History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

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Meditations on Hávamál, 27-30

Posted by on in Studies Blogs


Ósnotr maðr,
er með aldir kemr,
þat er bazt, at hann þegi;
engi þat veit,
at hann ekki kann,
nema hann mæli til margt;
veit-a maðr,
hinn er vettki veit,
þótt hann mæli til margt.

The unwise man

Who comes among the crowd,

It is best he remain silent;

None shall know

That he knows nought,

Unless he's said too much.

No man knows

What a know-nothing he is

Unless he's said too much.


Ever wondered about the taciturn reputation northerners have? A lot of it has to do with the attitudes typified in these verses.  A few centuries later, Mark Twain would put it succinctly: "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt." For the Viking audience of these gnomic verses, the wisdom of the bard of Hannibal, Mo. would have gone over well.


Fróðr sá þykkisk,
er fregna kann
ok segja it sama;
eyvitu leyna
megu ýta synir,
því er gengr um guma.


Wise seems the one

Who knows how to question

And to declaim the same way.

Not at all concealed

May the might of man be

When he goes among the crowd.

On a slightly different tack, this verse highlights the idea that wisdom comes from discernment. When you go out in public, silence is the best start. If you must speak, do it to ask questions of those you think are wiser than yourself. Be ready when the questions turn back to you: can you answer wisely? Your words will be judged carefully by all those who listen, weighed for their intelligence and truth. In the modern world, we're used to idle conversation as the normal way to speak. The Vikings would have no truck with that.


Ærna mælir,
sá er æva þegir,
staðlausu stafi;
hraðmælt tunga,
nema haldendr eigi,
oft sér ógótt of gelr.

Often he speaks,

He who should ever be silent.

But he speaks only folly;

The glib tongue

Unless it restrains itself,

Often sings badly of its owner.


I love the personification of the tongue as something that needs to be bridled and like a garrulous servant reflects poorly on its master or mistress. You can feel the cringing of the audience as the foolish one speaks. The reining in of foolish thoughts gives a picture of words stampeding away.


At augabragði
skal-a maðr annan hafa,
þótt til kynnis komi;
margr þá fróðr þykkisk,
ef hann freginn er-at
ok nái hann þurrfjallr þruma.


At eye-opening

Shall a man mock another

Though he should come as a guest;

Wise seems many a man

If he's asked nothing

And he sits near dry-skinned.


If at first glance you choose to mock another, despite being a guest in the hall, you can expect to look badly. Hospitality has been offered; it is not gracious to squander it. To sit comfortably inside the hall, far from the vagaries of the Nordic weather, means you have an admirable position. Do not waste it by being contentious or foolish.


Read more meditations on the verses.

Read the original Norse text.


Last modified on
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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