Sacred-Texts Legends & Sagas Iceland Index Previous Next

p. 80


PRIMITIVE law, based as it is on the profoundest ethical convictions and sentiments of the race, has many elements in common with poetry. Especially is this the case when the law seeks to instance, or motivate, or elaborate, sanctions or punishments. Thus we find embedded in the Icelandic laws, following a treatment of weregild or composition for manslaughter, etc., a formula of peace1 which both in form and spirit is essentially poetic. Indeed, when passion infuses itself—as where a mighty curse is called down on the violator of these oaths—heights of truly great poetry are reached: for the benefit of both witnesses and the interested parties, the abstract “everywhere” in which outlawry will be visited on him is translated into concrete images which pass before the mind’s eye in an artless series of vivid impressions from the life of man, the boundless earth, the sky and the sea.

 Like other, similar, snatches in the laws, the Tryggthamól are most instructive to the student of Old Germanic poetry in showing a more primitive stage of alliterative verse than that seen in epic or lay. There is as yet no regularity of metrical line, though a few normal long-lines do occur;2 far less, any strophic structure. Still, alliteration has here its basic function of marking and reinforcing the natural stress, variation (parallelism) shows the instinctive fondness of the race for dwelling on favorite objects or conceptions; and the occasionally magnificent rhythm anticipates the effects of the more regular art practice to come. In other words, there are here, as in embryo, all the peculiar and stirring elements of Old Germanic poetry.

 It is reasonable to suppose that these oaths are age-old and were brought over to Iceland from the common home in p. 81 Norway.3 Certainly the groundstock is heathen; the references to Christian belief and practices are but natural later accretions.

 The version here translated is that of the so-called Konungabók or “Kings’ Book” MS of the Grágás,4 a twelfth-century compilation of Icelandic laws. A shorter version exists also in the so-called Statharhólsbók, or “Book of Statharhól Bishopric” MS of the Grágás. Besides, we have versions with important divergences in the seventy-second chapter of the Grettis saga and the thirty-third chapter of the Heitharvíga saga.

There has been strife between N. N. and N. N.; but now peace has been made between them,
  and amends made
  as the domesmen deemed
  and the judges judged
  and the awarders weighed.
  Hath the offer been taken
  as even-handed,
  with full fees
  and forth-paid ounces,5
  to them handseled
  who were to have them.
Ye shall henceforth be men
  at peace and pledged
  at ale and eating,
  at thing and at folk-meet,
  at kirk-going
  and in king’s hall;
and wherever men gather together, there shall ye be so agreed as though this matter had never come between you. Ye shall share
  both steel and steaks
  and all the things
   p. 82 that are betwixt you,
  like friends7 and not like foes.
And if, later, strife arise between you twain and things be not in good case, then shall it
  be settled by fees,
  but no swords reddened.
But that one of you
  who is traitor to this truce
  and goes against word given,
he shall be
  as ill outlaw
  hunted and hated,
  so far as men ever
  an outlaw hunt,
  as Christian folk
  visit churches,
  as Heathen folk
  have hallowed shrines,
  as fire doth flame
  and earth is green,—
  as babe calleth mother,
  and mother suckles child,
  as folks kindle fire,
  ships sail the sea,
  and shields are borne,
  as the sun shineth,
  snow drifteth,
  Finn glideth,8
  fir-tree groweth,
  as falcon flie’th
  on a fair summer-day9
  with a brisk-blowing breeze
  under both his wings,
   p. 83 as the sky arches
  and earth is tilled,
  wind doth howl,
  waters flow seaward,
  and seed is sown.
  He shall shun
  churches and churched ones,
  God’s house and men’s homes—
  every abode
  but hell only.
Now hold ye both this book10 on which lies also the money which N. N. offers as redress for himself and his heir.
  born or unborn,
  begotten or unbegotten,
  named or unnamed.
N. N. accepts this composition, and N. N. swears an everlasting peace. It is to hold
  the while earth lasteth,
  and live on it men.
Now, then, are N. N. and N. N.
  agreed and at one,
  where’er they may meet—
  on shore or on water,
  on ship or on snow-shoe,
  on high sea or on horseback,
  to share in the rowing
  or in baling out,
  on bench or on deck,
  if need there be,
  at one with each other
  as is father with son
  or son with father,
  in all their dealings.
Now N. N. and N. N. shall clasp hands: hold ye well this truce, to the liking of Christ and of all the men who have now heard this oath of peace.
   p. 84 May he have God’s grace
  who holds this truce,
  but his wrath, who rives
  rightful truce—
  his grace, he who holds it!
Be ye now happy and at peace!
  Witnesses be we
  who about you stand!



p. 80

1 It is there called Tryggthamól or “Oaths of Peace.” They are to be repeated, after the judge or umpire, by both parties to the suit.

2 I have therefore printed the whole in half-lines.

p. 81

3 A few lines of the beginning, found in the fragmentary MS of the Older Gulathingslóg or “Laws of the Gula (legal) district” of Norway prove it.

4 Literally. “Grey Goose”—from the MS covers of grey fur.

5 I.e., of silver.

6 In the original: “knife and meat-piece.“

p. 82

7 In the original: “like kinsmen.“the closest bond between persons being that of the clan.

8 Viz., on skis.

9 Which, it will be remembered, in the Northland lasts most of the twenty-four hours.

p. 83

10 The Bible, of course.