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CHAPTER 1

TREASURES

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THE IMPRESSION generally gained by a stranger from first acquaintance with the clan system is: reserve, self-sufficiency, every man against his neighbor.

From a distance, one sees nothing but warriors fighting or prepared to fight, men who sleep with their axe ready to hand on the wall beside them, and who take it with them when they hang the seed-bag on their shoulder and set out for the fields. The very emphasis of the unity among them seems to presuppose uncertainty as the dominant note of life. How mighty then must have been the pressure from without which created such a seamless unanimity – that is the argument nowadays.

Often enough, the distant view is a great help in reducing to order the confusing multiplicity which existence – in sorriest conflict with all sound scientific principles – suffers from; but the observer is in danger of forgetting, in his contemplation of the pure lines, that there are certain features which from their nature are foreordained to show up from a distance, and others which perhaps have equal right to contribute to the total impression, yet cannot penetrate so far. But the correctness of the impression depends on due regard to all factors concerned. Peaceable, perhaps, we cannot say our forefathers were, seeing that it never occurred to them to set peace before all else, but they were something more; they have in their culture and their social life raised a monument to the will to peace, and a mighty will to peace must have prevailed amongst them, forcing all self-assertion into forms that served the unity of the people no less than personal satisfaction. Nor is their daily life and action less marked by intercourse and amenity; hands are outstretched from the clan to every side, after union and alliance.

The most prominent place in Germanic social life is occupied by the “bargain”, the great symbol of intercourse and mutual goodwill. When clans allied by marriage are united in frith, so that one can always reckon with the support of one's new kin in one's efforts at self-assertion, when the woman can rightly bear her name of friðu-sibb, the woman who joins two clans in frith, it is because a bargain has been made between two clans, an exchange of gifts has taken place.

Marriage is the great exchange of gifts, the gift-alliance before all others. In the modern Danish word for marriage, giftermål, the idea of giving – gipt – has been handed down to later generations; in the Anglo-Saxon, the same word – gift – is used chiefly to denote a bridal gift, and in the plural, it signifies, without further addition, nuptials. But in the ultimate essence of the matter, the bridal bargain did not differ from friendship, which was also a bargain, and likewise brought about by gifts.

In the gift, the door is opened to the Germanic will to peace; but at the same time, a host of psychological mysteries pour in.

When Blundketil had been burned in his house, and his son's well-wishers cast about for something upon which to base a hope, they could find nothing better than a marriage between the youth and a daughter of Thord Gellir's sister. Thord was a powerful man, but Thord was by no means eager for the match. “Nay”, he says, “there is naught but good between Ketil and myself; once in foul weather he took me in, and gave me a present of good stud horses; and yet I do not think I have anything to reproach myself if I leave this marriage unmade.” The full and considered weight of the words is lost unless the greater emphasis of this “and yet” is noted. The gift carries with it an obligation; under whatsoever circumstances it is given, it is binding nevertheless, and that with an obligation the force of which, in justice to itself, demands such strong words as these: the receiver is in the giver's power.

It is seen when Einar rides up to his brother Gudmund the Mighty, the fox of Modruvellir, and flings him back his cloak; he has realised whither Gudmund's plans tend. But Gudmund calmly opines that it is unseemly enough if kinship should not compel the one to take up the other's cause, and here he has accepted a gift of value. It is useless for Einar to strain at the bond, and allege that the gift was given deceitfully; he may be right in saying that the words fell more softly when Gudmund brought out the cloak for him to better their friendship – mercilessly comes his brother's retort: “What fault is it of mine that you make yourself a fool, a thing of scorn!” And Einar takes the cloak and rides home. – Gudmund is perhaps of all the Icelandic saga chieftains the one who has advanced farthest beyond the ancient culture into a modern world, but all that is modern fades beside the power of the old custom of exchanging gifts to cow a man.

When Njal's sons come home and boast of the rich gifts with which Mord has honoured them at the feast he had made for them, Njal says with meaning: “He has surely seen his own gain in the bargain; take care now that you do not pay for them in the way he would wish.” But the advice is powerless in face of the fateful strength of the gifts; from these spring Njal's sons' attack upon their foster-brother Hoskuld and their own death by fire. – A prudent man would not accept a gift until he had mingled mind with the giver, and knew his plans. Once a man had persuaded another to accept the gage of friendship, then he could be sure of his powerful support. The fact of his saying thank you without further comment would mean, either that he understood the giver's purpose, or that he was ready for anything himself – or, of course, that he trusted the giver never to abuse his right.

The obligation implied by accepting a gift is powerfully manifested in the Germanic ideas of law. As a legal formula, the position is stated as for instance in paragraph 73 of Liutprand's Lombard edict: “A gift not confirmed by gift in return or by thingatio, is not legally valid.” In other words, the giver could take it back, and if necessary, hale the objecting recipient before the courts. In Sweden , a disputed claim was proved by swearing the formula; “he gave and I rewarded.” Iceland also has its paragraph anent this question: “Where a gift to the value of 12 ounces or more is not recompensed by at least half its value, the giver can demand the return of his gift, on the death of the receiver, unless the gift in itself could be properly regarded as recompense or requital.” The precise delimitation of value and term in the Icelandic law book Grágás had no reliable foundation in the mind of ordinary men; there, a gift was a gift, whether small or great, and no lifelong consideration was admitted. When Ingolf's kinswoman Steinun came to Iceland , he offered her land from that he had taken up on settlement, but she preferred to give a cloak in return and call it a bargain, thinking that thus there would be less danger of any subsequent attempt to dispute her title.

We have innumerable illustrations to Liutprand's edicts in the legal documents of the period, showing clearly that the effect of a gift made in return for a gift was not dependent on its mercantile value. Thus we find (anno 792): According to the customs among us Lombards I have for greater surety accepted from you in return a glove, to the end that this gift of mine may stand unchallenged for you and for your descendants. Those who spoke thus were familiar with disputes arising between two parties who had exchanged friendly gifts, where a doubt as to ownership was met by the answer: you gave me the land yourself, -- and the answer was waved aside by the retort: Indeed? And did you give me anything in return?

Later, when the impersonal institution of trade had grown out of personal chaffering and barter, it was naturally the gift relationship which not only provided the etiquette and forms, but also the effectively binding formalities. The so-called arrha, or God's penny, is a legal adaptation of the sense of obligation on receiving a gift. He who accepts arrha undertakes to complete the bargain under discussion as soon as the would-be purchaser appears with the sum demanded; he cannot meantime accept any offer from another party, however tempting.

A gift without return, without obligation, is inconceivable to the Germanic mind. If a man accepted a proof of friendship, and went his way as if nothing had happened, then the chattel received was not to be reckoned as a possession, but came almost under the heading of stolen goods. The obligation incurred by acceptance was more of an ideal than of a commercial nature, it went too deep to be measured in material values. In practical life, the amount of return would depend on the generosity of the receiver, and even more upon his position and standing. A king would not get off lightly in the matter of acknowledging the friendly offices of others. The whole psychology of generosity is given in a little humorous anecdote of a fellow, who raised himself from poverty to wealth and rank by his genius for exploiting the gift system as a rational speculation. There was once a young man with the promising name of Refr (fox) – thus the Gautrek saga. His youth was, according to the usual fairy tale conception, promising in itself, for he was one of those exceptional types of genius that never trouble to work, but simply lie on the hearth and feel themselves getting dirtier and dirtier. One fine day, his father turned him out of the house, and when he had realised all his resources, he stood on there on the road with a whetstone in his hand – his sole asset. With this he set out and made his way to King Gautrek. He had heard that the king, since the death of the queen, was sick in his mind, and did nothing all day long but sit on her grave and pass the time watching his hawk fly up, now and then encouraging the wearied by throwing stones at it. Who could say, now, but that natural stones might fail, and a whetstone be a welcome gift to the pensive king? And thus it proved. Refr took up his post behind the king, and then, when the king fumbled behind him in search of a stone, Refr thrust his sole treasure into the king's hand and went his way with a ring by way of recompense. The ring was then offered as a gift to King Ella, and Refer did not fail to mention the fact that King Gautrek gave rings for whetstones. Whereafter, a king of England could hardly give less than a ship with men and a dog. The dog was the item Refr found easiest to dispense with, he gave it to King Hrolf, duly mentioning its origin; and after this fashion did Refr lay up a store of ships and weapons, until one day he was able to present himself again with a fleet and a following, to King Gautrek, as an eligible suitor. Thus he had well deserved the addition to his former name – Gjafa-Refr (Gift-fox).

We cannot at once discern from this story what it was in it flourishing period. Even the comic element which goes deepest into the foundations of human nature must purchase its power over laughter by a perilous dependence upon the external side of life, and it forfeits its power of directly raising a laugh when the social forms upon which it flourished disappear. But having once got the significance of a gift into the foreground of our consciousness, we can at least understand that the story of Prince Refr the Gift-sly once had power to make men's lungs shake and the tears roll down their cheeks, from the very fact of his idea being so entirely reasonable; and perhaps, by sharing their laugh, we may attain to some degree of intimacy with those people.

The gift is a social factor. Passing from man to man and to man again, it draws through society a mesh of obligations so strong that the whole state is moved if but one or another point of chain be properly grasped.

To many a one it may perhaps seem that he has fallen among chafferers, bargain-makers of the keenest lust and ability. “A gift always looks for its return,” the proverb fits excellently in the mouth of these clever bargainers. But going round to the other side, and regarding their conscientiousness in finding the due proportion between gift and return, one is tempted perhaps to set up gratitude as the grand principle in their ethics and jurisprudence.

Our forefathers themselves can teach us better. They take gratitude and calculation for what they are, without feeling ashamed themselves of either. They pass by all that is accidental, and go straight in to the object itself. It is not the giving that acts, they say, but the gift. None can, we learn, free himself from the influence of things about him, such as are in his own guardianship, and such as lie near enough to be entangled in his acts.

The Northmen admit openly that they are slaves of gold and silver – and of iron. And then they raise a hymn to the metals, that must grate upon all pecuniary sense of decency. They make the greatest poems frankly in praise of gold, and teach us, with the irresistible logic of life, that the gold-road in to human kind does not end blindly in the lower passions, but cuts into the sublimest centres of spirit and feeling. The figure which civilization has rendered comic, by reducing his brain to a straight line, that of the miser, is set up by the ancient culture simply as the pathetic symbol of the thousand devious windings of the human soul.

Rejoicing over gold rings out broad and strong through all Germanic poetry. A poem such as the Beowulf is illuminated by the yellow gleam. The poem tells, we should say of the dire straits of the Danes, when night after night they are doomed to suffer the visits of the monster from the marshes, and of the heroic deeds of the strange hero, when he waits for the beast in the hall, and afterwards meets its mother in combat in the depth of the swamp, and thus delivers the land from plague. Yes, the monster is there, and the Danish king, and Beowulf and the fight and the deliverance, and much besides. And the poem really tells of the hero and the monster and their coming to grips, of agony and relief – but taking the epic as a whole and letting it unfold itself again in memory, one may arrive at a totally difference view of its contents. First of all an echo of laughter and play in the most splendid of all kingly halls; then suddenly the rejoicing dies away in an ill-boding silence, when the beast has made its first visit; it rises again with drinking and song and the dealing out of gold on the arrival of the stranger, falls silent a while in expectation of the result of the battle, and then bursts forth in the hall, where the king proffers gifts of price to the victor, and Beowulf joyfully accepts them. 

When a poem, or a piece of music has been heard to its end, it appears, not as a series of individual details, but as a total impression, the character of which depends on the art of the producer; it lies with his phrasing to determine whether the correct rhythmical proportion shall be given, between that which in the creator's mind was yearning, pointing forward, and sinking, dissolving; whether its arsis and thesis have that balance which they ever had in his ear as he wove them together, and made them so nearly of equal weight that they could reinforce each other. What is the rhythm in the Beowulf, or rather, what was the rhythm to those hearers? One thing is certain; the scene in the hall, where the gold is given and received, is no less weighty than the episodes in which the reward is earned. The old listeners would not let themselves be cheated of any of the excitement of the fight, they demanded that all horror and dread should be shewn dark and threatening as they were; but they would also enjoy calmly and at their ease the spectacle of the hero, as he stands in the firelight with the necklace on his breast and sword in hand. The portrayal of the feast in Heorot after the fight, when the “happy” ones moved to their benches and took their fill of the laden board, when cups of mead unnumbered passed around, when Hrothgar gave Beowulf war-treasures, helmet and mail and far-famed sword – and the helm was encircled by a finely wrought curl – when the queen gave him arm rings and neck rings – and these were the finest the world had ever seen since the famous Brosings' necklace was brought home – this description is at any rate no coda where the past excitement is gently resolved, and thoughts given back to the daily routine. The rejoicing in the hall – the hall dream – and the joy of gold are the keynote which unites the different scenes into one whole. For us moderns, accustomed to seeing the poetry of a narration come to an end at the point where the hero has set his foot on the last of his foes, or the last of the demons, it is strange to see how in the old days – and not only in the north of Europe – men could swoop down upon the sense of victory, create therefrom a counter-tension no weaker than the tension of the fight, and write half the epic on the themes of triumph and feasting and games.

And the poet is true to himself, even in little things. He surrenders himself with emotion to the story of gold and treasures, of men who give and men who receive, and the same transport shows through again and again in his images and phrases. Through the poetic formula of which the Beowulf, in epic wise, is composed, gold rings audibly and unceasingly, the king is always ring-breaker, meter of treasures, his men are gold-cravers, and the hall is the place where the prince of battles is heard handing out rings amid the cries of men: and the meaning is not less sincere because these images belong to the traditional speech of the poets.

Yes, the heart of the Northman or the Greek laughed in his breast when he received a copper kettle or a bracelet. Odysseus' first waking thought, after he has been brought ashore sleeping by the Phæacians, is to count his copper vessels, and see if they have honestly given him all his gifts: “And then he counted all his splendid tripods and cauldrons, the gold and the woven magnificent garments, and lo, there was not one lacking; then he sighed for his homeland.” The Germanic people have even more heroic expressions for the dependence upon gold. Beowulf, at the hour of death, wishes to look his fill upon treasures he has won: Full well he knew that his days' burden of earth-luck was borne to the end, ended the number of his days, death trod upon his heels . . . Run with speed, Wiglaf, beloved, to the serpent stone, where the treasure is hid; haste thee swiftly that the treasure of eld, the brand of the gold, the gleam of the stones, may fill mine eyes, and life and rule pass away more gently for the treasure.

This heroic tendency to care for gold and bronze and heap them up in roomy vaults and halls beats through the souls of men, without, however, involving any apparent effacement of all great feelings, or any withering of the mind. Egil, perhaps the deepest, and certainly one of the most wholly human personalities of old time, this Egil has in the fragmentary verses he left behind him, given us a Song of Songs upon the theme of greed. Love of gold lends expression to the feeling of friendship, as when Egil pours his intense sorrow at the fall of Arinbjorn into the little verse: Scattered and thin shine now the men who flamed as a fire in the light, they who strewed the embers of the gold far apart. Where shall I know seek men quick to give, as those who sent the snow of the melting-pot (silver) hailing down over my hawk-seat (i.e. the arm of the hunger).

If greed assumed heroic proportions, its opposite, generosity, was no less grandly framed. In a king, this quality must necessarily prevail to such a marked degree that no one could ever make any mistake as to who was meant by the “giver of treasures”. The worst that could ever be said of a prince was that he was sparing his gold. The sons of Eric made themselves generally hated and despised throughout Norway by keeping their money buried in the earth “like peasants of no account”. Part of the king's luck was the will and power to strew “Frodi's meal” about in the light of day, and thus the men in the Beowulf could from the miserliness of the king conclude that lucklessness was eating him up from within. In the monarchical Norway , it might perhaps be a suspicious usurpation of a royal prerogative to exert this power to its full extent, but to a certain degree, openhandedness was necessary in any great man. It amounted to a proud self-declaration, indicating that a man reckoned his luck roomy enough to shelter others under his wing.

These two opposite traits in the Northmen's view of gold and treasures, cannot be smoothed over by individual psychology. Each of them can be separately developed to a degree of perfection almost unknown to us, without cancelling each other or limiting each other's justification; generosity did not involve blame or illwill towards fondness for gold, even where the latter amounts to what we should call positive greed. When the radii run so near the parallel, the centre must lie deep indeed. The sharpest contrasts in human life mark the deepest unity.

There is hardly a sorrow in the world that gold has not power to cure. In the Volsungasaga we find the might words:  “Giver her gold, and soften thus her wrath.” So Gudrun, weeping, to Sigurd, when Brynhild sits kneading her plans of vengeance firmer and firmer, and all are waiting with dread for the end. But Brynhild was beyond the measure of women, and her indignation beyond all woman's pain, and therefore, and for that alone, gold was powerless to move her. In gold, Egil could find comfort and forget his better sorrow at his brother's death. After the battle of Winheath, he sat stern and wrathful in Æthelstan's hall, did not lay aside his weapons, but smote his sword up and down in its sheath, while his eyebrows worked convulsively; he would not drink when drink was offered him – until Æthelstan took a great and good ring from his own arm and passed it across the fire; then his eyebrows settled into their place, and he could enjoy the drink. Æthelstan added thereto much silver, and then Egil began to be glad. He broke out into the enthusiastic verse, that bears the poet's marked features in every line: The overhanging cliffs of the eyelids hung down in anger. Now I found him who could smooth the furrows of the brow. With an arm ring the prince has thrust open the barring rocks of the face. Dread is gone from the eyes.

But no less surely can a gift plough up hatred of the giver in him who receives it, when it does not come at a fitting time. We, too, feel, perhaps, somewhat offended if a mere casual acquaintance seeks to honour us with gifts presuming that his warmth of feeling is absolutely sufficient to produce a reciprocal warmth in us. But here there is something more, a flare of anger, exhibiting hatred and bitterness outwardly, and fear within. The illwill finds its most violent expression the case of unwelcome gifts from a king. When Kjartan, on his first meeting with Olaf Tryggvason, was given his cloak as a present, his friends expressed their marked disapproval of his having so freely demeaned himself, placing himself in the king's power and under his friendship. On another occasion, the recipients of kingly gifts are scornfully called thralls. But the king too could flare up when any dared to show him a challenging honour by offering him a “gift of a friend”.

The two poles in the effect of a gift are united in the story of Einar Skálaglam and Egil. The promising young poet once visited his famous brother artist, and not finding him at home, left as a present a splendid shield. But Egil was wrath. “Ill-fortune fall on him, “ he exclaimed, and by way of doing what he could towards the fulfilment of the wish, he proposed to ride after him and slay him. Einar, however, had gone too far for the matter to be thus easily settled; what then was to be done? Egil sat there with the gift, could not get rid of it, and – “the friendship between Egil and Einar lasted as long as they lived.”

It is not the treasure which causes fear or anger in the receiver; it is something in it which he timorously feels clutching at his arm as he touches it.

Such transfer carries with it more than the mere passing of property in externals; the gifts has an inner value in proportion to the giver, something which is expressed in the name which goes with weapons and valuables. In Iceland, the name is generally formed by combination with nautr; this suffix is derived from the verb njota, to enjoy or to be able to use, and expresses a spiritual connection between the thing and the original possessor, and the deeper meaning involved is made clear by such expression as the Anglo-Saxon wœpna neólan (in the verse of “the Battle of Maldon”), to make good use of his weapon. Andvaranautr is the name given in the saga to the fateful ring which Loki took from Andvari; Konungsnautr was the name given in real life to weapons or garments received from the king's hand.

A gift carries with it something from the former owner, and its former existence will reveal itself, whether the new possessor wishes it or not. A king's gift has not only a more than usually sharp point, a particularly finely worked hilt – it strikes with luck. In order to know with what feelings the gift was received, we must go to the gift while it was in the possession of the clan itself, and see what it counts for there. When Glum took leave of his mother's father, Vigfus, in Norway, the latter gave him a cloak, a spear and a sword, with the words: “I feel that we shall never meet again, but these valuables I will give you and while you own them, I am sure that you will not lose your good fame; but if you part with them, I have great fears for your future.” And Glum and his kinsmen are not alone in their faith in these heirlooms. When he, later in life, presents them to his best friends by way of thanks for valuable assistance in one of his many difficult affairs with his neighbours, his opponents consider that the time is ripe for a successful action against him. They are not mistaken; for the first time it happens that Glum is overmatched. And with this, his luck is really at an end once and for all, at any rate, he never again became the great man he had been. Hoskuld, on his deathbed, gives his illegitimate son, Olaf the Peacock, the gold ring called Hakon's nautr and the sword King's nautr, and with them his own luck and that of all his kin: “and this I do not say as being unaware that the luck of the family has taken up its dwelling with him.” The murmur of the eldest son shows how significant Hoskuld's disposition was considered in those times.

The new ting of unreality – symbolism – that is almost imperceptibly beginning to creep into Hoskuld's and his sons' relations with the gifts in question can be seen growing up even in the saga times. The transition had set in, whereby “it means” imperceptibly thrusts itself forward in front of the more robust “it is.” Nevertheless, there is no lack of clear reminders that the gift retained throughout its relation to a certain circle of people. In the words of the saga of Grettir: “the sword was their treasure, and had never been out of the family,” there lies an understanding of what such a sword really was, and how sacred, and as long as the unity between kinsmen still draws on the old customs, reverence for the heirlooms as such preserved something of the old conviction. The axe which Thorgrim Helgason, in 1450, gave Olaf Thorevilson “in full and complete reconciliation”, was not an ordinary weapon, it had been the axe of Olaf's family, -- as the contracting parties find it worth putting down in the legal document.

Right down to the late traditions, the connection between the family and its possession has retained its value as the poetic essential. In Denmark, we read of the Rautzau family, that its fortunes were bound up with certain heirlooms, a golden spinning wheel and a golden sabre – or, according to other sources, a handful of gold pieces – which a countess of the blood had once been given by the folk from underground in return for aiding one of their women in childbirth. A variant of the legend has the peculiar addition that those branches of the family which carefully preserved their part of the inheritance always threw out fresh shoots, while others, less punctilious, became extinct. Family treasures are more often met with in local legends, as in the case of the wild boar's pelt that guards the manor of Voergaard in Jutland against fire and other mishap. Whether these legend be the direct outcome of ancient family tradition, or perhaps are localised folk-tales, the idea is the same as that which once inspired the Icelandic pictures of real life.

Poetic symbolism and experience meet in strange wise in the story of Sigmund the Volsung and his treasured weapon. He goes through life with victory and luck residing in the old sword, Odin's gift. The last battle is struck from his hand by the god himself, meeting him in the midst of the affray and shattering the sword with his spear. When the battlefield is searched, and he is found bleeding, he refuses to have his wounds bound up: “Many indeed have kept their lives where hope seemed slight; but luck has deserted me.” But in his son, the broken luck is to become whole again; when he grows up, the fragments of the weapon are to be forged together. “He will wield the sword and do many a mighty deed, and his name shall live while our world stands.” His wife, Hjordis, carefully preserves the pieces, and when the time is come, Regin forges from them the famous Gram, wherewith Sigurd slays the serpent Fafnir. The poet refines his reflection almost into profound wit in emphasising the parallel between the human and its image; but the profundity is of that warm sort that rather feels than thinks its way to a result.

Beside the Volsungasaga, the saga of Hord appears as the stay-at-home beside one versed in the ways of the world. There, the thought comes simply and naturally, in a form which has not been polished by any clever poet. Before her hated marriage with old Grimkel, Signy gives her brother all she possesses, with the exception of two treasures, a neck ornament and a horse, which she valued most. And in what manner she valued them appears from the course of the story. She is angered at her own son, Hord, when he, having but late learned to walk, on his first expedition across the floor towards her, stumbles and grasps at the ornament lying on this mother's knee, and breaks it. “ Ill was your first going, and many such shall come after, but the last shall be worst of all,” she exclaims. The prophecy is fulfilled, in that Hord is outlawed, and obliged, much against his will, to take up robbery. The chattel is Signy's, but the luck that is bound up in it affects the race.

As the Volsungs, as the descendants of Viking Kari – Vigfus and Glum – so also each family had, in ancient times, its lucky things, which it regarded as security for good fortune and prosperity; but the luck was not of any other sort than that which inspired all family belongings, down to the humblest implement. The sword and the cloak represented the wealth of the family, that is to say, according to the old mode of thought, that they held in themselves the power of wealth.

Luck was not restricted to such valuables as were stored within doors, it might also be out in the fields. Answering to valuable articles of property were such lucky beasts as not only counted for more than ordinary cattle for the welfare of the herd, but were also an assurance to the peasant of life and blessing. One of Signy's valuables was an ornament, the other a stallion, and when the latter perished on her way to the wedding, she would have turned back at once, knowing that nothing but sorrow and misfortune awaited her in that marriage. A good friend of the sons of Ingimund, Brand, had a horse named Frey's Faxi, which once did what an ordinary horse would be equal to. Jokul and Thorstein were most anxious to be up to time, and not to fail the other party at a single combat, which had been offered and accepted with many sounding words; the more so since, from the snow falling ever thicker about them, they could see that certain persons were evidently eager that they should not appear, and were doing all in their power to make them call a halt on the way. In spite of all difficulties Faxi forced their way through, set them down on the spot, and took them back home again, after they had set up a cursing pole – niðstöng – the sign of derision, for the laggard to find when he appeared. Brand knew what he was talking about when he bade them leave all to himself and his horse, when it was a question of making their way onward through obstacles of witchcraft; and others too, no doubt, knew what they were saying when they called the yeoman after his beast, and changed his name to Faxibrand. It is such chieftains among the livestock of the homestead which are honoured with gold ornaments on the horns and plaitings on the mane.

In many stories we have to read our way to the truth through the distortions of superstition, or those of Christian zeal. The account of Olaf the Peacocks's terrifying dream has itself perhaps taken on something of a legendary fashion, but there is no mistaking the reality. At Olaf's homestead, there was a huge ox that went about as an object of general, and perhaps somewhat timorous, respect on the part of the men about the place. Olaf at last decided to have it slaughtered, and then there came to him in a dream a woman, who declared herself to be the mother of the ox, and warned him of the approaching death of his favourite son.

Half myth, half fairy tale is the story of the good ox Brandkrossi, which caused the yeoman Grim so great a sorrow; he had taken special care of it always, and could not do enough for it; and then one day it set off out to sea and did not return. All attempts at consoling the peasant for his loss, urging that he could easily get another, that he might be proud to think that the bay which had seen the ox disappear should for the future bear its name, Krossavik: all went in one ear and out the other; Brandkrossi was lost, whatever they might say. We further learn that the peasant would not rest until he had journeyed to Norway to make enquiries there about his precious ox, that he at last found it in a giant's cave, and that the giant's daughter became the founder of the an Icelandic family. Behind this rather confused narrative we clearly discern a family legend – or a tale founded on a family legend – connecting the origin of the race with the existence of a cow, and the animal's desperate fondness for long distance swimming is probably due to the necessity of linking the emigrant family with their ancestral seat in Norway .

Even though several of these lucky beasts may be but pale and washed-out ghosts of reality, they have faithfully preserved certain links with their home; there is a relic of life in the faith which united them to their owner; he trusted in them, we are told, and in the same way, the dependance of the owner may be emphasised in the words: this was a treasure, he set great store by. These eminent animals were doubtlessly hedged about with special protective measures in the way of fines, out of regard to their importance for the welfare of the whole herd; but what was their protective and guiding power save a higher expression of the owner's cattle-luck as well as his honor? It was not an accidental coincidence that Faxibrand's horse was a mighty combatant at the horse-fights, strong as a bear, and at the same time especially dear to his master. In the generalised decrees of the laws, the direct relationship to man cannot appear, but on the other hand, the laws were not able altogether to overcome the personal element. Not only were the cattle of the Frankish king valued at a higher fine than those of other men, but his oxen were more costly than his horses, and we recognise their dignity in the oxen that drew the car of the Merovingians, when the chieftain set out upon a ceremonial procession.

In the carefully weighed words wherewith the law set a thief apart as a monster, deserving of no human consideration, the jealous regard for the luck in things finds a more passionately moved expression than any poem could give. Woe to him who lays a man in bonds, but a thief is dragged to the law-thing with his hands bound behind him. He is treated as a being beyond the pale of humanity, one who can be stricken down as a monster or even mutilated as to his person as a spectacle unto the world. A thief is always a thief. The law can attain to the establishing of a practical distinction between theft on a large scale and petty larceny, but the distinction affects only the external consequences of the action; the fundamental point is common to both; there is no right in a thief. His act is that of a niding, and he is classed together with the murderer, who steals upon his victim in the dark, and slips away without leaving his weapon in the wound to tell the tale, whereas the robber, who openly falls upon his fellows and snatches their goods out of their hands by force is reckoned one with the homicide, who takes life. The intense Germanic hatred of one whose fingers are longer than his courage originates in the fear of secret wrecking of honour and luck. These men know, as did the men of southern Sweden in later times, that he who steals a man's fishing gear impairs its power of capture, and destroys the owner's fishing luck, just as one who uses a strange bull without leave robs the beast of its reproductive power. The niding-like character of attacking a man through his cattle or his good lies in the fact that the criminal attacks him from behind, and steals strength from him at a moment when his is unable to defend himself and show his right.

Attacks on cattle were no less hated than feared. Cattle-wolf, cattle-niding (Icelandic gorvargr, Danish and Swedish gorniðingr) is the name given in Scandinavian laws to him who secretly interferes with another man's cattle. The names tell us that the act is reckoned worse than homicide, for vargr and niðingr are particularly used to denote one who commits a crime against honour, as distinct from one merely offending. The Icelanders recognise the right of vengeance on the spot, but in certain cases, punish the act with unconditional outlawry. In the Norwegian laws, we still find indications that the deed was reckoned beyond the limits of a fine, sending the criminal irrevocably to the forest. And the Danish Erie's Law has the principle clearly, when it states with regard to killing of cattle to the value of half a mark, that “this is villainy, and villainy shall be paid for to the king”.

In order to understand the people, it is not enough to know what the law condemns, but one must also see the motives which impel a man to break the law. The calculating criminal's estimate of the value of the crime itself displays, at times, the most powerful testimony as to the secret strength of the offence, and its depth. There is a story from Iceland which, from the very fact of its having, so to speak, one leg outside strict morality, exposes the person, and shows something in him lying deeper than the average of social morality. In the history of Iceland, the “fight on the heath” about the year 1015, stands out as a notable event, which stirred men's minds to a great extent, and also had its effect upon the public life, -- the nearest Al-Thing was reckoned one of the most remarkable ever held, not because Bardi, who here avenged his brother Hall and took nine men's lives in exchange, was at all a prominent character, but because he, by the help of his foster-father, the wise Thorarin, had carried through his cause in the face of almost insuperable difficulties. He had no influence, he was, as he himself says, not a man of money, whereas his opponents, Thorbjorn and Thorgaut, were men of standing, with a host of friends, who had already long forced the young heir to Asbjarnarnes to bear with insult and be treated as an inferior. But in return, the vengeance taken in this affair was established firmly with all the luck of careful precaution. It was due to Thorarin's depth of wisdom in counsel that the day of reckoning came upon the opposite side like a thief in the night. To being with, he put a stop to all great assemblies in the district, the nurseries of rumour; then he spirited away a couple of rare horses, “all white, with black ears” which belonged to his neighbour, and further kindly undertook to search for them far and near; for if one had to have spies out all the time there in the south, it was better that they should be out on a respectable errand, than merely wandering about in search of a couple of old hacks – as he explained to his young friend. Naturally, the owner was pleasantly surprised to get his horses back – when Thorarin had no longer any use for them; as to the matter of a reward for having found them, there was no need to trouble about that; and so the foundation of one useful friendship was laid. When Thorarin had accomplished his preparations, he had about him, in the neighbouring homesteads, a little army of friends and willing helpers, who needed but a word of reminder when the time came. But with all these preparations, Thorarin did not forget to arrange matters so that the vengeance could have an overweight to make up for the delay in effecting it. When Bardi, after riding round to gather together all those helpers whose assistance had been arranged for, met his foster-father, he noticed at once that the old man was sitting with a strange sword across his knees. Thorarin answered the thought before it was uttered: “You have not seen that sword before? True, I have not had it very long; let us two exchange weapons and then you shall hear whence it comes; my son has another, that really belongs to Thorbjorn; this one is Thorgaut's.” Thereupon he told of the pleasure he had in making the acquaintance of Lying-Torfi. Torfi was a kinsman of the opponents mentioned, a man with a crafty brain and a brave tongue, and was also to be trusted as one entirely free from any conscientious scruples. How he had lied and how he had wriggled need not be told; here was the sword. “And,” said Thorarin, “it is most fitting, to my mind, that their insolence should be pruned with their own knives; you could take no better vengeance for the dishonour they have brought upon you and yours.” On the field of battle, Bardi proudly dashes forth and treats his enemies to a sight of their own weapon in his hand, he moves it hither and thither goading them into fury with “that they surely know,” – and “there they both were slain with their own weapons.”

Even though one read with half-closed eyes, one must perceive that the story differs from ordinary stories of theft in something more than the rank of the thief and his superior art. In watching Thorarin, we have the same uncanny feeling as when we see a human being procure demoniac power by stealing into another's soul and using his innermost secret to crush him helpless to the dust.

Thus enlightened by the tricks of Thorarin, we find it easier to understand a sort of invulnerability, which might otherwise easily appear as the privilege of half or wholly supernatural beings. An ogre like Grendel or his mother can only be overcome by mortal heroes with the aid of weapons wrung from the very hand of the enemy, or found in the beast's den. The Northmen have the same explanation of this phenomenon as that which contents the Anglo-Saxon heart; it is not merely the hardness of the bones that turns the edge, there is witchcraft behind it, they say. But the reality of life shows through the romantic element, when we read in a fairy tale of a family of half-trolls, that the father had sung himself and his kin to invulnerability against all weapons save their family sword, Angrvandill. Men with a good stout luck went unscathed from fight to fight, it was necessary to wait until, like Glum, they left themselves open, and when all is said and done, the surest way to deal a man a mortal wound is to strike him with his own weapons, or in other words, to use his own power against him.

In a tale such as that of the viking Svart Ironskull, who asked all his opponents if they knew Bladnir, trumped up and sophisticated thought it is, there is then an easily recognisable undertone of everyday fact. Bladnir was a family weapon, which, when Svart last heard of it, was in the possession of his brother Audun, and Svart was always on his guard against the chance of its turning up against him; it was plainly a case of gaining time, in case of need, for using some magic formula which should render it harmless in the hand of a robber. But he was overcome by craft at last, and that, shame to say, by the treachery of his own brother. Audun had once given Bladnir to his friend Thorgils, and then it came about that Thorgils one fine day was staying at a place where Svart had announced his own coming to visit the daughter of the house, and he willingly undertook to do the honours for the guest. The night before the meeting, he was surprised to be visited in a dream by his friend Audun, acquainting him with his anxiety with regard to this brother, a good-for-nothing, who simply wandered about the country making the place unsafe for the daughters of honest men. Bladnir could overcome him if only one were careful to place it in the sand of the fighting ground, and then assure the other party that one did not know its hilt was above the ground.

Many a man behaved in real life as did Arngrim in the saga. Arngrim harried the land of Svafrlami , and when they met in battle, Svarflami wielded his famous word Tyrfing. Svarflami struck at Arngrim, but he met the blow with his shield and the sword slashed off the tail of the shield and fastened in the earth. Arngrim severed the hand of the king, snatched up Tyrfing and dealt his enemy his death-wound. And the supposition that such a manner of death might prove fatal to the family's hope of vengeance is hardly so bold as it is at present unfounded.

 

   

 
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