Havamal 54: Too Much of a Good Thing

Havamal 54:
Middling-wise should each man be,
never over-wise;
for he lives the fairest life of folks
who knows not over-much.

Knowledge is power, and power corrupts. We usually take that corrupting nature of power to mean a corrosive effect on morality and decision-making ability. The idea that right and wrong and the differences between the two begin to blur when more and more power (and knowledge) are obtained is not a new one.

The clearest two examples of this are in the same movie/comic book: The Watchmen. It's no mistake that we see Dr. Manhattan become more and more detached from his "humanity" the more powerful he becomes. Then there's the (spoiler alert for eight year old movie) villain of the piece, Ozymandias. His knowledge drove him to cross several lines of morality that others felt were too far. The question I'm pondering today, though, is that corruption the only kind of effect that can occur with too much knowledge.  

Let's start with knowledge itself. Knowledge is the possession you can never divest yourself from, short of traumatic injury. You can't unlearn something, only learn to interpret what you already know in a different way. 
900 years and bad riddles are the best he can do?

When you know how to build something, that gives you the power to create, the power of wielding tools to achieve a new thing that would not have existed otherwise. This power goes hand-in-hand with the knowledge. When the Manhattan Project proved the science of nuclear physics real, there was no going back. The knowledge that nuclear energy was achievable by mankind was forever granted to the world. The basic science is now taught in classrooms the world over, with the only limit to this power being the physical materials are dangerous and controlled by the authorities who want to maintain a monopoly on that level of violence.

To know a thing or person's name is to have power over them. There's a reason it's a common theme in both modern and fictional magical theory. To name a person is to have them defined and placed inside a container, however constricting or loose-fitting that container may be can vary from person to person, thing to thing. To truly name a person is to be able to isolate their thread of wyrd. It may weave in and out of others, pushed forward by their choices and luck of their ancestors, impacting or aiding other threads, but it is still a unique and individual thread. 

What should you do when you can clearly see the end of that thread and how it will affect all those around it? When you know bad things are going to happen, shouldn't you stop it? Or do you let that knowledge, which you may or may not have even wanted, "corrupt" and rot you from the inside via your inaction?

Loki's betrayal is one of the most well-known stories from Norse Mythology. The TL;DR version is:

Baldur had nightmares about his own death. Odin sought help from a dead seeress, who told him Baldur would die soon, wind up in Helheim, and it would set the stage for Ragnarok. Frigga got oaths from every creature, stone, and plant that they wouldn't harm Baldur, except for mistletoe, which was too "young" to bother. Loki found this out and tricked the blind god Hodr into throwing a mistletoe dart at Baldur, killing him instantly.

Did Loki know something that prompted this? The more I contemplate this story, the more I think it represents the core of this Havamal verse. Knowing too much is a burden, painful and corrosive, and it can drive one to morally reprehensible acts.

Baldur had dreams of his death. We all die, even the Gods, so simply the knowledge of mortality was never the problem, but despite signs of being a violent one, he would end up in Helheim, not taken to his father's in Valhalla nor Freya's in Folkvangr, as befitted those who die in battle. He would be as separated from his tribe and kin as much as any human or jotun is when death claimed him. That's understandably scary. Humans still fear death, for the most part. The knowledge that corrupted Baldur was what would happen to him after death.

Odin is the Wanderer, the Chooser of the Slain, the Taker and Giver of Runes and a God of Death in his own right. Why shouldn't he make efforts to secure his son a safe place among his people in both life and death, given the chance? The knowledge that corrupted Odin was that Hel's hall was already preparing for Baldur's arrival, and he would be practically powerless to prevent it.

Frigga can read the threads of wyrd as well as, if not better than, anyone in the Nine Worlds. Yet she chose to bend all of her considerable will towards protecting Baldur at all costs, gathering binding oaths from every possible thing, save one. Like any mother would do, she fought against every possible fate to keep her child safe. While what corrupted Odin was the knowledge that he could not control where his son would wind up on the other side of Death, what corrupted Frigga was the knowledge that she could not control what would befall her son on this side of Death.

Then there's Loki. The myths we have state that the Gods, after their initial fears over losing Baldur, became amused by his "invulnerability" once it was procured by Frigga. They made a game of throwing all manner of items and weapons at Baldur, simply to watch them bounce off of Him. This enraged Loki, but why? Up until this point in the myths we had seen mischief and deceit, but not un-provoked, outright malice, from Him.

I suspect he had some knowledge that was too frightening or painful to endure. He had traveled the Nine Worlds with many different Gods, survived torture at the hands of friends and foes alike, and through those journeys and trials learned more than is comfortable for anyone. Did he act out of anger and pride, as some have suggested, or did he act out of fear of his own knowledge that what the Gods had arranged around Baldur and his protection was unnatural, even for ageless beings such as themselves?

What happens when all the rules get thrown out the window? In a world where everything can die (though the rules of death are mutable, it still has rules that must be followed), something that cannot be hurt, let alone cannot die, is inherently wrong. Like the atomic bomb, once a thing is proven to exist, it cannot be unproven. The knowledge cannot be unlearned. Immortality and invulnerability can exist!

The Jotunn already hungered for the youth of the Gods. We saw that in Thjazi's attempt to kidnap Idunna and Her apples from the Gods. What efforts would they take to secure the invulnerability of Baldur?

Think ahead to Ragnarok. Yes, the Gods die in Ragnarok, but they all die with purpose. Odin's death compels Vidar to kill the Wolf, Thor's death rides on the heels of defeating the Serpent, Freyr and Surtr as well as Loki and Heimdallr trade one life for the other. What would happen if any one of these Foes of the Gods obtained the power that now enveloped Baldur so brazenly that the Gods make a game out of it?

Ragnarok is the passing of the torch. Baldur and Nanna return from Helheim, Thor's sons take up his hammer, and the next generation of Gods lead the world into a New Age. An invulnerable Surtr would consume the Nine Worlds in flame for all time, an untouchable JormunganĂ°r would drown all the Worlds in poison, and the Fenrir Wolf could consume everything, growing ever larger until He possibly dwarfed the World Tree Itself.

So.

It cannot stand. There must be a weakness, a crack in the armor so expertly weaved by the Mother of Mothers, Mistress of Wyrd, and Master Weaver. It will break Her heart, She who has done no wrong to Him. It will turn all allies into foes. It will be the death of the Brightest of the Aesir. But it must be done, because the alternatives are too horrifying to contemplate.

More often than once knowledge has been the bane of the Wiliest of the Aesir. Knowing that the other Gods were hunting Him for His role in Baldur's death, He spent His days hiding as a fish, and He began to wonder about what manner of net would be able to catch Him, should the Gods manage to corner Him in that form. Weaving a net capable of this as a test, He heard the Gods approaching. Quickly, He threw His experiment into the fire and dove into the river to escape. The shape of the ashes revealed to the Gods not only that he was hiding as a fish, but exactly how the net should be made to catch Him.

Which God/Goddess does this apply to in this case? All of them.

"Middling-wise" is what the Havamal suggests. Not too dim, not too bright. Ignorance might be bliss, but there are plenty of verses in the Havamal pointing out how ignorance is bad as well, especially when willful or brought on by excess drinking. Perhaps the greatest knowledge of all is to be aware of the self enough to know how much knowledge one can bear?

We will all die someday, that's a given. Would the knowledge of your own death, the time and place, help you? There are songs and stories written and told that tell us we would be kinder or more generous people if we knew that death was imminent, but human nature tells us we can be just as likely to spiral into despair and depression.

On the one hand we see stories like Dickens's Christmas Carol where the fear and knowledge of death is shown to humble Scrooge, making him a more generous and happy person. On the other we see the very realistic portrayal of some characters in the short-lived TV series FlashForward. In that show, the entire world was shown a vision of where they would be in the future. Some had no vision, only darkness. They take that to mean that they would be dead, and begin bingeing dangerous behaviors and drugs, because they're going to die anyway, right?

This Havamal verse shows that there must be a middle ground, where we can be aware of something, to be wise about parts of the world, but not corrupted or tormented by too much knowledge of it, because it's a painful burden to bear, and too much for some.

When Baldur died, all the Gods were in shock. Everyone was freaking out, reacting much as one would expect when the "Brightest" fell dead in the middle of their game about how he couldn't die. Except Odin was quiet. Not that he wasn't grieved, because I have no doubt He was. In addition to the knowledge that He couldn't prevent His son's death and residence in Hel's hall, He also knew that Baldur's death was the first domino to fall in the series of events that would lead to the death of all the Gods at Ragnarok, and His efforts to push off the cataclysmic events would be even more difficult. Knowledge like that could not be put aside, even as His son lay dead.

Seeking knowledge is a noble goal. Just be sure you're ready for what it could do.


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