Volume 1, Number 7
To Ask Well, To Answer Rightly

Fróđur sá ţykist er fregna kann og segja iđ sama. Eyvitu leyna megu ýta synir ţví er gengur um guma.
To ask well, to answer rightly, Are the marks of a wise man: Men must speak of men's deeds, What happens may not be hidden.
It is clear in the Hávamál and other places in the Eddas and sagas that wisdom was measured not only by the answers one could give, but also by the questions asked. In many ways more can be told about a person from the questions that he or she asks then the statements made, or answers they might give. A question requires consideration and deliberation, and if not the end, it is certainly the beginning of wisdom. In approaching a subject that one is unfamiliar with it soon becomes apparent that a certain amount of knowledge is necessary to frame even a simple question.

That asking is important becomes clearer as it is repeated through out the Hávamál. In strophe 33, "A man should take always his meals betimes unless he visit a friend, or he sits and mopes, and half famished seems, and can ask or answer nought." Why ask and not simply answer? Why not sit and be silent in the hopes that no one realizes that we may not know what we are speaking of? Will we truly be thought wise? Perhaps, but silence is not the same as listening or participating in a conversation, particularly as a guest.

How do we greet friends, initiate conversations, or encourage others to explain things? We ask a question. "What do you think about this?" "What is your opinion?" "What do you know about this subject?" The answer does not come without the question. It creates an opportunity to share information and knowledge. Questioning can also be a challenge and a means of revealing someone else's lack of knowledge. The difference is in intent and the manner of asking. In such instances one should be sure one knows the answer to the question being asked for it is not a matter of learning, but of testing. Answering correctly is of primary importance, as well as knowing if the answer is correct when it is given in such circumstances.

Asking again comes to the forefront in strophe 144, this time in the form of a question from the High One. "Dost know how to ask?" with the caution, "Better ask for too little than offer too much." Asking can be seen as offering as well as a request to receive something of benefit, a gift for a gift in the sense of an exchange. It also carries a reminder that is expressed in a modern proverb, "Be careful what you ask for, you might get it." There is a need to know how to ask questions that will produce in return a meaningful answer, especially when we ask the runes or other divine or magical sources. We must understand what it is that we are asking for because it is the question that defines and provides the relationship between the runes that reveal the answer.

Yet at the same time there are admonitions to remain silent if one wishes to be thought wise, how do we know when either is appropriate? Balance is the key to the moderate approach that the Hávamál recommends to neither ask only questions, nor answer over much, weighing the consequences of words and choosing them carefully. Better to be silent then to reveal one's ignorance, or to speak unthinkingly and create an impression of foolishness. There is wisdom in knowing when to keep one's own counsel, and to listen without comment unless asked directly for an answer.

We need to remember the observation in the Hávamál that to answer rightly is followed by the warning that "Men must speak of men's deeds, What happens may not be hidden." When asked in the hall one needs to be prepared to answer, to speak confidentially and demonstrate a through knowledge of lore and wisdom for people will remember and judge ones words as wise or foolish, and nothing will take them back, nor change men's minds afterwards.

* The Poetic Edda, translated by Lee M. Hollander, University of Texas.

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

Irminsul Ćttir