The English language is an amazing inheritance: every word a story.
In Norse thought we find the fascinating idea that, as with humanity, there are different tribes of gods. One of these tribes is known collectively as the Aesir. This is a plural form; the singular, unfortunately, is áss. In Icelandic, this rhymes with house, but there's no denying that it's jarring to the eye of the English-reader.*
The English-speaking ancestors knew these gods as well, but unlike the good old pagan word god, ôs came to refer specifically to a pagan god, and so fell out of common usage. Eventually the word became extinct.
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.
This week, I write on Odin to fulfill my promise to write about each god (#8) placed in the atheists’ “god graveyard”. I’ve only had one personal experience with Odin which I wrote previously about here. So I’ve spent time this week researching him, trying to figure out what to write. Nothing came to mind specifically just an overwhelming awe over the role he has chosen for himself.
Unlike Greek mythology and even Egyptian mythology, the Gods and heroes and lore of northern Europe appear rarely in books aimed at children. This is unfortunate, as Norse mythology is rich with wondrous tales, grand adventure, amazing Gods, and tragic but noble heroes. There are several picture books that I recommend though, as well as chapter books and teen books and a few activity books; there are also some general mythology books which feature good sections on Norse lore. These would all make great additions to the private libraries of Heathen families, or even lending libraries maintained by particular Kindreds.
There are several picture books which the youngest children will enjoy; some retell a single myth while others focus on a specific Deity or hero. First is Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient Norse by Leonard Everett Fisher* which features short, encyclopedic entries on the Deities along with beautiful full-page chalky illustrations, a map, and a pronunciation guide. Iduna and the Magic Apples by Mariana Mayer and Laszlo Gal, which I profiled in a previous column, retells the story of that Goddess's kidnapping and rescue. The Adventures of Thor the Thunder God by Lise Lunge-Larsen (author of the wonderful Gifts From the Gods) and Jim Madsen, is a humorous and exciting collection of that God's most well-known stories, while Shirley Climo and Alexander Koshkin's Stolen Thunder: A Norse Myth focuses on Thor's quest to reclaim his lost hammer from the Frost Giants. Leif the Lucky by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire is a biography of the famous explorer, while Sister Bear: A Norse Tale by Jane Yolen and Linda Graves is a folktale featuring a spunky heroine, an adorable dancing bear, and some terrible tattooed trolls.