History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Meditations on Hávamál, 19-22

Here's the latest round of translations and commentary from my ongoing examination of the gnomic verses of Hávamál, the Sayings of the High One. While many of the verses deal with the magic of the Norse, many of the lines simply offer sage advice on best behaviour, especially when one travels.

Haldi-t maðr á keri,
drekki þó at hófi mjöð,
mæli þarft eða þegi,
ókynnis þess
vár þik engi maðr,
at þú gangir snemma at sofa.

Gráðugr halr,
nema geðs viti,
etr sér aldrtrega;
oft fær hlægis,
er með horskum kemr,
manni heimskum magi.

Hjarðir þat vitu,
nær þær heim skulu,
ok ganga þá af grasi;
en ósviðr maðr
kann ævagi
síns of mál maga.

Vesall maðr
ok illa skapi
hlær at hvívetna;
hittki hann veit,
er hann vita þyrfti,
at hann er-a vamma vanr.


19. One should not hold onto the mead cup, but drink your fair portion. Speak useful words or none. No man will blame you if you go early to bed.

The usual admonishments to avoid drinking excessively continue here, along with the outcome typically associated with drunkenness: foolish words. The Norse tradition is to err on the side of taciturnity. Better no words than foolish ones. Be silent and thought a fool, as the old adage would have it, than open your mouth and remove all doubt. When in doubt, go to bed. The only real exception would be if one were involved in an actual drinking contest (see Egil's Saga).

20. The greedy man, if he doesn't guard his mind, eats his own life's sorrow. He is often  ridiculed when he comes among the wise for his foolish belly.

Greed is ridiculed by the wise; where food is precious (and where in the medieval world is it not?) the greedy man is a danger as well as a fool. Taking more than your share showed contempt for your hosts. Hunger was a burden shared. No one could survive long on their own; even the outlaw Grettir relied on the kindness of strangers for food.

21. The herd knows well when it must head homeward and turn away from the grass. But the unwise man never knows the measure of his belly.

Even sheep and cows recognise when they have had their fill of the pasture's grass. They do not eat more than they need, but turn toward home with grateful steps for their rest and safety. The foolish glutton, however, continues to eat, stuffing his belly with more than his fill and raising the ire of others.

22. The wretched and ill-minded man ridicules every little thing. He doesn't know that which he ought know, the he is full of faults.

The gluttonous man seems to be linked to a lot of foolish behaviour; wretched and ill-minded, a foolish man sees everyone else's faults but not his own. In the internet age, we're more conscious of this than ever, as anonymous snarking makes everyone free to carp without feeling the scrutiny themselves. The wise verses here suggest being mindful of our own faults before criticising another.


Original verses courtesy of the Heimskringla project. See the previous entries in this series here.

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


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