Wisdom Poetry and the Modern Mind

Y’all, I’m still on about memory. The upshot of Maryanne Wolf’s book on reading in a digital world is that the brain’s structure reflects what it does. That is, if we give it nothing but flashing ephemera, it will rewire itself to handle that well, and not to handle deep, prolonged thought. This is a problem for the future of the academy, but more importantly for the future of democracy, which depends upon the people thinking well.

Have I got your attention? Good. I want to talk about vikings.
Odin is a god of war and wisdom. What I liked most about the Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok was the scene where Hela (who is NOT Odin’s daughter in the myths, but Loki’s) breaks the ceiling and reveals the inglorious past. Odin is a war god. We sometimes forget that.
How do war and wisdom go together? Well, you can buy the Marvel reading and say after the war comes the wisdom; that works. But in the myths, Odin is a war god throughout. He fights a war against the Vanir—the fertility gods—until it’s clear no one will win, really. (Imagine how much we would save if we had that wisdom.) He visits battlefields, blessing warriors with strength and strategy, and he collects soldiers in Valhalla against the coming of Ragnarok. He is the patron of kings, part of whose job description is knowing when and how to wage war.
But he’s also the god of wisdom. The other part of the king’s job is knowing when not to fight–knowing how to support, sustain, and provide for your people. And it means knowing what it takes to ensure a civilization endures.
Old Norse myths include rollicking stories of adventure, but they’re also full of wisdom poetry. I have a whole day in my myth class devoted to wisdom texts.

These wisdom poems serve lots of functions besides painting beautiful mental images of Norse culture. They are designed to be memorized and performed, and they preserve cultural knowledge like fairy tales and other oral texts do.

They almost always feature Odin. Odin hangs himself on Yggdrasil (“The World Tree,” or more literally, “Odin’s Steed’) to learn the runes. He journeys to Jǫtunheim to challenge the giant Vafthrudnir (“Riddle-Weaver”) to a contest of knowledge. He journeys to the underworld to talk to dead witches and learn from them, and he tests others, including his own son, Thor, while in disguise. Odin never stops wanting to learn more and test how much he knows.
He shares his knowledge with kings, in an effort to improve the world. He’s a believer in trickle-down wisdom. When a king he’s trained doesn’t work out, he tests him first and then instructs and installs his replacement.  We know all this because there are numerous poems narrating his exploits and filled with stanza after stanza of truths Icelanders did not want to lose.  These texts read like the biblical Proverbs or the Welsh Triads, with small, pithy messages in series.
So they memorized Odin’s words and preserved them. In later periods they wrote them down. Snorri Sturluson, in the 13th century, tried to summarize and capture them in sort of Reader’s Digest Condensed versions, and he did so with academic interest and cultural pride. The result is that we have a good number of texts that don’t fit the adventure narrative or the divine intervention myth. In lots of them, Odin just talks.
The most famous of these is the Hávamál, or “The Sayings of the High One (Odin).” It is a long, aphoristic list of guidelines for how to behave and live well, followed by a diagogue with a king, and ending with an account of Odin’s acquisition of the runes. Its wisdom is no less pertinent today than it was in the Middle Ages.
That’s the real reason we need to remember—because we’ve learned a lot of this stuff before, and if we don’t waste time relearning, we can go farther faster.
(The Old Norse poems I refer to in these last paragraphs are the stories of Odin meeting Vafthrudnir, the Vǫlva, Thor, and the king Geirrod, and I’m happy to suggest translations if you’re interested.)

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