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CHAPTER XV

THE GODS

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Little need be added as to the nature of the gods.

In their nature, combining the neutral state of power with personality, they evince no particular divine gift, for this is the nature of life in all its manifestations. They reside in the holy place and in the holy treasures, but they may at any moment come forth and reveal themselves to their friends either in dreams or in the light of day. As power or luck the gods are in Old Norse called ráð and regin; ráð means rede: wisdom and will, the power of determining and powerful determinations; regin simply expresses luck and power. In their personal aspect, the gods are named ases, or in southern dialects anses, which name is elucidated by the observation of Jordanes to the effect that among the Goths the chieftains in whose luck the people conquered were called anses. In shape the gods are in some clans male, in other families and localities female; their manifestation as women is naturally founded in the fact that woman generally represented a higher form of holiness than average man. The question whether the gods did assume the shape of animals is scarcely to the point. True, the divine power of the hamingja walked the fields in the herd and prominently in the holy heads of cattle that were consecrated and qualified to be leaders of their flock or mediums of blessing; and in the sacrificial hall the godly strength filled the victim of the feast. The beast was god, but it was not the gods, nor have we any indication that the powers took animal shape when they appeared to their friends.

Between man and god there exists no difference of kind, but there is a vital distinction of degree, the gods being the whole hamingja, whereas men are only part. The boundary between gods and men is permanent, but varying in place; it is shifted downwards when men go about on their daily round of business, and it may be pushed upwards when they assume their garment of holiness and sally out in a body to fight or to fish. Only in the blot is the boundary line obliterated, but then during feast time there are no men, because the hamingja is all and in all. The divineness of men when in a state of holiness is revealed by the metaphors of poetry; when the warrior is called the god of the sword or the god of battle, the expression is nothing but matter-of-fact description. The same reality appears in the naming of woman as the goddess of trinkets, and still more significantly as the ale-goddess, referring to her holy office in the drink offering.

The only way of elucidating the nature of god is by saying that the divine element may manifest itself in various incarnations, stronger and weaker, more encompassing or more limited, as more god than man or conversely as more man than god.

A continuous line of ascending divinity runs from mortal men through woman and chieftain to the eternal powers issuing from the sanctuary. An intermediate link between men and gods is formed by the fylgia or tutelary genius who illustrates the plasticity of the hamingja. When the fylgia is spoken of as belonging to an individual it means, like the Roman genius, the man's own soul and something additional. In accordance with the special Roman experience and the strictly patriarchal construction of the Roman family, genius is the soul or hamingja of the pater familias, who is the representative of the clan, and during his lifetime gathers up the hamingja of the house in his person. Through his genius he merges into the timeless personality of the subsequent generations, in its strength he worships and governs; the pater honours his own genius because it is the family residing in him, and his dependants worship his genius because he is the link connecting them with the hamingja of the house. So too, the fylgia is the soul of the man in close touch with the luck of the race, albeit with significant variations, characteristic of the Teutonic system, which was less rigidly patriarchal than the Roman family. The Teuton freeman in himself impersonates the clan, and is not dependent on a pater for his self-assertion, but at the same time the hamingja is stronger in the leader or chief of the friends, and consequently his fylgia is a fuller embodiments of the clan's luck and power. In a story like that of Vigfus' fylgia who passed over to his daughter's son Glum on the demise of the old man, fylgia approximates to the dignity of the Roman genius, carrying in fact the authority and responsibility together with the higher force residing in the chieftain of the family. The poet Hallfred died on a voyage from Norway to Iceland; when the end drew near, “they saw a woman stride after the ship, she was tall and was mail-clad; she trod the seas as if it were firm ground. Hallfred looked towards her and saw that she was his fylgia woman. He said: I renounce all connection with thee. She turned to his brother and said: Wilt thou welcome me, Thorvald? He refused. Then young Hallfred said: I will welcome thee. The woman disappeared. Hallfred said: I give you the sword King's nautr, my son, but the rest of my treasures are to be placed in my coffin, if I die on board.” In Hallfred, the struggles between his love of the Christian king Olaf with his white Christ, and his hankering after the ancient powers had been severe and never ending, and his last words of renunciation were surely dictated by the fear that his fylgia should drag him along with her into regions uncanny for a baptized man, but nevertheless the old feelings and ideas reassert themselves in his dying commands: his treasured weapon is to go along with the fylgia to the man who has the will and the power to uphold the honour and luck of the clan. When the divine patron is spoken of as the fylgia of the clan, or in the plural as the fylgias of the clansmen, these powers “who accompany the friends” come very near to being identical with the gods; in fact they are the divine powers in their everyday aspect, guarding and leading the clansmen outside the holy time of the blot, inspiring them with prudent thoughts and warning them in dreams. The fylgia might as well embody itself in the shape of the holy animals, and appear as an ox or a ram, or in other cases as a wolf and a bear when the clan's hamingja had a strain of wild nature in its blood. In regard to the numerous dream fylgias that run to and fro in Icelandic sagas we must, however, discount a good many of the descriptions as late pieces of wit and symbolism, when the hugr of a warrior is likened to a ravening wolf and that of a crafty man to a fox, so that dreaming of wolves means war, and dreaming of foxes is taken as a warning against foul play. Nevertheless this symbolism is illustrative of the nature of the hamingja, the imagination being inspired by a fundamental fact, viz. that there is a mingling of mind between the warrior and the beast of war, and that there is identity between the clan and its cattle.

The hamingja as it reveals itself in its human representatives is concentrated in the ancestor, who was present in the blot, acting the deeds of the past through his friends. He is god and he is not god, according to our nomenclature. Like the ring and other treasures which are at the same time earthly life wedging into the invisible and the invisible thrusting into the everyday, the ancestor may be regarded as the divine reaching into man or man extending into the divine. The ancestor bears a name indicative of the clan; he is Yngvi among the Ynglings, Scyld among the Scyldings; Geat in the Anglo-Saxon pedigrees and Gaut, which has fastened on to Odin as an epithet, is the Geat or Gautish man. He is the ideal owner of the family treasures as well as of the history and fate in which they manifested themselves. The family which later sprang into fame as the earls of Hladi descended from men residing at Halogaland, north of Drontheim; its ancestor was Holgi, the Halogaland man, and we are told that the spear which had belonged to Holgi was deposited in the blot-house of Earl Hakon. The ancestor in history took over the features of the father of the clan, i.e. the grandfather or perhaps great-grandfather according to circumstances, and might appear under a name celebrated in the family. We have met him in Ketil Hæing of the Hrafnista men, and in Olaf Geirstadaalf of the Ynglingatal; we see him in Halfdan the Black, the father of Harald Fairhair, who is historical in the old sense of the word, meaning that the individual experiences of a single man have been swallowed up in the history of the family.

In primitive religion, all question of monotheism or polytheism is idle, because there is no footing in the facts for the dilemma which is evolved from the contrast between Hellenism and Christianity. The divine power may manifest itself as one or as many according to circumstances. The hamingja or divine power of course carries personality in all its functions, and so we may presume that the various places in the house had their tutelar deities; our information on this head is very scanty, but as a suggestive instance may be cited Snorri's dogmatical proposition about the goddess Syn: she watches doors of the house and keeps it shut against unwelcome visitors. The act of promise in the feast which sealed the alliance between husband and wife appears in the goddess Vár, “troth”. The phrase occurring in the most nuptials of the Thrymskvida: Place the hammer in the lap of the maid, consecrate our union with the hands of Vár – intimates that the person officiating represented the divine power of troth, or what is the same thing, that he was Troth in person, because the words became living in his person.

The divine power of human acts manifests itself wherever men have dealings with one another. Syn, or “warding off”, is also entrusted with the task of acting on behalf of the defendant at court against unjustified charges, and she was surely not the only divinity present in the moot place. Forseti, “the chairman”, has been translated by the mythologist into a heavenly abode, but his prototypes no doubt were working on the law hills, and tried their best to pacify the contending parties so that “all departed at peace with one another”, to quote the mythological catechism of Snorri.

The continuity of the gods is not dependent on their living the lives of persistent personalities from one end of the year to another. In the intervals between their manifestations, they repose in the stone or the hill, and every time they come forth they may well be said to be born anew. This mode of existing, common to all beings, may have been particularly marked in the case of the great gods of the community. History shows that the gods of the kingdom or earldom were generally those of the ruling family, and for the common mass of people they sprang into existence only on those occasions when the whole population assembled for blot or for war. But we are not entitled to say that the Teutonic state always implied dependence on the royal family, and the holiness of the common meeting or law-thing naturally had its powers, representing the frith which temporarily consolidated all the clans held together by community of law and legal proceedings. Ancient culture, in all its aspects, is rooted in facts spiritual: no proof being valid unless it represents an internal reality in the men who have bargained, no alliance taking effect as real unless it be founded in the mingling of hamingja. The law-thing and the community of which it is the social and religious centre exists only at those periods when people assemble to judge matters, or when the army is called out to united action; at other times it might be called into existence by any member who declined to take revenge for an affront and instead bound himself and his antagonist to the mediation or the judgement of the thing fellows, by lodging a complaint in formal words against his opponent and summoning him to appear before the community. During the intervals between the law moots, the clans formed free unities, without any other interdependence than that created by alliance and intermarriage; and in their killing and making up they were not interfered with by an legal system, nor did they override any law, written or unwritten. The state slept in the meantime, but it was a living reality at the very moment a man sent round the arrow summoning the whole community to the law-thing; when peace was proclaimed, the men coalesced into one brotherhood, and a common hamingja sprang up, no less real than the soul which moulded all clansmen into a solid body. The peace of the thing or law assembly and of the army was no formal etiquette, but a living soul having for its body all the member through whom it operated, and in its holiness strong gods necessarily lay hid. At the times when the law moot was in abeyance, these gods dissolved or ceased from their being – our vocabulary lacks a word for expressing this state of sub-existence – but they leapt into life the very moment the law-thing was summoned and the soul of the community was re-born. Their birth manifested itself in the -bands or holy ropes which were put up to fence off the thing place and mark it as sacred and fit for legal business, and from this manifestation is probably derived the name of bonds – bönd – by which the gods are sometimes designated in Scandinavian literature.

Generally the gods had no names, or more truly perhaps: they needed no names; they were simply the gods of the clan, our gods, and the women (dísir) of the clan, the dises who have accompanied our kinsmen. But they might any time be marked off by some reminiscence of the past or some particularity in the honour and luck of the clan; the Saxons for instance called their divine progenitor Saxneat, the wielder of the short sword, the sax.

The families who leapt into historical grandeur also lifted their gods into fame, and in the unruly times of raids and conquests the conqueror ases of the viking prince obscured the dignity of the homely power. Odin carried the world before him because he led the warrior hosts across the sea and raised petty kings from the high seat of their fathers into a royal throne to command over nations; the upheaval of this deity of the Franks proves how dear spiritual alliance with the mighty conquerors in the south was to the ambitious houses of the north. The uprooting of the viking adventurers from the native soil and the metamorphosis of the ancient honour into an insatiable thirst for glory inspired the poets to re-create heaven and earth in the likeness of the royal mead hall, and seat the god in its high seat after the manner of the usurpers who sat in alien lands and planned ever new undertakings by land and sea.

The predominance of the conqueror kings in the viking age, and overpowering influence that their courts exercised on the literature, have pushed Odin and the Valhal pantheon so far into the foreground of the posthumous mythologies that the divine family holding court like earthly kings have overshadowed the venerable powers of the chieftains and petty kings and sunk their names into oblivion. In some cases the local gods have been allowed to live, because they could be used as a foil for the brilliant new-comers, by being reduced to half-trolls or giants, and sometimes they are even completely transformed into some sort of demons, implying of course that their worshippers were nothing but wild tribes, as we should term them now. An illustrious case is that of the goddess Skadi who is made the daughter of a giant; her place and position among chieftains of northern Norway is sufficiently indicated by her characteristics as ski-runner and hunter, and further by the fact that she figures in the genealogies of such clans as the earls of Hladi. Another goddess has obstinately held her ground in the memory of men, viz. Thorgerd Holgabrud, though she was never brought into relation with the courtly pantheon. The reason of her isolated persistence is not far to seek: she is the tutelary deity of the earls of Hladi, and launched into history by its most distinguished son, Earl Hakon, who vied with throned kings and held all Norway for a length of time. But little is known beyond this fact and the indication hidden in her name, which means simply: the woman of the men of Halogaland, or the woman of Holgi, the eponyn of the district. As we have seen the Christian sagamen still knew that the spear “which had belonged to Holgi” rested in a temple dedicated to Thorgerd and owned by Earl Hakon. Thorgerd went to Iceland with the branch of the family that emigrated, as we learn incidentally from a saga; for Grimkel is said to have had the goddess in his temple, and we know that he descended from the famous clan of earls.

The handful of titles which can be culled from northern sources is swelled by the indications sometimes lying hidden in local names and still more by monuments and classical texts relating to the tribes bordering on the Roman empire and often taking service in the legions of Rome; but failing all historical and mythological information, the names are to us but empty words. They may command interest insofar as they lend a faint tinge of colour to the picture we gather indirectly from popular literature of the clans and tribes worshipping, each within its own homestead and sanctuary, the powers of their fathers; and thus serve to dispel once and for all the chimera of a common Teutonic pantheon or a set of mythological tenets universal throughout the Teutonic territory.

A peculiar class in the world of gods is formed by the divine beings who are only impersonations of a phase in the ritual. During the blot, the whole is pervaded with god, and all actions or states may crystallise into a personal appearance of the divine power, or in other words every acting person is a personification of the divine act furthered through his interference. The gods Hoenir and Lodur, whom we have met in the creation legend, are pale shapes, as we say, because they have no existence beyond the ritual observance necessary to complete the sacrifice. The most interesting person among these cult shapes, because comparatively well known, is Heimdal. His character is sufficiently indicated by his cult epithets; he resides in the victim, for he is called the horny one and thus identified with the original and most common sacrificial animal, the ram. He is born by nine mothers whose names are preserved in mythological lists: among these are found the giantesses killed by Thor on his visit to Geirrod in the cattle fold, and it is a safe guess that all the nine sisters are impersonations of some incident or other during the blot. The myth of his birth then describes the literal truth that the god is called into being by the preparations of the feast. He is nourished by the blood of the victim and by the megin of the earth, i.e. he grows as the preparation of the meat and the sacrificial hearth proceeds. He is the watcher of the gods on the rim of the world; he is the father of the “holy host” that assembles in the blot hall. Heimdal is the blot itself, the stillness and the peace, not in modern abstraction, but as the power which resides in the house and which comes in the men, constraining them to forbearance against each other and to anxious observance of the rules necessary for the happy proceeding of the sacrificial acts; he is the spirit guarding against mishaps and inroads from powers hostile to the blot, and watches on the rim of the world or the cosmogenic hearth. We are led to infer that the skull of the victim was placed near or on the fireplace, and performed a symbolic part in the sacrificial drama, and when it is said that in poetical language Heimdal's sword is called his head, the meaning is probably that he was represented by the skull with its horns attached, and that this skull was a ceremonial weapon turned against the powers of evil. But this symbolic impersonation does not, of course, exclude the possibility that one of the officiants may have played his part in the cultic observances, just as the chief who performed the slaughtering and battle with the giants in the cattle fold and in the hall impersonated Thor, the god of the clan who had his abode in the sacred hammer.

To this class of divine apparitions also pertained the daughter of Thor, Thrudr, who is “power”, and his sons, Modi and Magni, who are his powerful courage and resolution. To understand these personifications it is necessary to realise the difference between primitive psychology and modern abstraction, and to bear in mind that psychic states were experienced as attributes of the soul; all virtues and passions are instinct with personality, because they represent men in a peculiar state of courage or fear rather than passions loosened from the substratum by analysis as in our psychology. In Modi lives the resolution which makes Thor and his human representative go on with the fearful work of killing the sacred animal and combating the demons.

Among the gods, Loki occupies a place of his own. His part in the sacred drama is that of the plotter who sets the conflict in motion and leads the giants on to the assault that entails their defeat. His origin and raison d'être is purely dramatic; like his confreres in other rituals and mythologies he is a child of the “games”, and herein lies the cause of his double nature. As the wily father of artifice whose office is to drag the demoniacal powers into the play and effect their downfall, he comes very near representing evil, and he is thus mythically related to the unheore ogres with which the gods contend; from his is born the serpent whose head Thor repeatedly crushed, as also the wolf Fenrir, the adversary of Odin. But as the sacred actor who performs a necessary part in the great redemptory work of the blot, he – i.e. his human impersonation – is a god among gods, beneficent and inviolable. He is the humourist and jester of the rites, foul-mouthed and ever fertile in contrivance. Under the influence of Christian ideas and legends, this double-faced originator of fateful events naturally expanded into a personification of the evil principle in existence; the legends in which he played a prominent part were so pregnant in character that they needed no forcing to develop into the life story of a malignant demon. Loki came near to becoming a counterpart of the Christian devil, but his origin rendered him far superior to the father of evil in subtle shades of character. It is party due to this intensely human and thus eminently demoniac figure that the eschatology of the viking age acquired depth and grandeur excelling the rigid dogmatism of its model, or rather inspiring example, the apocalypse of the Christian church.

The sacrificial feast now lies open to us in its whole depth. The blot is the transfiguration of life, and we shall see without wonder the mood of the participants spreading out over the entire scale of life. The feast comes as a stoppage in the current of events, which causes life to flow on and fill man with its might, until he almost lifted from his seat.

There was a great tension in the soul, which meant that luck had power far beyond its daily measure in the men, that the high holiness reigned in them according to its will, and did not leave them free to act upon the casual impulse of the moment. All motions of the soul and body were stronger than usual, but also heavier. The holiness bound them. Men moved in the daily holiness as in something great which fitted, the life of the feast was felt as the greater thing that overshadowed.

Every act and every word is eternal, working, not as in daily practice upon a finite and circumscribed object towards a particular goal, but as we should say prototypic; proceeding from the hamingja as a whole and influencing its fate as a whole. The blot is creation in the deepest and widest sense of the word. By sacrificing, men draw the gods into themselves and scoop life-giving draughts from the source of the hamingja; and on the other hand they create the gods and life itself. By slaughtering and eating, they absorb life from the sacred animal, the repository of the hamingja, but none the less they create the herds and make them advance into new and fruitful existence. When all is said, the truth comes out; the blot is not men creating gods or gods creating men, but a creative act out of which gods and men and everything proceed. The fundamental experience of primitive life often expressing itself directly in the spirit and morphology of the language is: being and becoming, doing and suffering, whereas to us, life centres round the individual who is or becomes, the doer and the sufferer; our sentence is centred in a subject governing the verb, but behind the language lies another type in which the verb is the soul, men being rather manifestations and mediums than subjects. The best illustration of this view is contained in the Nordic words denoting gods: ráð and regin, both of them neuters, meaning power or hamingja, the powers who possess the quality of personality but are personal in virtue of something deeper and broader (cf. II 246).

There was something more, a solemnity of tension which accompanied every little detail in the actions of the cult-fellows, because a future whose horizon was the world and the extinction of which was the shattering of that world, was eased over, little by little, through the ceremonies, from the world of possibility to the world of reality. From man to man the horn passed down the hall, one by one the glances of those present were drawn up, and the voice of the standing drinker sounded through a silence of anticipation; whether his words flowed from his lips without stammering, whether he drank properly, whether he drank the whole cup; these things decided both luck and honour.

There was tension at the sacrifice, but not fear. Certainty as to means and end was a necessity for the blot-man. He could not step forward and deliver his formæli if he did not feel in himself that which made his words whole; as soon as the mastery of the world failed him, the time of blot was for ever past for him and his clan. But the certainty had its strong religious glow, because it depended on men's will and power to submit to a definite order of things, which meant strength to him who stood in the centre, but death to any who chanced to turn athwart the law.

All this is contained in the word blot. Its latent fervour can be felt when we witness it serving the experience of Christianity. Most tribes discarded it as being too strongly imbued with ancient ideas and emotions; the Goths, however, enlisted it into the service of the new god, using the blótan of worshipping God with a holy body acceptable unto God, applying it to Anna the prophetess who served God with fastings and prayers night and day, and to the true worshipper of God who doeth His will.

A peculiar stillness was required at the blot.

The devotion of the blot feast did not ring out unheeded, we find an echo in the provisions of the mediæval guilds regarding the brethren's habits of drinking. Everything is carefully thought of; that first of all the minni cup shall be carried round without interruption, that all shall sit in quiet anticipation paying full attention to the act, neither leaving their place nor going to sleep on the benches during the solemnity, that the individual shall rise and perform rightly and to the full the religious duty with the cup before sitting down again; provision is also made for the case of any who should let the minni cup slip from his hand, or refuse to accept it when his neighbour hands it on, or scorn to rise and celebrate the minni when he is addressed, or stand on the floor and chant the minni with his dagger on and his head covered. In these orders as to what is to be done and what avoided when the minni is being blessed or sung, lies the veneration of the cult; indeed, the fact that the rules of propriety should be enforced or in case of need upheld by punishment, cannot but enhance the impression made upon us; for many of the rules were purely traditional, so that the observance of them is only a testimony to deeply ingrained custom.

But the stillness had to have its precise counterpart in festive tumult, the rejoicing aloud at the victory of life. The feast had to be drunk with strength, all must feel that the god was in the house. There was little joy at the feast, runs the lament over a blot that failed.

As the symbol of the toast-drinking, the introductory verses of the Sigdrifumál have a claim to be heard; they are a poetic fantasia on the ritual of life, generalised into a picture of two heroes, i.e. typical human beings, under the sacredly powerful forms which held their culture together.

When Sigurd had slit Sigdrifa's byrnie with his sword, thereby releasing her from the enchanted sleep, she sat up, looked at the man, and said: “What by my byrnie? What loosed me from sleep? Who freed me from slumber-pale spell?” He answered: “That did Sigmund's son and Sigurd's sword – newly has it spread a feast for ravens.” Then he asked her name. Whereupon she took a horn of mead and gave him a minni-drink: “Hail day, hail day's son, hail night and night's kinswoman; with gentle eyes see hither and give victory to those sitting here.Hail ases, hail asynies, hail many-useful earth, grant gift of speech and man-wit to us two athelings, and hands of healing as long as we may live.”

To translate this heill, wherewith the gods are given luck and praised for luck, would be equivalent to transforming our culture to that which in its late flowering produced these verses.

 

   

   

 
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