The Stranger at the Door

"The Stranger at the Door" (1908) by W. G. Collingwood.

Hávamál (Template:IPAc-en Template:Respell; "sayings of the high one"; Template:IPA-non, Template:IPA-is) is presented as a single poem in the Codex Regius, a collection of Old Norse poems from the Viking age. The poem, itself a combination of different poems, is largely gnomic, presenting advice for living, proper conduct and wisdom.

The verses are attributed to Odin; the implicit attribution to Odin facilitated the accretion of various mythological material also dealing with the same deity.[1]

For the most part composed in the metre Ljóðaháttr, a metre associated with wisdom verse, Hávamál is both practical and philosophical in content.[2] Following the gnomic "Hávamál proper" follows the Rúnatal, an account of how Odin won the runes, and the Ljóðatal, a list of magic chants or spells.[3]

Textual history

The only surviving source for Hávamál is the 13th century Codex Regius. The part dealing with ethical conduct (the Gestaþáttr) was traditionally identified as the oldest portion of the poem by scholarship in the 19th and early 20th century. Bellows (1936) identifies as the core of the poem a "collection of proverbs and wise counsels" which dates to "a very early time", but which, by the nature of oral tradition, never had a fixed form or extent. Von See (1981) identifies direct influence of the Disticha Catonis on the Gestaþáttr, suggesting that also this part is a product of the high medieval period and casting doubt on the "unadulterated Germanic character" of the poem claimed by earlier commentators.[4]

To the gnomic core of the poem, other fragments and poems dealing with wisdom and proverbs accreted over time. A discussion of authorship or date for the individual parts would be futile, since almost every line or stanza could have been added, altered or removed at will at any time before the poem was written down in the 13th century. Individual verses or stanzas nevertheless certainly date to as early as the 10th, or even the 9th century. Thus, the line deyr fé, deyja frændr ("cattle die, kinsmen die") found in verses 76 and 77 of the Gestaþáttr can be shown to date to the 10th century, as it also occurs in the Hákonarmál by Eyvindr skáldaspillir.


The Hávamál is edited in 165 stanzas by Bellows (1936). Other editions give 164 stanzas, combining Bellow's stanzas 11 and 12, as the manuscript abbreviates the last two lines of stanzas 11. Some editors also combine Bellow's stanzas 163 and 164. In the following, Bellow's numeration is used.

The poems in Hávamál is traditionally taken to consist of at least five independent parts,

  1. the Gestaþáttr, or Hávamál proper, (stanzas 1-80), a collection of proverbs and gnomic wisdom
  2. a dissertation on the faithlessness of women (stanzas 81-95), prefacing an account of the love-story of Odin and the daughter of Billingr (stanzas 96-102) and the story of how Odin got the mead of poetry from the maiden Gunnlöð (stanzas 103-110)
  3. the Loddfáfnismál (stanzas 111-138), a collection of gnomic verses similar to the Gestaþáttr, addressed to a certain Loddfáfnir
  4. the Rúnatal (stanzas 139-146), an account of how Odin won the runes, introductory to the Ljóðatal
  5. the Ljóðatal (stanzas 147-165), a collection of charms

Stanzas 6 and 27 are expanded beyond the standard four lines by an additional two lines of "commentary". Bellow's edition inverses the manuscript order of stanzas 39 and 40. Bellow's stanza 138 (Ljóðalok) is taken from the very end of the poem in the manuscript, placed before the Rúnatal by most editors following Müllenhoff. Stanzas 65, 73-74, 79, 111, 133-134, 163 are defective.

Stanzas 81-84 are in málaháttr, 85-88 in fornyrðislag. The entire section of 81-102 appears to be an ad hoc interpolation. Stanza 145 is also an interpolation in málaháttr.



The first section Gestaþáttr, the "guest's section". Stanzas 1 through 79 comprise a set of maxims for how to handle oneself when a guest and traveling, focusing particularly on manners and other behavioral relationships between hosts and guests and the sacred lore of reciprocity and hospitality to the Norse pagans.

The first stanza exemplifies the practical behavioral advice it offers:

All the entrances, before you walk forward,
you should look at,
you should spy out;
for you can't know for certain where enemies are sitting,
ahead in the hall[3]

Number 76 is possibly the most known section of Gestaþáttr: Template:Verse translation

On women

Billingr's girl, bitch, and Odin by Frølich

Billingr's girl watches on while Odin encounters the bitch tied to her bedpost (1895) by Lorenz Frølich.

Stanzas 83 to 110 deal with the general topic of romantic love and the character of women.

It is introduced by a discussion of the faithlessness of women and advice for the seducing of them in stanzas 84-95, followed by two mythological accounts of Odin's interaction with women also known as "Odin's Examples" or "Odin's Love Quests". The first is an account of Odin's thwarted attempt of possessing the daughter of Billing (stanzas 96-102), followed by the story of the mead of poetry which Odin won by seducing its guardian, the maiden Gunnlöð (stanzas 103-110).


The Loddfáfnismál (stanzas 111-138) is again gnomic, dealing with morals, ethics, correct action and codes of conduct. The section is directed to Loddfáfnir ("stray-singer").


Odin's Self-sacrifice by Collingwood

"Odin's Self-sacrifice" (1908) by W. G. Collingwood.

Jelling gr Stein 3

The younger Jelling stone (erected by Harald Bluetooth ca. 970) shows the crucifixion of Christ with the victim suspended in the branches of a tree instead of on a cross.[5]

Rúnatal or Óðins Rune Song, Rúnatáls-þáttr-Óðins (stanzas 139-146) is a section of the Hávamál where Odin reveals the origins of the runes. In stanzas 139 and 140, Odin describes his sacrifice of himself to himself: Template:Verse translation

The "windy tree" from which the victim hangs is often identified with the world tree Yggdrasil by commentators. The entire scene, the sacrifice of a god to himself, the execution method by hanging the victim on a tree, and the wound inflicted on the victim by a spear, is often compared to the crucifixion of Christ as narrated in the gospels. The parallelism of Odin and Christ during the period of open co-existence of Christianity and Norse paganism in Scandinavia (the 9th to 12th centuries, corresponding with the assumed horizon of the poem's composition) is also evident from other sources. To what extent this parallelism is an incidental similarity of the mode of human sacrifice offered to Odin and the crucifixion, and to what extent a Pagan influence on Christianity, or vice versa, may have occurred, is a complex question on which scholarly opinions vary.[6]


The last section, the Ljóðatal enumerates eighteen songs (ljóð), sometimes called "charms", prefaced with Template:Verse translation

The songs themselves are not given, just their application or effect described. They are explicitly counted from "the first" in stanza 147, and "a second" to "an eighteenth" in stanzas 148 to 165, given in Roman numerals in the manuscript.[7]

There is no explicit mention of runes or runic magic in the Ljóðatal excepting in the twelfth song (stanza 158), which takes up the motif of Odin hanging on the tree and its association with runes, Template:Verse translation

Nevertheless, because of the Rúnatal preceding the list, modern commentators sometimes reinterpret the Ljóðatal as referring to runes, specifically with the sixteen letters of the Younger Futhark.

Müllenhoff takes the original Ljóðatal to have ended with stanza 161, with the final three songs (16th to 18th) taken as late and obscure additions.

Germanic Neopaganism

The difference of sixteen runes of the Younger Futhark vs. eighteen charms in the Ljóðatal has notably motivated proponents of Germanic mysticism to expand the row by two extra runes. The best-known attempt to this effect are the Armanen runes by Guido von List (1902).

Various proponents of Germanic Neopagan groups place an emphasis on Hávamál as a source of a Norse pagan ethical code of conduct. The "Nine Noble Virtues", first compiled by Odinic Rite founder John "Stubba" Yeowell in the 1970s are "loosely based" on the Hávamál.Template:Citation needed The Northvegr Foundation cites the Hávamál among other Old Norse and Old English sources to illustrate "the ethical ideal of the Northern spiritual faith of Heithni."[8]

Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, leader of the Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið, published his performance of a number of Eddaic poems, including the Hávamál, chanted in rímur style.[9]

Tyr Neilsen along with his co-author Bente Wemundstad illustrated the Hávamál with photographs of modern vikings and exclusive pictures of the original manuscript. Their book entitled Viking Wisdom - HÁVAMÁL - the Sayings of Odin is made up of the Old Norse version along with a newly translated English version.[10] the book also gives an insight on some of the mysteries that surround the original material.[11]

Editions and translations

  • editio princeps: Peder Hansen Resen, Edda. Islandorum an. Chr. 1215 islandice conscripta,1665 (google books).
  • Peter Andreas Munch, Carl Rikard Unger, Den Ældre Edda: Samling af norrøne oldkvad, indeholdende Nordens ældste gude- og helte-sagn, Christiania: P. T. Malling, 1847 (google books)
  • Benjamin Thorpe, Edda Sæmundar Hinns Froða: The Edda Of Sæmund The Learned, 1866 (online transcription).
  • Sophus Bugge,Sæmundar Edda. Christiania: P. T. Malling, 1867.
  • Olive Bray, The Elder or Poetic Edda, commonly known as Sæmund's Edda, part I: The Mythological Poems, London: Printed for the Viking Club, 1908, pp. 61–111.
  • H. A. Bellows, The Poetic Edda, 1936, "Hovamol: The Ballad of the High One" (online edition)

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