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.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Meditations on Hávamál, 10-14

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

Byrði betri
berr-at maðr brautu at
en sé mannvit mikit;
auði betra
þykkir þat í ókunnum stað;
slíkt er válaðs vera.

Byrði betri
berr-at maðr brautu at
en sé mannvit mikit;
vegnest verra
vegr-a hann velli at
en sé ofdrykkja öls.

Er-a svá gótt
sem gótt kveða
öl alda sona,
því at færa veit,
er fleira drekkr
síns til geðs gumi.

Óminnishegri heitir
sá er yfir ölðrum þrumir,
hann stelr geði guma;
þess fugls fjöðrum
ek fjötraðr vark
í garði Gunnlaðar.

Ölr ek varð,
varð ofrölvi
at ins fróða Fjalars;
því er ölðr bazt,
at aftr of heimtir
hverr sitt geð gumi.


10. A better burden can no man carry along the way than great common sense; better than riches in the unknown place for the wretched man.

A theme throughout the verses of Hávamál is the importance of good sense. Even today we recognise the rarity of 'common' sense and praise its application while others jump to wild conclusions or seem confounded by simple problems. In a society that travels light, the reality of 'burdens' is more than just a metaphor. Think of travel on the viking ships. Each member of the crew would have only a small space for belongings on board. Good sense would allow anyone to make the most of whatever crossed their path.

11. A better burden can no man carry along the way than great common sense; and no worse provisions can he bring along than to be over-drinking of ale.

Given the drinking culture of the Norse, an important application of good sense was knowing your limits when it came to drinking. Drunkenness can leave you vulnerable if the need should come to defend yourself with words or weapons, which can be a matter of life or death. But the modern American puritanical approach of just saying no wasn't an option. You would have been marked as strange -- or worse, impolite! Drinking was a bond between strangers -- and sometimes a challenge between enemies (wait until I have a chance to discuss the great drinking/vomiting contest in Egil's Saga).

12. Ale is not so good as believed to be good for the sons of men; because the more one drinks the less the mind of men knows.

Certainly true, but once again opting out was not really an option, so knowing how to drink and how much was essential. The knowledge to make it was a gift from the gods and of course, the mead of poetry alluded to the expressive side of drinking. The tongue might be loosened to compose poetry which might otherwise be locked in the word hoard. The key was not tipping over int garrulous inebriation and gibberish.

13. Forgetfulness is the name of the heron who hovers over the ale drinking; he steals the minds of men. In that bird's feathers was I fettered in the dwelling of Gunnlöð.

As David Evans puts it, "Gunnlöð was the daughter of the giant Suttungr, who had acquired the sacred mead of poetry from the dwarfs Fjalarr and Galarr; Óðinn wins the mead by seducing her" (80). Here the tantalising border between inspiration and inebriation produces a guardian, the heron whose name is 'forgetfulness'. I love the image of drowning in his feathers. Why a heron might be associated with drinking? Ursula Dronke has suggested that it has to do with vomiting.

14. Drunk I became -- excessively drunk! -- there with wise Fjalarr. The best sort of ale party is one where your wits can yet be recovered after.

Wise words: the narrator recalls an unfortunate ale party. In the same location and situation, Óðinn was able to keep his wits about him and won the mead of poetry for the human race. You can almost hear the narrator shaking his head. The best drinking party is one which allows the muse free reign, but never allows it to run away. If you're going to compose wonderful poetry, you want to be able to recall it afterward.


See earlier entries in this series here.

Last modified on
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.


Additional information