SINCE we have brought out in the foregoing the chief points of our forefathers' belief we shall now cast a glance in conclusion upon the conception of life among the Northern people of the pagan age, which has stamped itself upon their mythology and poetry, particularly as it is presented in the renowned lay Havamal, 'The Saying of the Exalted One,' i.e. Odin.
The gods are really more excellent than men but suffer from the latter's faults and weaknesses. Men are to believe in the gods and sacrifice to them; but these in turn must protect men, who otherwise soon learn to believe in troll-beings or "in their own strength." The whole character of the Norseman's life is permeated with belief in inevitable fate. This belief gives him equipoise even in life's severest trials and prepares him to await death with coolness. But the conception is not blind or fantastic, so that men should let things take their course. One must with cold reflection and calm understanding choose and reject, before carrying out one's plans, and thus gain the happiness, riches, and respect which every one desires and ought to desire here in this life. Sigurth says to Fafnir, when he has pierced the latter's heart and is threatened with the curse of the gold: "Every man will possess wealth until his day comes; one day we shall indeed all die and fare from here to Hel."
Scorn for death is expressed with great power in Ragnar Lothbrok's death-song: "I am not troubled about death and I wish to meet it. The Disir whom Odin has sent to me from Hernar's hall invite me home: Gladly will I drink ale with the Aesir on the high seat. Ended are the hours of life. Laughing will I die."
Undaunted courage is man's best virtue. He fells his foes in cold blood; all artifices pass excepting the breaking of one's word. One must not be cruel where blood-vengeance is not at stake. The conquered foe shall be slain — or treated with magnanimity. The Northerner does not scoff like the Southerner, even the highly cultivated Greek, at the fallen hero who lies in the dust before him. One must be steadfast in friendship, uncompromising in enmity. Ethical ideas are expressed with all possible clearness:
To his friend a man shall be a friend,
to him and to his friend,
but of his foe should no man
be the friend's friend.
Know if you have a friend, one whom you well trust
and would get good from him,
in thoughts you shall commune with him and gifts exchange,
fare oft to visit him.
If you have another whom you ill trust
yet would get good from him,
fair you shall speak with him but false intend
and deceit repay with lies.
But respect for friendship can also make a very pretty expression:
A long détour 'tis to an ill friend
though he dwell by the highway;
but to the good friend straight paths extend
though one have traveled far.
One must be faithful to his lord; to deceive him is the greatest piece of treachery; yet at the same time men must preserve their independence and never submit to injustice. Then must one be faithful in love, faithful in the relation between man and woman. This is portrayed with great force; but the joy of love is only short-lived and often leads the hero and his bride to meet a tragic downfall. The strongest bond in human life is, however, not love, but rather family pride. This tie is sacred and inviolable both among gods and men and develops a firm conviction as to the justification of blood-vengeance, and this is extended to embrace the whole family. Men slay in cold blood until their revengeful desires are satiated, but this must be observed: they stand by the act and take its consequences. If an act of killing is concealed, it is murder, and murderers, perjurers, and seducers are punished in the Serpent Hall on Nastrand, the "Death Shore."
Naturally enough the hero poems have given us strongly idealized hero types and female characters, which by no means correspond in every case with the realities among the foremost characters of all people. Inflexible strength stands as the foundation of character and involves much that is harsh and crude; but the many bright sides of the picture are equally prominent.
In earlier times these were overestimated; but we must not go to the opposite extreme, since it would be wrong to ourselves and the life of our forefathers simply to emphasize the crudities as they are described by Christian writers in the countries visited by the Normans. We should measure by a historical standard and not judge ancient times solely by the standard of the present. So also in the case of the general life-truths as expressed in the Havamal. They are often small, delicate recommendations as to the "golden mean" in daily life, and the whole matter smacks strongly of Philistinism, to use a modern expression. But the same section of the poem containing this ends with the following lines, and with these we also will close this presentation of our forefathers' belief:
Cattle die, kinsmen die,
man himself dies at last.
But remembrance never dies,
where it is well gained.
Cattle die, kinsmen die,
man himself dies at last.
One thing that never dies, I know,
Judgment upon all the dead.
Such words are expressive of a standpoint of culture which deserves our attention and respect.
FROM WHICH THE ILLUSTRATIVE STROPHES
TRANSLATED FOR THIS BOOK ARE TAKEN
POEMS OF THE GODS.
Voluspá (Vsp.), "The Volva's' or 'Sibyl's Prophecy.'
Hávamál (Hav.), 'The Sayings of Har,' the 'Exalted One.'
Vafthrúthnismál (Vafthr.), 'The Sayings of Vafthruthnir.'
Grimnismál (Grimn.), 'The Sayings of Grimnir.'
Skirnismál (Skm.), 'The Sayings of Skirnir'; also
For Skirnis, 'Skirnir's Journey.'
Lokasenna (Lok.), "The Loki Quarrel.'
Thrymskvitha (Thrkv.), 'The Lay of Thrym.'
Rigsthula (Rigsth.), 'The Lay of Rig.'
Völundarkvitha (Vkv.), 'The Lay of Völund.'
Helgakvitha Hundingsbani (Helg. Hu.), 'The Lay of
Helgi Hunding's Bane' or 'Slayer of Hunding.'
Gróttasöngr, (Grott.) 'The Grotti Song'
(The Song of the Magic Mill).