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

 .

.

CHAPTER VII

LIFE AND SOUL

.

It is a melancholy fact that modern researches into primitive thought have led us farther and farther away from any real understanding of foreign cultures and religions. And the reason is not far to seek. The European is hampered by his naive faith in his own system and his own logic as the measure of all things; the missionary and the ethnologist invariably try to force a ready-made scheme on cultures of radically different patterns, in the same way as linguists formerly arranged all tongues after the scheme of Latin grammar; just as the introduction of gerund and supine and ablative only served to obscure the structure of Indian or Australian languages, so our rigid dualism cannot but distort primitive psychology. The Scandinavians, the Greeks, the Hindoos, the Israelites as well as the Indians and the Australians have been examined by the catechism: what do you believe about the soul, how do you conceive the interaction between body and soul, what becomes of the soul when it leaves the body, as if the Hellenistic and European dualism as it is embodied in the catechism and the handbooks of psychology were at the root of all experience. By such an examination from without, facts may no doubt be brought to light, but the facts are often worse than false, because they are wrenched out of their natural coherence. Without an understanding of primitive thought as a consistent whole, our forefathers' talk of life and death, soul and body would be incomprehensible.

All peoples recognise a body and a soul, or rather a material and a spiritual side to everything that exists. The bird has a body which is lifted in the air, and it has a soul which enables it to fly, as well as to strike with its beak. So also the stone is a body, but in this body there is a soul that wills, and enables the stone to do harm, to bite and strike and crush; a soul which gives it its hardness, its rolling movement, its power of prophesying the weather or showing the way.

Thus far — to the extent of establishing soul and body as two halves of existence — we may safely go in our analysis of the ancient mode of thinking. But as soon as we endeavour to give each half its proper share and delimit its scope of influence as against the other's, we fall from one difficulty to another. If we begin by seeking the soul in the body, we may split and dissect it lengthways and across, we can never attain to set our finger on the spot where it is not, nor on the spot where it exclusively resides. And if we proceed to examine the qualities of the thing, one by one, as a test in the hope of getting the thing separated out into an active, initiative side, that of the soul, and a slower, obedient, executive part, that of the body, we end as surely in arbitrary definitions; we shall soon find ourselves obliged to distinguish on our own responsibility, if we are to preserve the system. There is no seam to be found. A reliable indication of what is soul and what is body in stone or bird according to primitive thought is a thing impossible to discover.

It is not difficult, however, to find the soul; wherever we grasp, be it stone or beast or tree, we lay hold of it. It comes towards us conscious of itself, as a thing that knows and wills, acts and suffers in other words, as a personality. We may add, as far as the Teutous are concerned, that the body is the seat of a soul. That is to say, that there resides in it a little mannikin, which enlivens and sets in motion, guides and directs, and on occasions, impatient of its clumsy medium, sets out naked into the world and settles things on its own account. There is undoubtedly something in the idea that keensighted folk have seen a little sprite, or a little animal leave the body, and slip in again when it thought no one was looking; and this little sprite was the soul. But on attempting to grasp the soul and draw it into the light so that we can note its form and other peculiarities, we shall soon find that it mocks us by oozing out through the meshes of the web which itself has woven in letting itself appear as a personal being, in human shape or the likeness of a beast. The soul that was but now so firm in qualities, so massive in personality, dissolves away into a mist of power; shaping itself to and filling whatever space it may be, nay, without even the limitation of independence, so that it can be assimilated by other souls as a quality. The soul of a man can reside in a stone or a sword, it can enter as a power into a fellowman by a touch or a breath, adding to the receiver's strength or cunning. The soul that was but a moment ago so independent reveals itself as a neutral something which is the polar opposite of personality.

But even now its tricks are not at an end. Step by step, or by degrees, it slips away between our fingers to more and more spiritual forms of existence; power, quality, will, influence there is nowhere it can be stopped. We are always behind, grasping only its transformation; and when we have chased it through all existences, from that which stands at the transition from material to spiritual, through the more and more spiritual refinements, out to the limit where we think we can check it on the verge of absolute nothingness, it changes over into a state our language cannot express, but which may be most nearly rendered by our word energy, or even principle. It manifests itself suddenly as life. And if we then are bold and crafty enough to grasp at it in order to tear it from its body and hold it fast, lock it away to see what happens to the thing without it, then we find that it was existence itself, the very being, that we caught hold of. It was the soul which made the stone hard, and the bird flying, but it was also the soul which enabled bird and stone to be at all. Without soul, no being; to take the life from a stone is the same as making it vanish into absolute nothingness.

But this is more than lies in our power. Tear up existence this we cannot do. But we can hold fast. Despite all its transformations, the soul is not grown too spiritual for human hands to grasp. And if we crush it in our fingers, we shall find sooner or later that it hurts. In a little while, life gives birth to a sharp, hard, edged object between our fingers. If we have courage and wit enough to follow the soul through all its forms and hold it unyieldingly, then it must at some time or other resume its first form and answer with all its personality. Then it must stand forth, not only visible and material, but in the form in which it appears as a part of the world.

Not until then is the transformation complete. Now we have learned the secret of life in primitive experience. The soul is something more than the body, as it is seen and felt in space-filling reality, but it is not anything outside the material. When we cannot find the boundary between the inner and the outer, there is nothing to be done but give truth the credit, and say that the body is a part of the soul, or even the soul itself. The moment we grasp a stone firmly in the hand, we have grasped the soul of the stone, it is the soul we can feel. It is always possible for the body to be sucked up by the soul and vanish away, to emerge into the light again some other time. The spiritual can leave the material to reveal itself under other forms; but when it does appear and lets itself be seen, heard, felt, then the manifestation takes place in virtue of that nature the soul possesses. However far away it may go, it still has matter bound up in it. To a certain degree, it is possible to speak of soul and body, but the distinction does not go so deep that it is possible to wrench the one from the other.

A soul cannot be caught in any of our narrow formulæ. Language gives us a hint to build our thoughts wide, and at the same time a warning not to bring along too many of those distinctions which are so useful in our world. We must begin with the material, pass through not round — personality with its will and feelings, from that out into the neutral, what we call life, further again through life into the ideal, existence, being, and only there, in the simple power to be, can we find the limit of the soul.

But when we have reached so far, to the bottom of the single soul, the way stops suddenly, just at the point where to our imagination all roads meet. When, in our own philosophy, we reach the depth which we call life or existence, we feel ourselves standing at the entrance to the origin of all, the well-spring which opens out into a network of channels from soul to soul. Life is to us a colourless force that is able to inspire any number of disparate forms, and our problem of life lies in explaining how the one and all transforms itself into the manifold shapes of the world. It is otherwise with the practical thinker. For him, all thought ceases at this point. Between the souls, there is set that most impenetrable of all barriers, a gap, a void, nothingness. The separation is absolute, from the very fact that it does not consist in a wall built by thought itself, but in the lack of all conjecture and in the lack of all inducement to speculate, because all the things of the world are complete in themselves. Involuntarily we feel that in the word life, or existence as we should rather say, there lies an invitation to speculate upon the common condition of all that exists. But, in primitive culture, such a question can never arise to demand an answer, because it can find no foothold on the given basis.

Life, existence, so wide is the idea of the soul, but the extent of this sentence is only realised when we turn it about: soul, so narrow is the idea of existence. Life is not a common thing, something connecting, but rather that which makes the greatest distinction in the world; not a universal support, but an individual quality. Life is always determined as to character. It explains, nay rather, it contains all that distinguishes the possessor of life from all other beings, it contains all his qualities and abilities, all his tendencies and needs, it contains him even to the structure of his body.

How deep the distinction is between our thoughts and those others on this point only becomes clear to us perhaps, when we see that the primitive soul reaches farther than the mere person, so as to embrace also the sphere of life. Not only the manner of life of an animal, but also its area of life belongs to its soul. Poetry retains a distinct reflection of this idea of entirety. The raven cannot appear without bringing with it the idea of blackness, of dewy-wingedness; but no less surely does it bring with it a whole atmosphere of carrion. The poet of the Anglo-Saxon Genesis is altogether in the power of the ancient mode of thought in this respect. In his source it is stated that Noah first sent out a raven from the ark, but it flew backwards and forwards until the earth grew dry, and this forms of itself the following explanation in his soul: “Noah thought that if it found no land on its flight, it would at once come flying back over the broad waters, but this hope failed; it seated itself gladly, the dark-feathered one, upon a floating corpse, and sought no farther.” Blackness and the lust of carrion, the devouring of corpses, even the corpse itself, form part of the raven's soul. When the raven is called greedy of battle, greedy of slaughter, this means in reality, that just as a raven properly belongs to battle, so battle, or rather slaughter, forms part of the raven's life. The wolf, too, is of a carrion nature, it is called the carrion beast, but to this must be added something more, that which is expressed in the name heath-walker, heath-treader. The wilderness is a part of its soul. Or the additional words “in the forest” follow of themselves as soon as the creature is named; the wolf rejoiced in the forest, the wolf howled in the forest, nay, the grey wolf in the forest ran over the heath among the fallen.

The gulf between souls is impassable, reaching down to the very root of the world. All beings rise straight up from the ultimate ground, separate from top to bottom. No bridge is built at any point. There is something misleading to us in the fact that all things, even that we call lifeless, had a soul, and consequently also a life. It might seem to us as if the distance between the different existences was then rather smaller than now, seeing that all things were united in the possession of will and feeling, nay even understanding and the power of expression. But this life was not, as we naturally imagine, a common essence, and far from bringing the thousand things nearer to one another it kept them rigorously apart.

Life is will. All that is, acts because it feels an impulse, feels pleasure in this and displeasure in the other. The soul of the stone, as well as that of the tree and the animal, is filled with desire and purpose and preference, but the stone's will is not the animal's and neither is that of the human being. Man had soon to discover that every one of his surroundings loves and hates in its own fashion, according to its unassailable principles — after its own kind. It is this discovery which has made man so watchful and sensitive to all manifestations of the souls surrounding him. Woe to him who thought that things had human will and human power! He who is to fight his way forward, and be able to hand over to the morrow his conquests of to-day, he needs first and foremost to understand what it is his surroundings will; all education is directed towards giving the novices soul-knowledge, and thus enabling them to take up the battle of the world. There is then, in the human being, a strong sense of the difference between the passions and the sell-control in himself and the spiritual powers that clash with him on every side. In the variety of his ritual proceedings, primitive man manifests his power of distinguishing between the different wills operating in his world. The ceremonies for obtaining a plentiful downpour of rain are not the same which he employs when he wants to secure the goodwill of the buffalo, and the buffalo rites differ in their turn from his addresses to other animals. We are deluded by our language and our propensity to use all abstract words in the singular; but our singular form “will” is the result of a work of thought which was not carried out at all in those times, when the tree and the animal and the stone were realities, and not, as they are now, mere shadows on the background of nature. We misinterpret what we call natural man's personification of nature, because we view mythology in the light of Hellenistic philosophy; our poetical language, as well as our scientific terminology, is descended from Alexandrian anthropomorphism, and all European speculations on myths and legends have been dominated by the mentality of the Stoics and Neo-Platonists who tried to convert the original Greek thoughts about nature and man into a rationalistic and sentimental system. Primitive words which Europeans translate “soul” take in a large part of the meaning covered by our words “existence” or “being”, but on the other hand, all primitive existence is life.

If we would know how despotic is life in Middle-garth, we should do well to ask for instance, if the stone is not a dead thing. Judging by all analogies from other peoples, and from the hints contained in Teutonic poetry and customs, our forefathers would have shaken off this paradox with a gesture of displeasure, as a thing not merely idle, but altogether meaningless. Death, in this connection, had no significance for them. They would not oppose the idea, for they would simply fail to understand what lay in the question.

Man's task has been to think his way forward to the conception of lifelessness, and he has found the task a hard one indeed. Again and again he manifests his astonishment at the phenomena which seem to oppose the reality of life. He prefers to wrestle with hypotheses of transformation, metamorphosis, the changing of life into forms acting in other wise. And the roads here are long. It takes centuries before he has explored them so far that he is forced to turn about and face the problem as a merciless enemy. The closer it presses in upon him, the more he places himself in stubborn opposition; he denies death, declares it an impossibility. He will not even admit that the termination of life forms part of the order of things; in face of the hard facts, he falls back upon the explanation that “death” came into the world through a misunderstanding. Now it is a violent assault on the part of something outside the home of men, which has brought about this disturbance in the original state of things; now it is man's own foolishness that is to blame, in that some race long past made a false step at some critical moment, and by neglect of some rule of life reduced the general vitality. And only very slowly is this “death” which to him is and remains a seeming only, deepened down towards an annihilation; that is to say, he thrusts life over the salient point, and dumps it down into a nothingness, which he again and again conceives as something positive, a nothing in being, a massive hole. Death itself he has never found.

It is thus not by any deduction from himself to others that man sets a foundation of life under existence. When he says life, he does not utter the word as a discovery the extent of which he realises. Life is a sine qua non for everything. Man has no more discovered life than he has discovered light. In modern thought, lifelessness is still only a modification of life reached by gradually shutting out the most prominent qualities of organic being, such as moving and feeling; we try to reduce life into lifelessness, but all we can attain to is a negation, we are never able to establish an existence of another order, and consequently the characteristics of life turn up as soon as we start speculating on matter and death. The great difference between primitive speculation and modern thought does not consist in our saying existence where the myth-makers say life, but in our extending one sort of life to all things, and so making life the basis for an hypothesis of unity. European philosophy has emancipated thought from experience to such a degree that it becomes possible to picture all nature in the likeness of man. We have discovered, or rather learned from the Greeks and carried the discovery farther, that it is human life and human existence that resides in plant and stone. For the last three centuries, the task of philosophy and science has been to deprive life and existence of the most prominent human features and reduce them to vague colourless ideas applicable to all organisms, and in a wider sense to all phenomena, but even if life and existence have changed name and are now called force or tendency or law, they have not changed character, and in the formulæ of the evolutionaries — to name but one instance, in the struggle for existence and the groans of nature — pure anthropomorphism comes to the surface. On the strength of this anthropomorphism we have established an inner relationship between all things of the world. All questions are thus gathered up into one problem: the origin and nature of life, the meaning of the world. Here the difference comes in that makes it so difficult for modern men to understand the thoughts and the problems of primitive culture. Life, existence, being, soul, body are naturally used by us in the singular form, conveying a generalization of experience that has no counterpart in the myth-makers. To primitive man life is not one but legion, the souls are not only many but they are manifold.

In order to understand the thoughts of foreign peoples, we must necessarily convert their self-revelation into our own terms, but our words are apt to carry such a weight of preconceived idea as to crush the fragile myth or philosophy in the very act of explanation. If we want to open up a real communication with our fellow-man, we must take care to revalue our words before clapping them on his experience. As far as possible we must hold back our set formulæ until we have walked round the object he is confronted with and looked at it from every side. But analysis will not carry us all the way to intimacy. Culture is not a mass of beliefs and ideas, but a balanced harmony, and our comprehension depends on our ability to place every idea in its proper surroundings and to determine its bearings upon all the other ideas.

Primitive ideas about life and existence are neither congruous with our concepts nor diametrically opposed to our science and psychology. The belief in souls does not include personification of natural objects, but on the other hand it does not exclude the possibility that Sun and Earth may assume a human-like appearance. In Scandinavia, nature is peopled by powers in human shape. Up from the earth and out from the hills elf and dwarf peer forth, a host of giants bellow from the mountains, from the sea answer Ran's daughters, those enticing and hardhearted wave-maidens, with their cruel mother, and at home in the hall of the deep sits venerable Ægir. Over the heavens go sun and moon; some indeed declare that the two drive in chariots with steeds harnessed to their carts; the sun is chased by two wolves eager to swallow its shining body. Of the sun and the moon it is said, both that they were given and taken in marriage, and that they have left offspring.

In the old Norse series of small poems called the riddles of Heidrek the wave-maidens play with the freedom almost of nymphs.

Who are the maidens that come mourning; many men have sorrowed for their coming and thus they manage to live.

Who are the maidens that come trooping many together, they have fair locks wrapped in a white kerchief; no husbands have these women.

Who are the widows that come all together? Rarely are they merciful to voyagers; in the wind they must keep vigil.

Who are the maidens that come in shifts of breakers moving in through the fiord; the white-hooded women find a hard bed, but little they play in a calm.

But these verses express only half the thoughts of the North-men; the other half lies indicated in the names borne by those fair-haired cruel ones: one was called “Heaving”, another “Heaven-glittering”, a third “Plunging”, a fourth “Cold” and a fifth “Bloody-haired”. And these two halves must be joined together if we are to get the true value of the ancient descriptions of the sea. Modern readers unconsciously re-model the pictures of the riddles under the influence of contemporary poetry of nature. Our rendering changes the perspective of the scene, because our words are fraught with other associations, and when joined together they create an atmosphere foreign to the old poems. In reading these descriptions of the waves breaking on the shore or of the billows chasing one another in long rows, we enjoy the sight of clear-cut shapes, and we sniff in the salt spray of the breakers, but this reconstruction of ours is at once too plastic and too impressionistic, because according to our mode of experience it is the overwhelming sense of the moment that seeks an outlet in poetic images. The ancient words do not reproduce the impressions of moods of the moment, and in order to recapture the depth of the old picture we must replace the modern allusions and their emotional values with the hints conveyed in the names of the wave-maidens, Plunging or Cold or Bloody-haired, which break the pretty picture of clean-limbed nymphs and at the same time banish all emotions roused by the momentary beauty of the sea. “Much has Ran reft from me; the sea has riven the bonds of my race”, thus Egil wails when his son has been drowned, and his words may be taken as meaning that he has seen Ran standing as a fearsome woman with hands grasping that which belonged to him. “Ægir's wench” he cries to her in his challenging defiance. But the poets could, even in late historical times, speak of Ran and Ægir as the sea they were, without veiling their personality. “The horse of the sea-hills tears his breast out of white Ran's mouth”, says a scald speaking of a ship ploughing its way through the sea; another describes a vessel plunging heavily, in these lines: “The wet-cool Ran leads time after time the vessel down into Ægir's jaw.” The poet of the Lay of Helgi now hears Kolga's (i.e. Cold's) sister and long keels rushing together with a roar of breakers, and next moment sees Ægir's fearsome daughter endeavouring to capsize the ships, sees the beasts of the breakers (the ships) wrenching themselves loose from Ægir's hand.

In the same way Earth is at one time a woman, screaming, threatening or conceiving and giving birth to children, at another time she is capable of fading or of burying men in her womb. One moment a river rises like a man to challenge the wader, the next moment it rushes like a flood at its enemy and drowns him in its rage of waters. In a laudatory poem on Earl Hakon, Hallfred seeks to impress on his hearers that the upstart chief of the North has really conquered Norway, and by his victories has established his right to govern the country in spite of the hereditary claims of the fallen kingly house; and he is not content until he has twisted the fact about and shown it in four different poses. The main theme is that the Earl has won Earth and drawn her into a firm alliance. The warrior was loth to let And's fair sister sit alone, and he used the sword's speech of truth upon leafy-haired Earth, the promised bride of Odin. Thus the marriage was concluded, they entered into a compact that the earl, wise in counsel, won for his bride the only daughter of Ónar, the forest-clad woman. He has enticed the broad-featured daughter of Báleyg with the compelling words of steel. In his eagerness to extol Hakon's might and right, the poet exhausts the metaphors of the language, and unintentionally he gives us a catalogue of the family relationships into which Earth entered with other powers; and though Onar and Aud and Báleyg are little more than names to us now, we need not doubt but that these persons and their intercourse with Earth were founded in ancient belief and true myths. Hallfred does not force the language when he represents Norway as a kingly bride worthy to be wooed by an ambitious earl like Hakon, but the attributes of the queen are not those of a human woman. Onar's daughter is the “forest-clad”, Báleyg's woman is “broad-hewn of feature”, Odin's betrothed is “leafy-haired”, and in this embellishment Hallfred also draws upon the conventionalities of poetic speech.

The same versatility and deftness in juggling with traditional words is shown by a fellow-poet, Eyvind, in the mocking songs he sings of Harald Greyskin, the close-fisted king, who, after the manner of small freeholders, hid his treasures in the earth. In the days of Good King Hakon, he cries, the rings shone on the arms of his warriors and scalds; the gold is the sun that should shine on the hawk-hills — the arm of the warrior where the hunting falcon perched —; but now it lies hid in the flesh of Thor's mother.

The courtly poetry of Norway is hardly illustrative of ancient Teutonic imagination in general; the metaphors were to poets like Hallfred and Eyvind more like parts of speech that could be mixed freely by an ambitious scald to show off his ingenuity. It is not only that art has degenerated into artifice; the poets often manipulate the words to produce novel and startling effects. The contrast between the golden sun on the hills and the dark womb of the earth is a pretty conceit which proves that Eyvind is a modern poet with an imagination touched by western civilization. But these mediæval scalds of Norway cannot cut themselves loose from the traditional language prepared for them by men of the past; they try to work out their individual fancies and conceits in the material that lay to their hands, and thus their verses exhibit the working of ancient imagination as it was embodied in phrases and figures.

When earth is called the wife of Odin, the mother of Thor, when wind is styled the son of Fornjót and the sea is conceived as Ran, the wife of Ægir, the myths are not anthropomorphism or personification in the modern and Alexandrian sense. Human-likeness is joined to the other qualities of natural phenomena or, more truly expressed, human appearance enters as a quality among other qualities into the soul of earth, wind and sea, but it does not in the least interfere with the impersonal workings of the forces of nature. There is no contradiction between subject and verb in the scald's description of the winter gales: “Fornjót's Sons began to whirl,” nor is there really any breach of common-sense in a storm scene such as this: “The gusts carded and twined the storm-glad daughters of Ægir.” The moon gives birth, the earth is a mother, stones bring young into the world, and that is to say that these beings beget, conceive and are delivered, for thus all procreation takes place under the sun. But this does not imply that earth must transform itself to a human being and seek a couch to bring forth its children. The little we know as to our forefathers' practical relations with the world about them indicates, as will soon appear, that they did not appeal to the objects of nature as pseudo-personalities; like their primitive brethren all over the world, they tried to win the friendship and power of animals and trees and stones by much surer means. When the poet lets Frigg send messengers about to fire and water, iron and all kinds of ore, to stones, earth, trees, sicknesses, beasts, birds, to get them to swear they will never harm Balder, he has plainly no idea in his mind of such messengers going out to knock at the doors of nymphs and demons; his hearers must have been familiar with a method of appealing directly to the things themselves, to the souls.

To get the whole idea as it lived in the minds of the Teutons we must try to fuse elements that are incompatible in our thought, and still more we must discard our habit of looking at nature in the light of the moment. The word “storm-glad” applied to Ægir's daughters, that now calls up to our fancy the playfulness of the waves, had a more intense and far less instantaneous meaning, as we partly understand by comparing it to the war-gladness of heroes in ancient poetry. The modern substitutes can never capture the energy of the Teutonic words; it is not enough to add that the adjective was formerly more powerful or that the joy of battle was more violent. To our feeling, the ecstasy of fighting arises out of the collision between the warriors; in the ancient psychology, joy of battle and the battle itself are a permanent quality in the man or part of his soul. In the same way, storm-gladness is an inherent quality in the soul or nature of the waves. When the wave is called cold or Ran is called wet-cool, the adjectives do not mean that the woman is cold as the sea, but that she has the cold of the brine in her; the shivering iciness belongs to her soul just as oldness or long-living belongs to the bear's nature, for which reason he is called in Anglo-Saxon — and still in popular speech — “the old and terrible one”.

We can piece together primitive soul, but we can never succeed in expressing its living unity in our language, because our words are modelled upon totally different ideas, and resist all attempts to switch them off into another plane and joining them into a new pattern. But to understand the ways of primitive man we must to some degree be able to realise his experience. We must see that the soul or idea of earth is a whole, spanning from being many-pathed to motherhood without a break. The Northern Hel is death, just as neutral as we are able to think death, but Hel is also a realm for the dead, and she is a real person, not a pale personification, one who acts as death and is putrefaction itself, blue and black of hue. Hildr means battle, that is the clash of arms, the surging mass of fighting men, and it means battle-maiden too.

Anthropomorphism has its root in primitive experience, because personality lies in the being of every soul from the beginning, but it cannot make its way through until thought is emancipated from experience. Not until man is so firmly established in his place that he does not need to be fixing his surroundings every moment with a dominating glance, not until he begins to look his own nature more consciously in the face and starts speculating on the processes going on in his interior, does the inclination arise to humanise the universe. Then he becomes a nature-poet. Only when this standpoint is reached can he venture to face his environment as his equal, meting out to it the same treatment that he himself appreciates and bows to. Before this revolution he knew only too well that in order to exploit the goodwill of nature and guard against its power to harm, it was necessary to know the character of souls. Anthropomorphism true and proper is born when man ensconces himself in towns or castles, shutting out nature by means of thick walls, and confining himself to social intercourse with his fellow-men.

The great change takes place at the moment when the personality, from being dependent on the natural qualities, turns to acting from purely human prejudices. When the soul is emancipated, so as to stand above its phenomena, then, and only then, is it a human being. When nymphs no longer ripple, when earth can no longer hide its children in itself, when the sun stands up in a chariot, guiding a gleaming pair of steeds, which he can put into stable together with all the qualities of sun, then nature is broken, and personification is born.

It is a difficult matter for us to get such unconditional ideas as life and existence narrowed down to the small circumference they must have in order to be applied to the soul of the past, without letting the depth disappear at the same time. We can perhaps get nearest to the old thoughts by saying that life and existence were in those days a nature — nature understood in the old sense, as something included from birth or from the first origin of a thing, something that goes with it inseparably, and determines not only its appearance but also its essence and characteristic features. A nature can only bring about certain definite results, namely those which lie in itself, as for instance, four legs of that particular sort a wolf has, together with such and such a smell, jaws that open and close in such and such a way, a tendency to thieving and sneaking about in wild places. Another nature can only produce something rugged, hard and heavy, which under certain circumstances will roll down and bite off the toes of a man standing in its way. But then too, it is inherent in nature that it cannot refrain from producing its effects. Wolfness may indeed exist as soul, but sooner or later it must manifest itself as a biting beast.

Wherever character is different, the be-souled are divided by the impassable gulf which separate life denotes. The incombinability of nature outweighs and overshadows all external, as well as all inner similarity. The nature of the tree, its character, will be judged from its appearance: whether it have rough bark or smooth, leaves round or long, whether it shoot up to a height or spread broadly around, but also from its ways: one tree has bark that glistens in bad weather, that of another will turn dark and threatening; one tree rustles its leaves, even when the weather is calm, another flings its arms about wildly in a storm, but otherwise hangs dully drooping. There is in this habit of the tree a revelation of its innermost soul, and much luck of wisdom consists in being able to read the soul of a tree from its behaviour. It is known that one tree possesses a knowledge and a power of divination which the other does not exhibit, or not in that distinct manner.

And finally, the usefulness of a tree is part of its soul. It is in the nature of oak to sail, as in that of ash to form spearshafts. The specific classification of trees and bushes in the ancient languages is based upon their importance to human life; they are divided into trees with hard wood and trees with soft; the barren and the bearing, such as cast fruits to men and beasts; also perhaps into those good for fire and those which burn slowly. From the Anglo-Saxon runic catalogue we gain a picture, weak and fractional though it is, of the souls of trees. The yew is “rough on the outer side, hard, firm in the soil, feeder of fire, deep-rooted”— and something more which we do not understand. The birch is “fruitless, yet bearing branches without offspring; it is fair in twigs, gaily decked as to the crown, swelling with leaf, intimately responsive to the air”. The oak serves “the children of men to feeding of the flesh, often it voyages across the sea, and the wave puts its firmness of core to the test”. The ash is “greatly high, dear to men, firmly it holds its place in the ground, even though many men make onslaught against it” — and, we must add, or the meaning will be but partial, it holds its own stoutly, whether it be rooted in rocky ground, or as an ashen spear, in the warrior's hand.

Stones, too, have their nature, which gives them their sluggish-ness and their hardness, as well as their power to move at times, their keenness in biting, their power to crush — each stone according to its kind The unfailing sense of locality among these people is due to the fact that they know from their childhood every tree, every stone, every little rise of the ground; they are accustomed to carry what they have once seen so accurately impressed upon their memory that no slight variation escapes them, and the slightest change is noticed. Then too they know well that stones on open ground have their different character, manifest not only in their shape, but also in their 'ways' perhaps in the power of pointing the road.

The mountains and hills that form the horizon have, as he who has observed them year after year will know, each their own peculiarities, they are all susceptible to what happens in the air, but they do not prophesy the day to come, its weather and its events in the same way, perhaps not always with the same wisdom. Several of them are entrusted with the task of pointing the time of day, according as the sun is on this or that point of the horizon, so men apportion their daily work and their hours of rest, and their nature is indicated by such names as The Hill of Noon and The Peak of Even.

Our forefathers, it would seem, followed with especial confidence the counsels and warnings declared by running water; and there are indications that they read with keen insight the souls through the form and movements of the mountain streams, perhaps also listened to peculiarities of voice in the falling waters. A poet who felt himself beyond the childish wisdom of the world, the bishop Bjarni Kolbeinson, defends himself, in the Jómsvíkingadrápa, expressly against the suspicion of having drawn his wisdom “beneath waterfalls”; as if his conscience writhed under all the paganism he must allow to pass his lips when he made poems in the ancient form. What Plutarch tells of the Suevi of Ariovistus is perhaps more widely applicable; they prophesied from the eddies of streams, and from the curves and foaming of the waters. At any rate, even if the sentence were born as a whole in Plutarch's brain, and not authorised word for word in the thoughts of the barbarians themselves, it may doubtless be taken as expressing the essential element in the mind of a Germanic observer watching attentively beneath a waterfall.

In our minds, animals are catalogued according to their teeth and morphological structure, and we carry our zoological or botanical systems with us when we set out to investigate the world as it is seen by a Hindoo or a Buddhist, by an Australian or an Indian. With a charming naïveté we break up into fragments the information obtained from other peoples, to make it go into ready-made categories, thus making nonsense or superstition of all the mythologies of the world. What is wanted in all parts of the world is patient study of primitive and non-European experience. The ethnologist must learn bow to see and what to see; he must observe every animal with the eyes of the natives without any reference to his own textbook, and thus piece together a new zoology and botany and mineralogy, or rather as many zoologies and botanies as there are different observers. On the prairies of North America he must discard his popular notion of the radical difference between flying and running creatures, to learn that the crow and the buffalo are related in the same way as the wolf and the heath in the North of Europe, because it is an inherent trait of the crow's character to hover over the herds of buffaloes and indicate their presence. Among the Scandinavians be must slowly piece together his view of the moon by learning that it marches, it counts the years, it determines luck and unluck, and it sends disease. To understand what a Teuton meant by “oak” we must simply learn that seaworthiness belongs to its qualities as well as its gnarled stem and eatable fruit. Prophecy is included in the nature of running streams in addition to swiftness and coldness.

There is no other way for outsiders than gathering facts piecemeal and combining them into a new totality; taking every hint that falls from the stranger's mouth when he is looking at things, without any magisterial distinction between details according as they fall in with our ideas or clash with our natural philosophy. In the North of Europe, our material is scant and fragmentary, but nevertheless we are able to piece a likeness together from the remnants of poetical and legal speech. As to the sea, we learn that it is cold, salt and wide; further, it is called by the Icelander coal-blue, by the Anglo-Saxon fealu, fallow in words that suggest other associations than those of mere tints. Fallow possibly conveys an intimation of the barrenness of the deep, like the Greek epithets. It is cruel, and possibly coal-blue carries some hint of its deadly power. It is the road of the land of gulls, swans and gannets, the land of seals, whales and eels, the road of the ship and the seafarer. And to these epithets must be added the picture of Ægir, the man of the sea, and Ran, the woman of the deep. Earth is wide, great, enormous, spacious; it asserts itself as immovably steady. It is called the green - even the evergreen - and the growth-giving, bearing, nourishing; “as wide as the world grows” is a northern expression for “all over the world”.

But it is also part of earth's nature to be farable; in offering tracks and free stepping space to men's feet it wins the name: road or roads; and here we can see with our own eyes how deep the words go down into daily thought. In verse Odin can say, referring to his experiences when he crawled through a fissure in the mountain to woo Gunnlod, the giant bride, that over and under him stood “the roads of the giants”, and in everyday speech Norway is simply the North-ways, and the East-ways denote Russia. “Green tracks” is in Norwegian a name designating Middle-garth as contrasted with the barren Utgard; in the compound two qualities of the earth join: her fruitfulness and her farability, the teeming and the wide-pathed. To these intimations must be added the hints from practical life. We hear that men called in the power of earth in cases of need either to ward off the effects of strong drink or to guard against evil influences. In an Anglo-Saxon formula, direction is given to take earth in the right hand and place earth under the right foot and say: “Earth has power against all manner of beings, against envy and forgetfulness, against the tongue of a mighty man”. The verses are included in some instructions for farmers when their bees have swarmed, but the matter of them appears to suggest their applicability to many other circumstances of life. Possibly the idea of firmness and of the fruitfulness of earth meet in this incantation. Finally earth is a woman who conceives and gives birth, who hides men and things in her lap or in her body.

In bearness, wolfness, ravenness, in oakness, beechness, elmness, the soul ends on one side. But when we turn about to look for the limit of the soul on the outward side, toward the light, we soon find that the road is longer than we thought. The two flanks of nature, that which goes down into existence, and that which goes out into manifestation, must be of precisely the same length; as far as Nature goes — that is to say, as far as qualities and appearance are the same,— life is identical. All wolves, all oaks, all stones, have the same soul. And not only are all members of a class partakers of a certain kind of soul, shareholders, as it were, in a fund of vital force, but they are identical both in body and soul, so that they suffer one another's sufferings and feel one another's offences and anger and goodwill. Primitive thought regards separation in space as an insignificant accidental circumstance; one might be tempted to express it thus: it feels the solidity of matter, of the body, but is blind to its extent in space, and perhaps that expression is more than a paradoxical image.

In the primitive experience of life, identity has a deeper foundation than mere continuance. We combine our separate sensations and make a whole of them by conjecturing that the world is filled with individual beings and every single individual lives a linear life of its own; when the animal Slips out of our view we fancy that it trails a line of existence somewhere hidden among the thousand things of the earth until it reappears across our path. The universe is crossed by millions and millions of threads, each one spun by an isolated individual. According to primitive experience, the facts arrange themselves into a different pattern. All bears are the same soul and the same body, and every new appearance of a bear — whether it be no other than that we saw yesterday, or the most distant of all among the kin, as we reckon it — is a new creation from the soul. A bear is a new birth every time it appears anew, for the deep connection in the existence of the soul is a steady power of regeneration. In our observation, animals are either counted or they are lumped together in a collective genus or type; we speak of a wolf, of wolves and of the wolf; but in primitive language and poetry, the animal is neither this particular wolf nor the wolf that crowns a chapter in natural history, but wolf simply. It is this individual and yet all-embracing personality that forms the subject of the Anglo-Saxon gnomic verses such as this description of the bear: the bear shall be old and terrible, or paraphrased into modern words: old age and terror is his nature or soul.

The popular tales have retained the ancient mode of telling, and under cover of the traditional language still persists a vague reflex of the old idea: the wolf that swallowed little Red Riding-hood is surely not a particular beast that had taken its station in that part of the wood, but the wolf of the wood.

The sun also is the same from day to day, for there is not more than one sun-soul; but when it is said in legal language of some thing or other agreed on that it must be carried out before the fifth sun or on the day when five suns have come to an end in the sky, then the words do really mean that there comes one sun to-day, another to-morrow, and finally a fifth to shine over the completion of the undertaking. And it is no matter for wonder to find oneself suddenly, in a ritual or a story, brought face to face with a whole series of sun-gods. Every day is a fresh birth, but all days are nevertheless Dagr, Delling's son, to speak the language of Northern myth, just as winter is the son of Vindsvalr and summer the son of Svasudr. The myths are simple statements of fact when they create, as they sometimes do, a great being, the chief of all bears or the father of sun and of moon, who incorporates the life of bearness or sunness and sends his messengers out into the world. But when we approach the mythical idea from the angle of poetical thought, we need no reminding that fathership is tote coelo different from our begetting, which presupposes individual life as the line on which existence is built up. The “Wind-cold” who is winter's father and the “Sweet-breeze” who is summer's father are nothing but the everlasting soul that bursts into appearance at the proper time.

 

 
back                                 index                                next