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: 81-84

At kveldi skal dag leyfa,
konu, er brennd er,
mæki, er reyndr er,
mey, er gefin er,
ís, er yfir kemr,
öl, er drukkit er.

At evening shall one praise the day / a woman, when you burn her / a sword, when you test it / a maid, when you give her [to a husband] / ice, when you cross it / ale, when it's drunk.

The viking life relied upon proofs of a tangible sort. Don't praise a day until its end or a woman until her end. The burning might provoke thoughts of witch-burnings, but it's only a reference to the practice of cremation. The general mistrust of praise until actions bear out words flavours many of the verses here. 'The proof is in the pudding' we might say; certainly we know ice is strong once we have crossed it and ale if it's drunk and found tasty, but the line about the maid offers an interesting 'endpoint': her husband in this case seems to be the judge. While women enjoyed a much greater esteem in the northern society than most of their southern neighbours, it's still a patriarchal society.

Í vindi skal við höggva,
veðri á sjó róa,
myrkri við man spjalla,
mörg eru dags augu;
á skip skal skriðar orka,
en á skjöld til hlífar,
mæki höggs,
en mey til kossa.


In wind shall you hew [wood] / in [good] weather, row to sea / in darkness chat up [women] / many are the day's eyes; / work a ship for its gliding / and a shield for protection / a sword for blows / a maid to kiss.

This verse deals with conditions and timings: Evans suggests the possibility that the contrast between the first and second lines implies staying in to chop wood in bad weather, sailing away when the winds are more favourable. We might think that 'the night has a thousand eyes' but clearly the norsemen thought it was the day. Get the most out of everything: work the wood of your ship until it glides across the waves with ease. Make your shield strong -- and kiss as many women as you can get away with.

Við eld skal öl drekka,
en á ísi skríða,
magran mar kaupa,
en mæki saurgan,
heima hest feita,
en hund á búi.


By the fire, drink ale / and on the ice glide / a skinny steed buy / and a dirty [rusty] sword; / at home fatten the horse / and the dog at another's farm.

Continuing the theme of the 'right place, right time' of course it makes sense to enjoy your ale by the fire and to glide across the ice like Skarphéðinn in Njal's Saga (though perhaps not always quite so lethally). the second half of the verse is less clear: while it seems certain that part of the advice is to buy a thin horse and feed it well, the line about the dog is less clear. Evans suggests that it may be a matter of letting the dog fend for itself to keep it keen.

Meyjar orðum
skyli manngi trúa
né því, er kveðr kona,
því at á hverfanda hvéli
váru þeim hjörtu sköpuð,
brigð í brjóst of lagið.

The words of a maid / should no man believe / nor that which a woman speaks / for on the turning wheel / were their hearts shaped, / inconstancy laid in their breasts.

A continuation in centuries of misogyny: whether women are compared to the waxing and waning moon or the wheel of fortune, it's clear we're not to be trusted for constancy. Like a misshapen vessel on the potter's wheel, we have been sculpted with inherent flaws. No wonder women feel particularly motivated to change things after centuries of this kind of nonsense.

See the earlier verses like Meditations on Hávamál: 76-80



Evans, DAH. Hávamál. Viking Society for Northern Research, 1986.

Hávamál. Old Norse text via Heimskringla Norway.

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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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