Viking society was not a literary society – they did not write things down to remember them. Instead the skalds, or poets, committed all of the stories and sagas to memory, passing them along orally from generation to generation. Lack of book-learning does NOT mean that the Vikings were not intelligent people. Yes, they were fierce warriors, but they also valued wisdom. Today I’ll be discussing some of the ways the sagas show that to be true.
The Big O
Let’s start out by talking about Odin. He is chief of the Aesir, ruler of the Norse gods. The gods are assigned areas that they oversee or control. For example, Thor is god of thunder and lightning. He rules the storms. So what area does Odin rule? Which attributes did the Vikings assign to their chief god? War, yes, but also wisdom. He doesn’t just oversee it in some aloof way, either. Odin actively travels the Nine Worlds seeking wisdom and knowledge. The sagas have many stories about his journeys. He often travels in different disguises, but all of the disguises share one common attribute – they only have one eye. Which leads us to…
Knowledge is Valued
We know that the Norse valued knowledge because their chief god was willing to sacrifice one of his own eyes for more knowledge. The Well of Mimir granted great knowledge to those who drank from it, but before he was allowed to drink Odin had to pay the price. He willingly sacrificed one of his eyes in exchange for a drink.
Odin also put the rest of his body through the wringer for the sake of learning. He once pierced himself with his own spear, hanging his body from a tree for nine days so that he could gain knowledge of the runes.
Flyting & Kennings
Flyting is basically a sort of insult contest conducted in verse. Kennings are poetic expressions that stand in for another word. (You would refer to the ocean as the whale-road, for example.) Some of you might disagree with me, but I’d like to argue that both of these are signs of a society that obviously values knowledge.
It takes brains to come up with a rhyming insult. We’re not just talking about two dolts standing up and saying things like “No, you’re ugly.” The saga Lokasenna tells us about a flyting which involved Loki, the Trickster. There he just didn’t take on another god. No, one by one he took on almost every single god in the hall. The fact that this story was passed down through the generations tells us how such displays of intellect had to have been valued.
As for kennings, there are simple ones such as calling Odin Frigg’s-mate, but there are many filled with an inspired creativity that, to me at least, are signs of a society that revels in knowledge. Kennings even became multi-layered. The mouth could be called the Ship of Words which would lead to the tongue being referred to as the Tiller of the Ship. The second kenning doesn’t have an obvious reference back to the first if it stands alone. Yet audiences were expected to pick up on these references as a matter of course. You don’t hold expectations like that of an uneducated people.
There is a bit of a popular misconception that the Vikings were all battle-crazed warriors. A little reading and study shows that to be decidedly untrue. The evidence of what they valued, as shown by the things they thought important enough to preserve through poem and song, show they placed a great value on wisdom and intelligence. We could do worse than to remember what we are told in the Lay of Hamdir – “That man lacks much who wisdom lacks.”