Contrary to many popular notions that are perpetuated by Hollywood and the public, the Germanic people (Of which Vikings are but a subgroup) were not an anarchic people composed wholly of warriors or grunting savages in poorly constructed huts, who held strong notions of liberty and equality, with 1-1 ratios of men and women in the shieldwall.
Our ancestors lived in a stable and intricate social hierarchy with clearly defined obligations and duties for each rung of the latter you might find yourself inhabiting. This would include the notion of hereditary castes in a Tripartite structure that will be instantly familiar to scholars of Dumézil or our brothers in other faiths such as Hinduism. We are going to review the Rígsþula and the writings of Tacitus to bring to light some of the ancient beliefs and structure of Germanic society.
We must first start with the Rígsþula – The lay of Rig – and the God that starts off the entire poem. As the Rígsþula describes him:
Once walked, ’tis said, the green ways along,
mighty and ancient, a god most glorious;
strong and vigorous, striding, Rig.
The tales ancient roots can be seen in the name of the eponymous Deity. Rig is a God that is otherwise unattested to (And later we’ll talk about who he might be) and can therefore be considered the be a pseudonym or a title for a more familiar deity. The word Rig is an old one and roughly means “Lord, King”. The term is identical to the Irish “Rig – King” and cognate to the the Sanskrit “Rajah”, the Gaulish “Rix” and the Latin “Rex” all meaning the same thing: Sovereign or King. The term is thought to derive from the the Proto-Indo-European “*h3rēǵs – to straighten, to order, to rule” and as we will see, that is precisely what Rig intends to do with the race of Man.
Ever on he went in the middle of the way,
till he came to a house with a door on its posts
He entered straight; there was fire on the floor
and a hoary couple sitting by the hearth,
Great-grandfather and mother in ancient guise.
Great-grandmother fetched a coarse-baked loaf,
all heavy and thick and crammed with husk:
she bore it forth in the middle of the dish,
with broth in a bowl, and laid the board.
Here we can see the first house visited by Rig, it is a simple dwelling inhabited by simple people of meager means. The occupants are called the Great-Grandparents, and this can be taken to mean that the visit happened long ago, perhaps even out of living memory. These simple people live in a house and possess tools and agriculture, but the house’s door is closed (Denoting perhaps, an unwillingness to entertain guests. Perhaps out of a lack of charitableness or simple poverty) and the food is rough and coarse.
Thence Rig uprose, prepared to rest;
well he knew how to give them counsel
he laid him down in the middle of the bed
and the home-folk twain upon either side.
Thus he tarried three nights together,
then on he strode in the middle of the road
while thrice three moons were gliding by.
Great-grandmother bore a swarthy boy;
with water they sprinkled him, called him Thrall.
Forthwith he grew and well he throve,
bur tough were his hands with wrinkled skin,
with knuckles knotty and fingers thick;
his face was ugly, his back was humpy,
his heels were long.
Straightway ‘gan he to prove his strength,
with bast a-binding loads a-making,
he bore home faggots the livelong day.
Here we see that spends some time in the bed of the couple, impregnates the wife and nine months later she gives birth to a son. (We can perhaps ascribe such actions to the whims of Deities, for as any good husband can attest, its not a common practice for guests to sleep with your wife) The son is Swarthy, dark and black in coloring, ugly and strangely shapen. He nonetheless possess great physical strength and is set to simple menial work carrying bundles of sticks (the old use of Faggots is used here, lest our more modern comrades get quite confused indeed).
This occupation should come as no surprise to anyone, For the sons name is emblematic of his Function. Thrall is a Norse word meaning “Slave”, the lowest and poorest of all social classes, those not even in possession of themselves. Thralls black and ugly appearance can be seen in relation to Germanic society, for most Thralls would have been foreigners and quite physically distinct from the others in their society.
There came to the dwellings a wandering maid,
with wayworn feet, and sunburned arms,
with down-bent nose,- the Bond-maid named.
She sat her down in the middle of the floor;
beside her sat the son of the house:
they chatted and whispered, their bed preparing
Thrall and Bond-maid — the long day through.
As Thrall matures he is soon matched with a partner of his own social rank and the two are married together. The two of them interact with each other happily enough, they “Chat and Whisper” and prepare to go to bed.
Joyous lived they and reared their children.
Thus they called them: Brawler, Cowherd,
Boor and Horsefly, Lewd and Lustful,
Stout and Stumpy, Sluggard, Swarthy,
Lout and Leggy. They fashioned fences,
they dunged the meadows, swine they herded,
goats they tended and turf they dug.
Daughters were there, — Loggy and Cloggy,
Lumpy-leggy, and Eagle-nose,
Whiner, Bondwoman, Oaken-peggy,
Tatter-coat and the Crane-shanked maid.
Thence are come the generations of thralls.
The children of the union inherit the social ranking of their parents and their own physical attributes. It is important here to note the moral attributes that the children inherit from their parents, various they are violent, annoying and stupid, lustful and complainers. They are in effect, not very good people and what we might today refer to as “Low Class”.
The journey of Rig is however, just begun and he is obviously unsatisfied with the results of the son he produced with Great-Grandmother. He soon goes to another house inhabited by the next generation and the process repeats itself.
Ever on went Rig the straight roads along
till he came to a dwelling with door unclosed;
he entered straight; there was fire in the floor;
Grandfather and Grandmother owned the house.
The home-folk sat there hard a-working;
by them stood on the floor a box;
hewed the husband wood for a warp-beam;
trim his beard and the locks o’er his brow,
but mean and scanty the shirt he wore.
We can see here that the house of the Grandparents is very different than the previous generation, the occupants are hard workers with a cottage industry, they are well groomed but still not wealthy but the door to their house is open inviting guests. Like the previous house, Rig sleeps among the couple and nine months later a son is born to them.
A child had Grandmother, Karl they called him,
and sprinkled with water and swathed in linen,
rosy and ruddy, with sparkling eyes.
He grew and throve, and forthwith ‘gan he
to break in oxen, to shape the harrow,
to build him houses and barns to raise him,
to fashion carts and follow the plough.
The child born to the union is very different from the last, this one is of a ruddy (reddish pink) color with bright colored eyes that sparkle. His name is also emblematic of his occupation, for a Karl is Norse for a Freeman. He owns a farm and provides for his own household, he likely is also a part time warrior to defend his holdings and raid that of others with his Lord. Karl likewise is matched with a woman of equal social rank, and the two are happily married.
Then home they drove with a key-hung maiden
in goat-skin kirtle, named Daughter-in-Law.
They wed her to Karl in her bridal linen:
the twain jade ready, their wealth a-sharing,
kept house together, and joyous lived.
Children reared they thus they called them:
Youth and Hero, Thane, Smith, Yeoman,
Broad-limb, Peasant, Sheaf-beard, Neighbor,
Farmer, Speaker and Stubbly-beard.
By other names were the daughters called:
Dame, Bride, Lady, Gay, and Gaudy,
Maid, Wife, Woman, Bashful, Slender.
Thence are come the kindreds of Karls.
Again we must speak of the manner in which the two live. Unlike the last couple, Karl and his wife are partners in their home, they share their wealth and live happily. The children of the union inherit their moral qualities and are respectable members of their communities, one of them, Hero, is even celebrated.
However Rig has proven to be a very discerning deity for he still considers this union to not be quite good enough for him. He continues on to the last house where Mother and Father live to reenact the same course of events.
Still on went Rig the straight roads along
till he came to a hall whose gates looked south.
Pushed was the door to, a ring in the post set:
he forthwith entered the rush-strewn room.
Each other eyeing, the home-folk sat there —
Father and Mother, — twirling their fingers.
There was the husband, string a-twining,
shafting arrows and shaping bows:
and there was the wife o’er her fair arms wondering,
smoothing her linen, stretching her sleeves.
A high-peaked coif and a breast-brooch wore she,
trailing robes and a blue-tinged sark.
Her brow was brighter, her breast was fairer,
her throat was whiter than driven snow.
Now this house is very different from the others that Rig has visited, for this house is populated by a man who is not engaging in any real work at all. Husband is shafting arrows and shaping bows, showing his chief pursuits are warfare and the hunt. His wife is clothed in fine garments and she is beautiful to behold. The house is notably properly built and open to all guests in a display that cannot be misunderstood. Rig again sleeps with the woman and produces a son that is born nine months later.
A son had Mother, in silk they wrapped him,
With water they sprinkled him, Jarl he was
Blond was his hair, and bright his cheeks
Grim as a snake’s were his glowing eyes
To grow in the house did Jarl begin
Shields he brandished, and bow-strings wound
Bows he shot, and shafts he fashioned
Arrows he loosened, and lances wielded
Horses he rode, and hounds unleashed
Swords he handled, and sounds he swam
The son is born born and he is named Jarl (Lord). His appearance belies the prototypical Norse standard, with blonde hair and fair skin, his eyes glow with radiance and intelligence and he has a grim and stern look to him. Jarls chief occupations concern skills with weapons, hunting and athletics. He is obviously quite wealthy.
This is apparently pleasing to Rig for he visits no more houses and sets off to meet his son. Unlike the other children, Rig claims this son as his own (very important in Germanic tradition, for it gives Jarl a soul to inherit from his Father) and gives him advice for his life, which Jarl proceeds to do.
Straight from the grove came striding Rig
Rig came striding, and runes he taught him
By his name he called him, as son he claimed him
And bade him seize his ancestral fields
His ancestral fields, the ancient homes
Forward he rode through the forest dark
O’er the frosty crags, till a hall he found
His spear he shook, his shield he brandished
His horse he spurred, with his sword he hewed
Wars he raised, and reddened the field
Warriors slew he, and land he won
Jarl is advised by the God to claim his ancestral lands at the point of a sword to kill the men occupying it and claim it for his own Othala. The term here is an important one, Othala. It means a sacred inheritance passed down from your ancestors, and can be used to describe heirlooms, land, or even physical features. Notably Jarl is also taught knowledge of the Runes, imparting onto him magical and academic knowledge that the others do not possess, showing that Jarl is no simple brute but is also a learned man.
In the next installment to this post, we will look into the identities of Rig and his nature, The writings of Tacitus and the character of Mannus, Jarl’s son Kon, and the historical nobility of the Germanic people.