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 Iđunn’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’. Óđinn 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 Óđinn’s disastrous love affair with Gunnlöđ.

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 Óđinn 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 Gunnlöđ.

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, Gunnlöđ, is in charge of taking care of it. By some magical means, Óđinn digs a tunnel in the mountain and is able to reach the place where the bier is hidden. Gunnlöđ agrees to Óđinn’s drinking some of it, provided that he makes love to her in repayment for each mouthful of bier. Óđinn complies. Note that Snorri’s version does not suggest, as do s. 108 and 110, that Óđinn marries Gunnlöđ. 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 Gunnlöđ.



***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


Byrđi betri                                      Better load

berr-at mađr 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 Óđinn 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 kveđa        as good to say [svá sem =like as’ ]

öl alda sonum,        bier to the sons of ages,

ţví at fćra veit        because, ‘atless I know

er fleira drekkr        who more drinks

síns til geđs 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 Óđinn 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 mađr 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 mađr. 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 Óđinn. Thus, this stanza says that god Óđinn 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 Gunnlöđ’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, Óđinn, in spite of my godly abilities, I accepted to be fettered to the fowl’s feathers when I drunk the mead of poetry in Gunnlöđ’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 ölđrum ţrumir;    who at drinking-parties hangs around;

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

ţess fugls fjöđrum               thus (of the) fowl (to its) feathers

ek fjötrađr vark                   I fettered ‘self-was

í garđi Gunnlađar.                         in the yard of Gunnlöđ.





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, fjöđrum 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. Óđinn 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, Óđinn will speak several times of Gunnlöđ who allowed him to drink the mead of poetry, as recalled before in s. 11. The container of this drink is called Óđrśrir and drinking it makes you become ‘óđr’: ‘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 Óđinn 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, Óđinn uncovers himself again, he says “I self-was fettered’, where I try to render the reflexive form vark. By this way of speech, Óđinn 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 Óđinn’s adventure. An allusive “í garđi Gunnlađar 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 munađ. The same is true of huginn (it is derived from verb huga or verb hyggja), since the past participle of huga is hugađr and the one of hyggja is hugat or hugt and it shows also an adjective form hugđr (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 Óđinn’s ravens. Note however that all compound words of the form hugr/munr-adjective does lose this ‘r, for instance munligr (delicious) or hugblauđr (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, Óđinn 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 ölđrum ţrumir‘floats on the surface of the ale’. Ölđr 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 (ölđra 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 ţrumir, 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 Gunnlöđ 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; Óđinn 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 Óđinn; but if so it is clearly a variant version, for nothing is told elsewhere of Óđinn’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 Gunnlöđ’s giant father, and Fjalarr is indeed recorded as a giant-name (Hárbarđljóđ 26, and in ‘ţulur’, 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 Óđinn has been drunk at Gunnlöđ’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 varđ,                        Drunk I have been,

varđ ofrölvi             have been totally drunk

at ins fróđa Fjalars;            at learned Fjalarr’s

ţví er ölđr bazt,                  because is a drinking-party best

at aftr um heimtir                when later comes up to

hverr sitt geđ 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 Óđinn qualifies Fjalarr of being fróđr. This is a classical way to qualify giants, they are often ‘very cleveror ‘well-learned’. The word fróđr 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 fróđi. The second meaning is illustrated by the way of speaking the Finn wizards who are called fróđastir.


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, Óđinn insists on the depth of his drunkenness in Gunnlöđ’s yard. It is quite possible that this insistence underlines a possible role of Gunnlöđ 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 Óđinn 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 óđr 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 óđr 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 ţví is correctly explained by Fritzner 2 s. v. ţví 4 as ‘i det Tilfćlde’, 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 ţví 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 Guđrúnarkviđa II 2.