Hesiod and Hávamál: Transitions and the Transmission of Wisdom


This article offers fresh insights into Hesiod’s Works and Days by comparing it with the Eddic Hávamál, a didactic poem far removed in terms of geography and date, but compellingly close in subject matter, construction, and transmission. It finds parallels between the poems in the methods of teaching and in what is being taught, focusing on the shared theme of self-sufficiency (both intellectual and practical). It finds parallels in structure, as Hávamál is, like the Works and Days, made up not only of precepts and maxims but also of elaborate mythological sections, and is associated with catalogic elements which may be original or later accretions, just like Hesiod’s Days, or the Catalogue of Women, or the Ornithomanteia. This article also traces parallel scholarly trajectories, exploring the strikingly similar histories of scholarship on the two poems. Finally, this paper finds parallels in the transmission of the poems, as both are rooted in the oral tradition but poised at a crucial juncture: the advent of writing. Despite the striking similarities between the poems, this paper refrains from any suggestion of a straight channel of reception but rather interprets the parallels as a reflection of comparable societies, or at least societies at comparable points in their developments. Archaic Greece and Viking Scandinavia might not be exactly parallel cultures, but they evidently share certain cultural concerns: as agrarian societies with strong family and household structures, polytheistic religions and honor codes, they offer similar advice in similar formulations through similar didactic strategies. Such similarities may encourage us to think in terms of the shared characteristics of transitional products. If we exclude direct reception we are left with a cultural constant: the transmission of wisdom. And with recurring elements such as gnomic language, myth and catalogue, we are also left with constant expressions of that wisdom.

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