Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Vits er þörf þeim sem víða ratar

Hávamál is a collection of ancient poems or parts of poems, in all 164 in number. The common denominator is Óðinn who is the narrator in each verse. It should therefore not come as a surprise that where gender is a factor the wisdom is from the male perspective. Óðinn was not feminine in any sense of the word, bearded maybe but hipster not. The authors are considered to be many and the verses believed to have been written by Icelandic Vikings during the period between 900-1200. Only one copy from ancient times still exists, as part of the 13th century Iceland manuscript Codus Regius now on display in the Árni Magnússon Museum in Iceland. It consists of 45 vellum leaves, 8 are missing although I have no clue as to how they know precisely what is not there.  

Codus Reguis (the book of the King) is so called because it was given as a present to the King of Denmark in 1662 by the Icelandic bishop of Skálholt Brynjólfur Sveinsson. He is to have acquired it in 1643 but no historical documents mention its existence until that time and there is no information regarding from whom or where the bishop got it. Upon gaining independence in 1944 Iceland began to grumble about this gift. We wanted it back, along with other manuscripts that had been sent to Denmark during the course of Danish rule.  

In 1971 Denmark relented to our consistent and annoying nagging and returned the manuscript. At the time air travel was not considered safe enough to move such precious cargo so the Codus Regius was sent over by ship. I don‘t know why but I find this very old-fashioned. Ships can sink, planes can crash. Nothing is really fail proof. What would one do if given the task of organizing the logistics of such a shipment today? Take a month to work through contingency plans to counterbalance the risks. And probably end up by sending it by ship. Wrapped in a life vest. 

I love the wisdom set forth in Hávamál. It dates from a time so different than the present yet they seem to have had all of the important things down pat. Here are a few examples of the gist of the poems in the first section, Gestaþáttur: 

·         Do not try to be friends with the enemies of your existing friends.
·         Do not get a big head if you are successful, everyone has a peer.
·         Two men can usually overpower one guy (make friends – alone you are vulnerable)
·         The rich and the poor have always existed and will always exist. Poverty says nothing about the worth of the person.
·         If you have guests, make sure to speak to them and to listen to what they have to say.
·         The more you drink (alcohol) the stupider you will become. (I guess drinking has not changed much in a thousand years)
·         Do not make fun of others, you are not perfect yourself. Nobody is.
·         It is good to be smart or wise. But to fully enjoy life one must not be too smart or too wise.
·         Do not flee a fight, death will find you at some point no matter what you do. (Oh just get it over with)
·         Those who misuse power will eventually be overthrown.
·         Don‘t worry too much. Worrying does not solve problems.
·         A person that does not travel from home is stupid. (Small tidbit of information, the Icelandic word for stupid “heimskur” is derived from the word home “heima”, a remnant from the times of these writings.)
·         Don‘t spend your time lying in bed, a sleeping man has never done anything noteworthy.

My favorite, no. 70: It is better to be alive than dead. No one has any use for a dead man.

And the weirdest: A son born after you are dead is better than no son at all. (I would think this depends on how long after you die this son is born)

And finally, one that no longer applies, in Iceland anyway: Do not, ever, set your weapons out of reach. Keep them on your person when awake and by your bed when asleep. (To be read with the one about not worrying too much.)

Yrsa -  Wednesday


  1. I assume a successful trip to Target in Boston for garbage bags allowed you time to compose this delightful piece with peace of mind! I would not have liked to hear of you worrying about the wrong-sized bags for your Nicelandic trash container.

  2. Yrsa, I like them all. But I agree that no. 70 is the best: so true, but still makes me chuckle some how. I want to come and see the ancient Codus in person. Regarding the one about lying in bed, a favorite blues tune of mine goes, "Nothing comes to a sleeper but a dream." Marvelous to think that the ancient Icelanders (not to say Nicelanders) and the ex-slaves on the Mississippi delta thought alike.

  3. Love the advice, especially about not worrying too much. Advice hasn't changed in all these years :) I do like sleeping though.

  4. Your list included my favorite bits from the Hávamál. Here's how they read in my translation:

    "Who travels widely needs his wits about him,
    The stupid should stay at home"

    "Less good than belief would have it
    Is mead for the sons of men:
    A man knows less the more he drinks,
    Becomes a befuddled fool"

    Two pieces of advice to keep in mind when making plans to travel to Bouchercon.

    Interesting that “heimskur” is derived from “heima.” Icelanders apparently believed that stupidity derived from sticking too close too home. An ancient Greek word for "stupidity" --anesthesia-- implies lack of feeling. One can derive much wisdom from stupidity.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  5. I'm still trying to figure out the drinking one. I suspect that will come when the gray matter lost at Bouchercon somehow regenerates.

    Yes, Peter, I shall try to remember those two next year:)