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.
35. Ganga skal, skal-a gestr vera ey í einum stað; ljúfr verðr leiðr, ef lengi sitr annars fletjum á.
Go shall the guest and not stay long in one place; the loved one becomes loathed if he sits too long on another's bench.
The important thing about hospitality -- that measure of a man or a woman and their home -- is the assumption that such largesse will not be taxed or taken for granted. Long visits were a big part of the wealthy in Iceland, but they had to be planned for and stocks set by. Unexpected guests were given good welcome, but part of the unspoken agreement is that a visitor would know when to move on.
36. Bú er betra, þótt lítit sé, halr er heima hverr; þótt tvær geitr eigi ok taugreftan sal, þat er þó betra en bæn.
23. Ósviðr maðr vakir um allar nætr ok hyggr at hvívetna; þá er móðr, er at morgni kemr, allt er víl sem var.
The unreasonable man wakes all the night, and ponders over every thing. Thus it is for the man, who when morning comes, finds all will seem just as wretched.
Who doesn't know the restless and often seemingly endless woe of a sleepless night? Those who suffer insomnia feel not only the dull ache of isolation but the fatigue that never seems to end. The ceaseless ache of depression saps energy and hope. There seems to be a bit of blame associated with the idea, juxtaposed with the 'unwise man' verses below, but there is a slight difference in the word choice. Nonetheless, the verse suggests that in this case it's more that one allows stress to take the form of sleeplessness. We know insomnia is more complex than that now.
24. Ósnotr maðr hyggr sér alla vera viðhlæjendr vini; hittki hann fiðr, þótt þeir um hann fár lesi, ef hann með snotrum sitr.
Here's the latest round of translations and commentary from my ongoing examination of the gnomic verses of Hávamál, the Sayings of the High One. While many of the verses deal with the magic of the Norse, many of the lines simply offer sage advice on best behaviour, especially when one travels.
19. Haldi-t maðr á keri, drekki þó at hófi mjöð, mæli þarft eða þegi, ókynnis þess vár þik engi maðr, at þú gangir snemma at sofa.
20. Gráðugr halr, nema geðs viti, etr sér aldrtrega; oft fær hlægis, er með horskum kemr, manni heimskum magi.
21. Hjarðir þat vitu, nær þær heim skulu, ok ganga þá af grasi; en ósviðr maðr kann ævagi síns of mál maga.
22. Vesall maðr ok illa skapi hlær at hvívetna; hittki hann veit, er hann vita þyrfti, at hann er-a vamma vanr.
Hávamál offers us a glimpse of a past that had already become somewhat nostalgic when a single hand transcribed the poem around 1270 CE.As David A. H. Evans writes in the Viking Society for Northern Research’s edition of the verses, this second poem of the Elder Edda “is deservedly one of the most celebrated works to have survived from the early Norse world.” It’s full of gnomic advice that continues to be of interest—and application—to us in the modern world. Old Norse text via the Heimskringla Project.
1. Gáttir allar, áðr gangi fram, um skoðask skyli, um skyggnast skyli, því at óvíst er at vita, hvar óvinir sitja á fleti fyrir.
2. Gefendr heilir! Gestr er inn kominn, hvar skal sitja sjá? Mjök er bráðr, sá er á bröndum skal síns of freista frama.
3. Elds er þörf, þeims inn er kominn ok á kné kalinn; matar ok váða er manni þörf, þeim er hefr um fjall farit.
4. Vatns er þörf, þeim er til verðar kemr, þerru ok þjóðlaðar, góðs of æðis, ef sér geta mætti, orðs ok endrþögu.