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.”]