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THE DRAMA AS THE HISTORY OF THE CLAN

 

The sacrificial drama covers the history of the clan from the very birth of time to the actual present of the blot — hence the pregnancy of its several scenes — and makes up a whole repugnant to the very idea of a distinction, in our view of fundamental importance, between cosmic or mythical events and historical incidents. The fight with the demon spells victory over the enemy in every shape, the overcoming of enmity; in this act the clan wins all its battles for ever. This implies to our understanding a twofold or rather manifold meaning to the legend, because we are unable to grasp a mental attitude of such a complex or, rather, of so condensed a character; our experience being directed from a chronological standpoint prevents our conceiving history as a totality or fulness that never loses its inner coherence, even if it readily splits up into episodes when any incident is brought back to memory.

In the dragon fight the traditions of the clan are transfigured and celebrated, and the scene is consequently distinguished by an individual tone according to the experience of various groups (see II 38 seqq.). The legend never describes those actual incidents which to us are equivalent to history, but reproduces the events remembered in their ritual acting. In Scandinavia the ancient traditions have been remoulded into literature under the influence of English and Irish narrative art; here and there however, the traces of older forms are discernible beneath the surface, and in one case the dramatic structure of the story is plainly visible, only slightly retouched by the fancy of the poet.

In the princely clans of Scandinavia kinship with kingly houses in the South was highly prized and fondly cherished; a chieftain of illustrious extraction and far-reaching ambition felt with pride the blood of the Volsungs coursing in his veins and their hamingja working through his schemes, it is accordingly no wonder that the legend of Sigurd the dragon slayer should occupy a prominent place in their traditions. The myth has been subjected to poetic treatment over and over again, but has happily survived in a form that bears a legendary stamp and shows how the story of Sigurd was re-enacted under the guise of the dragon fight. A group of Eddic poems comprising the Fafnismál, Reginsmál and Sigrdrifumál, is moulded on the drama or the sequence of dramatic episodes at the blot.

The prelude, disclosing the activities of the three gods Odin, Hoenir and Loki, is pure sacrificial myth. The second part is bound up with the sacrifice in its description of the fight in pictures from the blot — the conqueror tastes the heart of the victim — and the verses still hinge on ritual terms such as funi for fire and fjörsegi for heart. The enemy still appears in the character of the demon: not only are Fafnir and Regin styled jotuns, but they have the ritual epithets of the demon appended to their names: the old jotun, the frost-cold jotun, as in Vaf. 21 where it is said of Ymir: “the sky was made from the frost-cold jotun's skull”, in Lokas. 49 where Loki is bound with the bowels “torn from his frost-cold son”, in Háv. 104: “Suttung the ancient jotun”, and in Voluspá 25: “the ancient one, the mother of wolves”, etc. The third part describing the meeting of Sigurd and Brynhild bears the features of the drinking feast: she hands him the horn and graces the act with a formćli that is nothing less than an opening or invocatory hymn; hether they be a literal transcription or a poetical paraphrase of words used at the blot the verses contain the most precious piece of ritual apostrophe preserved to us.

The dramatic representation of the incidents is further indicated through numerous dómar, recitals embodying mythical lore and ethical exhortations. The poems under discussion offer valuable information supplementary to the elucidations of Voluspá and Hávamál regarding the arrangement of the recitals in continuance of the ritual acts; the slaying of the jotun introduces a dialogue on destiny and the norns, on the battle between the gods and the demons; the offering of the horn gives rise to a lesson in runic lore; another incident leads to a discussion of practical and moral wisdom. According to Háv. 111 cited above, the officiating person who proceeded to the rök seat in order to make a ritual proclamation was in this capacity at times called ţulr, speaker; the poem occasionally hints at this aspect of the blot by appending the ritual epithet ţulr to the name of Regin (Faf. 34).

The dramatic origin of the poem is further apparent through the psychology of the heroine. As far as we can understand, Brynhild is split up into two persons, the woman and a mythological double, Sigdrifa; but the apparent inconsistency is caused by our looking at the drama from without and consequently puzzling over the simple fact that the heroine is dramatically represented by a figure displaying mythical attributes. The vafrlogi that encircles her dwelling-place is probably reminiscent of the scene where part of the ritual was enacted, being in fact nothing else than the sacrificial fire. This symbolic or dramatic fire recurs elsewhere, f. i. in Skirnismál, in a scene of ritual character; and if further evidence is needed it is furnished in unambiguous terms by a phrase in Fjolsvinnsmál (31-2): “What is the name of the hail encircled by vafrlogi? — It goes by the name of Hyrr” — fire, probably a ritual term — “and flickers for a long time on the edge of the spear”, cf. supra p. 298.

Primitive drama combines stability of form with plasticity in application. It is tied down to a pre-determined model, in which the dominating idea or motif of the sacrifice finds expression, but the model is adaptable insofar as it readily lends itself to the exposition of local episodes, or history in our sense of the word.

This interweaving of divine and human history will often produce a feeling of bewilderment in modern readers and either occasion disgust at such rather frivolous handling of facts, or, if they be men of learning, urge them to titanic feats of analysis and interpretation. A case in point is the story of Balder which is preserved in two parallel versions, that of the Icelanders and that of Saxo the historian. To all appearance Saxo took his romance from unknown sources that had their origin in real legends, reproductions of a clan drama; his saga of Balder and Ollerus as well as his Hading myth represent divine myth incorporating historical traditions, and they thus fall into line with the Sigurd legends. As his sources are unknown, we shall probably never succeed in making out how great a part the euhemeristic partiality of the monk played in the formation of his style, and his pages will for ever remain somewhat intractable material for historical and mythological speculation; but if we are right in supposing that he had genuine legends at his disposal, he may be acquitted of mere arbitrariness in the treatment of his material — the legends offered a handle to which he could attach his euhemeristic theory.

In Eilif's Thorsdrapa the legend still preserves its actual character. In the middle of the poem the progress of Thor's exploits is held up for a couple of verses devoted to the praise of some contemporary expedition or expeditions; on account of their actuality these stanzas are sometimes gently removed by modern interpreters as insertions which conspire against the unity of the poem. More probably they may be considered the heart of the drapa — the poet weaves actual battles into the victory over the demon and in accordance with the central theme makes his kennings play on real ethnological names — Gandvikr Skotum, Skyldbreta, vikingar etc. — all of which proves that he was in close touch with the ritual forms of poetry or more probably reproduced a sacrificial drama in his drapa. If we had the means of running his allusions to earth we should probably be able to identify the king at whose court Eilif recited his poem.

“Heimdal fought with Loki for the Brisingamen at Vágasker and Singasteinn” (S E 83), thus runs Snorri's tantalising report of an important legend concerning the conquest of the gold; and beyond this concise index to the contents of the myth we are only vouchsafed a hint that the precious necklace rested in the middle of the waters and that Heimdal carried off the prize. The myth implies a dramatic game enacted in order to save the treasures of the clan from the rapacious grip of the demons and at the same time to renew the luck inherent in its possessions. The poet of the Voluspá has this drama in mind when he makes a pair of antagonists out of Heimdal and Loki in the decisive battle between the gods and the demons. The fact that the myth in our version centres in the necklace called the Brisingamen is probably reminiscent of an individual form of the drama hailing from a clan of Brisings (cf. for another family traditions of a similar treasure, the Brosings in Beow. 1119). The Brisings were a clan of Southern Germany, and the introduction of their legend into Scandinavia was due to matrimonial or other alliances, as is notoriously the case with the Sigurd legend. The contest between the god and the demon came in as part of the sacrificial drama everywhere — it is identical with the slaying of Fafnir — and is perpetuated in a number of kennings or ritual formulć designating gold as the resting place of the serpent or the demon. The justification for the assumption by Heimdal of the character of the rescuer in our version of the legend is not far to seek: the ritual gold having its appointed place on the “altar”, was guarded during the ceremonies by the power of Heimdal.

Another legend which represents a ritual drama against an historical background is handed down to us under the title: The War between the Ases and the Vanes. This grouping of the ancient gods into two conflicting parties reflects a contrast between different rituals or rather between heterogeneous religions. The Ases are the gods of the cattle owner; the Vanes are the deities of the peasant, their sacrificial animal is the swine, and their drama centres round the plough and the scythe. The religion of the tiller of the soil differs from that of the cattle owner not merely in the peculiarity of its ceremonies, but still more in its spirit of fierce exaltation. The drama of origin generally involved a hieros gamos or some other symbol of propagation, and it may be presumed that the cult of the Ases included ceremonies bearing upon the birth of the clan or the people; but in the religion of the peasant, the rites of impregnation and conception are suffused with a sensual glow that is foreign to and even repellent to the herdsman; in the old Norse literature, erotic poetry is represented by one solitary poem, the Skirnismál, and Skirnismál is a paraphrase of a legend belonging to the cult of the Vanes.

Where agriculture appeared it carried its rites along with the implements of husbandry; the plough was of no use unless it was accompanied by instructions as to the proper way of handling this new contrivance, and in the directions for use our distinction between manual and ritual management has no force. Any amount of rules regarding the preparation of the soil and handling of the seed would be empty so long as they did not include an initiation into the ceremonies needed for rendering sowing effective, inspiring it with “luck”. When agriculture was introduced among the Northerners this ritual apparatus had to be incorporated into the indigenous blot and assimilated to its drama. The cult of the Vanes in Scandinavia goes back to the time when the first plough tore the soil and the first handful of barley was scattered in the furrow, but the influence of the Vanic religion varied considerably according as agriculture remained an occupation of secondary interest, as was the case in great parts of Norway down to the introduction of Christianity, or as it occupied a central place as “the staff of life”, as in Denmark and on the broad, fertile plains of Central Sweden.

In our terms, the conflict and the reconciliation of the Ases and Vanes reflect a clash between rival gods or conflicting rituals, but such a statement involves the reconstitution of the original facts to suit our quasi-historical abstractions. In reality the legend commemorates a war between a race of Thor worshippers and another group of men who sacrificed to Frey, and this struggle was embittered by cultural prejudices. The influence of the Vanes is symbolised in the uncanny seductress Gullveig, whose figure reflects the hatred felt by the worshippers of Thor for certain ecstatic and erotic phenomena. “She was a bewitcher of minds, a worker of magic, welcomed with joy by evil women”, in the racy words of the Voluspá (22). The war terminated in reconciliation and alliance and, according to the spirit of ancient frith, friendship implied a mingling of luck and consequently community of ritual. This momentous event was incorporated into the history of the race or, in other words, it was commemorated and constantly renewed in the drama, and the legend can be nothing else than an account of the events as they really happened, i. e. as they were enacted by subsequent generations in the blot halls. The dramatic situation is graphically rendered by the poet of the Voluspá (23-4): “all the gods proceeded to the rök seats and consulted together, whether the ases should pay or all the gods take part in the feast” — thus the opening of the ceremony, making arrangement for its proper performance; then the drama itself : “Odin flung his spear into the host, the fence of the gods was broken into, uttering their battle cries the Vanes tramped the field”. The events that led up to the war are given in terms of ritual acting, which no analysis, be it ever so subtle, will succeed in converting into historical statement: “The gods propped her up with spears and burned her in Hár's hall, three times they burned her, three times born, often, not seldom, though she is still living” (21).

In the description of the Vane gods their worshippers are portrayed: possessors of broad, fertile fields, horse breeders, bold sailors. As a matter of course this description applies to the race whose drama is represented in the Norwegian tradition, and makes up a piece of self-portraiture; whether it also gave a true likeness of the race who originally fought under the banner of Frey is another question that may possibly be answered in the affirmative, though not on the strength of the Norwegian legend. According to the hints of the Voluspá, corroborated by later accounts, the religion of the Vanes had evolved a peculiar form of ecstatic practice, called seiđr, in which the performer hypnotised himself, or herself, by means of songs produced in a setting of weird, impressive ceremonial. Presumably the self-intoxicating, spiritualistic performances of the seid were of Finnish or Lapp origin, and it is characteristic of the Vanic religion that shamanistic elements were drawn into its ritual and readily assimilated.

The legend of the war among the gods affords no clue as to its provenance. One tiny, broken ray of historical light only, flickers over the documents; the mythical names of Freyja stand out from all other divine epithets by a peculiarity of their own: she is called the goddess of the Vanes, the woman of the Vanes (Vana-gođ, Vana-dis, Vana-brúđr, S E 90, 100 cf. 82) thus indicating that “the Vanes” was originally an appellation denominating the people and transferred by quondam enemies to the Vane deities. We learn from the sagas that the Norwegian worship of Frey had its principal seat in the regions around the Drontheimfiord and was brought to Iceland by families hailing from this part of Norway. A conjecture that the legends reflect battles fought long ago in the Drontheim country presumably with Swedish kings, may not be wide of the mark. The people of that district entered with zest into the affairs of the surrounding world, from early time they were in touch with their eastern neighbours, and later they kept a sharp look-out over the ocean. The pedigrees of the Earls bear witness that these chieftains maintained an active intercourse with the kingdoms in the South and were no strangers in Danish waters.

It goes without saying that agriculture was not introduced complete and at one blow; there was a steady flow of rural rites northward from the Mediterranean area; the harvest of folklore among the peasants of Central and Northern Europe shows unmistakably that this percolation continued far into the Middle Ages, when Christianity had replaced the classical religions ritually as well as intellectually. Our material is, however, too scanty in character to justify a hypothesis as to the origin and development of the Vane religion or even an analysis with a view to tracing subsequent phases in the Frey cult. By a singular coincidence the AS Runic Verses have preserved a reminiscence of a dramatic situation similar to that of the Norwegian legend: “Ing was first seen among the East Danes, he passed eastwards beyond the water, his waggon ran after” (B A Po. I 335 (67)); these lines evidently picture a ritual scene, and the wording indicates that the underlying legend and consequently the drama, involved an allusion to historical proceedings in the ritual of the god and his ceremonial waggon.

In our endeavour to extract the meaning of the legends we are hampered by the fact that the mythology of Scandinavia is handed down in a harmonised form; the myths are torn from the place where they have grown, they are shuffled, pieced together into systems and welded into literature. If it is borne in upon us that our information is largely derived from North Norwegian sources the discovery need not cause us wonder, Our historical documents, in the first place the Landnámabók, bear witness to the part which the high-spirited clans of these regions played in the spiritual revolution, or cultural expansion, as it has been called in these pages, of the North. They can lay claim to the name of vikings in more senses than one only, for they have adventured quite as far into the spacious world of the spirit as they did into the fair countries of the earth; it is mainly due to these venturous migrants that the wisdom and ideals of their ancestors were carried beyond the narrow borders of the race and developed into forms that have taken their place in the literature of the world. In some cases, the legend still carries the impress of its origin. In the Thiazi myth, Skadi assumes the role of the ritual avenger, and in the dealings between the Ases and the Vanes she also appears as a chief character; her place in the world is firmly established by the ritual pedigree which Eyvind has utilised in his Háleygjatal, saying; “Odin and Skadi were the progenitors of the clan”.

 

   

 
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