Hávamál – About

Index:Poetic Edda ¦  ¦ Hávamál (Sayings of the high one)

Hávamál (English pronunciation: /ˈhɑːvəmɑːl/ HAH-və-mahl; “sayings of the high one”) is presented as a single poem in the Codex Regius, a collection of Old Norse poems from the Viking age. The poem, itself a combination of different poems, is largely gnomic, presenting advice for living, proper conduct and wisdom.

The verses are attributed to Odin; the implicit attribution to Odin facilitated the accretion of various mythological material also dealing with Odin.

For the most part composed in the metre Ljóðaháttr, a metre associated with wisdom verse, Hávamál is both practical and philosophical in content. Following the gnomic “Hávamál proper” follows the Rúnatal, an account of how Odin won the runes, and the Ljóðatal, a list of magic chants or spells.

The only surviving source for Hávamál is the 13th century Codex Regius. The part dealing with ethical conduct (the Gestaþáttr) was traditionally identified as the oldest portion of the poem by scholarship in the 19th and early 20th century. Bellows (1936) identifies as the core of the poem a “collection of proverbs and wise counsels” which dates to “a very early time”, but which, by the nature of oral tradition, never had a fixed form or extent. Von See (1981) identifies direct influence of the Disticha Catonis on the Gestaþáttr, suggesting that also this part is a product of the high medieval period and casting doubt on the “unadulterated Germanic character” of the poem claimed by earlier commentators.

To the gnomic core of the poem, other fragments and poems dealing with wisdom and proverbs accreted over time. A discussion of authorship or date for the individual parts would be futile, since almost every line or stanza could have been added, altered or removed at will at any time before the poem was written down in the 13th century. Individual verses or stanzas nevertheless certainly date to as early as the 10th, or even the 9th century. Thus, the line deyr fé, deyja frændur (“cattle die, kinsmen die”) found in verses 76 and 77 of the Gestaþáttr can be shown to date to the 10th century, as it also occurs in the Hákonarmál by Eyvindr skáldaspillir.

Gestaþáttr

The first section Gestaþáttr, the “guest’s section”. Stanzas 1 through 79 comprise a set of maxims for how to handle oneself when a guest and traveling, focusing particularly on manners and other behavioral relationships between hosts and guests and the sacred lore of reciprocity and hospitality to the Norse Heathens.

The first stanza exemplifies the practical behavioral advice it offers:

All the entrances, before you walk forward,
you should look at,
you should spy out;
for you can’t know for certain where enemies are sitting,
ahead in the hall

Number 77 is possibly the most known section of Gestaþáttr:

Deyr fé,
deyja frændr,
deyr sjálfr et sama;
ek veit einn,
at aldri deyr:
dómr um dauðan hvern.

Cattle die,
kinsmen die
you yourself die;
I know one thing
which never dies:
the judgment of a dead man’s life.

Hávamál Billingr
Billingr’s girl watches on while Odin encounters the bitch tied to her bedpost (1895) by Lorenz Frølich.

On women

Stanzas 83 to 110 deal with the general topic of romantic love and the character of women.

It is introduced by a discussion of the faithlessness of women and advice for the seducing of them in stanzas 84-95, followed by two mythological accounts of Odin’s interaction with women also known as “Odin’s Examples” or “Odin’s Love Quests”. The first is an account of Odin’s thwarted attempt of possessing the daughter of Billing (stanzas 96-102), followed by the story of the mead of poetry which Odin won by seducing its guardian, the maiden Gunnlöð (stanzas 103-110).

Loddfáfnismál

The Loddfáfnismál (stanzas 111-138) is again gnomic, dealing with morals, ethics, correct action and codes of conduct. The section is directed to Loddfáfnir (“stray-singer”).

Rúnatal

Rúnatal or Óðins Rune Song, Rúnatáls-þáttr-Óðins (stanzas 138-146) is a section of the Hávamál where Odin reveals the origins of the runes. In stanzas 138 and 139, Odin describes his sacrifice of himself to himself:

Veit ec at ec hecc vindga meiði a
netr allar nío,
geiri vndaþr oc gefinn Oðni,
sialfr sialfom mer,
a þeim meiþi, er mangi veit, hvers hann af rótom renn.

Við hleifi mic seldo ne viþ hornigi,
nysta ec niþr,
nam ec vp rvnar,
opandi nam,
fell ec aptr þaðan.

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows from where its roots run.

No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes,
screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.

The “windy tree” from which the victim hangs is often identified with the world tree Yggdrasil by commentators. The entire scene, the sacrifice of a god to himself, the execution method by hanging the victim on a tree, and the wound inflicted on the victim by a spear, is often compared to the crucifixion of Christ as narrated in the gospels. The parallelism of Odin and Christ during the period of open co-existence of Christianity and Norse paganism in Scandinavia (the 9th to 12th centuries, corresponding with the assumed horizon of the poem’s composition) is also evident from other sources. To what extent this parallelism is an incidental similarity of the mode of human sacrifice offered to Odin and the crucifixion, and to what extent a Pagan influence on Christianity, or vice versa, may have occurred, is a complex question on which scholarly opinions vary.

Hávamál
“Odin’s Self-sacrifice” (1908) by W. G. Collingwood.

Ljóðatal

The last section, the Ljóðatal enumerates eighteen songs (ljóð), sometimes called “charms”, prefaced with

Ljóð eg þau kann
er kann-at þjóðans kona
og mannskis mögur

The songs I know
that king’s wives know not
Nor men that are sons of men.

—stanza 147

The songs themselves are not given, just their application or effect described. They are explicitly counted from “the first” in stanza 147, and “a second” to “an eighteenth” in stanzas 148 to 165, given in Roman numerals in the manuscript.

There is no explicit mention of runes or runic magic in the Ljóðatal excepting in the twelfth song (stanza 157), which takes up the motif of Odin hanging on the tree and its association with runes,

svo eg ríst
og í rúnum fá’g

So do I write
and color the runes

Nevertheless, because of the Rúnatal preceding the list, modern commentators sometimes reinterpret the Ljóðatal as referring to runes, specifically with the sixteen letters of the Younger Futhark.

Müllenhoff takes the original Ljóðatal to have ended with stanza 161, with the final three songs (16th to 18th) taken as late and obscure additions.

Hávamál
The younger Jelling stone (erected by Harald Bluetooth ca. 970) shows the crucifixion of Christ with the victim suspended in the branches of a tree instead of on a cross.

Index:Poetic Edda ¦  ¦ Hávamál (Sayings of the high one)