So I thought I would take a break from what amounts to documenting my life here on this blog, and felt that it might be good to try to do some analysis of the odd story or two; it’s how I got my start here and it’s something nice I can do for you all once in a while.
I have seen a theme in Nordic poetry concerning the monsters we make for themselves: the tale is often told of a warrior who slays a foe seeking glory and fame, maybe for the good of a community, more often for vanity reasons. Whatever the threat said foe did or did not present, the hero is bitten in the ass in the future by revenge killings on the part of the fallen’s kin, which frequently presents itself later in the hero’s life.
A few examples: Helgi slew the giant Hati, only to suffer the wrath of Hati’s daughter, Hrimgerth, later after Helgi became a king. Beowulf slew the monster Grendel, only to suffer the wrath of Grendel’s mother (I reject the movie’s assertion that the Dragon in act 3 is Beowulf’s son, but it does make for a poetic tale of a flawed hero– should write a blog about that film). In an inverted example, Fenrir devours Odin, only to suffer his own death by Vidarr, the son of Odin and God of Vengeance. In each of these, the revenge killing is delivered by someone who is either an equal or greater threat than the initial victim, and the killer’s death could have been avoided by staying their hand in the initial attack.
Putting aside individual cases (how many more would have died if Beowulf had not come to Denmark?) , the message to me seems clear. The Norse understood the concept of a blood feud all too well. Kill the parent, and their sons and daughters will remember. They will wait until you are vulnerable, often old and feeble, and put the knife in you. If you have sons and daughters, the cycle will swing in the other direction, and this could play out across several generations. I am unclear on any surviving family rivalries that are as famous as Montegue-Capulet, or Hatfield-McCoy, but such a rivalry doubtless existed and would have been well known in nearby communities regardless of surviving records today.
The Norse had a system of reparations in place to nip such rivalries in the bud while the wounds were fresh, often resolving the matter relatively peacefully before inter-family warfare might begin. Sometimes this would involve an execution, and the local Jarl’s word that “there ends the matter”, but more often, it would involve a process of financial compensation, and occasionally a period of servitude. True that modern drama series frequently revolve around such feuds (Game of Thrones is a very prominent example), and it makes a good story, but these kinds of backstabbing-wars were devastating to communities large and small in real life: if the whole community was not in it to win it together, resources and lives were being wasted, powerful and affluent citizens would be distracted and not able to contribute as strongly to the town’s prosperity or defense, and the community as a whole would suffer for a few people’s pride, vanity, or foolishness.
Sometimes a killing is justified: Erik the Red could be said to have been largely justified under the rule of law when he avenged some of his men who were killed, but for the fact that set of murders itself was a revenge killing for something Erik had done. This snowballed until most of a family lay dead because of Erik’s actions, and Erik was exiled from Iceland, which was not a desirable fate for anyone. This proves however, the validity of the moral.
We make our own monsters through our own actions. In both legend and history, these facts are routinely borne out. Small wonder then, that this should be brought up in the Eddas. Our actions always return to haunt us– let’s make the returns pleasant with better actions.