HOTW #004

Today’s excerpt will focus on the concept of legacy, fame, and reputation:

75. Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die,
fair fame of one who has earned.

76. Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die,
the doom on each one dead.

It is interesting to note this excerpt is present in a similar form in another text called the Hákonarmál – a poem by the 10th century Norwegian skald (poet) Eyvindr skáldaspillir. The poem depicts the fall of the King Haakon the Good at the Battle of Fitjar and his reception in Valhalla. The passage is as thus:

“Deyr fé,
deyja frænder
eyðisk land ok láð.
Síz Hákon fór
með heiðin goð,
mǫrg es þjóð of þéuð.”

“Cattle die,
kinsmen die,
land and sea are destroyed.
Since Hákon left
with heathen gods
many people are oppressed.”

While the convention has been to attribute originality of the stanzas to the Hákonarmál, there is the possibility that the Hávamál may have first had this phrase, or that the Hákonarmál and the Hávamál both drew from the same, third-party source. This is difficult to assuage, primarily because the only surviving copy of the Hávamál is the one contained in the Codex Regius, which does not tell us much about the origins of each individual phrase and their dates.

In the context of the Hávamál, these verses refer to the immortality of legacy. The first two lines of each stanza – “Cattle die and kinsmen die, // thyself too soon must die” – refer to the inevitability of death with all mortal things. Here, cattle refers not only specifically to livestock, but individual wealth, as much of wealth was reflected in the number of certain cattle you could purchase, or already owned. This is evident in the rune “Fehu” and its meanings (illustrated below):

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Image Source: Runesecrets

The rune initially meant “cattle”, but over time began to represent “wealth, money, fee”, which shows us just how important cattle was as a measure of wealth in Germanic society. [1]

People were not exempt from death and the eventual fade into obscurity either. This is evident in “…kinsmen die, // thyself too soon must die.” which serves as a grim reminder that nobody is immortal.

Wealth and your physical being was considered fleeting. The only way to preserve some semblance of immortality was therefore, through your deeds, whether they be positive or negative. Fame, or notoriety, was achieved through sometimes extreme methods, as is evident in other literature.

Behaviors were considered on a scale of drengskapr (honor) to níðr (shame). The actions of a drengr would be emulated and praised, while the actions of a níðingr would be avoided and reviled.

Some traits of drengskapr include bravery, nobility, magnanimity, a sense of fair play, respect for others, the strength to do what is right, a sense of honor, and self-control.

On the other hand, some traits of níðr would include cowardice, treachery, shameful acts such as killing defenseless people, and breaking one’s oath. A níðingr would essentially be treated as an outcast of society. [2]

The emphasis on character and reputation may have been what caused hypersensitivity to any insults or feelings of dishonor. Such dishonor could usually only be corrected by death, which lead to a great many duels. Some examples of dueling methods include einvígi, or single-combat duels, or the holmgang (hólmganga) which sometimes took place on deserted islands so as to reduce the possibility of interference, and prevent duelers from running away.

A law from 13th-century Sweden dictates the rules for a holmgang:

“If someone speaks insults to another man, they shall meet where three roads meet. If he who has spoken comes and not the insulted one, then he shall be as he’s been called: no right to swear oaths, no right to bear witness, may it concern man or woman.

If the insulted one comes and not he who has spoken, then he shall cry “Niðingr!” three times and make a mark in the ground, and he is worse who spoke what he dared not keep.

Now both meet fully armed: if the insulted one falls, the compensation is half a weregild; if he who has spoken falls, insults are the worst, the tongue the head’s bane, he shall lie in a field of no compensation.”

– Hednalagen, or Pagan Law, 13th Century Sweden

Very strict rules were laid out and observed in order to preserve a “just” duel. This reflects the severity of insulting one’s honor, and the often deadly consequences that followed.

Yours in service,
Lady Mathilde Huldsdotter, AoA

Resources:

[1] “Viking Pets and Domesticated Animals.” Viking Answer Lady. Web.

[2] Short, William R. “Hurtswic: Honor, Dueling, and Drengskapr in the Viking Age.” Hurstwic. Web.

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HOTW #003

Today’s excerpt will focus on friendship and generosity:

40. Let no man stint him and suffer need
of the wealth he has won in life;
oft is saved for a foe what was meant for a friend,
and much goes worse than one weens.

41. With raiment and arms shall friends gladden each other,
so has one proved oneself;
for friends last longest, if fate be fair
who give and give again.

42. To his friend a man should bear him as friend,
and gift for gift bestow,
laughter for laughter let him exchange,
but leasing pay for a lie.

43. To his friend a man should bear him as friend,
to him and a friend of his;
but let him beware that he be not the friend
of one who is friends to his foe.

44. Hast thou a friend whom thou trustest well,
from whom thou cravest good?
Share thy mind with him, gifts exchange with him,
fare to find him oft.

This is kind of a long excerpt, but I chose to group these stanzas together because they provide a good outline for what the Old Norse considered proper etiquette among friends.

Stanzas 40 to 42 refer to one of the most important virtues in Germanic cultures, generosity. Generosity, reciprocated, meant the continuation of alliances and relationships, and ensured that everybody was rewarded in some way or other. This is evident in several other pieces of literature, including an Old Norse proverb…

Gjöf sér æ til gjalda

A gift always looks for a return.

…excerpts from the Prose Edda and Beowulf…

…þeir menn, er hersar heita. Kenna má þá sem konung eða jarl, svá at kalla þá gullbrjóta ok auðmildinga…”

“…those men, who are called hersar (lords) can be referred to like a king or a jarl, by calling them gold-breakers and wealth-bountiful ones…”

Prose Edda

“He beot ne aleh,
beagas dælde,
sinc æt symle.”

“[King Hrothgar] did not leave unfulfilled his oath:
rings he dealt out,
and treasure at the ale-feast.”

Beowulf

…and known practices, such as the open distribution of spoils of war by the ruler to his war-band.

“All of the treasures and favors which the retainers receive come directly from their lord, even though they have originally won these treasures in battle themselves…Generosity towards his retainers is, along with prowess in battle, the most important virtue which a lord can possess, and is the quality most praised in Germanic heroic poetry.” [1]

This generous relationship would not be restricted solely to rulers and their followers, but was also applicable between men of equal rank.

Stanza 43 explains that a friend of a friend will always be considered a friend. It also cautions against casual affiliation however as on the contrary, a friend of a foe will be considered a foe. Abiding by this would have ensured a small, but strong and loyal bond between people, which would have outlasted any pact of friendship made on a whim. This would also ensure against any internal conflict and strife between allegiances.

Stanza 44 returns to the idea of generosity between friends, and supplements that with the notion of openness and honesty. In essence, if you wish to keep a friend you trust and admire a lot, be generous, be open and honest, and he will stay with you.

Further information on Viking culture can be read at The Viking Answer Lady.

The Havamal can be read in its full and complete text here.

Yours in service,
Lady Mathilde Huldsdotter, AoA

 

Resources:

[1] Cherniss, Michael D. Ingeld and Christ: Heroic Concepts and Values in Old English Christian Poetry. The Hague: Mouton, 1972. Print.

HOTW #002

Today’s excerpt will focus on dealing with problems:

23. The unwise man is awake all night,
and ponders everything over;
when morning comes he is weary in mind,
and all is a burden as ever.

This stanza is very personal to me, as it is something I am guilty of doing on a regular basis. A foolish man frets and worries all night over his problems, but in the morning, he is only exhausted and his troubles still remain troubles. This is reflective of what the Vikings perceived as ideal character, one that is not afraid to take his troubles and actually do something about them. Nothing is accomplished from wringing your hands and losing sleep, but by doing something about it, something can be done.

For instance, say that a close friend of yours has betrayed you. Maybe they’ve gone behind your back and said something or done something to damage your reputation, maybe they’ve done something more blatantly obvious than that. You could sit and worry on your own for days about what you should do, going through every possible outcome with microscopic scrutiny. While you do that, the issue will weigh heavily on your conscience, souring any future interactions you may have with this acquaintance and even other people.

Or…you could make up your mind, and do something about it. You could confront them directly about it, hear their side of the story. You could tell them that you are no longer friends. You could do a multitude of things, and all of them will have different and completely unpredictable consequences. But once the deed is done, everybody can begin moving on from the issue, and only then can you achieve some form of closure.

The Havamal can be read in its full and complete text here.

Yours in service,
Lady Mathilde Huldsdotter, AoA

HOTW #001

I thought it would be nice for me to intermittently interrupt our regularly scheduled fiber-related posts with some period literature, to provide further insight into the culture and mindset of the Scandinavian people during the Viking Age. This would happen maybe once a week, hence the title of the post; Havamal of the Week.

And that is exactly what we’ll be starting off with! The Havamal is my favorite of the Viking Age texts, as it is said to be attributed to Odin. It was also supposed to be regarded as a code of conduct, and instructed people on proper behavior and etiquette. Also, the work has more than 150 stanzas, so there is plenty of material to cover.

Currently, the only surviving source for the Havamal is the Codex Regius, an Icelandic codex containing numerous Old Norse poems. It is thought to have been written in the 1270s, but contains stanzas from as early as the 9th Century, including those from the Havamal.

Today’s excerpt will focus on the idea of hospitality:

2. Hail, ye Givers! a guest is come;
say! where shall he sit within?
Much pressed is he who fain on the hearth
would seek for warmth and weal.

3. He hath need of fire, who now is come,
numbed with cold to the knee;
food and clothing the wanderer craves
who has fared o’er the rimy fell.

4. He craves for water, who comes for refreshment,
drying and friendly bidding,
marks of good will, fair fame if ’tis won,
and welcome once and again.

While modern depictions of Vikings may portray them as a fierce, barbaric warrior culture, that was not their only manner of conduct. Hospitality was important, even if only for the survival of the population; where the winters are cold and harsh, hosts were expected to provide travelers with much needed supplies and respite, lest they be subjected to the same difficult conditions. Even if the host was of no great financial status, they were expected to provide at least food and shelter, and passersby were expected to be polite and respectful, and compensate the host for their troubles in some form of material goods or services.

Another reason that the Vikings would be more than eager to offer travelers hospitality was because of the gods. Odin, one of the most important Germanic gods, was said to wander down to the realm of men frequently, often in the guise of a traveling old man. He would test people’s hospitality, and reward those who were kind, and punish those who weren’t.

The Havamal can be read in its full and complete text here.

Yours in service,
Lady Mathilde Huldsdotter, AoA