Njal 6

Njal's Saga, Week Six:

This week's reading is here; next week's is here.

Before we move on to this week's reading, though, I want to touch on one section of interest from last week that we didn't discuss. It has to do with Norse beliefs about the afterlife.

Now those two, Skarphedinn and Hogni, were out of doors one
evening by Gunnar's cairn on the south side. The moon and stars
were shining clear and bright, but every now and then the clouds
drove over them. Then all at once they thought they saw the
cairn standing open, and lo! Gunnar had turned himself in the
cairn and looked at the moon. They thought they saw four lights
burning in the cairn, and none of them threw a shadow. They saw
that Gunnar was merry, and he wore a joyful face. He sang a
song, and so loud, that it might have been heard though they had
been further off.

"He that lavished rings in largesse,
When the fights' red rain-drips fell,
Bright of face, with heart-strings hardy,
Hogni's father met his fate;
Then his brow with helmet shrouding,
Bearing battle-shield, he spake,
`I will die the prop of battle,
Sooner die than yield an inch,
Yes, sooner die than yield an inch."

After that the cairn was shut up again.

"Wouldst thou believe these tokens if Njal or I told them to
thee?" says Skarphedinn.

"I would believe them," he says, "if Njal told them, for it is
said he never lies."

"Such tokens as these mean much," says Skarphedinn, "when he
shows himself to us, he who would sooner die than yield to his
foes; and see how he has taught us what we ought to do."
The Vikings appear to have believed that dead men retained their physical shape, and indeed their physical bodies. There are stories about men going into the howes to recover ancestral weapons, and having to wrest these by force from the dead: but the dead are physical beings, not ghosts as are often conceived elsewhere.

Gunnar, here, is likewise a physically real, dead being. He retains a connection to the living, and Njal's sons believe he has come to teach them something by showing his afterlife to them: for one thing, he is teaching them that the man who fights and never yields is joyous in the afterlife. Conferring this with the recent post on natural theology, we would call this a 'road two' belief: the soul of a man who fights for what he believes best will do well beyond the veil.

That is, you might say, the old religion of the Vikings at work: but in this week's reading we come to the Conversion of Iceland.

Note how they proceed with the debate in something resembling an orderly manner. They discuss it -- some men say it is wicked to abandon the old faith, but Njal says it is wise. They craft poems about it -- including traditional flyting verses, insults aimed in this case at the old gods. They apply an empirical test, the test of the three fires. Note the use of a control sample!
"Well," says Thangbrand, "I will give you the means whereby ye
shall prove whether my faith is better. We will hallow two
fires. The heathen men shall hallow one and I the other, but a
third shall be unhallowed; and if the Baresark is afraid of the
one that I hallow, but treads both the others, then ye shall take
the faith."

"That is well spoken," says Gest, "and I will agree to this for
myself and my household."

And when Gest had so spoken, then many more agreed to it.

Then it was said that the Baresark was coming up to the
homestead, and then the fires were made and burnt strong. Then
men took their arms and sprang up on the benches, and so

The Baresark rushed in with his weapons. He comes into the room,
and treads at once the fire which the heathen men had hallowed,
and so comes to the fire that Thangbrand had hallowed, and dares
not to tread it, but said that he was on fire all over. He hews
with his sword at the bench, but strikes a crossbeam as he
brandished the weapon aloft. Thangbrand smote the arm of the
Baresark with his crucifix, and so mighty a token followed that
the sword fell from the Baresark's hand.
Berserks were said by Icelanders to have sworn an oath to fear neither fire nor iron, as you can read in the Ynglinga saga. That is why this particular test seemed a good one.

No comments: