Society and Its Values (Sociography and Axiology)
The Stages of Life
The following sketch of the stages of life is drawn from a masculine and patriarchal perspective and reflects the nature of the sources, which were only marginally interested in portraying the lives of female members of society. And this is the case even though the sources attest to a significant social influence on the part of the female sex. The ancient sources mention the names of Germanic seeresses (sorceresses, priestesses) such as Albruna(?), Veleda, and Waluburg, of whom Veleda achieved fame through her political role at the Bataver uprising against the Romans on the Lower Rhine in the first century CE. Women certainly had an influential say in family matters. And some quarrels--which could have been reconciled among men with an atonement payment--were goaded on by women into bloody feuds that could carry on for generations. It also cannot be claimed that Germanic women particularly distinguished themselves as “peace weavers” (Kriemhild in the Nibelunglied comes to mind!). Women not only took on masculine values; they often took them too far. Presenting a portrait of life with “only” masculine values is also justified throughout the Germanic sphere because it reflects the dominance of male values among the various Germanic peoples.
The things stated here may serve for the description of Germanic societies, their values, and their religion on the whole.
With the negative attitude of Germanic peoples toward what we call “work” on the one hand, and with the positive attitude toward the advancement of arms and warfare on the other, we shouldn’t be surprised that children (boys) were then seen as especially promising if they were lazy do-nothings (“ash lads”) who didn’t lift a finger to help out around the house. Nor should we be surprised that a youth’s best claim to fame was if he had already slain one or more people (men) “at a tender age,” thus earning him the pride of his mother.
In Iceland a boy came of age at twelve and could ride with weapons to the Thing assembly.
Youth and Manhood
The mature and armed youth was now free to join the retinue of a king or to go “a-viking.” If he had wealthy parents they would outfit him with a ship for this purpose. The young man then spends some years out on sea voyages, either in the service of a king or on private Viking expeditions. In either case he lived as a warrior, organized in a Männerbund, and was sexually free.
Once a young man had amassed enough of a share of loot or goods from robbery and plunder, he returned to his father’s estate or acquired his own property and married. He could settle down because he now had an economic foundation that made him independent of a patriarchal inheritance. For as long as he felt himself to be sprightly and healthy, a farmer who had married and settled down would still continue to go on further Viking expeditions, which kept him away from his land for a certain amount of time.
If a man’s days of vigor and fitness were over, and he became weak and unable to bear arms, he was no longer of value. The old man was shoved aside as useless and also even mocked for his weakness. The thirteenth-century Egil’s Saga reports how the famed skald and fearsome Viking Egil, who lived in the tenth century, having become weak in his old age, has to endure abuse from the women around him when he falls down due to his frailty (“You’re completely finished, Egil”). And similarly he must put up with being brusquely ordered by the cook (matselja), in other words by a servant, to get away from the fire where he keeps himself warm, because he is getting in the way of her work. The famed Danish legendary hero Starkather (Stark-h ðr “strong in battle”) prefers in his old age to be killed by a free man than to die in bed: “A young tree must be nourished, an ancient one hewn down. Whoever overthrows what is close to its fate and fells what cannot stand is an instrument of Nature.” So he allows himself voluntarily to have his head cut off by a blood avenger in order to avoid a death from old age and devoid of glory. Saxo (died 1216) provides us with a depiction of the scene. A “straw death,” or dying in bed, is considered shameful; Odin’s Valhalla was reached only by those who died from weapons and wounds. Even on one’s deathbed, a contemptible straw death could, however, be avoided if one allowed himself to be “spear-marked”--cut with a spear (the weapon of Odin).
The practice of killing the elderly, which is attested among the eastern and northern Germanic peoples, is probably connected to the idea of sparing “useless mouths” from the fate of a straw death. In the thirteenth-century Gautreks saga (Gautrek’s Saga), the elderly jump from a high cliff to their death in order to secure the survival of their descendents and in doing so believe they are faring forth to meet Odin.