‘How Can His Word Be Trusted?’: Speaker and Authority in Old Norse Wisdom Poetry
Brittany Erin Schorn
Doctor of Philosophy, Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge
In the eddic poem Hávamál, the god Óðinn gives advice, including a warning about the fickleness of human, and divine, nature. He cites his own flagrant deception of giants who trusted him in order to win the mead of poetry as evidence for this deep-seated capacity for deceit, asking of himself: ‘how can his word be trusted?’ This is an intriguing question to ask in a poem purporting to relate the wisdom of Óðinn, and it is a concern repeatedly voiced in regard to him and other speakers in the elaborate narrative frames of the Old Norse wisdom poems. The exchange of wisdom in poetic texts such as this is no simple matter. Wisdom is conceived of as a body of knowledge, experience and observation that binds together all aspects of human life, the natural world and the supernatural realms. But its application depended heavily on the way in which it was passed on and interpreted. This dissertation examines the ways that these poems reflect on the interpretation and value of their own contents as a function of the particular speaker and circumstances of each wisdom exchange. The texts which form the foundation of this enquiry are the so-called eddic poems: alliterative verses largely preserved within a single manuscript of the thirteenth century, though many are arguably of much earlier date. About a dozen of the surviving poems might be classed, however tentatively, as concerning wisdom, though the route to this classification is not straightforward. Definition of this corpus, and of the genre of wisdom literature more widely, is thus the principal aim of the introductory Chapter I, while Chapter II expands on the question of material and methodology by scrutinizing the idea of wisdom in general within Old Norse. Crucial here is an examination of the terms used for wisdom and associated concepts, which suggest an antagonistic view of how knowledge might pass from one person to another. Close readings of the text and sensitivity to the manuscript context of each poem, as well as consideration of the significance of their potential oral prehistory and awareness of comparable literatures from other contexts, are established here as the dominant mode of analysis. Observations derived from the interpretation of comparable literatures also inform my approach. With a grounding in wisdom literature more generally and with the salient concepts relating to knowledge transfer thus established, I go on to examine specific points and groups within the body of eddic wisdom poetry which shed light on the evolving interpretation of wisdom exchange. An important case-study analyzed in this way in Chapter III is perhaps the most complex: Hávamál itself, a famous but notoriously problematic text probably reflecting multiple layers of composition. It is at the heart of the question of how mankind relates to supernatural beings – a relationship which could be particularly fraught where the transmission of wisdom occurred. Thus this chapter also contains analysis of terminology for men, gods and other supernatural beings which sheds light on the relationships between the human and the divine. Chapter IV expands on these issues to consider three paradigms of mythological wisdom instruction which bridge different worlds, human and supernatural, or between different supernatural domains: poems in which Óðinn dispenses wisdom; those in which he acquires it from a contest with another living being; and those in which he acquires it from the dead through sacrifice and magical ability. These chapters establish the ‘traditional’ form of wisdom exchange as defined through eddic verses that adopt a broadly pre- or non-Christian setting. Yet eddic verse-forms did not die out with conversion, and in some cases were exploited for new compositions written from an explicitly Christian perspective or with parodic intent. These poems, discussed in Chapter V, cast an important sidelight onto the associations of eddic verse as a medium for conveying information of complicated or questionable authority. The concluding Chapter VI then addresses questions of what we may deduce from the preceding chapters about evolving cultural attitudes towards wisdom, authority and truth in medieval Iceland.