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The Hávamál

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HavamalThe Eddic Poems contain one of the most famous gnomic poems of Norse history, called the Hávamál.  “Gnomic poetry” is comprised of sayings with life lessons put into verse form to aid memory, and gnome comes from the Greek word meaning opinions; such poetry is part of the broader category known as wisdom literature, common in the Ancient Near East.

There are several translations of the Hávamál into English, some easier to read than others.  Here are two examples, the first stanza of the poem:

(This first version is translated by Olive Bray)

“At every door-way,

ere one enters,

one should spy round,

one should pry round

for uncertain is the witting

that there be no foeman sitting,

within, before one on the floor.”

(This second version is from the book “The Sayings of the Vikings [The Authentic Hávamál]” by Bjorn Jonasson)

“When passing

a door-post,

watch as you walk on,

inspect as you enter.

It is uncertain

where enemies lurk

or crouch in a dark corner.”

According to Bjorn Jonasson, the metre of the Hávamál typically contains six lines or two units of three lines each, tied together with alliteration; he gives the following example:

Better a humble

house than none.

A man is master at home.

A pair of goats

and a patched roof

are better than begging.


Some of the advice is antiquated and some of it is universal and timeless; some of it is complete nonsense, and some of it is truly sound counsel.  As with any translation, much of the ingenuity of the original text is lost in the second language; but nevertheless I find the Hávamál a fascinating insight into the mentality of the Norse at the time it was written down (800-1000 A.D).  It shows us what was important to them, what they wished to pass on to their children, the values, and what we might today call “unwritten rules” of social conduct:  Advice on responsibility, talking too much, how to enter a house as a guest or an enemy, how to be cunning, how to treat false friends, and so much more.


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