Folk Wisdom and Orally Transmitted Knowledge –
Everyday Poetry In Adages, Rhyme and Riddles
As a little boy I remember one time witnessing two older men having a discussion with each other in a language I didn’t understand, even though it was Sami, and I understood the words they used. But the words were put together in a way that made them foreign, at the same time as there was a specific sound to them – of song or poetry – but I didn’t know it yet at that time. The men were clearly disagreeing about something or other and they were using adages to beat each other in the head with. Later on I understood that I had experienced something unique that afternoon, and to put it the way it usually goes in the narrative…it was a beautiful afternoon, the sun was shining and I couldn’t understand how people could be angry at each other on such a day…but in any case; when I was sitting in the Reading Room at Tromsø Museum many, many years later and flipping through J. Qvigstad’s booklet Lappische Sprichwörter und Rätsel, I understood immediately what I had witnessed that afternoon. And, of course, even though I could no longer remember the adages they used, the experience hovered before me so concrete and real there in the solitude of the Reading Room (for some reason or other there were always so few people in the Museum’s Reading Room) that I could almost hear the conversation before me. In the following I will try to recreate the conversation that might have been, at the same time as I will suggest a few interpretations to the adages:
De dál gal leat skiremoni borran.
I think you just ate a magpie egg, i.e. you’ve probably been fooled. Said by the one who is commenting on the other’s story about something surprising or not very likely.
Son han dahká jogaid jávrin.
He turns creeks into lakes; the person concerned is known for exaggerating, so you should never have believed him.
Dien olbmos lea soavvelnjuovčča.
He’s got a tongue like a grayling; that the person they’re talking about cannot be discreet or keep a secret.
Ii ábut juokŋalihttái čáži leaikut.
It doesn’t help much to pour water into a leaky barrel; that you ought to have known that he or she can never keep silent.
Su galggašii oahpahit njuolga gužžat.
He ought to be taught how to piss straight; someone ought to give him a lesson.
Ii leat buorre čohkkát reatkádollagáttis.
It’s no good to sit by a juniper fire; that is in this case the person they’re talking about is a hothead and perhaps for that reason it’s not so easy to teach him or her anything new; you might risk the person sending sparks in all directions.
Ovdal buorida gal Ipmil dálkkiidid go heajos olmmoš dábiidis.
God improves the weather before a bad person improves his character, is what it says, but I think the adage is magnificent in its despairing about a person’s lack of the ability to want to improve himself.
Gokko lea sivva, gal dakko luodda vuhtto.
Where there is guilt, there are also tracks; in this imaginary conversation this could mean that the person they’re talking about perhaps has a reason for being wary or irritable because he or she has made a mistake that he wants to hide, but if it’s actually the case, the adage insists that sooner or later what the person has tried to conceal will become disclosed.
Gokko hávvi ii leat, ii dakko varra golgga.
Where there is no wound there is no bleeding; if a person is innocent of something he or she is accused of then no matter what, the accusation will not hurt …perhaps a contention that is no longer beyond debate in today’s media era.
Mas amas diehtá maid oarri borrá.
How can a stranger know what a squirrel eats; i.e. how can we actually express ourselves about what others think or do if we don’t know them …often used about Scandinavians who are always supposed to understand what is best for the Sami …Perhaps this is still the case, also within academia when non-Sami scholars hold forth at great length about what the Sami think. It still happens, but today most often abroad where there aren’t so many Sami who can respond… In this connection the adage is used as a mitigating circumstance in relation to the person spoken about.
Gal vuoigŋa voiŋŋa dovdá.
Kindred spirits recognize each other; a variant of ‘similar children play best,’ but can also be read as even deeper on the spiritual level. In our context it can be read as an insinuation on the part of one conversation partner about the other that he too is engaged in questionable dealings and therefore is willing to defend the third person spoken about previously.
Dat gii nieguid doahttala, son suoivanis háhpohallá.
People who believe in dreams try to catch their own shadow; the reply from the other person could be to hit back with a claim that you can’t take people seriously who are unrealistic and dreamers, hence a variant of what young people today would say about something they understand as very illusory: Dream on!
Gokko áidi lea vuollegamos dakko juohkehaš viggá badjel.
Everyone tries to get over where the fence is lowest; that means to take the path of least resistance. In our conversation it could represent a counterattack from the one accused of being a dreamer. He says between the lines that it is better to have visions than just to go with the flow.
Gápmagahttá lea váttis goastat.
It’s hard to get ahead without shoes; if one is going to have visions, then one must have qualifications – in other words don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Heajos soajáiguin ii girdde loddi allagassii.
With weak wings the bird doesn’t fly high; actually a repeat of the previous adage, used here to confuse the conversation partner by coming out with the same allegation toward him that he himself put forth; thus that one needs knowledge to solve a problem.
Dat guhte uhccán suhkká, sus leat rašit gieđat.
He who rows little has weak hands; an adage that praises experience and practice. Used here to beat the other one in the head by saying that the person concerned doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Moreover it ought to fit very well in political discussions in order to bring in somewhat more poetic turns of speech in the otherwise boring political language…
Ii ovttain áiruin njuolga suga.
You don’t row straight with one oar; actually an adage about qualifications. Used here as a reply to reject the criticism about lacking experience with a claim that the other one lacks impartiality.
Maidda bussá dáhttu guoli borrat muhto ii dáhto gaccaidis njuoskadit.
The cat likes fish too but doesn’t want to get its claws wet; about wanting to obtain things easily, in a way a parallel to wanting to eat cherries with the big boys. Here obviously meant as an attack on the discussion partner for having been lazy and not having lived in line with the honor concept ‘in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.’ Cannot control myself from associating this adage with a few political broilers…
Don vanat dego njuoska gálbbenáhkki.
You stretch out like a wet calfskin; this adage too fits politicians who ‘always agree with the last speaker’ but here in our conversation one begins to feel a certain aggression between the debaters. Up to now each has accused his adversary of being incompetent, unqualified and shallow, but now they become even harsher in commenting on each other’s personality and character. As an observer who understands the words, but can’t put together the content, it ought to be easy to understand a child’s astonishment that two grown people can in this way appear to be angry at each other by saying things that sound completely odd to someone on the outside; this is an example of a coded communication that would hardly be possible today because people no longer know the (double)meanings of the adages – in other words have lost some cultural competence on the metaphoric level. The metaphoric level has always been important in Sami connection because much of our opposition to the colonization happened through the use of advanced symbolic language so that the colonists’ representatives wouldn’t understand that an inner communication based on advanced language use was taking place, almost a code language, with the purpose of maintaining the resistance among the Sami to the pressure from outside. We find remnants of this practice in the old epic poetic songs from the 17th century on both in yoik poetry and stories.(1)
Maid beallji ii gula dan bahta vástit.
What the ear does not hear, the rear end answers; back to our little imaginary dispute between the quarrelers. Here they are almost beginning to get sarcastic with each other where one accuses the other of not keeping up with the discussion, not sticking to the point and therefore answering entirely irrelevantly to what he said.
Eai heive njuvččat ja garanasat seaivut ovtta sadjái.
Swans and crows don’t land on the same spot; after which he gets a forthright answer that the other one really is too ‘fine’ (refined) to have a discussion with him at all. The adage is the Sami variant of “there’s a difference between a king and a cat.”
In leat mun jur du gámanjunnesuoidni.
I am not the grass in your boots; this of course provokes the adversary who promptly replies that he doesn’t feel inferior in relation to the other one and doesn’t want to be treated as inferior.
Gal mun ge lean duolddadan máŋggalágáš liemaid siste.
I have made soup out of all kinds of stock; the person concerned has also experienced a thing or two, and the adage here is supposed to mean that you should know that I have broad background experience and a good measure of competence in the way I’ve expressed myself today.
It don goit mus leat goahtemuorran orron.
You have never been a tent pole in my lávvu [the Sami tipi]; reply to the adage above, and a variant of the one about the squirrel earlier. Supposed to mean that you ought to be careful expressing yourself about me because you don’t know me so well – you’ve never lived under the same roof as I, or been the proverbial fly on the wall…
Na, in dieđe de eará go ahte dat guhte lea buot geahččalan, dat buot diehtá; guhte ii lean geahččalan, son gielástallá.
I don’t know what else to say other than that the one who has tried everything knows everything; the one who hasn’t experienced much, invents stories. Finally the debaters came up empty of relevant and matching adages, and with this final reply the declarer just wants to make known that in any case he is speaking from experience, practice and knowledge while his opponent is more a young whippersnapper and inexperienced conceited fellow. Who actually won the word duel I don’t know, but that is not the point of trying to recreate this dialogue. Maybe the point could be that when I overheard the conversation I didn’t understand what it was, and now when I would have understood it, that type of word exchange doesn’t take place any more.
In this way one can create an entire dialogue consisting only of adage citations, and even if my example here is written in a form that might be called creative non-fiction, I can well remember that my childhood experience was one of the first things that came to mind when I was sitting in the Museum’s Reading Room and for the first time flipping through Qvigstad’s little book. At the same time I remember the gratitude I felt to farsighted researchers like Qvigstad and his generation who collected this type of word treasure and folk wisdom, for without people like him so much more would have been lost. It is the mark of oral cultures that they are only oral, and when the social conditions change, those portions of the culture that no longer have practical or vital value simply die out.
Because the “Lappologists” – the research paradigm that Qvigstad among others belonged to – came from a different culture where collection and documentation was essential, they discovered that there was a multitude of useful and exciting knowledge and word wealth here that was on the verge of being lost. Regardless of what their motives were for recording everything they did, a good deal of the result benefited the Sami. One positive aspect was the fact that this collection work was largely carried out by Sami themselves, such as Isak Saba, Anders Larsen, Henrik Kvandahl and others, who became educated collectors through this practice. Their participation contributes to making the sources very reliable, and even if the Sami collectors ought to have gotten more credit in the Lappologists’ writings, we know now that they were the ones with the main linguistic and cultural competence – the Lappologist was primarily the recorder. If the honors don’t come until after the people themselves are gone, it just shows the increasing value that the work carried out indeed has had. And it must be added, I think, that without the push and drive of the Lappologists, the Sami themselves would not have thought of commencing on this activity that early.
Some critical remarks too: American Indian elders and “old man” conservatism
Sami proverbs presents values and views of life among an Arctic indigenous people inhabiting the northernmost regions of Scandinavia. The Sami claim that it is better to be on a journey than staying put at one place – that is to say, the diametrical opposite to the English saying, “Home, sweet home.” This proverb demonstrates the different values inherent in the traditional nomadic culture of the Sami and the more stationary traditional culture of tillers of the soil. Introducing Sami traditional adages to new readers is also a process of translating a culture. Some of the proverbs have a mythological base while others reflect how Sami considered the Scandinavians when they came north to colonize.
I grew up at a time when the adages were still alive. In one of them it is stated that life itself is the best teacher, implying that those who have lived longest are also supposed to be the wisest. It is comparable to aboriginal societies the world over that the elders are respected because they possess a great deal of knowledge because they have lived longer and experienced much. Later in life I have realized that there is a difference in being wise and learned – it is possible to acquire a great deal of learning, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that one becomes wise too. Ironically one might allow oneself to assert that academia is precisely the best proof of the true value in this, but I will refrain from being ironic, I will just say that in traditional societies the highest status is given to those regarded as wise. At the same time there is little doubt that this view of knowledge is servile and conservative, and provides little space for new ideas.
But they were clever, the elders, they mastered infotainment without knowing they were doing it…
Even if this article is mainly supposed to deal with adages, I cannot entirely allow our rich legend and folktale treasure to be left unmentioned. I know that space doesn’t allow exegeses at great length on the educational function of the folktales and the customary panegyric lauding of how advanced our parents, and especially, our grandparents were pedagogically when it came to teaching in the so-called indirect manner. So I’ll let the panegyric rest, but anyway state that that is exactly what they were: capable pedagogues, our forebears with their stories. Not necessarily because they themselves were such geniuses when it came to child rearing and passing on family wisdom to the younger ones, but more because they were following in familiar tracks – they repeated what they themselves had experienced, they retold what they had heard, what in the garb of modern language would be called reproducing indigenous knowledge, they orally transmitted accumulated folk wisdom through their practice and the children’s presence and participation in this practice. Hence, the repetition of the stories was important too: in this way they came to stick better in the memory.I have often thought about it later on how the stories about people who acted incautiously and did something foolish on the mountain, and thus in one way or another paid for their mistakes, were compelling to listen to at the same time as they obviously had a moral with a pedagogical point for us listeners about not being careless. Likewise the intention of all the heroic stories about clever hunters, about people who found their way in fog and bad weather because they were observant and knowledgeable of how to “read” nature, and about people who did not fear wolves or bears or the underground people but knew how one was supposed to relate to them, was to build up fearlessness, respect for nature and prudence about man’s place in the system. But most of all it was good entertainment, in the same way as when at a good lecture one occasionally forgets that one is there to learn something, but just enjoys what the lecturer has to say – the best transmission of knowledge has always been that which combines pleasure, joy and common sense: information and entertainment, accordingly infotainment.
And finally a few words about riddles
It is almost improper to have to leave out riddles in this little essay, so I’m going to sneak in two riddles as a conclusion. The riddles were often formed like beautiful poetic verses, e.g. this one: What is this?
ja varra goaiku soajáin
A bird flies
and blood drips
from its wingtips
As with poetry generally you can think of several interpretive possibilities. This is also part of the thought process behind riddles – they are supposed to contribute to stimulating the creative thought process and wealth of ideas; thus part of the point with riddles is to allow some time to pass before one gives the answer. Unfortunately my allotted space does not allow me to draw out the time with digressions and circumlocutions, so we have to go right to the answer: we must think of an evening hour with the sun setting and a boat being rowed on the water. When we observe the boat from land it looks like a bird flying (typically Sami to see the beautiful and poetic in all motion!) and every time the rower takes a new stroke, water drips from the tips of the oars, which against the light looks like drops of blood.
I once had some students who saw much more in this little text that they construed as a poem, and interpreted it as a protest poem against war and injustice in the world – a moving example of the potential in texts of this type, and the power of words in general.
The second riddle is more of a tease:
Olmmoš huiká guovtti vári gaskkas
ii ge oaččo veahki
A person shouts between two mountains
but doesn’t get help
Again we must think metaphorically about something that reminds of two mountains with a valley in between. Some will probably suggest ‘echo’ as an answer, and it isn’t entirely wrong, but the original answer was more daring, at any rate according to the norms of that era. Although some of the adages and riddles may sound earthy in English, they only reflect the realities of life as seen through Sami eyes. Sami culture is closer to nature than is industrial society. And Sami culture is closely related to what one sees in nature. One’s natural surroundings may be described figuratively but seldom through euphemisms. Natural language is an earthy language.
So, what is it on the human body that can also remind of two mountains…? When we lie down on the stomach and look at about the middle of the body, then we see the mountains, and between those mountains now and then a wind comes that makes a sound when it slips out… (Perhaps it is the Sami adage the Englishman had in mind when he called farting ‘passing wind’…)
Then we can say that I have reached the end of this piece of creative non-fiction, and we better hope that all of this word stoking isn’t struck by the old Sami adage that he who talks a lot also must answer for a lot. Absolutely something for politicians and other talk show artists to remember, but originally the adage was intended as an appeal to people to work more and talk less! Yet today one can talk on and on, so all the adages are perhaps not equally relevant any more, even if many have actually experienced that precisely the adage that the one who has a lot to say also must answer for what he or she has said: Dat guhte ollu sárdnu, ollu šadda vástidit.
My mother, mother-in-law and older ladies who used to stay with us during the Læstadian meetings in my home community Sieiddá during the 1960s.
My uncle Isak, my father and neighbors, as well as visitors and passersby who always could stop for a chat back when time still didn’t pass so quickly.
People who came and sold berries, wild game, skins and the like to my father who was the middleman for the local dealer Mr. Svenning.
J. Qvigstad for having taken care of and written down things that I had already started to forget even though I heard them long after him, thus having contributed to preserving a part of the Sami cultural treasure that otherwise would have been been consigned to oblivion.
Special thanks to:
To a time that was, and to people who allowed a little boy to sit and listen, ask and comment, and people who had time to answer without explaining.
(1) I have written more about this tradition in my book Med ord skal tyvene fordrives, 1987 /1993 and in the article “When the Thieves Became Masters in the Land of the Shamans” http://uit.no/humfak/3518/24
Qvigstad, J. Lappische Sprichwörter und Rätsel. Kristiania etnografiske museums skrifter, bind 1, hefte 3. Kristiania: A. W. Brøggers bokrykkeri A-S, 1922.
Gaski, H. Time Is A Ship That Never Casts Anchor. Sami proverbs. ČálliidLágádus, Kárášjohka 2006 / 2010.