Volume 1, Number 2
When Friend Thou Hast

Veiztu ef ţú vin átt
If friend thou hast,
ţanns ţú vel trúir
whom faithful thou deemest,
ok vill ţú af honum gótt geta
and wishest to win him for thee:
geđi skalt viđ ţann
open thy heart to him,
blanda ok gjöfum skipta
nor withhold thy gifts,
fara at finna opt
and fare to find him often.
Friendship is an important theme throughout the Hávamál, where it is presented as being essential to life, and of more importance then wealth. Practical, time proven advice is found there about gaining and keeping friends. Caution is advised in dealing with men where there is danger of being betrayed. There are frank observations made about the necessity of determining rightly who is a friend and who isn’t. “The unwise man weens that all that laugh with him, like him, too; but then he finds when to the Thing he comes, few spokesmen to speed his cause.”

Jesse Byock explains the importance of friendship at Thing, in Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas and Power, “In striving for consensus, advocates and arbitrators frequently relied on ties of contractual political friendship called vinfengi and vinátta-the two terms are often used in similar ways, although vinátta is mentioned repeatedly in the sagas… Vinfengi and vinátta relationships complemented kin or gođi-thingman obligations and put individuals in a position to demand reciprocity. Here the formal exchange of gifts and the holding of feasts played an important role. The author of Njáls saga underscores this importance when in describing the friendship between Höskuldr Hvítanessgođi and Njál’s family he tells us (ch. 17), “their vinátta was so great that they invited each other to a feast every fall and gave each other handsome gifts.”

Byock further illustrates the important aspect of friendship in vinátta (a relationship based on friendship) as compared to vinfengi (a political alliance based on mutual needs) in the discussion and arrangements made between ÁsgrímirElliđ-Grímsson, and Snorri. Snorri states what conditions he will provide help in and what he is prepared to do and why, as well as what he can not, or will not do. We see, in action, the need for friends to be honest in their dealings and counsel with one another both in private and in public as well as the realistic expectation that a friendship is based on more then just agreeing with another man and supporting him without question. A friend is not someone who tells his friend what he wants to hear, but the truth.

While we may not find out fortunes determined at court by our friendships, friendship is just as vital and important in today’s hectic and impersonal world as they were in heathen times. As then, we need people in our lives that we can trust and depend on. In keeping with the many times repeated, "A friend should always be a friend to a friend", is the advice to not be the first to break such an important bond. The picture of a man without friends is aptly expressed in the stanza, “The fir tree dies in the field that stands, shields it not bark nor bast; thus eke the man who by all is shunned; why should he linger in life?”

We can empathize with the sentiment expressed in the Hávamál, “Young was I once and went alone, and wandering lost my way; when a friend I found I felt me rich…” Fittingly enough the word “friendship” is derived from the word which we find used for the first rune of the Old Germanic fuţark, “feoh,” meaning cattle or wealth, especially that which is shared or held in common.

Along with the advice to be generous of one’s wealth with one’s friends is the further recommendation that if you have a “friend “whom you trust well, go visit him often, for the path which no-one treads grows with underbrush and high grass.” It is necessary to take time out to visit, converse and meet with friends to maintain the relationship and to strengthen the bonds. Visit often, be open handed with your friends, as well as not overstaying a welcome and being a considerate guest.

Why is there such an emphasis on gift giving and sharing, particularly in regards to friendship? That too is explained, “A full-stocked farm had some farmer’s sons. Now they stoop at the beggar’s staff; in a twinkling fleeth trothless wealth, it is the ficklest of friends… Of his worldly goods, which he gotten hath, let a man not stint overmuch; oft is lavished on foe what for friend was saved, for matters often go amiss.” Wealth and fortune can not be trusted as much as a friendship that one can trust in, for that is the true wealth that one should seek. What one gains in goods should be shared with true friends, those who will stand by one in need, provide good council.

* The Poetic Edda, translated by Lee M. Hollander, University of Texas.
* Byock, Jesse., Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power, University of California, Reprint 1990.

© 2001 Susan Granquist - Published by the Irminsul Ćttir - All rights reserved.

Irminsul Ćttir