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 sćll                        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.]

ódćlla er viđ ţat,               non- forbearing is what [ó-dćlla = un-forbearing, and ódćlla viđ =                                           not dealt with’ ]

er mađr 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.

Sćll 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 dćll means ‘gentle, familiar, forbearing’. Its negation, ó-dćll thus means ‘wicked, stranger, unforbearing’. When coupled with viđ, (‘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 ódćlla. 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 ljóđa ok líknstafa, góđra galdra ok gamanrúna. Other editors take líknstafir as = líkn, with -stafir as a mere derivative ending (so SG, comparing bölstafir= böl, flćrđarstafir = flćrđ 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 fćri ek ţér,

brynţings apaldr,

magni blandinn

ok megintíri,

fullr er hann lióđa

ok líknstafa,

góđra 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 Sigurđr, 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 Sigurđr 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 auđstöfum (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 auđ 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 auđr ‘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 auđstafr is impossible as I will now explain. Firstly, there exist several compound words of the form auđ- and they may use two different meanings of auđ. 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 auđmađr for ‘a rich man(mađr = man, human person). On the top of all that, auđr may mean ‘fateor else ‘emptiness, desert’. They do not normally give compounds but they are associated to other words, as for example the phrase auđ borđ 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 auđ: 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 sćll                            This one is happy

er sjálfr of á                        who self owns

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

ţví at ill ráđ                        because at ill advice [or ill way of life]

hefr mađr oft ţegit 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 ráđ 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 góđr (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 ţiggja (here as neuter past participle ţegit) 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 ţegir, from verb ţegja, 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


Byrđi betri                             Better load

berr-at mađr 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;

auđi betra                              wealth better

ţykkir ţat í ókunnum stađ;    he/she thinks that in an unknown spot;

slíkt er válađs 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 stađr”, 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 válađ means ‘woeand it clearly took over time the meaning of ‘lack of material wealth’. For instance, ganga á válađ 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: byrđi 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 Óđinn 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’.]