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Hávamál

Hávamál, literal translation The Words of the High,
or the words of Óðinn, the chief god of the old Æsir religion
of the Northern people of Europe.
This poem is certainly not younger than the start of the Viking Age,
ca. 800 AD, and the original we have access to today
is in Codex Regius, the only copy of this poem in manuscript form.
We Icelanders have tended through the ages to think of this
as an Icelandic poem, but it is not purely Icelandic,
this poem is Germanic/Nordic, it is a part of the
common cultural heritage of the people of Northern Europe.

We Icelanders are, however, privileged to be able to read the poem
in the original surviving version, others have to do with a translation,
or learn Icelandic. In this sense the poem is Icelandic today.
The following translation by W.H.Auden and P.B.Taylor
is in itself a good one, but can only give a sense of the original,
the scansion being different and in every translation the map differs,
i.e. the mental map the reader has imprinted from his cultural heritage.
This poem has been compared in importance to the writings
of Lao Tse and other great thinkers.
It is offered here in the hope that it will maybe help someone
to understand the Icelandic psyche a little better.


1.
The man who stands at a strange threshold,
Should be cautious before he cross it,
Glance this way and that:
Who knows beforehand what foes may sit
Awaiting him in the hall?

2.
Greetings to the host,
The guest has arrived,
In which seat shall he sit?
Rash is he who at unknown doors
Relies on his good luck.

3.
Fire is needed by the newcomer
Whose knees are frozen numb;
Meat and clean linen a man needs
Who has fared across the fells.

4.
Water, too, that he may wash before eating,
Handcloth's and a hearty welcome,
Courteous words, then courteous silence
That he may tell his tale.

5.
Who travels widely needs his wits about him,
The stupid should stay at home:
The ignorant man is often laughed at
When he sits at meat with the sage.

6.
Of his knowledge a man should never boast,
Rather be sparing of speech
When to his house a wiser comes:
Seldom do those who are silent
Make mistakes; mother wit
Is ever a faithful friend.

7.
A guest should be courteous
When he comes to the table
And sit in wary silence,
His ears attentive, his eyes alert:
So he protects himself.

8.
Fortunate is he who is favoured in his lifetime
With praise and words of wisdom:
Evil counsel is often given
By those of evil heart.

9.
Blessed is he who in his own lifetime
Is awarded praise and wit,
For ill counsel is often given
By mortal men to each other.

10.
Better gear than good sense
A traveller cannot carry,
Better than riches for a wretched man,
Far from his own home.

11.
Better gear than good sense
A traveller cannot carry,
A more tedious burden than too much drink
A traveller cannot carry.

12.
Less good than belief would have it
Is mead for the sons of men:
A man knows less the more he drinks,
Becomes a befuddled fool.

13.
I-forget is the name men give the heron
Who hovers over the fast:
Fettered I was in his feathers that night,
When a guest in Gunnlod's court.

14.
Drunk I got, dead drunk,
When Fjalar the wise was with me:
Best is the banquet one looks back on after,
And remembers all that happened.

15.
Silence becomes the Son of a prince,
To be silent but brave in battle:
It befits a man to be merry and glad
Until the day of his death.

16.
The coward believes he will live forever
If he holds back in the battle,
But in old age he shall have no peace
Though spears have spared his limbs.

17.
When he meets friends, the fool gapes,
Is shy and sheepish at first,
Then he sips his mead and immediately
All know what an oaf he is.

18.
He who has seen and suffered much,
And knows the ways of the world,
Who has travelled, can tell what spirit
Governs the men he meets.

19.
Drink your mead, but in moderation,
Talk sense or be silent:
No man is called discourteous who goes
To bed at an early hour.

20.
A gluttonous man who guzzles away
Brings sorrow on himself:
At the table of the wise he is taunted often,
Mocked for his bloated belly.

21.
The herd knows its homing time,
And leaves the grazing ground:
But the glutton never knows how much
His belly is able to hold.

22.
An ill tempered, unhappy man
Ridicules all he hears,
Makes fun of others, refusing always
To see the faults in himself.

23.
Foolish is he who frets at night,
And lies awake to worry'
A weary man when morning comes,
He finds all as bad as before.

24.
The fool thinks that those who laugh
At him are all his friends,
Unaware when he sits with wiser men
How ill they speak of him.

25.
The fool thinks that those who laugh
At him are all his friends:
When he comes to the Thing and calls for support,
Few spokesmen he finds.

26.
The fool who fancies he is full of wisdom
While he sits by his hearth at home.
Quickly finds when questioned by others.
That he knows nothing at all.

27.
The ignorant booby had best be silent
When he moves among other men,
No one will know what a nit-wit he is
Until he begins to talk;
No one knows less what a nit-wit he is
Than the man who talks too much.

28.
To ask well, to answer rightly,
Are the marks of a wise man:
Men must speak of men's deeds,
What happens may not be hidden.

29.
Wise is he not who is never silent,
Mouthing meaningless words:
A glib tongue that goes on chattering
Sings to its own harm.

30.
A man among friends should not mock another:
Many believe the man
Who is not questioned to know much
And so he escapes their scorn.

31.
The wise guest has his way of dealing
With those who taunt him at table:
He smiles through the meal,
Not seeming to hear
The twaddle talked by his foes.

32.
The fastest friends may fall out
When they sit at the banquet-board:
It is, and shall be, a shameful thing
When guest quarrels with guest.

33.
An early meal a man should take
Before he visits friends,
Lest, when he gets there, he go hungry,
Afraid to ask for food.

34.
To a false friend the footpath winds
Though his house be on the highway.
To a sure friend there is a short cut,
Though he live a long way off.

35.
The tactful guest will take his leave
Early, not linger long:
He starts to stink who outstays his welcome
In a hall that is not his own.

36.
A small hut of one's own is better,
A man is his master at home:
A couple of goats and a corded roof
Still are better than begging.

37.
A small hut of one's own is better,
A man is his master at home:
His heart bleeds in the beggar who must
Ask at each meal for meat.

38.
A wayfarer should not walk unarmed,
But have his weapons to hand:
He knows not when he may need a spear,
Or what menace meet on the road.

39.
No man is so generous he will jib at accepting
A gift in return for a gift,
No man so rich that it really gives him
Pain to be repaid.

40.
Once he has won wealth enough,
A man should not crave for more:
What he saves for friends, foes may take;
Hopes are often liars.

41.
With presents friends should please each other,
With a shield or a costly coat:
Mutual giving makes for friendship,
So long as life goes well.

42.
A man should be loyal through life to friends,
To them and to friends of theirs,
But never shall a man make offer
Of friendship to his foes.

43.
A man should be loyal through life to friends,
And return gift for gift,
Laugh when they laugh, but with lies repay
A false foe who lies.

44.
If you find a friend you fully trust
And wish for his good-will,
exchange thoughts, exchange gifts,
Go often to his house.

45.
If you deal with another you don't trust
But wish for his good-will,
Be fair in speech but false in thought
And give him lie for lie.

46.
Even with one you ill-trust
And doubt what he means to do,
False words with fair smiles
May get you the gift you desire.

47.
Young and alone on a long road,
Once I lost my way:
Rich I felt when I found another;
Man rejoices in man.

48.
The generous and bold have the best lives,
Are seldom beset by cares,
But the base man sees bogies everywhere
And the miser pines for presents.

49.
Two wooden stakes stood on the plain,
On them I hung my clothes:
Draped in linen, they looked well born,
But, naked, I was a nobody.

50.
The young fir that falls and rots
Having neither needles nor bark,
So is the fate of the friendless man:
Why should he live long?

51.
Hotter than fire among false hearts burns
Friendship for five days,
But suddenly slackens when the sixth dawns:
Feeble their friendship then.

52.
A kind word need not cost much,
The price of praise can be cheap:
With half a loaf and an empty cup
I found myself a friend.

53.
Little a sand-grain, little a dew drop,
Little the minds of men
All men are not equal in wisdom,
The half-wise are everywhere.

54.
It is best for man to be middle-wise,
Not over cunning and clever:
The fairest life is led by those
Who are deft at all they do.

55.
It is best for man to be middle-wise,
Not over cunning and clever:
No man is able to know his future,
So let him sleep in peace.

56.
It is best for man to be middle-wise,
Not over cunning and clever:
The learned man whose lore is deep
Is seldom happy at heart.

57.
Brand kindles brand till they burn out,
Flame is quickened by flame:
One man from another is known by his speech
The simpleton by his silence.

58.
Early shall he rise who has designs
On anothers land or life:
His prey escapes the prone wolf,
The sleeper is seldom victorious.

59.
Early shall he rise who rules few servants,
And set to work at once:
Much is lost by the late sleeper,
Wealth is won by the swift.

60.
A man should know how many logs
And strips of bark from the birch
To stock in autumn, that he may have enough
Wood for his winter fires.

61.
Washed and fed, one may fare to the Thing:
Though one's clothes be the worse for Wear,
None need be ashamed of his shoes or hose,
Nor of the horse he owns,
Although no thoroughbred.

62.
As the eagle who comes to the ocean shore,
Sniffs and hangs her head,
Dumfounded is he who finds at the Thing
No supporters to plead his case.

63.
It is safe to tell a secret to one,
Risky to tell it to two,
To tell it to three is thoughtless folly,
Everyone else will know.

64.
Moderate at council should a man be,
Not brutal and over bearing:
Among the bold the bully will find
Others as bold as he.

66.
Too early to many homes I came,
Too late, it seemed, to some:
The ale was finished or else un-brewed,
The unpopular cannot please.

67.
Some would invite me to visit their homes,
But none thought I needed a meal,
As though I had eaten a whole joint,
Just before with a friend who had two.

68.
These things are thought the best:
Fire, the sight of the sun,
Good health with the gift to keep it,
And a life that avoids vice.

69.
Not all sick men are utterly wretched:
Some are blessed with sons,
Some with friends, some with riches,
Some with worthy works.

70.
It is always better to be alive,
The living can keep a cow.
Fire, I saw, warming a wealthy man,
With a cold corpse at his door.

71.
The halt can manage a horse,
the handless a flock,
The deaf be a doughty fighter,
To be blind is better than to burn on a pyre:
There is nothing the dead can do.

72.
A son is a blessing, though born late
To a father no longer alive:
Stones would seldom stand by the highway
If sons did not set them there.

73.
Often words uttered to another
Have reaped an ill harvest:
Two beat one, the tongue is head's bane,
Pockets of fur hide fists.

74.
He welcomes the night who has enough provisions
Short are the sails of a ship,
Dangerous the dark in autumn,
The wind may veer within five days,
And many times in a month.

75.
The half wit does not know that gold
Makes apes of many men:
One is rich, one is poor,
There is no blame in that.

76.
Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well.

77.
Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But I know one thing that never dies,
The glory of the great dead.

W.H.Auden & P.B.Taylor translation. Believed to be public domain. Source Rob Goodson.