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civil magistracy, performed the public offices of religion. ‘These four quarters,’ says Mr. Wheaton, ‘were again divided into smaller districts, in which all the freemen possessed of landed property had a voice in the public assembly. The great national assembly, or assize of the island, at which all the freeholders had a right to participate, by themselves or their delegates, was held annually, and was called the Al-thing.’ It bore a strong resemblance to our Witenagemote, and to the Fields of March and May among the primitive Franks, and continued to be held for eight centuries, on a level plain near the lake of Thing-valle, whence it was removed only a few years ago. In fact, the government of Iceland was strictly republican for three centuries, and even after its civil dissentions were quelled by the establishment of monarchy, ‘the great body of the people was never reduced to the condition of serfs. They nourished a proud spirit of personal independence, which, if partaking of the barbarous character of the age, became the parent of adventurous enterprize, at first in brilliant feats of arms, and afterwards in those arts which embellish human life.’ The general assemblies were convened by the chosen Lagmann, or Law-giver, who presided over their meetings, who prepared the laws for their adoption, and exercised great power. So important was this office amongst the Icelanders, that they computed time from the periods during which it was held by different individuals, the anniversary of their elections serving as distinct epochs in the annals of the nation. The Icelanders did not adopt the Christian religion until about the close of the tenth century, soon after which they abolished the trial by battle, a mode of procedure recognized by the early laws of all the northern nations, which, with this exception, were full of the spirit of litigation and subtlety, to be found generally marking the Norman character. The saga of the famous chieftain Egill, furnishes us with a curious and picturesque account of a civil trial in Norway, respecting an inheritance which he claimed. ‘Soon after the battle of Brunanburg, (934), in which Egill had aided King Athelstane with a band of Vikingar, and other northern adventurers, his wife's father died in Norway, and his brother-in-law, Bergaumund, took possession of the entire inheritance, of which Egill claimed a part, in right of his wife, which circumstance compelled Egill to make a voyage from Iceland to the parent country. On his arrival in Norway, he brought a suit against Bergaumund, who was protected by the interest of King Erik
and his queen Gunilhda. The suit was tried at the Gule-thing assizes,
where the parties appeared, attended by numerous bands of followers and friends. In the midst of a large field a ring was stretched out, with hazel twigs bound together with a cord, called a sacred band (vebünd.) Within this circle sat the judges, twelve from the district called Fiordefylke, twelve from Sogne-fylke, and twelve from Hörda-fylke; these three districts being thus united into what may be called one circuit for the administration of justice. The pleadings commenced in due form, and Bergaumund asserted that Egill's wife could not, as the child of a slave, inherit the property in otestion. But Egill's friend, Arinbioern, maintained, with twelve wit: “ss -, or compurgators, that she was of ingenuous birth; and as to sud-e S v . . e. about to pronounce sentence, Queen Gunilhda, the old enemy of Leill, fearing the result might be favourable to him, instigated her kinsmen to cut the sacred cord, by which the assizes were broken up in confusion.
... Thereupon Egill defied his adversary to single combat in a desert isle
(holmgánga) in order to decide their controversy by battle, and denounced vengeance against all who should interfere. King Erik was sorely incensed, but as nobody, not even the king and his Champions, were allowed
so come armed to the assizes, Egill made his escape to the sea shore. Here
his faithful friend Arinbioern informed him that he was declared an outlaw in all Norway, and presented him with a bark and thirty men to pass the seas. But Egill could not forego his vengeance, even for a season, and returned to the shore, where he lurked until he found an opportunity to slay, not only his adversary Bergaumund, but King Erik's son Ragnvold, a youth of only eleven years old, whom he accidentally encountered at a convivial meeting in the neighbourhood. Before Egill set sail again for Iceland, he took one of the oars of his ship, upon which he stuck a horse's head, and as he raised it aloft, exclaimed :-" Here I set up the rod of vengeance, and direct this curse against King Erik and Queen Gumilhda” He then turned the horse's head towards the land, and cried aloud :—“I direct this curse against the tutelary deities who built this land, that they shall for ever wander, and find no rest nor abiding place, until they have expelled from the land, King Erik and Queen Gunilhda.” He then carved this singular formula of imprecation in Runic characters upon the oar, and fixt it in a cleft of the rock, where he left it standing.”—pp. 46–48.
We may discover in this description, the faint outlines of our grand and petit juries, our circuits, our compurgators, (who yet, it is believed, belong to our system of law,) our judges, and the wellestablished custom of soldiers never appearing armed in an assize town. Indeed the whole plan of the Icelandic, and of all the Norman governments, is in harmony with that which we ourselves, at this moment, possess, and although it has been considerably modified, and altogether superseded in some countries peopled from the north, by the introduction of the Roman civil law, still there is no part of Europe, included in Russia, Prussia, Austria, France, Sweden, Poland, Holland, Belgium, or Germany, which does not seem to have an original and indefeasible right, during whatever length of time that right may have been suspended, to trial by jury, to national legislative assemblies, and to a form of government, to a certain extent, perhaps, monarchical, but decidedly
limited by republican institutions,
Long before learning was effectually revived in the south of Europe; Iceland had created a literature of her own, which had little, if any thing, in common with the Greek or Latin classics. The protracted adherence of her people to the religion of Odin, and to the superstitious practices of which it was, in a great measure, composed, however injurious it may have been in other, respects, was favourable to the nationality of her prose and poetical legends. Her scholars, who became acquainted with the Latin alphabet, made use of it principally in giving a written form to their own Runic sounds, and it is remarkable, that the language thus embodied bears a close resemblance to the structure not only of the Latin, but also of the Greek, the ancient Persian, and the Sanscrit. Hitherto, as in all other nations before letters were known, the learning, the poetry, and history of the country, were preserved by means of oral tradition, transmitted by the Saga-men and Skalds. The latter were bards, like those of whom Homer makes frequent mention, as having existed before and during his time in ancient Greece, the composers of hymns, songs, epics, and chronicles in verse ; the companions of warriors, whose deeds they celebrated, and the welcome visitors of every family above the pressure of poverty. They formed a distinct order of men, and exercised great influence. Their lays strongly reflected the national manners and customs, which took a marked and peculiar tone from the fondness of all the northern nations for the sea, their shortest voyages bearing them much farther from home than the Argonauts are said to have ventured. “Their familiarity with the perils of the ocean,” remarks P. E. Muller, “stamped their national character with bold and original features, which distinguished them from every other people.” Southey's beautiful lines on this subject will be at once remembered. “Wild the Runic faith, And wild the realms where Scandinavian chiefs And Skalds arose, and hence the Skald's strong verse Partook the savage wildness. And methinks Amid such scenes as these, the Poet's soul Might best attain full growth; pine-covered rocks, And mountain forests of eternal shade, And glens and vales, on whose green quietness The lingering eye reposes, ānd fair lakes That image the light foliage of the beach, Or the grey glitter of the aspen leaves On the still bow thin trembling.”
The Saga-men composed their annals and stories in prose, the talent for story-telling, as well as that for poetical invention, having been much cultivated. They thus preserved the memory of past transactions, and were often employed, like the story-tellers of the east, in amusing kings and their courts. Their recitations, though principally in prose, were illustrated occasionally by passages in verse, quoted from the compositions of the Skalds. “A striking example,” says Muller, “ of the degree to which this faculty was cultivated, is given in the saga of a famous Icelandic Skald, who sung before King Harald Sigurdson, sixty different lays in one evening, and being asked if he knew any more, declared that these were only the half of what he could sing.” These recitations were not so difficult as one might think; nor are they even yet wholly discontinued in Iceland.
self at the head of such an order of magicians.
‘The power of oral tradition, in thus transmitting, througi, a success; on of ages, poetical or prose compositions of considerable lengo. inay appear almost incredible to civilised nations accustomed to the 11 of wit::g. But it is well known, that even after the Homeric poems had been i-duc, I to writing, the rhapsodists who had been accustomed to recite them, could readily repeat any passage desired. And we have, in our own times, amongst the Servians, Calmucks, and other barbarous and semi-barbarous nations, examples of heroic and popular poems of great length thus preserved and handed down to posterity. This is more especially the case where there is a perpetual order of men, whose exclusive employment it is to learn and repeat, whose faculty of the memory is thus improved and carried to the highest pitch of perfection, and who are relied upon as historiographers to preserve the national annals. The interesting scene presented to this day in every Icelandic family, in the long nights of winter, is a living proof of the existence of this ancient custom. No sooner does the day close, than the whole patriarchal family, domestics and all, are seated on their couches, in the principal apartment, from the ceiling of which the reading and working-lamp is suspended; and one of the family, selected for that purpose, takes his seat near the lamp, and begins to read some favourite saga, or it may be the works of Klopstock and Milton, (for these have been translated into Icelandic,) whilst all the rest attentively listen, and are at the same time engaged in their respective occupations. From the scarcity of printed books in this poor and sequestered country, in some families the sagas are recited by those who have committed them to memory, and there are still instances of itinerant orators of this sort, who gain a livelihood during the winter, by going about from house to house repeating the stories they have thus learnt by heart.’ —pp. 58, 59.
Saemund Sigfussen, a learned Icelandic ecclesiastic of the eleventh century, collected together a considerable number of poetical fragments, relating to the ancient mythology and history of the North, in a work called the Edda, adding to them a single composition of his own, respecting futurity, and of a Christian tendency. This work is preserved in manuscript in the university of Copenhagen, and has been divided into three volumes, the first of which was published in 1787, the second in 1818, and the third a few years ago. One of the poems in this collection gives a curious account
of the creation of the universe, and of the gods and men by whom it
is inhabited. In another we have a sort of catalogue of magical terms, supposed to be capable of protecting the person who makes a proper use of them, from the common perils of life. In the mystical practices of the magic art, women, as in Macbeth, were principally employed in compounding the ingredients of the cauldron. Indeed the proceedings of Shakspeare's witches, may be considered as exhibiting “a true living picture of this superstition so widely diffused over all the countries of the North.” * Associations or brotherhoods of magicians were formed, in which some of the higher chieftains of the country were engaged. In the
reign of Harald Harfager, his son, Rognvald Kettilbein, put himThe king, having
vainly endeavoured to reclaim him and his eighty confederates from their odious practices, was so incensed against them, that he invited them to a feast, and when they were drenched with wine and wassail, set fire to the house in which they were assembled, and not one of them escaped with his life.’ Among the fragments collected in the poetical Edda, there is a long dramatic dialogue between the god Odin, disguised as a mortal, and the celebrated giant Vafthrudnir, (with whom no one of the genii was to be compared in craft and valour,) about the most intricate points of the creation of the world, and of gods and men, in the course of which the whole of the mythological doctrines of the North may be said to be embodied. Heroes who had perished by a violent death, were alone considered worthy of admission to Odin's Valhalla; they were to be engaged until the end of this world in martial exercises and tournaments, as in life, and real wounds were often inflicted, many dying again in the field of battle; but at a given signal the slain arose, and accompanied their victors to Odin's hall, to share in the banquet prepared for them, to quaff the liquor of the gods, and enjoy the delights of social converse. The destined course of time being run, a great wolf would devour Odin himself, and the whole world, with all things therein, gods as well as men, would be involved in one general conflagration. There are other poems in the collection, descriptive of the habitation of the celestial deities, the occupations of a great variety of mythological agents, the genealogies of kings, and of the proceedings of a certain dwarf, named Alvis. The most valuable, however, of all these fragments, is the Hávamál, or sublime discourse of Odin, which contains a metrical collection of moral precepts, not unlike the Proverbs, and details the various Runic charms, by the application of which diseases were healed, poison was counteracted, the arms of an enemy were paralyzed, tempests stilled, witches arrested in their hostile career through the air, and even the dead raised to life, and compelled to disclose the secrets of the invisible world. The reader will be enabled to form some notion of the ancient manners and customs of the north, from some of the precepts which the Hávamál inculCates. “Sojourn not long in the same place; he who remains too long in the house of another, becomes a burthen to his host.” * “Go not into the field unarmed, nor leave the highway ; for no man knows when he may have use for his spear.” * “He who seeks to spoil another's flock, or to take his life, must rise with the early dawn ; the sleeping wolf takes no prey, and the sluggard man wins not the victory.” * “Once I was young, I went alone, and lost my way; but when I found a companion, I seemed to be rich; for man is the joy of man. The tree which stands alone in the field puts not forth; so it is with him whom no one loves. Why should he longer live 2" *
* “The same thought, expressed in the same manner, is found in the Sanskrit poem, called Maha Barata.”