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):
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.
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.
A few more verses in my ongoing translation of the Viking poem of gnomic wisdom --
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.
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.
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.
Ungr var ek forðum,
fór ek einn saman,
þá varð ek villr vega;
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.