Hávamál (Sayings of Hár, Sayings of the high one) is one of the
poems of the Poetic Edda. It sets out a set of guidelines for wise
living and survival; some verses are written from the perspective of
Odin (particularly towards the end, where it segues into an account
of Odin's obtaining of the magical
runes and the spells he learned). The Hávamál is both practical and metaphysical
in content. The only surviving source for this poem is contained within the Codex
Regius and is thought to be no older than c. year
800 from earlier oral tradition. We have seven English Translations of
the Hávamál available on the Temple of Our Heathen Gods resource
It can be immensely interesting and
instructional to read and compare two of more translations, stanza
by stanza, in order to identify the differences in meaning
that each translation may contain. We've built whole Kindred study group sessions out of
this activity, but a Heathen individual or familiy could do
this as well. We're working on building an on-line version of
this stanza-by-stanza examination and analysis. Follow this link to
check our progress:
The Hávamál consists of a number of poems, which
shift in tone and tenor and narrative position. Numerous English
translations exist of the text. The three main sections of the
Hávamál are the Gestaţáttr (1-79), the Loddfáfnismál (80-137), and
the Rúnatal (138-165).
The first section Gestaţáttr, the "guest's
section", strophes 1 - 79, comprises a set of maxims for how to
comport oneself when a guest and travelling, focussing particularly
on the etiquette and behavioral relationships between hosts and
guests and the sacred lore of reciprocity and hospitality which was
endemic to a seafaring peoples. The first stanza exemplifies the
practical behavioral advice it offers:
According to Carolyne Larrington's 1996
All the entrances, before you walk
you should look at,
you should spy out;
can't know for certain where enemies are sitting,
ahead in the
Number 77 is possibly the most known one of
the Gestaţáttr. This is from Larrington's translation:
Cattle die, kinsmen die
must also die;
I know one thing which never dies:
reputation of each dead man.
The next major section of Hávamál deals with
morals, ethics, correct action and codes of conduct. It is directed
to Loddfáfnir ("stray-singer"), hence the name for this section,
Loddfáfnismál, who stands in the place of the reader (or, as was the
case at the time, the listener).
The Rúnatal (Rúnatáls-tháttr-Odhins or Odins
Rune Song) is a section of the Hávamál of which Odin reveals the
Secret of the Runes. It runs from Stanzas' 138 through to 165.
Odin talks of his self-sacrifice (to
himself) in stanza 138 and 139, in the section known as Rúnatal.
According to Larrington's translation:
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
Wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a
drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes,
screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.
The last section, the Ljóđatal, which is
very mystical, deals with the transmission of knowledge, and the
Odinic mysteries. It is essentially a list and a key to a sequenced
number of runic charms. There are correspondences between this
section and with the Sigrdrífumál, in which the valkyrie Sigrdrífa
details a number of the runes at her command.
Stanza 151, for example, according to
I know a sixth one if a man wounds me
with the roots of the sap-filled wood:
and that man who
conjured to harm me,
the evil consumes him, not me.
The sending of a tree root with runes carved
into it is well documented in Norse literature; it was, for example,
the cause of death of Grettir the Strong.
Note by H.A.
The following introductory note was
written by H.A. Bellows at the beginning of his translation of the
Hávamál, which he refers to as the "Hovamol." I've included
them here, because I thought they were interesting...
The Ballad of the High
This poem follows the Voluspo in the Codex
Regius, but is preserved in no other manuscript. The first stanza is
quoted by Snorri, and two lines of stanza 84 appear in one of the
In its present shape it involves the critic
of the text in more puzzles than any other of the Eddic poems.
Without going in detail into the various theories, what happened
seems to have been somewhat as follows. There existed from very
early times a collection of proverbs and wise counsels, which were
attributed to Othin just as the Biblical proverbs were to Solomon.
This collection, which presumably was always elastic in extent, was
known as "The High One's Words," and forms the basis of the present
poem. To it, however, were added other poems and fragments dealing
with wisdom which seemed by their nature to imply that the speaker
was Othin. Thus a catalogue of runes, or charms, was tacked on, and
also a set of proverbs, differing essentially in form from those
comprising the main collection. Here and there bits of verse more
nearly narrative crept in; and of course the loose structure of the
poem made it easy for any reciter to insert new stanzas almost at
will. This curious miscellany is what we now have as the
Five separate elements are pretty clearly
recognizable: (1) the Hovamol proper (stanzas 1-80), a collection of
proverbs and counsels for the conduct of life; (2) the Loddfafnismol
(stanzas 111-138), a collection somewhat similar to the first, but
specific ally addressed to a certain Loddfafnir; (3) the Ljothatal
(stanzas 147-165), a collection of charms; (4) the love-story of
Othin and Billing's daughter (stanzas 96-102), with an introductory
dissertation on the faithlessness of women in general (stanzas
81-95), which probably crept into the poem first, and then pulled
the story, as an apt illustration, after it; (5) the story of how
Othin got the mead of poetry--the draught which gave him the gift of
tongues--from the maiden Gunnloth (stanzas 103-110). There is also a
brief passage (stanzas 139 146) telling how Othin won the runes,
this passage being a natural introduction to the Ljothatal, and
doubtless brought into the poem for that reason.
It is idle to discuss the authorship or date
of such a series of accretions as this. Parts of it are doubtless
among the oldest relics of ancient Germanic poetry; parts of it may
have originated at a relatively late period. Probably, however, most
of its component elements go pretty far back, although we have no
way of telling how or when they first became associated.
It seems all but meaningless to talk about
"interpolations" in a poem which has developed almost solely through
the process of piecing together originally unrelated odds and ends.
The notes, therefore, make only such suggestions as are needed to
keep the main divisions of the poem distinct.
Few gnomic collections in the world's
literary history present sounder wisdom more tersely expressed than
the Hovamol. Like the Book of Proverbs it occasionally rises to
lofty heights of poetry. If it presents the worldly wisdom of a
violent race, it also shows noble ideals of loyalty, truth, and
The following note was written by
Patricia Terry at the end of her translation of the Hávamál.
I've included these notes, because I thought these were also
The title presumably alludes to the
king who answers King Gylfi's questions in Snorri Sturluson's
handbook. He was called High One, although he occupied the lowest of
three high-seats, under "Just as High" and "Third." In Snorri's
version it is Gylfi who pronounces the first stanza in the Hávamál,
counseling prudence. That is perhaps the most fundamental lesson:
one does not walk confidently into a hall, sure that one will be
among friends. After caution, the first requirements are warmth and
wit, understandably enough in a climate with long dark winters and a
sparsely settled countryside. The most important values are an
avoidance of extremes, friends who can be trusted, life itself, even
if it be impoverished or otherwise handicapped, and above all the
"one thing that never dies," one's reputation.
There is no presence of women in the
non-narrative sections of the poem -- not even a suggestion that
life might be pleasanter with a good wife, or even just a good cook.
There is no thought of an after-life, no judgement beyond that of
one's fellow men.
The collection includes two narratives
relating Odin's quest for wisdom. The tale of his stealing the mead
of poetry is introduced during a sequence about moderation, Odin
being the one whose wits were caught by the "mind-stealing heron" of
stanza 13, the magic that lured him, or the drink that befuddled
him, at the giant Suttung's feast. (The "Fjalar" of stanza 14,
according to Snorri was a dwarf who participated in the creation of
the mead of poetry from the blood of the murdered Kvasir, wisest of
men.) The story is taken up again in stanza 104. Odin penetrated the
giant's underground hall by turning himself into a snake, and
seduced Suttung's daughter who gave him a drink of the mead. Snorri
tells us that Odin escaped in the form of an eagle, and returned to
Asgard where he spat the mead into crocks. The gift of poetry was
thus given to the Ćsir and also, it is said, to human poets. Odin
acquired another form of wisdom by hanging, self-wounded, "on a high
windy tree," presumably the Ash Tree, for nine nights. (Hallberg
believes that the general title of the poem refers to Odin's
situation here.) The story is told in stanzas 138-163, and inserted
into the sequence of stanzas addressed to "Loddfafnir." Whether
"Loddfafnir" is the person addressed, or, as Hollander suggests, the
name of the singer, the rune song does not contain the information
it points to. For Odin himself, the quest for wisdom, which includes
his sacrifice of an eye, leads to no perceptible result. Perhaps he
had not yet acquired the sixteenth and seventeenth runes when he
wooed Billing's daughter. When the völva mockingly alludes to his
sacrifice, in her narration of Ragnarök, she seems to indicate the
ultimate futility of his knowledge.
Sources: Wikipedia and The Poetic Edda at
Again, we have seven English Translations of
the Havamal here on our resource website:
Or follow this link to examine the various
translations on a stanza-by-stanza basis, along with discussion
and analysis regarding the meaning of each stanza: