Saturday, July 4, 2015

Need advice? Ask a Viking

In Odin’s Child (Chapter 13) young Odd Tangle-Hair and his friend Kalf Slender-Leg leave Iceland to go a-viking with a rag-tag crew in a stolen ship. Odd has lain hidden for many weeks in the house of Kalf’s grandfather, Hoskuld Long-Jaws. The half-blind old man is loath to let his grandson go on this mad adventure with Odd but Kalf insists: it is time for him to become a man. Finally, as he and Odd are on the point of leaving, Hoskuld relents, but lectures the boys on the ways of the wide world.

Kalf went to embrace him, but Hoskuld held him at arm's length and bent his brows sternly.

"Now Kalf, you must promise me. Stay with Odd. Never leave his side. And mind this too, damn it all. I am not a lecturing sort of man, but there are wise words in shriveled skins, and young dogs ought to heed ’em. You listen, too Odd. Keep silent in a strange hall. Answer lying with lies. And don't think that everyone who laughs when you do is your friend. When the ale goes round, drink your share, but don't hold on to the cup. Above all, never trust what a woman tells you or believe 'em constant, for their heads are turned on a potter's wheel and their counsels are cold. It takes sharp wits to wander in the world, you young dogs, and a fool is soon found out."

"Yes, Grandfather, yes," Slender-Leg answered impatiently to all this preachy stuff.

Hoskuld’s lecture is inspired by a collection of verses called the Havamal, or The Sayings of the High One. The ‘High One’ of the title is Odin All-Father, god of poetry, warfare, and magic. In one hundred and sixty-four short poetic stanzas Odin distills the wisdom of Viking Age Scandinavia. The Havamal is just one part of a larger work, the Poetic Edda, which contains most of what we know of Sigurd and Brunhilde and all those other legendary heroes who found their way eventually into Richard Wagner’s operas. From such a source, then, one might expect bravado and boasting, incitement to bloodshed and heroic sacrifice.  On the contrary, the Havamal urges caution, moderation, common sense, and the virtues of friendship.

A page of the single surviving manuscript of the Poetic Edda (ca. 1270)

Here is a random dozen verses, adapted from the translation by Carolyne Larrington  (if you follow me on Twitter you’ll see a new one posted every week or so.)

  • No friend is more trustworthy than a store of common sense.
  • The careful guest at dinner keeps quiet and listens.
  • Ale isn’t as good for you as it’s said to be; the more you drink, the less you know.
  • Don’t hold onto the cup, but drink moderately. No one will think you rude if you go to bed early.
  • Cattle know when it’s time to leave the pasture but a fool never knows when he’s had enough.
  • A foolish man in company does best to stay silent; no one will know that he’s ignorant.
  • If you don’t trust a man, laugh when  he does.
  • Praise the day at nightfall, a woman when she’s dead, ice when it’s crossed, and ale when it’s drunk.
  • A fool lies awake all night worrying. In the morning he’s worn out and things are just as bad.
  • Your own farm is better even if it’s small; everybody is somebody at home.
  • Never make another man’s wife your confidante.
  • One man can keep a secret, not two. Three, and the whole world knows.
  • It’s better to be alive than not; the living man gets the cow.
So, if what you want is guidance to a quiet, peaceful, and contented life…ask a Viking!

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