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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....
- 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;
- 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.
Freyr is literally one of the words for 'Lord' in old Norse. In other words, it's not just a well-known God's name but his title. One of Odin's many heiti (by-names and titles) is Herjan-- also another word for 'Lord' with a warrior connotation, 'leader of hosts'. While both Gods are associated with kingship in Scandinavia, Freyr is mythically attributed in Ynglinga Saga as the ancestor of the royal house of Sweden (much as Egyptian pharoahs claimed descent from or symbolic right to rule as inherited from Osiris-- which also means 'Sire').