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CHAPTER XII

DEATH AND IMMORTALITY

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In the unity between the individual and his kin, all thoughts of death likewise meet. For the Northman, a name, a reputation was enough to take away the bitterness of death, because fame after death was a real life, a life in the continued luck and honour of kinsmen.

There has entered a touch of something modern into the Northmen's cry for life; we feel a new time through it. The word fame has acquired a spiritual ring in the viking age, and it cannot be denied that fame after death has bought its delicate sheen at the cost of inner, substantial life; it is risen so high as almost to rend the roots which gave it earthly nourishment. And as always happens when a culture begins to purge its values to super-spiritualism, the ideals ended in something overstrained and vacillating; the cry for fame becomes more and more strenuous, as if the crier were trying to outcry himself. In place of the old-time heroes of honour, we have now athletes in the field of honour, who rush about the country seeking renown, and groan in weariness of life when they can find none with whom to measure their strength. The strained tone in the cry for fame during the centuries verging on the Middle Ages suggests that the roving warriors had partly lost touch with the realities of life. And yet they were not so modern as to grasp the idea that the true and only immortality consisted in people's speaking of one after death. The fame and honour that was to console a man in death must have a compelling force, not only to beget songs, but also to beget a successor in whom the honour shone out anew.

Another trait of the viking ages is the budding anxiety for individual re-birth. In the opening of the Vatsdoela saga we are told how the famous family of Ingimund was founded by the welding of a Norwegian clan with the luck of a royal race of Gautland farther east. The union is dated from a fight between the Norwegian youth Thorstein and a scion of the Gautland kings called Jokul; before dying, Jokul requests his slayer to marry his sister and revive the name in the offspring of this alliance, “and I look for blessing to myself from this”, he adds. Thus it comes that the name Jokul runs in the Vatsdoela family. The same theme occurs in another saga, the Svarfdoela, where Thorolf, a brave youth from Naumudal, who on his very first viking expedition receives a mortal wound, in his dying moments asks his brother Thorstein to transmit his name to posterity: “My name has lived but a little hour, and thus I should be forgotten as soon as you are gone, but I see that you will increase the family and become a great man of luck. I wish you would let a son be called Thorolf, and all the lucky qualities (heillir) which I have had, those will I give him; then I think my name shall live as long as men dwell in the world.” And Thorstein answers: “This I will gladly promise you, for I look that it shall be to our honour, and good luck shall go with your name as long as it is in the clan.” He keeps his promise, and the new Thorolf becomes like his kinsman.

These tales are conventional romanticism, and as far as the Vatsdoela is concerned the story is nothing but an afterthought to explain the actual alliance between a Norwegian and a Gautland house. But this romanticism reflects some tendencies of the saga age. There is undoubtedly in Thorolf's and Jokul's longing to have their name and fame restored to the light an egoistic passion, something approaching the anxious hunger for a future and a hope, which we know from other times and places. But their greed of life is satisfied in the assurance that their honour and luck will not be suffered to 'wither away. They are fully content to re-live their life in another man, and the question of their own identity simply cannot penetrate through the mass of the old premises. In Thorolf's words: “To him (his namesake that is to be) I will give all the luck I have had; then I think my name shall live as long as men dwell in the world,” we have in a way two different modes of thought laid one above the other; the old ideas of luck and soul form the pattern into which new thoughts about the hero's personal immortality involuntarily fit when they come to demand expression.

Immortality, accordingly, consists in remaining in luck and honour and knowing it safe; let the thought of one's own well-being arise as potently as it will, it cannot take this form: what is to become of me? As long as life is inseparably bound up with a whole, so that the individual cannot exist at all as individual, the sting which should set the thought of one's own incarnation in motion is lacking. The dead as well as the living kinsman lives in his kin; he thinks their thoughts and their honour, he wills their will, he feels their feelings, he is their body. He is warmed through by the heart-refreshing honour founded by himself, he is fed with luck, and he acts with them, thinks and counsels. And thus the dilemma: to be or not to be, is disposed of beforehand.

When a man has received the assurance that his luck and honour are in safe keeping, and he closes his eyes, he sets off to the place where his kinsmen dwell, — “sets forth to visit his kinsmen” as Egil says of his son — and arrives there in his whole, full person, with body and soul and entire equipment. Not as a spírit which has laid its case aside and comes with chattering teeth stealing down the road to Hel, but as a human being, with human nature. The whole man simply continues his life, under somewhat different conditions, but always in luck, probably somewhat less than before, perhaps also in certain respects a little stronger. He rides his horse and carries his sword, which he flashes at the armed council where the dead assemble, and for his restless goings about he has need of a solid equipment, a well forged weapon nicely balanced to the hand, such as he is used to. He is a solid person, that one can feel and fight with. We should not, it is true, characterise him altogether from the comically dreadful ghosts which go haunting about in several of the Icelandic sagas, fellows who twist people's necks, or perhaps even run about with their own head in their hands, using it for banging at people's doors. Indirectly, however, these ghosts do reveal something of the nature of the dead; this Glam, who rides on the roof of a house till all the beams creak, and comes near to breaking Grettir's arms and legs; this Thorolf Boegifot, who runs after the herdsmen and beats them black and blue, have little reality about them, but they have a reality behind them; they are descended from tangible departed ones, who were quite capable of coming to grips with living men, and perhaps would not give in until their backs were broken or their heads cut off.

On a single occasion — in the story of Hermod — we read that the dead tread far more lightly on the bridge of Hel than do the living. When Hermod is despatched to fetch the god Balder from the dead, his firm steps on the bridge leading into the valley of death fill the bridge keeper with wonder. “Yesterday,” she says, “four hosts of dead men rode over the bridge, but they made less noise than your single horse's step; nor is your face like a dead man's face.” But this observation is probably only relatively valid. Judging from the experiences of the living who have ventured into the underworld, both roads and bridges were fine and solid, evidently built with a view to good sound footsteps, as against the true spirit-worlds, where everything is a-quiver. The poet of the Lay of Eric attains his introductory effect by perfectly legitimate means, when he lets Odin start up from sleep at the resounding steps of Eric Bloody-axe and his men: “What dreams are these? Methought it was in the dawn, when I made room in Valhal for those dead in arms; I woke the einheries, bade them arise, spread straw on the benches and rinse out the ale-mugs; the valkyries should carry wine around, as if it were a king that had come.” The dream was not an illusion, this he knows from the way it warmed his heart, and he cries out: “What is this heavy sound, Bragi, as if a host of a thousand or more came moving forward?” “The walls groan from gable to gable,” comes the answer, “as if it were Balder returning to the halls of Odin.”

In the verses where dead Helgi is visited in his burial mound by Sigrun, the idea of the viking age as to the reality of the dead has found its ideal expression. Sigrun's slave woman went one evening past the barrow, and saw Helgi riding to the mound with a host of men. She told Sigrun what she had seen. Sigrun went into the mound to Helgi: “Lifeless king, a kiss first, ere you cast bloodstained mail. Your hair is thick with rime, Helgi. You are soaked through with the dew of blood. Your hands are clammy and cold. Tell me what I must do.” — “Now we will taste the cup, though I be driven from lust and land, and none to sing a plaint, though the wounds gleam red on my breast; now is the woman come — and closed the door behind her —into the burial mound to me who am dead.” — “Here I have spread a good couch, Helgi, sorrowless; I will sleep in your arms as gladly as were you alive.”

This Helgi and this Sigrun personify, in poetic transfiguration, the thoughts of viking times as to the relation between death and life. Men thought of the dead as like Helgi, and like Sigrun men maintained a practical footing towards them, even though of course it would be only the exceptions who felt any call to go to bed with them. All that these two say to one another is marked throughout by the romantic, anything but Germanic love tenderness which brings them together. It is, one might say, a new feeling which gives colour to the words, but that which gives them life, and which renders the meeting of the pair so natural and straightforward, is the poet's unreflecting ideas of the dead. There is nothing in these verses to suggest that he is outwardly repeating a literary lesson.

A man remained the man he was in regard to form and shape — somewhat reduced, perhaps, but not changed. And in the same way, of course, he would retain his freshness of soul, as surely as he was an honest dead man; he remained like himself, with the same full honour, the same prejudices, the same family pride and the same family restrictions, as well as the same respect for the realities of life. Here lies the weakness of the comical Icelandic ghosts — they differ from their forefathers in having lost something, and this something is nothing else but humanity; the honour and luck that shut up the activity of the dead in the circle where surviving kinsmen move, and attune the doings of the dead to the aspirations of the living, have faded in them. The author of the Eyrbyggja saga is on surer ground. He tells how a body of men that had been drowned out in the fiord, incommoded the living by coming nightly to sit by the fire. At last a wise man hit upon the device of using the force of law against the intruders. The dead men quietly heard out the son of the house while he brought the summons for unrightful entering of the house, but as soon as judgement had been passed upon them one by one they rose from the warm seat by the fire and walked out into the cold. — The dead man retained his loyalty to the home and his interest in all that went about the homestead. Quite naturally then, he would choose himself a good dwelling place with a wide, free outlook over the neighbourhood and his home. Or he might wish to be as near as possible to the house, so as to be able constantly to attend to his customary work. Thorkel Farserk was a very powerful man, both in spirit and in body; he had voyaged with Eric the Red to Greenland, and once, when Eric came to visit him at his house and no seaworthy boat was in at the time, he swam out to an island in the fiord to fetch a sheep for food. No wonder that he went peaceably about his homestead after death, and made himself useful.

A good illustration of the dead man's unity with his past is found in the one-sided but clear light of the humoresque, when we read in Grettir's saga of Kar the Old's activity after death: he dwelt in a solid barrow strengthened with baulks of timber, and from here led the little war with the peasants of the district, so that, in company with his living son, Thorfin, he extended the family property from a single homestead until it covered the entire island of Haramarsey, near South Moeri. Naturally, none of the peasants who enjoyed Thorfin's protection suffered any loss. Kar was pursuing an exclusive family policy, only with the higher means now at his disposal.

And that which was the free man's mark of nobility, his “gladness”, went with his luck into the higher existence. One might hear the dead man singing from his barrow or his ship about his wealth and his renown, in verses such as that known to have been sung by the barrow-dweller Asmund of Langaholt. This distinguished man had been buried in his ship, and the family had with thoughtful care given him a faithful thrall to share the grave, but this company proving by no means to his taste, he begged to have the grizzler taken out. And then he was heard to sing with the proud boastfulness of life: “Now I alone man the ship; room better suits the battle-wont than crowding of base company. I steer my ship, and this will be long in the minds of men.”

'What life really is, we only rightly learn by seeing its dissolution. It is the nature of health to be coldly unapproachable, and it is thus of necessity, and not from inclination, that the psychologist goes to the sick mind in order to learn what is moving in the sound. If we did not know the ideas of different peoples with regard to death, we should in most cases probably be unable to ascertain their views of life. Dissolution shows us, not only what life is worth to them, but also in what this life consists.

We do not find, among our forefathers, any fear of the ending of life. They passed with a laugh of defiance through the inevitable, we are told; or they faced the thought of an earthly ending with a convinced indifference, plainly showing that they did not attach great importance to that event. Life was so strong in its reality that death simply could not count against it, and could not in any way exert the slightest pressure upon its demands. Defiance was part of honour and of what was demanded of a man, and we are thus constrained to seek the roots of this contempt for death deep down in the soul. And the Northern appreciation of life is fully and entirely shown in the picture given by Tacitus of the young men: “If their fatherland grow idle in long peace and inaction, then most of the highborn youths seek their way to such peoples as are at war, because these men are not by nature given to peace and quiet, and because it is easier to win renown where perils play one against another — undoubtedly one of the least romantic of Tacitus' psychological descriptions, and most genuine as to its contents. These “high-born youths” then, would hardly have lived in an environment where death was regarded as an object of dread, a thing that stole up behind men and breathed coldly down their necks.

When a man had received his final wound, and realised that his time was come, he strode with firm steps to the barrow, and settled himself there for the future, well content with the equipment his kinsmen had given him there. But is he not after all become a man of less moment than he was in the flesh? Naturally, he would need to have his luck unimpaired in order to continue his life within the portals of the grave, but this does not imply that he took it all with him. Does he after all become weaker in bodily strength? Will his wisdom, his foresight, sink? Will there be less activity in him? The answers to our questions are perplexingly contradictory. We find indications that death could give a man deeper wisdom and higher insight in the future. Why should Odin go out and question the dead sybil, as he does in the Eddic poem Vegtamskvida, if it were not that the dead at times stood at the highest stage of insight? And Odin's voyage to the kingdom of the dead was undoubtedly modelled on real life. Old Kar seems to have increased his vitality after settling in his grave, but at other times it is clear that a strong man shows a rather marked falling off after his decease. Sometimes life in the transit fell to a decidedly lower measure of happiness. When Helgi meets Sigrun in the barrow, he speaks as if this meeting with all its joy were something he stole from life; he will have happiness, even though he be driven from lust and land. But on the other hand, the pictures of Valhal suggest a tendency to reverse life and death, and regard the after-state as an enhancement of the sense of life. On the fields of death there grows an inexhaustible crop of honour; this must be the meaning of the daily battle outside the gates of Valhal, and thus we have the clear and strong expression of the conviction that existence does not lose in quality. In the halls of death the joyful intercourse is continued, life in honour and frith with gladness; all that we have found that life, in the eminent sense, depended on, the hero takes with him through the doorway of the grave.

Valhal belongs to a particular sphere of culture. The active, boisterous life of the einheries is hardly imaginable without the exalted and over-hasty pace of life in viking days, where such ideals as honour and fame after death were forced up to such a degree that the root could no longer support them, and they flowered to death. But Valhal could not be built up loosely above the earth, it must have its foundation deeply laid in popular feelings. Prior to the poetical consecration of a heaven of battle there must be a direct faith in the future, and this not a faith vaguely in the clouds, but a sure conviction that man finds himself again in the burial mound. From the story in the Eyrbyggja of the end of Thorstein Cod-bite we can form an idea as to how the einherie dogma appeared as a family myth. It is told that the same evening Thorstein was drowned, a shepherd saw Helgafell open: in the interior of the hill burned great fires — as in the hall, of course — and there came a sound of merriment and the rattle of drinking horns; listening carefully, the man could distinguish voices bidding Thorstein and his companions welcome, and inviting him to be seated in the high seat opposite his father. This herdsman brings us a message from an everyday world and an everyday habit of mind, which but for him would have been lost without a trace. He gives us at the same time the means of understanding what it is that makes the einheries such powerful figures, and the stories of their life with Odin myths instead of poetry. But on the other hand, it is easy to see why the belief in Valhal came to be something entirely different from its premises. The confident faith has become conscious of itself. Before the joy of the warriors in fighting and drinking in the hall of death — mandream —could become an enhanced enjoyment of life, there had to come a reflection whereby the value of life was loosed from life itself, and regarded independently. The undismayed attitude towards death has undergone the same process as honour and posthumous fame; from being realities, they became ideal values, and ended as qualities of a virtuoso.

And now on the other hand, Helgi's touching lament for what he has lost! The scene belongs rather to Germanic Middle Ages than Nordic antiquity, we may fairly say. The hero's sentiment, his wistful dwelling on his loss and longing is mediæval in its tone. But the wistfulness is nevertheless warranted in the thought of the old régime. The modern element lies in the fact that the contrast between past and present breaks out into a lyrical mood. The contrast does not come in with the Helgi poet, but it takes on a new aspect, because men become conscious of themselves and their feelings. We cannot dispose of the contrast altogether by arranging the stories into historical perspectives. In reality the brighter and the darker view of the state after death are not so wide apart that they can face each other in hostility; they supplement each other, they take it in turns to overlap each other. The difficulty which we feel does not lie in the answers, but in the question. It is natural to us to put the problem generally: is death a boon or a calamity? will death improve the condition of a man or not? and we transfer our problem into the discussion of primitive and ancient peoples and their “view of death”. The Teutons had no permanent ever-valid solution, because they had no everlasting problem; death is to them only a variety of life dependent upon the forces which act in the light of the sun. The dead man lives in his kinsmen, in every sense of the word: his luck is incorporated in those who survive him, and the life he leads in the grave and in the neighbourhood of the grave has now as formerly its source in kinsmen's luck. It means a difference, certainly, if a man loses “land and lust” so to speak without compensation, and merely glides over into the shadow, or on the other hand, fills himself with honour, luck, and life in the very moment of death, falling in a circle of down-stricken enemies, with whose warm blood he has sprinkled himself, and whose honour he has used as food for his own. But when all is said and done, the hero who takes a host of enemies with him into the grave cannot himself determine whether he is to enjoy his wealth. His power of utilising the abundance gained depends on how far the surviving kinsmen can assimilate the surplus and save it from rotting in stagnation.

A man, then, died as his power of life enabled him. The great man of luck slid with a little bump across the reef, and sailed on. Inferiors, poor folk, might find themselves stranded, to sink and disappear. He who had great store of soul could, according to human calculations, live for ever; the poor in soul stood in sore peril of using up his stock in this world.

The faith in the luck running in the clan can lead to a class organisation, as soon as external circumstances direct the human tendency to draw conclusions towards a social system. The proud men of luck find unity in a common feeling of kinship in life, the lower types join, or are thrown together, in a spiritual middle class, and midway between the two there may perhaps arise a buffer estate of intermediate nobility, aiming upward, but moving inevitably downward. And with this class organisation follows a fair distribution of life here and life hereafter for both high and low, in close agreement with the qualifications of birth. Along this road it is possible to arrive at a system firm and clear as that which obtained among certain of the South Sea Islanders, before European democracy stepped in and ruined

it. Among the Tonga Islanders, immortality ceased midway between the first and third orders of rank; that is to say: the first class, the chieftains' families, would be fully entitled to life in the underworld; the second class of life hereafter would depend upon a sort of personal nobility in the case of the male head of a family in actual service at court, with succession vesting in the eldest son after the father's death — almost in the English fashion. Our authority states, it is true, that among the excluded there were some who preferred the uncertainty of trusting in themselves to the safe and ordered exclusion; the old system, then, was not altogether overcome.

The Northmen never attained to a system of immortality arranged on such beautiful lines. We find here and there an incipient class-formation, as for instance when certain laws set a sliding scale of fines for manslaughter, according to the social position of the slain; the chieftains could perhaps be called men of godly descent, but the great would yet hardly anywhere have reached so far as to occupy their position in virtue of belonging to a category. And the process of development had certainly nowhere advanced to the stage of establishing state control and regulation of the life to come, when that development itself abruptly ended. The arrangement current in viking times of kingly halls for men slain under arms, for drowned men, for honest tillers of the soil, has its roots in the popular belief: it was taken for granted that men in the life hereafter would find one another, drink and pass judgement with one another, and had not lost the need of definite forms and recognised custom which had regulated the gatherings at the law-thing; but the idea of a realm for the dead never went beyond the imagination of poets fired by contact with the Christian eschatology. Each had to arrange for his own future, and would receive hereafter according to his means and power while here. He had still to depend on the luck of the clan. The king lived a kingly life in his barrow; the day-labourer's slender luck would probably but just avail to win him some little span of shadowy existence in the grave. From all we can learn of the thoughts of everyday life in the North, each clan had its own private Hades; and if a clan were not powerful enough to procure a suitable dwelling place for its departed, there were certainly no public halls open to admit homeless souls.

The king sits as a king in his burial mound, and rules in all probability as king from there, just as in life he sat in his hall and by virtue of his kinsmen ruled from there, at the same time letting his clan-luck act upon the neighbours about him. He is king in death by virtue of what he is, not of what he was. And what he is depends entirely on the activity of his kinsmen.

 

 
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