honour, man needs something which in the ancient
language is called luck; our translation, however, which
draws the sense of chance into the foreground, fails
altogether to indicate the true force of the word. The
associations of the modern term, stressing the sense of
chance or fortune, all run counter to the spirit of
ancient culture, and there is no other way of reaching a
full understanding than by patient and unprejudiced
reconstruction of Teutonic psychology.
way we turn, we find the power of luck. It determines
all progress. Where it fails, life sickens. It seems to
be the strongest power, the vital principle indeed, of
a man's fields yielded rich harvest, when his lands were
rarely visited by frost or drought, he was said to be ársæll,
i. e. he possessed the luck of fertility.
his cattle throve and multiplied, always returning sale
and undepleted from their summer grazing grounds, then
he was fésæll, i. e. he had the luck of
dweller on a barren strip of coast had little use for
luck in the fields, but would on the other hand probably
be lucky with his fishing, or he would be byrsæll, that
is, he would always have the wind in his favour. There
was a famous family in the north of Norway, the men of
Hrafnista, of whom it is related that as soon as they
hoisted sail, a wind sprang up, even though it had been
perfectly calm a moment before. Hading, too, had,
according to Saxo, a peculiar power of making best use
of a wind, for though his pursuers were running before
the same wind and had not fewer sails, they could not
overtake him. This trait is in the North not a fairy
tale motive, nor the invention of an imaginative saga
writer; the Olafs of Norway likewise had the reputation
of being favoured by the weather, and this undoubtedly
with full historical justification. Olaf Tryggvason was
so much more byrsæll than other men, that he
sailed in one day as much as others in three. In the
list of the kings of Sweden there is one Eric Weatherhat,
so called from his having, as it were, the wind in his
hat; he could change it by turning his headgear about.
particular form of luck was not lost when the
coast-dwellers of the Northern Sea moved over to
Iceland. It is told of an Icelander that he was so byrsæll,
he could always determine 'which harbour he would
make; and of another, that he sailed in one day as much
as others in three.
men, again, had as their dominant attribute luck of
battle. When professional warriors, like Arnijot Gellini,
seek to express their faith in a few words, they can
find nothing to say but that they trust in their
strength and their sigrsæli, their gift of
victory. Among the chieftains, this gift of victory
shows in its full splendour. We find men of military
genius, who bring victory in their train wherever they
go. All the Norwegian kings of Harald Fairhair's race
had this great gift of victory. And when Earl Hakon was
able for a time to fill the place as ruler over Norway,
it was due not least to his luck in winning victories,
in pursuing and killing. It kept the people on his side,
for they held that no one could be like him in respect
of this particular gift. A like tone is apparent in the
opening of the story in the Beowulf, about Hrothgar's
kingdom; unto him was given war-speed, and battle-honour,
so that his kinsmen followed him until the younglings
were waxen and gathered about him in their host.
of battles” the king is often called in Anglo-Saxon,
and the name expresses what the Germanic people asked
of, and trusted to, in a ruler, both in the great leader
of the land, the king himself, and the minor leaders,
local princelings as well as freebooter kings without
land. The presence of the chieftain was a guarantee to
the people of victory in the fight. The Anglo-Saxons
gathered boldly to oppose the foreign vikings, if only
they had a man of chieftain's rank to take the lead and
call the local forces together; as long as he was
standing, they would fight with scorn of death, for
hearth and home. But when word went round to assemble in
mutual aid, without the inspiration of a born leader,
they would remain at home, or they would run off to the
woods and leave the invaders to work their will in the
when the East Anglians were attacked by Penda, the
victorious and generally feared king of Mercia, they
found no other resource in their need than to go to
their old king, Sigeberht, who, out of love for the
heavenly light, had renounced the throne and shut
himself up in a monastery. They begged him and implored
him to come out and lead the host, and though he thrust
aside the weapons, with uplifted hands calling to
witness his monk's vow to God in Heaven, they forced him
into the battle. This picture of the king in monk's
cowl, dragged into the fight with a willow-stick in his
hand and there slain, is the more touching for its deep
when they saw that their leader was fallen, they fled
every man” — this sentence occurs again and again in
the sagas, and its truth is confirmed again and again by
history. If the great man's war-luck failed, what could
the lesser luck of lesser men avail? Gregory relates
that Chlodevech won the decisive battle against the
Alamanni by vowing himself to Christ when things were at
their worst; hardly had he turned his mind in the right
direction when his enemies took to flight. “And when
they saw their king was fallen, they surrendered and
begged for mercy.” The opening of the narrative agrees
but poorly with the sequel. The fact is, that the pious
tendency of the historian has had its way at the first,
and that required only Chlodevech and Christ; in return,
history has its way with the clerk in the
after-sentence, and gives the king of the Alamanni his
due. But even admitting that the myth of Christ as the
giver of victory is but ill grafted, the pious author is
intrinsically right in making Christ manifest his glory
in displacing the power that had been strongest among
the heathen, viz, the king's luck.
little pictures from life transfer us at a stroke to
another world. Luck is working before our eyes with all
the power it had over men's minds, to strengthen and to
strike with numbness. In its foremost representative,
the king, its peculiar character is properly revealed.
The king's war-luck can prevail against an army. When
the king comes, surrounded by his little host, the
peasants are scattered like lambs at scent of a wolf.
This happened constantly in an age when every man was a
warrior from his youth up. It is not very likely that
the king's retainers should be very far ahead of the
well-to-do yeomen of the country in respect of courage
and skill at arms, for the king's body-guard was in
Norway, and as far as regards the earliest times, among
the other Germanic peoples as well, composed for the
most part of young volunteers, each of whom served a
number of years till he had attained such a degree of
training and renown as he considered fitting for his
position in society. Throughout the first two centuries
of Norwegian history, that is to say, the childhood of
the kingdom of greater Norway, when the sovereignty was
literally speaking never left ten years undisputed,
tradition records hardly a single battle wherein a
peasant army succeeded in offering effective resistance
to the body-guard, led by the king himself. The victory
at Stiklestad, where the yeomen won the day over the
king's men, is a triumph almost unique in history; the
victors fled from the field in panic terror, and the
conquered prince went out of the battle as a demigod.
When Olaf showed himself amid his array, the peasants'
arms “fell down”, their minds were confused in a
moment, and they were on the point of running away every
man; strenuous urging and incitement, with reminders of
Olaf's hated rule, were needed to keep them in their
places. And if we may believe the saga's description of
the fight, the courage of the peasants was rather a sort
of desperate convulsion in 'which their fear found vent,
because their legs refused to carry them from the field.
Olaf's fall let loose a panic in the peasants' army; the
men scattered and ran to seek cover in their homes, and
six months later, the king was adjudged a saint.
Whether the saga men are to be taken as recorders of fact or as imaginative poets, the value of their sketches as psychological documents remains unimpaired. In the minds of the North-men, the battle of Stiklestad, and the days preceding it, were clothed with a mystic spell, and the memories were condensed into a picture, at once soberly realistic in details and mythic as a whole. In Olaf, the ancient king's luck was transfigured; in the strength of his luck he was exalted to martyr's glory, and his saintship bridges over the gap between the old faith and the new creed. The Christian poets praise the king saint for giving all men harvest and peace.
To get a comprehensive view of the king's luck, we have to ask: what was demanded, in the old days, to make a man a true king? War-speed, the power of victory, is but one of the distinguishing marks which place the leader in a class apart from everyday characters. His constitution is marked throughout by greater strength and hardihood. Life is more firmly seated in him, whether it be that he is proof against weapons, or that they seem, perhaps, to turn aside from the spot where he stands. The first time Olaf Tryggvason misses his mark is when he aims his bow at Earl Eric. “Truly, this earl's luck is great”, he exclaims. In the ancient wise, it is said of Harald Hilditonn, that Odin had granted him immunity from wounds, so that no cutting edge could scathe him. And even though perhaps such a degree of hardiness was only found among the very few particularly favoured, we must presume that the king had this advantage over ordinary warriors, that his wounds healed more easily and more completely. At any rate, he possessed a healing power which could be communicated to others. The Germanic chief had here at least one qualification for saintly rank, and one that counted for much in the early Middle Ages, when Christianity justified itself to a great extent by its power over sickness. There is no doubt but that these germs of saintliness in the kingship were eagerly fostered, we may perhaps venture to say, with unconscious purpose; the miracles and legends of southern Europe cling easily to Olaf, and it came natural for people to seek healing at the king's resting place.
the time when Olaf's brother Harald Hardrada and his son
Magnus reigned jointly over Norway, a mother came with
her son, who had lost his memory, to ask advice of King
Harald; the king opined that the patient suffered from
dreamlessness, and counselled her to let the boy drink
of Magnus' washing water, and thereafter sleep on
Magnus' couch. The effect was instantaneous: both kings
appeared to him in a dream, and said: the one: “Have
health,” and the other: “Have quickness and
memory,” and then the boy woke laughing, having
recovered the power of remembering. The kings of the
Franks had not less of this healing power: a mother
cured her son with a decoction from the fringe of King
Gunntbram's cloak. In earlier times, it was presumably a
common belief that the king had “hands of healing”,
as we find in the invocation of Sigdrifa: “Give us two
athelings (herself and Sigurd) speech and wit and hands
of healing, while we live.”
most violent attacks of nature, too, fell scatheless
upon the king's luck. “Kings never drown," said
William Rufus when he put out into the Channel in a boat
during a gale, to quell a revolt in Normandy on its
first outbreak. Olaf the Saint, on his crossing to
Norway, was in great danger during a storm, but “the
good men with him, and his own luck, brought him
unscathed to land”.
equal right, an Olaf might have said that kings were
never weather-bound. At any rate, it was one of a
chieftain's natural attributes, that his luck always
gave him a favouring wind. The waters, too, carried
shoals of fish in to the ruler's lands, we may suppose;
it is said of Earl Hakon, that in his time, fish came up
into all the fords. Luck of fertility prevailed over his
fields, giving close ears of corn and good weight in the
ear. Lucky in seasons and in procuring peace are the
titles given to the mythical kingly ideal of the Swedes,
Fjolnir Yngvifreyson, and if we add sigrsæll —
victorious — we have the triple chord that embraces
all life. A king without wars might be an exception; but
he must be friðsæll — mighty for peace — in
the sense of keeping the war outside his own frontiers,
or at least preventing it from harrying the fields. War
is to throw up a flood of honour and renown about him,
heap up jewels and spoil, but not fail destructively
upon the lands swelling with corn, and the cattle heavy
is hard to fight against the king's luck,” and “Much
avails the king's luck”; thus old saws sum up the
hardness and the massiveness of the chieftain's gift,
and the wisdom implied in these sayings amounts to such
sage counsels as this: One must not set oneself athwart
the great man's luck, but let oneself be borne on by it.
When a man entered the king's ranks and let his own
war-luck be inspired by the higher, he became, in the
most literal sense, worth more himself. The king was so
full of luck that he could radiate it out to all those
near him and could even send it away to act at a
distance. If one could get a chieftain to approve an
enterprise by his words:
will add my luck”, then one had his war-luck in one's
weapons, his weather-luck in one's sails. Of such a man
it can simply be said: “He goes not alone, for king's
luck goes with him.” And a request to undertake a
desperate enterprise on the king's behalf was often
granted with the words: “I will attempt it with your
luck”. A man in the king's favour, as for instance
Hallfred the Wayward Scald, lived all his life in the
shadow of the king's luck. When on one occasion he was
attacked from behind, he prayed to Christ for aid, and
succeeded “with God's help and by Olaf's luck” in
beating off the attack. His opponents knew him for a man
protected by special favour, and were cautious in
attacking him; his bitter foe, Gris, whom he had injured
most bloodily by ravishing his wife, was glad of a
chance to avoid meeting him in single combat, and
declared that he was "loth to fight against the
The belief in the king's power to put his luck into others and their undertakings is worked up by the Icelanders into an amusing tale about a poor man, Hroi, his failing and success. Hroi was a skilful smith and an enterprising merchant, brave and “born with wits”; but somehow Fortune declined to favour his plans. However much gold he might amass, it went to the bottom as soon as he put to sea, and when he had forged his way up again by skill at his trade, he lost all his savings in his business deals. Then he bethought himself of going to King Swein Forkbeard and proposing partnership. When he appeared before King Swein with his plans for trading, the king's men spoke strongly against the idea of entering into partnership with a man so notoriously unlucky in his dealings; but Hroi retorted confidently: “The king's luck is more powerful than my ill-fortune”, and the king himself was too far-seeing not to give this argument more weight than all objections. From that day forward, wealth sought out Hroi: on peaceable trading expeditions he harried the coasts of the Baltic for gold, and never once lost a cargo at sea; he shared his spoils with the king, thus turning his friendship into affection. And to crown all, he won the princess, for though his bride was of no higher birth than the daughter of a Swedish grandee, she was at any rate as good as the average princess.
It is the criterion, in
fact, of the king's luck, that it overflows and fills
others with its abundance. On the field of battle, the
king's luck sweeps like a storm out over the enemy;
opens a road for those who follow after him, and whirls
them on to victory; but beneath this stormy power there
runs a quiet, unbroken stream of luck that can bear, and
actually does bear, the people up, inspiring its work
with blessing, and making it thrive. We chance upon a
piece of information from the Burgundians, to the effect
that they gave their kings the credit for good harvests
in the land, and in return, made them suffer when the
harvest failed. The Northmen judged in precisely the
same fashion. According to mythical history, the Swedes
even went to the point of “sacrificing” their king,
Domaldi, “for good harvest”, a persistent famine
having occurred during his reign. At the introduction to
Norway's history stands Halfdan ársæli, the
greatest harvest-giver the people had known, as a kind
of prototype of Harald Fairhair's dynasty. For a long
time, it looked as if the luck of the Halfdan family
were broken; in the time of the sons of Eric, there were
years of great dearth, and the longer they ruled over
the country, the harder grew the general distress, and
we are expressly told, that the people “laid the bad
harvests to the charge of these kings”. Then arose a
new race of rulers, in whom the blessing was full and
whole. During the reign of Earl Hakon, such a change
took place in the harvests, that not only “did the
corn grow up wherever it had been sown, but the herring
came up all round the land”. But with the other
branches of the old stock Halfdan the Harvest giver rose
up again, and in Olaf the Saint his heritage was
canonised: “God's man gives all men harvest and
peace,” thus sings the poet Thorarin Loftunga in
honour of the sainted king.
We must not, however, rush to the conclusion that Teutonic kingship rested upon certain persons' magic power of styling themselves magicians. From a modern point of view, a king might seem sufficiently tasked in having to govern sun and moon and an element or so besides, and any demand beyond such metereological aptitude would be thought excessive; still, other qualities were needed to raise a man to chieftainship under the old conditions. To appreciate the genius of the Teuton king, we must walk round and look at him from the social point of view as well, and our understanding will depend on our ability to combine the knowledge gained on these two sides.
We need not seek far and wide to ascertain what the king looked like; both ideal pictures and actual portraits have been handed down to us. In Harald Fairhair's race, the type appears as follows: Tall (taller than the most of men), strong, handsome (the handsomest of all men), forward in the fight; skilful above all others in the use of weapons; an all-round athlete, archer, swimmer. Among the kings of Norway Olaf Tryggvason is the perfect realisation of the ideal; he could strike equally well with both bands, throw two spears at once, and walk on the oars while the men were rowing, juggling with three swords in the air.
Ambitious and ever watchful that none should in any respect outstep him; never content with the honour gained as long as there was more to gain.
Deep and far-seeing in his plans; clever to use all means that could further the end in view; eloquent and persuasive, so that men wished no other thing than what he proposed.
Glad, cheerful, generous
to his men, winning, so that all young brave men were
drawn to him.
This is the Germanic type of king that inspires the innumerable encomiums in Teutonic literature. It is reflected in the description of Offa by the poet of the Beowulf: “the spear-bold man, praised far and 'wide for gifts and war; wisely ruling the land of his heritage”. It is elaborated over and over in the Nordic songs and sagas. Tall, handsome, brave, skilful, generous, these words indicate the totality of virtues which no king could do without; lacking one quality he would lack all.
The praises really indicate a demand, a formulation of what was required of the king. Not only the king who ruled over wide lands must fulfil the requirements of the ideal, but even the chieftain, whose sphere was restricted to a small district, had to possess a certain, not insignificant portion of all these qualities. This comprehensive perfection, moral and physical, belonged to the nature of chieftainship. Even a petty village leader was expected to stand firmly by the rights of his friends, and see that none encroached on them; he must be so respected that outsiders were loth to interfere with them. Any man in the village had the right to bring an injury he was unable himself to repair to the door of the chief, and if it were left there unavenged, it brought down infallibly nidinghood upon the chieftain's whole race. It needed strength to take up such an heritage. And when disputes arose within the district itself, the chieftain was the proper person to put matters right, to solve the difficulty, so that “all were content with his decision”. When we call to mind that the king, in such a case, found himself placed between two "honours", both equally susceptible and equally indispensable, we may presume that he would need to be gifted with a very high degree of craft and ingenuity — and generosity withal, so that he was not afraid of sacrificing something of his own in order to heal a wounded honour. We can provide a background for our supposition by considering how an Icelandie chieftain, Thorkel Krafla, behaved on one occasion, when a man had been killed at the law-thing. With a party ready for vengeance he went to the booth where the slayer was. In the doorway he was encountered by the man's mother, who had a claim on Thorkel, having once saved his life; she tried to make her influence felt, but he met her intervention with the words: “Matters stand differently now than when we last spoke together; but go you out, that you need not see your son stricken down.” She immediately acted on the hint, dressed her son in her own clothes and sent him out with the women, and when Thorkel had seen him safely out, he placed himself in the doorway and talked sense: “It is not fitting that we should kill our own neighbours and thing-fellows, it were better at least to come to an agreement.” This is an episode from the late saga times, but an episode of the sort that occurs frequently enough on the steppes and in the mountains, where the tribe still lives in ancient fashion under the rule of a chief.
It was no sinecure to inherit royal dignity. Kingship required genius and great gifts, but these qualities were included in the royal character. That the born leader could achieve such great things, could procure his subjects right and honour and, what was still more difficult, maintain their honours in their proper relation one to another, is due to the very depth and might of his luck. It was easier for him than for others to bring men to agree, and get men to follow him; the young men looked up to him, wished naught but what he willed, the older men brought their difficulties to him, — because he was vinsæll, i. e. had the luck or gift of friendship, because he had mannheill, the gift of dealing with men. It can also be said in explanation of his popularity, that he gained affection early “by his beauty and his gentleness in speech” (bliðlæti). Of another king it is spoken, that he won the love of his men for being mighty and wise and a great harvest-giver; the word translated by “wise” is a very expressive term denoting craft, quickness of 'wit, adroitness, in other words, diplomacy. His friend-luck depended on various factors. Not the least part of it was due to his power of strewing gold about him; youth did not flock to the court of a niggardly king. But all these gifts enter into the king's luck, diplomacy as well as generosity, and beauty as well as eloquence. There is no separating the qualities which we should call natural, from the gifts of healing and fertility.
It would be foolish to regard the superiority of the king's body-guard over the peasant army as due to a superstitious panic for the king's person, and deny that the fatal significance of his fall to the outcome of the battle stood in natural relation to his importance as leader of the fight. And this was well known: such words as “leader of the host”, “ranger of battles” were often used as epithets for a chieftain.
There is not the least reason to regard these honourable titles as of late origin, and accuse the other Germanic peoples of lacking insight as to the king's generalship. Surely as the king could and should bring about victory, radiating strength and courage into those who came near him, and darkening the eyes of his enemies till they stumbled over their own plans, so surely was it also of great importance to him to possess a well disciplined army, and be able himself to take advantage of the tactical opportunities with a corps that in a way hung together of itself. All these: the discipline of the army, the generalship of its leader, the force of his blow, his power of compelling victory, are part of the king's luck. Whether we say: the king had luck in learning the use of weapons and the art of war, to remain unwounded in the midst of the fight, — or we credit him with a gift for the profession of arms, a gift which made lethal weapons fall harmlessly from him, it comes to the same thing. The king was the luckiest, that is to say, inter alia, the bravest, most skilful, wisest and most ingenious of warriors.
To sum up, luck, in the view of the Teutons, is not a thing that comes from without, setting the seal upon abilities and enterprises.
Every day we encounter instances of the great differences between men's fortunes. Poor folk have “but one luck, and that a slender one”; they may strive and struggle as much as they will, they gain no more than the minimum reward for their pains. With others, “luck hangs about them like dirt”, as the proverb runs in Jutland; they simply cannot get rid of it. But the Teuton did not draw the inference from this experience that will and result, ability and luck come from different sides of existence and play blind-man's-buff with one another. He did not lay down inefficiency as the prime principle in human life and appoint fate or gods to keep all the strength and bear all the blame for evil results.
A man's luck of harvest is the power that inspires him to watchfulness, restless work, letting his arms wield the pick with good effect, which sets pace and force in his actions; it leads his pick so that he does not strike vainly in a stubborn, defiant soil, but opens pores for fruitfulness; it sends the corn up out of the ground, sharpens the young shoot to pierce the earth above it, saves the naked, helpless plant from freezing to death, and the grown corn from standing unsusceptible to sun and rain and turning to nothing out of sheer helplessness; it follows the crops home, stays with them through threshing and crushing, and gives the bread or the gruel power of nourishment when the food is set on the board.
The luck of harvesting and sailing and conquering are equally two-sided according to our notions. A man is blessed in his cattle when the animals grow fat and heavy with what they eat, when their udders swell full with milk, when they multiply, when they go to their summer grazing without scathe of wolf or bear, when they come home full tale in the autumn; but his luck is equally apparent in his power to seek them out and find them, should they stray, in places where no other would think to look.
Sailing implies manoevring, conquering implies valour and shrewdness, luck in wisdom implies skill “in making plans when needed”. The sons of Ingimund, before referred to, were men of great luck: “It is hard to stand against the luck of the sons of Ingimund”; men feared Jokul's courage and baresark violence, but not less the “wit and luck” of his elder brother, Thorstein. This luck displays itself in his always knowing or guessing beforehand what his opponents had in mind; he saw through every artifice of war, even when wrought by witchcraft, so that it was never possible to take him and his brothers by surprise. Their luck shows itself in the fact that they could wait, let time go on, make preparations, or strike on the instant without hesitation; the blow always fell at the right moment for them. When their father had been killed in their absence, and the slayer, Hrolleif, had got away safely to his kin, Thorstein restrains his brother by saying: “We must seek him out by craft, and not rush wildly on.” He then pays a visit to the man who had concealed Hrolleif, and by dexterous handling gets him to give up the unlucky one and send him away from the homestead. “It matters nothing what you may say”, Thorstein quietly argues, “he is undoubtedly here; it is more to your good that he should be rendered harmless, such ill as he does against your will; it is not only for my father's sake that I am after him, he has wrought too much mischief that we can sit still now; we can take him outside your boundaries, so that no shame falls to you in the matter; only tell him yourself that he is not safe here; and a hundred in silver I can well spare.” And as calmly as Thorstein has argued his case here, so too be stays on as a guest till the following day, and on the way back from the homestead, informs his brothers that Hrolleif must surely have gone home to his mother, the witch-wife, and must be taken there before she has time to work her arts over him. By hard riding they were able to surprise the party in the midst of their preparations for the black magic by which the old hag intended to make her son hard against perils; they managed things so cleverly that she did not acquire power over them by catching sight of them before they had seen her. They saw through all dazzlement, and recognised the old woman herself in spite of all her tricks, and she was indeed right when she said: “I was near to having revenged my son; but these sons of Ingimund are men of great luck.”
Thus it fell out with
all who had matters outstanding with Thorstein; however
they might set their plans, whether they had recourse to
witchcraft or simple cunning, they always found him
ready for them. He saw through everything from a
distance; and when he arrived on the spot no optical
illusions “could avail, for he saw all things as they
were”; in their true nature, as another saga has it.
And if we would see an instance of what lack of luck (gæfuleysi) is, we find an illustration in the saga which treats of the dealings between Hrafnkel and his antagonist Sam. By dint of courage and a great deal of friendly assistance, Sam got the upper band of the powerful and overbearing chieftain Hrafnkel; but when he had got his enemy underfoot, he contented himself, despite all well-meaning advice, with humbling him and forcing him to leave his homestead and the district. Hrafnkel raised a new farm and quietly worked his way up again. When six years had passed, he was strong enough to begin thinking of bygone things, and learning one day that Sam's brother had come home from an illustrious career abroad, be lays wait for him on his very first ride from the landing-place and slays him. Sam seeks out his old friends and helpers, but they meet him with cold words: “We once made all things ready for you so that you could easily be uppermost. But it fell out as we knew it would, when you gave Hrafnkel his life, that you would come to mourn it bitterly. We counselled you to kill him, but you would have your way. No need to look closely to see the difference in wisdom between you two, Hrafnkel and you; he left you in peace and used his strength first to make away with the man he deemed of most account. We will not let your want of luck bring us to our downfall.”
The Norwegian pretender Olaf Ugæfa — the Unlucky —gained his name from the half-heartedness of his plans when a night attack on Erling Skakki failed. Erling had fewer men, was taken by surprise, and suffered great loss; but the darkness covered him, and under shelter of a fence he slipped away down to his ships. “And this men said: that Olaf and his followers had shown but little luck in the fight, so surely as Erling's party were given into their hands, if they had but acted with more wisdom.”
There is all the difference of luck between rede, good, prudent and successful plans, and unrede, bad plans which may look sound enough, but are wanting in foundation. A wise man prepares his enterprises according to the time and circumstances they are to fit in with. He is capable of looking about him and interpreting what he sees. He does not let himself be confused by possibilities, but with strict logic discerns the actual state of things. When Thorstein judged that the time had come for avenging his father's death, he rode straight to the very homestead where the slayer lay concealed, and called upon his protector to deliver up the wretch; on the yeoman's making a show of innocence, he only said: “You, Geirmund, are Hrolleif's only kinsman of note, therefore he is with you and nowhere else,” and his conclusion had all the surety of a man of luck; it was not a result of suspicion, or supposition or probability, but of knowledge and of insight. But the wise man can do more than this; he judges men beforehand, and thus is not led astray by ill-fated connections with men whose counsels are barren. From sure signs in face and ways and manner he deduces what is hidden in the stranger, whether he is a man of luck (hamingjusamligr), one who will be an acquisition, or one whom it were best to avoid. The very wise man knows also the world outside human life, and can guess the connection between manifestations and actions; he knows the weather, and understands the speech of animals, or knows at any rate what they would say. He has a store of “ancient knowledge” in regard to things and events of the past, a knowledge which not only gives him dignity and esteem, but also security in his judgement of things now happening, and insight into the nature of things. He sees the past spread out about him in the same way as the present; the two penetrate and interpret each other. But his were a poor wisdom if be had not, apart from the mastery of past and present, also some familiarity with the yet unborn. Keensighted and foreseeing are identical terms among the ancients. The unknown came to the man of luck in many ways. He was a great dreamer, who was aware of things before they arrived, and saw beforehand men moving on their contemplated ways. Hrafnkel Freysgodi's father, Hallfred, even moved his entire homestead because a man came to him in a dream and said: “You are unwary, lying there, Hallfred; move your farm, westward across Lagarfljot; there is all your luck,” — and the same day as he had brought all his goods into safety, the place was buried under a landslide. Thorstein Ingimundson, also, avoids the machinations of a witch-wife through a vision in a dream, and she may well say, when she finds he is not to be drawn into the trap: “It is hard to stand against the luck of these sons of Ingimund.” But to dreams and clairvoyance must be added the direct knowledge, which may be expressed in the words: “few things come on him unawares, surprise him”, or in the simple form: “my mind tells me”.
Therefore the “wise”
man can follow his plan beforehand through time, test it
and adapt it before it is despatched, or hold it back
till the way is ready. But if wisdom could go no
farther, then his rede or counsel would after all be
only as a boat thrust out on the waters without a crew,
entrusted to favourable current and favourable wind; the
wise and strong man's luck followed his plan, steering,
pushing on and keeping it towards the goal. The thought
goes forward, doing with force and effect what it was
sent to do. It is as if it had eyes to see with and
sense to speak for itself, and at any rate it can force
its way into folk's minds and turn them as it will. All
that it meets on its way through the world it takes to
itself and uses as its implement.
If a man have not luck enough in himself to foster such a “counsel” as he needs, he goes, presumably, to a man of might and begs him to put something of his own virtue into the undertaking already planned. And naturally, if one went to a man about some difficult business and asked his advice, one expected to be given good, i. e. lucky counsel (hell ráð) and not empty 'words that one had oneself to fill with progress and blessing. Empty, luckless folk might come to grief with spiritual values because they did not understand how to use them; if properly handled, the counsel must return with fruit. Naturally the ancient word rede or counsel comprises several meanings which are sharply differentiated in our dualistic culture; plan and resolution on the one hand, and advice on the other, are nothing but luck applied to one's own or to other people's affairs.
If a plan really has life in it, then it can only be checked by a greater luck killing it. A thought from some greater wisdom can go out and offer battle. The higher wisdom need not wait until the counsel has been despatched, it can lay itself like a nightmare upon a poorer man's luck and make it barren and confused. Thus it happened, to quote an instance from life, to the wise Thorleif of the Uplands, when Olaf Tryggvason, for very Christian reasons, sought the life of the obstinate heathen chief, and sent his faithful servant, Hallfred the Wayward Scald, to carry out his design. When the poet hero turned up in disguise at Thorleif's homestead, the old man asked what news he brought, and more especially if he knew anything of a certain Hallfred, for “he has often appeared to me in dreams; not that it should be strange for me to dream, but there will come king's men to this place ere long, and as to this Hallfred, I can never properly make him out from what folk say, and my luck is at an end in the matter of what is to come”. In other words: I may dream of him; but I see nothing in my dreams but a veil over the future.
When a man brought forth speech out of his store of words, the hearers could discern whether he were a man of luck. The Northmen, and probably also the Germanic peoples generally, cherished a great admiration for art in words; encomiums of fine oratory are frequent in their literature, and their delicate wording, together with keen judgement of effects, almost makes us sharers in the complacency with which the listeners settled down when a man stood up among them who had luck to send his words safely into what harbour he pleased. The lucky man's speech would fall in those short, sharp images that the Northmen loved; the well-formed sentences leading one another forward instead of stumbling one over another, just as the separate movements, stroke and guard, fitted together when executed by a lucky body. The words of luck found vent in such proverbial concentrations of speech that struck at the very centre of a difficulty and cut at one sharp blow the question in dispute. Luck inspired a man at the moment of his fall to utter words so pregnant as to be held in memory to his honour. But words, if uttered by a man of great luck, had likewise the double edge peculiar to the weapons of victorious fighters: they struck down among men, loosed the spell of lukewarmness and lack of courage, or made open foes of secret haters, as Egil thanks the gods that he could do. There was a great difference between what a king said and what a peasant said, even though they meant more or less the same thing. When Olaf Tryggvason stood up at the law-thing, where men crafty in words were gathered to oppose him, all were cowed out of opposition by the utterances of the king.
Words were dangerous. They could bite through luck and fix themselves in a man. They were not to be likened to sharp arrows which wounded, but might then be drawn out and flung to the ground. For they had life in them, they would creep about inside the victim, hollowing him out till there was no strength left in him, or they would change him and mould him according to their own nature.
It was often a good plan to belabour one's enemies with words before attacking with weapons; one could in this wise weaken the opponent's watchfulness, blunt his courage and adroitness and dilute his invulnerability. In Saxo's narrative of Fridleif's fight with the giant, the king commences the combat by uttering taunts, for, according to the mediæval monk, the giant was easier to cope with when he had first been irritated by scornful verses: “You three-bodied giant, almost knocking your head against the sky, why do you let that foolish sword dangle at your side? . . . Why cover that strong breast with a frail sword? You forget how big you are, and trust in that little dagger. I will soon make your onslaughts vain, when you strike with that blunt edge.” Now there is danger that the sword may prove too light, and its edge unable to cut through. “Seeing you are such a timid beast ... you shall fall flat on your face; for in that proud body you bear a craven and fearful heart, and your courage is not equal to your limbs . . . Therefore you shall fall without fame, having no place among the bold, but set in the ranks of those whom no man knows.” Now it were best for the giant to look to his courage and his honour, and strike ere the words have taken effect. He will be robbed of his courage if the power from without be not flung back as quickly as possible.
Once, when the Britons
were attacked by the king of the Northumbrians, they had
taken a whole little army of monks with them, and placed
them in a safe spot, to pray during the fight. King Æthelfrid,
with practical sense, first sent his men to cut down the
monks, and then proceeded to deal with the warriors.
“If they call on their god to help them against us”,
he said, “then they are fighting against us, even
though they use no weapon, since they oppose us with
their prayers.” Granted that such prayers were
actually addressed to God, Æthelfrid yet knew that even
though the strong words made a slight detour, they would
certainly end in the men for whom they were intended.
But words can of course equally well carry a blessing with them. A good word at parting is a gift of strength to the traveller. When the king said “Good luck go with you, my friend,” the man set out carrying a piece of the king's power in him. “Luck on your way to your journey's end, and then I will take my luck again,” is a saying still current among the Danish peasantry. A good word given on coming to a new place meant a real addition to one's luck. When Olaf the Peacock moved into his new homestead, old Hoskuld, his father, stood outside uttering words of good luck; he bade Olaf welcome with luck, and added significantly: “This my mind tells me surely, that his name shall live long.” Orðheill, word-luck, is the Icelandic term for a wish thus charged with power, either for good or evil, according as the speaker put his goodwill into his words and made them a blessing, or inspired them with his hate, so that they acted as a curse. There was man's life in words, just as well as in plans, in counsel. Thoughts and words are simply detached portions of the human soul and thus in full earnest to be regarded as living things.
The ancient word rede — Anglo-Saxon ræd, Icel. ráð — is a perfect illustration of Teutonic psychology. When given to others, it means counsel; when applied to the luck working within the mind, it means wisdom, or a good plan, and from an ethical point of view, just and honest thoughts. But the word naturally includes the idea of success, which accompanies wise and upright devising, and on the other hand power and authority, which are the working of a sound will. Men setting about to discuss difficult matters stand in need of rede and quickness of mind, says an Old-English writer. According to the Anglo-Saxon poet, the lost angels fell because they would no longer keep to their rede, but turned away from God's love; they did that which was sinful, and at the same time ill-advised, and thereby brought about their own undoing. And Satan complains that Christ has diminished his rede under heaven, rendering him powerless. A redeless man is weakened by lack of will, lack of power and lack of self-assertion. The poet of the Anglo-Saxon Christ uses this expression in order to depict the abjectness of the damned, when they stand on the left side at the Judgement Day, and hear the Lord's command: Go hence, accursed ones: “They cannot withstand the bidding of the king of heaven, bereft of rede” as they are. Not until we have mastered the whole content, can we realise the depth of Satan's exclamation: Why should I serve, I can raise myself a higher seat than God's: strong companions, famed heroes of unbending courage, that will not fail me in the fight, have chosen me their lord, “with such one can find rede”.
To feel the force in the ancient thoughts we must take care that our dynamic theories are not allowed to slip in; rede is not energy residing in the words, but the words themselves as well as the soul. Luck stretches in one unbroken continuity from the core of man's mind to the horizon of his social existence, and this, too, is indicated in the meaning of rede, which comprises the state or position of a man, his influence and competence.
The inner state of a man in luck is described in Icelandic as a whole mind, heill hugr, which of course comprises wisdom as well as goodwill and affection. The man of whole mind is true to his kin and his friends, stern to his enemies, and easy to get on with, when lesser men come seeking aid. His redes are really good gifts to the receiver — whole redes, in Icelandic heil ráð.
Outwardly, luck is dependent on the mutual love of kinsmen. With the flourishing of frith go luck and well-being. And in the opposite case, when men cannot agree, all life sickens and fades, until everything is laid waste. This rule applies to all frith communities, not only the family, but also temporary connections in the sign of frith (and under any other sign no alliance was possible). When men united in any undertaking, fishing or other occupation, the result would depend upon the power of the individuals to maintain friendly and sincere relations with one another. In the Laxdoela Saga, we chance upon this piece of information: “Wise men held it of great weight that men should well agree when on the fishing grounds: for it was said that men had less luck with their catch if they came to quarrelling, and most therefore observed caution.”
The state of honour likewise determines the rise and fall of the family. The man who gains renown, wins not only the advantages that go with the esteem of his fellows — he augments the blessing, the power of growth and fertility both in his cattle and in his fields; he lays the foundation for new kinsmen in the family: the women will bear more easily and more often, the children be more hopeful and forward. Even in late centuries, the reciprocal responsibility of honour and luck were so rooted in Norwegian popular beliefs that men could say: No man has luck to gain and keep wealth until he has slain two men and paid for the deed to the heirs and to the king. And the same association of ideas underlies the faith of Norwegian peasants in the luck and healing power of families descended from stern and murderous men, whose honour could be proved by numerous killings.
If frith and honour sicken, the result is a decline in all that appertains to the family, decline and finally downfall. The Beowulf has, as we have seen, already given a description of the effects of villainy; the dying out of the stock and the wasting of its goods. These verses wherein the wages of cravenness are so depicted, no doubt allude primarily to the sufferings originating in men's contempt for lack of honour; but the picture can be applied word for word to an earlier and more original view, according to which the social consequences of shame were only correlative to its directly destructive effect: “Never more shall any of that race grasp gladly the gold.”
The northern description of the last things is only an enlarged form of this curse: men grow poorer and poorer, their power of action, their courage, confidence, mutual feeling and feeling of frith are scorched away; “brothers fight and kill each other, cousins rive the frith asunder, whoredom great in the world . . .no man spares another” however near of kin they may be; the heat of the sun declines, the earth grows cold and bare, early frost and late frost bite off the young shoots; summers grow weaker and weaker, winters more and more stern.
The poet of the Voluspá is certainly inspired by contact with Christendom for his eschatological vision; but there are only insignificant traces of direct impulse from Christian ideas. The inspiration caught from the West has worked so deeply in the poet that the ancient legends and images rise up and take on a new significance. His faith in the old ideals and his anguish at seeing them crumbling in the turmoil of the viking age impregnate one another, and at the touch of Christianity, this interpenetration of ethics and experience produces a coherent view of history on the strength of a leading idea. The poet's vision, which moulds the traditional legends to its purpose without in any perceptible way changing their contents, and wields a mass of disparate materials into unity, is the accumulation of guilt, that drives the gods through one disastrous deed after another into their doom. And to the poet, guilt is identical with breach of frith and honour. The force of his idea reveals itself in the fact that he has placed the myth of Balder's death in an intimate connection with the tenet of doomsday. The picture of the gods killing one of their brothers is given a central place, so that it gathers up the force of the events going before, and ushers in the twilight of the gods and of the world.
That luck and progress are dependent on frith and honour was a maxim borne out by experience, but the sentence could with equal truth be read conversely: Luck is the condition that determines frith and honour.
When frith is broken, so that kinsmen forget themselves towards one another, the fault lies in luck; either it has in some way suffered scathe, or it is by nature inadequate, leaving men helpless and without bearing. A good woman by the name of Saldis rejoiced in the two sons of her daughters; they were both promising lads, and moreover they loved one another tenderly. One day, Oddbjorg, a woman who could read the future, walked into the homestead; Saldis presented her grandchildren to the guest with pride and bade her prophesy, adding: “See to it, that your words turn out happily.” “Ay, promising are these two lads,” Oddbjorg admitted, “if only their luck will last, but that I do not see clearly.” No wonder that Saidis spoke harshly to her; but the other only answered: “I have not said too much; I do not think their love will last long.” On being pressed further she blurts out: “They will come to seek each other's lives.” And so it happened. — When Sverri delivered the funeral oration over his kinsman and opponent, King Magnus, he began thus: “The man by whose bier we now stand was a brave man, gracious to his men, but we kinsmen had not the luck to agree well together,” and so on, “with many fair words, such as he knew how to turn the way he would.” It is instructive to see how this highly accomplished and reflecting struggler Sverri, again and again in his calculated endeavours to speak in a popular tone, has recourse to the old ideas; he himself is modern throughout, and purposely joins his cause with Christianity and the strong element that has a future before it; but to get a grip on men's minds, it is necessary to speak in a popular form, he knows. And he understands bow to do it.
To form a happy couple, the bride and bridegroom need luck. Hrut, an Icelander of unusual qualities and high extraction, and also a man of great insight, was late in marrying; one day his friends proposed a match with a lady of good family, called Unn. Hrut entered upon the plan, but rather hesitatingly, saying: “I do not know whether we two will have luck together.” Hrut did not know at the time, that he would fall under the spell of an imperious woman, but on a visit to Norway he found favour with the Queen Mother, and their intimacy embittered the subsequent conjugal life of Hrut and Unn and finally wrecked their marriage.
Villainy, the act and state of the niding, is identical with unluck. “Late will that unluck pass from my mind,” says Bolli when Gudrun congratulates him on having killed his cousin Kjartan; and in the Volsungasaga, Sinfjotli is taunted with his violent career in these words: “All unluck came upon you, you killed your brothers.” Strikingly effective is the outburst of feeling in Kalf Arnason's words after the battle of Stiklestad. Kalf and his brother Finn had fought on opposite sides in the battle, Finn being a staunch supporter of the king, whereas Kalf occupied a prominent place among those who worked for his downfall. When the fight was over, Kalf searched the field and offered help to his brother, who lay severely wounded. But Finn aimed a blow at him, calling him a faithless villain and a traitor to his king. The blow failed, and Kalf gratefully exclaimed: “Now the king is watching over you, not wishing you unluck, but knowing that I needed care.” Kalf, who had been Olaf's bitterest opponent, now extols the fallen king's luck as being strong enough to prevent the unbounded sorrow and anger of a king's man from turning to villainy.
In Gisli's saga, there is an exchange of words where “unluck” and “villainy” are used alternately with equal force. After Gisli had killed his sister's husband, he was hunted from one hiding place to another; but the incessant pursuit of his enemies was for a long time successfully thwarted by the exertions of his wife, Aud. On one occasion, when Eyjolf, who leads the avenging party, tries to drive her into giving up her husband, she pours out her scorn and insults him so cuttingly that he shouts: “Kill the dog, even though it be a bitch.” Thanks to a brave man of the party, Havard, Eyjolf was saved from the ignominy of laying hand on a woman; on seeing Eyjolf forgetting himself, Havard exclaimed: “Our doing here is shameful enough, without wreaking such villainy as this; up, and do not let him get at her.” Eyjolf now turned his wrath upon his friend, saying: “It is a true word: choose your company badly at home, and you will rue it on the road.” But the saga proceeds: “Havard was much liked, and many were willing to follow him; also, they would gladly save Eyjolf from that unluck.”
When villainy is called unluck, the latter term is not to be taken as an excuse; on the contrary the word conveys a strong condemnation of the man who is denounced as being unlucky. When King Hakon, in the previously mentioned condemnation of taking vengeance on the wrong man, calls such an act unluck, he is choosing the very sharpest term he can find in his vocabulary, the word that comes nearest to the idea of deadly sin. Unluck is mischief, and an “unlucky” man is the same as a niding, or in certain cases, a potential niding. The bluntest way of refusing a man who appeals for friendship, is by saying: “You do not look to be a lucky man (úgæfusamligr), and it is wisest to have no dealings with you”; these words simply imply moral as well as prudential misgivings; to draw out the full import of the sentence we must give two parallel renderings: you have no luck in your doings, and cannot bring those about you other than ill-fortune, — and: you are not to be trusted, a man may expect anything of you. And even when Njal says of his sons that they are not men of luck, the sentence had probably at that time a bitterer undertone than we now at once perceive; it implies, that the young men want wit and forethought, and it means further, that they are lacking in self-control and moral restraint.
The uncanny symptoms of villainy lie in the fact that luck and honour are identical. Luck is the combination of frith and honour seen from another side, and unluck, in the old sense, is simply the reverse of that feeling of kinship we have now learned to understand.
It is luck which enables men to maintain their frith, their friendship, to keep their promises, and refrain from dishonourable acts. But luck is more. It gives men the will to act morally, or rather, it is moral will itself. When Hrut utters his misgivings: “I do not know whether we two will have luck together,” he is thinking of their power of having and keeping mutual love, and their ability of creating frith in their home, as much as of their power of enjoying each other and having offspring.
In the Germanic idea, the moral estimate is always ready to rise to the surface; in fact, for the expression of goodness, piety and uprightness, the Teutons have no better words than lucky (Anglo-Saxon sælig, Gothic séls and similar terms), which embrace the idea of wealth and health, happiness and wisdom. In later linguistic periods, the ethical side of the idea often becomes dominant, and determines the use of the word in Christian writings. Thus the Gothic séls and the opposite unséls, are for the translator of the Bible the best equivalent for the “good” and “evil” of the New Testament.