We’re living through an era in these United States in which wisdom seems a scarce commodity.
Vísdómr, the Old Norse analogue to our modern English wisdom, has not only the meaning “knowledge, intelligence,” but also “foreboding” and “to know for certain.” These secondary meanings weigh heavy on the mind during these last few days and nights before a fateful election in a plague year.
Here in Chicago, the weather is turning. Dark clouds loom overhead. The natural world seems to express the national mood, as America’s nineteenth century landscape painters surely believed it did.
For practitioners of Ásatrú, the words of the god Odin on wisdom carry particular weight. Right now, they are even more weighty than usual.
“A wise-man’s heart is seldom glad”
One of the strongest impulses for my own turning to the Old Way as a modern religious practice was reading verse 23 of the medieval Icelandic Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”). In a section of the poem focused on the foolish man, Odin says (in Andy Orchard’s translation):
An unwise man lies awake all night,
brooding on everything;
he’s quite worn out, when morning comes,
and it’s all just as bad as before.
I did not experience a mystical revelation that a manifest deity was sharing esoteric teachings or a sacred epiphany that an ancient text contained the ultimate answers of our glorious Viking forefathers. Instead, I realized that living human poets over a thousand years ago had asked the same questions as I have, myself.
I felt a connection to that long-ago time – not a cultural, ethnic, or racial kinship, but a communion of mind and spirit.
Since I first learned what death was as a child, I’ve spent countless nights staring at the ceiling in the dark, trying not to think about the eternal cessation of consciousness at life’s end. The Hávamál poet is clearly correct; spending the night broodingly awake changes nothing about the ultimate fate of the self, but it does leave you exhausted the next day.
This isn’t the only mention of the subject in the Odin poem. Three later verses come at the topic from a slightly different angle (Orchard’s translation):
54. Middling-wise should each man be,
for he lives the fairest life of folks
who knows not over-much.
55. Middling-wise should each man be
for a wise-man’s heart is seldom glad,
if he is truly wise.
56. Middling-wise should each man be,
he never knows his fate before,
whose spirit is freest from sorrow.
Again, the words of the ancient poets resonated within me. The scribe who compiled the written version of the poem in the thirteenth-century Icelandic manuscript known as the Codex Regius (“King’s Book”) may simply be preserving three oral variations of the same basic verse, but there may also be a logical and poetic buildup to the third verse.
The first verse says life is better for the one who doesn’t know too much. But why? The second verse says that the one who knows much isn’t often happy. But why? The third verse says that knowing one’s fate burdens the soul with sadness.
This progression supports reading the “awake all night” verse as being about more than simply fretting over day-to-day cares. Taken together, the verses suggest that knowing one’s fate – that realizing that there really is a final ending to life – is the subject of the midnight meditation.
“Oneself dies just the same”
But don’t Vikings go to Valhalla? Don’t half of those killed each day go to Freyja’s hall? Yes, there are definitely verses in the old poetry that support the idea of an afterlife of the soul in the divine realms. There is also evidence for northern European pagan belief in an afterlife within the burial mound and for continued life after death in the company of ancestors. There is even evidence for a belief in reincarnation.
The arguably most famous verse in Hávamál offers another possibility. Like the “middling-wise” verses, it comes with a variant. In Andy Orchard’s translation, it reads:
76. Cattle die, kinsmen die,
oneself dies just the same.
But words of glory never die
for the one who gets a good name.
77. Cattle die, kinsmen die,
oneself dies just the same.
I know one thing that never dies:
the judgment on each one dead.
In these verses, the Old Norse sjálfr is translated as “oneself” by both Orchard and Ursula Dronke. Carolyne Larrington, however, translates it as “the self,” and this choice is the one that sets my mind to wandering.
With that translation of that single word, the verse can be read as saying that what we own is impermanent (fé means both “cattle” and “property”), the ones we love are impermanent, and even the self – the soul – is impermanent. There is support for this reading in Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”), another foundational Old Norse poem.
At Ragnarök (“Doom of the Powers”), the final battle of Norse mythology, “warriors tread Hel-roads.” In his Edda, Snorri Sturluson explains this as referring to Loki leading allir Heljarsinnar (“all of Hel’s companions”) to fight against the side of the gods. Not only do the glorious undead warriors of Odin’s Valhalla join the battle, but the inglorious inhabitants of Hel’s Hel also return from the dead to enter the fray.
Maybe the poetic image of treading the road to Hel simply means “to die,” and the warriors are going into Hel after being killed in the final fighting. But Snorri’s explanation makes theological sense: the dead return from both the underworld and world above to fight and die on both sides of the battle.
And there’s the rub: at the end of this time cycle, even the dead shall die. The afterlife is not eternal. Within Norse mythology, it’s clear that nothing living lives forever, in this world or any other. The great gods fall at Ragnarök, and all humans are wiped out except for the single couple hiding from the final fire by seeking refuge in the wood.
Through those two, life goes on – but not individual lives. Combining this idea with the “cattle die” verses, there is optimism to be found. There is a small light that shines in the immeasurable darkness. We will indeed die – body, mind, and soul – but we will live on both in the memories of future generations and in the very fact that future generations will indeed come to be.
Yet even in this light, there is shadow. Yes, it is comforting to think that life will go on, even if our lives won’t. But these days – amidst plague, violence, and catastrophic climate change – it is often difficult to sustain faith that the long line of future generations will actually continue far into the future. The more we read, the more we learn, the darker it all seems.
On this, too, the poet of Odin again has something to say.
Seeker of doom wisdom
Immediately before the “middling-wise” verses comes this observation on human nature (Larrintgon’s translation):
53. Of small sands, of small seas,
small are the minds of men;
thus all men aren’t equally wise:
half wise, half not, everywhere.
This verse seems a bit on the nose in these final days before Election Day, when the two septuagenarian presidential candidates are each within spitting distance of claiming fifty percent of voters.
In terms of the above discussion, this verse’s assertion that only half of us are wise means that only half of us are wise enough to seriously ponder the ultimate death of the soul. But wait! It’s the “unwise man” who loses sleep over pondering this dark subject. Is this whole poem just a jumble of incoherent and internally contradictory verses?
I don’t believe that it is, and I would organize the ideas like this:
- Only half of us spend our time pondering the ultimate fate of individual consciousness.
- The one who is truly wise does ponder it, and she realizes that individual life is finite.
- This realization is not a happy one and leads to late-night existential crises and sleepy workdays.
- By becoming too wise, the wise one becomes the unwise one.
- The one who wants to be happy is better served by being middling-wise – half wise, half not.
Only half of us spend our time pondering the ultimate fate of individual consciousness. The one who is truly wise does ponder it, and she realizes that individual life is finite. This realization is not a happy one and leads to late-night existential crises and sleepy workdays.
By becoming too wise, the wise one becomes the unwise one. The one who wants to be happy is better served by being middling-wise – half wise, half not.
Who wants to be happy? It’s a key question of our times.
We now know that President Donald Trump knew just how easily transmissible and just how deadly this coronavirus is all the way back in February but decided to actively hide the fact from the American people because he didn’t want “to create a panic.”
To be fair, I spent long nights early in the pandemic doom-scrolling through Twitter and reading threads and articles about the horrors of the virus and the mass death around us and ahead of us. Would I have slept better not knowing any of this, and simply watching WKRP in Cincinnati reruns before bed? Yes, absolutely. Would I prefer not to know about the virus? Absolutely not.
Odin himself, as we know him through the Icelandic texts, is determined to be wisely unhappy. He takes on starvation and torture to gain mystic insight, he enters dangerous situations to gather intelligence, and he painfully gives of himself to gain wisdom. His particular obsession is to learn as much as possible about exactly that subject that keeps half of us awake at night: the ultimate fate of all things, including himself.
He is a seeker of doom wisdom, and that is not a happy path.
The Wanderer’s path
As a child, my father survived, escaped from, and helped his relatives escape from anti-German extermination camps run by Marshall Tito’s Yugoslavian Partisans. In the camps, he saw death up close and the worst human evil eye-to-eye.
He later entered the monastery in an attempt to answer the question of how good Christian people could do such horrific deeds. Even later, he left the monastery and turned to the study of philosophy. He spent the rest of his life teaching about facing death, celebrating life, and fighting for human rights for all.
Was he happy? Yes, there was much joy in his life. But there was also deep sadness and powerful anger. I expect the children of Holocaust survivors understand exactly what I mean.
As Odin goes down the path that leads to dark answers regarding existence and non-existence, confirming and reconfirming the realness of death, he does not give up and turn to self-pity, suicide, or the hard comforts of self-induced obliviousness. He rededicates himself to fight for survival of all, even knowing that the quest is destined to fail for most – including himself.
My father followed a similar path. Having faced the pit of human cruelty and death as a child, he did not give up hope or seek to blot out his understanding. He craved more learning, more understanding, more wisdom. Like Odin, he shared that wisdom. He argued unstoppably for human dignity and civil rights, for openness to new ideas and welcoming of diversity. Like Odin, he never gave up.
We each decide on a daily basis whether or not to follow Odin’s path of troubling wisdom. As Neil Peart once wrote, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”“if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” It’s only by actively setting our feet on the Wanderer’s path, by consciously embracing the disorientation of deep knowledge that we follow that thorny way. It’s all too easy to slide down the other path of blissfully unaware happiness, and that’s where we slip whenever we choose to turn away from Odin’s way.
The path of study, of learning, of doggedly pursuing information even when it makes you more wise but less happy – it’s not for everyone. Maybe it’s only for half of us. Or maybe that estimate in the old poem is wildly off.
Whatever the percentage really is, I do think that Odin and his poet are fundamentally correct in their understanding of the dangers of knowing too much. What we do with their advice is for each of us to decide.
We would all do well to remember that sleep is a good thing! It probably is best just to be middling-wise, but I’ve chosen to follow the Wanderer.