THE COMMON BOARD
King Magnus, perhaps a little by surprise, sought to
bind Swein Estridson to subjection as his vassal, he did
not only offer him a cloak, but added thereto a bowl of
mead. Swein did not put on the cloak, and probably did
not taste the mead either; he feared the latter no less
than the former.
that a gift could do, food and drink could also bring
about; it could mean honour or dishonour, could bind and
loose, give good fortune and act as a cheek upon luck.
drank to each other, as the saying went in the olden
days; just as one drank wedding to a woman and thus drew
her into one's own circle, so also one drank to one's
neighbor, in such wise as to reach him, obtain him, and
draw him into one's frith. Therefore, an answer such as
this: “I have enjoyed his hospitality,” is
sufficient to justify a man in a flat refusal to join in
an action against his quondam host, and the argument may
perhaps force a man to take sides with the party opposed
to that where his place would naturally be. Though it be
but a single mouthful, it may, in a fateful moment,
suffice to give a decisive turn to the future.
Magnus was once sitting at meat on board his ship. A man
came across the deck and up into the high poop where the
king sat, broke off a piece of the bread and ate. The
king looked at him, and asked his name. “I am called
Thorfin.” “Are you Earl Thorfin?” – “Yes, so
men call me in the west.” -- “True it is, Earl, I
had in mind, if ever we should meet, to take care that
you should say nothing to anyone of our meeting; but
after what has happened now, it would not become me to
have you killed.” And there were no inconsiderable
matters outstanding between the two: Thorfin had played
an ugly joke upon the king's plans of sovereignty,
killed his kinsman Rognvald, the tool of the king's
political plans on the islands of the west, and very
ungently swept the king's retainers off the board.
has the same power as a gift to reveal the heart's
thought and rede. Out of the ale arise honour and
dishonour, it can raise a man in his self-esteem, and
let loose all the ill spirits of an affront in him. The
king honours his guest by drinking to him in his good
brew and letting the horn be carried to his place, and
guests honour one another by drinking together from the
cup; throughout the whole of the Middle Ages and right
down to our own times, men have continued to respect the
cup of honour. He who would avoid offending the bridal
pair must needs drink of their “cup of honor”, as it
is still called among modern peasants. When equals are
seated side by side at table, they watch jealously to
see that their advances are fully appreciated, and
regard it as a dire insult if the one they drink to fail
to “do right”, -- refuses to accept the drink, or
shows the lukewarmness of his feelings by only drinking
half; and a chieftain exhibits the greatest
punctiliousness in the matter of what is handed to him
and who offers himself as a drink-fellow. King Harald
regarded it as a disgrace t sit and be drunk to by King
Magnus' half-brother Thorir, and gave vent to his
feelings in a scornful verse with an allusion to his
common people's fear of being ill-used in drinking
together is so violent as to show that the instinct has
its roots deep down in human dignity itself. When
Swedish peasants in, thought not of, the century of
enlightenment, jump up and grasp their knives because
they cannot get their respective thirsts to keep pace,
they are hardly in a position to explain their
indignation, save perhaps by an old proverb -- the
explanation of which again lies centuries before their
own time – to the effect that he who fails a man in
drinking will fail him in other things.
final termination of all differences is the sharing of
food and drink. A reconciliation did not hold good until
it had been confirmed by a common meal. In the year 577,
Gunnthram and Childebert ate and drank together, and
parted in friendly feeling after having honoured each
other with rich gifts. Adam of Bremen's heathen
contemporaries in the North feasted eight days together
when they agreed upon alliance, and the Icelandic sagas
tell often enough of how former coolness was turned to
its opposite by the parties exchanging gifts, vowing
mutual friendship and inviting each other to a feast.
bargain for a wife was prepared with caution and craft.
Where the bargain itself falls into several minor
agreements: suit, betrothal, wedding and leading home,
each separate item has also to be confirmed by an
“ale”. When peasants in Norway after the provisional
agreement, first assemble at an “ale feast to talk the
matter out”, at the house of the bride's parents,
where further details are arranged and the betrothal
confirmed, then at a corresponding feast with the
bridegroom's family, and only then proceed to the
wedding, they are in all probability only doing what
ancient custom demanded.
the bridal bargain comes the gift bargain, and demands
its confirmation at table. Here, we read of the
transaction's being effected per cibum et polum,
by food and drink, in the receiver's house, and this per
has the same force as the “by” which declares that a
deal or a payment as been effected in and through the vadium,
or pledge, which the party concerned has tendered.
Perhaps the solemnity of a meal among our southern
kinsmen has falled somewhat into the background, which
may have some connection with the fanciful cult of
symbolic gifts which grew so such an extent in German
law; but in the North it lasted even more stubbornly
than the faith in the pledge itself. Without a cup to
soften the parting with the pig just sold, and confirm
the joy at the shining dollars paid, it is hardly
possible, among the peasantry, to buy or sell at all,
and if a man have a weak stomach or a weak head to look
after, he must excuse himself by an assurance of his
sincerity: “The bargain stands, for all that.”
reckon up all the legal transactions which called for a
“cup” in conclusion of the bargain would mean giving
a list of all the transactions that could take place in
Germanic society, and the demand lies deeper than in a
misty impulse to do what is right. The law looks again
and again to the convivial wind-up as a legal criterion.
Icelandic law does not accord legality to a wedding,
unless six persons at least had eaten, drunk and
bargained the two clans into alliance, the Swedes are
content to register habit and custom, saying for
instance: kin shall be asked to a wedding as far as the
third degree, i.e. as far as normal relationship
goes. Or again, as in the Norwegian Bjarkeyajar rétt,
ale might be made the arbitrator, so that a son could be
declared born in lawful wedlock when his mother was
brought for lawful bride money (mundr) and a cask
of ale had been purchased for the wedding, and drunk in
the presence of two brides-men and two brides-women, a
male and a female servant.
is still something vulnerable about this old means of
compact, which could so force human beings together that
their slightest action under its influence became a fact
in law and right. When the sharing of food could thus in
course of time become a sign of compact, it was because
it had once been established in experience. The legality
of the action arose from the fact that both parties felt
the change in them, and thus experienced the rightness
of the new state; it was demanded that the great bowls,
those on which important decisions depended, should be
emptied to the last drop, in order that the will to hold
by the bargain might be firmly secured. And men knew
that an incautious mouthful might deprive a man of his
self-control, or at any rate allow some other influence
to affect his will and paralyse his power of further
progress. The refusal comes with a force of its own:
“my errand is of another sort than to eat food,”
when a man comes knocking up the master of the house to
demand a settlement. “If I could but get the
stiff-necked clerk to eat with me, I should know how to
manage him easily enough” – this approximately was
the thought of the crafty Merovingian, Chilperich, when,
on his meeting with Gregory, he sought to persuade him
to take some refreshment; but on this point, Gregory was
as good a Teuton as the king, and knew how to take care
of himself. “Let us first straighten out what is
amiss; then we can afterwards drink our settlement
fast,” or, as the matter might also be put, with
Gregory's not uncommon two-legged logic: “Our eating
shall be to do God's will, not suffering ourselves to be
tempted by the lust of the flesh, to the forgetting of
His commandments; therefore, before I eat, you must
promise not to trespass against the rules of the
man surrendered himself completely to his opponent the
moment he handed him the cup and drank with him; on
those two hands reached out toward each other with the
vessel, there balanced a future which the least
uncertainty could upset, to the misfortune of two human
beings. After the death of the Lombard king Authari, his
queen, Theodolind, was asked by the people to accept the
dignity herself, and choose a husband with a strong hand
to rule the kingdom. With the advice of wise men, she
chose Duke Agilulf of Turin, and hastily invited him to
a meeting. The two met at Laumellum, and after they had
spoken together a while, she had wine brought, drank
first herself and handed Agilulf the rest. When he had
taken the cup and would kiss her hand, she said with a
smile and a blush that it was not fitting he should kiss
her hand who was to kiss her lips. She bade him stand up
and spoke to him of wedding and rulership.
Paulus Diaconus. And here, we should be poor readers if
we failed to understand that the little scene has a
tension of its own, great enough to give rise to a
tragedy. Theodolind has, with the cup, offered her own
honour, and given it into his hand, to do with as he
pleases; she has bound herself as Brynhild bound herself
to Sigurd by her vow to possess him who rode the flame;
hesitation on Agilulf's part to accept the vow and make
it a reality would fling her into unluck and force her
the future consists in wedding or in the new acquisition
of property, the act of drinking together is a giving
and receiving both the joy of the new state and the
power to enjoy it. The two parties drank njótsminni,
a cup that could make the purchaser njótr, one
who should enjoy the luck of the thing; and the modern
formula for lídkøb – as the bargain cup is
called in Danish – still contains a brief idea of all
the effects which the purchase cup produces on buyer and
seller as well as on the thing transferred; though I do
not mean to imply that the ritual is handed down from
earliest times. The seller testifies his contentment
with the price, guarantees that the article is full and
whole and shall be handed over to be the other's
property entirely and for ever, without reserve, without
flaw, with the luck in it; and the other party assures
himself that the deal is finally concluded and the
receiver satisfied, guaranteeing on his part that the
receiver shall have the full use and value of the money.
And this runs, when Danes are bargaining: “Now I drink
the black-faced cow to you, healthy and sound it is in
every way, free of hidden faults, 100 dollars is the
price I am to have for it; the calving time will be as I
have stated; as it is, so you shall have it.” “Then
I drink to you the 30 dollars already paid, I wish you
the luck of the money; so much you shall have, that you
have had.” “We wish luck on both sides with this
deal,” says the witnesses.
can gather the Germanic bargain into one image, in the
Norwegian form for freeing a slave. The slave was given
his freedom – and therefore he himself was called frjálsgjaft
– and for the gift of freedom he paid his fee; but
until he had held his freedom's ale – eating and
drinking with the man who freed him – he was not
regarded socially as released from his position of
research has found endless difficulty in understanding
this superfluity of forms, worrying its brains with the
question as to what the glove did, since possessions
depended upon the skeyting, and what was the use of the
latter, sine the vadium was all sufficient, and men have
wrestled with the various symbols as a kind of puzzle,
that had to be made to work out by some clever
arrangement. The same difficulty applies to almost every
point in the life of the ancients; name-giving and its
confirmation, betrothal and wedding, bridal gift and
bridal ale, are all absolute powers, and yet they get on
so excellently well together as soon as they are
suffered to act outside our learned heads. We can never
arrive at any solution by limiting the effect of the
individual acts relatively to one another, simply
because their power of working together lies in the fact
that they are all perfect in themselves and therefore
each contains its counterpart. Faith in the single
action must then, as its balance, have so much
earnestness, that a breach of the proper sequence means
an affront on the part of him who caused the disturbance
and misfortune, since it was not a possibility upset,
but a real bargain that was broken and a spiritual
connection that was irregularly sundered.
antagonists can wash away the feud in a common drink,
because there is something strong in the horn, which
heals all disharmony and quenches all thirst for
revenge, and more than that; something which cherished a
new feeling. They quaff the goodwill directly. Therefore
the law must deny a man right to seek restitution from
his opponent when he has of his own free will shared
house and food with him. Like everything else in the
world, the drink has its peculiar luck, a concentrated
essence of the hamingja belonging to the house and its
family. If a bride, on her first stepping forward to the
door of her new home, or her first crossing of the
threshold, was offered a taste of the food and drink
there housed – as was the custom in later times – it
was in order that she might be initiated and received
into the spirit which ruled in that home, and become
minded of one mind with the house. In Sweden, and
possibly also elsewhere, it was not enough that bride
and bridegroom emptied the wedding cup together with
their kin in the bridal house; after the bride had been
handed over to her husband, the whole party moved off
together to the husband's house and there celebrated a
wedding. At the first place, the agreement was drunk
fast in all those concerned; at the second, the bridal
pair was initiated into its new existence.
It lies in the nature of the drink itself that it should bring with it forgetfulness of something and the better remembrance of other things; in its strongest brew, it assimilated the drinker with itself, and so effaced his past as to make him a new man; it brought that forgetfulness which may suffer facts to stand, but takes away their light and shade and reality. Thus it was with Sigurd, when the queen, in Gjuki's hall, handed him the horn; as soon as he had tasted the brew, he forgot Brynhild and all his promises to her, thinking only how splendid a woman was Gudrun and what fine men were her brothers. The contents of the horn are a cup of memory when it is to wake the soul, and a cup of forgetfulness when it is to shut off the past; the ale in both cases is the same, and the main ingredient in it is the unadulterated homely brew of a strong household beer. The story of Hedin's enchantment, when he slays his foster-brother Hogni's queen and carries off his daughter, needs no more than the simple and obvious explanation that he had once in the forest encountered a woman who gave him to drink from a “horn of ale”, and when he had drunk, he remembered nothing of the past, nothing of having accepted Hogni's hospitality, or become his foster-brother, he had only one thought, that the advice of the ale-bearer woman was the only thing worth having and following in the world.
In the Danish ballad of Bosmer's visit to Elfland, the reality still holds that the drink, in virtue of its origin, contained a certain honour and fate, certain memories and certain aims, which of themselves drove out all else. The symmetrical ballad style is here as if moulded to the theme; before he has tasted the elfin food, he knows that
“In Denmark I was bred and born,
And there my courtly clothes were shorn:
There is the maid I have chosen to wife,
And there I will live to the end of my life,”
and he feels that he has come an evil journey. But the moment he has drunk, the little words turn about:
“In Elfland I was bred and born,
And there my courtly clothes were shorn:
There is the maid I have chosen to wife,
And there I will live to the end of my life,”
It comes about with him, as with Sigurd, that as he
“Held the cup to his lips and drank,
Out of his mind the whole world sank,
Forgotten his father and mother,
Forgotten his sisters and brothers . . .”
Two little grains of Elfland corn dropped into the wine to enhance the effect – nothing extraordinary beyond this, and the grains themselves are, when all is said and done, nothing else and nothing more than an emphasising of the fact that the drink contains the natural product of Elfland.
The ale Sigurd and Hedin swallowed was in the true sense a witch-brew, for it was evil, and carried evil with it. Both come to their senses, and memory finds its way to their former being, but they cannot become their former selves again. They have no will to break, and they go forward unhesitatingly on the road the drink has set them, recognising that which has the foundation of a whole life. Sigurd's loyalty to his brothers-in-law is not loosened after his awakening, and Hedein's contrition at having wronged his foster-brother is not repentance in the modern sense; it can lead him to offer restitution, but when his offer is rejected, he has no chance but to assert himself. The only way for him to stave off nidinghood is by carrying through his present character and making it his honour, just as the owners of Tyrfing must accept the dark fate of the weapon as their own will. The strength, the tragic grandeur of these ancient heroes lie in their single-mindedness; they never try to be two men at a time, and thus they never know the inner discord that consumes modern men who despise themselves for what they are and hanker after what they cannot be – thus never attaining to tragedy.
The home-brewed ale was an elixir vitæ which imperceptibly created the minds day by day in peasant's homestead and king's court. In it frith was born.
If a man died alone in a strange land or on board a ship, it was natural to declare his board-fellow his heir, not because such fellowship was regarded as reflecting the character of family relationship, but because the sharing of food was the heart of the clan, and indeed of every circle whose unity was of the same sort as that of the circle of kin. Without a constantly repeated renewal of frith by the food, and especially by the drink which was permeated by the luck of the house itself, the bond would be loosened and the individual wither; and when we read that none could be declared incapable of managing his own affairs as long as he could drink ale and ride a horse – empty his cup and move among men without help from others – there was an equality between the two items which is no longer obvious. “To sit in the mead-seat” is an expression for being yet among the living, which owes nothing to poetic licence.
Meat and drink can, nay, must, be the sign which distinguishes life from death. When the outcast has been brought to a seat in a stranger's house and becomes a new man, with new life and new thoughts, the transformation has not taken place in any metaphysical sense, he has physically received a luck and taken it in. And when the child had tasted food, it was insured against being cast out, for the simple reason that it had imbibed a reality, and was thus become an unassailable value. It had tasted frith, and was therefore insured in honour, so that not even its parents had now any power over it. There is a story from Friesland of a woman of noble family who had her son's child carried out, in anger at his having only daughters born to him. When she learned that another woman had taken interest in the little creature and cared for it, she sent men with the strictest orders; the child was to be put out of the world; but the men arrived too late; the child lay, licking its lips contently after a meal – and they had to go back to their stern mistress with their errand unaccomplished.
On the other hand, exclusion from the sharing of food amounts to sentence of death upon the outlaw. When the state declares a niding óæll, as it is called in Iceland, one against whom every man's hand and store shall be closed, it means that he is shut out from all continuance in humanity; life is no longer allowed to flow into him.
Having arrived thus far, we look about us involuntarily in search of some ceremonial. Even though the sources, as in almost every case of ordinary everyday things, are apt to fail us, we know that just as luck and honour exercised their vital functions through the medium of gifts, so also must the meal, and the intercourse after the meal, when the drink went round, have had its forms, through which the deep breath of frith was visible. A significant view of the life of a peasant homestead is afforded by a that little passage in the Frosta-thing's Law which decrees that “those vessels wherein the women drink to one another across the floor shall go to the daughters.” At the king's court, where the man was linked up into the chieftain's luck and permeated with his will, “by gift and ale” as the Beowulf says, the queen went her way through the hall at the drink hour horn in hand, and offered it all round the bench, after first letting her husband drink. Thus evidently the queen would go on working days and feast days, whether her mind urged her especially thereto or not. The men claimed such attendance as a right. “We think so well, King Garibald, of your daughter, that we would gladly have a foretaste now of the luck that awaits us; let her then, beloved, hand us a cup now, a she will later come to bear it to us;” thus, with innocent directness speak the little group of messengers from King Authari, as they rested on King Garibald's benches after having gained his consent to the maiden's marriage with their master. The actual spokesman was in reality Authari himself, who, out of curiosity, had disguised himself as one of his own retainers, and now took advantage of common custom to approach his betrothed. And since the forms observed in the king's body-guard were but an intensified image of the customs of the home, we may suppose that spiritual service formed part of the Germanic housewife's duty, was indeed her essential work as a weaver of frith. The saga writer can find no more direct expression for Brynhild's manliness than the fact that she will not allow any man to take his seat beside her, or hand ale to any to drink: her mind is set on war and not on marriage.
There is more detail in the ancient descriptions of feasting at table, especially on such occasions as involved a change in the life of those taking part. The feast begins outside the house, where a ceremonial drink awaits the guests as they arrive. The wedding customs of later times, in Norway, present this ritual in imposing forms. The men assemble at the bridegroom's homestead, there to clinch the fellowship by eating and drinking doughtily together. Then with shouts and cries they set off in a wild race to the bride's home, and having neared the place, send off two heralds in advance to ask a night's lodging. In answer to their request, they are given some bowls of ale, which are carried to the party in waiting, and not until this ale greeting has admitted them into the great community awaiting them, do they ride forward and dismount. This life study from the eighteenth century proves is venerable character by its agreement in every item with the scattered indications which have found their way into the Swedish district laws. According to these likewise, two of the bridegroom's party had, on arriving at the house of the bride, to ask the master of the house for frith for themselves and their companions; and after his had been mutually agreed and weapons laid aside, the first drink round takes place, as an introduction to the spokesman's formal demand for the bride.
Whether the cup of initiation were offered in the open air or within doors, the guest could not avoid it. As we learn in the Hymiskvida, the god, on his visit to Jotunheim, among his mother's people, was met on the floor of the hall by his gold-decked kinswoman with the ale horn in her hand. And the man who had been a guest in Olaf Kyrri's hall, calls to mind his welcome there in the same image: “The prince of battle greeted me welcome with friendly mind, when the feaster of ravens, the master of rings, he himself came forward to meet me with a golden horn to drink with me.” A Byzantine author, Priscos, from the sixth century, has in his recollections of a journey he made as ambassador to the court of Attila, described the trials which an educated man had to pass through for his country's sake. These barbarians had naturally the queerest customs, and the trouble was that one had to agree to their eccentricities if one wished to make any headway at all. He was invited one day to a private banquet with the queen, and was at once overwhelmed with a circumstantial Scythian ceremonial; each of those present rose on the entry of the Greeks and offered them a full cup, which they had to drink off, after which achievement they were rewarded with kisses and embraces from their dear hosts. To all appearances, Attila's court must have been more than half germanised, as it was in fact made up of Teuton grandees, and Priscos had, in this Scythian ritual of the board, a taste of what it meant to live in Gothic fashion.
There is no break between these old scenes from the south and north, on the one hand, and the simply grandiose forms of the Swedish and Norwegian peasantry on the other, when the host comes out on to the steps with “welcome” in his hand, carried, perhaps, in a vessel specially kept for the purpose. And the custom of Ditmarsk again, slips into the whole, almost as an exhaustive commentary on the old indications. We find here, that when the guest has shared the first meal with his hosts, the mistress of the house comes forward and greets him in solemn, traditional formula with fresh ale in a fresh, new bowl; after her come in the same manner sons and daughters, and finally, the serving people likewise show him their hospitable mind.
These ceremonials are more particularly aimed at the guest who does not himself form one of the circle, and has therefore first to be admitted to its life; but in the more general features, the forms obtaining at a banquet are merely an enhancement and adaptation of what is always required. The customs of the ceremonial feast teach us to what extent the forms of food-sharing dominated all intercourse between people generally.
Slowly and steadily our forefathers' life moves forward, we may even find the pace desperately slow. These people appear to us to be stuck fast, writhing in a web of forms. Hesitatingly, unwillingly, ever considering and estimated, they move, for every step is rendered a matter of grave moment from the effect which every act might have upon an immeasurable future. There is no way of breaking through the ceremonial; without these forms and fashions there is no possibility of any intercourse between human beings at all; again and again men have to go through them in order to reach other's thoughts. Even the most fleeing encounter presupposes in a certain degree alliance and compact, -- not for nothing did the custom demand so great a reserve on the part of host and guest, that they entertained and partook of entertainment for days together before they could bring out their errand. When a first acquaintance could have such pronounced effects as this, that the host was compelled to take up his guest's suit, and prosecute it as his own, despite his inclination; even, indeed, when this new interest was so opposed to his own former obligations that wit and luck were needed to avoid catastrophe – then circumspection and diplomacy must be a sure growth among the people.
Then we may perhaps be surprised to find that caution has an opposite with features no less marked.
Not enough that a host is in the power of his guest – after all, every man is more or less at the mercy of any passer-by. The guest is the stronger; he can force his way in by violence and snatch a man's friendship; he can manage by stealth to procure a mouthful of the luck of the house, and then the hamingja itself takes up his cause and forces it, by the action of the pulse, into is representatives in the flesh, driving them whither they would not. Once inside the door, he has no need to crouch and humbly hide his existence in the gloomiest corner, still less sneak about in borrowed clothes; boldly he holds forth his business in the light, and asks his hosts when they are really going to make an effort and gain him his rights. The guest's authority is so strong that when he throws himself on the mercy of the man he has wronged, he can insist on the bond of hospitality; it is a great shame to wrong a man who has placed himself in one's power – with these words he points his request.
There is a remarkable story of the young Lombard prince Albuin. In order to gain the distinction among aliens which was required to give a man full dignity in his own home, he set out resolutely with a chosen following to the court of Thurisind, king of the Gepidæ, whom he had rendered poorer by a son in a recent battle. As a guest of the highest birth, he was offered a seat in the empty place next to the king, and the meal proceeded in due form. Thurisind was silent for a long while, and all were careful not to utter their thoughts; but when the king broke out: “Gladly I look upon that seat, but it is hard to see that man sitting there,” the hall burst into uproar. The Gepidæ jeered at their guests, and called them mares with white socks, -- referring to the white bands they wore round their legs. The Lombards asked whether they had fought at Asfeld and seen the mares strike out with their hoofs, and the Gepidæ suddenly called to mind more than they could control. But the king dashed out into the midst of them, warning and threatening any who should dare to tempt the patience of God by striking down a guest in the house itself. The men calmed down, and the feast proceeded “with gladness”. Thurisind took down his son's weapons from the place where they hung, and set them upon Albuin himself.
Here, hospitality is seen in conflict with great and powerful feelings, and it gains the victory.
Caution was great, but hospitality was greater. The wayfarer was always certain of being received. Tacitus gives his readers the impression that the table is laid as soon as the mere shadow of a stranger falls through the doorway, and he is right when he states absolutely that none need wait for an invitation. “It is villainy to refuse shelter,” runs the popular saying in Norway; having tendered hospitality, the host is at once involved in the difficulties of the guest. Headlong we should call these Icelanders, who almost drag in the man pursued, when he comes one evening and knocks at the door as one in a hurry to find himself within doors; who, despite their own opinion of the man, risk their life and welfare to protect him, openly and secretly; who send him with a recommendation to their friends and kinsmen to look after. But Cæsar had already met men who were the equals of the Icelanders, and he has revealed his insight into their ideas of hospitality by saying simply: “These people consider it shameful to affront a guest. Whoever he may be, and whatsoever grounds may drive him to seek the hospitality of others, they protect him against wrong. He is sacred; all houses are open to him, and food is ready for him.”
Only by living through the contrasts to their extreme consequences can we partake of the harmony wherein this culture rests. All that a man is he must be wholly, within a luck or outside it – there is no tangent middle stage. When a man stands face to face with his nieghbour, one of two things must happen; either one casts words to him across a great, bottomless gulf, and the words then necessarily become weapons, or the two mingle mind, and the words become ready messengers of goodwill. The guest who has tasted of the fat of the house, is really within the soul, for a visitor who fails to let himself be entirely swallowed up by the luck of the house is unimaginable, since no home could tolerate such a dead spot within its organism.
The manner in which later times held, as a matter of course, the master of a house responsible for all that proceeded from his house is but a faint expression of the host's personal feeling of the guest's actions as deriving from his own will, or in other words, as those of a kinsman. He must protect the guest to the uttermost of his power, because the stranger's misfortune will drag the whole house with it to its fall.
Procopius tells of Thorisvind, King of the Gepidæ, who was once tempted by the emperor of Byzantium to hand over a foreign pretender, whom fate had driven to seek refuge among the tribe. As a widely travelled man, who had learned the strange ways of civilized nations, he was able to realise that the old-fashioned principles of morality would not serve in cases of political complications, and he endeavoured to make his people understand that an agreement paid for with something which one did not own was clear profit. But through the words of the alien historian there still runs audibly the people's refusal: “Far be it from us! Better that we should perish with our wives and children.” In face of the old-fashioned doctrinairism of the people, the king with all his enlightenment can make no headway – he is forced to settle matters privately with the other party, and attain his end by stealth, as progress often must when seeking its way in the world.
What we call form was reality itself. The intercourse of the ancients did not take place under certain forms, but in them, they lived life itself in the slowly circulating ale-bowl, they shared mind as they drank fellowship together, exchanged fleeting thoughts in the cup as they exchanged winged thoughts in their words; they tasted the honour and the memories of the house in its food, at the same time feasting their eyes with the heirlooms and trophies in the hall, and drawing in the atmosphere of the clan with their breaths. It was an experience unlike all else to handle weapons when they came to the hand so heavy with spirit as to force the owner to open his lips and say: “This byrnie Heorogar bore throughout a long life,” – “this sword belonged to my grandfather Jokul, and the ancient Vatsdolea men before him, and kept them in conquest.” It was a unique feeling to own a thing of value, when its nature was to such a degree fate, past, present and future, that the gift not only set the receiver's soul vibrating, but inspired him to a poem on the giver.
Ceremonial forms are the stream of life itself, not narrowing banks against which life grinds in its passage. They are solemn because they are necessary; they are necessary because they come into existence merely from the fact that men do not offer resistance to the need of life, to develop itself. To go with the sun, to grown and let grow with the moon, to carry out the ritual whereby kinship, whether with men or with nature, is strengthened and renewed, whereby the sun is held to its course and earth and heaven preserve their youth and strength, to effect honour and luck, to give the child its name-gift, to drink the cup of brotherhood – this is to live. It is forms which divide the living from the dead. One cannot forbid an outlaw of the woods to eat, and there is no idea of cutting him off from food, but real food, that which carries with it all gladness and thoughts, from this is he excluded. He is thrust out from forms, into the formless.