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Chapter X

Prayer and Sacrifice


Ale carried with it always a festive glow; it was not a part of the nourishing and thirst-questing everyday fare, but constituted, in a higher degree than milk and whey, a spiritual refreshment, a holy strengthening. And naturally, the drink which honoured the high feasts with its blessing, must have a power of its own to unite gods and men.

Here again suppositions force themselves upon us, though we are unable to drag them into the light and give them all the reality they demand. When the feast-ale was brewed, was it then possible to treat the vats with the everyday minimum of religious care - for an act of such importance as the preparations of the nourishing luck of the house could never be altogether worldly in the modern sense - was not rather every little ingredient handled with the solemnity of ritual, did not one purify oneself and impose restraint upon the freedom of tongue and limb when proceeding to the serious task of making ready for the blot?

In the veneration with which feast-ale is regarded by the common people of Norway, there is doubtless a touch of earnest from the old-time brewing. It is told of the people of the Telemark in ancient times that they prepared their feast-day drink with great solemnity, fearing lest carelessness in the process might prevent the ale from becoming strong, a thing which was not merely a defect, but a positive misfortune. When the ale at the feast proved incapable of depositing the guests under the bench, the host went about in a state of misery that could not have been greater had his homestead been burned down.

A woman's skill in brewing was something far more than housewifely capability; it was the test of her holiness and its force, of her strength in the gods and her power over luck. When King Alrek's two wives, Geirhild and Signy, disputed as to which should be queen, it was the ale - that ale they brewed to receive the king on his return from the wars - which finally decided the issue. Geirhild invoked Odin, and vowed him her unborn son; he gave her some of his spittle to ferment the drink, and the ale proved good.

Undoubtedly then, the blot had its starting point in the brew-house; from the first stretching out of the hand to the holiness has undisputed scope. The contents of the cauldron and vat, however, only attained their full sacrificial powers in the banqueting hall itself. The Sacrifice began with the filling of the horn, in reverent silence and with ceremonial movements. Then the man presiding at the feast "signed", consecrated the horn, the ancient word for the performance is vigja, derived from , and this linguistic connection gives us the essence of the act. Vé means holiness, the utmost strength, and everything holy: the sacred place, the sacred treasures, the banner that leads the way, calling for boldness or caution, and ensuring success by its presence in the midst of the army. Vé is the strong in the sacred sense, and in order to comprehend its scope, we must recall the comprehensiveness of primitive ideas as to life and its manifestations. The verb then means to inspire, bring a divinity and a deity into the thing, make it a god.

The verbs used of the first dealing with the cup express in a different wise the inner transformation of the drink, but as to the form whereby the alteration is produced we have unfortunately no direct information. Possibly the consecration took place with solemn gestures. There were such things as signs made in the air, if we may believe the somewhat doubtful legend of Hakon Aethelstansfostri, who made the sign of the cross over the blot-meat before tasting it, and was excused by earl Sigurd, who declared it was the sign of Thor's hammer; the remarkable fact that peasants should need any explanation of a good heathen gesture does not perhaps altogether exclude the possibility that the story may have had some slight warranty in reality. Apparently it receives reinforcement from the verb "sign", often used of consecration; for "sign" means, among other things, to make a sign. But it is equally possible that the alien word really denotes the use of holy means, of treasures, in other words. Knowing the power of possessions, we are easily tempted to take an assumption for certainty, and say that the valuables of the clan were brought fourth, the spear and neck ornament, the arrows and rings, and the drink allowed to suck its fill of what they contained; the most holy things might have been fetched from the blot-house, and the bowl saturated with this till it was on the point of bursting - as with that cupa, which burst as soon as the priest with his hostile words awoke the powers it contained to fury. In the myth, Thor makes his goats whole and living after they have been slaughtered and eaten, by waving his hammer over their skin and bones, and from this cult legend we can draw safe inference regarding the use of the hammer of similar ceremonial object in the consecration. Another hint is contained in the Eddic poem of Thrymskvida, describing how Thor regained his hammer by posing as a bride. While the god of the red beard slept, the giants had been astir, and had abstracted his godly weapon and carried it to Utgard. The thief would not hand out his spoils unless rewarded by the possession of the goddess Freyja. The gods were at a loss, until Heimdal suggested that Thor should don the bridal veil and go in state to gladden the giant. On the arrival of the bridal party, a feast was held, and the ogres were naturally astonished at the appetite of the fair one, but the shrewd bridesmaid, impersonated by Loki, explained to the satisfaction of all that Freyja had contracted a tremendous hunger by her sore longing for her husband. At last the aim of the comedy is attained when the hammer is brought in and placed in the bride's lap. The poem is a burlesque, modeled upon unmistakable reminiscences of marriage ritual, and the ceremonial foundation comes to light in the words of the giant when he orders the hammer to be brought in: bring in the hammer to consecrate the bride, place Mjolnir in the woman's lap.

The sacred articles were present at the blot, and no one is likely to suppose that they hung or lay idle. The memories of the power of treasures provide the best commentary to the exuberant description in the Edda of the shy god with the red beard devouring ox after ox out of sheer impatience for the moment when he should see the hammer brought in to consecrate the lap of the bride. On the day when a temple feast was held at Olfusvatn, the housewife, Signy, sat on a chair with her treasures in her lap, and the day proved the beginning of unluck, for her little son, Hord, came stumbling towards her and grasped at the trinket, so that it broke. It is not inconceivable that this scene, from its importance to the saga of Hord and his sorry fate, holds in itself a memory of the old blot days, and shows us an interior from the blot hall itself.

When Olaf the Saint surprised the blot-men in the Drontheim country, he took a great amount of plunder both in vessels used for feasts and "valuables" - gripir - which the company had with them at the feast. They had come dressed in their best, as we should say, but this, rendered in the ancient speach, simply means that the sacred heirlooms of the clan were put on to inspire the sacrifice with holiness.

The ceremonial consecration no doubt demands action, but to take effect, the act needed an accompanying word. At the blot, the horn was "spoken for" by him who presided at the feast. This technical term - maela fyrir -has, like so many others, passed over into Christianity; a Norse guild statute refers to the introductory act at the principle feast of the guild as "speaking for, or the blessing of the minni". What was said in heathen times we shall never directly learn, but we can form some idea of what would be said, and what thoughts lay hidden in the words. The effect of this ceremonial mode of speaking we know from the language of the law, where it is used of administering a legal formula, and also of demanding something in legally binding form; in everyday life, the word combines two meanings: to congratulate, or wish one luck of, e.g. in connection with a gift, and to curse. At the root of the official and of the private usage lies the same thought: to utter something with weight and will to bind honour and luck, so as to produce by the words an alteration in the mind and whole state of another, either binding luck to him, or depriving him of his sense of luck and making him a niding. The corresponding substantives, formáli and formaeli, have an equally broad application: from blessing to curse, from the legally binding agreement and the legally binding formula to the soul-binding determination joined to the application of a thing, and which must be respected by the user if he would have luck in the use of what is entrusted to him. We can judge the weight of the word in the following sentence from the Volsungasaga: The Norns came at Helgi's birth, gave him fórmali and said that he should become most famous of kings.

There is an intimate coherence between the religious and the legal meanings of the word formaeli. The word was a necessary addition to every action, and it gave its seal of luck, so that the preparations had been made for the welfare of a dead man, the word stepped in and installed him in full enjoyment of the future; his grave was "spoken for", and he himself shown his place, whether in Valhal or another hall. And even nearer to the blot is the action of the settler when he thrusts his high seat pillars overboard and declares that he will build his house and dwell on the spot where they come ashore. he gave them, with the words, both will and power to put forth all their luck and holiness.

Just as the giving of a name was designed to lead a soul into the child, so the formaeli of the cult was calculated to give the power of the feast its true direction, and set limits and goal for its aim. The formaeli then, had to suit itself to the occasion of the feast. It sealed the effect of the cup, to fuse men together, to make a kinsman of a stranger on adoption, to confirm the promise of the bridal gift. "Your father shall be King Gjuki, and I your mother, your brothers Gunnar and Hogni..," says Grimhild, when Sigurd takes the horn which leads him to look upon the Gjukungs in a new light. When drinking a wedding, the promise would consist, inter alia, of declaring the conditions for alliance between the clans, now to be drunk fast. In modern times, Norwegian men reckoned up that the bridegroom had a holding with so and so many horses, and that the bride's father would not send out his daughter as a beggar wench, but accompanied by "one thousand Norse specie dollars, a furnished bed, horse and saddle, five cows...now you know that," and this declamation is, as a formaeli, not very far from the old spirit. A Swedish formula intimates that the bridal ale is drunk "to honour and housewife and to half bed, to lock and keys...and to all right." The cup which confirmed the "bargain" was called njótsminni, and in this name the matter of the formaeli is indicated, viz. as rendering the receiver njótr, or enjoyer, of the soul and use of the thing. At a declaration of peace, the formula cannot have been very far from the famous peace formula: "Now all matters are agreed in suit and seat, about the ale-bowl and the meat-dish, at law-thing and in pastime...sharing knife and meat and all between us kinsmen and not as enemies...For self and heir, born and unborn, conceived and un-conceived, named and unnamed, each man takes promise and gives promise, brave promise, promise for good, and to be held forever while earth stands and men live;...as son toward father and father to son in all doings where they meet, on land or water, on ship or ski, on sea or on horseback, to share oars and dippers, thwart and deck...as a friend meets friend at sea, as brother meets brother on the road."

At the great feast, where the object was the welfare of the company in the future introduced by the blot, the formaeli of the principal minni would necessarily be of general character. And we are fortunate enough to be able still to see the main features in the sacred formula, partly from scattered indications in the sagas, partly through the Christian adaptation of the Middle Ages. This "for harvest and peace" which unfailingly crops up wherever there is mention of the heathen blot, has become fixed as the motto for the Christian adaptation of the harvest festival: the ale shall be blessed ("signed") in thanks to Christ and Mary. for harvest and peace. In a somewhat different fashion, we find the formula incorporated in the Norse guilds' constitution. The statutes of the Olaf's Guild begin thus: " Our guild feast to be held every summer in thanks to Holy Christ, our Lady Mary and Holy King Olaf, and to our health, for harvest and peace, and for all God's mercy here and hereafter..," and it ends with: "God and saint Olaf strengthen and aid to the good whoever keep this law, to harvest and peace and all well-being in this world, and in the world hereafter, to the entering into heaven without end." The feast was held for good harvest, fruitfulness in field and stall - til árbótar, harvest's betterment, as it might more expressly be said after a summer of disappointment, leading to distrust of the effect of previous blots. An account of the secret sacrifices of the people of Drontheim in despite of Olaf the Saint's prohibition, gives us the formaeli, according to which the blot was to be for betterment of harvest, for peace and good weather. In Sweden, the same formula is indicated in the opening passages of the Law of Gothland: "We shall believe in one God almighty, and pray to Him to grant us harvest and peace, victory and health." In this "harvest and peace" we may see the main stem, which reached from the luck-meetings of the clan circle up into the feats of parish and district. The object of the blot was luck in the sense of well-being, and first of all frith, the inviolable sense of unity and solidarity as requisite for the progress of their work. In an Icelandic formaeli used on the occasion of Olaf's minni, we find the same note: "Saint Olaf's honourable minni is poured and carried in. Drink we this with joy and gladness and the favour of God the Lord. Have then no strife or quarreling with one another, for the high lord, King Olaf, is warden of the lands."

He who opened the feast by drinkning the first horn was the originator of the formaeli; it is therefore said of him in the narrower sense that he "spoke for". After him, each of those present repeated the sacred words, presumably without any alteration. What we still lack in our knowledge of the cult formaeli we may add from a comparison with the legal formula, the two were in one spirit, and with the inner community went the sharing of outward form. As this consisted of a definitely marked, permanently valued series of words, so also the other was repeated year after year and time after time with the same unaltering text, where inspiration had no more scope than the regard for actuality might demand. And with this permanent form there went a particular manner of dictation, which always accompanied the solemn rhymed speech, whether the words were legal formaeli or laudatory verses or strong charms. The man who stood with the horn in his hand would recite - kveda - in a tone which is technically unknown to us, since it is invariably described only by its effect upon the hearers, but which is after all noted in the short, striking verses with the strongly marked alliteration. In the mediaeval guilds, and among the Norwegian courtiers, the minni was chanted. All the brethren stand up and chant, after the pouring out of the highest minni, or, as the Danes express it, the brethren receive the cups sitting, and having received them rise up as one man and join in the minne. We may probably regard this liturgising of the toast as an attempt to mould the ancient custom into church form, and in some districts this singing of the minni established itself as the festive form of conviviality, and remained so as long as the custom was held in observance at all; men drank to one another "with the verse of a song", and the minni actually ended, among the peasants, in echoes of folk-songs or rhymes from Scripture history. In Scandinavia, the word kvaedi persists right down to our own day as the technical term for toast ritual, , and even after the formaeli had degenerated into a free oratorial contribution, men still held by the custom of calling it rhyme or kvaedi. The formaeli has a double aspect. Firstly it confirms to consecration act which has taken place: now the ale is divine; and secondly it determines whither the god and his strength go. And the two sides are from the nature of the case one, because the force residing in the words and in the acts of the sacrificer is divinity bent upon creation of future luck. The formæli, then, covers all that words can add to an act, from the great consecration of the drink and initiation to a definite purpose, to the friendly greetings and blessings of one companion for his neighbour at table. Its power to bind is one with its life-giving quality. A promise such as that regarding the bridal pact, or the bride's morning gift must, by co-operation with the horn, be made a positive luck if it were to be of any value for the receiver, and it must also be hardened to honour in the party promising in order to bind his will. The Swedish Östgötalag knew what was required, and states it in words which are of religious significance as well as of social importance. How shall one marry? is asked, and the answer runs: “they shall hold two law-drinkings, at the one bringing forward the request for the maiden, and promising the morning gift; and when the request has been made, then they shall drink the second, and with this the giver in marriage (the guardian) shall give away his kinswoman in marriage. They shall then have the weapon cup, and that from the same vessel they drank from before.” This is the manner of procedure when a man's words are to be made holy, and consequently binding.

It comes naturally to call the formæli the prayer at a feast, and the comparison is furnished by history itself, for the Christians used the same word, mæla fyrir, of offering up prayer. But the old formæli is as far removed from the Christian prayer for God's blessing and God's mercy, as from all chaffering with an invisible over the acceptance of a sacrifice in return for favour shown. When the formæli was to serve the new god, it had first of all to be deprived of half of its content. The in-vocation remained, but the ancient boldness and confidence, which forced its way in violently and wrested out the fulfilment for itself, had to be cast aside. In the solemn: “mæl heill” translated: “be this said by you in the power of luck a cry that came as an exclamation of joy on hearing welcome news, or on the occasion of great vows, declarations, or warnings, we have the old, strong prayer, and as a prayer it might also be regarded alter the introduction of the new religion, but when the Christian ekes out the words with: “And may God let it succeed,” he reveals what separated the heathen from the Christian; the former calmly waited for the effects of his words to appear, the latter could only hope and trust the wilful god would accede to his wish.

It is no easy matter for us on the spur of the moment to give this form of religious invocation its due place in the world of prayer; but in order to understand its effect, it is enough to know luck and its nature. If the formæli has nothing to do with a creature poor in soul kneeling in the dust before a Lord who gives to whom he thinks fit and refuses whom he pleases, it is no less far removed from the magician angling in a lake of darkness with his wizard's hook. The formæli is a hamingja. Where the Jew strives with his god in prayer, the heathen uses the prayer as a fighting weapon and flings it right into the lace of his opponent. And like every other weapon, it calls for skill and strength on the part of him who wields it, and to use it with effect he must be in contact with its innermost being; the weapon must be soul of his soul, so that it does not merely lie in his hand, but forms a prolongation of his arm, and derives its force from his very heart.

When Egil fell out with King Eric, he raised a cursing pole and flung out his formæli against his enemy: “Here I raise a cursing pole, and aim this curse — nið — at King Eric and Queen Gunhild, aim this curse at the gods that dwell in this land,” in order that the words may effect what they express: to render all gods dwelling in that land lost upon their ways, so that they may never find the road to their refuge until they have driven Eric and Gunhild from the kingdom; and if he who uttered the curse did not know that the words would go forth and grasp the gods, confusing their minds and making the luck of the land as a troubled sea under the king, he would not utter them at all, rather would he shun the words in a secret fear of exposing himself to some fateful influence. For a man only utters that which he feels himself lucky enough to make good; it is the community with the powers and the consciousness of being upborne by their strength that lets the formæli glide smoothly from the tongue, and gives it power to drive a future before it towards whatever goal its master may please.

The alteration which took place in the formæli under the influence of Christianity is very closely connected with the fact that the word was deprived of its position as an adjunct to action — or that it was at any rate forced into the possibility of standing alone. To the modern mind, the prayer is confined to the words, for the heathen, its essence was rather that it was an accessory to a ceremonial act. When it did carry with it its own fulfilment as a matter of course, it was because the words implied accomplishment through action. The speaker has the horn in front of him, or even in his hand, he speaks over the drink, and does his duty by the horn before passing it on down the ranks. The formæli and the drinking are more than of equal weight in the modern sense, they are one, as are name-giving and name-confirmation, agreement and completion of the bargain, promise and fulfilment of the promise, because the one is all, its counterpart included, and without its counterpart is less than nothing, to wit, unluck and offence. The duality which invades so many of the ancient customs as soon as they are expressed in our tongue, disappears when the old pictures of men acting are put before us in their totality. “Wes hale (wassail),” says he who drinks first, “drink hale,” answers he who is waiting for the horn. Here we have the old prayer as well as the old sacrifice.

The most scathing affront would be to offer a cup with a curse, thus proposing to the receiver to sign his own doom. In the legend of the unhappy lovers Hagbard and Signe, the hero is literally invited to drink the cup of bitterness. When Hagbard stands under the gallows the queen avenges her two Sons slain by the doomed man, by offering him a cup and speaking for it in these words: “Drink the cup of death, and when you have quaffed the liquor descend into the realm of death.” Hate can go no further than inviting a man to drink to his own damnation.

An alien has often to go the opposite way to that of the native, and understand the rule from the exception. It requires some intimacy to estimate the value of respect for the power of the word, when fear and self-defence find outlet in accepted forms, when for instance a summons served in legal language forces a man to defend himself at law; but in such extraordinary cases as when Æthelfrid charges down upon the priests at their prayers, it makes itself palpable. In the same way, the application of sacrificial form under conditions lacking the everyday natural background can suddenly reveal its forces with almost experimental distinctness. It was in reality the blot which helped the Greenland voyager Thorgils — Christian as he was, and Christianwise as he believed himself to be acting — through the last of his sore trials in the Arctic Sea. Starving and exhausted, his men toiled at the oars to work their way on to the mouth of a fiord without making headway, and all the while their strength diminished, and their thirst grew worse. At last one of them said: “I know that men aforetime, when in greatest peril at sea have mixed their own water with sea water, and saved their lives.” Thorgils dared neither say yes nor no to the proposal, and looked in silence, while they filled the dipper; but just as they were about to drink, he checked them with a word: “Give it to me, and I will speak for the cup (mæla fyrir minni): Troll of illwill now hindering our way, you shall not bring it about that I or any of us here should drink of our own uncleanness.” And at the same moment a bird like a guillemot flew screaming northward from the boat, and the men reached land and found a spring. To be sure, Thorgils did not complete the libation, indeed he intended by his act to frustrate the ungodly procedure, but his words had their effect, because they were uttered in sacrificial form.

From the extraordinary element in this happening we learn to understand the natural fulfilment of the blot, which does not burst forth so tangibly out of the moment, but with no less inevitable force is completed in what we call the natural order of things, that earth grows fruitful and the sun shines.




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