Myths of the Norsemen From the Eddas and Sagas

Page: 65

And that, from harmes and dangers now, in safetie here they dwell.”


All the Northern races considered the Yule feast the greatest of the year, and were wont to celebrate it with dancing, feasting, and drinking, each god being pledged by name. The first Christian missionaries, perceiving the extreme popularity of this feast, thought it best to encourage drinking to the health of the Lord and his twelve apostles when they first began to convert the Northern heathens. In honour of Frey, boar’s flesh was eaten on this occasion. Crowned with laurel and rosemary, the animal’s head was brought into the banqueting-hall with much ceremony—a custom long after observed, as the following lines will show:

“Caput Apri defero

Reddens laudes Domino.

The boar’s head in hand bring I,

With garlands gay and rosemary;

I pray you all sing merrily,

Qui estis in convivio.”

Queen’s College Carol, Oxford.

The father of the family laid his hand on the sacred dish, which was called “the boar of atonement,” swearing he would be faithful to his family, and would [126]fulfil all his obligations—an example which was followed by all present, from the highest to the lowest. This dish could be carved only by a man of unblemished reputation and tried courage, for the boar’s head was a sacred emblem which was supposed to inspire every one with fear. For that reason a boar’s head was frequently used as ornament for the helmets of Northern kings and heroes whose bravery was unquestioned.

As Frey’s name of Fro is phonetically the same as the word used in German for gladness, he was considered the patron of every joy, and was invariably invoked by married couples who wished to live in harmony. Those who succeeded in doing so for a certain length of time were publicly rewarded by the gift of a piece of boar’s flesh, for which in later times, the English and Viennese substituted a flitch of bacon or a ham.

“You shall swear, by custom of confession,

If ever you made nuptial transgression,

Be you either married man or wife:

If you have brawls or contentious strife;

Or otherwise, at bed or at board,

Offended each other in deed or word;

Or, since the parish clerk said Amen,

You wish’d yourselves unmarried again;

Or, in a twelvemonth and a day

Repented not in thought any way,

But continued true in thought and desire,

As when you join’d hands in the quire.

If to these conditions, with all feare,

Of your own accord you will freely sweare,

A whole gammon of bacon you shall receive,

And bear it hence with love and good leave:

For this our custom at Dunmow well known—

Though the pleasure be ours, the bacon’s your own.”

Brand’s Popular Antiquities.

At the village of Dunmow in Essex, the ancient custom is still observed. In Vienna the ham or flitch [127]of bacon was hung over the city gate, whence the successful candidate was expected to bring it down, after he had satisfied the judges that he lived in peace with his wife, but was not under petticoat rule. It is said that in Vienna this ham remained for a long time unclaimed until at last a worthy burgher presented himself before the judges, bearing his wife’s written affidavit that they had been married twelve years and had never disagreed—a statement which was confirmed by all their neighbours. The judges, satisfied with the proofs laid before them, told the candidate that the prize was his, and that he only need climb the ladder placed beneath it and bring it down. Rejoicing at having secured such a fine ham, the man speedily mounted the ladder; but as he was about to reach for the prize he noticed that the ham, exposed to the noonday sun, was beginning to melt, and that a drop of fat threatened to fall upon his Sunday coat. Hastily beating a retreat, he pulled off his coat, jocosely remarking that his wife would scold him roundly were he to stain it, a confession which made the bystanders roar with laughter, and which cost him his ham.