|"Odin, the Allfather" by vyrilien.deviantart.com|
In the second half of the 13th century CE an unknown Icelander copied a number of Pagan era poems into the Codex Regis (literally meaning “Royal Manuscript”), which makes up a large part of what is known as the Elder Edda or the Poetic Edda. Among them is the Hávamál, which means something like “Sayings of the High One”, the High One being Odin. Theoretically Odin is the speaker throughout most of the Hávamál, if not the author. From a scholarly point of view the Hávamál is thought to be a composite of poems, written by up to six different authors hundreds of years earlier, before Iceland adopted Christianity as the State religion in circa 1000 CE. Whoever the author, or authors, the Hávamál is an invaluable record of traditional Norse values; it is full of good advice and insight, much of which is perfectly relevant to our own times. For this reason I attempt to summarise and extract those parts of the Hávamál that I find particularly inspiring. In so doing I draw from two translations: Larrington (translator), The Poetic Edda, Oxford World’s Classics, 2008, and Orchard (translator), The Elder Edda: Myths, Gods and Heroes from the Viking World, Penguin Books, 2013.
Death is coming for you no matter what you do, so live fearlessly:
“16. A senseless man thinks to live for ever if he bewares a war; but old age won’t grant him a truce, whatever spears may grant [Orchard].”
“16. The foolish man thinks he will live forever, if he keeps away from fighting; but old age won’t grant him a truce even if the spears do [Larrington].”
“23. An unwise man lies awake all night, brooding on everything; he’s quite worn out, when morning comes, and it’s all just as bad as before [Orchard].”
“23. The foolish man lies awake all night and worries about things; he’s tired out when the morning comes and everything’s just as bad as it was [Larrington].”
High intelligence and too much knowledge may light the path to depression:
“54. Middling-wise should each man be, never over-wise; for he lives the fairest life of folks who know not over-much.
55. Middling-wise should each man be, never over-wise; for a wise man’s heart is seldom glad, if he is truly wise.
56. Middling-wise should each man be, never over-wise; he never knows his fate before, whose spirit is freest from sorrow [Orchard].”
“54. Averagely wise a man ought to be, never too wise; for he lives the best sort of life, the man who knows a fair amount.
55. Averagely wise a man ought to be, never too wise; for a wise man’s heart is seldom cheerful, if he who owns it is too wise.
56. Averagely wise a man ought to be, never too wise; no one may know his fate beforehand, if he wants a carefree spirit [Larrington].”
“69. No man is wholly wretched, though he is not well: one man is blessed in sons, another in friends, another with enough wealth, another well-blessed in his works [Orchard].”
“69. No man is completely wretched, even if he has bad luck; one man is blessed with sons, another with kinsmen, another has enough money, another has done great deeds [Larrington].”
Don’t drink too much alcohol:
“12. It’s not as good as it’s said to be good, the ale of the sons of men: for the more a man drinks, the less he know about his own intentions [Orchard].”
“12. It isn’t as good as it’s said to be, ale, for the sons of men; for the more he drinks, the less he knows about the nature of men [Larrington].”
Don’t be a garrulous drunkard:
“19. A man shouldn’t clutch at a cup, but moderately drink his mead; he should be sparing of speech or shut up; no man will blame you for bad behaviour if you go early to bed [Orchard].”
“19. A man shouldn’t hold onto the cup but drink mead in moderation, it’s necessary to speak or be silent; no man will blame you for impoliteness if you go early to bed [Larrington].”
Don’t be a fatty:
“20. A greedy bloke, unless he curbs his bent, will eat himself into lifelong grief: he’s often derided when he comes across the wise, a man who’s a fool in the belly.
21. Herds and flocks know, when they have to head home, and then they go from the grass; but an unwise man never knows the measure of his own belly [Orchard].”
“20. The greedy man, unless he guards against this tendency, will eat himself into lifelong trouble; often he’s laughed at when he comes among the wise, the man who’s foolish about his stomach.
21. Cattle know when they ought to go home, and then they leave the pasture; but the foolish man never knows the measure of his own stomach [Larrington].”
Don’t take the piss and belittle others too much:
“22. A wretched man, with cruel character, laughs at everything; he doesn’t know what he ought to know: that he’s not free from flaws [Orchard].”
“22. He’s a wretched man, of an evil disposition, the one who makes fun of everything; he doesn’t know the one thing he ought to know: that he himself is not devoid of faults [Larrington].”
Don’t talk too much, be mindful of what you say:
“29. Enough is said by one never silent in nonsensical speech; a fast-talking tongue, unless held by its owner, often gabbles itself into grief …
65. For those words which one says to another, he often gets recompense [Orchard].”
“29. Quite enough senseless words are spoken by the man never silent; a quick tongue, unless its owner keeps watch on it, often talks itself into trouble …
65. For those words which one man says to another, often he gets paid back [Larrington].”
Good friendships are of high value:
“34. It’s a big detour to a bad friend’s house, even if he lives on the way; but the way to a good friend’s a direct route, even if he lives far away [Orchard].”
“34. It’s a great detour to a bad friend’s house, even though he lives on the route; but to a good friend’s the ways lie straight, even though he lives far off [Larrington].”
Exchanging gifts strengthens friendships:
“41. With weapons and cloth one should gladden one’s friends that is quite clear of itself; those who give and receive stay longest friends, if things last and all is well …
44. You know, if you’ve a friend that you trust well, and from him want nothing but good: share thoughts with him, and keep trading gifts, go and visit often [Orchard].”
“41. With weapons and gifts friends should gladden one another, that is most obvious; mutual givers and receivers are friends for longest, if the friendship is going to work at all …
44. You know, if you’ve a friend whom you really trust and from whom you want nothing but good, you should mix your soul with his and exchange gifts, go and see him often [Larrington].”
Enjoy what wealth you have, for wealth is not yours or your family’s forever, even though you attempt to make it so:
“40. The goods that a man has acquired, he ought not stint to spend; he often spares for the loathed what he’d hoped for the loved: much turns out worse than we want …
78. I saw full pens for Fitjung’s sons, now they bear a beggar’s staff; wealth is like the twinkle of an eye: it’s the infirmest of friends [Orchard].”
“40. On account of the property which he has amassed a man shouldn’t suffer need; often what was meant for the lovable is saved for the hateful, much goes worse than is expected …
78. Fully stocked folds I saw for Fitjung’s sons, now they carry beggars’ staffs; wealth is like the twinkling of an eye, it is the most unreliable of friends [Larrington].”
The happiest people are generous and fearless:
“48. Liberal and brave men live the best, they seldom foster sorrow; but a cowardly man fears everything and a mean man grieves at gifts [Orchard].”
“48. Generous and brave men live the best, seldom do they harbour anxiety; but the cowardly man is afraid of everything, the miser always sighs when he gets gifts [Larrington].”
We need the company of people, and their love, to be happy and to prosper:
“47. Young was I once, and I travelled alone; it turned out I’d wandered astray; I thought myself rich when another I found; mankind is man’s delight …
50. The fir-tree fades that stands in the grove; its bark and needles give no shelter: so it is for a man whom nobody loves, how shall he live for long [Orchard]?”
“47. I was young once, I travelled alone, then I found myself going astray; rich I thought myself when I met someone else, for man is the joy of man …
50. The withered fir-tree which stands in the mound, neither bark nor needles protect it; so it is with the man whom no one loves, why should he live for long [Larrington]?”
Dialogue with others makes you smarter:
“57. Fire-brand from fire-brand takes flame till it’s burnt out, blaze is kindled from blaze; man from man becomes skilled of speech, but dumb from lack of words [Orchard].”
“57. One brand takes fire from another, until it is consumed, a spark’s kindled by a spark; one man becomes clever by talking with another, but foolish by taciturnity [Larrington].”
Be wary of intense friendships newly formed:
“51. Hotter than fire among bad friends burns a friendship five days long; but it soon slackens when the six day comes, and all the affection turns ill [Orchard].”
“51. Hotter than fire between bad friends burns affection for five days; but it dies down when the sixth day comes and all that friendship goes to the bad [Larrington].”
Earthly life is fleeting but reputation is not (there may be an inference that we carry our reputation, or our honour, with us to the afterlife):
“77. Cattle die, kinsmen die, oneself dies just the same, I know one thing that never dies: the judgment on each one dead [Orchard].”
“77. Cattle die, kinsmen die, the self must also die; I know one thing which never dies: the reputation of each dead man [Larrington].”
Don’t let your ego get out of control:
“79. An unwise man, if he manages to obtain money or a lady’s love: his pride swells, but not his brains, he strides on firmly into folly [Orchard].”
“79. The foolish man, if he manages to get money or the love of a woman, his arrogance increases, but not his common sense; on he goes deeply sunk in delusion [Larrington].”
After this the following verses, up to verse 110, are mostly concerned with matters of lust. The fickleness of both men and women when it comes to sexual matters is emphasised (especially in verses 84, 91 and 102), as is the power of libidinous desire:
“94. No one should reproach in any way what comes to many a man; almighty love takes the sons of men, and makes of wise men fools [Orchard].”
“94. Not at all should one man reproach another for what is common among men; among the sons of men the wise are made foolish by that mighty desire [Larrington].”
Not even Odin gets every woman he desires (verses 97-102), though he succeeds sometimes (verses 104-110).
Verses 111-137 feel like a discrete poem in their own right. They mostly concern advice given to a man called Loddfafnir. The narrator appears to record advice given to Loddfafnir (by Odin?) in Odin’s hall.
“115. I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice: it’ll help, if you take it, do you good, if you get it: never seduce another man’s wife and make her your much-trusted girl [Orchard].”
“115. I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice, it will be useful if you learn it, do you good, if you have it: never entice another’s wife to you as a close confidante [Larrington].”
Cultivate friendships with trustworthy people:
“119. I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice: it’ll help, if you take it, do you good, if you get it: you know, if you’ve a friend that you trust well, go and visit often; for brushwood grows, and tall grass, on a path than no one travels [Orchard].”
“119. I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice, it will be useful if you learn it, do you good, if you have it: you know, if you’ve a friend, one whom you trust, go and see him often; for brushwood grows, and tall grass, on the road which no man treads [Larrington].”
If you want to win a good woman keep your promises:
“130. I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice: it’ll help, if you take it, do you good, if you get it: if you wish to talk in intimacy with a fine woman, and take therefrom delight, you must make fair promises and keep them well: no one hates a good thing, if they can get it [Orchard].”
“130. I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice, it will be useful if you learn it, do you good, if you have it: if you want a good woman for yourself to talk to as a close confidante, and to get pleasure from, make fair promises and keep them well, no man tires of good if he can get it [Larrington].”
Be mindful and cautious, but not over-cautious:
“131. I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice: it’ll help, if you take it, do you good, if you get it: I tell you, be wary, but not too wary, be most wary of ale and another man’s wife, and third, that no thieves fool you [Orchard].”
“131. I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice, it will be useful if you learn it, do you good, if you have it: I tell you to be cautious but not over-cautious; be most wary of ale, and of another man’s wife, and thirdly, watch out that thieves don’t beguile you [Larrington].”
There’s good and bad in everyone:
“133. They’re often not sure, those who sit in the hall, whose kin they are who’ve come; no man is so good that he has no flaw, nor so bad that he’s good for nothing [Orchard].”
“133. Often those who sit in the hall do not really know whose kin these newcomers are; no man is so good that he has no blemish, nor so bad that he can’t succeed in something [Larrington].”
From verse 138 onwards the tone of the Hávamál becomes very noticeably different again, the verses have a magical and mystical feel to them; verses 138-145 establish Odin as the founder of the runes and hint at the magic associated with them.
“138. I know that I hung on that windy tree, spear-wounded, nine full nights, given to Odin, myself to myself, on that tree that rose from roots that no man ever knows.
139. They gave me neither bread nor drink from horn, I peered down below. I clutched the runes, screaming I grabbed them, and then sank back [Orchard].”
“138. I know that I hung on a windy tree nine long nights, wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin, myself to myself, on that tree of which no man knows from where its roots run.
139. No bread did they give me nor drink from a horn, downwards I peered; I took up the runes, screaming I took them, then I feel back from there [Larrington].”
Verses 146-163 list the spells Odin knows, including spells that help against sorrow; to unshackle fetters; divert the course of an arrow; slow down the speed of a destructive fire; make peace between brothers; subdue high winds at sea; prevent shamans (or witches) in soul-flight from being able to return to their bodies; make it possible to converse with the dead, give protection in battle; success in love, as well as others. Of course, we are not told how to cast these spells, nor are we told how to interpret the runes or to make sacrificial rites pleasing to the Gods – the Christian copier of these poems may have deliberately omitted this information, or perhaps he did not know it himself because the knowledge had been lost by the 13th century. Though we are told that ostentation is perhaps unnecessary when it comes to Pagan rites:
“145. Better not invoked, than too much sacrificed: a gift always looks for a return … [Orchard].”
“145. Better not to pray, than to sacrifice too much, one gift always calls for another … [Larrington].”
Thus ends my exploration of my favourite passages from the Hávamál. In concluding I note that much of the Hávamál concerns the way we relate to other people, recognising the huge importance of these relationships to our happiness and well-being. Who we can and can't trust, the importance of cultivating trust, and being trustworthy, is another theme that is prevalent throughout. At the same time the fleetingness of wealth, sexual pleasure and life itself are emphasised, in the face of which the battle-call for fearlessness is proclaimed. The advice is pragmatic, straightforward and honest, representing the best of Germanic values.