Hávamál 1-7 (High’s speech 1-7)


“On relationships among guests”


***Hávamál 1***


A translation as literal as possible


The whole space behind an open door,

before entering it,

should be fully watched,

should be fully pried,

because it is uncertain to know

where non-friends

are already sitting in the house.


Prose explanation (not necessary here)


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Gáttir allar                        All door-ways

áðr gangi fram                  before going into [this area]

um skoðast skyli,                all over looked about should,

um skyggnast skyli,            all over pried should,

því at óvíst er at vita          because uncertain is to know

hvar óvinir                         where ‘non-friends

sitja á fleti fyrir.                 sit in the house already.




Within the gates | ere a man shall go,

(Full warily let him watch,)

Full long let him look about him;

For little he knows | where a foe may lurk,

And sit in the seats within.


Dronke and Orchard 2011 translations


Here is an example of their translations. They will be further on cited when their translations are very different from Bellowsor mine.


All doorways

before entering

should be spied out,

should he scrutinized,

for it is not known for certain

where enemies sit in wait

in the hall ahead.


Every gateway,

before going ahead

one should peer at,

one should glimpse at;

no one knows for sure

what enemies are sitting

ahead in the hall.



Commentary about the vocabulary


Gátta, plural gættir, = for modern doors with hinges, it is the space swept by opening a door. The ancient Scandinavian doors did not work in this way. This is understood by the three systems of doors briefly described in Rígsþula. Ursula Dronke’s comments (volume 2, stanzas 2, 14, 26 comments)  help us better imagine their functioning. To open the door of the house of future thralls, it is hand removed and put standing in a recess besides the opening. The present day ‘gættiror ‘side-niches’ have a decorative role. The door of the house of the future carls opens by means of a system of pulleys and rests on the lintel. In order to shut the door, it has to be pulled down (see also C. -V. comments on the past participle of hníga) . The door of the house of the future jarls is opened and closed in the same way but carries also a ring either to block it or for a visitor to ask its opening. When the door is shut, the ring is in its side-niche.

Thus, a possible enemy can hide in the side-niche or even, in the first case, he can even hind behind the door standing in the niche.

flet = set of rooms and benches, this meaning extends to the whole dwelling, it does not mean a ‘hall’.

fyrir =aheadand, as well, ‘alreadywhich makes more sense to me, here. The exact meaning of such prepositions is mostly given by its context. The same occurs in English sinceaheadcan express forwardness either in time or in space. This ambiguity is very similar in ON. For instance, vera fyrir (= to be ahead)  means in English: to foresee. When associated to the verb spá (to see, to foretell) , fyrir becomes a reinforcer and fyrir spá may mean something like to prophesize.

The two verbs used in lines 3 and 4 are skoða (= to look, notto spyas suggested by Dronke’s inversion of lines 3 and 4 in her translation)  and skygna (= to spy or to pry) . They are both modified by the preposition um which suggests a complete and careful looking or prying: um usually meansaround, all aroundbut the context suggests here more than a simplegoing aroundthe unknown space, it should be completely explored.

The noun vinr (‘friend’)  is used 25 times in the whole poem. The negative form used here: ó-vinr, ‘non friend’,unfriendwhich cannot be translated by enemy or foe without considering the context in which it is used. In order to get a better understanding of what is exactly meant by vinr and óvinr, we shall need to reach stanza 26. We will then be able to explain why an óvinr is someone with whom we are not linked by a contract of assistance.

Besides obvious úvinr, there exist many words to designate an enemy. The choice of óvinr (which is kept throughout the poem)  must thus be significant. Many other words could have been used: andskoti (or annskoti) , bági, fjándi (you recognize here English fiend, it became the Devil in Christian vocabulary) , fjándmaðr, gagnmælendr, gagnstöðumaðr, heiptmögr, mótstöðumaðir, sökudólgr.

You will find in http: //www. nordic-life. org/nmh/OnTheContracts.htm a more precise explanation of what an óvinr might be as ‘someone with whom you are not linked by a help contract’.


Comment on the meaning of this stanza


This stanza can be interpreted as giving advice to show either mistrust to people who are not friends or careful respect to your ‘óvinir’.

Translating óvinir by foe or enemy tends to suggest mistrust. Note, however, that respecting your enemies is good way to deal efficiently with them. This translation does not suppress the possibility that Óðinn would recommend respect rather than mistrust. My view that it designates “someone whom you are not contracted to” suggests respect. The two verbs in lines 3 and 4 being modified by um suggest that the view, prying or spying must be thorough. To be thoroughly distrusting is akin to paranoia while being thoroughly respectful is more akin to wisdom.


This is why I tend to believe that this first stanza, instead of evoking a kind of generalized mistrust of the unknown, recommends ‘thorough respectfor the unknown. Be these óvinir enemies or simple strangers, and even if you mistrust them, the correct behavior is to show respect to the rules of an unknown place and to do your best to recognize and acknowledge them.


Now, as soon as you are not stubbornly opposed to the existence of magic in our world, the above interpretation should suggest you what is explicitly recommended to all beginners in shamanism. Beginner or nor, a shaman should always show the utmost respect to the ‘beingsor ‘thingshe/she is going to meet in the other world – often called “non-ordinary reality.” Less obvious but equally important is the advice that this world “all over looked about should, all over pried should” for the journeys to be useful, an advice seemingly very difficult to follow for the beginners.


A note on the many-sided meanings of the whole poem (and of s. 1)


I hope everyone takes for granted that any poetry conveys several meanings and I do not see why Hávamál would not follow this classical pattern. I acknowledge that this first stanza does not seem to be a particularly powerful example of this last statement (see however my commentaries above) . The social and secular meaning is the most often taken for granted by the translators. This first stanza obviously describes a social behavior explaining to the reader that he/she must beware when entering an unknown place. No spiritual meaning is obviously suggested. We will find also several stanzas criticizing some personal habits: see for instance 21 says about gluttony, yet another secular interpretation. This understanding is general among modern translators who always choose to favor the most prosaic meaning and avoid as much as possible any allusion to a magic meaning, unless it becomes a totally impossible position to stand upon (for example, in stanzas 140-164 devoted to rune magic) . I will follow this trend for the stanzas that contain no hint at any other possible interpretation. Stanza 1 is a good example of the case where a secular meaning is the most obvious. Note however that a magic orientated mind can always see, in the house or thehallwhere un-friends may be waiting, a world of magic in which unknown dangers are creeping around, or some knowledge is hidden, as I suggested above. It would then carry the meaning of: “Before entering the world of magic, beware of possible hidden dangers, and give it a thorough examination for hidden knowledge.” In contrast, to stanza 1, many others show some crack in their secular interpretation, either in their mundane meaning or in the coherency of the lines, and I’ll take this as a hint for a possible magical interpretation. After all, our main gods of magic are Freyja and Óðinn, and the last one is supposed to have inspired the Hávamál. Moreover, the pre-Middle-Age world is still full of Heathen magic: it is not at all surprising that our ancestors might have been able to easily catch any allusion to magic.


On Evans Commentaries


[These commentaries are found in a book by David A. H. Evans, Viking Society for Northern Research, 1986. I’ll use here my scan of the printed version. I’ll not provide the commentaries to their full extent, except for s. 1 and 2. The full details are available online as a pdf version, at http: //www. vsnrweb-publications. org. uk/Text%20Series/Havamal. pdf (I checked this link wherefrom I dowloaded Evan’s work, and found a totally garbaged pdf. It is now sold by amazon. )

Most of these commentaries are highly specialized and seldom bring light on the spiritual meaning of the poem.

For example, Evans insists on the fact that Snorri Sturluson, at the beginning of the Prose Edda, cites this stanza with no reference to the poem containing it.

The meaning of lines 1-4 is quite clear but Evans gives the details of the many academic grammatical fights it led to.

My summary will skip most of these academic accuracies.]


***[In the following, I will write in size10 bold font my own comments, as done above.]***


[An example of] Evanscommentaries



This strophe is quoted near the beginning of Snorri’s Prose Edda, without attribution; see above, p. 2. Only the Utrecht ms has line 3; Worm’s ms lacks at vita in 5, and the Uppsala ms has the awkward Skatnar allir áðr né gangim fram as 1-2 and the pl. fletjum for fleti in 7. The text in Snorri is evidently somewhat corrupt, though fletjum is perfectly possible (as in st. 35) .

1-4 Although the general sense is clear, the construction is disputed. Some editors take gáttir as acc. object of skoðask um and skyggnask um, but this is hardly right, since these verbs are equivalent to skoða (skyggna)  um sik and cannot have an object; they are of the same type as sjásk um, lítask um, leitask fyrir etc. , see Nygaard 2, § 154. (Skyggnask um occurs in prose, always intransitively; cp. Fritzner 2 s. v. skygna. )  Others understand gáttir as nominative; this entails taking the infinitives as passives (with um as the particle) . So Finnur Jónsson. It has been denied (e. g. Olson 540, Lindquist 2, l)  that reflexive with passive sense occurs in the Poetic Edda, and indeed it is true that in Norse as a whole this usage is common only in the Latin-influenced ‘learned styleand is otherwise largely confined to a few verbs such as spyrjask, fásk, byggjask (Nygaard 2, § 161) ; yet there are a few Eddaic instances which come very close to passives (öll muntu lemjask Helg. Hj. 21, á gengusk eiðar Vsp. 26)  and early scaldic stanza also supplies examples (eyðisk land ok lád and tröddusk trögur, both in Eyvindr’s Hákonarmál, cp. Finnur Jónsson 5, 275) . This is certainly therefore a defensible interpretation, but it is perhaps safer to take the infinitives as intransitive, with gáttir as acc. object of gangi; for this construction cp. Þorkell ok þeir bádir förunautar gengu út skyndilega aðrar dyrr en þeir höfdu inn gengit Hkr. ii 166 and other instances in Nygaard 2, 96.

7 sitja fyrir probably ‘are present(as in 133)  rather than specifically ‘lie in ambush(as von Friesen) , though sitja fyrir can have this sense with a dative object. CPB 461 insists that gangi fram must mean ‘go to the door(from inside) , as indeed it commonly does; but this involves the impossible ‘lurk round one’s housefor the last line, and Snorri’s use of the strophe shows that he took it to refer to entry from without.



***Hávamál 2***


A translation as literal as possible


Welcome to those who come with gifts !

A guest came in,

where will he sit down ?

He has to hurry

who is near the firebrands,

to put himself to test.


Prose explanation


First three lines:

We welcome our guest who are able to offer something in return. Where will they sit ?


Last three lines: [As we shall see in the commentaries, three explanations are equally plausible]

[Explanation 1. 1: Case where being near the brands is not enjoyable and the guest is directed to sit here] If they have been seated at the worse place, they must hurry to show that they do not deserve such a shame.

[Explanation 1. 2: Case where being near the brands is not enjoyable and the guest chooses it himself.] If they chose to been seated at the worse place, they accept alow startbut they must hurry to show that this seat does not reflect their real worth.

[Explanation 2: Case where being near the brands is a place of honor] They can be directed at this place or chose it themselves, in both cases, they must hurry to show that they deserve it.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Gefendr heilir!                   To the givers, good health!

Gestr er inn kominn,          A guest is in come [a guest has come in],

hvar skal sitja sjá?             Where will he sit ‘self’ ? [here, sjá = sá]

Mjök er bráðr                    Much is hasty

sá er á bröndum skal         who is near the brands [near the hearth] will

síns of freista frama.          himself be tried ‘forward[= tried out].




2. Hail to the giver! | A guest has come;

Where shall the stranger sit?

Swift shall he be who, | with swords shall try

The proof of his might to make.


Bellow’s comment: Probably the first and second lines had originally nothing to do with the third and fourth, the last two not referring to host or guest, but to the general danger of backing one’s views with the sword.]


Other translations of the last three lines


Dronke: He’s full of fervour / out by the fire-stack­ - / a man who must vie for advancement!

Orchard: Very jumpy’s the one who by the blaze / must make a test of his luck.

Boyer: Quite hurried / who near the fire / wishes to check his fame.


Commentary about the vocabulary


Heilir is a greeting now used, in modern Iceland, in order to welcome someone of some importance. This might not have been the case in ancient Iceland.

Brandr means both ‘brand, hearthand ‘sword blade’. Its dative plural is bröndum. Bellowstranslation is therefore not absurd at all. It unfortunately slices up the stanza into two unconnected parts, as if it was of no concern to see Hávamál as a ragbag of lines. A weak connection, however, could be to spread to the last three lines the idea of fighting up. Ursula Dronke uses, perhaps a bit too hastily, the Norwegian expressions cited by Evans to translate á bröndum by “out by the fire-stack,” which implies that the guest is not yet inside the house. This rendition destroys the coherency of the stanza in a way different from Bellows’.

Freista, when joined to sín, means both ‘to check oneselfet ‘to try one’s courageas translated by Boyer. This translation carries the meaning that whoever tries his fame near the fire should make haste to do it. This matches the literal understanding but puts a humdrum in Óðinn’s mouth.


Comment on the meaning of this stanza


We have to imagine what is being « nearby the brands » in a hall with a fire at its center. It has to be a deliberate choice of the guest or his host.

Evans comments show that being placed nearby the hearth is not always an asset since it does not always alludes to a cozy warmth. It could even be that being placed nearby the brands is either a challenge or even a show of scorn from the host to his guest.

I will thus suggest that four different meanings can match a literal understanding: “Who comes with gifts is always welcome. He should however quickly prove that he is bright among the other guests of the house whether is his given or chooses for himself, whether the best or the worse place.” This four branched expression tells that as much welcomed a person might be, he very soon have to prove his worth.

This translation gives back to the stanza a global coherency: It suggests that a conspicuous guest will always have to prove his/her worth. Who does not wish to be tried has to stay inconspicuous.

The stanza states a fact, it expresses neither benevolence nor compassion.




(line)  1 is spoken by the visitor as he enters.

(line)  6 síns um freista frama means ‘to try one’s luck’, but lines 4-5 are difficult: The problem, essentially, is that the context is not sufficiently precise to determine which of the many meanings of brandr is required. These are: (1)  sword; (2)  blazing log (in the pl. this is virtually ‘the fire’) ; (3)  raised prow, ship’s beak; (4)  in pl. , shipsbeaks used over, or on each side of, the door of a farm … (5)  piece of (as yet unkindled)  firewood. [Follows a very technical discussion strongly suggesting that this place is not really honorable. This explains why I suggest two different understandings of the stanza.] … the stranger modestly takes up his place on the pile of firewood and waits impatiently to see what reception he will get. This is not paralleled from the ON world, but can be supported from modern Norwegian rural custom: … If a host wishes to honour a guest especially, he will say, ‘Nei, du skal ikkje sitja i brondo; set deg innar’, [Do not seat near the brands, seat down in the room] …

[Evans provides no example of a similar occurrence in the sagas, which confirms my belief that there are none. Another point to note is: Do not believe that this stanza reminisces of the burning steam-bath that two berserker are unable to stand, as told in Erbyggja Saga chapter 28.]



***Hávamál 3***


A translation as literal as possible

There is need of a fire

for whom came in the house

and has frozen knees.

Meats and clothes

are a man’s need

who traveled from the other side of the mountain.


Prose explanation (not needed)


ON Text and its literal pseudo English translation


Elds er þörf                                   Of the fire is need

þeims inn er kominn                      To him who in is come

ok á kné kalinn.                             and at knees is frozen.

Matar ok váða                               meats and clothes

er manni þörf,                               is to a man need,

þeim er hefr um fjall farit.             to him who is lifted beyond the mountain traveled.




Fire he needs | who with frozen knees

Has come from the cold without;

Food and clothes | must the farer have,

The man from the mountains come.


Comment on the meaning of this stanza


In stanza 2, the traveler is “near the brands,” and this might not be as good place as we now believe. Now, stanza 3 tells us of a case where this place is needful since the traveler is half frozen after his crossing of the mountain passes. This is a compelling hospitality rule that demands to take good care of the traveler’s needs: warmth, food and clothing included.

However, this does not oppose stanza 2: mjök er bráðr (“much is hasty”)  that he proves that he deserves such a welcome!



***Hávamál 4***


A translation as literal as possible


Of water is need

to whom for a meal comes,

(for)  a towel and a great reception,

(for)  good manners,

if he would meet

the requirement

(for)  speech and silence (or reckoning)  in return.


Prose explanation


An invited guest must be properly welcomed with “water and towel,” that is, with food and cutlery. Good manners are in order if the guest is able toadjust tospeech as well as to silence (or reckoning) .


ON Text and its literal pseudo English translation


Vatns er þörf                      Of water is need

þeim er til verðar kemr,     to whom for a meal comes,

þerru ok þjóðlaðar,           a towel and a great reception,

góðs of æðis                       good manners

ef sér geta mætti                if himself (to)  get meets,

orðs ok endrþögu.             (as for)  word [= speech] and again-silence (or again-receipt)




4. Water and towels | and welcoming speech

Should he find who comes, to the feast;

If renown he would get, | and again be greeted,

Wisely and well must he act.


Other translations of the last three lines


Dronke: … welcome, / good nature with it / - if he might get himself that! - / - talk and attentive silence.

Orchard: a kind disposition, if it’s to be had, / speech and silence in return.

Boyer: Friendliness, / if it is available to him, / And to be silent when he speaks.


Commentaries about the vocabulary


Mætti is a subjunctive form of verb mæta meaning ‘to meet’, here ef mæta can be rendered by ‘if he would meet’. Ser is the dative of a reflexive pronoun. When something or someone is met, it receives the dative case. Here, mæti thus means that he self-meets.


Endrþögu is a proper genitive for endr-þaga = again-silence which is usually translated as ‘silence in return(as Orchard does. Dronke: “attentive silence”) . The genitive of endr-þága = again-receipt is translated ‘retributionby C-V, where it is given as exemplified in ‘Hm 4’, that is in Hávamál, stanza 4. This interpretation is thus far from being impossible: the canonical genitive of endrþága is not so far, it is endrþǽgu.


Commentary of the meaning


When a guest is welcomed, instead of someone distressed as in stanza 3, he/she must receive extreme attention, without any need for immediate justification. The deep comprehension of this stanza depends however on the importance given to the guest’sreturn’, i. e. the importance attached to the prefix endr- in endrþögu. We will note that only Orchard insists on end-in return’ - while others translators overlook it. Bellows allots it to line 5 (“again be greeted”) , Dronke renders it by “attentive” and Boyer forgets it.

By keeping the strength of thisin return’, the exact meaning of the stanza is modified and it better agrees with the preceding stanzas that never advise for unconditional hospitality.

We have to acknowledge that stanza 4 is the illustration of a more demanding hospitality than in the preceding stanzas. The guest is warmly accommodated and his host must address him politely, in respecting his needs for listening and silence. But, on his side, the guest owes areturn’ to his host, that is, the reciprocal words and silence that are the conditions of a harmonious dialogue. The stanza does not specify that, if this condition is not met, the accommodating behavior of the host can change brutally, but this endr-, otherwise useless, strongly suggests it.




3 þjóðlaðar ‘friendly invitation’; for this sense of þjóð- cp. þjódrengr, þjóðmenni etc. , þýðr ‘kind, affectionate’, Gothic þiuþ: . τό άγαθόν. [The Greek words mean that something or someone iswell, good, puredepending on the context.]

4 góðs oeðis most simply taken … as ‘good disposition, friendlinesson the part of the host …

6 endrþögu - only the interpretation ‘silence in returnmakes reasonable sense; þaga is admittedly not otherwise recorded, but is formed regularly on þegja ‘be silentlike saga: segja. The sense is that the guest needs conversation (orðs)  from his host, and then silence in turn from the host while he himself speaks. [The rest of this commentary discusses and finally rejects a link with þega, ‘acceptance’.]




On the vocabulary of intelligence in Hávamál


1. family of vit

veit = he is conscious etc.

vita = to wit, to be conscious, to know, to see, to try, to mean.

vita á = to forebode.

vit = consciousness, intelligence, knowledge, wit, understanding It means also: a place where something is put, a box , which induces the meaninga box containing breath and life’, that is the mouth and the nostrils.

vitandi =being conscious, knowing etc , someone who is conscious of …

vitand or vitend = intelligence, consciousness, someone who is conscious of. . .

viti = a leader

vitr = wise

vitka = to bewitch.

vitkask = (reflexive)  to come back to one’s senses

vitki = awise-man’, a sorcerer (may be the root of Englishwitch’)

vitni = a witness

vitni-fastr = witness-fast = what can be proved


Note: this poem makes no direct use of the words of the family of vit to speak of wisdom since words as vitrleik, vitra, vizka, are not met. The only occurrence ofwisdomis in stanza 6, with hyggjandi: wisdom, caution.


2. family of snotr

snotr = wise

snotra = to make wise


3. family of fróðr

fróðastr = wizard

fróðligr = clever

fróðr = knowing, learned,

sögufróðr = skilled in old lore


4. family of geð

geð = mind, mood, temper

geðíllr = ill-tempered and geðfastr: firm minded


5. sviðr and horskr

ósviðr = ósvinnr = non-fast, non-wise

horskr = wise




***Hávamál 5***


A translation as literal as possible


There is need of intelligence/spirit

from this one who far travels;

it is anyway sweet to be at home;

(the wise ones)  shall (mockingly)  wink

at the unlearned one

who sits among the wise ones.



ON Text and its literal pseudo English translation


Vits er þörf                         Of wit/intelligence is need

þeim er víða ratar;             to him who far travels;

dælt er heima hvat;            gentle is home howsoever; [hvat er = howsoever]

at augabragði verðr          at eye-twinkling will [people’s eyes will twinkle at]

sá er ekki kann                   who does not know, [the not knowledgeable one]

ok með snotrum sitr.          and with the wise sits.


Wits must he have | who wanders wide,

But all is easy at home;

At the witless man | the wise shall wink

When among such men he sits.


Boyer translates ekki kann by “who is good to nothing” which pushes too far the meaning of ‘non knowledgeable’. Dronke: “who knows nothing,” Orchard: “who knows not a thing.”


Commentaries about the vocabulary


The topic of interest in this stanza is the traveler’s intelligence, consciousness, spirit. This topic is at least alluded to within the whole poem. To have or not to have vit and to be or not to be snotr or vitr (wise)  is of supreme importance within Hávamál. We meet just now two words, vit et vitr, used 21 times in the poem.

Substantive vit meansconsciousness, sense, intelligence, knowledge, understanding’. It thus includes all aspects of intelligence. This may explain why it is so often translated bywisdomwhich is actually expressed by using the adjectives snotr et vitr. In stanza 6, we shall meet the compound mannsvit, human understanding (good sense) , which can be opposed to bókvit, the book-based understanding.

In the first (1 à 95)  stanzas of Hávamál, the word snotr is met 17 times (and twice in stanzas 96-164) . It can be as such, snotr = wise, or as a negative ósnotr = non-wise (I will always use this way of speech) , or its semi negative form méðalsnotr = ‘middle-wise’.


Commentary about the meaning


During a travel, we will meet wise ones and this is why a non-wise one should stay home.

In line 4, the wise oneseyes obviously twinkle with mirth when they look at the ignorant one seated among them. Note that the third line underlines that the ignorant one could stay perfectly happy by staying home instead of confronting the wise ones. I insist on this detail because we shall see that Hávamál almost never disapprove sharply of who is non-wise. It is at most slightly despising to them. Inversely, the really critical and criticized defects are isolation and lack of communication, be them accidental (as in 47-50)  or intentional, as in 5 and in 57 where is stated that who refuses communication with other humans lacks one essential feature of humanity.

It is possible to read here an allusion to an out-of-the-body travel, what is called “shamanic journey” by modern shamanism. In this case, this stanza delivers a quite sharp teaching. During a shamanic journey, you will need in full your awareness and cleverness. Do not expect to see very kind spirits: at best you will meet their sharp wit and you will have to take into account their implicit criticism when reviewing this journey’s teaching.



**Hávamál 6***




Here is the first stanza the content of which is disputed. The last three lines do not appear in all editions, in particular in Rask’s (1818) . They were introduced in Bugge’s edition (1863) . Besides, several versions do not give því at that starts these three last lines. It might well be that því at is an addition done in order to smoothen the transition between these lines and the six first ones.

Quite often, old manuscripts show a side commentary, called a gloss, provided by a knowledgeable copyist who explains a meaning hidden in the text. This gloss will obviously look strange to anyone who refuses to see any hidden meanings, as most ‘serioustranslators do. I do think that these last three lines are a gloss.


A translation as literal as possible


Of his caution (or While thinking to his (mates) )  

a human should not boast,

he/she should rather stay heedful in spirit;

When a wise and silent person

goes ‘home-yards(homewards) ,

the cautious one seldom gets a penalty.


(Because)  to the ‘non brittlefriend,

a human always brings

when he/she (has)  much good-sense.


Prose explanation


[With the usual renderings ofcaution, wisdomfor hyggjandi and ofto fetchfor orto bringfor færa]

No one should boast of his caution (or intelligence, or wisdom) . Better to keep an open mind when a “wise and silent” person comes visiting, since their kind usually avoids harm.

This is because a human full of good sense always brings much to a faithful friend.


[With the probable renderings ofwhile thinkingfor hyggjandi and ofto obtainfor ]

No one should boast of his friends and allies. Better to follow the example provided by a “wise and silent” person who joins the group of friends.

This is because someone full of good sense is always able to find a faithful friend.


[We can also merge the above two understandings into one: ]

No one should boast of his caution and of his friends. You have to listen to a wise friend because he is able to avoid harm. A wise person brings much to his faithful friend but is also able to recognize his faithful friends.


ON Text and its literal pseudo English translation


At hyggjandi sinni                         At wisdom his/her [OR! While thinking to the mates]

skyli-t maðr hræsinn vera,             should-not a human boasting be,

heldur gætinn at geði;                   rather heedful in spirit;

þá er horskur ok þögull                 when the wise and silent

kemr heimisgarða til,                    comes ‘home-yardsuntil

sjaldan verðr víti vörum.               seldom becomes a punishment to the cautious,


[three troublesome lines: ]

[(því at)  óbrigðra vin                    [(because)  to a non-brittle friend

fær maðr aldregi                           brings a man always [OR never) ]

en mannvit mikit.]                          when (he/she has)  human-good sense much.




A man shall not boast | of his keenness of mind,

But keep it close in his breast;

To the silent and wise | does ill come seldom

When he goes as guest to a house;

(For a faster friend | one never finds

Than wisdom tried and true. )

[Bellows note: Lines 5 and 6 appear to have been added to the stanza.]


Dronke and Orchard do not question the last three lines and translate them as meaning that a man’s best friend is his own good sense, as Bellows does.

Dronke: for a more unfailing friend / no man will ever acquire/ than abundant ingenuity.

Orchard: no man ever had a friend more faithful / than a good store of common sense.


Commentary about the vocabulary:


Line 1. The noun hyggjandi means ‘caution, wisdombut it can also be a present participle of verb hyggja, ‘to think, believe’. The noun sinni means ‘fellowship’ and can be here in the dative or accusative case; but it can also be a dative of the possessive pronoun sinn, ‘his’. My best guess is that the first line contains a pun on the words. It suggests that a wise person does not lack friends.

Line 5. The word heimisgarðr designates the garðr (yard)  of the heimr (home) . It means that a wise one comes near the house of his friend.

Line 7. The adjective brigðr is translated by ‘faithless, fickleby C-V It is not found in de Vriesetymological dictionary, which leads to think that we should be more careful of its etymology, given by the noun it stems from: brigð, meaning ‘right to retrieve(a law term)  or (C-V) : ‘breaking, breach’, (de Vries)  ‘modification, fickleness’. The proper sense is thus more like a capacity to breach when it is lawful than to breach with no rhyme nor reason. This is why I translate the adjective brigðr by ‘brittlewhich is less derogative than fickle. When we reach s. 81 you will see that the meaning ‘ficklebecomes even a sneer at women who a supposed to be essentially fickle. This fits perfectly our social conventions of the past but it opposes all we know of the typical Norsewoman (see, for example, Anderson and Swenson’s Cold Counsel, 2002) .

Line 7 and 8.

Two similar verbs can do fær at their present third person: they are (=to catch, to procure’)  or færa (=to bring’) .

If we put the Old Norse words in our ordinary English ordering, we would get: “maðr fær óbrigðra vin” (a human person gives_to/gets_from non-brittle friend) . Here the verb subject is maðr, a nominative Old Norse. Its indirect object complement (called a dative in Old Norse)  vin (vinr =friendis irregular and gives vin in the accusative and dative cases) . The form óbrigðra of adjective ó-brigðr (non brittle)  is also a dative. This carries the meaning that a “human person” is in relation with a “non brittle friend.” It does not say that this “human person” has a relationship with his own good sense as suggested by the other translators. I provide all these details in order to explain that my interpretation is not as absurd as one could claim. Obviously, the way of speech of the text is ambiguous enough to also carry the classical interpretations.


Commentary about the meaning


The kind of ambiguity we just noted happens quite often in skaldic poetry, though it is very hard to render it for the translators, it is thus not often known to their readers. Our translation explains the need for a commentary, as given by the last three lines: this stanza does not tell us that good sense will teach us (three last lines)  that one should not boast of our good sense (first two lines)  – this is redundant – but it tells us that a wise friend (last three lines)  will teach us to avoid blundering (first two lines) . The double meaning of the first stanza provides two examples of a possible blunder: boasting of one’s own wisdom or of one’s social relationships.




1-2 hræsinn at hyggjandi sinni is commonly rendered ‘boastful of his intellect’, but the preposition at seems strange; one would expect af, which is what we find in the virtualy identical lines in Hugsvinnsmál … Af hyggjandi sinni skyldit maðr hræsinn vera Finnur Jónsson renders at ‘with regard tohyggjandi normally means ‘intellect, wisdom[it is also rendered by] anima ‘soul’. So we might translate ‘a man should not be showy in his mind’. The weakness of this view is the poor support for such a rendering of hyggjandi; it is probably better to emend to af.

6 The usual sense of víti … is ‘punishment, penalty, fine’. But the sense ‘harm, misfortuneseems to be present in Reginsmál 1 (kannat sér við víti varask)  … Most editors, however, prefer to follow Falk 8, 231, who suggests that víti ‘penaltypassed into denoting the offence itself … This is certainly better evidenced than the sense ‘harmand is still alive in modern Icelandic. Thus ‘the wary man seldom commits a culpable blunder’. The line is now proverbial; …

7-9 are bracketed by many editors; their sense is inappropriate, for they do not really supply a reason for what precedes. [You noticed that I disagree with this statement.]



***Hávamál 7***


A translation as literal as possible


The cautious guest

who comes for a meal

holds his breath in silence

listens with his ears

but sees with his eyes

thus the learned one pries ahead.


Prose explanation


In short: A cautious guest comes for a meal and silently holds his breath, listens and sees with (or beyond)  his eyes, thus a learned person finds and guesses.

Who is invited to a meal or a feast and is able to stay attentive to his surroundings does not try to speak too much. He listens with sharpness, keenness, and his hearing catches everything said around him. His seeing shows him what is and what will be; thus who knows sciences and magic figures out each one’s hidden secrets.


ON Text and its literal pseudo English translation


Inn vari gestr                                 Him, cautious guest

er til verðar kemr                          who until (=for)  a meal comes

þunnu hljóði þegir,                        in a thin breath is silent

eyrum hlýðir,                                 with ears hearkens

en augum skoðar;                          but with eyes sees

svá nýsisk fróðra hverr fyrir.         thus pries the learned one ahead.




7. The knowing guest | who goes to the feast,

In silent attention sits;

With his ears he hears, | with his eyes he watches,

Thus wary are wise men all.


Dronke’s last three lines: “… listens with his ears, / looks with his eyes / so every wise man for himself spies ahead.”

Orchard’s: “…, but strains his ears: / all smart men find things out for themselves.”


As you see, Orchard refuses to provide a translation of what seems to be trifling. Dronke and Bellows provide it and it does look trivial.


Commentary about the vocabulary


The usual meaning of verb skoða is ‘to seebut the associated substantive, skoðan, means ‘a visionas the one of seer. That may explain why the poet insists on “seeing with the eyes” in order to hint at a non-mundane meaning of skoða.

The verb hlýða means ‘to listenand it can be used with a religious meaning. For example, in a Christian context, hlýða messu = listen to (attend)  mass.

The adverb fyrir means ‘before, forward’. When associated to various verbs, it adds to them the meaning of forecasting. For example, sjá fyrir = to see forward = to foretell, prophesize. This is why I translate nýsisk fyrir = ‘to pry aheadby ‘to figure out secrets’.

The adjective fróðr means ‘knowing, learnedand applies to a variety of knowledge. It thus carries also the meaning of ‘well informedor ‘knowing the laws of Nature and Society’. In the context of the Germanic civilization, it carries also the meaning of ‘knowing the old myths and magic’. For example, in order to say that the Lapps are the greatest wizards, they are called ‘fróðastir’. In order to speak of someone knowing the sagas, it is said that he is sögu-fróðr.

All these words are translated by the academic translators in their secular sense. In the case of fróðr this convention is at least anachronous.


Comment on the meaning of this stanza


The first line says that the guest is cautious, that is he is well aware of his surroundings. The last line says he is learned. We have to understand that he is both.

When a translation says that we have to listen with our ears and see with our eyes, this obviously sounds like trivia. We do not understand why such obvious things have so preciously been kept over the centuries. It seems to me necessary to accept that they are not so obvious. If we take the academic convention upside down, we can imagine that the scald would assume that ‘everyone’, in the context of Óðinn speaking, would attribute a magical meaning to his words. It was then necessary to insist on the possible secular meaning of the verbs to see and to listen. A learned person is not only a wizard (as everyone knew at this time) ; he is also a caution and clever person in everyday life.

This stanza gives us an idea of the features of a wizard, in the way used by the scald to impart his knowledge.

At first, a wizard has knowledge of magic and he is thus aware of the far and fuzzy consequences of our behavior. He is also aware of all kinds of prosaic and rational knowledge, including Science and History.

Secondly, he is silent. Obviously, as a wizard, he is able to quiet down his own thinking in order to feel the mood of his surroundings. Moreover, he can listen to and understanding ordinary speech.

He is obviously able to hear beyond the sounds around him in order to analyze the subtle interactions among these sounds. Moreover, he is able to hear all kind of ordinary noise and to understand them.

He obviously is able to see beyond the external aspect of things, but he is also able to take into account this external aspect.

He observes and probes, he pries the secret nature of each other person, but he is also able to discover everyone’s small secrets.


As a conclusion, the deep meaning if this stanza is reached when we take as primary what seems unbelievable to us, and we take as a minor what looks obvious to us, that is the rational aspects of life.





3 hljöd is probably used here in its primary sense ‘hearing(cognate with κλύω ‘I hear’)  preserved in such expressions as biðja (or kveðja)  hljóds ‘to ask for a hearing’, hann kom á hljód at ‘he heard, learnt that. . . ’, í heyranda hljódi ‘in the hearing of all’.



Hávamál 8-10


“On some uses of magic”


***Hávamál 8***


A translation as literal as possible


This one is happy

who obtains

praise and a staff carved with healing runes;

It is non-forbearing what

A human person will own

inside the breasts of another one.


Prose explanation


Happy and blessed is the one who obtains praise and (knowledge of)  healing runes (since he is not blamed for being a wizard) ; it is ‘not dealt with(unknown and even dangerous)  what a human can own in someone else’s breast (= unknown is what can happen when a human tries to own something housed in the heart of someone else) .


ON Text and its literal pseudo English translation


Hinn er sæll                       He [hinn =this he-one’, ‘shewould be hin] is happy (and                                                   ‘blessed’)

er sér of getr                      who for him/her [sér bears no gender] gets

lof ok líknstafi;                   praise [and allowance] and líkn [=healing]-stafi [=(carved)  staff,                                                          letters;

[Why so many translations do not see carved runes here? See Dronke’s comments below.]

ódælla er við þat,              non- forbearing is what [ó-dælla = un-forbearing, and ódælla við =                                        not dealt with’ ]

er maðr eiga skal               who human possess will [who will own]

annars brjóstum í.             of the other one the breasts in [in another’s breasts]




Happy the one | who wins for himself

Favor and praises fair;

Less safe by far | is the wisdom found

That is hid in another’s heart.


Commentary on the vocabulary


I checked that the first editor of the poetic Edda, Rask (1818)  and Gering’s critical edition (1904)  read ‘hinn’. This is an exception to the generally genderless ways of speech in our poem.

Sæll is still today a welcoming word, it means ‘happy, blessed’.

The noun lof evokes English ‘love’. It nevertheless means both ‘praiseand ‘allowance’.

Líknstafi combines two words, it reads líkn-stafi where líkn = ‘healing, relief, forgiveness’. Stafr has two main meanings. One is ‘a staff or a board’, the other is ‘written letters, carved magical letters, carved runes’. Bellows translates it by ‘fair(?)  Boyer by ‘good repute’, Evans byesteem’, Orchard bywarm regardand Dronke explains it his meaningless (see below) . I suppose they could not make sense ofhealing staffwithout introducing some magical meaning they thought to be out of context. Healing staffis obviously possible but líkn-stafi can also mean ‘healing runesand, in this case, lof must mean both allowance and praise since the wizard uses his magical knowledge for the best. He is therefore acknowledged and even praised for his use of the runes.

Adjective dæll means ‘gentle, familiar, forbearing’. Its negation, ó-dæll thus means ‘wicked, stranger, unforbearing’. When coupled with við, (‘unforbearing with’) , it takes the meaning of ‘unknown, unpredictable’.

The verb eiga has also several meanings ‘to own, to have, to be bound to a duty, to be entitled of’. It does not mean ‘to findas Bellows and Boyer translate it.




As noticed by Evans “the two halves do not fit well together,” in the usual translations. This is a very typical case where ignoring the magical context of old Germanic civilization leads to absurd consequences.

A ‘human of knowledgeis fortunate when he gets knowledge of the healing runes, and he will be praised for it, while the use of other kinds of magic usually attracts hate. Nevertheless, this person wields some kind of magical power, he/she is a ‘witch’. The knowledge and power he/she owns over the other’s heart (or soul, or spirit)  is unknown and certainly unpredictable.

The usual translations do not see any message about magic in this stanza (see however Evans below) .

In the first half, I feel important to keep together both meanings of lof, ‘allowance and praisesince they complete each other. The healer is allowed to use his magic and he is even praised for it.

In the second half, they understand eiga as ‘to possess into oneself(hence Bellows‘to hide’) . Its actual meaning is manifold, it can be ‘to possess, to have (when speaking of a spouse or a parent, of enemies or friends) , to be bound, to own, to be entitled to, to keep, to deal with’. All these meanings imply some kind of special link, of variable intensity. I may be overstating its intensity by choosing the meaning ‘to own’. In any case, the second half of this stanza says that the sorcerer has a special link with what lies in another one’s breast. This strongly recalls the old witches charged on the grounds of ‘possessionof their victims. The word used here to describe this kind of possession is ódælla. The way a sorcerer may possess another’s soul is described here as both mysterious and possibly wicked.

We see that, as opposed to Evansclaim (see below) , the two halves perfectly fit together when their hints at magic are taken into account.

In his French translation, R. Boyer interprets the last three ones in a way that evokes something ‘unchristian’. He says: Plus suspect est / De tirer son inspiration / Du sein d autrui. (More dubious is / to draw one’s insight / out of another one’s breast. )  




The two halves do not fit well together, for, as … ‘praiseand ‘favour, warm judgments- as lof and líknstafi are customarily rendered respectively - are precisely things which one inevitably has annars brjóstum í. [within one’s breast] … [the meaning of] lof: ‘love, affection, esteemfits better than ‘praiseboth here and in some other Eddaic instances (the best case is st. 52 below)  líknstafir [may also be understood] as ‘words (magically)  calculated to win help from other persons’, a sense that also fits its only other occurrence, Sigrdr. 5: fullr er hann ljóða ok líknstafa, góðra galdra ok gamanrúna. Other editors take líknstafir as = líkn, with -stafir as a mere derivative ending (so SG, comparing bölstafir= böl, flærðarstafir = flærð Sigrdr. 30 and 32) .

[The word giving direct access to a magical understanding is then withdrawn, it becomes “a mere derivative ending”! ] …


Dronke’s commentary


In Dronke’s 2011 translation of Hávamál, p. 50-51, we find a commentary of líknstafir that summarizes the expertsopinion. She states:

líknstafi the word only in occurs in Háv here and in Sigrdr 5:

(Old Norse)

Biór færi ek þér,

brynþings apaldr,

magni blandinn

ok megintíri,

fullr er hann lióða

ok líknstafa,

góðra galdra

ok gamanrúna

(Dronke’s transl. )

Beer I bring to you,

‘Tree of Battle’,

blended with strength

and sovereign honour.

It is filled with spells

and salving words

wholesome sorceries,

and secrets of joy.

Líkn has a range of meanings from mercy to indulgence (e. g. softening of religious rules, which is strictly forbidden, see Fritzner s. v. ) . Líknstafir must mean general kindness, warm sympathy, healing, forgiveness, just as líkn does; stafir, originally(potent)  words’, has become a poetic suffix, bringing a sense of plurality to the abstract líkn; cf. böl, bölstafirmisfortune(s) ’, Sigrdr 30. In Háv 8/3 líknstafir is not in a magical or clerical context and presumably has a general sense ofkindly public approval’.”


This argument amounts to say: “in some non-magical contexts, the ending stafir takes a meaning similar to the one of ‘stuffand I will decide when the context is magical or not.” The bad faith associated to this definition shows up already in the above translation: “salving words” for líknstafa does not specially evoke magic while the context of Sigrdrífumál s. 5 is obviously magical.


Commentary on Dronke’s argument


It is true that in Sigrdrífumál s. 30, Sigrdrífa no longer teaches runes to Sigurðr, and its context can be seen as no longer a magical one. This is however not sure at all. Let us look a bit more closely at the meaning of this stanza. Sigrdrífa warns Sigurðr against “brawls and drinking” that can cause “death to some and bölstöfum to some.” At least, one should say that it may bring death and bale-words, where stafir is translated by ‘words’. What prevents us to see here magical curses, which can be still efficient after death? The text stops then being trivial. We now understand that this kind out of control brawls can lead the people involved to be killed, and to even pronounce curses against their opponentschildren. This understanding perfectly fits Sigrdrífumál overall magical tone.

This word shows up again in s. 31, which tells that if your enemy is hugfullr (‘full of spirit’) , then berjask er betra / en brenna sé / inni auðstöfum (fighting is better / than to burn oneself / at home with (or ‘by’, both possible to express the dative stöfum)  the riches-stafir. The prosaic meaning of these lines is obvious: when opposed to a significant adversary, it is better the accept fighting rather than fleeing at home where this adversary will put your home to burn, you inside together with your ‘riches-stuff’, a behavior several times described in the sagas. In this understanding, stafr indeed is what Evans calls a “derivative ending”, that is, a ‘stuff’. I will again argue against choosing this one interpretation, without coupling it with anything magical.

1. Orchard sees auð as a prefix adverb that carries the meaning of ‘easily, clearlyto the word it prefixes. He translates it by ‘other’, and he translates stafir par ‘men(I suppose that this is a modern Icelandic meaning?) : his translation says that one can “be burnt at home / inside by other men.

2. Boyer translates by “… than to burn in his house / the man rich in belongings.” I thus suppose that he translates also stafir by ‘some maninstead of ‘stuffand he recognizes in the noun for auðr ‘wealth’. This translation cuts the stanza in two independent parts, since the first half says that it is better to fight and the second one that a rich person is burnt. Besides the ‘stuffbecoming a human being as in Orchard’s, all this lacks coherence and will now try to find another solution, the above prosaic one being already better.


Finding ‘thegood translation of auðstafr is impossible as I will now explain. Firstly, there exist several compound words of the form auð- and they may use two different meanings of auð. Most of them use, as Orchard does, the prefix adding a meaning ‘easily, clearlyto the word it prefixes. Several others use the meaning ‘richesas for example auðmaðr for ‘a rich man(maðr = man, human person) . On the top of all that, auðr may mean ‘fateor else ‘emptiness, desert’. They do not normally give compounds but they are associated to other words, as for example the phrase auð borð speaks of a ship with no crew nor warriors on board. If we want to take into account the 3 possible meanings for stafr: rod, words or runes and the 5 ones for auð: easy, clear, riches, emptiness or fate, we understand why it is never possible to find one good meaning. Why not a magical one? To this purpose, I’ll will keep most of my prosaic translation but, instead of seeing only prosaic riches in ‘riches-stafir’, I’ll see riches, material and spiritual ones. Magic will burn with you, it will not be able to protect you against someone hugfullr enough. That is the hidden meaning of this stanza.



***Hávamál 9***


A translation as literal as possible

and a comparison with s. 8



Hávamál 9

Hávamál 8











This one is happy

who himself owns

praise and wisdom, while he is living

because a bad advice [or a bad way of life]

often a human ‘raisesto agree with

out of the breasts of another one.


In bold, where they look alike, in italics where they do not, underlined when they oppose.

This one is happy

who obtains

praise and a staff carved with healing runes;

It is unforbearing what

A human person will own

inside the breasts of another one.



Prose explanation

He is happy who during his life owns praise (or allowance) , (since he is)  a wise person; what we accept form another’s heart is at best ill counseling, at worse a bad way of life.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Sá er sæll                           This one is happy

er sjálfr of á                       who self owns

lof ok vit, meðan lifir;         praise [and allowance] and wisdom, while he lives

því at ill ráð                       because at ill advice [or ill way of life]

hefr maðr oft þegit             begins a human often accepted

annars brjóstum ór.           of another out of the breasts.





Happy the man | who has while he lives

Wisdom and praise fair,

For evil counsel | a man full oft

Has from another’s heart. (Orchard: “from another man’s heart,” Dronke: “out of another’s breast.”)


Commentaries about the vocabulary


In stanza 8, we already said that lof has two main meanings: ‘praiseet ‘authorization’. Any Old Norse speaking reader cannot miss one of these meanings and skaldic poetry shows many examples of using double meanings.

The noun vit means ‘conscience, knowledge, understandingand also, is some contexts, ‘place where something is kept, a casket’. The associated verb, vita, expresses all kinds of manifestation of thought, such as to be conscious, to understand, to know, to mean. When followed by á (vita á) , it means to forecast, to foretell.

The noun ráð can be used in an abstract meaning: ‘advice, good advice, planning, foresight, agreement’, and in a concrete meaning: ‘management, state of life, marriage’. This advice may be illr or íllr (ill, bad)  as here, but it can be also góðr (good) . Academic translators use the meaning ‘advicebut, as with lof, all acceptations are possible, as the above prose explanation tries to suggest.

The verb hefja (here as hefr, he/she raises)  means ‘to raise ‘. As in English, it includes a meaning such as to exalt. Thus a manself-raiseswhen accepting the bad advice coming from the othersbreasts. I see here and ‘inverted understatementwhere good id said for bad, that is, it means that manself-degradesor suffers bad advice.

The verb þiggja (here as neuter past participle þegit)  means ‘to accept, to obtain, to be housed’. The irregular verbal form may lead to confuse it with another verb. In s. 7, we met a form þegir, from verb þegja, meaning “he/she stays silent.”


Commentaries about the meaning


The classical understanding of this stanza is that who owns by oneself satisfaction and wisdom is happy because other people can give ill advice. This is quite possible but not enough.

I feel it better to take into account stanza 8: both warn about the other people but 8 warns of their (physical)  sicknesses, while 9 does of their (spiritual)  weaknesses.

As you could see, I understand s. 8 as “If you are allowed to use the runes, beware of what you will find in other person’s heart when you try to help them.” Magic healing is a dangerous work and what is found inside the sick ones (i. e. , their illness)  can strike you if you are not careful enough. Sick people are dangerous but not bad, you are responsible for anything bad happening to you.”

We can compare this to s. 9 which sends another type of warning: “You might well be praised and have wisdom (that is non-magical virtues) , but these positive features are hard to keep because others give you bad advice and this will contribute to wear away the peace of mind needed to keep praise and wisdom.”

In other words, what happens bad to a magician is his own mistake (s. 8) , while a non-magician is not able to shun other people’s aggressions (s. 9)  as wise and respected he might be.



***Hávamál 10***


A translation as literal as possible


(No)  better load

a man can carry on a road (through wilderness)

than much inborn good sense;

better wealth

is it believed (it = good sense)  in an unknown place,

also (the same)  is it for woe.


Prose explanation


Our life can be compared to a hard walk on a difficult track. Instead of carrying useless loads, bring with you (= give the most importance to)  your good sense. That is what will be the most useful in case of unexpected events. This is so for a woe-stricken one who needs more than everyone else this inborn good sense.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Byrði betri                            Better load

berr-at maðr brautu at         ‘not-carries the human on a road [braut: a road going through                                                                            wilderness]

en sé mannvit mikit; but would be inborn good sense much;

auði betra                             wealth better

þykkir þat í ókunnum stað;   he/she thinks that in an unknown spot;

slíkt er válaðs vera.              so who of woe be.




10. A better burden | may no man bear

For wanderings wide than wisdom;

It is better than wealth | on unknown ways,

And in grief a refuge it gives.


Commentary about the vocabulary


The meaning of braut is the one of ‘rocky track’. Mountainous tracks, especially when they run along a cliff, show many of these places where the road is replaced by large more or less flat uneven stones. During foggy weather, they are very dangerous and suddenly become an “ókunnr staðr”, an unknown spot.

The noun mannvit means ‘good sense’, it can be opposed to bókvit, acquired or scholarly good sense. I insist on this possibility by translating it by ‘inborn good sense’.

The noun válað means ‘woeand it clearly took over time the meaning of ‘lack of material wealth’. For instance, ganga á válað means ‘to go begging’. This stanza is so obviously devoted to the wealth of “inborn good sense” that I tend to reject the meaning of ‘lack of material wealth’. The ‘woehere alluded to is the one of being deprived of good sense. The scald does not call them stupid or non-wise, he simply points out that they show the common feature of being unable to react properly in an unknown, novel environment.

The verb ‘to be’, vera, can also mean a shelter. It could only be here in the nominative case and I do not see how Bellows twisted the Old Norse sentence to include his ‘refuge’.


Comment on the meaning of this stanza


The mundane meaning of this stanza is quite clear: in order to get out of serious problems, inborn good sense is much more useful than material riches. It adds the supplementary and not obvious comment that ‘acquired good sensewill not be enough to save us from unexpected difficulties.

From the shamanic perspective, it is also important to notice that inborn wisdom is called a load to carry (in the stanza: byrði berr) . This can be linked to a constant complain of Siberian shamanism that the gods are unkind to provide such a hard life to the humans. As an example, Russian anthropologist Chernetsov reports a song telling that human beings endure their life because a golden birch (Note 1) . This also why I so firmly oppose to the title of Eliade’s book (“Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy”)  because associating shamanism and ecstasy is very nicely ‘new agebut it does not fit with the narratives of the Siberian shamans who describe a chaotic world and a painful initiation. The shaman and his apprentices do need each shred of their “inborn good sense” in order to properly react to their visions. Relying on our imagination or on drugs is a way to kill our inborn good sense, and great shaman Óðinn tells us here that they are misleading ways to shamanic wisdom.


(Note 1) . In Studies in Siberian Shamanism, H. N. Michael (eds. )  Univ. Toronto Press (1972) . V. N. Chernetsov’s paper “Concepts of the soul among the Ob Ugrians,” pp. 3-45. The poem is given p. 27. It is said to be part of the tale of the creation of the earth where “it told how, in the back of the house of the Master of the Upper World and the Great Mother stands a gold-leaved birch.” On this birch, seven golden-winged cuckoos sit and “On the whole earth living / Men thanks to their power / To this day endure life.”


Evans commentaries



[Evans insists that at in brautu at meansalong, down throughinstead of its usualon, upon’. I do not understand why since good sense is as usefulona rocky track as much asat its end’.]



Hávamál 11-14


“On drinking and good sense”



Commentary on 10-11


As we shall now see, s. 11-14 constitute smallbier theme cycleinside Hávamál. We cannot however forget that s. 10 and 11 are tightly linked since they share their three first lines. In this manner, the poet was able to formally link s. 10 and 11 while the theme of 10 is magic and the theme of 11 is creativity. In both of them, good sense is “the best load,” an unexpected way to compare them.



Introduction to 11-14


Georges Dumézil prepared a doctoral dissertation published under the title “The feast of Immortality” (1924) , and never published again because he denied it later. In this work, he tried to prove that Indo-European mythologies carry a common theme: “The gods are looking for a miraculous food or drink that will provide them life eternal. They do get it after a number of episodes, each different for each Indo-European civilization.” This ‘foodbecame better known under the name ‘somacoming from the Indian civilization. We can presume that he had good reasons to deny it and it is true that his arguments, in this particular work, are much less carefully weighted than the ones he gave in his later works. For instance, he does not take into account Iðunn’s apples when he speaks of our Germanic mythology, though they would be also an obvious candidate to being a Germanic ‘soma’. I nevertheless felt that Dumézil has been able to link very nicely several myths otherwise seemingly disjoint by arguing that bier/mead is the element of the Germanic immortality feast. In my opinion and for our mythology, he missed one idea that would give much more strength to his argument: In our mythology, in order to fit into the larger myth of Ragnarök, eternal life boils down (or does it raises up?)  to a combination of continuous youth and continuous creativity called ‘poetical frenzyor ‘mead of poetry’. Óðinn certainly is a key stone to the Germanic attitude towards poetical frenzy and creativity. This gives some ground to the idea that these two behaviors are more central to our mythology than it is believed. We shall see that creativity is the main theme in Hávamál s. 103-110, often seen as Óðinn’s disastrous love affair with Gunnlöð.

Most commentators do not see in the following stanzas, 11-14, more than mundane advice about beer drinking. Combining my analysis of Dumézil’s theory together with the idea of mead of poetry, I tried to look at s. 11-14 as being a Germanic version of the Indo-European myth of life eternal. They can be understood as a way to tell to human beings that “the feast of immortality” is not for them, it is a “gods only” feast.


A recall on the mythical context of s. 11-14


The myth in which Óðinn takes hold of the mead of poetry (or of the bier of creation, in view of Dumézil’s work as recalled above)  includes several episodes. We shall need here the one where he interacts with Gunnlöð.

Let us start when Suttungr became the owner of the bier of creation. Bier or mead is not the main point of the story. The difference between the two drinks is not so significant and, for instance, Lithuanians still prepare a bier a component of which is honey. The important fact is that this alcoholic beverage is famous for bringing the ability to produce original and creative poetry. Suttungr hides the bier in a large vat inside a mountain and his daughter, Gunnlöð, is in charge of taking care of it. By some magical means, Óðinn digs a tunnel in the mountain and is able to reach the place where the bier is hidden. Gunnlöð agrees to Óðinn’s drinking some of it, provided that he makes love to her in repayment for each mouthful of bier. Óðinn complies. Note that Snorri’s version does not suggest, as do s. 108 and 110, that Óðinn marries Gunnlöð. Each of his gulps is really of-drykkja, a super gulp, and he needs only three of them in order to drain the whole vat. He then escapes with his loot and, following 108 and 110, breaks his contract with Gunnlöð.



***Hávamál 11***


A translation as literal as possible


(Identical to 10) : (No)  better load

a man can carry on a road (through wilderness)

than much inborn good sense;


(New in 11) : Travel food worse

He does not move on the field

when (happens)  a bier super-feast.


Prose Explanation


(Identical to 10) : Our life can be compared to a hard walk on a difficult track. Instead of carrying useless loads, bring with you (= give the most importance to)  your good sense.

(New in 11) : Worse traveling-food is a lot of bier drinking (because)  he (who drinks so much)  does not move on his way.



ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Byrði betri                                     Better load

berr-at maðr brautu at                  ‘not-carries the human on a road

en sé mannvit mikit;                       but would be inborn good sense much;

vegnest verra                                 way-food worse

vegr-a hann velli at                       move-not he (who)  on the field

en sé ofdrykkja öls.                        that would be a super-draught of bier.




11. A better burden | may no man bear

For wanderings wide than wisdom;

Worse food for the journey | he brings not afield

Than an over-drinking of ale.


Commentary on the vocabulary


The noun völr = a field, a terrain, gives velli in the dative case, hence at velli = on the field.


Commentaries about the meaning


Plain understanding.

Good sense should prevent a traveler to carry bier with him because over-drinking prevents from moving.

Mythical understanding.

I cannot see here anything else than Óðinn an allusion to his flight before Suttungr and to the trick he had to use in order to barely save his booty. He certainly was carrying a heavy load, but he was also drunk (as described in forthcoming s. 13 and 14)  and deadly frightened (cf. Snorri’s comment on the mead for clown-poets) .

Spiritual understanding.

The first three lines repeat the first three ones of 10. This seemingly useless repetition explains why the plain understanding of the whole stanza is not enough. Plain understanding almost forgets about the first three lines and understates the importance good sense in avoiding over drinking. Avoiding over drinking is obviously a safe behavior. Now, if you think that the ‘fieldupon which the traveler moves in not an ordinary way but one or both of creative thinking or magical practices, there is a real teaching in stanza 11. It says that if you do not carry enough good sense in you, your attempt at becoming a poet or wizard by drinking is bound to fail.

Nobody becomes creative, nor shaman or wizard through drug consuming. Such is Hava-mál, High’s word: “vegr-a hann velli at en sé ofdrykkja öls (he does not move on the field if he had an ‘over-drinkingof ale) .”



***Hávamál 12***


A translation as literal as possible


It is-not good (to speak as follows: )

to say that (it is)  good

for the sons of ages, bier,

because I know (that he has)  less,

who drinks more,

of his own spirit, the man.



Prose Explanation


Let us put the words in the usual English ordering:

One should not say that bier is good to the sons of time (human beings) , because I know that the more he drinks, the less spirit has the man.

In a more commented way:

It is not good to recommend bier drinking to anyone entwisted in the thread of time, because I, a divine being, know that excess drinking empties the spirit of the men (here, the males are pointed at) .

Speaking of humans as being the ‘children of timeis a classical kenning. It emphasizes the brevity of our lives.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Er-a svá gótt          Is-not thus good

sem gótt kveða       as good to say [svá sem =like as’ ]

öl alda sonum,       bier to the sons of ages,

því at færa veit       because, ‘atless I know

er fleira drekkr       who more drinks

síns til geðs gumi   of his until [here = for] spirit of man.




12. Less good there lies | than most believe

In ale for mortal men;

For the more he drinks | the less does man

Of his mind the mastery hold.

[Bellowsnote. Some editors have combined this stanza in various ways with the last two lines of stanza 10, as in the manuscript the first two lines of the latter are abbreviated, and, if they belong there at all, are presumably identical with the first two lines of stanza 10.]


Commentary on the vocabulary


Lines 1 and 2 contain the term svá sem meaningas like’.

The noun öld, here as a plural genitive, alda, means ‘an age, time cycle, (poetical)  people’. As Óðinn says ‘veit = I know’, we understand that he insists that this stanza is coming from his own mouth, stressing the difference between gods and humans

The word sonr means a son, a daughter is dóttir.

Remember that the word maðr means ‘human being’. As you see, the word used in the last line is gumi, here as a genitive guma, and it is also a little ambiguous on the gender it names. I believe it tends to hint more at a male than maðr. For example, the compound word hús-gumi answers hús-freyja (master/mistress of a house) .


Commentaries about the meaning


Plain understanding.

It is given in my literal translation: “It is not good to praise bier drinking for humans because I know who the more he drinks, the less the man has good sense,” summarized to “Over-drinking is bad for humans because it makes them lose their mind.”


Mead of poetry (i. e. , creative thinking)  may be harmful for human beings.

Note that the poet says ‘I know’, a first recall of who is hidden behind the skald, namely Óðinn. Thus, this stanza says that god Óðinn refuses to say that alcohol-induced creativity is fit to humans because it destroys their inborn good-sense. Stanza 12 gives the reason (“good sense is destroyed”)  of the claim in stanza 11 (“travel and creativity lead nowhere without good sense”) .



***Hávamál 13 **


A translation as literal as possible


Oblivious heron is named

who hangs around at drinking-parties;

this steals (their)  spirit to men;

thus, to the fowl’s feathers

was I ‘self-fettered

in Gunnlöð’s yard.


Prose Explanation


Oblivion-Heron hovers above drinking-parties. Who gulps down too much bier looks like a heron gobbling down fishes. This destroys your spirit and you memory.

I, Óðinn, in spite of my godly abilities, I accepted to be fettered to the fowl’s feathers when I drunk the mead of poetry in Gunnlöð’s home (and, there, I madly loved her … [as we shall see later]) .


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Óminnishegri heitir           Of no memory (oblivion)  heron is named

sá er yfir ölðrum þrumir;   who at drinking-parties hangs around;

hann stelr geði guma;        he (= it)  steals (their)  spirit to men;

þess fugls fjöðrum              thus (of the)  fowl (to its)  feathers

ek fjötraðr vark                  I fettered ‘self-was

í garði Gunnlaðar.                        in the yard of Gunnlöð.





13. Over beer the bird | of forgetfulness broods,

And steals the minds of men;

With the heron’s feathers | fettered I lay

And in Gunnloth’s house was held.


Commentary on the vocabulary


Ó-minnis-hegri = no-of memory-heron, that is: the heron of no memory.

Here, fjöðrum is a dative without a preposition, it is normally rendered by adding ‘at’, or ‘inas in “he lives in London.”

The poem’s title, Hávamál, is strongly recalled in l. 5. Óðinn says twice that he is himself speaking by using the form ek …vark = I … I was) . This is way to remind us that all this wise advice-looking words contain more than simple wisdom.


Commentaries about the meaning


In the following, Óðinn will speak several times of Gunnlöð who allowed him to drink the mead of poetry, as recalled before in s. 11. The container of this drink is called Óðrœrir and drinking it makes you become ‘óðr’: ‘raving poetic’. This is now far from a drinking party, a god becomes drunk and puts on himself the fetters of madness that link him to the “feathers of the fowl.”


Plain understanding is almost impossible. The images of a hovering Oblivion-Heron and Óðinn being fettered in the middle of a mountain are essentially un-obvious. Forgetting this ‘detailscan lead to nothing more than: “We can imagine that a kind of bird participates in drinking-parties in order to steal the drinkers spirits.”


In this stanza, Óðinn uncovers himself again, he says “I self-was fettered’, where I try to render the reflexive form vark. By this way of speech, Óðinn says that he put himself the fetters on him. Another point is that he confesses his own human weakness by letting himself entangled in the feathers of Oblivion-Heron, losing both Huginn (Spirit)  and Muninn (Memory or Mind-Delight (note 1) ) . He means to warn humankind: “I was myself overwhelmed by the huge draughts I had to swallow in order to steal the creativity-beverage. Remember that you are much weaker than I!”

Note also that these four stanzas do not speak of the love/sexual part of Óðinn’s adventure. An allusive “í garði Gunnlaðar in the last line simply hints at it.


(Note 1)  There exists an absolute consensus on the meaning of Muninn, being ‘Memory’. It follows from deriving the word muninn from verb muna, to remember, as de Vries does, by linking it to the two verbs past participles. This looks as a strong argument though the form of muna from which it could be derived, its masculine past participle, is munað. The same is true of huginn (it is derived from verb huga or verb hyggja) , since the past participle of huga is hugaðr and the one of hyggja is hugat or hugt and it shows also an adjective form hugðr (as given by C-V) . It is thus not improbable that huginn and muninn would rather be derived from the corresponding substantives, hugr and munr (both are masculine words) .

The point is void for huginn since hugr mean ‘mindand huga/hyggja both mean ‘to think’. Inversely, munnin is more problematic. Substantive munr evokes (among others!)  love and pleasures deriving from intelligence and it does not evokes memory. The verb and its associated substantive have quite different meanings. Experts thus chose to favor verb against substantive meanings.

Let us now favor substantive over verb meanings. The nouns can well be postfixed by an article (our ‘the’)  and, in the masculine, they then read hugrinn and munrinn. We thus meet a new problem since we have now to accept an exceptional (?)  ‘loss’ of this ‘r’ expressing the nominative in the name of Óðinn’s ravens. Note however that all compound words of the form hugr/munr-adjective does lose this ‘r, for instance munligr (delicious)  or hugblauðr (timid) .

Anyhow, and as usual, I do not claim that translating Muninn by ‘Memoryis wrong. I claim that an alternate understanding comes from the four main meanings of munr: ‘mind, longing, delight, love’. Mind is already filled up by huginn and, for muninn, I would vote for a mixture of mind and delight, namely ‘mind-delight’. In that case, Óðinn would fear to lose his intelligence and, overall, to lose his thinking pleasure (as explained in Grímnismál 20 for Huginn and Muninn) . We could then understand why he emphasizes the importance of the pleasure of thinking over ‘just’ thinking.

These two names are born in a purely oral civilization of knowledge transfer into which memory is indeed primary to insure a proper functioning of mind. This being acknowledged, we should also remain conscious that the sheer pleasure of feeling our minds perform (what munr exactly means)  certainly is the strongest motivation, for everyone, to appreciate the state of being alive.





óminnishegri - the heron does not appear to be connected with forgetfulness elsewhere, and the exact point of the expression is unclear. Finnur Jónsson points out that the heron’s habit of standing motionless for long periods, in seeming oblivion, might account for the image, though he surely goes too far in proposing that this oblivion could have been thought to infect the beholders. Von Hofsten 25-6 asserts that what is emphasized here is not forgetfulness per se but rash actions under the influence of alcohol, and connects this with the way in which the heron, after waiting motionless, can suddenly strike out with his terrible ‘harpoon’. But this does not sort well with the actual word óminni in the text. Dronke points out that the heron, in fact and in modern proverbial lore, is associated with vomiting, which (though not in herons)  is often a consequence of excessive drink; but it is again some way to the óminni of the text. Holtsmark 1 believes the reference is to an ale-ladle in the form of a heron and renders ‘yfir ölðrum þrumir‘floats on the surface of the ale’. Ölðr can mean both ‘ale(as in 137 below)  and ‘ale-party(which is how most editors take it here) ; in the former sense it is normally singular, but the plural occurs in a stanza of Egill (ölðra dregg …) . Ladles in the form of birds (öland, ölgás, ölhane)  are known in Norway, though no instance of a heron-ladle seems to have come to light. Elmevik has objected that a ladle would not repose silent and motionless, as implied by þrumir, but would be continually raised and lowered; a perhaps weightier objection is that there is no actual evidence for bird-ladles in Norway before c. 1500, though of course they might have existed earlier. If Holtsmark’s suggestion is rejected, 2 should be rendered ‘he who hovers over ale-feasts’. [The image of a heron is beautiful by itself and does not need so many explanations. If something mundane is needed here, we could think of the way a heron swallows a fish and a drinker takes a long gulp of bier.]

3 guma is probably acc. , not gen. ; for the construction cp. stela mik eign minni Laxdoela saga ch. 84 …

6 Gunnlöð known in Norse legend only as the daughter of the giant Suttungr, who had acquired the sacred mead of poetry from the dwarfs Fjalarr and Galarr; Óðinn wins the mead by seducing her. The story is related in 104-110 below, and in Snorri’s Prose Edda (Skáldskaparmál ch. 5-6) . Presumably this is the story referred to here and in st. 14, and ek must accordingly be Óðinn; but if so it is clearly a variant version, for nothing is told elsewhere of Óðinn’s being drunk nor of his visiting Fjalarr. St. 14 reads most naturally as though in this version Fjalarr, not Suttungr, was the narne of Gunnlöð’s giant father, and Fjalarr is indeed recorded as a giant-name (Hárbarðljóð 26, and in ‘þulur’, Jötna heiti, Jónsson’s Skjaldedigtning t. 1- p. 659. [Nothing forces us to confuse Fjalarr and Suttungr as Evans seems to think it compulsory. It is quite possible that Óðinn has been drunk at Gunnlöð’s and, in another time, drunk at Fjalarr’s. The following stanza provides another possible way to understand the use ofFjalarrwith no need for a variant version.]



***Hávamál 14 **


A translation as literal as possible


Drunk I have been,

have been totally drunk

at learned Fjalarr’s home;

because a drinking-party is (at its)  best

when later comes up to (the drinker)

what controls the man’s spirit.



Prose Explanation


In Fjalarr the Learned’s home I have been drunk, deeply drunk; (and this happened)  because drinking is (for the)  best when what controls the spirit of man comes back home.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Ölr ek varð,                       Drunk I have been,

varð ofrölvi                        have been totally drunk

at ins fróða Fjalars;           at learned Fjalarr’s

því er ölðr bazt,                  because is a drinking-party best

at aftr um heimtir               when later comes up to

hverr sitt geð gumi.            what controls the spirit of man.




14. Drunk I was, | I was dead-drunk,

When with Fjalar wise I was;

‘Tis the best of drinking | if back one brings

His wisdom with him home.


Commentary on the vocabulary


Fjalarr is the name of the dwarf who owned the mead of poetry before Suttungr. Since it is recorded as a heiti for a giant (see reference at the end of Evanscommentaries)  it can point at any giant in poetical language. This is an obvious wink of the poet to his knowledgeable reader who cannot ignore who owned the mead of poetry before Suttungr. It is funny to use the name of the stolen one (the dwarf)  in order to speak of the stealing one (the giant Suttungr) . Note that Óðinn qualifies Fjalarr of being fróðr. This is a classical way to qualify giants, they are often ‘very cleveror ‘well-learned’. The word fróðr means ‘learnedwith the suggestion of ‘very much learned’, or a wizard who is very learned at magic. The first meaning is illustrated by the way of speaking of the venerable Bede: Bede fróði. The second meaning is illustrated by the way of speaking the Finn wizards who are called fróðastir.


Commentaries about the meaning


Plain understanding. Forgetting a few ‘detailsof the stanza, it may mean: “I have been drinking too much in my past. From that, I learned that the best part of drinking takes place when you come back to your senses.”


At first, Óðinn insists on the depth of his drunkenness in Gunnlöð’s yard. It is quite possible that this insistence underlines a possible role of Gunnlöð herself in it: he was drunk with both alcohol and love. Now, read again the last three lines: They do say that the best part of a drinking-party is its sobering up phase! Whoever has been drunk – not to speak of deeply drunk – knows that a severe hangover is very painful, totally contradicting this statement: The head- and stomach-ache you receive is known for being almost unbearable. Either Óðinn is making a disputable joke (“suffering is good for you”)  or he is alluding to something completely different from common drinking. This is why I understand this 14th stanza as a gnomic one for poets: “When you drug yourself to get out of yourself, when you wish to share with me the madness my name carries (adjective óðr means frantic) , the best time to become creative is this painful time when you are still drunk while your spirit comes back to you (noun óðr means ‘mind, wit, poetry’) . This phase may last long enough to enable you to acknowledge and recognize chaos in your mind, and to take advantage of it, that is, to ride this chaos without trying to stifle it.




3 For Fjalarr see on 13 above.

4 því is correctly explained by Fritzner 2 s. v. því 4 as ‘i det Tilfælde’, that is ‘in this case’: the best sort of drinking party is one which is not excessive, one where everyone leaves still in possession of his right senses, or easily able to reclaim them. (So also Schneider 63) : ‘nur das Gelage taugt, von dem der Mann seine Sinne mit heimbringt’. )  Many editors take því as ‘therefore, for this reason(thus …: ‘It is ale’s best quality that everyone recovers his senses’)  but this contradicts the context and gives feeble sense in itself.

5 The particle of is written vf in Codex Regius here, as also in 67 below and in Grímnismál 34; similarly for of preposition in Guðrúnarkviða II 2.



Hávamál 15-35


“On wisdom”


***Hávamál 15***


A translation as literal as possible


Quiet and mindful of other people

should (be)  a great man’s child

and battle-daring be;

glad and happy

will (be)  each man

until he abides by his death.


Prose explanation


A great man’s child should be thoughtful and mindful of others (he is able to listen to and understand other people)  and also battle-daring. Each (other kind of)  man must be glad and happy until his death.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Þagalt ok hugalt                Quiet and mindful

skyldi þjóðans barn           should a great man’s child

ok vígdjarft vera;               and battle-daring be;

glaðr ok reifr                     glad and happy

skyli gumna hverr,             will man each

unz sinn bíðr bana.            until he abides by death




15. The son of a king | shall be silent and wise,

And bold in battle as well;

Bravely and gladly | a man shall go,

Till the day of his death is come.


Commentaries about the vocabulary


Adjective hugall means ‘mindful of other people’, kind, charitable and this an interesting feature for a future leader. Other experts translate it quite differently. Bellows renders it by ‘wise’, Orchard byprudent’, Dronke by ‘reflective’, Boyer bythoughtful’. It seems that kindness is so much unexpected for a leader that the proper meaning has been deemed impossible.

The word þjóðann =king, great man’. Great leadermight then render the exact meaning of this word here.

víg-djarft, víg = battle, djarfr (adj. )  = bold, daring.

glaðr = ‘gladand also, shiny’, for the sky or a star.

reifr = cheerful, as in bjór-reifr = wine-cheerful, and also her-reifr = battle-cheerful.

hverr is a pronoun which has two main meanings. First, it is interrogative and can be translated by ‘who?Second, it also means ‘each, each one’. Each translator uses this last meaning except Bellows.

The verb bíða means ‘to abide, to undergo’.




This stanza does not claim that looking for happiness is absolutely opposed to leadership but that leader and follower fit into two completely disjoint destinies. Both have to be acknowledged but no one should complain of the destiny to which he has been allotted.

A social environment where all non-leaders are glad and cheerful looks like being an utopia. I suppose that Óðinn alludes here to a group of free men or warriors rather than to ordinary people.


Note also that the poem stresses again the importance of silence in social life. It seems that among the many clichés relative to the famous Viking, the one of people able to hold their tongue has been under estimated.


It is also necessary to link this stanza to s. 56. As we shall see later, it advises to be wary of an excess in the research of wisdom. Óðinn justifies the wariness by explaining that excess of wisdom can lead to the knowledge of our own örlög, and that knowledge leads to a “spirit of sadness” which opposes the present stanza. The kind of carelessness recommended by s 15 does not mean we should consider it as unimportant. This is a deeply pagan stanza which condemns asceticism, such as research for Christian holiness or the Buddhist illumination, i. e. a spirituality for which human ones attempt to leave his/her status of simple human full of “gross” bodily joys.



***Hávamál 16***


A translation as literal as possible


A non daring person

expects that he will live for ever

if he avoids battle;

but old age gives

him no peace at all,

even if spears leave him quiet.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Ósnjallr maðr                                Non-daring (or not outstanding)  human

hyggsk munu ey lifa,                      thinks-self that will ever-live

ef hann við víg varask;                  if he battle avoids

en elli gefr                                     but old age gives

hánum engi frið,                            him no peace

þótt hánum geirar gefi.                  though to him spears give.




16. The sluggard believes | he shall live forever,

If the fight he faces not;

But age shall not grant him | the gift of peace,

Though spears may spare his life.


Commentary on the vocabulary


Ósnjallr means ‘non daringand is properly translated by Dronke as ‘(who)  lacks courage’. The other translators try to avoid this meaning. Bellows: ‘sluggard’, Orchard: ‘senseless’, Boyernon shrewd(inavisé) . The contrary is snjallr = eloquent, excellent, valiant.

hyggja = to think, have a goal, imagine, hyggjask = ‘self hyggja’.

víg = the killing taking place during a fight or a battle. It can be a fight between groups or individuals.


Comment on the meaning


Said in a terse way: Fear of death is base and is not rewarding.

The first half of stanza 16 points at a person who is ‘non daringand who thinks that flight is the only solution when facing battle slaughter. They flee as soon an impending danger threatens them; they lose their wits in front of danger.

The second half underlines this view by recalling that death is an all-time impeding danger.

As everyone understands, the stanza recalls that death cannot be avoided. A less obvious meaning is that fleeing danger is useless as opposed to the universal “precautionary principle” that seems to become the supreme law dictating modern behavior.


Evans commentaries


          1 ósnjallr also occurs in 48, where it is opposed to mildir, fræknir menn;‘cowardlyseems to be what is mainly implied, though some editors render ‘foolish’ ; the positive snjallr can mean both ‘boldand ‘wise’.

   4-6 mean of course that death is inescapable - even if you manage to avoid a violent death, you will die of old age in the end - and not, as preposterously suggested by Vesper 28, that the man who in his youth skulks away from battle will have an uneasy conscience in his old age. This sentence had needed no commentary, had not a commentator darkened it.



***Hávamál 17***


A translation as literal as possible


A simpleton gawks

while meeting a friend

he mumbles to himself or mopes;

all at once

if he gets a drink

the spirit of the man raises to surface.


Prose explanation


When a simpleton or an oaf meets a friend (who speaks to him) , instead of answering properly, he mutters incomprehensible words or complains relentlessly. When he drinks a bit too much, his true (? lack of)  spirit shows at once.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Kópir afglapi                                 He gawks the simpleton [or oaf]

er til kynnis kemr,                          who towards acquaintance comes

þylsk hann um eða þrumir;           he mumbles-self or mopes

allt er senn,                                    all is at once [all at once]

ef hann sylg of getr,                       if he a drink gets

uppi er þá geð guma.                    up is then the spirit of the man.




17. The fool is agape | when he comes to the feast,

He stammers or else is still;

But soon if he gets | a drink is it seen

What the mind of the man is like.


Commentary on the vocabulary


afglapi comes from the verb af-glapa the meaning of which is ‘noisily interrupting a law course’. Its primary meaning is ‘oafbut it can also mean simpleton’.

kyn has the same meaning as its English descendant, kin. Til kynnis kemr means ‘to pay a friendly visit’.

Be aware that the verb ‘to mumble’, þylja, also means ‘to singor ‘to utter a magical charm’. Here, the oaf does not mumbles he ‘mumbles to himself’, þyljask. This word is also used in Eriks Saga, chap. 8 when Thórhallr is calling on Þórr. As the simpleton of the present stanza, he is said to be gaping (gapti)  and he mumbled magic words (þuldi) : the form used in this case is not a reflexive one.

The verb þruma means ‘to mopebut it also can mean ‘to sit down motionless’.

The last line is slightly ambiguous. The literal translation says that the man’s spirit uncovers itself. Dronke: (“then that’s the end of his intelligence”)  and Boyer (“off flies good sense!”)  have a pessimistic view of this ‘disputably goodsense, as suggested by the first lines. Orchard (“the man’s wits are wholly exposed.”)  and Bellows keep the more neutral tone of the poem.

To know “what the mind of a man is like” does not mean ‘to know he is stupid or unpleasant’. For instance, a boorish person may reveal a more charming side when drunk.


Comment on the meaning


This stanza states that a boorish person keeps to himself even when he meets someone of his kin. Only alcoholic beverages may open his mind.

The occurrence of two words used elsewhere to describe a wizard’s attitude, even if Thórhallr is not ‘self-mumblingbut simply mumbling, suggest at least that the behavior of a wizard may look very much like the one of a simpleton. If we push forward in this direction, this stanza takes an unexpected meaning. Instead of describing a stupid person, it will suggest that a wizard or a poet may look as being fools and they are often boorish. When given the ‘mead of poetrytheir true nature shows: they produce outstanding poetry or magic.


Evans commentary


kópa ‘stare, gaze’, only here in ON, but found in Norwegian and in Danish and Swedish dialects, and occasionally in later Icelandic; … testified in 1915 that it was common in this sense in Anessisla in Southern Iceland.

3. . . holds that pylsk um and þrumir are contrasted: either the fool prattles endlessly or he is sullenly speechless. This is based on the sense ‘proclaim ceremoniallyfor þylja, as e. g. in 111 below; but this verb is also well evidenced in the sense ‘mumbleand the use of the reflexive, which is found only here and must have the force of ‘to oneselfshows that this is the meaning in this passage…

6 uppi er þá ged guma. . . . explains ‘the moment he gets a drink, he reveals the whole contents of his mind’, i. e. taking uppi as ‘displayed, visible’, and similarly many editors. But uppi can also mean ‘finished, exhausted’,



***Hávamál 18***


A translation as literal as possible


The one who is mindful and aware,

who far away travels,

and ‘liftsmuch for traveling,

what state of mind

leads such one of the men

who is being conscious towards (self) -mindfulness.


Prose explanation


One who travels far away and undertakes (‘lifts’)  much in order to travel, and who travels in a state of mind of mindfulness and awareness, he only becomes conscious of the state of mind that leads him on this path. This is the state of mind of people who are conscious of being conscious.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Sá einn veit                        Who the one is mindful [or aware, conscious]

er víða ratar                      who far travels

ok hefr fjölð of farit,           and raises [or: starts] much of ‘for travelling

hverju geði                         what state of mind

stýrir gumna hverr,            leads the men such that [leads such men]

sá er vitandi er vits.           who is ‘being mindfulis [or: he who] ‘of or towards                                                       mindfulness’.




18. He alone is aware | who has wandered wide,

And far abroad has fared,

How great a mind | is guided by him

That wealth of wisdom has.


Various translations of the last three lines


Orchard                                        Dronke                                   Boyer

what wits every man con-trols:

he is a man with some sense.

what kind of mind

each man is master of.

He knows what knowing is.

How much well-tempered

Is anyone / Who owns

knowledge and wisdom.


As you can see, each of them understands these lines in a slightly different way, and the clearer the translation, the further it is from the original text. Note also that in all translations, the first and the second half of the stanza are disconnected.


Commentary on the vocabulary 


ratar víða = to travel far away. To what kind of travel is Óðinn alluding? Everyone knows that the ordinary traveler – as far as he might go – carries with him the whole lot of his problems and his ignorance.

The verb vita is twice used in this stanza and its parent vit (that became our ‘wit’)  once.

Vita means: to be conscious, to know, to be aware, to try, to behave. Vitandi is ‘while being consciousand veit is ‘he is conscious’.

The word geð means: state of mind, a mood (good or a bad) , the spirit into which something is performed.

The verb fara (to travel)  has a supine in farit, a verbal form we translate as follows: the supine of ‘to doexpresses ‘with the goal of doing, in order to be able to do’.

For vitandi er vits, I tried to render the exact meaning of this way of speech. In modern Icelandic vitandi vits means: ‘knowing what one is about(see Evans below) . Modern speech may have forgotten the language of the ancient gods: The Icelandic poet Sveinbjörn Beinteinnsson himself, founder of the Ásatrúarfélagið in 1972, told to a journalist “… we should speak the same beautiful language as Óðins.”


Comment on the meaning


Secular meaning

Three first lines:

Traveling far does not provide ‘witjust by itself. The travel will bring you awareness if you properly prepare it ahead of time.

Three last lines:

Evansanalysis of “er vitandi er vits” is perfectly to the point. There is however no need to “expel the second er” since, by reading it as a ‘he whoinstead of a ‘he is’, it becomes a doubling such as ‘who … whothe poetical effect of which should not be forgotten even if it is that can be left aside in a translation.

I disagree with the commentators who see little coherency between the three first and the three last lines. From the stylistic point of view, it is made whole by the one ‘vitaof the first line and the two ‘vitaof the last one, together with the balance of third line ‘for travelingwith last line ‘of mindfulness’. The logical point of view is even more convincing. This stanza looks like a syllogism since it says: Proper travel improves your mind, mind improving requests a special state of mind, ergo, whoever properly travels learns a special state of mind.

The problem of being conscious of one’s conscience looks so abstract that Ill use some Computer Science facts in order to make it more concrete. Artificial Intelligence and Robotics are repeatedly tripping over the lack of self-conscience of computer programs. They recognize this problem as stemming from their lack of “meta-thinking.” This way of speech follows from Data Analysis that uses meta-data (i. e. data about the data)  in order to help the user of a database to become conscious of the kind of knowledge which is stored into the data. As another example, it is extremely hard to program a robot in such a way that it might be able to ‘become consciousof its own actions, for instance that it is about to break down. Within this frame of thinking, we can express the ideas in s. 18 as: “if a person is conscious enough then, by meeting other civilizations and traditions, this person will acquire a general knowledge about the organization of a society, of the bases of a tradition, etc. that is, he/she will acquire a meta-knowledge about his own environment and about him/herself.” It is clear that the coexistence of knowledge and meta-knowledge inside the human brain looks like contradictory. The contradiction has been well exemplified by a French philosopher of the beginning of the 20th century, called Alain (Émile Chartier) . He would claim that introspection is absurd because “you cannot be on the balcony looking down at yourself walking in the street.” At the opposite, in this stanza, though without using these words, Óðinn suggests that being conscious of one’s conscience, i. e. something very similar to introspection, is the expected result of life experience for a thoughtful person.

We however need to add that this Computer Science way of speech provides only a static view of what is “to be conscious of one’s conscience.” For the time being, there is no way to program data bases each element of which could be ‘conscious’ of (i. e. to interact with)  any other element in the base. This would demand to represent the database through a non primitive recursive function, which we can hardly achieve, to say the least.

It should be also noticed that the database formulation above given accounts only for a static look at the “conscience to be conscious.” Presently, there is no question of programming data bases each element of which could be ‘conscious’ of the existence of all the other elements of the base. This would require to represent the data base by a non primitive recursive function, which we do not know yet really how to do. Inversely, one of the human thinking feature is the ability of our ideas to interact with each other, and this interaction is able to be the source of other new ideas.

Note that Óðinn, who so often criticizes human-like stupidity, does not call stupid or non-wise people who are unable to analyze by their own thought the way they think. He rather marvels at the existence of “state of mind.”


Meaning in human mental reality


It is not so strange that the line “sá er vitandi er vits,”as pointed at below by Evan, caused so much confusion in the commentators’ world because it looks so apart from the ‘standard’ Hávamál lines. Quite often, the words used by Óðinn describe every day behaviors, such as for example stanzas 11-14 dedicated to alcohol consumption. On the occasion, it may evoke obviously psychological consequences of these behaviors, such as for example the memory loss caused by excess drinking. Until now, however, it never tackled the topic of human thought functioning, that we can call ‘human mental reality’. Being fascinated by our own mental functioning is clearly a bit ridiculous. Inversely, an active individual – being shown as a primary feature by Völuspá - has to take into account Óðinn’s counseling in order to understand the how and the why of his/her actions.


In this stanza, however, Óðinn insists on the importance of practicing vitandi er vits, i. e. to be conscious of being conscious. This could be looked upon by many as an unbearable snobbish intellectualism… which by itself shows how much the individuals of our civilization are afraid to be observed through sincere glasses. It is clear that to spend its time contemplating its navel is a ridiculous attitude. Conversely, the human credit – an essential characteristic of human according to Völuspá - must include/understand the recommendation of Óðinn to be thought of why and with how of its actions.

The above definition of meta knowledge in a data base could straightforwardly apply to humankind by imagining than a ‘small part’ of our conscience is specialized in the observation of our conscience. This may be true though, but it is not at all what Óðinn suggests because he does not allude to such a partition. I,n order to avoid lengthy discussions on what conscience really is, for us and Óðinn, I will propose here a ‘working definition’ that does not claim to exhaust the topic of self-awareness, though it will be enough for us to illustrate in what to be vitandi er vits is already to contact the concept of infinity. We suggested above that the conscience of being conscious is obtained obtained by a form of introspection. Now, in order to take into account the importance of action in the Old Norse thinking, let us state that it is a form of introspection which is not limited to the observation of our own mind, but which draws the conclusions of its observations as for the way of acting. All things considered, we will call ‘conscience of our conscience’ an introspection for action. For example, if someone always appeared antipathetic and that we become aware that he/she has many common features with a person we appreciate, it is possible that we decide to revise our opinion on him/her. This can then engage a series of actions and thoughts of which we will become conscious and who, in turn, will encourage other awakenings. This shows in a simple way how introspection for action will possibly generate an infinite number of ideas and actions. Obviously, ‘infinity’ here does not always entails a huge number: it means that there is no way to predict when the generative process will stop.


Since a human being cannot easily handle infinity, it is obvious that he/she will have tendency to either becoming confused, or his/her thought turn in circles. This is what explains the subjacent popular irony caused by those who acknowledge practicing introspection. On the contrary, in the present stanza, Óðinn says he admires this form of meditative mind as long as it avoids being trapped in his/her meditation and it can draw from it some useful conclusions.


We will also see that stanza 27 suggests in a negative way a similar behavior of conscience self-conscience. It concludes: “This man does not know, that he does not know anything, although he speaks much,” which could be also stated as “This man is not conscious to be not conscious.” This formula might look somewhat hollow but it is nothing less than a mirror of the positive statements in s. 18.


Spiritual meaning


These explanations about the secular meaning of the stanza show the weakness that we do not acutely see how traveling, even very far, can bring these wonderful discoveries about oneself.

If, however, the word ‘traveltakes the mystical meaning of a journey in the world of non-ordinary reality, then the link between the first and the last half of s. 18 becomes obvious. By journeying in the ‘otherworld’, the shaman apprentice will need to “lift much,” acquire knowledge of the otherworld and by this will obviously reach an unusual “state of mind.” I do not claim here that Óðinn’s view of this “traveling far away” is exactly the same as what we call nowadays a ‘shamanic journey’. I simply underline that the effect looked for by the modern practitioners of these techniques is very similar to what Óðinn describes in this stanza.


Evanscommentaries on « er vitandi er vits »



6 This line, which in Codex Regius reads sá er vitandi er vits, has caused difficulty, as is shown by the variations among translators. Since vita with gen. normally means ‘to know, know of(margs vitandi Vsp. 20, barna veiztu þinna Atlamál 84) , Brate understood it as ‘He knows what sense is’. But in Flateyarbók… we read má hverr maðr [sjá], sá er vits er vitandi, at þessi augu hafi í einum hausi verit bæsi, where the phrase clearly means ‘anyone who has got any sense’. Cp. Fritzner… vit 5, where it is associated with such expressions as varð ek svá fegin at ek þόtumst varla vita vits síns Heilag. i. 489, þeir lágu sem daudir menn en vissu vits síns. . . . Vitandi vits is still used in Icelandic, in the sense ‘with one’s eyes open, knowing what one is about’.

Some editors take the line as conditionally modifying einn in line 1, e. g. Heusler…: ‘nur der Vielgereiste hat die Kenntnis der mennschlichen Sinnesart, sofern er nämlich vitandi er vits’. But, as E. Noreen… remarks, this is syntactically unbelievable: if the last line is relative, it must modify the immediately preceding gumna hverr, and so Noreen explains that not even the travelled and experienced connoisseur of human nature can comprehend those who have not got sense. But this alternative is also unsatisfactory: the meaning proposed is most implausible and, as Sijmons… observes, after the absolute gumna hverr one expects no limitation. The only escape from the dilemma is to turn the line into an independent sentence by expelling the second er and then render ‘He (i. e. the much-travelled man)  is a person of sense, knows what he is talking about’…



***Hávamál 19***


A translation as literal as possible


The drinker should not cling to the container

though he drinks the mead with measure,

he speaks usefully or keeps silence;

of your lack of interaction

no human blames you

at your early departure.


Prose explanation


Óðinn provides no precision about the environment in which his advice his given. As everyone else, we can drink while eating. Drinking takes however a religious meaning in two ceremonies. During a blót, a purely religious ceremony, where little is ingested by the participants and much given to the gods. During a sumbl, which can be religious or secular, people ingest large amounts of alcoholic drinks.

The precise meaning of this stanza depends of the context in which people drink. Its general meaning is clear:

The drinker should not cling to his glass but drink at his own measure. He can also stay silent or be talkative and (if he is silent)  nobody will be offended by his early leaving.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Haldi-t maðr á keri,           Holds not the human ‘atthe container

drekki þó at hófi mjöð,       he drinks though with measure the mead,

mæli þarft eða þegi,           he speaks usefully or keeps silence,

ókynnis þess                       non-interaction of yours

vár þik engi maðr              he blames you non the human

at þú gangir snemma at.    at you go early at.




19. Shun not the mead, | but drink in measure;

Speak to the point or be still;

For rudeness none | shall rightly blame thee

If soon thy bed thou seekest.


Commentary on the vocabulary


The word hóf has two different meanings. One is ‘moderation, measure, proportion’, its contrary óhóf (non-hóf)  means overindulgence. The other one means ‘banquet’. As shown by Evanscommentaries below, you see how much the first two lines puzzled the editors. Translating hóf by ‘at his/her own measureinstead of ‘with moderationenables to avoid all the disputes evoked by Evans. Nobody should cling to the drinking horn, and each one should drink to one’s own measure: a little sip for people sensitive to alcohol, a good gulp for most of us, a great gulp for these used to drinking.

The word ókynni (ó-kynni)  is the negation of kynni. This last word means ‘interaction, friendly visit, friendly behavior’. Bellows translates ókynni by “rudeness”, Dronke by “ill-manners”, Orchard by “bad behavior.” The guest’s rudeness implied these three translations ask for some kind of forgiveness from the other guests. My ‘lack of interactionis more neutral and will better fit in a religious context.


Comment on the meaning


In a secular environment, as in group of merry drinkers, nobody will need to cling to his glass or horn, except when he is no longer able to think clearly and not yet deadly drunk. In such a case, someone who leaves early is seriously shunned. I thus think that the secular meaning of s. 19 makes little sense.

If we turn to a religious ceremony such a blót, everything properly falls in place. During a blót where a horn goes from hand to hand, each one takes a sip and speaks to honor the god he/she addresses to and concludes by offering the horn content to the god. If a member of the ceremony feels unable to participate, i. e. unable to interact with the god(s)  honored during this blót, it is much better that he/she leaves early and nobody will be offended by this behavior. It may also happen that someone speaks a too long time while holding the horn – he clings to the horn. This is really bad manners. We shall see when studying stanza145: “Betra er óbeðit en sé ofblótit” (Better is not asked (or begged)  than overdone blót.” In s 19, Óðinn teaches us that keeping a too long time in hand the drinking horn and speaking at length is ‘overdoingthe blót.

In other words, whoever is silent, who participate out of curiosity ‘underdoesthe blot and should leave. Whoever shows off excessive devotion overdoes it.





1-2 The sense of these lines is much disputed. Many of the earlier editors printed haldi and rendered ‘A man may grasp the bowl, yet he should drink moderately’. But Codex Regius clearly reads haldit with the suffixed negative, and it is unsafe to emend, especially as haldi gives feeble sense to the first line. But what does haldit mean? Halda á e-u cannot mean ‘abstain from sth. ’, as numerous nineteenth- century editors believed. Cleasby-Vigfusson S. V. halda groups this passage with expressions like halda á sýslu, halda á ferð sinni, halda á hinni sömu bæn, where the verb means ‘to be busy about, stick to, persist in’, and renders ‘to go on drinking, carousing’, taking ker as figurative for drykkja… Finnur Jónsson objects that this would be a strange way to utter so simple a rule, and it is doubtful if halda á could have this meaning when followed by a concrete object … Magnús Olsen 4 compares an Icelandic pre-Reformation wedding-toast which begins Heilags anda skál skulum vér í einu af drekka, ok halda eigi lengi á and thinks the first line means ‘Don’t sit for a long time with your bowl in your hand, but drain it off at a gulp’. But this leaves far too much to be read into the text. It is much more likely that the scene implied in our poem is one of sveitardrykkja, where the bowl goes round from man to man; the idea would then be ‘Don’t hold on to the bowl (drinking greedily) , but pass it on to the next man’. This seems plainly the most natural way of taking the line in itself, but does it give a clear contrast to the next line? (and contrast there must be, as þó shows) . Not if at hófi implies ‘a moderate amount as opposed to a great deal’, but we would get reasonable sense if we can take it as suggesting ‘a moderate amount as opposed to nothing or next to nothing’. It certainly was regarded as bad conduct to drink too little; this was called drekka sleituliga or við sleitur.

3 This line is also found in Vafþr. 10.

5 vár is evidently from a verb vá ‘to blame’, only found here, though some insert it by emendation into st. 75…



***Hávamál 20***


A translation as literal as possible


The greedy or gluttonous man

except if he would be conscious of (his)  spirit

he ‘self-consumes(because)  of his difficult time (or his deadly sorrow) ;

he often brings laughter

(who with wise men comes)

the stomach for the foolish human.



Prose explanation


The greedy or gluttonous man, unless he is conscious of his spirit, consumes himself because of his difficult time. The stomach of the foolish human often brings laughter at one who joins wise persons.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Gráðugr halr,                    The greedy [or gluttonous] man

nema geðs viti,                   except (if of his)  spirits would be conscious

etr sér aldrtrega;                he eats [metaphoric meaning: he consumes] self for (his)  difficult                                        time ; [also: deadly sorrow]

oft fær hlægis,                    often brings laughter

er með horskum kemr        who with wise men comes

manni heimskum magi.     at the human (dative)  foolish (dative. )  the stomach (nominative) .




20. The greedy man, | if his mind be vague,

Will eat till sick he is;

The vulgar man, | when among the wise,

To scorn by his belly (dative)  is brought.


This transfer of the verb subject (nominative) , ‘stomach’, to a verb complement (here, dative) , ‘by his belly’ introduces the feeling that the ‘wise ones’ mock the current character because of his foolishness, while the text states that he is mocked because of his greediness.


Commentary on the vocabulary


The adjective gráðugr means greedy or, when associated to the belly, gluttonous. Bellows, Dronke and Orchard translate it by greedy, while Boyer chooses “goinfre” = gluttonous, pig. The use of the word nominative magi (stomach)  as last word of the stanza shows that the scald wanted to underline this possible meaning. See the comments below for details.

The expression geðs viti is understood here as: geðs is the genitive of geð = ‘mind, mood, spiritsand viti is the 3rd person of subjunctive of vita = ‘to wit, to be conscious’. It clearly means ‘to be conscious of one’s mindwhich echoes the vitandi er vits of s. 17. Again, the translators refuse to recognize an allusion to introspection or ‘meta thinkingintroduced in s. 17. Dronke and Boyer translate line 2 by: “unless he has good sense”, Orchard by “unless he curbs his bent.”

aldrtregi = aldr-tregi = long_lasting-sorrow (→ deadly sorrow)

magi = stomach, it is a technical word for a cow’s maw.


Comment on the meaning


Line 4 is ambiguous. We tend to understand that the wise ones are laughing at the foolish side of the character. Having fun at the expense of someone’s lack of wit seems to me more childish than wise. It may mean also that the greedy one, when meeting wise persons, feels ridiculous, he ‘laughs at himself’, i. e. similarly to s. 18, he becomes conscious of his own greediness. So to say, the wise ones’ mocking opens his inner eyes to his misconduct.

The words can be taken in their plain sense, and the stanza speaks of gluttonous people and their stomach is a part of their digestive tract. Alternately, the whole stanza is figurative and describes any kind of greediness, for material riches or for power. The absurdity of wise ones laughing at a physical feature, the belly, is here to point – for the geðs vitandi reader – at a figurative meaning.

Here is a translation where the metaphorical meanings are taken into account:

The greedy man

who is conscious of his turn of mind

starts hard times for himself;

The root of greediness often brings laughter,

when he is among wise men,

on the foolish man.

As a short lesson of this stanza: “blind greediness ruins the soul, blind gluttony ruins the body.”


We still need to understand why being aware of one’s greediness or gluttony prevents from being ridiculous. At first, note that a geðs vitandi person is not foolish, thus line 6 suggests that such a person will not be scorned by the wise ones. Greediness or gluttony underline two ways of life for people who wants always more than what they get. A non-foolish person will avoid letting himself driven by these two flaws and self-derision is a good technique to control them, as said by line 2.




3 aldrtrega ‘life-sorrowis taken … both here and in its only other occurrence … to mean ‘death’: the glutton eats himself to death. More probably it means ‘life-long misery…, perhaps here specifically ‘grave illness’ … compare OE ealdorcearu.



***Hávamál 21***


This stanza insist on the gluttonry/greed theme in an almost violent way by understating that who indulges in these behaviours is less respectable that cattle.


A translation as literal as possible


Herds know (when)

they should be near their home

and leave the pasture field,

but the non-wise human

never knows

the speech or measure of his stomach.


Prose explanation


Herds know when they need to leave pastureland and come back to their shed. A person slow of mind is unable to hear his stomach saying that it is full.



ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Hjarðir þat vitu               Herds that know

nær þær heim skulu         near their home should

ok ganga þá af grasi;      and go then off their pasture

en ósviðr maðr                but the non-wise human

kann ævagi                      knows never

síns of mál maga.                        of his ‘ofspeech/measure stomach





21. The herds know well | when home they shall fare,

And then from the grass they go;

But the foolish man | his belly’s measure

Shall never know aright.


Dronke: size, Orchard: measure, for mál.


Commentary on the vocabulary


In the expression mál maga, the word magi (stomach)  is in the genitive case. The word mál we know from the title of this poem, Háva-mál, has many different meanings. The first is ‘speech, language, tale, a suit (judicial action) , a case’. The second one is ‘measuretaken spatially or temporally. The third is a drawing in the sense of an inlaid ornament on a weapon, which is out of context here. All our translators give it as a measure: “the measure of the stomach.” The meaning ‘speechwould tend to suggest a metaphorical understanding as in ‘the speech of the stomach’.

Note in passing that Háva-mál means thus High’s Speech or High’s Measure. This last meaning is not absurd since Hávamál provides us with much advice on the way to assess, to measure our actions.


Comment on the meaning


It is obvious here that the stomach’s speech is not as expected as the one of our civilization: “I am empty,” it is: “I am too full!”

A plain meaning is obvious: “Non wise persons are less able than animals to listen their stomach.” As in s. 20, a metaphorical understanding is also possible: “Most animals are able to curb their greediness (because they can listen to their body)  while non-wise humans are unable to do so (because they are deaf to the speech of their body and of their mind: they always will be greedy beyond their needs) .” This is particularly true for social greediness such as power-craving.

Stanzas 20 and 21 are slightly redundant with one large difference. In s. 20, uncontrolled greediness is said to be ridiculous. In s. 21; it is said to lower a human being level of morality under the one of a beast.




On the question of whether this strophe owes something to a Biblical or a Latin source (as argued respectively by Singer …and Rolf Pipping …)  see p. 15 above. [Here, see below]

6 The máls of Codex Regius is defended … by Bugge …, but is plainly an error induced by the preceding síns.




Second Intermezzo: A discussion of the supposed Christian influences on Hávamál


(Extract of pages 12-18 of Evansintroduction)


[At the end of a long argumentation, Evans concludes]… If this is accepted, the Gnomic Poem must antedate 960 (note 6) .

This attribution of the poem to pagan times has led many scholars to value it highly as giving us an unadulterated view of ancient Nordic, or Germanic, life and values; as Hans Kuhn … (cp. e. g. Jón Helgason 1, 30 and Finnur Jónsson 3, 230 for similar sentiments) . This view of the poem as purely native and heathen has, however, been challenged sporadically, especially in recent years, by claims that some of the strophes betray Biblical or Classical influences, or can be paralleled by and therefore perhaps derive from medieval proverbs in the Continental vemaculars. Nore Hagman, for instance, brought together numerous supposed similarities with Ecclesiasticus as evidence that this Apocryphal text might have influenced Hávamál. But the examples adduced are fairly unimpressive, being only of a loose and general character, and are mostly not really saying the same thing at all: ‘Better is the life of a poor man under a shelter of logs than sumptuous fare in another man’s house(Eccles. 29. 22)  is quite different from ‘a home of one’s own, even a very modest one, is at any rate better than begging’, which is the gist of Hávamál 36, and yet this is probably the closest of Hagman’s parallels …


(note 6) . A similar antedating is implied by the view (von See 1)  that st. 17, 20 and 25 in Egill’s Sonatorrek (c. 960)  echo Hávamál 72, 22 and 15 respectively. (Von See can presumably only mean that these particular strophes antedate c. 960, since, as we saw, he does not believe that the Gnomic Poem ever existed as such. )  Magnus Olsen, Edda og Skaldekvad IV (Oslo 1962)  49, thought the use of orðsdir in Egill’s Höfùðlausn echoed Hávamál 76.


Again, Régis Boyer detected striking resemblances with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, al1 the more significant, he said, because such similarities are lacking for other books of Biblical wisdom such as Ecclesiasticus (Boyer 227)  [His PhD thesis, Lille, 1972 “Vie religieuse en Islande (1116-1264) ]; Hagman’s article is absent from his otherwise comprehensive bibliography. But here too the parallels are not at all close, as when Proverbs 27. 17 ‘Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friendis connected with st. 57, and sometimes they are not parallels at all, as when Proverbs 25. 21 ‘If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drinkis associated with st. 3-4. It is true that both Proverbs and the Gnomic Poem lay stress on the connection between foolishness and loquacity; but need this be more than a coincidence? After all, the Book of Proverbs contains over eight hundred stanzas, practically all of them gnomic remarks based on observation and experience of life in a materially simple society; it would surely be startling if chance resemblances with Our Gnomic Poem did not occur here and there.

Occasional derivation from Classical writers has also been alleged. Roland Köhne noted that in the De Amicitia Cicero speaks of a man’s ‘so mingling his mind with another’s as almost to make the two of them one(note 7)  and wondered if this might be the ultimate source of st. 44 with its geði … blanda, and Rolf Pipping suggested that st. 21 could descend from Seneca, who in one of his letters draws a similar moralizing contrast between beasts, who know when they have eaten enough, and men, who do not, and in another letter actually uses the phrasestomachi sui non nosse mensuramin censuring gluttony (though not, on this occasion, in contrast to the habits of the beasts) ; this answers closely to the kann ævagi síns um mál maga of our poem.

St. 21 had earlier been assigned to a Biblical origin by Samuel Singer, who referred to Isaiah 1. 3 and Jeremiah 8. 7, where men and beasts are compared, to the former’s disadvantage, though not in any comection with over-eating. In a section on early Germanic proverbial lore in his Sprichwörter des Mittelalters, Singer adduces parallels, from the Scriptures and from medieval Latin and vernacular sources, to fifteen strophes, or portions of strophes, in Our Gnomic Poem and assumes a genetic connection (though in three of the fifteen instances he thinks Norse culture may be the donor rather than the recipient)  (note 8) .

(note 7) . Köhne 1, 129. Cicero’s remark, in De Amicia 81, runs quanto id magis in homine fit natura, qui et se ipse diligit et alterum anquirit, cuius animum ita cum suo misceat, ut efficiat paene unum ex duobus’.


(note 8) . Some of Singer’s instances are noted in the Commentary. For a recent approach doing somewhat similar lines see Köhne 2, who adduces a number of Middle High German parallels which reflect, he maintains, influence on Hávamál from medieval German proverb poetry and popular wisdom.

[Later, Evans, speaking of s. 81, adds the following.]

The emphasis on the untrustworthiness of things has been taken by von See as a Christian theme, ‘die Unsicherheit alles Irdischen(4, 99) , thus linking Hávamál yet again with the learned-Biblical tradition of the Middle Ages. (13)  But mutability becomes a Christian theme only when it is brought into contrast with the security and permanence of Heaven; von See has achieved this contrast by inserting the word Irdischen, but there is no warrant for this in the text of the poem. It is going rather far to claim that a piece of advice like ‘Don’t praise ale until you have drunk it(81)  implants the Christian moral of the transience and unreliability of this poor fleeting life! (This very strophe, as a matter of fact, contains a pagan allusion in what is manifestly a reference to cremation. )  As in the Gnomic Poem, the scene implied is Norwegian, or at any rate non-Icelandic: besides the cremation, note the wolf (85) , the snake, the bear and the king (86) , and the reindeer (90) .



***Hávamál 22***


A translation as literal as possible


A person much missing

and who badly shaped (his life)

always laughs at something;

he does not hit on the idea

(he needs to know it)

that he is not lacking of flaws.


Prose explanation


A person who lacks of everything and had little success in his life will laugh at everything. Though he does need to become conscious of them, he is unable to be conscious of his own flaws.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Vesall maðr                       The ‘deprived -ofhuman

ok illa skapi                       and badly has shaped

hlær at hvívetna;                laughs at ‘something-always

hittki hann veit,                  hits-non he knows

er hann vita þyrfti              is he (to)  know the need

at hann er-a vamma vanr.             to him is-not blemish lacking.




22. A paltry man | and poor of mind

At all things ever mocks;

For never he knows, | what he ought to know,

That he is not free from faults.



Commentaries on the vocabulary and the meaning


Note at first that the person criticized in this stanza is not non-wise or foolish as usual. He ‘in a state of lackingand he is unable to act properly (he ‘illa skapi= he ill shapes) .

What ‘lack-ofis hinted at here? Since he is unable to perform what he wants to do in his life, I have the feeling that this ‘lack-ofdescribes a person who always fails to achieve his goals. This is similar to the greedy one who always wants more and therefore “consumes himself in a deadly sorrow,” except that in s. 22, Óðinn seems to observe some kind of impotence. The last line suggests again that being conscious of our own state of mind is a solution to our failures.

The verb hitta means ‘to hitor ‘to biteas an intellectual metaphor in which you ‘hit on an ideaand you ‘bite the bullet’.

The word vamm means ‘flawand ‘blemish’. The last choice seems to me a better rendering of the skald’s point of view.


Commentaries the meaning


In stanza 20 and several others, Óðinn criticizes people that lack spirit or intelligence. Here, one who ‘lacks of(vesall)  lacks of everything, spirit and wealth.

This lacking person misses his goals and seems to be unconcerned by everything. This kind of unconcerned persons may be funny but their behavior may hide deep flaws.




1 Vesall has been attacked on two grounds:

(1)  allegedly, it fails to alliterate. This raises the question whether v can alliterate with a vowel; Gering thought it could, and adduced 17 examples from the Edda, as well as a few from scaldic stanza. . . The view that v can alliterate with a vowel was defended by … [some]. It was attacked by. . . [others].

(2)  on grounds of sense. This is a more cogent attack, for vesall means ‘wretched, miserable’, which does not fit. … suggested emending to ósnotr (though apparently only on grounds of alliteration)  … advocated ósviðr, as in the preceding and following strophes, … objecting that this failed to explain the intrusion of vesall, suggested the initial lines of st. 22 and 23 had been reversed; this would certainly give a more pointed meaning to 23

2 illa is an adv. ; Finnur Jónsson explains the phrase as elliptical for illa skapi farinn, for which cp. Haraðr saga ok Hólmverja ch. 24: mikill maðr ok sterkr ok illa skapi farinn, ójafnaðarmaðr um alla hluti



***Hávamál 23***


A translation as literal as possible


A non wise human

stays awake the whole night

and thinks of anything;

thus he is moody and tired

who finds in the morning

(that)  all (his)  misery is the same as it was.


Prose explanation


It is unwise to stay awake during the night, brooding over many ideas. Who does it wakes up tired and in a bad mood. His woe is just as it was.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Ósviðr maðr                      Non-wise human

vakir um allar nætr            stays awake ‘aroundthe whole night

ok hyggr at hvívetna;         and thinks of [as in v. 22 hví-vetna] ‘something-always’ ;

þá er móðr                                    thus he is moody [or tired]

er at morgni kemr,             who in the morning comes

allt er víl sem var.              all what is (his)  misery same was.




23. The witless man | is awake all night,

Thinking of many things;

Care-worn he is | when the morning comes,

And his woe is just as it was.


Commentary on the vocabulary


Adjective ó-sviðr means non-wise. Bellows translates it by ‘witless’, Dronke by ‘unintelligent’, Boyer by ‘fool’. Orchard gives its proper meaning: ‘unwise’.

In s. 22 we already met hvívetna = hví-vetna with the meaning of ‘anything at all’.

The adjective móðr has a meaning similar to the one of ‘moody’.

The noun víl means ‘misery, disheartening’.


Comment on the meaning


A non-wise person is not always “unintelligent,” and I never observed that stupidity would induce insomnia, quite the contrary, by the way. Anxious insomnia is certainly not reserved to unwise persons only. In reading this stanza, we all recognize some of our own nights and we tend to react mildly to this lack of wisdom, we tend to smile about it. In the other stanzas, however, non-wise behavior is always quite severely reckoned. This discrepancy deserves some comments.

Our civilization leads us to normalize this slightly hysterical behavior while a truly wise ancient Scandinavian knew how to control it. In the Northern Germanic civilization, we know that action and destiny are the master features of what defines a human being. Remember that Völuspá describes the still lifeless forms of Ask and Embla as being lítt megandi and ørlöglausa, i. e. little able-to-actanddestiny-less’. This means that whoever is unable to act is not yet really a human being. Since, during the night, we are supposed to take rest to be able to act the day following, the most elementary wisdom consists in resting during night without wasting our strength at being aimlessly worried.

We must also underline that the non-wise behavior is defined by “thinking of anything.” This is not analyzing problems with a cool head during the quiet of night. That kind of analysis can help us to better acting the following day, and that is wise. Óðinn does not condemn any form of nightly thinking, he only does useless worrying that leaves us exhausted the following day.


From the mundane point of view, this stanza means that the wise one is able of having good sleep, filled with dreams which bring him/her rest and good mood. This calm sleep is at the same time a goal and a challenge for all the non-wise ones we became in our civilization of non-stop unsettled individuals.

From the spiritual point of view, this stanza means that a wizard acts during the night and takes opportunity of the prevailing overall quietness and of his/her own unperturbed mood in order to carry on his work, such as healing his clients or affecting his opponents’ minds.



***Hávamál 24***


A translation as literal as possible


A non-wise human

believes each who is with him

laughing to be (his)  friend.

He does not find (how)  to understand

their thought (i. e. , that)  they speak badly of him

when he sits with wise ones.


Prose explanation


The unwise one believes that everyone who laughs with him is his friend. He is unable to catch the idea that wise ones, when he is sitting among them, speak badly of him.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Ósnotr maðr                                  A non-wise human

hyggr sér alla vera                        believes ‘for him/herall to be

viðhlæjendr vini.                            with-laughing as friend.

Hittki hann fiðr,                             He hits not [as in 22: he is unable to understand] he finds

þótt þeir um hann fár lesi,             thought theirs of him badly they speak

ef hann með snotrum sitr.              if he with wise ones he sits.




24. The foolish man | for friends all those

Who laugh at him will hold;

When among the wise | he marks it not

Though hatred of him they speak.


Commentary on the vocabulary


Once again, this stanza uses the word ó-snotr in order to speak of theun-wiseones. I am careful in keeping this meaning when it is used several times in nearby stanzas. Translating ósnotr by a variety of similar words leads the reader to believe that several different flaws are described.

Note the opposition between an unwise one ósnotr, in the first line and the wise ones, nostrum, in the dative plural case, in the last line. Not only he is mistaken about his true friends but the wise ones despise him.

As underlined by Evans, the word fár is mainly used in the religious texts. Next stanza commentaries will explain meanings, and the relation between them, of and fár.


Comment on the meaning


The meaning of each half stanza is obvious. They however do not seem to fit together while the couple ósnotr/nostrum underlines some kind of coherency. It will be really simpler for me to explain their deep coherency by using http: //www. nordic-life. org/nmh/OnTheContracts.htm, on the meaning and conditions of friendship in the Indo-European civilization.

Looking a bit forward, we shall see that s. 30, 31, 32 will deal with several degrees of harshness in a joke. The general idea which is hinted at in all these stanzas is that it is easy to join a crowd of strangers and to joke with them. It is almost impossible for an unwise person to catch the threshold between good and nasty humor.





5 fár ‘mischief, malice’ ; lesa fár um e-n evidently means ‘speak ill of someone, utter malicious slanders about someone’… þat kann enn verda, at maðr vemk á þat, at lesa of aðra ok hafa uppi löstu manna, and note umlestr ‘slander’, umlassamr ‘slanderous’, umlesandi, umlesmadr, umlestrarmaðr ‘slanderer’ ; it is interesting that these words are found only in religious texts. The sentiments of this and st. 25 can be paralleled in a number of Continental proverbs (though none of them restrict their application to the unwise man) …



***Hávamál 25***


A translation as literal as possible


[As in 24] A non-wise human

believes each who is with him

laughing to be (his)  friend.

When he finds that,

(as)  he arrives in the thing,

few (people)  as spokesmen for him


Prose explanation


[As in 24] The unwise one believes that everyone who laughs with him are his friends.

He becomes conscious that he has very few friends when he goes to the Thing.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Ósnotr maðr                                  (see 24)

hyggr sér alla vera

viðhlæjendr vini;

þá þat finnr                                    ‘whenthat he finds

er at þingi kemr,                            (when)  to the thing he goes

at hann á formælendr fáa.                        for him as spokesmen few.



25. The foolish man | for friends all those

Who laugh at him will hold;

But the truth when he comes | to the council he learns,

That few in his favor will speak.

[Bellowsfootnote] 25. The first two lines are abbreviated in the manuscript, but are doubtless identical with the first two lines of stanza 24.


Commentary on the vocabulary


We translate here fáa by ‘fewand in a very different way in 33. We shall meet quite often a word beginning with fá- and its various translations may be puzzling for the reader. Here are a few explanations about these words.

In this stanza, fáa stands for ‘fewbut ON uses the root - in many ways.

The verb is very irregular and we meet it under several guises. It means ‘to find, to obtainbut another form is also found, coming from the verb fága and meaning ‘to paint, to draw’. For instance, fá rúnar means ‘to draw runesrather than ‘to obtain runes’, though the two meanings do not contradict each other.

Prefix fá-* is often used in order to add the meaning of ‘little-of-*to a word. For instance, fá-vitr means ‘little wise’, i. e. , ‘unwise’.

Substantive fár, we met in the last stanza, s. 24, means ‘bad, badness, threat, plague’. This is a regular neuter word the declension of which does not show the form fáa.

Adjective fár means ‘few’. It is also irregular but we shall meet here only the regular cases: fáa for its singular masculine accusative, and later, in s. 33 its singular neuter dative fáu.


Comment on the meaning


The prosaic meaning of s. 24 and 25 is quite clear: An unwise person is impressed by shallow signs of friendship with the result that the wise ones speak badly of him and they will not back him at the Thing.

I find it striking that the poem underlines twice the obvious, that is, a wise one is able to spot his true friends and the non-wise one is unable to do so. This repetition, as it is, hints at a kind of paranoid fear of treachery in the ancient Northern civilization. In order to better understand why there is nothing paranoid here, see http: //www. nordic-life. org/nmh/OnTheContracts.htm. My argument relies on Dumézil’s ideas on Indo-European contracts, as explained in his Mitra-Varuna (first published in 1940 and revised in 1948) .





5 er at þingi kømr - most editors understand hann as the implied subject, but the verb may conceivably be impersonal, as in er at morni kømr



***Hávamál 26***


A translation as literal as possible


An unwise person

thinks himself as all-knowing

if he owns a wretched shelter.

He does not know to hit (on the idea)

what to say to others

if people try him.


Prose explanation


A non-wise person thinks oneself to be all-knowing as soon as he owns a (any kind of)  wretched shelter; he knows not (how)  to understand what to say when people try him (that is: he is unable to understand what to answer to someone who is trying him) .


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Ósnotr maðr                      A non-wise human

þykkisk allt vita,                 thinks himself all to know

ef hann á sér í vá veru;      if he to self in a wretched shelter;

hittki hann veit,                  non-hits [as in 22 and 24 = does not understand] he knows

hvat hann skal við kveða, what he shall ‘withsay

ef hans freista firar.           If him (to)  try [or to tempt] people [nom. plur. = subject of freista].




26. An ignorant man | thinks that all he knows,

When he sits by himself in a corner;

But never what answer | to make he knows,

When others with questions come.


Commentary on the vocabulary


Evans comments clearly illustrate that veru (dative of vera = shelter)  and created a large debate among scholars.

Evans says that vera should be also translated by ‘shelterin stanza 10, which I refused to do, see stanza 10 comments. Inversely, here in stanza 26, the meaning ‘they areis impossible. Besides, í veru means ‘in a shelter’, which is in perfect accordance with the context.

What about , then? As you will see Evans and other scholars managed to invent for this case the meaning: ‘nook, corner[that should be then a nominative (a subject)  to what verb?]. Let us note that the word vá-brestr (m. à m. woe-accident)  means an ‘unexpected strange noiseby adding together two words hinting at a mishap. After all, the poetsjob is to show genius in handling words, no? Why then the poet could not create a new word associating ‘shelterand ‘woein order to ‘builda linguistic wretched shelter? There is also a variation of as being a prefix with the same meaning as var-. In that case, the vera (shelter)  is said to be a var-vera, which is ‘scarcely a shelter’. ‘Scarcelyor ‘wretched’, both meanings lead to the same understanding. As a conclusion, I see no need for inventing an otherwise unknown meaning of , as Evans suggests.


Comment on the meaning


This stanza and the next one belong to a group that stresses the idea that being together with other humans is necessary to express one’s wisdom or humaneness.

Stanza 26 underlines the non-wise one conceit as soon as he holds possession on any small thing. Stanza 17 already hinted at a ‘denseone who shows his true mind when a bit drunk. We shall see that 27 will clearly state that a non-wise one has better to stay silent. Finally, this tread of thought will blossom in stanza 57 where human speech is viewed as a feature primary to the definition of ‘what a human person is’.

Stanza 26 seems to purely treat of prosaic social relationship. People who cannot but utter silly words are obviously tiring and lower their social status. At least when non-friends are present, it is necessary to keep careful and avoid awkward jokes: such a lowering of your defenses is not very wise.

In this very case, I can illustrate this stanza by one of my weaknesses: I am unable to resist the urge of uttering a wretched joke, and do I pay for it! This certainly means that I am not (yet?)  really a wise one, that is to say, in Hávamál context, I am not a powerful wizard … which is certainly true.





3 vera ‘refuge, resort’, as in 10 above. may well be the common word ‘woe, calamity(as recently argued by von See…) . But Sigsk. 29 has: at kváðu við kálkar í vá, where ‘woeis clearly impossible, and from which scholars have deduced the existence of a noun of this form meaning ‘nook, corner’, either as a mere textual corruption of vrá (Bugge… who thinks the word may have baffled the scribe after the loss of ‘vbefore ‘rin West Norse)  … The rendering ‘cornergives better sense here than ‘woeand should be adopted.



***Hávamál 27***


A translation as literal as possible


An unwise person

who meets other ones

has better to stay silent.

None will know

that he is hopeless

unless he speaks too much.


This person does not know,

he who knows nothing,

though he speaks a lot.


Prose explanation


When he meets other people, an unwise person has better to close his mouth. Nobody will be aware of his deficiency unless he himself makes its known by his own chattering.

Three last lines,

      usual understanding: Who knows nothing does not even know that he speak too much.

      another possible understanding [the one I favor]: Even if he speaks a lot, he does not even know that he knows nothing.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Ósnotr maðr                                  A non-wise human

er með aldir kemr,                         who with others comes

þat er bazt, at hann þegi;               that is best, for him to stay silent;

engi þat veit,                                  none who knows

at hann ekki kann,                         at him non can [that he can nothing]

nema hann mæli til margt;            except he (that he)  speaks very much;


veit-a maðr                                    knows-non a human

hinn er vettki veit,                          he who nothing knows

þótt hann mæli til margt.               In spite of that he speaks very much.




27. A witless man, | when he meets with men,

Had best in silence abide;

For no one shall find | that nothing he knows,

If his mouth is not open too much.

(But a man knows not, | if nothing he knows,

When his mouth has been open too much. )

[Bellowscomment 27. The last two lines were probably added as a commentary on lines 3 and 4.]


Several translations of the last six lines


Orchard: no one will know that he isn’t smart / unless he’s talking too much; / but the man who knows nothing doesn’t know / just when he’s talking too much.

Dronke: Nobody knows / that he has no knowledge, / unless he talks too much. / A man who knows nothing / does not know / even that he is talking too much.

Boyer: No one will know / that he is incapable of anything / Unless he speaks too much; It is unknown / that he knows nothing / if he avoids speaking too much.


As you see, Bellows, Dronke and Orchard chose the ‘usual understandingof the last three lines. Boyer simply uses other words to repeat lines 4-6.


Commentary on the vocabulary


The verb mæla meansto speak, to stipulate’. It can then hint at a somewhat emphatic speech. In the old texts, it is seldom used to designate the uttering of magical words.


Comment on the meaning


Everyone agrees that this stanza explains that an unwise (or ignorant)  person reveals him/herself by speaking too much. It adds to 26, in its second triplet, that he ignores he is unable of properly acting, and in its last triplet that he ignores he knows nothing. This looks like an apology in favor of silence. My understanding makes again use of the links between a contract, wisdom and friendship and I would rather suggest that the unwise one – who lacks friends as explained inhttp: //www. nordic-life. org/nmh/OnTheContracts.htm – cannot freely express himself, he has better to listen to what the ‘wise onessay in order to see where and how he can join a group of vinir who will support him.

Boyer’s version of the last three lines differs from the other versions. Boyer paraphrases lines 4-5-6 whereas English translations bring up this additional information that an ignorant person is unaware of that he/she speaks too much. This information, available in the literal translation, shows that the last three lines strongly assert that this ignoramus knows really nothing, not even that he does not know anything.

This leads me to the following three remarks.

Firstly, the fact that 27 contains or not three redundant lines is significant because I noticed that each time Hávamál seems incoherent or, as here, simply redundant, this hides a wink in direction of the magic aspects of life. We agree all on the fact that 27 seems to be rather trite and, without these last three lines, its magic aspect would be undetectable.

Secondly, if we choose to understand these last three lines as I suggest, by "Even if he speaks a lot, he does not know that he does not know anything", then the bond with introspection becomes obvious. In this case, 27 is related to 18 which declares that the magicians have a ‘form of spirit’ such as they are vitandi er vits, their spirit is conscious of itself. This comment leads to the awareness of a link with s. 18, i. e. with introspection.

Thirdly, s 27 applies to a non-wise person. Especially in view of 18, we can suppose that it describes the ‘non behavior’ of a wise person. This non-wise person is unable to realize that his excessive speech is nothing but the one of a super parrot that can utter a limited number of sentences. These sentences are more or less out of tune since life brings us in an infinite variety of contexts that must be described by an infinite number of ideas. The wise one is not submitted to such a limitation and his/her sentences will always be perfectly adapted to the current context.


As a side remark, all this is not “pure speculation” as specialists say so often. Instead of treating Hávamál as a set of disconnected stanzas, I use here the links between various stanzas to build up my argument.



 **************************************** ????????????????????

The last three lines hammer home the idea that an unwise one knows nothing, including that he knows nothing.

This leads me to three remarks.

Firstly, I insist on the redundancy existing in Boyer’s translation because I feel as very important to be careful when Hávamál seems to be inconsistent or, as happens here, simply redundant. I always find that these ‘mistakeshide a wink to the magical aspects of life. We all agree that 27 looks being prosaic to the extreme and without these three last commentary lines, the allusion to 18 (that is to introspection)  would be impossible to see.

Secondly, if we choose my preferred understanding to these three lines: “Even if he speaks a lot, he does not even know that he knows nothing” then it becomes obvious that they allude to a kind of introspection. It follows that 27 is linked to 18, which claims that a wizard owns such a spirit that he/she is “vitandi er vits,” that is, conscious of his/her own conscience.

Thirdly, remember that mæla might mean, even if seldom, that magical words are said. Let us then think of another place where an unwise one utters inappropriate words: Remember Egill’s stanzas at the end of chap. 73 of Egils saga, they begin with: “Skalat maðr rúnar rísta, / nema ráða vel kunni, / þat verðr mörgum manni, / es of myrkvan staf villisk;” “The man will not carve runes / unless he can well rule them, / that will many persons, / who of the dark letters self-drive astray.” We all know that the person who was made ill by these runes is a young lady who attracted the unwanted attention of an apprentice wizard: Note however that the one who cannot properly rule (ráða)  his/her words leads him/herself astray. Is this not exactly what is explained by seemingly innocuous stanza 27?

Speech can be mundane or magic; in both cases it reveals the speaker’s strength or weakness.




maðr is a necessary insertion in 1. On the supposed Biblical origin of the exposure of folly by loquacity see p. 15. [Given here with stanza 21]

de Boor 373 plausibly suggests that lines 4-6 and 7-9 are interchangeabletradition-variants’.



***Hávamál 28***


A translation as literal as possible


He think himself well knowing

who can ask questions

and answer, or both together;

nothing to hide

they can, the sons of men,

because the people gets it all.


Prose explanation


Whoever has got the power to both ask and answer the questions believes himself to be full of knowledge. The truth, however, is known by the people because the one who has got this power is unable to hide something to the ‘sons of men’.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Fróðr sá þykkisk,               Learned so self-think

er fregna kann                   who ask questions can

ok segja it sama,                and speak it together ;

eyvitu leyna                        nothing [or lack of wit] hide

megu ýta synir,                  they can of men the sons

því er gengr um guma.      because that it goes among humans.




28. Wise shall he seem | who well can question,

And also answer well;

Nought is concealed | that men may say

Among the sons of men.


Commentary on the vocabulary


The verb segja main meaning is ‘to say, declare, tell’, it never implies answering an interlocutor’s question. In the context of a dialogue, it is however often translated by ‘to answer’. Here, there is an implicit dialogue (or a monologue of the non-wise one)  and a translation by to answer is possible if not necessary. Inversely, in stanza 63 we meet a case where it is absolutely necessary to preserve ‘to say’.

The word eyvit is here in the dative case because the hidden thing (leyna = to hide) , that is the complement of verb leyna, is seen as a dative in ON. This word indeed meansnothing’, but its primary meaning, ey-vit isnon-spirit’. In this stanza context, it seems to me that the primary meaning is more significant than the new one. Stanza 28 speaks of a person who believes to be fróðr, well-knowing, and who ignores he is actually ey-vit, ‘spirit-less’.


Comment on the meaning


As shown by Evanscommentary, some believe that the two halves of the stanza do not fit together. He also underlines the similarity between 28 and 63, both of which speak of someone who can “fragna ok segja (ask and say) ”. The meanings of these two stanzas really oppose each other. The three first lines of 28 are obviously ironical since the person described “believes himself” to be wise, and does sama, together, questions and answers. We all understand why he fails to hide his mind emptiness. The stanza is thus perfectly coherent as a whole, as opposed to Evansclaim. Stanza 63, which is coherent in the same way, describes the opposite case: a true wise one knows how to ask (to his masters)  and answer (to his pupils)  and he does not call himself wise, he (“vill heitinn horskr”)  will be called a wise one (by other people) .

I see here a way to say that people who are powerful enough to be deaf to the others (since they can do also the answers)  cannot hide what they really are (witless persons)  to the people.

It is funny to see Óðinn criticizing those who can impose their speeches on the people (nowadays: politicians and medias) . He says: “you believe yourselves very important while everyone is aware of your pettiness.”


A first comment on fregna ok segja sama (the 2nd is in s. 63)


The two stanzas 28 and 63 use the expression regna ok segja which means ‘to question and say’ but the present stanza adds sama in 28, which leads to the understanding “to pronounce both the questions and the answers”. We thus will understand that the three first lines of s. 28 are ironical since who say the questions and the answers are ridiculous. Conversely, the three first lines 63 are laudatory, the subject is able to ask to someone and to express an opinion (perhaps with another one)  in the form of a discussion that enriches the knowledge of both.

In these two stanzas, the last 3 lines describe the social position of the subject of each stanza. In 28, he is mocked as it should be while, in 63, he is seen as handling a significant but dangerous position.





6 gengr um - either ‘befalls’, as in 94, or ‘is said about’… ganga um 4 and ganga 19. Whichever view is taken, the connection between the two halves of the strophe is obscure; the ‘explanationsof Heusler… and von See… are somewhat obscure in themselves. It may well be, as many editors have thought, that the two halves did not originally belong together, though it is certainly curious that, as von See points out, what appears to be the same combination of notions also occurs in 63 (whose two halves Heusler…, interestingly enough, sought to sever) .



***Hávamál 29***


A translation as literal as possible


He speaks enough

who is never silent

with absurd written letter, or carved runes, or staffs;

A tongue (which is)  quick to speak

(which)  cannot hold back (its speech)  

often hurts itself (when)  it sings (or shouts, or caws, or sings spells) .


Prose explanation


The person who speaks enough (= too much)  by his absurd writings or by misplaced carved runes has chattering tongue which often harms itself when it sings (or shouts, or caws, or sings spells) .


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Ærna mælir,                    Enough he speaks

sá er æva þegir,               who never is silent

staðlausu stafi;                  (‘of’)  nonsense (with)  staff or written letters; [runes are often                                                 written on a staff]

hraðmælt tunga,              quick to speak tongue,

nema haldendur eigi,      take holding not

oft sér ógótt of gelr.         Oft self no-good shouts or sings or caws or sings a spell.




29. Often he speaks | who never is still

With words that win no faith;

The babbling tongue, | if a bridle it find not,

Oft for itself sings ill.


Dronke translates the third line, staðlausu stafi, by “unfounded statements,” Orchard by “in nonsensical speech” and Boyer by “nonsense.” I understand it as “badly put runic spells,” which is not basically different, though it is more precise.


Commentary on the vocabulary


The word staðlausa = stað-lausa = ‘place-without’, is generally understood as ‘absurdity’, and line 3, staðlausu stafi, is always understood as ‘absurd speech’.

For the noun stafr and how it is carefully not translated in classical translations, see stanza 8. Let us recall what is needed for this stanza. It is here in its dative form, stafi, and it is quite polysemic: ‘staff, stake, written or carved letters (to speak of runes) ’, ‘knowledge, wisdom’, ‘letters of the Latin alphabet’. As you can see, none of these meanings look very much like a ‘wordor a ‘speechas it is usually rendered. The meaning ‘absurd speechis not impossible in everyday language but in Óðinn’s way of speech, it should rendered by ‘absurd or misplaced runes’. As already recalled in stanza 27, Egill’s saga provides an example of such runes carved by an apprentice wizard who obtains no more than sickening the maid he is lusting after.

The verb gala regularly makes gelr in the 3rd person singular of the present indicative and meansto crow’ but also, metaphorically, ‘to sing a spell, to utter an incantation’ (in C-V) . Lexicon Poëticum (shortened in Lex. Poet. in the following)  gives more details than C-V. In addition to the many magic uses that it provides, it gives the meanings: “canare (to sing, to crow, to ring) , garire (to chirp, to chatter) , ululare (to howl as a wolf) , clangere (to shout as a bird, to sound like a trumpet) .” This review ends with de Vries who gives: “singen (to sing) , schreien (to shout) ; zauberformeln hersagen (to utter formulas of witchcraft) .” For the etymology of gala, he sends back to gjalla and galdr in its special meaning ofmagic song’. He stresses that the proper etymological meaning of the word group associated to gjalla is notto be noisy, to shout’, but the one ofreligious song’ and, still further in the past oflight, glare’. It is thus clear that the meaning ofto shout, to shriek’ that I propose to add to the other meanings of gala is possible in spite of C-V’s presentation. In fact, I make a point of adding the meaning to shriek’ because a magic incantation can be eithermumbled, hummed’ or ‘shouted, shrieked’ and gala can perfectly include these two behaviors.

In stanza 156, we shall meet an example of using gala where the context asks for understanding it asto shriek’. In this stanza, Óðinn states “ek gel und randir (I ‘galaunder the shields) ” and the ‘chantin this case can hardly be uttered in another way than shrieking.

We will often meet this verb in the following and I will then recall its meaning, while referring to the present stanza for details.



Comment on the meaning


The commentatorspreferred meaning avoids any allusion to the teaching of galdr. It however leads them to see here nothing but a paraphrase of 27 and other stanzas that advise silence. This rejection of a magical interpretation makes Hávamál duller since it seems to repeat several times the same slightly insignificant statement.


Coming back to the text itself, note that if the words of the three first lines are given their usual meaning, we get a meaningless statement: “Who cannot keep silent expresses himself enough by written letters.” This hints at a hidden meaning we can obtain a more spiritual meaning as follows.

The first three lines criticize who “express themselves” too often by using runes. Runes are a magical mean of expression and its use must stay restrained and thoughtful. This excludes ostentatiously dealing with them.

The last three lines clearly refer to galdr, a magical singing or yelling of incantations (gala) . The ‘tonguethat is unable to use galdr with parsimony in order to invoke the spirits will destroy itself. This good advice foretells of stanza 145: “betra er ósent / en sé ofsóit: better if he/she does ‘sendat all than he over uses (magic) .” Both stanzas claim than magical powers must not be overused.





3 staðlausu is generally taken as a defining gen. sg. of a noun staðlausa ‘baselessness, senselessness’, though the possibility that it is weak acc. pl. of an adj. staðlauss cannot be excluded. The noun does not occur elsewhere (though staðleysi is found) ; staðlauss is found once, rendering Latin pavidus ‘fearful’. Stafi ‘words’, cp. sagði sunna stafi Sigrdr. 14.

5 haldendr may be either nom. subject or acc. object of eigi.



***Hávamál 30***


I believe that the various commentators of stanzas 30-31-32 somewhat confused the ideas they express. I ll try now to show that these stanzas deal with quite different topics.

xxxx cite fleeting contests


A translation as literal as possible


In the twinkle of an eye

no one shall act with another,

even though he is visiting a friend;

He believes himself very knowledgeable

if nothing is asked to him

and he is allowed to loiter, (keeping his)  skin dry.


Prose explanation

Three third lines:

Even when being with (backed by)  a friend, or an acquaintance, or family, do not deal with another one too fast, or with too much connivance.

Three last lines:

Do not annoy, leave quiet and ask nothing to someone who believes himself (or knows himself for being)  knowledgeable and clever.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



At augabragði                               In the twinkle of an eye

skal-a maðr annan hafa,               shall-not a man toward another act,

þótt til kynnis komi;                       even though towards a known one he comes;

margr þá fróðr þykkisk,                 much who well-knowing self-think,

ef hann freginn er-at                      if he asked he is not

ok nái hann þurrfjallr þruma.       and is allowed he dry-skin to loiter.




30. In mockery no one | a man shall hold,

Although he fare to the feast;

Wise seems one oft, | if nought he is asked,

And safely he sits dry-skinned.


Commentary on the vocabulary


Line 1: augabragð = wink of an eye. Since it is here in the dative case, it can mean ‘in/by/witha wink. C-V states that at augabragði means ‘to ridiculeand uses the example of this stanza, which is far from obvious. In stanza 5, the context does imply an ironical wink, while in stanza 68, fortune can leave you in the wink of an eye, and speed is implied. Irony is explicit in 31 and dispute in 32. It would be redundant to have these themes broached in 30. Another point is that it is used under the form: ‘hafa at augabragðiwhere hafa at means ‘to act’. In 30, the two implicit meanings that are left are: acting rapidly, or acting in connivance. These two meanings are well-illustrated in the Saga of the Sworn Brothers (Fóstbræðra Saga) . Chapter 11 describes how that the saga hero and Katla’s daughter are attracted to each other by Hún hefir og nokkuð augabragð á honum og verður henni hann vel að skapi.” meaning: “She would sometimes glance at him and he pleased her,” which expresses some connivance between them. In chapter 11, the hero sees a thief going away in thewink of an eye’, obviously expressing speed.

Line 4: fróðr. Note that stanza 30 (as will 31 and 32)  no longer speaks of a snotr (wise)  person, but of a fróðr (well-knowing)  one. This person þykkisk (thinks him/herself)  knowledgeable which is easier to check than being wise or not. We already met þykkisk in stanza 28 where the context drove us to see irony in this self-judgment. In 30. 4 and even more so in 31. 1, irony is not so obvious. Without changing the meaning of the stanza, we may understand þykkisk as meaning: ‘he/she behaves as a knowledgeable person, be it deserved or not’.

Line 6: þruma = to mope, to loiter.

Line 6: keeping dry one’s skin’. To loiter does not hint at fear, which might perhaps make you sweat, it hints at slowly moving, which actually prevents you from sweating. The last line thus alludes to someone who keeps quiet: the guest must not be bothered, he staysdry-skinnedas rendered by Bellows, he/she does not get involved.


Comment on the meaning


Stanza 30 describes a scene relating two friends. One of these two characters should not show irony to the other one. They could join their strength in order to harm a third non-friend character. The second half states that this option is not a good one, they should leave him quiet. This understanding insures the coherence of the stanza, in opposition to Evans’ statement that “the two halves fit poorly together.”

The second half states also that when the third character is knowledgeable (who is or believes to be a wizard)  it even best to avoid starting a fight with him.




The two halves fit poorly together.

3 þótt is virtually ‘when’.

5-6 For the co-ordination of two conditional clauses, where the first has ef with indicative and the second has subjunctive without ef, cp. ef þú kannt meb at fara, ok bregðir þú hvergi af Njáls saga ch. 7 … and numerous other instances in Nygaðrd…

6 þurrfjallr ‘with dry skin’, i. e. in dry clothes.



***Hávamál 31***


A translation as literal as possible


He thinks himself very knowledgeable

who runs away

when a guest scoffs at a guest;

he does not quite know

who grins during the meal

though he chatters with monsters.


Prose explanation


He who believes (or knows)  that he is very learned will go away when the guests scornfully make fun at each other. He who smiles a lot (he takes part in the fun among guests)  does not really knows (what is at stake)  while he chatters with monsters.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Fróðr þykkisk,                               Very knowledgeable he self-thinks

sá er flótta tekr,                             the one who flight takes,

gestr at gest hæðinn;                     the guest at guest scoffed;

veit-a görla                                    he does not know quite

sá er of verði glissir,                      the one who at meal grins

þótt hann með grömum glami.      though he with monsters chatters.




31. Wise a guest holds it | to take to his heels,

When mock of another he makes;

But little he knows | who laughs at the feast,

Though he mocks in the midst of his foes.


Commentary on the vocabulary


Line 2: flótta tekr, litterally means “flight he takes.” Evans points out, however, that people run away quite often in the sagas, and this way of speech is never used. I do not believe, as Evans claims, that “that there is a deep seated corruption in the text,” but that the scald used a very rare way of speech carrying a very peculiar meaning. We cannot know what it might have been, but we can guess it describes the peculiar way a learned person leaves a room where he feels ill at ease.

Line 3: hæða does not evoke a nice way of joking, it can even mean ‘to scoff’.

Line 6: gramr, daemon, monster; plural: gramir or gröm = demons. This word is too harsh to be used for qualifying a mere enemy: it implies someone deeply bad.

Line 6: glama = to talk idly.


Comment on the meaning


Remember the three first lines of stanzas 24 and 25 stating that a non-wise person believes whoever smiles at him is his friend. They deal with the behavior to take by a wise one in front of a seemingly friendly person. Stanzas 31 and 32 bring up a similar topic, now relative to a group of people, all seemingly friendly among them, including the one described by the stanza who ‘believes himself’ being knowledgeable.

The only difficulty in this stanza is in the relation with þykkisk. As Evans says, if the person who þykkisk knowledgeable has better to leave, then þykkisk reduces to a simple ‘he is’. I agree, and I ask the question: “Why using þykkisk?”

In the stanzas before, we accepted the idea that self-belief in one’s wisdom carries an ironical meaning. In s. 30 we supposed that, inversely, self-belief in one’s knowledge is not ridiculous, and we will transfer it to s. 31. In stanza 30 context, the reflexive form was not really ironical. The reason for it is simply that knowledge is more objective to check than wisdom (we will deal a bit later with the sorcerous type of knowledge) . By the way, Óðinn will provide us with examples in which the wise one does behave as a fool in front of women. As I said in commenting s. 30, even if your knowledge is false, you still can rightly believe yourself being knowledgeable. I’ll add here, that in Hávamál context, to be or not to be a real sorcerer is not the question. Stanzas 30 and 31 explain that, as long as you believe yourself being one, your behavior in front of other people should be the same. Who only never took the slightest sip of knowledge is unable to be aware of the danger included in staying in a place where jokes burst out, each possibly understood as an insult by a touchy guest.

In the last line, the word gröm, daemons, is quite exaggerated for speaking of mere human enemies, even if evil ones. It however fits perfectly the descriptions of their journeys given by Siberian shamans. An apprentice sorcerer (who þykkisk knowledgeable)  or a really knowledgeable sorcerer are going to meet the same daemons in the Other World.





1-3 The drift of this half is not clear, and there is a metrical difficulty in 3, since (as was shown by Bugge… the first syllable of a disyllable at the end of a ljóðaháttr ‘full linemust be short. (A long vowel followed immediately by a short vowel, as for instance in búa, counts as short for this purpose. )  

The most usual interpretation is that a guest who mocks a fellow guest is then wise to take to flight. This makes sense, but it reduces þykkisk in effect to er, it takes fróðr as ‘prudent, sensible’, which is hard to parallel, and it assumes an expression taka flótta ‘take to flightthat does not seem to appear elsewhere despite the frequent occurrence of the notion in the sagas …

In view of all the difficulties, it is likely that there is a deep seated corruption in the text…



***Hávamál 32***


A translation as literal as possible


Many men

are kind to each other

but push each other during a meal;

disputes among men,

will always be

(when/because)  guest play pranks to (or madden)  guest


Prose explanation


Many people start behaving nicely with each other but will push themselves over the edge during a meal. There always will be disputes among men when a guest plays pranks to another guest.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation



Gumnar margir                 Men many

erusk gagnhollir                self-are kind to one

en at virði vrekask;            but at meal self-thrust;

aldar róg                           of the people the strife

þat mun æ vera,                 that will also be

órir gestr við gest.              he plays pranks guest with guest.




32. Friendly of mind | are many men,

Till feasting they mock at their friends;

To mankind a bane | must it ever be

When guests together strive.


Commentary on the vocabulary


Line 32. 3: Due to the history of the pronunciation of the Old Norse language, the dictionaries give the meaning of verb vreka at the entry reka: = to drive, to push, to thrust, to compel.

Line 32. 6: óra does not mean ‘to strive(Bellows)  or ‘to brawl(Orchard) , or ‘to bicker(“se chamailler”, Boyer)  but ‘to madden(Dronke)  and, following Cleasby-Vig. , ‘to rave, to play pranks’. Again, the proper meaning is much stronger than the one used by the translators, Dronke excepted.

Coordination between 32. 5-6: the coordination between line 5 and 6 is left undefined in this stanza. We can imagine it as being equivalent to a ‘becauseor to a ‘when’.

If “line 5 because line 6,” it means that “guest are always maddened by quest”.

If “line 5 when line 6,” it means that “when guest is maddened by guest then discord shows up.”

Reading ‘whenis more optimistic relative to human spirit than reading ‘because’. Bellows uses an explicit ‘when’, Dronke and Orchard insert a ‘: which hints at a ‘becauseand Boyer explicitly states that “guest is ‘toujours(always)  maddened by guest.” This Calvinist way of looking at humanity does not fit a god such as Óðinn, nor his civilization.


Comment on the meaning


Stanza 30-32 share a common theme: fun and pranks are a short way to bickering and fights. A learned person will be able to observe when they begin to go too far and will leave them behind. Stanza 32 makes clear that given proper circumstances, human nature starts hiding hate under pseudo-jokes that will become harsher and harsher, and end by revealing the ‘monsterhidden into people who are looking of any occasion to start a fight.

This stanza does not tell us that human nature is such that people that have fun together will always end up fighting. It does tell us that people who want to raise fight will naturally start it by faking good mood in such a way that their aggressiveness will slowly raise up, as if their putative (possibly innocent)  adversary was the one responsible of their dispute. In other words, human nature is not normally monstrous, but people with a monstrous nature hide it behind false smiles: Man is not naturally bad, bad persons are naturally hypocritical.

The three stanzas 30-32 certainly apply in the rational world. We may now remember that a “knowledgeable onecan also be a sorcerer or anyone who believes him/herself being a wizard. These stanzas apply with even more acuity to a wizard. A few bad words uttered by a drunkard should not lead to send a malediction spell. The wizard should leave before anyone goes over the edge. If he/she stays, and these bad words hide a deep hostility, he/she may be forced to make use of his/her magical powers because he/she is facing a ‘monster’.

Maria Czaplicka (in My Siberian Year, Mills & Boon, London, 1916)  witnessed such a case and she describes the catastrophic consequences of the dispute – for everyone, her included, as I understand the full story. You can read her report at: http: //www. nordic-life. org/nmh/shamcurse.htm.




2 erusk - reflexive forms of vera (with reciprocal sense)  are very rare, but [possible, see] Cleasby-Vigfusson S. V. vera B IV; and a runic inscription on a comb found in Trondheim (c. 1100?)  is normalized Liut[ge]r ok Jóhan erusk vinir

4 aldar róg ‘strife of (i. e. among)  men’…



***Hávamál 33***


A translation as literal as possible


Early in the morning, a meal

should the man often take

except (if)  he goes toward an acquaintance [or: a kinsman];

(otherwise)  he sits and tosses around triflingly

he behaves as if overwhelmed

and is not able to ask many things.


Prose explanation


First three lines: a substantial breakfast is necessary in the morning, unless he his joining a friend or his kin. More generally, before undertaking anything you must build up your strength, unless you are dealing with close friends.

Last three lines: if you do not take enough care, you will not have enough strength to carry out your tasks and will get nothing out of this ineffective work. If what you undertake is ‘family business’, it is better to build up your strength altogether.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Árliga verðar                     Early of a meal

skyli maðr oft fáa,              should the man often take

nema til kynnis komi.         except toward an acquaintance [or: a kinsman] he comes

Sitr ok snópir,                    He sits and idles dismally,

lætr sem sólginn sé            behaves as swallowed ‘be(subj. )

ok kann fregna at fáu.        and can ask of few things.




33. Oft should one make | an early meal,

Nor fasting come to the feast;

Else he sits and chews | as if he would choke,

And little is able to ask.


Commentary on the vocabulary


Adverb árliga meansyearlyor ‘early, in the beginning’. A parent word, árligr, means in modern Icelandic ‘well fed’. The modern acceptation thus strongly connotes food in plenty.

This perhaps led Boyer to translate til kynnis by “to the banquet” instead of keeping its proper meaning of “visiting family or friends” as Dronke does. This slight mistranslation has the property to lower the meaning of this stanza to its most prosaic understanding. If its character goes to a simple banquet, it is impossible to understand his excessive behavior as described in the second half.

The verb has several meanings, already given in s. 25. I recall that it means ‘to catch, to grasp, to winand also its contrary, ‘to give something’, and, metaphorically, ‘to be able to do’. It can also be a contraction of the verb fága, it then means ‘to draw, to paint’. In this stanza, its complement is the genitive case of verðr, it thus means ‘to take, to earnas in the expression fá konu = to take, to earn a woman (to marry her) .

snópir: 3rd person indicative of snópa that means 

-                following C-V: ‘to idle about dismally

-                following de Vries: schnappen, lungern(‘to snap at something or to snatch, to lounge around’)

-                hence various translations of Bellows, Boyer, Dronke and Orchard, respectively ‘to chew’,to move jawsor ‘to sniff roundor ‘to stare greedily’.

-                I chose ‘to toss around triflingly’.

sólginn: past participle of svelgja, to swallow. Thus sólginn = swallowed. To speak of someone who is ‘swallowed or choked by the environmentwe usually say he/she is crushed or overwhelmed by it.


Comment on the meaning


We can see in the prose explanation that it is enough to widen a bit the meaning of verðr (‘meal’)  in order to find a perfectly simple prosaic meaning to this very disputed stanza (see Evans below) . It describes a rather clannish behavior where the clan gathers before going into action. This may seem a bit strange today. Less than 100 years ago, however, when harvest was still a communal and athletic business in France, everyone would prosaically follow this stanza advice.

In order to understand the spiritual meaning of this stanza, we must remember one well-known fact about shamanism. All shamans describe their activity as taking place in an otherworld, or in ‘non-ordinary reality’, where they meet powers that can be either friendly or ferocious. If your journey rides towards friendly powers, there is no need to prepare it, these otherworld friends will help you to gather power. Inversely, if you meet merciless spirits, you need a long training before going to the otherworld. Otherwise, you are bound to lose the battle. As this stanza describes so accurately (it alludes to a type of séance called útiseta = ‘to sit outside’) , you are going to be lost in the otherworld, with two results. At best, you will setja ok snópa (physically stay sitting and spiritually toss around triflingly) . At worse, you will feel being sólginn (swallowed, smothered)  by the powers of the otherworld. Your journey will properly become a ‘night-mareas if a mara was sitting on your chest and would smother you (mara is the proper etymology of ‘marein nightmare) . The word sólginn no longer is ambiguous in this understanding: Your feeling will be the one of being swallowed and then smothered by the powers of the otherworld.





2 opt probably means ‘as a rule, regularly… Some editors have understood 1-3 to imply ‘Eat early, unless you are going on a visit - in which case don’t eat at all, but wait until you reach your host’ … Much the best explanation is that of M. Olsen 5, who renders ‘Normally eat early, unless you are going on a visit (in which case you should eat somewhat later, so as not to arrive famished) .

4 snópa is found only once elsewhere in ON, in a stanza in Gautreks saga In the present passage it must mean something like ‘hang around hungrily, restlessly craving food’.

5 sólginn probably means ‘famished’ …



***Hávamál 34***


A translation as literal as possible


Greatly twisted way

(has)  whoever towards bad friend

though (this bad friend his housed)  near a road.

But towards a good friend

lays a winning way

though he (the good friend)  be longer to travel to.


Prose explanation


Meeting up with a bad friend goes through meandering ways even if his dwelling stands nearby an easy to ride road.

A good friend may be living further away but there are shortcuts to meet him.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Afhvarf mikit                      bad turn [‘twisted way’] great

er til ills vinar,                   he who until bad friend

þótt á brautu búi,               though on a road lives

en til góðs vinar                 but until good friend

liggja gagnvegir,               lies a ‘gain-way[a beneficial way]

þótt hann sé firr farinn.      though he be farther traveled.





34. Crooked and far | is the road to a foe,

Though his house on the highway be;

But wide and straight | is the way to a friend,

Though far away he fares.


Commentary on the vocabulary


The word braut deserves some comments. It indicates a road through rocky or wooded zones. It thus may be a crooked path. The scald clearly wanted to also hint at its usefulness to avoid hardship. This stanza obviously plays with the different words to speak of a road. This friend may be a person, a book or even a religion depending on the reader’s state of mind.

The past participle farinn makes it clear the ‘hehad traveled; ‘hethus should refer to the good friend. He is presently living far away.


Comment on the meaning


The meaning of this stanza is quite obvious: traveling towards an enemy is always complicated while traveling towards a friend always seems straightforward. In other words, as easy it may look to have companionship with a false friend, your relationship with him/her will turn out to be torturous. As difficult as it may look to find a real friend, your relationship with him/her will always feel easy.

This stanza, as opposed to 33, does not refer to the physical, nor in any special way to the mystical. It refers to the psychological and the social. It may help to understand its deep meaning by referring to s. 44, which will tell us that “you have to mingle in spirit with your friend.” Even when your friend is ‘traveling farin spirit, you will easily find a path to join him. Even if your non friend is still nearby you in spirit, it will be almost impossible to meet him. This applies also to ordinary thinking: even if you share the same belief with a non-friend, you will sooner or later find a way to disagree. If you disagree with your friend at start, you will always find ways to meet an agreement or at least compromise.





6 ‘Though he is gone further off’. It may be, though, that Finnur Jónsson is right to suppose that we have here an instance of fara transitive with acc. object: ‘to come upon, overtake, meet’ ; thus, ‘though he is (to be)  met with further off(so also Cleasby-Vigfusson s. v. fara B I 2) .



***Hávamál 35***


A translation as literal as possible


He must go away,

the guest must not be

always in one same place.

The loved one will be loathed

if he sits at length

in the rooms of another one.


Prose explanation


A guest should not stay as if glued be to his chair, he has to move away. Even if his host loves him, a guest will achieve to be loathed if he sticks around too long.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Ganga skal,           Going away he must

skal-a gestr vera    must-not the guest be

ey í einum stað;      ever in one position

ljúfur verðr leiðr,   loved will be loathed

ef lengi sitr             if at length he sits

annars fletjum á.    of the other rooms in.




35. Forth shall one go, | nor stay as a guest

In a single spot forever;

Love becomes loathing | if long one sits

By the hearth in another’s home.


Commentary on the vocabulary


The word ey is used as if it were a prefix where ‘ey-*means: ‘always-*’. Its normal meaning when alone is ‘island’. The scald might well have wished to suggest that the guest stuck in a house is as much noticeable as an island in the middle of water.


Comment on the meaning


As in 34, this stanza is relative to social relationships. Even with a friend, you should not stick to him: doing it is a non-friendly behavior. It again applies to all kinds of situations, including your friends in the otherworld.





. . . editors compare Egils saga ch. 78: þat var engi siðr, at sitja lengr en þrjár nætr at kynni. [Today this sentence is found in chapter 81. “it was not the custom to stay more than three nights on a visit.”]



Hávamál 36-40


“On earning material riches”


***Hávamál 36***

“home, sweet home”


A translation as literal as possible


The best is to own a place where to live

even though it is small

each man is (feels good)  at home;

altough he only owns two goats

and his dwelling is roofed by (mere)  ropes,

this is better, though, than (being compelled to)  begg.


ON Text and its litteral pseudo English translation


Bú er betra,                       A house is better

þótt lítit sé,             although small be

halr er heima hverr;          man is at home each;

þótt tvær geitr eigi although two goats has

ok taugreftan sal,               and rope-roofed hall,

þat er þó betra en bæn.     that is though better than a prayer.




36. Better a house, | though a hut it be,

A man is master at home;

A pair of goats | and a patched-up roof

Are better far than begging.


[Bellowsfootnote] 36. The manuscript has "little" in place of "a hut" in line 1, but this involves an error in the initial-rhymes, and the emendation has been generally accepted.

[Dronke and Orchard reject this emendation and keeplittle’.]


Commentaries about the vocabulary


The word bæn means a prayer (as meant by Christians) , and also a request, a boon. In Christian context where a prayer can become a plea for divine help, the meaning ‘a prayer to Godwould be acceptable. In a Germanic context where the gods are not begged for miracles, the meaning of ‘beggingis more likely and this is the word used by the four translators I refer to.


Commentary about the meaning


As far as no emendation seems to be acceptable as noted by Evans, let us keep the text as it is, even though it violates the rules of scaldic poetry.

The meaning is obvious: “As humble as it might be, my home is my hall.”


These simple words do not seem to carry any magical meaning. We should however consider that most of the wizards described by Dillmann are usually very well embedded in their social environment. Similarly, Siberian shamans of both sexes, besides their spiritual role, participate in the mundane or even menial activities of their clan. This strongly suggests that magic is not a kind of work but a way of life that adds up to the everyday work that all have to perform. Viewed from this perspective, stanza 36 says that wizards should own at least their own home in order to be free to practice their art, otherwise they are no much better than ordinary beggars. I’ll jokingly put under a syllogistic form s. 36: It tells us:

“Magic practice is not a work, nothing but work deserves salary, thus a wizard who is paid for his/her magic is a beggar.”

People they help cannot show their gratefulness by giving them some kind of salary, but by freely making gifts. In our present day society, I do not think that this maxim is still relevant especially for these who practice any kind of magic healing.





          2 lacks alliteration. . . [It is probable that] the supposition that 1-2 are an old proverb incorporated in the poem without alteration, and … suggests that lítit gives such perfect meaning (which is true enough)  that the poet decided for once to dispense with alliteration. But lack of parallels makes this implausible. No wholly persuasive emendation, however, has yet been advanced. Among suggested substitutions for lítit are búkot …, borlítit …, bjarglítit (… found only in modern Icelandic)  and búðþόt séi bragðlítit, Bú, þόtt sé lítit, betra er, … en biðja sé, (which is rewriting rather than emending … [Even if it violates the strict rules of Scaldic poetry, I wonder if it could not be possible that the three long vocals of line 2 replace one single alliteration.]

            5 taugreptan (only here)  evidently refers to a house whose raptar ‘raftersare of taug, ‘ropesor perhaps ‘withies’, instead of timber. For the characterization of the poorest type of household, compare Rígsþula, where þræll and þír tend pigs and goats (12)  while the farmer Karl is depicted as breaking in oxen and erecting buildings of timber (22) .



***Hávamál 37***


A translation as literal as possible


[The three first lines are identical to the ones of 36:

The best is to own a place where to live

even though it is small

each man is (feels good)  at home;]

his heart bleeds

who has to beg

while he is in charge to feed ‘someone(to feed himself and some other people) .


Prose explanation


The last line needs some explanation. “To feed someone” might well mean “to feed oneself.” This meaning is the one given by Bellows and Dronke. Orchard and Boyer give a more neutral translation “to beg for food.”


ON Text and its litteral pseudo English translation


Bú er betra,                 A house is better

þótt lítit sé,                   although small be

halr er heima hverr;    man is at home each;

blóðugt er hjarta         bleeding is the heart

þeim er biðja skal        of one who beg must

sér í mál hvert matar. for self in time [‘intimes (when) ] who(ever)  he feeds.





37. Better a house, | though a hut it be,

A man is master at home;

His heart is bleeding | who needs must beg

When food he fain would have.

[Bellowsfootnote 37]. Lines 1 and 2 are abbreviated in the manuscript, but are doubtless identical with the first two lines of stanza 36.

In Dronke, last line is “a morsel for himself every mealtime,” and “(to beg)  for food at every meal.” in Orchard and Boyer.


Commentaries about the vocabulary


In last line, the relative pronoun hvert is a neutral accusative which can well mean “whoever it might be.” It can point at the character that the stanza addresses, but it can as well point at any one of his kin.


Commentary about the meaning


Stanzas 36 and 37, which begin by the same lines, are obviously a variation of the same idea. Their common point is that owning a dwelling protects from falling into begging, but s. 36 evoques the personal humiliation of the character, while s. 37 alludes to the sorrow of being unable to feed his own kin.



***Hávamál 38***

“non-friend, non-sweet friend”


A translation as literal as possible


Of his weapons

a man should not, on the field,

go away further than a footstep;

because he never knows for sure

on the ways outside, how much near

is the man’s need of a spear.


Prose explanation


One sentence is broken in three pieces in this stanza. This is perfectly usual within scaldic poetry but obscures the word for word meaning:

A man should not, on the field, be further than a feti (from a foot)  from his vápnum (weapons)  and should stay nær (near)  his geirs (of his spear) . That is: [(1st half)  On the field, a man must not leave his weapons one foot away, (2nd half)  because he is not sure to know how much near, on the high ways, is the man’s need of a spear.]


ON Text and its litteral pseudo English translation



Vápnum sínum                              (Away)  from weapons his

skal-a maðr velli á                         should-not a man the field on

feti ganga framar,                         a footstep to go further,

því at óvíst er at vita                      because ‘atnon-sure [or non-wise] is to know

nær verðr á vegum úti                   near becomes on the ways outside

geirs um þörf guma.                      of a spear about the need of the man.




38. Away from his arms | in the open field

A man should fare not a foot;

For never he knows | when the need for a spear

Shall arise on the distant road.


Commentaries about the vocabulary


In the second line, the ‘áof ‘velli áapplies to velli which is the dative of völlr = field, ground. A battlefield is a vígvöllr, and the still famous place of meeting called Thingvellir means - or meant - ‘the fields of the Thing’ though they are placed in a tectonic vale.


Commentary about the meaning


It is quite clear: We live in a dangerous world.


Evans commentaries



2 velli á probably means no more thanout of doors(surely noton the battlefieldas Holtsmark 4, 147 suggests) .



***Hávamál 39***


A translation as literal as possible


I did not find the magnificent person

such he feeds goodness

(can also mean: such he shows off his goodness)

that he keeps silence when receiving,

so little generous [or: so little stingy]

in the way of rewards, if he receives some.



Prose explanation


[Depending on the manuscript (as given by Gering, 1904) , this stanza shows different readings that prevents us from giving to it a unique meaning. The variations are given as: [OR: variations]. This is not the problem of an editor who chooses to read this or that as Evans seems to imply in his comments. The ‘usual’ variations in possible meanings are marked as before [or usual meaning variations in the dictionaries] ]

Lines 1-3. I did not find a so munificent person who feeds his goodness [or: who flaunts his goodness] and who expresses acceptance [OR: who expresses his refusal of acceptance, OR: who is silent when he accepts] when he receives a gift.

Lines 4-6. Nor he is of his wealth little generous [OR: little stingy] as long as he is rewarded, if it happens.


ON Text and its litteral pseudo English translation


Fannk-a ek mildan mann

eða svá matar góðan,

at væri-t [OR: væria, væri] þiggja þegit,


eða síns fear

svági gjöflan [OR: glöggvan, örvan],

at leið sé laun, ef þægi.

I have found-not I the mild [or munificent] human

or thus (he)  feeds [or eager to show off his] goodness

at would be [OR: would not be] to receive [OR: to accept] he is silent [he is not silent to receive = he acknowledges what he receives or he refuses what he receives]

or of his wealth

not so free-giving [OR: so stingy, generous, open],


at the way [he ison his way to= going to] be (subj. )  rewards, if he receives [or accepts]




40. None so free with gifts | or food have I found

That gladly he took not a gift,

Nor one who so widely | scattered his wealth

That of recompense hatred he had.

[Bellows note] 40. The key-word in line 3 is missing in the manuscript, but editors have agreed in inserting a word meaning “generous.”


[Bellows calls40what we call here39’. The first editor, Rask, hesitates and proposes after svági: aurfan or örvan. (generous)  Bugge proposes: giöflan (free-giving) .]


Commentaries about the vocabulary


Since the several existing versions more or less contradict each other, there is no way to decide with certainty what says this verse. In line 3, væri-t is the negation of væri. In line 5, gjöflan means generous while glöggvan means stingy.


The translators do not make use of the fine variations in góðr meaning, here in its accusative masculine form góðan. It obviously means ‘good, richbut it may also be slightly ironical. For example, góðr matar means “he is a good host who invites generously ». It however may also imply that the host is eager to be thought as being good (he loves to show himself in the role of a good host. )  


Commentary about the meaning


It is quite striking to see that, in spite of its various versions, the overall meaning of this stanza is clear: In one way or another, wealthy people will always be careful of their wealth.

This stanza seems to me more derogatory than laudatory. I thus tend to believe that this stanza criticizes an apparently generous man who flaunts his hospitality and his wealth. He knows when he needs to thank but he is stingy in his rewards. He is alsogenerous(with himself)  in matters of refunding.


Evans commentaries



          [Some commentators] … note similar expressions in Swedish runic epitaphs: at Hagstugan in Sodermanland … four sons erected a stone in memory of their father Dómara, mildan orða ok matar góðan, and … mildan við sinna ok matar góðan (spelling normalized) . Both these inscriptions are in verse.

          3 Most scholars appear to take this line as conveying the idea ‘that he would not accept a gift if it were offered to him…. But this follows poorly on 1-2 (for it is no denigration of a man’s generosity that he is also willing to accept a gift)  and, … it is hard to see how such a meaning can be deduced from the text. 1-3 must rather mean: ‘I never met a man so generous, or so liberal with food, that þiggja was not þegit, to accept was not (reckoned as)  accepted, i. e. that accepting (of hospitality from him)  was not (in his eyes)  a gift (and therefore demanding repayment) ’. . .

          5 … The general sense of 4-5 must be something like ‘or so generous with his money’. Most editors insert gjöflan, others örvan, though they differ as to retaining or omitting –gi



***Hávamál 40***


A translation as literal as possible


Of his riches

that he arduously builds

a person should not suffer;

he often spares for one disliked

what he thought hoarding for a loved one,

(things)  fare worse that he is aware of.


Prose explanation


First three lines (classical understanding) :

Do not refrain making use of your money.”

First three lines (personal understanding) :

Nobody should take too much pain in gathering wealth.

Last three lines:

It often happens that what has been painfully spared for a beloved one falls in the hands of a disliked one. Things do not happen in the way they are expected to do.


ON Text and its litteral pseudo English translation



Féar síns                                       Of his/her wealth

er fengit hefr                                  that ‘in order to fetch[supine form] he/she raises

skyli-t maðr þörf þola;                   should’ nt the human the need endure;

oft sparir leiðum                            often he/she spares for the disliked one

þats hefr ljúfum hugat;                  what he/she raises for the dear one (was)  thought;

margt gengr verr en varir.            much goes worse than (he/she)  is aware of.




39. If wealth a man | has won for himself,

Let him never suffer in need;

Oft he saves for a foe | what he plans for a friend,

For much goes worse than we wish. .

[Bellowsfootnote ] 39. In the manuscript this stanza follows stanza 40. . [Bellows calls39what we call40’ ].


Translation of the first three lines

Dronke: “Of his own goods, / that he’s gained, / a man should not suffer shortage.”

Orchard: “The goods that a man has acquired, he ought not stint to spend;”

Boyer: “Of our money / And of what we have obtained, / We should not refuse to enjoy.”


Commentaries about the vocabulary


Féars sins is an obvious genitive (complement of a noun) . The noun it complements only can be either maðr (= a human person)  or þörf (= need, necessity) . A ‘man of his wealthmakes little sense, while a ‘need of his wealthis obvious.

In line 3, fengit cannot be a neuter since there is no other neuter to associate to it, thus it is supine form (supine of ‘to dois ‘in order to do’) .

C-V gives two main meanings to the verb þola has: ‘to suffer, to bear, to endure’, the other one is ‘to feel at rest’. De Vries only gives ‘to suffer’.


Commentary about the meaning


The first three lines say that “a man should not endure the need of his riches,” which can be understood as all translators do, “enjoy your wealth” or, as I understand it, “no need to suffer for acquiring wealth.”

Instead of a somewhat coarse meaning that supports greediness (“enjoy as much as you can when it is still time to do so”) , I understand this stanza in the same way as 20 and 21 that mocks greed/gluttony.



Evans commentaries



Von See… takes the sense of 1-3 to be ‘Be generous (to others) ’. But ‘one should not endure need of one’s money, which one has acquiredwould be a very tortuous, even impossible, way to express this simple notion, and it is not the case, as he avers, that 4-5 impose this interpretation. The sense is rather ‘Don’t hesitate to make use of your money; for, after all, if you do save it, it may very well end up in the hands of someone you wouldn’t have chosen’.


Comment on 36-40


These last four stanzas apparently carry very little teaching of magic matters. If I dare carrying on with the idea that teaching magic pervades Hávamál, I am driven to the idea that greediness of any kind indeed is “nothing but ruin of the magician’s soul” … though excess of destitution is a shame and a grief. As I recall in s. 36, Dillmann noted that Icelandic sorcerers are rather well-off. Moreover, none of them looks really destitute, none of them is very interested in something else that his/her knowledge of magic.



Hávamál 41-46

“friend, sweet friend”


***Hávamál 41***


A translation as literal as possible


With weapons and clothing (or dangers)  

friends should take delight,

this what is the most obvious.

These who give back in turn, and give again,

stay friends the longest time

if it ‘undergoes’ to become well.


Prose explanation


The most visible side of shared friendship shows up in their gifts in weapons and [classical understanding: ] clothing [personal understanding: ] danger. (That is: friends take delight in sharing weapons and dangerous conditions) . They will stay friends that exchange many gifts, and this will last longer than for other people, if this is Óðins will.




ON Text and its litteral pseudo English translation


Vápnum ok váðum                        (With)  weapons and clothing [if váð; or dangers if váði]

skulu vinir gleðjask;                      should friends self-rejoice,

þat er á sjálfum sýnst;                   that is on one-self the most visible [obvious];

viðurgefendr ok endrgefendr         ‘in-return-of’ -giving ones and again-giving ones

erusk lengst vinir,                          are-self longest friends

ef þat bíðr at verða vel.                 if that abides to be well.




41. Friends shall gladden each other | with arms and garments,

As each for himself can see;

Gift-giversfriendships | are longest found,

If fair their fates may be.

[Bellowsfootnote] 41. In line 3 the manuscript adds “givers again” to “gift-givers.”


Commentaries about the vocabulary


Both words váð (clothing)  and váði (danger)  give váðum in the dative plural case.

The word sýnn means ‘visible, not hiddenbut Cleasby-Vigfusson introduces a meaning ‘sightly(= comely)  specially for this line. For once, this looks to me a pure invention done to render more ‘charming this line, that does not deserves such an insult.

The verb bíða means ‘to abide, to undergo’.

The way of speech for a friendly behavior ‘viðurgefendr ok endrgefendr’ deserves more attention than deleting endrgefendr as being redundant. The most characteristic feature of friendship is provided by the special way they interact together seems out of place to me. This way of speech gets its majesty from the Hávamál, not from a saying, visibly inspired by the poem. By the way, the meaning of this saying is quite clear: it speaks of these people who provide areturn giftand who, besides, are not shy at giving and giving again, instead of feeling compelled to return something equivalent to what they have received.

Evans’ discussion around viðurgefendr ok endrgefendr seems out of place to me. This way of speech gets its majesty from the Hávamál, not from a saying, visibly inspired by the poem. By the way, the meaning of this saying is quite clear: it speaks of these people who provide a ‘return gift’ and who, besides, are not shy at giving and giving again, instead of feeling compelled to return something equivalent to what they have received.

The verb bíða means ‘to abide, to undergo’.


Comment on viðurgefendr ok endrgefendr


In stanza 18, we commented at length the expression vitandi er vits (here called VeV)  in order to show how this way of speech opens an intellectual horizon that introduces an idea of what can be a ‘handling an infinite number of objects and their relations’ in humankind’s mental reality of. Let us now see how this new relation ‘viðurgefendr ok endrgefendr ’ (VoE)  will provide a new facet of this intellectual horizon.

Let us apply VoE to a simple pair of friends, friend1 and friend2. Let us suppose that, for example, friend1 does a gift (a gefendr)  with friend2. This first gift will initialize the manifestation of friendship between our two friends. Friend2 having received a gift must, in return (viður) , to do gift to with friend1. The process of exchange as organized in our civilization could stop there. In Norse civilization and for friends, on the contrary, the need for redoubling gifts (endr-gefendr)  generates an endless process since friend2 who receives a second gift will have himself to do make a second gift to friend1, and so on.

We note that endrgefendr, far from being redundant, is a necessary condition to build an endless friendship, an ‘eternal’ one within the limits of human duration of life) . Similarly to stanzas 18 and 27, this introduces the concept of a life long friendly relation. Is this is a good thing? It is not always certain, but it is a way of proving with friend2 that friendship persists in friend1. All things considered, each gift is a way of showing, for that which offers, that it wants to maintain the friendly relation and, for that which receives, of noting the maintenance of this relation.

In our civilization where gifts are done at an appointed date without being always offered to true friends, though the need for ‘answering a gift by a gift’ still continues, we realize that many people sell back the non desired gifts and this characterizes the common indifference between gift givers. All things considered, this obligation of endrgefendr, if desirable to maintain a circle of friendship, has been perverted to become a way of expressing the lack of friendship by offering undesired gifts to pseudo-friends.


Commentary about the meaning


The double meaning of váðum should not be ignored. In a peaceful environment, we may be expected to exchange beautiful weapons and rich clothing. In a warring context, friends are expected to share efficient weapons and common danger. Note however that the whole poem express mistrust in whoever is hooked on material riches, especially the last two stanzas. Rich clothing does not fit well ‘clothingas exemplified by the citation, below in Evans’, where they fit perfectly for the sycophants“rings of gold.”


This stanza alludes to destiny on a fatalistic way: the friends do their best so that their friendship lasts a long time but their friendship can at any moment be broken by the death of the one of them.

Evanscommentary on the importance of a shared generosity is certainly relevant.


Evans commentaries



3 ‘That is most manifest on oneself or. . . on themselves(sjálfum may be sg. or pl. ) . What can this mean? Richert 8-9 understood it as ‘One knows this best from one’s own experience’, and this has been widely followed … This goes back to Sveinbjorn Egilsson’s ‘hæc (arma vestesque)  in ipsis sunt maxime conspicua’, and is far more plausible; … compare Haraldskvæði: á gerðum sér þeira / ok á gullbaugum / at þeir eru í kunnleikwn við konungOne sees from their garb and their rings of gold that they are on familiar terms with the king”. . . Þat refers to the whole content of 1-2: the idea is that the reciprocally exchanged gifts which they bear on their bodies give the most manifest testimony to their mutual generosity.

4-5 … expelled ok endrgefendr as tautologous. . . drew attention to a Faroese proverb recorded by Svabo (1746-1824) : Endigjeer o vingjeer eru laangstir Vinir, which Matras renders in ‘normalised Norse formas endrgerð ok vibrgerð eru lengstir vinir. Svabo translated the proverb as …, officia redintegrata amicitiam diutissime conservant[The Latin verb redintegrare meansto start again, to restore’]



***Hávamál 42***


A translation as literal as possible


Of his friend

a man shall be a friend

and repay gift with gift;

laughter with laughter

a land owner must handle

but falsehood with falsehood and lie.


Prose explanation


To friendship one should answer by friendship, and to gift by gift, and to laughter by laughter. Falsehood, however should be answered by falsehood and lie.


ON Text and its literal pseudo English translation


Vin sínum                          Friend to him

skal maðr vinr vera           shall the human friend be

ok gjalda gjöf við gjöf;       and repay gift with gift;

hlátr við hlátri                    laughter with laughter

skyli hölðar taka                will the ‘land-inheritorstake

en lausung við lygi.            but falsehood with falsehood and lie.




42. To his friend a man | a friend shall prove,

And gifts with gifts requite;

But men shall mocking | with mockery answer,

And fraud with falsehood meet.


Commentaries about the vocabulary


The word hlátr meanslaughter’. It is often used with the meaning ofnot so kind laughter’.

A höldr is a law term. It names someone who owns his land by inheritance from his forefathers. Dronke translates it by “good men” and Orchard by “folk.”

The verb taka obviously meansto take’. It however connotes quickness, as into seizeorto grasp’.

Both lausung and lygi mean falsehood. The second one may also meana liethis is why I translate it by “falsehood and lie.”


Commentaries about the meaning


For once, the overall meaning is obvious.

Several other stanzas have been warning us about false friendship that may easily deceive a ‘non wiseone. The “repaying” as in the third line is a simple way to show true friendship. It thus says: if someone you believe to be a friend is reluctant to “repay a gift,” acknowledge that you have been a fool to believe him/her a friend.

The second half goes from friendship to enmity. Laughing together is a mark of good friendship and friendly competition in outwitting each other is a delight of the spirit. However, some hostility can show in laughter. Hostile or ironical laughter is repaid by trying to outwit your opponent irony. When you meet declared hostility (falsehood) , do not hesitate to overbid on your enemy.



***Hávamál 43***


A translation as literal as possible


Of his friend

a man shall be a friend,

to him and to his friend;

but of his non-friend

a person should not

be a friend of the friend.


Prose explanation


In line 3, ‘himand ‘hisrefer to the friend of the ‘manin line 2. Everyone should be friend of his friends, and friendship propagates from one friend to another one.

In the second half-stanza the ‘manhas a friend and a non-friend. His friend cannot be in friendly terms with his non-friend. Thus, friendship does propagate among friends, and one non-friend cannot be inserted in any friendship chain.



ON Text and its literal pseudo English translation


Vin sínum                          To friend his

skal maðr vinr vera,          shall a human friend be,

þeim ok þess vin;               to this one and of this friend.

en óvinar síns                    but of the non-friend his

skyli engi maðr                  should not the human

vinar vinr vera.                  of the friend the friend be.




43. To his friend a man | a friend shall prove,

To him and the friend of his friend;

But never a man | shall friendship make

With one of his foeman’s friends.



Commentary on the vocabulary


There a no real problems in understanding the words of this stanza, the problems are relative to grammar. As Bellows, we try to render a dative, as þeim, by translating it byto’, while we render a genitive, as þess and vinar, byof’.


Comment on the meaning


The stylistic performance of this stanza somewhat hides the simple message that friendship cannot be one-sided, it has to be a reciprocal feeling. In fact, the definition given here is a variation of the classical one for a transitive [last three lines express transitivity in a negative way] and symmetrical relation:

If → is a symbol « is_friend_of », then

(‘x« ‘y’) ,

([‘x→ ‘yAND ‘y→ ‘z’ ] IMPLIES THAT ‘x→ ‘z’) .


That a vinr could have a mathematical definition in Hávamál is not at all trifling as it may seem. It underlines how much simply friendship is defined in the ancient Germanic world – and how much it is binding and hard to practice. As said in http: //www. nordic-life. org/nmh/OnTheContracts.htm: friendship is a contract that binds you to your friend, not an emotional (and somewhat soppy)  relationship as we understand it today.

Obviously, a transitive relation can structure a finished set as as well an infinite set. In the case of the friends, this relation can exist between a few friends but it is also always opened to addition of one or several friends, provided that they check the property of transitivity for all the former friends. This shows that the relation between friends, even if it can extend potentially to an infinite number people becomes in practice increasingly difficult to respect when their number grows. Stanza 43 delivers the lesson that what we called ‘infinite’ in 18 and 41, depending on the circumstance may turn out to be a quite small number in practice. Nevertheless the idea that nobody is able to provide a fixed limit to the process is still valid.




***Hávamál 44***


A translation as literal as possible


You know that if you own a friend,

one you fully trust

and you will getting (only)  good from him,

you must then blend him with (your)  spirit,

and exchange gifts,

often travel to meet him.


ON Text and its literal pseudo English translation



Veiztu, ef þú vin átt,                       You know, if you a friend own,

þann er þú vel trúir,                      this one you well trust,

ok vilt þú af hánum gótt geta,        and will you from him well obtain,

geðskaltu við þann blanda            spirit [dative case] shall you with him [accusative] blend

ok gjöfum skipta,                           and with gifts exchange,

fara at finna oft.                             travel to meet often.




44. If a friend thou hast | whom thou fully wilt trust,

And good from him wouldst get,

Thy thoughts with his mingle, | and gifts shalt thou make,

And fare to find him oft.


Various translations of line 4


Dronke: “you must espouse his tastes”

Orchard: “share thoughts with him”

Boyer: “you must mingle together your souls”

Dumézil (in Mitra-Varuna)  “you have to mix your soul with his.”


Commentary on the vocabulary


Verb eiga (= to have, to own)  is highly irregular and gives átt in its indicative present singular, 2nd person.

Adjective góðr, neuter gótt, means ‘good, justand its neutral form tends to become a noun. It then does not evoke material goods but it keeps the adjective meaning of ‘something good’.

Noun geð, here in its dative singular form: geði, means (C-V)  ‘spirit, moodand (de Vries)  ‘knowledge, understanding, thinking’.

Verb blanda meansto blend, to mixas two fluids might be blended. Metaphorically: to merge into each other’, in particular to speak of love making. Its past participle, blandinn, that isblended, mixed’, points at someone of mixed opinions, such as a Christian who would also pay honor to Þórr. When someone isvery mixed(blandinn mjök)  this becomes discriminatory.


Comment on the meaning


Mundane meaning.

As you have seen above each translator gave a version of what is “spirit blending.” The two French translations, with their “soul blending,” introduce an emotional innuendo that is not found in the other three ones. Anyhow, be it emotional or rational, this spirit blending, in our civilization, would be resented as a loss of freedom, giving up one’s own personality. It would be more acceptable in a relation between two married persons, though looked up as out of the ordinary, but unbearable for two friends, especially if their friendship is sealed by a contract, as explained in http: //www. nordic-life. org/nmh/OnTheContracts.htm. This does look like a contradiction, it however is necessary to insure that the contract will not be broken.

On the other hand, the other conditions for a continued good relation, that is gifts and meetings exchange, look ridiculously prosaic. I see here a literary effect intended to show that the material and the spiritual have also to be blended.


Magical meaning.

Suppose that the two friends in this stanza are two wizards. The prosaic meaning obviously applies to them, but it becomes ‘commonplacein this sense that such a meeting, where their souls meet, and blend, is totally commonplace – as long as they are both trusted friends! On another hand, never try to blend in such a way with someone who is not your soul mate.

In another context, when a patient receives a shamanic healing, it is even understood that the patient, who has to trust his healer, will ‘open his soulto his healer. On the contrary, a patient who does not trust enough his healer will never get any good of this ‘friendand two distrustful wizards will never merge their spirits.

We have no detail on the way seiðr had been practiced, I can thus nothing do more than speculating that this technique might have been used in seiðr, when several friends would be eager to reach a particularly difficult and important goal.



***Hávamál 45***


A translation as literal as possible


When you have a deal with someone

you hardly trust,

if you nevertheless wish to get get something good from him

speak to him handsomely,

but keep your slyness for him

repay falsehood with lie.


Prose explanation


The general meaning is clear, when you have no confidence in someone with whom you are dealing, you have to use pleasing words in order to get something (good)  out of this relation. Your thought, however, must be full of cunning, and you must repay falsehood with lie.


ON Text and its literal pseudo English translation



Ef þú átt annan,                             If you (have to)  deal with another

þanns þú illa trúir,                         this one you hardly trust,

vildu af hánum þó gótt geta,          would you of him though good obtain

fagrt skaltu við       þann mæla      beautifully shall you with him speak

en flátt hyggja                                but ‘in sly way(shall you)  

ok gjalda lausung við lygi             and yield (pay, deliver)  falsehood with a lie.




45. If another thou hast | whom thou hardly wilt trust,

Yet good from him wouldst get,

Thou shalt speak him fair, | but falsely think,

And fraud with falsehood requite.


The fifth line is translated as follows by the four translators we refer to.

Dronke: “(you)  think false thoughts.”

Bellows: “but (you)  falsely think.”

Orchard: think him a fraud.”

Boyer: “hold him for a fraud.”

Orchard and Boyer translations differ from the others since, for them, this line advises to see a deceptive mind in the other one, while the text itself advises the reader to show a deceptive mind. The text is quite straightforward, in the sentence “skaltu þann flátt hyggja,” skaltu means ‘shall thouand the person to whom Óðinn speaks, ‘thouis the one who performs the action of ‘falsely thinking’.

The difference might appear tiny but it is very important to know the exact meaning given by Óðinn or the skald to flátt hyggja. If Óðinn acknowledges that he may sometime ‘speak falselythis way of speech is hardly insulting unless Óðinn is insulting himself. Inversely, if ‘the other oneis speaking falsely, this way of speech may become very pejorative, and flár might then mean ‘treacherousor even qualify a ‘dirty cheat’. The difference becomes striking when we meet flátt hyggja in s. 95 as being typical of women.


Commentary on the vocabulary


Adjective flár, here used as an adverb, flátt, is said to have the proper meaning of ‘gapingby C-V though it means sly (schlau)  for de Vries and Lex. Poet. C-V seems to inverse proper and metaphorical meanings. The normal meaning of flár is ‘craftyand this raises no problem in the context of s. 45 since it cannot be an insult, except in Orchard’s and Boyer’s translations. We shall analyze in depth the etymology and possible meaning of flár in s. 95.

Adjective góðr, here neuter, gótt, means ‘good, honest’, and takes here the meaning of ‘who is good, fortunate’. In Old Norse there is no link, nor through etymology nor meaning with the word goð, god.


Comment on the meaning


We now deal with false friends. What is strikingly constant in the attitude Óðinn recommends for both true and false friends is that we have to give back, to re-attribute, what we have been given by them. True friends receive their reward, false ones their penalty, the measure of their sincerity / falsity is the measure of the rewards / penalties.

All considered, the text says that, when facing non friends from whom we would like to get something, we have to give a shapely appearance to our way of speech, while its content can be a nest of vipers. Roughly speaking, this is a well-known feature of the political discourse.



***Hávamál 46***


A translation as literal as possible


Again for those

you hardly trust,

and whose mind you hold in suspicion,

you shall laugh with them

and speak you mind;

repaying must replicate the gifts.


Prose explanation


When you deal with persons you hardly trust and you believe to be insincere, then you may laugh with them. Do not be afraid to speak your mind, that is, to have sharp words with them; repaying must replicate the gifts.


ON Text and its literal pseudo English translation



Það er enn of þann                        Thence is yet of him

er þú illa trúir                                who you hardly trust,

ok þér er grunr at hans geði:        and (at)  you is suspicion at his mind

hlæja skaltu við þeim                     laugh shall you with them

ok um hug mæla;                          and about mind talk;

glík skulu gjöld gjöfum.                 replicate shall repaying by gifts.




46. So is it with him | whom thou hardly wilt trust,

And whose mind thou mayst not know;

Laugh with him mayst thou, | but speak not thy mind,

Like gifts to his shalt thou give.


Three translations of the 3rd et 5th lines (geð/hugr)


In bold, the translations of geð, in bold and italics, the translations of um hug mæla.


Orchard: have no faith in his thoughts / … not speak your mind

Dronke: have doubts of his disposition / … not speak your mind

Boyer: “you have suspicion about his mood / … misrepresent your thought


Commentary on the vocabulary


We have seen in s. 44 that geð means ‘mind, mood(C-V)  while de Vries gives ‘knowledge, mind, understanding, thinking’. Remember also that stanza 44 says that you have to blend your geð, your mind, with the one of your true friends.

Noun hugr means ‘mind, thought’, or ‘mood, feeling’, or ‘wish, hope’.

Preposition um calls for the idea of including, of fully contain, not of walking around, which hints a negative form (see however Evanscommentary) .

As you can see, the translators give for geð: mind, thoughts disposition, mood. They translate um hug mæla as a recommendation to close your thought as if um had a negative meaning, while the text indicates that you can fully express your thought in front of a non-friend (provided you do not expect anythinggoodfrom him) .


Comment on the meaning


Bellows translates lines 5 and 6 by “But speak not thy mind, Like gifts to his shalt thou give.” As you see above, line 5 says exactly the opposite: Even in front of a false friend, you can speak your mind. In line 6, the word gjöld does not mean a gift but a refunding. This last line says approximately the same as the last line of 45.

Stanza 44 says that you have to share your ideas with your true friends, and that you may display your thought to a false one.


Classical translations see in 46 a mere repetition of 45. Both describe the proper attitude when facing a person about whom you have doubts. Is he a friend or a non-friend? Stanza 45 advises a hypocritical attitude when you wish to obtain somethinggoodfrom this person. stanza 46 describes the case when you have no special deal with this person and you do not know what to think of him. In this case, you need to probe his mind, that is, try to class him neatly among your friends, among your non-friends or among people you don’ t care about. In this case, Óðinn advises to act with ingenuity, to joke and tell one’s mind. Once this work is done, you will be able to properly apply the advice of the last line, and adjust yourrefundsto hisgifts’.


Óðinn advises two different kinds of hypocrisy in front of someone you do not trust. If you want to obtain something from them, then be completely hypocritical. If you expect nothing form them, then speak your mind in order to accurately define your relation with them.


Evans’s commentary


Evans does not comment this stanza but his glossary explains wherefrom come line 5 classical translations. He provides a great many possible translations for preposition um, and among them the following:

« ‘around46/5 (see hugr)  ; » [and we find at hugr: ]

« mæla um hug ‘speak around (other than, contrary to)  what one thinks46/5. »

[As you have seen, I do find absurd to make of 46 a simple repetition of 45, and I do not find absurd to translate um, as it usually means, byall aroundinstead ofto avoid by circling around’.]




Hávamál 47 – 52


“About humankind”


***Hávamál 47***


A translation as literal as possible


I have been young once,

I fared alone with myself

thus I wandered on a bad path;

I thought myself rich

that I could find another one;

a human being is a human being’s pleasure.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Ungr var ek forðum,          Young was I once,

fór ek einn saman:             fared I one together: [‘alone with myself’ ]

þá varð ek villr vega;         thus became I (on)  a bad way;

auðigr þóttumk,                 rich thought I myself, [I dared to think myself rich]

er ek annan fann;              that I another found;

Maðr er manns gaman.     a human being is of a human being pleasure.




47. Young was I once, | and wandered alone,

And nought of the road I knew;

Rich did I feel | when a comrade I found,

For man is man’s delight.


Commentary on the vocabulary


Note the curious way to express ‘to be alone with oneself’, einn saman, that is to say ‘one together’.

Remember that the noun maðr (manns in its genitive form)  meansa human being’. In this stanza, translating it bymanintroduces a hint of gender, which becomes here a misunderstanding.


Comment on the meaning


This stanza is famous. It is significant as such, it does not need further comment.




6 may well be a proverb; it also occurs in the Icelandic Runic Poem …, though as this is of late medieval date it might have drawn the line direct from our poem.



***Hávamál 48***


A translation as literal as possible


Mild and generous, tough and fearless

people get the best of life,

they seldom bear grief;

a non-daring and second rate person, however,

fears everything,

he is given to moan, he thinks twice over his gifts.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Mildir, fræknir                               Mild [or generous], tough [or fearless]

menn bazt lifa,                               men best live,

sjaldan sút ala;                              seldom grief [mental affliction] they bear;

en ósnjallr maðr                            but non-daring [or not outstanding] human

uggir hotvetna[= hvatvetna],            he fears anything

sýtir æ glöggr við gjöfum              he moans ever clever [here = stingy] with gifts.




48. The lives of the brave | and noble are best,

Sorrows they seldom feed;

But the coward fear | of all things feels,

And not gladly the niggard gives.


Commentary on the vocabulary


The adjectives mildr and frækn have several quite different meanings. We can safely assume that the poet used them on purpose, in order to sharpen his definition of who has the best life. The soundness of their mind is also insured, as opposed to the second rate person who are fearful, whimpering and stingy.

The proper meaning of glöggr is ‘clear-sightedand it metaphorically extends clever, sharp (of mind)  and stingy. Evan’s comments thus seems to me perfect: this person isclear-sighted’, that is s/he has a clear sight of the real cost of receiving a gift.


Comment on the meaning


The meaning of this stanza is clear. Please, check how far goes the negation of its first half by its second half. I thus found it proper to think that “he moans ever” in line 6 opposes “men best live” in line 2. In turn, this explains why I chose, as opposed to the other translators, to render line 6 by two independent clauses: “he is given to moan” and “he thinks twice over his gifts.”

This last line hints that a generous and happy person may also be somewhat ‘óglöggr’, that is ‘blind and unintelligentin his way to be generous. This stanza states also clearly that Óðinn judges as positive this special type of blindness.

This stanza is also noticeable by the fact that mundane and spiritual understandings are totally merged. There are certainly some wizards who fit the description in the last three lines.




4 ósnjallr also occurs in 16. It is here opposed to mildir, froeknir menn. ‘Cowardlyseems to be what is mainly implied, though some editors render ‘foolish’ ; the positive snjallr can mean both ‘boldand ‘wise’.

6 is rendered by Bellows ‘And not gladly the niggard gives… This is probably wrong; it most likely means ‘the niggard is ever apprehensive about giftsi. e. he does not want to receive them, because that obliges him to make gifts in return … [Dronke translates it as “a niggard is always nervous of gifts,” and Orchard by “and a mean man grieves at gifts,” both agree with Evans.]



***Hávamál 49***


A translation as literal as possible


My clothes

I gave somewhere

to two humans made of wood;

they thought themselves all right

who had (since long)  their jerkin;

a bare person is ashamed.


Prose explanation