PLAY AND VOW
feast where men strengthen themselves in their god calls
for something more than sacrifice. After the meal, the
people rise up to play. When men have set their comrade
in his resting place in the barrow, shown him to the
spot where he will thrive, and given him due provision
for the road, then they may hold races and singing
contests. And whether the desire for play be ascribed to
consideration for the god, or the dead man, or the
living, the explanation works out into the fact that the
sport is of the same power and the same effect as the
feast in the house — it is a part of the sacrifice.
know that all kinds of sport were customary at
gatherings of men in the ancient days. Playing ball,
horse fights, wrestling often occur in the saga accounts
of feasts, for the very good reason that the Icelanders'
blood often came to such a heat that the effect was
visible in the settlement long after. We have good
technical information as to the Icelandic horsebaitings;
we are told how the stallions were led forward against
each other by the respective owners, how they rose on
their hind-legs and bit, while the leader with his
horse-stave supported his beast in its upright position,
urging it at the same time to its wildest onslaught.
These fights served as trials of honour, the owner was
spiritually present in his fighting horse, so that its
victory meant his growth, its defeat the wreck of his
honour, and not infrequently, the decision of the
stallions would be followed by a more than accidental
meeting between the men with their weapons.
do not, however, find any reference to connection with
worship of the gods: apparently, the contest had passed
over into a popular amusement.
Norwegian form for horse contests retains distinct
recollections of its original association with the cult
festivals. These skei, as they were called, took
place every year, in Sætersdale on a Saturday in
August, in the Telemark on St. Bartholomew's day, and
were evidently, to begin with, part of an ancient
religious local festival. The stallions were led out two
by two, excited by the presence of a mare, and after the
fights, there followed wild rides on bare-backed horses.
And it was known that “when the horses bite well it
means a good harvest.” In this double play between the
interpretation of the action as a test of manhood and an
assurance of luck, there is very likely a glimmering of
old sacrificial ideas.
the point of view of culture history, it is an important
trait that the word leikr, Anglo-Saxon lác (play),
in the Germanic languages may denote sacrifice, and on
the other hand it is equally characteristic of the
culture that the word also serves as a paraphrase for
fight. “Hild's play” is not the whimsical imagery of
the poet, the expression has a deeper necessity. Men
played a great deal in those days, and always gripped
hard, but the hardness was not entirely due to the horny
hands. The note in the word which now has decisive
significance, the abstraction from reality, is nothing
less than a denial of that which was the soul of play in
the old days. It had to be earnest, or it had no
justification, and would be dullness itself instead of a
pastime. The more fiercely the parties went for one
another, the greater pleasure had they and the onlookers
in the meeting. “Now they have amused us; let us now
amuse the others,” said the Icelander, when “they”
— two of the company —had manhandled each other to
such effect that one of them was left dead on the
ground. Grettir found himself once, in the days of his
outlawry, surrounded by a grateful people. It was the
time when he had stolen in disguised to a village, where
men were assembled for games, and by his strength,
rendered the contests more than usually heavy-handed.
When he left the party, hearty thanks were expressed for
his having contributed so highly to their amusement, and
there is nothing forced in this expression of thanks, as
among people who put on an expression of appreciation in
order to make a show of manhood. The einheries of Valhal,
who enjoy the good fortune of waking up every day with
the prospect of killing one another completely were,
like everything perfect in this world, created in days
when men could no longer master life as a whole or get
the prose and the poetry of life to march together with
even steps, and needs must create something called the
ideal. The men of the viking age were an æsthetic race
who left out the struggle for daily bread, and refined
life into straining after undiluted honour. For all
their glamour, the einheries are of the silver age.
There is something einherie-like too about the Norwegian
and Swedish peasants of later times, who celebrated
their feasts with knives and axes; they drove in triumph
to a feast and whetted their knives well beforehand;
their women were careful to take winding sheets with
them to the meeting, that they might sit at ease without
the disquieting thought that they might at any moment
have to get up and hurry away to get their husbands home
before they were turned quite stiff and cold. They ask
after the number of killed, before judging of the
success of the feast. We marvel at the calm of mind
wherewith the peasant went to his sowing, when his
prospects of bringing the harvest home depended on
whether his neighbour married in the interval;
uncertainty is the first thing we see, but for them, it
was the tension and the trial of strength which
dominated all thoughts of gatherings for amusement.
peasant culture is another silver age, but it is a
silver age of stunted growth, a decadence long drawn
out. The ancient ideals and mode of living held their
own, but the harmony is broken, because the lower
culture is cut off by civilization and official religion
from exercising all its functions, and must adapt itself
to a fraction of life, and however small the change in
outward appearance, life is warped into a caricature of
its former self. But if the einheries are of the silver
age, it is because they yearn for something that came
naturally to the golden age, and therein lies indeed a
valuable testimony to the culture whence they proceeded.
They cannot conjure up the ancient feast before our
eyes, but they hammer in the festival anticipation.
feast was to be an event, that was the requirement of
the ancient time. Something had to happen. Therefore men
gathered about the story-teller and the singer, who let
happenings past take place over again. To experience
heroic deeds, experience battles and victories, that was
the joy of the listeners, that was the delight of a
the feast above all feasts, the great blot must be
permeated throughout by the light which glorified life.
The mighty honour side in the soul must find its
counterpart. It was not enough to feel the presence of
luck, the comrades had to see It act. It had to be
practised and shown forth. The sword was brought out and
shown to the party seated at their drinking; its owner
praised it and spoke of its peculiar luck, and let it
once more go on its way in boldness for battle, as the
Anglo-Saxon has described. Treasures had to produce
evidence of their power — whether in a weapon dance,
at horse-races and horse fights, or in other festive
wise, we must guess for ourselves. And an exhibition is
nothing if it be not therewith a test and a proof, a
straining of the hamingja to its uttermost limit.
great, properly festive form for achievement is called
vow. It appears in its most impressive form at the feast
held for the departed.
gain its end the arvel must needs contain a creative
deed. That the feast was to be a restitution, is
emphasised by the law which considers the arvel as the
legal demonstration of the successor's right to his
place; consequently, the ancient word for inheriting —
erfa — means at once to drink the funeral ale
and to take up the inheritance. From the manner in which
the arvels, famous in history and legend, of King Swein
and of King Ingjald are described we see too that the
feast of restitution concentrates upon the cup drunk to
one pace, from the step to the seat, presupposes a
revolution in the innermost nature of things; nothing
could lift up the son from a place among the ashes on
the floor to the seat between the inspired pillars if
the actor had not there himself put in a stake which
brought forth the dignity in him. Indeed, the aim which
the promiser had to fulfil, and which he did fulfil, is
marked both in the name bragarfull and in the
Anglo-Saxon gilp; the former means simply
manhood's cup or deed-cup, the latter refers both to the
promise and to the honour and renown produced by the
there were empty promises and true ones —the latter
were distinguished in particular by having their warrant
in the vower's past, including of course his ancestors.
The moment a youth promised not to be “less of a man
than his fathers” he had taken up his ancestral luck
and entered himself as one of the clan. But we have by
no means exhausted the fulness of the moment, if we
merely think of the conditions requisite to give birth
to the deed. A man uttering such promise drank off a cup
into which his forefathers had brewed their fate; he
tasted their hamingja of holding great feasts, of
gaining victory on the battlefield, of sailing boldly
and skilfully on the sea, favourable winds always
standing full into their sails; and in so doing, he had
made all feasts and all victories his own. He was now
the incarnation of the clan, he counted as the one who
had achieved the past. Without any boasting he could
now, like Thorkel Hak, let the fight with the monster be
inscribed upon his high seat pillars, and say: “I was
forefathers were not inclined to accept a loud crowing
as equivalent to the doing of the deed. These men who,
in disputes at law as in friendship, demanded the
clearest proofs of their neighbour's intentions before
they would lift a little finger, held also here in the
blot-hall as anxiously as any sceptic by the principle
that the result is the beginning of faith. No promise
could dull their watchfulness in the slightest, it only
served to direct it toward the point where the decision
would fall; they saw to it that the heir drank, and that
the emptied his cup. “Drink well,” cried those
present, adjuring him with the same meaning as with a
“fulfil well”. Thereupon they took a share in the
deed themselves, as blot-fellows, by emptying the same
cup. “This cup all present at the feast must drink”
in order to make it good. If the kinsmen did not make
themselves one with the heir, the arvel would have no
power of restoring the clan to its former health, and
the effect of the feast and the promise would thus be
the vow is sealed in the gods, and thus it becomes a
future, a fate. The story of Hedin Hjorvardson is based
upon the experience that a vow made over the bragar-cup
makes itself the will of him who utters it, and holds
him fast from within. Blinded by some devilish
inspiration, Hedin had boasted on the ale-bench that he
would win his brother Helgi's betrothed, and it is in
vain that he treads wild paths to find his brother and
bemoan what he has done. Helgi knows but one thing:
“Ale-words come true, Hedin.” This power over the
future is the principle of the vow's worth as an act of
worship, it can create that joy which is the answer to
the blot. The son who vowed to bring home a harvest of
honour, made the feast great, prepared for a good year,
just as did the rider who rode most valiantly, or the
stallion that bit most powerfully. “Launch strong
deeds among the men,” as Hrothgar says to Beowulf –
this is the true greeting to one when he goes forth to
take his promise seat by the ale, and the proper answer
to the wish is the “shouting of the victorious
Without doubt the uttering of a vow plays a special part at the arvel owing to the critical character of the feast; but the emptying of the promise cup is not peculiar to the heir succeeding. It was a regular thing at the leave-taking of vikings setting out from home, as well as at such a feast of preparation as that in Heorot. Swein's vow of conquest has its counterparts in the assurances the retainers gave with their ale at their lips when they cried that they would avenge their king and never flee as long as he remained standing; from east and west we hear of battlefields where words were made good which had been uttered at a time when the men lay stretched at their east upon the benches. In poetry and history we naturally hear only of vow that were large enough to fill out the blots of kings and conquerors; but we are not left wholly without evidence of the bragging in the yeoman's homestead where the sacrificial vow conformed to the local ambitions of the peasants. An Icelandic saga describes the train of events that were set going at a wedding held at Grund, a farm in Svarfadardale. When the son of the house felt his spirit moved by the ale, he called to mind his dispute with a neighbouring chieftain, Ljotolf Godi, and promised to set a coward's mark upon him before three years were past. A younger kinsman followed his lead and boasted that he would gain Yngvild Faircheek for his mistress without asking leave of her brother Olaf or her intimate friend, Ljotolf Godi. The bridegroom pledged himself to sail whither he pleased and land in any harbour he might choose regardless of wind; these words, too, were a malicious lunge at the high and mighty godi and his retainers, hinting as they did that Ljotolf in his enterprises and dealings with men had repeatedly been reduced to taking and putting into chance havens. – From this little piece of daily life, embedded in a late and rather confused saga, we realise that the promise cup was liable to cause a stir in the life of the village, and might give rise to great events. According to the ancient tradition, indeed, the colonisation of Iceland is itself to be the indirect result of a drinking party where vows were many. The foster-brothers Ingolf and Hjorleif were drive out upon the waters through their enmity with the clan of the earls of Moeri, and that enmity was started at a feast where one of Earl Atli's sons swore to marry Hjorleif's sister Helga. Leif could not but regard such a presumptuous vow as equivalent to the actual carrying off of the girl herself, and on the next occasion when they met, their parting was such that Norway was no safe abiding-place for Ingold and Hjorleif any longer.
Finally we also know that the promise of manhood was a necessary part of the regular blot-feasts of the clan. The Yule vow of the hero has become a standing them in Norse poetry, in later narratives degenerating into a device used to introduce any big event. Angantyr celebrated the eve of the holyday by vowing to win the daughter of the Upsala king Yngvi, or die; on the first Yule evening we find, in Hord's saga, the heroes stepping “on stock,” and vowing to break open the barrow of the viking Soti and seek out the barrow-dweller in his fearful majesty; and it is at Yule that Hedin's infatuated vow to steal his brother's promised bride is uttered. The conventionalism of these examples is fairly obvious, but nevertheless the artificial motif is rooted in reality. The pious saga writer is thus on firm ground when he chooses a Yuletide evening as the background for this cry from a seeker after truth: “This evening many vows are uttered in places where men are no better off than here, and therefore I vow to serve the king who is highest, and him alone,” – better ground, indeed, than in the longing for Christianity with which he credits the speaker.
Beside the promise cup, there is another form for the test of luck: mannjafnad, or matching of heroes. This consisted of a spiritual duel, where deeds done – or perhaps contemplated – took the place of blows; a man compared himself with his opponent, or his own hero with the other's. This form of contest might easily arise where two bands of warriors came together on the bench, each jealous of its own honour, but it certainly had its very good place as a feast game, in the cult sense, to the honour of the gods; the game must then have been played in such a manner that stroke and parry were made real by draughts of the godly drink. An allusion to this sort of game is found in an Anglo-Saxon poem in which a God-fearing man has set down what good Christians ought to think of the manners of the hall. Often proud fighters, glib of tongue, sit over their cups, uttering weighty words and trying to find out how skilful are the men of the house in wielding ashen spears, and the house is filled with uproar and bawling; thus he complains, and warns his hearers that such ungodly boasting and arrogance cannot fail to land a man in the deepest part of hell where the worms gnaw their hardest.
In the late Orvarodd's saga, there is a sensational scene in which the mannjafnad is put to use for effect. The old hero comes staggering in, unnamed to a homestead inhabited by the most supercilious people possible, of course, and suffers himself to be led to a seat at the lower end, in the draught from the doorway. He is ostentatiously humble when the talk runs on accomplishments and pastimes: in such company, where doubtless all present would be masters with the bow and arrow he dare hardly pretend to ever having aimed at anything, and he is naturally lot to show himself off to their derision, but if they insist upon having their fun he may as well amuse them by tugging at the instrument. Speaking of swimming, he cannot call to mind that he had ever so much as put his big toe in the water, but after some considerable time he is persuaded to try what it is like to swim. And his feats are, needless to say, rather astounding, to put it mildly. The present saga belongs to a group of literature in which ancient legends are recomposed and melodramatized for peaceful citizens who want strong romance for their leisure hours after dull toil; the hero must shed his modesty layer by layer, for he is acting before a public which delights to see virtue and vice in disrobing scene. But strangely enough, after all, the decisive trial of strength in which he rises to his full height, is a duel with words and ale, a mannjafand where the strokes are driven with a hornful. Across the floor two flyting heroes stride, horn in hand ,and stop in front of Odd, singing their own praises and derision of the guest. And Odd empties the horn, then strides up before their place, reveals his magnificence in verse, and drinks to them. And thus Odd wanders up and down, the others down and up, till the stranger sits victorious in the seat chanting the end, while the others lie downcast in the straw, neither chanting, hearing, nor drinking.
In the saga literature, the mannjafnad, like the Yule vow, is reduced to the humble office of starting events; its religious colour is paled, but something remains which determined the cult value: the test is a judgement of the man. This little reminiscence of Odd, faint and washed out thought it be, serves to paint the background for the vikings' parting ale: when the ships lay ready, the warriors, as we have seen, indulged in a great feast, rehearsing their coming deeds at the ale cups through mannjafnad and great vows.
In modern civilization, founded principally on the experience of the trader and the artisan, life has split up into two parts, the physical and the spiritual, on one side sheer animality, on the other side pure, refined soul; and consequently, the very possibility of giving the training of the body, or games and playing, an organic place in culture is gone for ever. In face of the religious earnestness of Greek and primitive games, modern men have only a helpless politeness; and they will never be able to understand the deep pathos of the story telling how Eindridi was converted by the dazzling accomplishments of King Olaf. The king had tried several sports with the aspiring youth, and though the boy had not been able to hold his own, he was not convinced; but on seeing the king walk on the oars of a rowing ship juggling with swords, he found full assurance of the new faith. The young chieftain-to-be looked at the king, when, after the feat, he stepped up on deck; looked at him and was silent; he was feeling right down in the depths of his soul for the confession that in his faith there was no god nor any angel that could support a man in the air.
But when man is a whole, and no boundary has been set up between the physical and spiritual culture, the love of strength and skill can never prejudice the value of poetry; on the contrary, the poet is a source of strength where his modern compeer is only a jester or a comforter. The literature of the Icelanders originates, like that of the Greeks, in festival exhibition; in the feast holiness was laid the foundation of their mastery in the telling of legend and saga, in the ceremonial praise of the chieftain and his hamingja, the poetry of the north was born and shaped into the heavily ornate form which proved its death.
The forms of life are reproduced with ideal convention in the Beowulf, where the victory over the monster drives the people to a festive tumult. In the midst of the praises of this hero beyond other heroes the horsemen dash off racing over the field, and a king's man who knows a store of ancient songs and legends begins to weave the poem of praise, briskly word for word telling of the wanderings of Sigmund the Volsung, which only he and Sinfjotli, the two firm companions, knew, in battles with men, in battles with giants, gaining deathless fame by slaying the dragon and carrying off its gold in the rock.
Unfortunately, we lack all means of transforming these ideal pictures of what feast ought to be into realistic descriptions of precedence and proportion; the last blot-feast had been celebrated before there was anyone to immortalise it. The history of the clan and all that was important to remember was, at the feast, brought forth into the light, and we need have no doubt as to the reason, when we know what it meant. That which the kinsmen had at heart must force its way, because the things of the past did not come as something called forth from the half-dark of respect and remembrance, but was the soul itself, needing life. There was honour in hearing oneself or one's own people sung of, and one's saga renewed, and that honour was of the same consistency as all restitution; it went into the soul, and made the man healthier. Egil was able to chant new courage into himself after the death of his son; as he recited his “Sonatorrek”, the “Lament for Sons”, his vital force rose, and when he had ended, his determination to die was forgotten, and he stepped into his high seat. Men gained comfort in earnest for the loss of kinsmen, on hearing the praises of the dead declared. Volustein's son Egil once came to Gest Olleifson, a distinguished man of wisdom, and asked if he could not find some way of easing the gnawing sorrow that oppressed his father since the death of his son Ogmund. Gest undertook the task, and composed at once the beginning of the Ogmund drápa.
The dead come to the poet and the story-teller with their thanks for life, as Vatnar of Vatnar's hill came to a merchant sailing by, who had told his comrades tales of the dweller in that barrow they could see on the shore. “You have told my saga; I will reward you,” said the dead man, “dig in my barrow, and you shall find reward for your trouble.” The old Vatnar felt life grow in him when that which had been was renewed, and from this we know what it was the blot brought to the departed as well as to those present, who lived the life of their ancestors over again. Vatnar is raised up, and so also every past had to be reborn if it were to be saved from perishing. Part of the attention due to the dead was the making of an erfidrápa, or song of succession, which was presumably delivered at the arvel; in this song, the foundation of posthumous fame was laid, when the poem was made the formæli at the drinking, and inspired with reality by being enveloped in the blot.
The Beowulf poem ends at the grave. When the old hero king had met his fate, the Swedes raised a mound on the ness, visible far out over the sea. Round the hill rode the battle-bold, bewailing their king, weaving the speech of verse about the dead man. They exalted his chieftainship, cried aloud his deeds of strength, as is fitting for men to honour their leader and king when he steps forth from the body. Of all the kings in the world he was gentlest, open-handed, most beloved and greediest of fame.
Thus the old time rings out beyond the North Sea.