History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

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Meditations on Hávamál 1-4

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

Hávamál offers us a glimpse of a past that had already become somewhat nostalgic when a single hand transcribed the poem around 1270 CE.  As David A. H. Evans writes in the Viking Society for Northern Research’s edition of the verses, this second poem of the Elder Edda “is deservedly one of the most celebrated works to have survived from the early Norse world.” It’s full of gnomic advice that continues to be of interest—and application—to us in the modern world. Old Norse text via the Heimskringla Project.

Gáttir allar,
áðr gangi fram,
um skoðask skyli,
um skyggnast skyli,
því at óvíst er at vita,
hvar óvinir
sitja á fleti fyrir.

Gefendr heilir!
Gestr er inn kominn,
hvar skal sitja sjá?
Mjök er bráðr,
sá er á bröndum skal
síns of freista frama.

Elds er þörf,
þeims inn er kominn
ok á kné kalinn;
matar ok váða
er manni þörf,
þeim er hefr um fjall farit.

Vatns er þörf,
þeim er til verðar kemr,
þerru ok þjóðlaðar,
góðs of æðis,
ef sér geta mætti,
orðs ok endrþögu.


1 Before going through every gate one should look around, peer around, because it’s not possible to know where enemies sit on the benches already.

From the start the sayings of the High one present a world of dangers. The alertness of the wise warrior must be there from the start. Every doorway offers opportunities for peril. Even the safety of the hall remains suspect because on the benches inside wait those who are not friends. The óvinr is literally ‘not friend’ and the verse picks up on a common phenomenon we all recognize: those who show one face and conceal another. It also suggests a clear division: friend, not friend. There’s not a lot of grey area here.


2 Greetings to the host! A guest has come in. Where shall this one sit? He is most hasty who shall sit on the firewood, there to test his mettle.

Watchful one must be, but polite, too. The courtesies of greetings, the giving and accepting of hospitality are the first way any stranger is judged. You don’t get a second chance to make first impressions, as folks like to say. And if you sit in near the fire, you’re going to be put to work. There are a lot of testing motifs in the poem: some action that seems casual may be read with great discernment by the people in the hall.


3 Fire is needed for the one who has come in with cold knee and food and clothes one needs also, the man who has journeyed from the mountain.

The realities of life in the north! Part of hospitality is getting your guests warm and dry as well as fed. A seat near the fire, if not actually on the pile of wood, should be offered and wet clothes replaced with warm dry ones. You may not have a lot to give but warm clothes however worn will show good intentions. A respite from a hard journey will warm the heart as well.


4 Water is needed for the one who comes to the meal, and of a towel and friendly invitation, of good disposition, if one can get it, of words and silence in return.

Yes, let’s dispel the image of the filthy Viking right now. After the roughness of a long journey, anyone welcomes the chance to get clean. People still repeat the mistaken believe that no one bathed in the Middle Ages. Ha! Plus in Iceland you also had hot water coming out of the ground. And as a true introvert, these words of advice warm my heart. Surely the arrival of a visitor was a chance to hear news, but the poet wisely cautions the need to be silent in turn, to allow the visitor to speak or not speak as they might choose.

More next time!

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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.


  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard Wednesday, 07 November 2012

    This is what I needed today. Blessings on your dear head, Laity.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Thursday, 08 November 2012

    You are most kind, my friend.

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