Hjalp heitir eitt, en þat þér hjalpa mun við sökum ok sorgum ok sútum görvöllum. (Havamal 146) “Help is the name of the first, for that will help thee against harm and sorrow and prepare you against grief and sickness.”
Sometimes all we need in a trouble spot is to find the tread of the pavement, to re-establish our footing, to re-gain our bearings. "Help" is not someone else doing it for us. It's not the Gods waving a magic wand and all our troubles evaporating. Sometimes it is simply giving just the right advantage, however small (but strategic), that allows our self-reliance to pull itself up out of shock and misery.
Odin speaks of it as "preparation", in the Icelandic a term related to the word "gear". Help gears you up. It adds another tool to your toolkit. Remember that your toolkit is not going to get up and do the job all on its own. But to be prepared with a good toolkit is the difference between helplessness and the ability to meet a difficult situation with skill. Again, help may be very simple : just the right tool, just one tool, at the right time. Sometimes that tool is as simple as a good word, a word that reaches into the heart and gives comfort.
The word "help" has always had that connotation as well : giving aid and comfort. It also has a military connotation of providing reinforcements and backup support. No one is going to fight your battles for you. No one is going to do your work for you. But to know that there are resources that can be called upon in times of trouble gives a source of support that is invaluable.
We see this in fairy tales. The protagonist finds him or her self in all kinds of difficulties, but an animal treated kindly, or an old man or woman, provides some small item that ends up making a difference. A tool or two is given that has magical results --- when used correctly. The protagonist still has to use their wits and wisdom to properly apply the magical gifts that have been given.
Sometimes life seems out of control. We are faced with a true jotunn spirit : something bigger than ourselves, and we don't know how to get out of the situation. This is when help helps. Sometimes the help is not even something that helps us tackle the problem directly, but something that reminds us that we have some control over some things in this world, and that sense of control strengthens us to be able to put on our thinking caps and strategically tackle the jotunn afresh. For when grappling with giants, we often have the breath knocked out of us, and lose our wits in the process. It is very easy. We lose our footing, and everything is dizzying. Regaining our orientation is half of the difficulty. We need to shake our head and get back up on our feet. We always need to remember that as long as we are still kicking, any difficulty is only one round, and we've got other rounds to either tackle the problem, or, if it truly is too big, to get out of the situation and into a better situation.
Odin identifies the four obstacles to success in a difficult situation : injury, sorrow, grief, and sickness. All of these are connected and can lead to the others. We need help when we're hurt, we need help when we're down, we need help when we're grieving, and we need help when we're sick. These are wise words, reminding us there is no shame in asking for help when help is truly needed. But the help comes not in solving our problems, but in helping us to overcome the obstacles (injury, sorrow, grief, and sickness) that impede our own strength and self-reliance, which are the true powers that get one through difficulties.
Here help is giving comfort. Odin speaks directly to this need. Elds er þörf þeims inn er kominn ok á kné kalinn. Matar ok váða er manni þörf, þeim er hefr um fjall farit. Vatns er þörf þeim er til verðar kemr, þerru ok þjóðlaðar, góðs of æðis ef sér geta mætti (,) orðs ok endrþögu. (Havamal 3, 4.) “Fire is necessary for those who come in and whose knees are frozen. Food and clothing a man needs, for those who has fared over the mountains. Water is needed for those who come for a meal, towel and hearty-welcome from the folk, good manners if he can appreciate good things, conversation and deep silence (literally, the “silence of old”, implying a deep, rich silence).” Heat, food, clothing, water, a quick shower and a towel, a good welcome from those present, good treatment for those who know how to appreciate good things and who themselves know how to speak well, good conversation with the appropriate balance between the right words and the silence of the old. These speak to basic needs. These two stanzas are far more profound than most people give them credit. They are answers to need. They are the heathen customs of comfort and hospitality that parallels Matthew 25 : "35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'". For Jesus, this is the sine qua non of what it means to be a Christian ; here in Havamal we discover that this is behavior considered to be customary for a heathen : we help each other out in times of need and trouble. When we are cold, we need heat. When we are hungry, we need some food. When we're thirsty, we need something to drink. It doesn't have to be a lot. Mikit eitt skal-a manni gefa; oft kaupir sér í litlu lof, með halfum hleif ok með höllu keri fékk ek mér félaga. (Havamal 52.) “A man does not have to give much ; often praise is bought for a little, with a half a loaf and with a tipped horn I have gotten me fellowship.”
All of these things are helpful. They are help on long and difficult journeys, creature comforts that recharge one's batteries, providing refreshment. Notice that Odin speaks to both material and spiritual needs. Water and a towel, fire, food, and fresh clothes for the body, but good words and good treatment for the soul. The right words at the right time, but also the ability to just sit in silence. Both are healing. And there is the concept of what I call "Embrace" : the community extending its welcome and wrapping its arms of worthing around you, the þjóðlaðar or folk-welcome. When you're having difficulties in life, to receive a warm welcome like this provides the moral support that allows us to get back up on our feet.
Sometimes we need something to wake us up out of our sorrow, because we can have a tendency to dwell on our sorrow, and even drown in it, which doesn't help us at all. Ósviðr maðr vakir um allar nætr ok hyggr at hvívetna; þá er móðr er at morgni kemr, allt er víl sem var. (Havamal 23.) “The unwise man is awake all night and thinks on why and wherefore ; when the morning comes, all is woeful as before.” The man described here is spoken of literally as "un-smart", with "smart" retaining its original meaning of something that stings. When we are stung, we stay sharp. A "smart" man is one who retains this sharpness that comes with getting stung. Putting your hand in a fire smarts. If you are smart, you don't put your hand back in the fire. We need at times to be "smarted" out of our sorrow, which is why Odin says that the "unsmart" man stays up all night dwelling on woes that remain woeful in the morning. "Unsmart" is to say "dull". Sometimes people need a quick wakeup call to smart them back into action.
There is a Faroese proverb that speaks to another level of this preparation, and it is Betri er at vera fyrivarin, enn eftirsnarur, "Better to be forewarned than quick after the fact." Fyrivarin means "forewarned, taking precautions, being prepared". The best help, in other words, is to be "geared up" for trouble, to take precautions, and have one's toolkit prepared for what may come. Carelessness and lack of foresight catches up with us.
Þurra skíða ok þakinna næfra,þess kann maðr mjöt ok þess viðar er vinnask megi mál ok misseri. (Havamal 60.) “Of dry firewood and bundles of thatch a man knows the right measure, and enough wood that may last throughout the winter (literally, the “three-months and season”).” Be prepared. Winter lasts a long time. Make sure you have enough firewood to last throughout the season. Make sure your roof is intact, and that you have enough shingles or thatch to replace them in a storm. Gear up. Have your snowshoes ready. Have a thick coat and jacket. Make sure your mittens are knitted. Have enough firewood to warm you through the cold nights. This is the best kind of help.
Gáttir allar áðr gangi fram um skoðask skyli, um skyggnast skyli, því at óvíst er at vita hvar óvinir sitja á fleti fyrir. (Havamal 1.) "All doorways, before going forward, you should look about, spy with sharp eyes, because it is not easy to know where an enemy sits amongst the benches." Just be prepared. Keep your eyes about you. Wits, wisdom, and gear-readiness are very helpful forms of help. Byrði betri berr-at maðr brautu at en sé mannvit mikit (Havamal 10); "A man cannot bear a better burden out on the open road than a mighty dose of street-smarts (literally, man-wits)." Anticipate contingencies ; build the potential of adversity into your game plan and prepare appropriately. This is self-help.
But self-help also includes making sure you have a solid network of friends. Havamal is filled with advice on how to keep friends : keeping the lines of communication open, visiting often, giving gifts, because besides the incomparable pleasures friendship brings, you never know when you may need to call on a friend for help, and you don't want to have to dust off the cobwebs when you are in need. Keep your self in relation, in good relation, and you may have more help than you thought when a crisis arises. And just remember, a gift calls for a gift. Never take for granted the help that is offered. That is a way to spit on your luck. And you never want to spit on your luck.
We need all the help we can get.
all translations copyright 2008 by Siegfried Goodfellow