. The pious chroniclers of King Olaf revel in the description of this heathen's end, and at every new version of Eyvind's story, he comes to resemble more and more these caricatures of "poor benighted heathen souls" which now gladden the hearts of the contributors to Christian missions. We recognise the psychological enormities peculiar to stories from the missionary field, when we read that Eyvind is the fruit of witchcraft wrought by "Finns", or Lappish wizards, and that these Finns had demanded that he should always serve Thor and Odin. But Eyvind's great confession has never-the less not been carried so far away from reality that we cannot discern what it was that bound him, making him not only defy the kings "gentle words", his "stately gifts" and "great grants of land", but also the great dish of glowing coals which was laid on his belly and burst it. "Take away the dish a little while," he prayed at last as the end drew near, "and let me say a little thing before I die." And then he revealed his secret to the king. His parents had long been childless, until at last they sought counsel in rites and incantaions (fjölkyngi). After that a son was born to them, and they gave him to the gods. And as soon as he himself was come to years of discretion, he had repeated the consecration in manifold wise, so that he had now no longer human nature, but was bound with his whole hamingja to the old religion.

This is Eyvind's "Here I stand, I can do no otherwise," and on the strength of it he should be suffered to live the life of his fame after his death.

The blot-man was not of divine strength for his own dear sake alone; his power was to the good of the whole clan, and more than that; the people put their trust in him. And it goes with the faith of the clan in it's dead that men did not turn their backs upon the blot-man because he was gathered to his people. The dead could be bloted as well as the living. It is related of Halfdan the Black that his luck in harvest and his popularity made him an object of strife after death. The men of Westfold, and those of Vingulmork and those from Raumariki all wished to have their chieftain among them, and the upshot was that they divided the body and set up a barrow in each district, "to trust and blot for the people". And it was not only great kings who enjoyed the honour of being contested for after their death, there was a settler in Iceland whose grandfather had been so beloved that after the end of his blessed life he was bloted. No one, however, was bloted because he was dead. In a Vebjorn, Vegeir's son, Vestein's brother, as in a Thorolf, father of hof-godis, the blessing lies assured in the clan-luck to which the barrow-dweller belonged, that which he personified in its most splendid form. There was no gulf between the departed and the living, and thus no specific difference in the blot-relation to the two; the dead man was not ranked higher because he was dead, on the contrary, his dignity probably would not last beyond the time when a living representative appeared who could be raised to the same pitch of the hamingja.

Such supreme holiness could not be borne as a hidden life, acting unperceived; with the highest luck went also greater separation from the rest. The specially holy station or ox had to observe certain considerations, imposing on itself greater self-denial and demanding greater attention from it's surroundings than ordinary beats. Hrafnkel, the godi of Adalbol, had consecrated himself and all that was his to Frey, and had in particular marked out a stallion, Freyfaxi, which was consecrated to serve as the bearer of divinity. It went among the mares, but suffered no man on it's back; when once the herdsman at a pinch had laid hold on it with a view to going in search of some strayed cattle, it ran home at full speed, and by unmistakable gestures informed its master that something terrible had happened. "It touches my honour, this thing that has been done to you; it is well that you were able to tell me yourself, and vengeance shall be taken," said Hrafnkel consolingly. Whereupon Freyfaxi went back to it's grazing and it's mares.

Undoubtably also, the greater gift of grace in the chieftain-priest carried with it special obligations, in the way of refraining from various everyday occupations and holding by certain ritual observances, which ordinary men only occasionally had to do with; in a word, the blot-man had to behave all his life as if the whole year from end to end were one long festival.

The sacredness of the elected chief may encroach upon reality and turn to priestly segregation. From the highest pinnacle of the human there is but a short step to the inhuman, and it needs but a tiny shifting of the weight within a culture for the highest service to be transformed into something dangerous. When the epoch of work is on the decline, there comes a generation which has not shoulders strong enough to bear the great responsibility, or, expressed in a different fashion, culture comes to the point where it is not fully occupied with serving as the motive for action. When it no longer acts as a compact mass of impulse, the seperate sides of it grow out of proportion, until the harmony is broken. Then, the highest is set under protecting isolation. The chieftain is thrust out from his high seat and over into the stillness of the temple, his weapons slip for ever from his hands, the acts which should for safety's sake be avoided increase in number, until he, if the culture be given time to run it's course, sits like an incarnate captive, preserved in holiness. The Northmen never got so far as this; their kings were and ever remained holy warrior princes, who went on ahead, drawing events in their train. The Anglo-Saxons were a good way down along the road, as we see; they had priests who might never ride a stallion or wield a spear. Regarding the southern nations, our information is too meager to allow any generalisations.

In another sense, though of course proceeding from the same idea of consecration, men are bloted to the gods and killed. Prisoners of war, that is, incarnations of a hamingja conquered or to be conquered, are given to the gods to insure that the enemy is broken in his innermost luck and bound hand and foot under the will of the conquerers. The spoils are consecrated to the gods. We know from Tacitus, how Arminius crushed the legions of Varus, not only on the battlefield but also later at the holy place, by hanging the prisoners and dedicating the Roman eagles and weapons to the deities and suspending them in the sacred grove. In this case, the dedication combines, according to our ideas, making holy and rendering abominable, but within the ancient experience such a mode of cursing and placing under a ban means really consecration, in that the spoils of war were set apart from use and given over to the gods that the hamingja therin contained might be swallowed up in their power. In special cases of guilt, when the injury involved extraordinary danger to the community, the culprit was put to death that the source of weakness might be entirely removed, and the peril of cantagion broken. But the killing of a man who belonged to a community of frith, even if he be carefully severed from the stem, and all the bonds connecting him with his fellows of kin and law be cut off, must always remain a matter of careful handling. In order to ward of any unhappy consequences, the execution had to be carried out by unanimous consent and in a state of holiness: the sinner was in reality killed by the gods. 

From the same stratum of thought proceeds the manner of suicide recorded in the north: hanging oneself in the temple or in the holy place; in this manner the individual who took his own life presumably insured himself by giving his life up to the gods and thus guarding himself against the possibility of being severed from the hamingja of the clan.

One step farther into the sanctuary, and we stand face to face with the gods. To blote the gods or in the grove and the rock are expressions altogether parallel to the consecration of men and cattle.

In the religion of the Teutons, such terms as worship and adore, atone and propitiate in the Jewish and Christian sense are empty words, they slip powerlessly aside; the discrepancy between the fundamental need of religion and their meaning makes them empty and superficial. The worshipper went to his grove and to his gods in search of strength, and he would not have to go in vain; but it was no use his constantly presenting himself as receptive, and quietly waiting to be filled with all good gifts. It was his buisness to make the gods human, in the old, profound sense of the word, where the emphasis lies on an identification and consequent conjunction of soul with soul. Without mingling mind there was no possibility of union here in Middle-garth, he who could not inspire his neighbor with himself never became his friend, and no will could reach from the one to the other. The gods themselves could do nothing then, nay willed nothing before those who invoked them had rendered them living, as Floki bloted the ravens. It was men who rendered the gods gracious, not by awakening their sympathy, but by inspiring them with frith of their frith. This active co-operation is the origin of those epithets "gentle", "mild", "good to the people" which we find in the Nordic as used of the gods, praises which are therefore at root different from the thoughts which ascend towards our gods borne by these words. But even more was expected of a man when he bloted, - he made the gods great and strong. It called for more than manly courage, and more than common siegcraft to assail a city known to be a "great blotstead" or a place where powerful blots were commonly held. The gods who were much bloted were - according to Christina authors - worse to deal with than ordinary supernatural beings.

With regard to the ceremonial acts which brought about the fusion of the human and divine, we have but scanty information. Gods and men no doubt shared their meat-offering; the greater part of the sacrificial meat found it's way to the table at the feast, and a portion, we may suppose, went to the blot-house. When the legends show Thor standing in the hof with the hammer in his fist, and with the imperturbability of the graven idol consuming his daily ration of four loaves of bread with meat, we can easily recognise the authorities; the good saga writers had not studied church history in vain. Possibly an unsophisticated heathen would not have understood that he was the object of their laughter when the churchmen cracked their time honoured jokes about mumbling sculptures, but all the same, he used, no doubt, to share the common board with the gods.

The centre of gravity in the sacrifice lies in the character of the animal being slaughtered. If this had not had in it something more than mere animal nature, the sacrifice would fall to the ground, and the stronger its hamingja or divinity, the mightier frith was brought about between gods and men. There was choosing from among the herd at feast time. The boar which figures in the legends as the traditional sacrifice was, as the name sonargoltr implies, the leader of the herd - qui omnis alius verres in grege battit and vincit - which according to the Lombardic edict was sacred against theft or robbery by being valued at a triple fine. In extraordinary cases, where there was need of a mighty increase of the strength of the feast, even the most lordly representatives of the livestock on the place might come to honour the feast with their meat.

The blood of the victim was a means of communicating the power of holiness. It was poured over the stone of heap of stones - stallr or horg - in the sacred place. The chieftain's ring which reposed in the sanctuary was reddened on solenm occasions, and we learn in one place about two Icelandic claimants to the rank of priestly chieftain (godi), that they procured themselves to the holy power by reddening their hands in the blood of a ram. The omen-twigs, like the ring on the stallr, were dipped in the sacrificial blood, and thus bloted to do their business among the people. When the Swedes drove out the Christian king, Ingi, from the gathering of men, and set up Blot-Swein in his stead, the change, according to Hervor's saga, was confirmed by a sacrifice; and there is no ground for doubting that the saga is right in particulars when it says that a horse was led in to the law-thing and hacked to pieces, it's flesh being divided up for eating, and it's blood used for reddening the "blot-tree".

In the poets images, we may find reality spontaneously revealing itself. A legend told of the Swedish king Egil that he met his death from his own blot-ox. "It happened in Sweden," runs the literary form, "that an ox which had been marked out for blot, was old, and fed so eagerly that it became fierce; and when men attempted to capture it, it broke away to the woods and caused great damage among men and cattle." Once Egil met it while out hunting, and before the king could defend himself, it had gored both horse and rider. This, in the verses by Thjodolf on the Ynglings, is put as follows: "The ox which had long borne the projecting horg of it's forehead about in the eastland, reddened the spear of it's head upon the king." The bloted ox, the horg and the reddening were not three disparate ideas shaken loosely together in a couple of metrical lines; the metaphores evidently were suggested by a picture which stood before the poets eyes.

In the course of the blot, too, gods and men may have become united in the same holy juice, if we may believe the Heimskringla, which offers a detailed description of the use made of the blot-house at the sacrificial feast: "All the blood from the beasts of sacrifice was gathered in bowls, and in these stood twigs made like brooms: with these the stallr was to be reddened, and the walls of the temple inside and out, and the people also sprinkled." The description is evidently warped, because the author consciously shapes his picture in the likeness of Christian sprinkling with holy water, and his evidence must be discounted accordingly.

In the word blot, then, are contained all actions designed to call forth the uttermost strength of the hamingja pregnant with life. Men blote the gods with sacrificial beasts, with food and drink, or by consecrating men or animals or things. "Men blote heathen powers when they sign their cattle to others than God and his holy men," runs the definition of the Christian Gragas of the Icelanders, denouncing heathen abominations.

Men blote with words; in the post-heathen speech, and in Swedish popular language even now, the word blota is a strong expression for abusing and cursing, that is etymologically speaking, to assert something about someone, and by the words force a quality into them. By the blot, a full and complete unity was established between men and gods, and the object bloted served as a link and a medium of using the powers of holiness. Without any considerable change of meaning, the verb to blote may be replaced by give. When a son or a treasure is given to the gods, the giving renders the gift useful in the highest degree, because giving means strengthening the intimacy of the parties, and the gift assumes the megin of the possessor. To understand the abysmal difference which separates the religious meaning of gift from our ideas, we must bear in mind the character of the ancient soul and it's experience: communion implies unity from the innermost recesses of thought and intertwining of luck to external responsive acting.

The condition requisite for making a consecration effective was that it could be made whole or real by an ale, and the force of the ale depends on the gathering of men into unity. He who wished to live for ever did not fool himself by merely ensuring his enjoyment for food and drink after death; he demanded that there should be held drinking parties of men to his memory. The secret of the blot is that frith which was the first condition of life. The unanimous act of all kinsmen is what gives all the other parts of the lot their value. While vigja denotes the making holy, as it might perhaps also be accomplished by an individual, the word blóta carries with it that irrevocable change which is brought about by the consecration's taking place in supreme holiness, by a man who has purified himself, at a place filled with divinity, and with the strengthening assistance of a holy festive gathering, which acted - not symbolically but in the literal sense of the words - of one heart and of one soul.

To breathe freely and happily, the individual must take part in the blot; the individual could not do without the company, but on the other hand, the company was equally unable to do without the individual. Thus far, it is true duty to every kinsman to attend the annual feast, but he needed no command to remind him. From the centripetal force, or perhaps rather from the habits which it had worked into the sould, descend the standing commands in the guild statutes to attend at the feasts, and the strong condemnation of brethren who idly or obstinately keep away, or even spitefully leave town at feast time.

On the other hand, the door of the festival was barred to all strangers. these assemblies, where men poured out from the source of strength with full bowls, were only for the members of the clan, the true kinsmen or true companions. The festival aloofness caused not a little inconvenience to the scald Sigvat, on the mission which he undertook early in the winter for Olaf the saint to earl Rognvald in Gautland. He and his followers sought shelter one evening at a homestead, but the door was locked, and the people inside said that the house was holy. At the next place they came to, the mother stood in the door-way and bade them stay outside, for an alfablót (sacrifice to the elves) was in progress. On the following evening he tried four homesteads, at the forth of which, moreover, lived the best man in the country (i.e. the most hospitable, according to the Nordic meaning of good), but none would let them in. It was an unpleasant experience in winter time in somewhat desolate and inhospitable regions; the cold nights which Sigvat and his fellows spent out in the woods stamped certain sides of the alfablót deeply into their memory: not one of these children of the devil but was given to deeds of darkness each in their respective homes, and none dared let honest folks see what they were about, - such were the reflections of the poet outside the barred doors of these heathen foreigners.

We can see that Egil told his circle something similar from his experiences in Norway when he described his dealings with Bard of Atley, though the point has been lost in the composition of the saga writer and replaced by some rather poor psychology of his own making. One evening, Egil came to the king's farm at Atley and was received by Bard, who showed the travellers to an outhouse and regaled them with sour milk. The host much regretted the poor fair he had to offer, but ale was not to be had -- the rascal, he was expecting his master, King Eric, on a visit, and had the house full of the loveliest brew. Later on, Egil and his comrades were, at the special command of the king, invited to a seat in the room, and found excellent opportunity of rinsing the taste of milk from their mouths, but Egil was never one to let his own politeness make up for others lack of it, and the end of his visit was an incurable hole in the body of poor Bard, together with much ado in quest of the turbulent traveller who had rendered King Eric poorer by the loss of a good steward. The author of the saga knows that the feast held in the house was a blot, and that the horn passed "round the fire" in festive wise: he knows too, that the host blessed the horn before passing it to Egil, and he may be right in that it was not the sweetest of tempers wherewith Bard seasoned the drink, but he knows no better than to make it a case of poisoning. So far he keeps to tradition, because the incidents were needed in order to make events move on; as to the cause of the host's inhospitality towards Egil, however, he is at a loss and tries to make sense by painting Bard in very black colours as a stingy fellow, but indirectly he happens to give evidence of the fact that a blot was not an occasion on which casual strangers were admitted.

The feats lasted as long as the ale held out. Not until the holy drink had been drained off and the last remains perhaps disposed of on the fire of the blot-stead, could men put off their holiness, open the doors, and begin the new year which had been "welcomed", or prepared for, at the feast. At least no remainder could be kept for use at the daily board, thus much we may surmise on analogy, and such a guess is corroborated by a tradition purporting to go back to the earliest times of Norwegian mission. It is related of Hakon Aethelstansfostri, when he was endeavouring to edge in his Christianity upon the men of Norway, that he first had the Yule feast moved forward to the time of the Christian holyday, and "then everyman should feast with one measure of ale, and keep holy as long as the ale lasted." Whoever may have credit of this proposal, the reformer was a wise man and a master builder. By utilising the prevalent religious feelings, he could make sure the holy Yuletide should be kept and Christ be honoured to the full, for all people immediately understood that everyday matters should rest and feasting rule as long as ale was in the house.

 

   

 
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