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Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Meditations on Hávamál: 57-60
57.
Brandr af brandi
brenn, unz brunninn er,
funi kveikisk af funa;
maðr af manni
verðr at máli kuðr,
en til dælskr af dul.
Torch from a torch
burns, until it burns out,
flame kindles itself from flame;
man from a man
knows truth from speaking,
but folly from the fool.
 

Like breeds like we might say: just as the flame passes from torch to torch, so the light of learning passes from a wise one to a willing student. It burns brightly as long as there is fuel for it -- an eager mind. It's a constant refrain of the verses, but if you listen to fools you learn nothing but foolishness. Be mindful of where you sit. Better silence than foolishness.
 
58.
Ár skal rísa,
sá er annars vill
fé eða fjör hafa;
sjaldan liggjandi ulfr
lær of getr
né sofandi maðr sigr.
He must rise [early]
who would gladly have
the wealth or life;
seldom will the lolling wolf
get the lamb's thigh
nor the sleeping man victory.
 

We know all about the early bird getting the worm; here the advice is the same but with the vivid example of the busy wolf grabbing the lamb's 'ham' or thigh. The sleeping warrior will not get victory any more than the sleeping wolf her dinner.
 
59.
Ár skal rísa,
sá er á yrkjendr fáa,
ok ganga síns verka á vit;
margt of dvelr,
þann er um morgin sefr,
hálfr er auðr und hvötum.
He must rise early
who has few workers,
and get right to his work;
many things will delay,
he who in the morning slumbers,
yet half the wealth to he who's keen.
 

In typical Nordic litotes, to have 'few workers' is to have only yourself. Rise up early and don't procrastinate, because there is no one else you can count on. Half delayed is half unpaid! While this may seem more puritan than viking, they have in common a harsh life with a lot of tedious chores to maintain food and comfort.
 
60.
Þurra skíða
ok þakinna næfra,
þess kann maðr mjöt,
þess viðar,
er vinnask megi
mál ok misseri.
Of dry sticks
and bark roofing,
of this a man ought know the measure;
of this wood
which should last
a quarter or a sixmonths.
 

This stanza is a little more tricky. The basic sense is clear enough: practical knowledge will save you work. Knowing what kind of wood lasts longest before you use it as roofing is very wise. It plays with the concept of 'measure' both as a way to evaluate knowledge and as actually measuring wood for building. The lengths of time aren't terms we use as often now; some translators just use "short and long" for the seasons, but clearly the difference was more specific and meaningful in this agricultural community.
See also Meditations on Hávamál, 52-56, Meditations on Hávamál, 48-51, Meditations on Hávamál, 44-47, Meditations on Hávamál, 40-43, Meditations on Hávamál, 35-39, Meditations on Hávamál, 31-34, Meditations on Hávamál, 27-30, Meditations on Hávamál, 23-26, Meditations on Hávamál, 19-22, Meditations on Hávamál, 15-18, etc.

 I use the Evans edition of the poem to begin and compare with translations here and here. The original text comes from the Heimskringla site in Norway. I also received a new translation of The Poetic Edda from Hackett Publishing; when I get a chance, I'll review it.
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Posted by on in Studies Blogs
A Viking Curse

In chapter 60 of Egils saga Skallagrímssonar, the mighty Viking warrior poet gives voice to his anger at King Eirik 'Blood Axe' and his wife Queen Gunnhild, a powerful witch who has fought him at every turn. After many unhappy encounters between them, he curses them with a most effective method: the níðstöng or scorn-pole.

The saga records the ritual like this (leaving out the nature of the secret runes involved):

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Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Viking Grief

One of the most moving poems by the Viking poet/magician/farmer Egil Skallagrimsson was one he wrote lamenting the death of his favourite son Böðvarr who drowned at sea, and his son Gunnar who died of fever. In skaldic form the twenty-five verses give voice to his sorrow with passion and beauty. Normally Vikings assuaged loss with revenge but there is no one to attack for these deaths.

Egil composes the poem after vowing to kill himself by starvation, unwilling to live in a world without his son. His daughter Þorgerður tells him she will die with him, but tricks him into drinking some milk and spoiling his hunger strike. She then suggests that the best way to memorialise her brother is to compose a suitable poem in his honour so that he will live forever.

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Posted by on in Studies Blogs

Here are a few further stanzas in the gnomic poem of Viking wisdom, translated from the medieval Norse with a commentary on significance and context. Read the other entries in this ongoing project here. Read the original Old Norse poem here.

 

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Posted by on in Studies Blogs
More in my continuing series on this rich Viking source: be sure to catch up on the other stanzas.

 

48.
Mildir, fræknir
menn bazt lifa,
sjaldan sút ala;
en ósnjallr maðr
uggir hotvetna,
sýtir æ glöggr við gjöfum.
 

 

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    Merci, ma cherie.
  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard says #
    So beautiful, powerful.

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Meditations on Hávamál, 44-47
A few more verses in my ongoing translation of the Viking poem of gnomic wisdom --

 

44.
Veiztu, ef þú vin átt,
þann er þú vel trúir,
ok vill þú af hánum gótt geta,
geði skaltu við þann blanda
ok gjöfum skipta,
fara at finna oft.
You must know, if you would wish to have a friend
Who would be true to you
And from whom you would have good in exchange,
Share your thoughts with him,
And exchange gifts,
Fare often to find him.
 

The verses recognise the exchange that is necessary to feeding a good friendship. While the focus on gifts may seem a bit mercenary to modern readers, we have to take into consideration just how much gift giving has changed: we take it lightly because it is very easy to pick up something from a shop. In the Middle Ages, where survival was much more precarious, any surplus was precious. Giving it away showed great favour. Of course we understand the need to find a like mind with whom we can share our truths, hopes and fears. By such means do we knit relationships that last.
 
45.
Ef þú átt annan,
þanns þú illa trúir,
vildu af hánum þó gótt geta,
fagrt skaltu við þann mæla
en flátt hyggja
ok gjalda lausung við lygi.
If you have such another one --
He you trust little --
Yet you wish to get goodwill from him, too,
Fair shall you be in speech with him
But cunning in thought
And repay his deceit with lies.
 

As the great military strategist Sun Tzu observed, it's best to keep friends close -- and enemies closer. The High One agrees that it's best not to tip your hand to those who wish you ill, but continue to speak pleasantly to them as long as possible in the hopes that you might glean something useful from their conversation or thoughts. Though they may also conceal their intentions, often enmity betrays itself in non-verbal ways, too.
 
 
46.
Það er enn of þann
er þú illa trúir
ok þér er grunr at hans geði,
hlæja skaltu við þeim
ok um hug mæla;
glík skulu gjöld gjöfum.
Thus ever further with the one of whom
He whom you trust ill
And about whom you have suspicious mind,
You should laugh with him
And speak around your thoughts;
For with like coin should you repay a gift.
 

More on dealing with those you do not trust. Working environments may offer the best modern analogue to the situation. We all have co-workers with whom we don't trust -- and who may return the favour. The verses suggest that is the wisest course -- repaying false coin with false coin -- but it rubs against our modern notions of directness and honesty. For most of us, that honesty has only social costs. Yet how many people find it easier to be polite to someone they dislike intensely than to plainly state their antipathy? We're not always as honest as we like to think we are.
 
47.
Ungr var ek forðum,
fór ek einn saman,
þá varð ek villr vega;
auðigr þóttumk,
er ek annan fann,
maðr er manns gaman.
Young was I once,
I traveled on my own,
When I found myself astray;
Rich I thought myself
When I found another soul --
A human is human pleasure.
 

While the poet uses the word 'maðr' it's clearly used in the general sense of a person, not gendered specifically. While many of us choose to cherish solitude, imagine a world like the vikings where being alone put your survival at risk. There is not simply the joy of companionship here, but the recognition of the interdependence of community. Consider too the uncertainty of travel without modern maps -- let alone the specifics of satellite navigation. To run across another human when you have traveled on your own for a considerable space of time -- even if you're young and hearty -- must surely be a welcome sight.

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  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard says #
    More, more, more! And now I want you to record them all.
  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    Oh, now there's an idea. With kantele music... Hmmmm....

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Meditations on Hávamál, 40-43
Here are a few more stanzas in my ongoing project examining the verses of Hávamál, the medieval Norse gnomic verses of wisdom and advice, copied down in Iceland centuries ago.

 

40.
Féar síns,
er fengit hefr,
skyli-t maðr þörf þola;
oft sparir leiðum,
þats hefr ljúfum hugat;
margt gengr verr en varir.
 

 

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    Thanks!
  • Wendall Mountain Runner
    Wendall Mountain Runner says #
    Well thought perspective, thank you. Inspires me to go through the archives and read your other entries.
  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard says #
    Everything I need to know about life I learned from the Hávamál. More, more! Thanks, Laity.
  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    You are most kind.

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