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






  The ancient view of life necessarily leads thought beyond the individual; one always looks about among the family to find the sources of his will and his fate. That honour which the individual bequeaths to his successor with the prayer to have it raised on high like a banner in the light, is after all only an individual's share of that honour which all the kinsmen combine to guard and unite in enjoying. This grandiose manner in aim and fate and will, to be never content with less than a kingdom, ever constrained to know one's fame the greatest within the horizon, — this is indeed, no less than the keen eyes, something appertaining to a whole circle of men. The father's eye is gladdened when he sees himself and his kinsmen again in his sons, when, as the phrase runs, he can “see the luck of the family” in his son.

They all had one hugr in common, shared one mind among them. The walls of the brain formed no boundary for thoughts; what was warmed in the mind of one kinsman did not come to the others with the cold of strangeness. They were one body as far as their frith and honour extended. The kinsmen were identical, as surely as the single deer leaping across the path was identical with all its fellow deer, and bore in itself the whole nature of deer, the whole great deer-soul. And the pain that ran round the fence of kinsmen when one stave in it suffered a blow was something more than a spiritual suffering. Limbs as well as hugr gave notice when a misfortune had chanced, long before any messenger came running with the news. The same peril of death threatened them all. They had one life together. It may be said of two contemporaries, father and daughter, that they had one life and therefore died on the same day. This community of life is but a stronger form of that which is found among all kinsmen. True, the whole family would not die with the father, not immediately, at any rate, but we know already well enough how fatally the falling away of one affected the future of all members of the family, how careful all had to be in regard to their spiritual health, how eagerly they sought after increase of soul, “restitution”. The frith-fellows of a dead man were “fey”, and their life could only be saved by energetically combating the germs of death in the organism of the clan.

In a Welsh story, the king says to an unknown kinsman: “Who are you, for my heart beats toward you, and I know you are of my blood.” These words might be the simplest expression of an everyday feeling, and date from a time when every kinsman knew by experience the peculiar beat of frith in his breast. “The hugr told him,” a Northman might have said, for he felt by the movements in the luck within him, that luck of his luck was approaching, as also he would perceive the approach of an enemy by an alien luck “lying upon” his and disabling it. A good woman, Orny, the daughter of the distinguished chieftain Geitir, had been seduced by a guest from Norway, and when the child was born, her brother ordered him to be carried out and left to his fate. But the boy was found by a neighbour and adopted by him, and in his early years he ran about the homesteads, and might also come as a guest to Krossavik, his mother's home. One day, he came running headlong into the room, as a child might do, and fell full length on the floor; then it chanced that his grandfather burst out laughing, while Orny burst into tears. Little Thorstein went straight up to Geitir, and wished to know what he was laughing at. But the old man said: “It was because I saw something you did not see; when you came in, a white bear ran before your feet, and it was that you stumbled over, because it stopped suddenly at sight of me; I should fancy you must be of higher birth than you are taken to be.” This sight of the boy's fylgia was enough to awaken the feeling of kinship in Geitir, and when the boy was about to go home in the evening, the old man bade him come again often, and added: “I should think you have kin here.”

Kinsmen make one soul together and yet they were naturally so or so many individuals. The clan is not a whole in the sense that it can be compared to a being with many heads. Nor do the kinsmen stand as shareholders in a fund of life which they agree to administer. The community lies far deeper, so deep that all conflict between the individual and the clan as a whole is out of the question. Nor can we find the truth in a compromise which reduces the claims of one side or the other. The individuals are each a separate reality, each is a person, and both reality and personality are so marked that they can come to stand against each other as will against will. But the personality which makes the one kinsman a character is the same which gives his brother and his son their silhouette-like sharpness. The kinsmen own one another, they are one another, every single one of them encloses the whole soul in each of his acts.

The only way to re-experience the peculiarities of this common soul is probably to see how the unity of life affects men's practical doings. In the kinsmen's social state of mutual dependence, as in their individual independence, the thought is vitally and faithfully illustrated. The old community allows the personality no importance whatever in itself. A man thinking and acting alone is a modern conception. In former times, the solitary had no possibilities. His ideas, even though amounting to genius, would perish, just as he himself perished, leaving no trace. The fir that stands alone decays, neither bark nor leaf clothe it, says the Hávamál; and the words bear this literal meaning, that the tree which stands alone in the field can only fade, it uses all its force to delay the decomposing action of wind and rot a little while. The individual could not exist save as thrall or niding, in whom only the animal part of human life remained, and barely that. A freedman was the imperfect creature he was, because he had not properly any clan. The man of family is free; because he stands in the fence of kin, he has no weight crushing him from above; it is otherwise with the freedman, he stands alone, and therefore must have a power above him.

And to stand in the fence of kin, means forming part of a solid order, which no genius and no strength of mind can change. We have really no word to measure such habits as bend the will of every man the way it would not go, as if it were acting of its own accord. What we want is a word to express a law that works its will not by hindering or repressing the plans of the individual but by lending itself as a force and an initiative in the thoughts and ambitions of every wilful single man who is under the sway of the rule. Frith lays the regard for kinsmen into the plans while they are still in process of conception, and when it happens, as it may very well do, that a member of a clan is inspired with a spirit of opposition against the nearest of kin, his refractory desire comes into the world with the will of his antagonists imbedded in it as its innermost self. A change in the inherited honour, that which one's forefathers had regarded as right and useful and needful — whether the change were one affecting relations with men, or an alteration of what we call methods of working, sacred customs — such an alteration was hardly to be effected by one man's will. In a sense the laws governing our relations to our fellow-men are stiffer and less plastic than the social rules of ancient society, but they correspondingly leave a way open to artifice and persuasion. We can get round the law if it is too narrow to have room for conscience, we can render it lip-service and without breaking it save our souls; we can maintain our position in humanity by living an official outward life, and thus save ourselves from spiritual isolation, and gain that contact with the neighbouring community which is necessary if a man is quietly to get on with his own work. In those times, a man could not, whether by craft or defiance, break through the constitutional laws of life without getting strangled in the process. A man stood in the fence of kinsmen, and only that which could be attained without breaking the chain was attainable at all.

But on the other hand it would be rash and contrary to all experience were we to conclude that the clansman is necessarily duller and less of a character than the isolated individuals of modern times, or that he has fewer possibilities of working out what we call his personality. As long as the strength is turned outwards and does not attack the unassailable frith and honour, the clan has no choice save between defending the unruly members and cutting them off from itself, and a healthy stock will be slow to bleed itself. As long as the undertakings of the individual are inspired by the honour and “fate” that is within him, and his ambition is the prolongation of his ancestors' deeds, he can let himself go and drag his kinsmen along with him. Frith lays the kinsmen at the mercy of the individual and his initiative. He can screw up honour as far as he pleases; the others have no choice but to follow; they cannot force him down, they have nothing to trust to against him beyond the power of words to persuade; they may try to talk him over, but if he be not amenable to reason, then they are obliged to enter into his undertakings and make themselves participants both in the responsibility and in the risk. The fact of his being a part of the soul himself enables him to coerce the whole soul. The man who has a tenfold or hundredfold soul not only possesses an inner strength that is lacking in a man whose life is confined to his own single body, but he also has deeper opportunities of becoming a rich and many-sided character.

Frith was a constitutional law harder than we can easily find nowadays, but then again, it was a power that could be used, both for good and evil. A man can force his way into the centre of luck and appropriate luck to himself, he can assimilate the souls of others and make them dependent on his own, and then fling men forward toward whatever object he pleases, as long as he is sure of himself and his luck. There is hardly any formal authority which the strong man can take up and inspire with his peculiar gifts, his courage, his initiative, his craft, his wit, his insolent self-reliance; but he has that which is better; he makes the others parts of his thought and will, and digests them as it were, into his soul; the strong man uses his fellows as his own limbs.

The authority in such a clan-society is of a peculiar sort, it is here, it is there, it is everywhere, and it never sleeps. But there is no absolutely dominant power. The circle may perhaps have its leader in chief, but he cannot force anyone to his will. In Iceland, this lack of subordination appears in the crudest light. Iceland had men who gladly paid out of their own purse for the extravagances of their restless kinsmen, if only they could maintain peace and prevent futile bloodshed; but their peacemaking was an everlasting patchwork. There was no power over those who did not seek the right. To take firm action against them was a thing even the most resolute of their kin could never do, for it was out of the question for the clan to disown its unruly members and leave them to the mercy of their enemies. When Chrodin, a man of noble stock, was chosen, for his cleverness and god-fearing ways, to be majordomo in Austria, he declined with these significant words: “I cannot bring about peace in Austria, chiefly because all the great men in the country are my kinsmen. I cannot overawe them and cannot have any one executed. Nay, because of their very kinship they will rise up and act in defiance.”

Primitive soul is generally described by European historians as something exclusively belonging to mythology and religion; but to catch its true character we must recognise that it is a psychological entity as well. It is so far from being dependent on speculation and belief that it is first and foremost an object of experience, an everyday reality. The thrall has no soul, our ancestors say; and they know, because they have seen that it is lacking in him. When a thrall finds himself in a perilous situation, be goes blind, so that he dashes down and kills himself out of pure fear of death. How a soulless man would naturally behave we can learn from the story of the fight at Orlygsstad, where the wise and noble chief Arnkel met his death. When Arnkel unexpectedly found himself attacked by a superior force he sent home his thrall to bring aid. On the road the messenger was accosted by a fellow-servant — and willingly fell to helping him with a load of hay. Not until the evening, when those at home asked where Arnkel was, did he wake up and remember that his master was fighting with Snorri at Orlygsstad. There is no need of any hypothesis as to soul and life to make clear the fact that the thrall lacked hugr and hamingja; his soullessness is discernible by the lack-lustre of his eyes. The only possibility for a thrall to rise into something like a human being is by inspiration of his master's luck and life, and thus faithfulness and devotion are the noblest virtues of a bondman.

An excellent illustration of the way a thrall is able to reflect his master is given in a short story from Landnáma. One autumn a body of men who were shipwrecked on the Icelandic coast sought refuge at an outlying farm belonging to Geirmund, a noble chieftain of royal birth. The bondman steward invited the whole company to pass the winter as the guests of Geirmund, and on being asked by Geirmund how he had dared to fill the house with strangers he answered: “As long as there are men in this country people will not forget what sort of man you were, since your thrall dared do such a thing without asking your consent.”

Absolute unity, community of life within the clan, must find its justification in absolute unlikeness, essential difference from all other circles. “Our” life is not only peculiar in character, it has its own stem, its own root, and drinks of its own wells. There seems but one inference possible viz. that our ancestors narrowed humanity down to their own circle and looked upon all persons outside their frith as non-human; but this inference that presupposes our pale but extensive category humanity, does not hold good in ancient or primitive culture. The question as to human beings and non-human beings, human life and non-human life lay outside the plane where their thoughts moved; the problem could not be set up in the form it involuntarily assumes for us, still less could it be answered.

The ancient world was divided differently from ours. The difference lies not so much in the fact that the boundaries ran otherwise, as in the fact that they were of another sort. On one side, man was separated from nature by a deep sense of strangeness, which he might break through at certain points, but could never overcome. On the other hand, when he has bridged the gap between himself and the souls of his surroundings, the strangeness is converted into close friendship. If he has overcome his aversion in regard to this or that animal, he at once goes to the other extreme and calls the beast his brother, and this with an unfigurative earnestness that plainly shows he does not regard human dignity as a class privilege that shuts certain two-legged creatures out as a caste apart and assigns to them a standing over and above all other creatures. He does not feel the distance between himself and the bear as greater than that between bear and wolf; each of the three is an independent existence, and their relations one with another can thus never be expressed in any fixed constellation as with us 'who invariably set man uppermost and never between the two. The living and non-living things of the world do not form a scale starting out of the inorganic world and rising through degrees to man as the crown of the creation. Nature is to primitive man a realm filled with free self-existing souls, human and non-human, which are all on the same line of existence and can enter into all sorts of combinations through bonds of friendship or kinship. Among primitive people a worm is no farther and no nearer to man than a tiger — no being is classed beforehand as low in the scale. The thrall does not stand outside humanity in our sense of the word, only he has no life of his own and so does not count as a soul. His existence is so faintly marked that be cannot even do wrong and cannot be summoned to account, whereas animals, on the other hand, are not excluded from the honour of being called upon to defend their actions and suffer judgement.

When we cross the frontier that separates our civilization from primitive culture, we pass into a different world altogether. The world inhabited by souls does not form a wide plane in which creature touches creature edge to edge as in our universe, where things and beings are viewed chiefly from without as space-filling bodies. Our fathers' horizon was apparently far narrower than ours, thought reached earlier to the walls of the world; but the smaller circle held far more than we could crush into a corresponding area. In reality, the capacity of Middle-garth is unlimited, for this folk-home consists of a number of worlds overlapping one another, and thus not dependent on space for their extent.

In Middle-garth, the animals do not run in and out one among the rest crowding for elbow-room. The wolf is called heath-walker, because the heath is part of its soul, but this does not necessarily make it akin to the deer, that is called heath-treader. The haunt of the wolf is not necessarily the same as that of the deer, however closely they may coincide geographically. The heath, as heath, was a thing by itself, an independent soul as well as a space; but when we say heath-walker, or heath-treader, we only get to it through the animal that fills out the foreground, now through the grey, carrion-eating, “bold” wolf — when the heath is an attribute of unluck, —now through the “antler-crowned”, “oak's shelter-seeking”, “head backward-curving” deer — and the heath is then a soul-quality.

In the sphere which is dismissed summarily by us with the formula day and night there was room for a number of souls meeting one another as independent beings whole to whole instead of limiting one another. First day and night live there. Day is the light or shining one and the beautiful one, but he has other characteristics, as the Anglo-Saxon language intimates by calling him noisy or the time of bustling, the time of men being astir. Independently of light and day the sun has his going among men, and his individual nature is expressed in the names: ever-shining, terror of the giants, fugitive. The sun drives his steeds, Arvakr and Alsvinnr, with the same right as day drives his Skinfaxi — to emphasise their mutual independence in the mythical language. The essence of night is darkness and blackness, sleep and dream, but its nature also includes anxiety and the uncanny — therefore it is derived from the home of the giants. But its soul goes still farther; dominion over time must have been part of night's luck, since our fathers reckoned by nights. Moon, too, is a hastener, but it has other powers of its own; it counts the years and wards off evil thoughts; and thus it is wholly different from the other light.

Next to these great gods must be added a series of smaller divinities, which to us are only names save for some shreds of myths. Ny, the waxing, brightly shining moon, and Nid, the dark moon or the moonless night, live as “dwarfs” in an antiquarian's catalogue of minor mythological beings. We should not wonder at finding the phases of the moon as beings apart from the moon itself and having their own nature; their former independence has left its mark faintly in the verses of the Voluspá about the gods who gave Night and Nid their names, and in the teaching of the Vafthrudnismál as to the gods who set up Ny and Nid as a means of counting the years. Of Bil and Hjuki, two beings connected with the moon, we should know nothing if they had not slipped into history because in literary times men could remember a legend of their past, when they went to the well and were stolen away by the moon. It is possible that Bil represents the relation between the moon and woman's weakness — though this is nothing but a guess suggested by the myths of other peoples.

Under the heavens fare roaring storms, driving snow, and these are not merely servants carrying out the will of a greater, any more than Ny and Nid; they are independent souls whose nature is indicated by such names as: boisterous traveller or breaker of trees, and they have their own origin, being called Sons of Fornjot. Nevertheless, heaven itself has as its megin both light and wide extent, clouds, storm and hard weather, clearness and drift and close heat, as we see by the names applied to it in poetry; possibly too the sun formed part of its power. And in the same way the moon, as the reckoner of time, included the hours of light and day in itself, without encroaching upon their independence as souls; this side of the moon's personality is expressed in a myth that makes Day the son of Night by Dellingr.

For a modern mind approaching the question in the assurance that the parts of existence are dovetailed into one another, it is dangerous to venture out into Middle-garth. If one cannot change one's being and become as one of the natures in this kingdom, then one is crushed between the soul-colossi that fill that little space. The souls come, growing apace, with an unlimited power of filling new spaces, and overwhelm the inexperienced from every side. So great is the independence of every soul, that the recalcitrant souls are not even fused together by having a common origin; if ever anything came into being — if not rather all things simply were from the beginning —then day and sun, moon and night alike arose independently. The sine qua non for finding oneself at home in Middle-garth is to see everything, each thing by itself, as world-forming and world-filling, and not as part of a world. Neither animal nor tree, heaven nor earth is regarded as occupying a greater or smaller portion of space in existence, but as a great or a little world.

In the same way, the souls overlap one another among men. Each clan contained the luck and soul of neighbouring clans, and was in turn contained by its friends, without in the least hazarding its independence as a person. Where people meets people or tribe meets tribe they are not men-filled surfaces cut across by a political or linguistic line; the two circles have an earthly boundary between them, but this line of demarcation is only the upper edge of their mutual contact. Below it stand friendship and enmity, intercourse and feud, with all the shades that the character of honour and luck gives to these relationships. For one who, himself a soul, regards the others as souls, friends are not something outside him; their self, their honour, their work, their forefathers enter into him as part of his nature. And the others again possess him and his, not as tributary or subject, but as contents of honour. Each people — larger or smaller according to the intensity of intercourse — is the world, its folk takes up the earth, partly as inhabited land, partly as waste land, and fills it out to its farthest bounds. Our folk is Middle-garth, and that which lies beyond is Utgard.

Moreover, the earth itself is not an area in which many tribes are huddled up, but as we have seen, a living being conceiving from the plough and the sower, a woman and yet the broad, green expanse of soil and “roads”. And this broad, teeming, immovable earth is part of the soul of each tribe, not a common mother of all, as is seen in the legends and cults, when every tribe tells its personal story of the origin of earth without questioning the right of their neighbours to give their account of how the world, or rather, how their world arose. So it is among primitive peoples whose cosmogonies are better known, and so it was among ancient peoples in the north, as the spirit of their myths and the diversity of their traditions bear witness.

The question as to human being — non-human being thus disappears in face of the simple fact that all which is not our life is another soul, call it what we will. Foreigners have no legal value. In later times they were accorded only an illusory recognition in law and judgement, in older times their life and right was a matter of indifference. One does not kill an animal, or cut down a tree, out of sheer idleness, without some reason or other, whether this consist in the harmfulness of the thing while living or in its use when dead, and to understand these strictures we must remember that primitive men are far more careful about destroying souls than men of civilization who feel no responsibility whatever towards the creatures round them, because they recognise only their value as things. In the same way formerly one would hardly strike down a barbarian for simply existing. But killing a stranger did not differ in character from violating one of the innumerable non-human souls in existence.

Within the misty horizon formed by the hordes of the mumbling or speechless men, stands a community where the individual has a certain legal value, characterising him as a being of the same sort as the being who attacks him. The member of a community has the right to possess his own in peace. His life is costly. But within the narrow circle that is held together by a common law-thing, common chieftain, common war and peace, homicide is after all not a crime against life itself, not even to be reckoned as anything unnatural.

On the other hand, from the moment we enter into the clan, the sacredness of life rises up in absolute inviolability, with its judgement upon bloodshed as sacrilege, blindness, suicide. The reaction comes as suddenly and as unmistakably as when a nerve is touched by a needle. With this slight movement from society over to clan we have crossed the deepest gulf in existence.

Such is life in primitive experience — not a mere organism, not a collection of parts held together by some unifying principle, but a unique soul apparent in every one of its manifestations. The being is so homogeneous and personal that all its particles, as well as all its qualities and characteristics, involve the whole creature. When a man grasps a handful of earth, he has in his hand its wideness and its firmness and its fruitfulness; we may explain the fact by saying that a grain of the soil contains its soul and essence; or we may say that the fragment is the whole — both expressions are right and both are wrong insofar as the fact is not expressible in our language, but only to be got at by resurrection of an experience foreign to us. When a man eats an animal, or drinks its blood, he assimilates bearness or wolfness, and by his act he not only assumes the ferociousness and courage of the beast, but its habits and form as well; the bodily shape of the animal enters into his constitution, and may force itself out in some moments, even perhaps to complete transformation. You cannot mimic the gambols of an animal but an inner adjustment takes place, any more than you can behave like a woman without inducing a mood of feminine feeling, for by the dramatic imitation the dancer evokes the being which expresses itself in those movements, and takes upon himself the responsibility of giving it power to manifest itself. It is told of an Icelander that he killed a man-eating bear to avenge his father and brother; and to make the revenge complete, he ate the animal. From that time he was rather difficult to manage, and his nature underwent a change which was nothing else but the bearness working within him. And similarly, by striking up friendships, men are vitally associated, more or less strongly, with their fellow men; as the brethren of the clan are not only one soul but one bone, one flesh, in a literal sense that escapes modern brains, so the soul of the clan is really knit with the souls of its neighbours and friends, to quote an expression from the Old Testament, which has now lost the force it originally carried among the Israelites as well as among the Teutons.


back                                 index                                next