Words of Wisdom from the Viking Age – Hávamál

Coldex Regius Norse Mythological Poems

The Codex Regius of the Elder Edda is the most important Norse mythology source. (Photo: Icelandic Literature Center)

Norse poetry bears witness to a culture with a highly developed aesthetic sense. The Elder Edda – a collection of poems about gods and heroes – is so complicated in terms of form and content that we have difficulty interpreting them.

The part of the Edda poems that have been preserved, we primarily know from an Icelandic handwritten manuscript from around 1270 AD; Codex Regius of the Elder Edda. It was discovered in the 1600s by Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson of Iceland. He sent the manuscript as a gift to the Danish King, hence the name, and it was incorporated in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. It was returned to Iceland as late as 1971.

In the Codex Regius there are eleven Norse mythological poems. Along with a few poems from other manuscripts, they are a unique resource for the pre-Christian Norse religion and the only poems about pagan gods preserved from the Germanic area.

Hávamál

Hávamál, the second mythological poem in the Elder Edda, is consisting of 164 stanzas. Most likely, it is composed of several independent poems. At some point, an “editor” has put together the pieces of “Sayings of the High One” – i.e. Odin.

A big number of the stanzas contain life lessons presented as Odin’s knowledge – but there are also parts that contain religious mysticism and knowledge of runes. Hávamál contains several important myths that barely are mentioned in other sources.

The poem goes back to the Viking Age (c.793 – 1066 AD) and the virtues presented are temperance and sobriety. The moral is practically oriented and sometimes balances on the edge of cynicism.

Here are 12 stanzas translated from Hávamál: Words of Wisdom that gives cause for reflection.

 

1.

If you open the door

to unknown house,

you should be careful,

you should be aware,

for uncertain is to know

if enemies already are sitting there.

 

5.

Sound judgment he needs

who is traveling far,

at home life is easy;

contempt people get

who know nothing

when interacting with wise people.

 

6.

Of your abilities

you should never boast,

be rather careful with the knowledge;

when a wise and quiet

comes to the farm,

it rarely goes him wrong.

 

16.

A cowardly man

thinks he will live forever,

if he avoids battle;

but age gives

him no peace,

if he is spared by spear.

 

17.

The fool is gaping

and mumbles stupidly,

where he sits as a guest at a feast;

when he gets

the first sip,

the wit disappears.

 

21.

The cattle know

when it is expected home,

then it walks to the farm from the outfield;

but unwise man

never knows

his own limitations.

 

23.

Unwise man

is always lying awake

thinking of many things;

he is tired

when the day comes,

everything is in imbalance as before.

 

35.

Bid farewell

do not always visit

the same place;

it may easily happen

one gets tired of the dear one

if he forgets to leave.

 

36.

A small home

is better than none,

at home every man is lord;

the heart bleeds

in the chest of the one

who must beg for every meal.

 

42.

For a friend

you should be friend

and repay gift with gift;

but if somebody is laughing at you

so laugh back,

pay him with lie for deceit.

 

53.

Small high tide,

small low tide:

narrow is the human mind;

all were not

equally wise,

over all there are

different kinds.

 

69.

One is not entirely miserable

although the health is weak,

some get pleasure from sons,

some from friends,

some from wealth

some from a job well done.

 

Translation of stanzas from Håvamål and text by: Thor Lanesskog, ThorNews

Source: Verdens Hellige Skrifter: Voluspå og andre norrøne helligtekster/ De norske bokklubbene 2003

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Categories: Culture, Reading, Vikings

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