Hávamál 53-56


“Wisdom is not happiness



***Hávamál 53***


A translation as literal as possible


Small beaches

(go with) small seas,

small are the minds of men.

Because all humans

do not become equally wise/foreseeing,

[or: were not equally fated to be wise/forseeing ones]

humankind is a (scant?) half of one of both.



Prose explanation


Small beaches go with of small seas (and not the large ocean), small are the minds of men. Because all the humans do not become equally wise/foreseeing, one (scant?) half of the children of time, of humankind, is able to acquire wisdom (or becoming seer), not the other part.



ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Lítilla sanda           (To) small sand-banks

lítilla sćva              small seas

lítil eru geđ guma. small are the spirits of men.

Ţví at allir menn    Because ‘atall human beings

urđu-t jafnspakir,   did not become equally wise/second-sighted,

hálf er öld hvár.     half is the age [or eternity or (poet. ) humankind] one or the other.




53. A little sand | has a little sea,

And small are the minds of men;

Though all men are not | equal in wisdom,

Yet half-wise only are all.


Commentary on the vocabulary


On sand. This word means sand and also a sand-bank, a beach.

On sćr. It does a plural genitive in sćvar or sćva. It names a salted sea, never a lake.


On urđu. This is the plural preterit of verb verđa, to become. The two other verbs, eru (3rd line) and er (sixth line) are in the present tense. Either we attribute this tense discordance to a poetical  rule making verđa-t impossible, or it is necessary to see here the poet’s choice to recall us that some are fated to wisdom and that others are not : it implies that as of their birth, they were…” and the preterit becomes necessary.

Evans’ discussion on hálf/hvár/hvar has a long story. For example, the first editor of poetic Edda, Rask 1818, gives half and hvar whereas Gering 1904 gives hálf and hvár, and notes that only the Regius Codex gives hvar. The adjective hálfr meanshalf’ and but alsoa little, scant part’. The interrogative adverb hvar meanswhere?’ but can also be indefinite and then it meanseverywhere’. The pronoun hvárr means iswhich of the two?’ orany of two’.

On öld. In poetry, öld indicates humankind. This way of speaking is linked to another one: “the children of time.”

On spakr. Meaning given by de Vries:clever, experienced’. He links the word to the root of verb spekja:to make wise, to quiet’. This explains why C-V can provide two different meanings, one is:quiet, gentle(for animals and infants), the other one is: wise, “with the notion of prophetic vision.”


Commentary on the meaning


As opposed to Evans, I do not see here any “accumulation of obscurities.” “To small sand-banks answer small seas” certainly alludes to the fact we are able to see in whole a sand-bank, while we can see no more than a part of a sea. Thus we have to evaluate the size of something by what we can see of it. What we can see of human beings are their (little) actions, and we thus can evaluate their (little) wisdom, even though we cannot see it directly. The first three lines express that idea. The 4th and 5th simply observe that human beings are not equal in their wisdom. The fifth one speaks of ‘somethingof which half of humankind is on one side, and the other half on the other side, and the context makes it obvious that this ‘somethingis wisdom.

But, as the fifth line underlines so aptly, some of them are able to acquire wisdom during their existence. If the chosen reading of hálfr is half, then the sixth line states that half humankind is “on the side” of those able to acquire wisdom through their life experiences, and that another half is “on the other side.” These who are born little minded will stay so their whole life, and this is their fate, their örlög. All considered, this partition seems to me quite unrealistic. I suppose that the proportion meant by Ódhinn is much less optimistic and I feel it more reasonable to choose the meaninga scant half’ for hálfr, these who learn from life.

Wisdom or knowledge could be prosaic or spiritual, this stanza states that we are naturally ungifted and very few of us are able to become wise ones or magicians.




[Here follows an unabridged version of these commentaries. I left it so because it shows how much scholars tend to err when the text does not fit their prejudices. The example of a very clear sćva understood as seva is even slightly comical. ]


1-3 Codex Regius reads seva, which some early editors, and more recently Meissner, take as sefa, gen. pl. of sefi ‘mind(not otherwise found in pl. ); thus Lüning (cited in Finnur Jónsson) rendered’ small sands, small understandingsand explained ‘just as grains of sand are small, even so, where the understanding is small, are the souls (geđ) of men small’. Meissner notes that [Greek word] is rendered grinda grindfraţjis in Gothic, which he thinks must mean literally’ sand-minded(OHG grint’ sand’, ON grandi’ sandbank’ ) and takes the genitives as descriptives of an understood gumnar: ‘of small sands, of small understanding - small are the powers of understanding of many men(‘manyis not accounted for). All this is plainly unsatisfactory; especially in the neighborhood of sanda, we must here have the word sćva, gen. pl. of sćr’ seaor ‘lake’. But the lines remain a locus desperatus. the principal attempts at interpretation are:

  (1) The genitives are absolute and parallel: where you get small shores, there you also get small lakes, and similarly with men: where there is a man, there is a small understanding (so Finnur Jónsson). Such a use of the gen. would be unique. Wessén 4, 462 thinks the first two lines were proverbial, but admits the syntactic difficulty.

(2) The first gen. is gen. of place (Nygaard 2, §141) and the second is dependent on it (BMÓ): thus, ‘On the little shores of little lakes men’s minds are small, i. e. provincial’ ; or both genitives are parallel gen. of place: ‘on little shores, on little lakesetc. (So Läffler 4. On lakes seems rather odd; Läffler explains it of fishermen who spend much of their lives on the water. ) This has been criticized as anachronistic, and Finnur Jónsson also objects that our poem is concerned with mankind in general, and not merely dwellers in remote districts.

(3) Guđmundur Finnbogason 2, 106 takes the genitives as descriptive of geđ guma: ‘the minds of men are little, of a “small-sand”, “small-sea” variety’. This eccentric interpretation is adopted by M. Olsen 7, 31.

(4) H. Pipping 2, 13ff and 4, 182-4 interprets Codex Regius litilla as lítil ‘little surfin either or both instances. None of these possibilities gives very plausible sense; plumping finally for emending both, he renders [Danish sentence] ‘Where the ripples are weak at the shores, where the ripples are weak on the lakes, there men’s souls are small’ ). This is the same notion as (2) and is open to the same objections; further, it is a defect that nothing in the text corresponds to där. The emendation was accepted by Kock NN 2405, who however rendered slightly differently:’ small is the plashing on the shore, small is the plashing on the lake, small are the minds of men’.

(5) Lie 215 takes litilla as lítil á in both instances, supposed to convey the notion that man is little against the background of the sands, little against the background of the waters. But this would be more than ‘moderatelyelliptical, as Lie puts it, and he fails to explain the accusatives (rather than datives) convincingly. It should be noted that sćr in the sense ‘lakeis evidenced only for East Norse, and is definitely absent from West Norse in literary times, cp. Flateyarbók II 550 Mjörs er svá mikit vatn, at líkara er sjó and II 327 ţar fyrir ţeim vatn, er Svíar kalla sjá, er ţat ósalt vatn. But the sense ‘lakeappears in Norwegian place-names (Frimer 2, S. V. sjár) and so can hardly be excluded for Hávamál.

6 is also difficult: should we read hvar ‘everywhereor hvár ‘each of two(agreeing with öld f. )? And what does hálf mean? Reading hvar, Finnur Jónsson rendered ‘Everywhere men are incomplete, imperfect’ ; he admitted that hálfr does not occur elsewhere in ON in this sense, but asserted in 1888 (Finnur Jónsson 1, 51) that the sense was known in the modern language; this is denied by BMÓ 65, and in his separate edition of 1924 Finnur says only that Blöndal’ s dictionary provides examples of modern usage which come near it; but this is not really so. The only other way of defending hvar is to follow e. g. Heusler 1, 112 and take hálf as ‘divided into two(ie., by implication, the wise and the stupid); but there is no evidence that the word can ever bear this meaning. So it seems better to read hvár, as Bugge 2, 250, who explains ‘each of the two classes of men is halfi. e. constitutes only a half, which is complemented by the other half. This is followed by BMÓ who compares Ek man hér koma međ valinkunna menn, en ţú haf halfa fyri Gulaţingslög 266 (NGL I 88), where halfa appears to mean ‘equally many’. Admittedly, ‘class of menfor öld lacks exact parallels.

The accumulation of obscurities in this strophe makes it probable that it is corrupt in ways beyond repair.



***Hávamál 54***


A translation as literal as possible


Not over-much wise

should be each human being,

never (striving) towards wisdom;

To the warriors

life is more beautiful

(for) these (who) are very intelligent and wise.


Prose explanation


Each human should be satisfied to be moderately wise, he should not try (strive) to become wise. Life is (however) more beautiful for those who are really very intelligent and wise.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Međalsnotr             Not over-much wise

skyli manna hverr; should (be) each of the human beings

ćva til snotr ;      never until wisdom be;

ţeim er fyrđa         to them is of the warriors

fegrst at lifa            happiest at live

er vel margt vitu.    who well much wise.




54. A measure of wisdom | each man shall have,

But never too much let him know;

The fairest lives | do those men live

Whose wisdom wide has grown.


Dronke and Orchard both translate the first line as “middling wise” and til snotr in line 3 by “over-wise.” In the last one, Dronke translates vel margt by “quite a lot of” and Orchard by “not over-much.”


Commentary on the vocabulary


In a little unusual way, the understanding of this stanza rests on the meaning of two adverbs, til (line 3) and vel (in vel margt, line 6) which are sometimes rendered in contradicting ways by the translators.

On til. It usually meanstowards, in the direction of’, i.e. it describes an evolutionary situation or a goal to reach. In some cases, we have no word describing such a situation and the translation may suggest that til refers to a stable situation. Typically, the expressionvera til’ orhafa til’ are translated byto exist’ andto possess’ but they express the ideato go on being’ andto go on having’, which is possible and agrees better with the general use of til.

All traditional translators understand til astoo much’, whereas I preserve the meaning oftowards’ by translating it asto strive, to aim at’. This choice can be criticized though til with the meaning of ‘too muchis ironical, which is fine here. However, the long list of words prefixed by til-* shows no case where til introduces some exaggeration in the meaning of the word it prefixes. My translation agrees with the one of s. 53, where I preserve the meaning ofhave become’ for urđu (line 5).

On vel. This adverb meanswell, properly’ and is used as intensive particle to give emphasis to the word which it modifies. In theory, therefore, vel margt, meanswell much’ with the meaning ofvery much’. Bellows and Dronke preserve this meaning, with the result that the first and second half of the stanza seem contradicting each other. One says that the happiest one is not too wise, the other that the very wise is the happiest. Besides, this contradicts stanzas 55 and 56.

Orchard and Boyer solve this contradiction by translating vel as softening margt, and vel margt becomesnot too much’,no more than needed’. This solution is elegant but reduces the three stanzas to simple repetitions from each other (and they moreover repeat their three first lines!) whereas it is possible that Ódhinn aims to underline three various kinds of wisdom.

I preserve the traditional meaning, and solve the contradictions in a different way, as explained below.

Another problem is that the last word form vitu may have two meanings. It can be third person plural of the present indicative of verb vita (to be intelligent). But, it can also be the weak nominative plural of adjective vitr which meanswise’ more thanknowing’. Because of this ambiguity, I preserve the two possible meanings, ‘intelligent and wise’.


Commentary on the meaning


As already pointed out, a contradiction may be observed between this stanza the three first and three last lines. This contradiction disappears when vel margt vitu is translated bynot too wise’. This solution, however, erases any difference between the stanza two halves, which makes it trivial. If we follow Dronke and Bellows, the scald, with a kind of pun on vitu, states that the really very intelligent and wise “warriors” have a beautiful life. In this case, thecontradiction’ between the stanza two halves disappears if we acknowledge that Ódhinn’s goal has been to introduce such an opposition. In this case, we can suppose that the fourth line begins with an implicithowever’. This also explains the heiti chosen by the scald, namely, ‘warriors’ forhumankind’. The part of humankind that deserves this heiti, that is to say the fighters struggling for a territory or a way of life, are not concerned with being “not too wise.” Their lives are better when they are able to reach deep wisdom and cleverness because they do need it to stand firm on their unusual positions, territory or intellectually-wise.

As a conclusion, let me state again that the meanings of til and vel can show opposed meanings, and classical translations are all clearly possible. The ironical meaning of til is even ordinary in modern Icelandic. I chose to use their usual sense in Old Norse, which pushed me toward a non-classical understanding of this stanza. This choice brings also the reward that stanzas 54-55-56 will stop repeating thrice a critique of the alsnotr (all-wise) ones. This critique may well fit the immediate context of stanza 54.

Nevertheless, a still better context is the one of whole Hávamál, where we see that Ódhinn often scorns or mocks the ó-snotr (‘non-wise’ ) ones, and lauds the snotr ones. In this larger context, if a critique of the ‘over-wiseones is absolutely welcome, it has to draw precise a line between ‘well-and ‘over-wisdomClassical translations, with an either trivial or contradictory rendering of stanza 54, do not take into account out this larger context.



***Hávamál 55***


A translation as literal as possible


Not over-much wise

should be each human being,

never (striving) towards wisdom;

because the heart of the wise man

becomes seldom merry

if he ison’ (orin’ ) all-wisdom.


Prose explanation


Each human should be satisfied to be moderately wise, he should not try (strive) to become wise. So it is because an already wise person will not keep his merry heart if his goal is reaching supreme wisdom.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Međalsnotr                                    Not over-much wise

skyli manna hverr;                         should (be) each of the human beings

ćva til snotr ;                              never until wisdom be

ţví at snotrs manns hjarta             because of the wise one (his) heart

verđr sjaldan glatt,                        becomes seldom glad,

ef er alsnotr er á.                       if him is all-wise who qui ‘above/in/towards’.




55. A measure of wisdom | each man shall have,

But never too much let him know;

For the wise man’s heart | is seldom happy,

If wisdom too great he has won.


Commentaries on the vocabulary


The way of speech “eras this’ ; er áthis thing’ ” is a traditional way to say “it is in this way for whoever is on (= has) this thing.” The scald thus concludes his stanza on a kind of grammatical joke, letting us guess to whichthing’ he alludes. It seems obvious to me thatthe thing’ is the excess of will of wisdom.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to know if the final á specifies a stable state or an evolution. Nothing in this last line can help us to decide which. I nevertheless tend to think that the fact ofhaving’ corresponds to a “hafa á that hints more to a tendency rather than a stable state.


Commentary on the meaning


The preceding stanza said that the vel margt vitu have a very beautiful lives. This one says that the alsnotr ones, or those who seek absolute wisdom, are seldom merry. My understanding of what looks as contradicting each other is as follows. Who refuse a carefree and merry life is far from choosing unhappiness. They will be challenged by sad times because truth is often heavy to bear but will know another kind of happiness. Reexamine stanza 53 that states the smallness of humankind. In the light of 55, it says that this human smallness conditions a merry life, and that rising above the condition of an ordinary human “brings a sad mind,” as stated by next stanza.



***Hávamál 56***


A translation as literal as possible


Not over-much wise

should be each human being,

never (striving) towards wisdom;

his örlög

(does) not (stay) in front of the wise one

whose mind lacks the most of sadness.


Prose explanation


Each human should be satisfied to be moderately wise, he should not try (strive) to become wise. When his destiny (his örlög) is not in front of him (he is not challenged by it), the wise one’s mind is freest of sadness.


ON Text and its pseudo English literal translation


Međalsnotr                                    Not over-much wise

skyli manna hverr;                         should (be) each of the human beings

ćva til snotr ;                              never until wisdom be;

örlög sín                                         örlög his

viti engi fyrir,                                 a wise one not before

ţeim er sorgalausastr sefi. his is the most sadness-free mind.




56. A measure of wisdom | each man shall have,

But never too much let him know;

Let no man the fate | before him see,

For so is he freest from sorrow.


Commentary on the vocabulary


Örlög is a plural word so that it evokesthe destinies’ notthe one destiny’. Many Old Norse texts speak about or refer to örlög, so that we do have some knowledge of what it can have been.

Also note that the destiny is called örlög örlög or urdh in Old Norse, not wyrđ, an Anglo-Saxon word, that became so popular among modern pagans. The Anglo-Saxon texts do not speak of wyrđ except when translating Latin fatum. It follows that we do not know what the Heathen Anglo-Saxons understood by this word, besides its Latin meaning. We can only suppose that their wyrđ was similar to our Scandinavian örlög.


Commentary on the meaning


The expression örlög sín viti engi to fyrir can take two meanings. Engi (non’ ) can apply to viti (wise) or to fyrir (in front of). The first says thathis örlög (is) in front of the non-wise one’, i.e. thatthe non-wise one knows his destiny’. The second meaning says thathis örlög is not in front of the wise one’, that is, the wise one is unaware of his destiny. Both agree well to last line since, in both cases, the character is not sad. However, the second interpretation agrees better with the first three lines. A wise one who is unaware of his destiny is still “fairly wise.” By knowing it, he becomes wiser but he has a less happy life.

Considering that örlög is decided or announced by the Norns, the gods themselves are partially unaware of their destiny. The wise one who goes over the limit and takes knowledge of his örlög leaves his human statute.

If this happens when he is still far from death, the knowledge of his destiny can only bring to him some sadness. If his death is close, his destiny is behind him, instead of being in front of him, and he becomes feigr. Ţrideilur Rúna comments this state: “feigur:qvi jam fatali morti appropingvat(feigur: that whom already fatal (= natural) death approaches). The other meaning of feigr is’ strange, mad, fey’. All this does not describe a particularly merry person. In other words, at any age, knowing one’s destiny leads to lose all illusions, ambitions and enthusiasm, everything that brings joy to life.

Present day fashion of claiming to foresee the future, especially among modern pagans who use runes to this purpose, is a kind of self-destruction. Ódhinn firmly disapproves of it here because this leads to nothing but some kind of sadness that hampers the wish to be active, at least when this foreseeing is really believed to be unavoidable.


Commentary on the meaning of stanzas 53-56


Stanza 53 recalled us the smallness of human beings. The repetition of the first three lines at the beginning the three stanzas bring us back into s. 53 context, the one of our pettiness.

Stanza 54 presents the exception of these who properly reach extreme wisdom. They are above the level of normal human beings and are able to reconcile wisdom and happiness.

Stanza 55 says that by reaching the level of alsnotr (all knowing), we may put too much in searching for wisdom, and this leads us to the loss of our joy of living.

Stanza 56 deals with a significant but particular case of wisdom, the one of knowing what destiny has been allotted to us. This specific kind of knowledge embeds our mind in sadness.

Combining these four stanzas, we see that becoming anall wise’ one or a foreseer differs from beingproperly very wise’. Wisdom, as Ódhinn presents it, is a narrow pass running in between foolishness if we lack of wisdom, and a sad life if we become over wise.