Warrior values: Germanic Culture

Germanic literature tells us that these peoples valued heroes. Think of Sigurđr, the two Helgis, Béowulf (and the heroes of the genealogies and "digressions" within the poem about him), the violence of Grettis Saga, Egils Saga, Víga-Glúms Saga, and Njáls Saga, the more extreme violence of the "fantasy sagas." There may be romance in this literature, but the emphasis is on the hero defeating his enemies.

Germanic poetry is alliterative; rhyme is added later in skáldic poetry, where different metres consisting of complex patterns of alliteration and rhyme develop. It is also characterized by the use of kennings: metaphorical allusions such as "wave-stallion" for a ship. The skálds valued tradition-rooted innovation in kennings, and saw it as better style to weave them around each other so that the words composing each kenning are interrupted by a word that is not part of the kenning, often a word that is part of another kenning. This echoes increasingly complex interlacing of animals in art, one "gripping beast" weaving its elongated body parts around and through another's.

Despite its increasing complexity, the poetry was oral. We have multiple accounts in sagas of skálds composing their poems as they delivered them, which was the preferred form of virtuosity. The sagas, and the poetry we have today, were only written down after the introduction of the idea of written literature as part of the conversion to Xianity. Germanic languages use "poem" and "song" interchangeably, and "Béowulf" and other Anglo-Saxon poems allude to scópas playing the harp as they sang; Gunnar played a harp in the snake-pit. So it may have been traditional to chant a poem to harp accompaniment; or maybe only some kinds of poetry, or the harp may have been a later innovation.

Clearly we have lost immeasurably vast quantities of poetry that never got written down. And we do not know the age of the prose tale tradition; the sagas appear out of nowhere and only in Iceland. Their claims to have been passed down word for word are dubious, and some (such as Hrafnkels Saga) were undoubtedly created in the 12th century. But many may nonetheless be ancient tales, and they could have been told in much the same form, with the poetic stanzas they contain as aids to memory, for generations before they were committed to writing.

The literature also tells us that Germanic people valued feasting and drinking alcohol (ale and mead, perhaps in some places grape wine as well).

People (or their cremated remains) were buried with grave-goods, which also tell us that wealth and possessions were valued, and which kinds of possessions. Men were usually buried with weapons and shield; women often with an assemblage of toiletry gear. The wealthy and powerful of both sexes were buried with ornate woven and embroidered textiles, items of carved wood such as the Oseberg sled depicting Gunnar in the snake-pit, and elaborate jewelry such as at Sutton Hoo. Some items are puzzling, such as the "whetstone" or "sceptre" from Sutton Hoo and carved staffs or wands that it has been suggested belonged to a völva or vitki. There is often residue of food and beer in vessels, and the presence of a cauldron in some wealthy graves also indicates the value assigned to feasting and/or brewing. (Germanicists and Celticists still debate which culture the Gundestrup cauldron and the figures embossed on it should be assigned to.)


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