Wednesday 13 November 2013

The Gifting of Wisdom: A New Look at the Book of Job and the Grímnismál

So, while I was making dinner, the smell of sauteed mushrooms filling the air, I chanced to be re-reading the Grímnismál.

Most of the time, we focus on Odin's monologue and the details of mythology included. It is an excellent source for these, it is true. But we seldom look at the narrative it is set within, and this was my focus on this reading.

The story is simple.

There is a king with two sons, Agnar and Geirröth, who are ten and eight respectively. The are out fishing and the boat wrecks. They just happen to wreck near a peasant's house, who takes them in for the winter. The peasant raises Geirröth and his wife raises Agnar. It doesn't say when the wife teaches, but the peasant teaches Geirröth wisdom. In the spring, the peasant gives Geirröth a boat and the brothers sail back. On landing, Geirröth pushes the boat out to sea, and the two return home. They find that their father has died, and Geirröth is made king.

The peasant of course was Odin, his wife Frigg. The two are sitting in their tower looking upon all the worlds, and Odin nudges Frigg. "You see there, the boy you raised, Agnar, he is living in a cave with a giantess who bore his children, he's made nothing of himself. But not so with Geirröth, see how he is king." And Frigg, always submissive, did what any submissive wife would do, she egged him. "Ah, but Geirröth is so miserly that he tortures his guests if too many come." And, not to be out done, Odin, always able to walk away from a bet, follows suit. "That's the biggest lie you've ever told! I wager you're wrong." And Frigg, knowing a sure thing when she sees it, agrees, then sends a servant to make sure Geirröth knew a magician was coming to trick him, and gave him a sign to look for, someone even the most vicious dogs would not attack. For, of course, she wouldn't want her husband to be tortured.

So Odin goes to the home of Geirröth in disguise as Grimnir, the Masked One, a name fitting for one in disguise, who would guess? And, as the dogs didn't attack him, Geirröth strung him up between two fires and tortured him with the heat.

And Geirröth had a son, named after his brother Agnar. No one in the hall did anything, just letting Odin, um, Grimnir, suffer for eight days (note that on the ninth day hanging on the tree suffering, Odin received wisdom). Then young Agnar felt pity and brought him a horn of wine to drink. Odin, refreshed (for he says in his monologue he forever lives on nothing but wine), hails the young boy, says he will rule long, and gives him a gift of his wisdom, the monologue of mythology, for the gift the boy gave. Interesting this was the same he gave to young Geirröth earlier. At the end of the monologue, Odin notes that Geirröth had drawn his sword. He says as much, and that Geirröth would die. Geirröth rises to release Odin, but it's too late, the damage is done. His sword slips from his hand, lands point up, and he trips and the sword drives through him. Odin vanishes, and young Agnar lives a long life and rules long.

Now there are many interesting elements to the narrative, and even more to the monologue, but on this reading, another story came to mind, that of Job. Now, as the versions of the Grímnismál we have were penned in the Christian era in Iceland, the parallels may have been intentional, but it bares looking at the old in light of the new, a look at Job as a parallel story to the Grímnismál.

First, we have the set up. In the Grímnismál, we have a narrative setting the stage, followed by Odin and Frigg talking, Odin pointing out some people, and a wager. In Job, we have a narrative setting the stage, followed by a discussion between G-d and HaSatan. No wager is mentioned, but the feeling is the same. G-d knows the outcome, just as Frigg does. There are differences of course. Job simply states why Job is a good choice to consider, whereas the Grímnismál describes a scenario where Odin and Frigg played a direct role in setting up the board. G-d does the prompting in Job, and is the one knowing the outcome, HaSatan disagrees with the premise, then goes to do the testing. Odin does the prompting in Grímnismál, but Frigg knows the outcome, Frigg disagrees with the premise, but Odin goes to do the testing. But very similar nonetheless.

And of course, Frigg stacks the deck and Geirröth fails the test, and young Agnar passes the test, and is given wisdom in the form of a monologue on the mythology in exchange. The monologue is important to look at not just as poetic or mystic or mythic history, but for the wisdom it points toward, for the gift isn't just the history, it's what is hidden in it. That which conceals also reveals. So anyone interested in learning wisdom should read it with that in mind, and ask, what is contained herein?

But with the similarities in the two texts, we are struck with the last portion of Job. After the time of testing, and all the friends weighing in, G-d shows up, tells the friends they are folly, then gives a monologue about creation and the world. And at the end, Job gets back more than he had and lives a long life, just as Agnar did. This would point to Job passing the test.

Now one statement in the Grímnismál is interesting here:
Small heed didst thou take | to all that I told,
And false were the words of thy friends;
For now the sword | of my friend I see,
That waits all wet with blood.*
There is no other mention of anyone else except Geirröth and young Agnar. Only other reference is that no one else helped the stranger. Which friends, and which words? But in Job, we find:
After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eli′phaz the Te′manite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has."**
This is likely a parallel, the context missing in the Grímnismál.

But this leaves us with the monologue. Most Christian interpretations is that the goal was to humble Job, for though he didn't sin, he presumed to understand God. But the text does not actually say that. G-d speaks from "the whirlwind" or storm, סַעַר, ca'ar, tempest, storm, whirlwind. There is no mention of this ca'ar previously in the book, but it is the same word for the whirlwind that took Elijah bodily from the world. Job's replies to G-d seem more like admittance of ignorance rather than apologies for what he has said before.

What if the long monologue isn't a chastisement but a giving of Wisdom after a passed test?  The questions asked take on a new meaning if this is the case.  What truth, what piece of wisdom, does each question carry and point to?  The book becomes a book of application, pointing to wisdom, rather than the warning many take it as.

Consider this well, and think on it.

~Muninn's Kiss

* Grímnismál 52, Henry Adams Bellows translation.
** Job 42:7 RSV

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