History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

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Meditations on Hávamál: 71-75


Haltr ríðr hrossi,

hjörð rekr handar vanr,

daufr vegr ok dugir,

blindr er betri

en brenndr séi,

nýtr manngi nás.


The halt one rides a horse,

The hand-lacker drives the herd,

The deaf one fights and serves,

Better to be blind

Than to be burning:

No one benefits from a corpse.


Disability is not often addressed directly in medieval Icelandic poetry. Surely many who survived battles did not survive intact. Physical limitations did not mean that one had any less to contribute to life: a horse might give mobility to one who struggled to walk. Blindness might have a more profound impact on one’s life—see for example the struggles of a blind and elderly Egil Skallagrimsson, but remember even then he managed to accomplish a great deal (like hiding his treasure). Where there’s life, there’s hope.



Sonr er betri,

þótt sé síð of alinn

eftir genginn guma;

sjaldan bautarsteinar

standa brautu nær,

nema reisi niðr at nið.


A son is better,

Even though he be born late

After a man is gone;

Gravestones seldom

Stand near the road,

Unless kin raises them to kin.


A son is better than no son at all; while the preference for male offspring reflects the patriarchal culture, the concern is more with legacy of fame than with keeping a family line. As the famous lines coming soon (76-77) suggest, living on in memory and in memorial are the most important things. Like Beowulf’s Barrow at the end of that epic poem, the ‘gravestones’ would not be the modern headstones but the carefully constructed cairn. Heroes were not to be hidden in the ground but made part of the landscape.



Tveir ro eins herjar,

tunga er höfuðs bani;

er mér í heðin hvern

handar væni.


 Two destroy one,

[just as] the tongue is the head’s bane.

In every fur cloak

I expect fists.


Evans’ edition of the poem offers a wide range of interpretations of the gnomic verse here. The sense of two destroying one could be a simple statement about choosing your battles wisely and avoiding those where you are outnumbered. The additional line about the tongue being the head’s bane suggests that unwise talk—boasting too much?—could likewise give help to your opponent. Certainly it’s a bad idea to stir up trouble where it’s lurking. The image of the two hands (presumably fists) waiting under a cloak likewise offers a picture of a man spoiling for a fight if your tongue is ungoverned. Don’t make trouble for yourself.



Nótt verðr feginn

sá er nesti trúir,

skammar ro skips ráar;

hverf er haustgríma;

fjölð of viðrir

á fimm dögum

en meira á mánuði.


 At night he is happy

Who trusts in his provisions,

Short are the ship’s yards [of sail];

Autumn nights are changeable.

The weather changes much

In five days

And even more in a month.


A verse about the sea-faring life and what it takes to survive. Make sure your ship is larded well and you won’t be starving or thirsty at sea. It takes careful planning as there is never much room on the ship to store anything. The ‘sails’ being short Evans takes as a reference to the yardarm and notes, “in a shipwreck a drowning man clutches at a floating yardarm, which, being short, offers less support than he would wish” (110-111). The changeable weather between Norway and Iceland would have been challenging at any time, but autumn’s danger gets highlighted perhaps because the memory of summer remains close.



Veit-a hinn,

er vettki veit,

margr verðr af aurum api;

maðr er auðigr,

annar óauðigr,

skyli-t þann vítka váar.


He does not know

Who knows nothing,

Many become fools through wealth.

One might be rich,

Another might be poor,

One ought not blame that one for the misfortune.


This stanza is a little tricky both in punctuating and interpreting. ‘Aurum’ is an emendation (the manuscript has been corrupted over time), but the idea of wealth seems to fit. The stanza presents wealth rather ambivalently: people become foolish through wealth perhaps because they forget to be on their guard against the myriad dangers of life; possibly also because they stop relying on the qualities that survival requires. But there’s a matter of luck, too. Wealth doesn’t always come to the one who deserves it. If you are not rich, the poem suggests, your enemy is not those who are wealthy but the luck that has deserted you. This has as much to do with a belief in fate (wyrd) as in luck (hamingja). Fate goes ever as it must and your luck can literally run out.


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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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