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, 23-26

Ósviðr maðr
vakir um allar nætr
ok hyggr at hvívetna;
þá er móðr,
er at morgni kemr,
allt er víl sem var.

The unreasonable man wakes all the night, and ponders over every thing. Thus it is for the man, who when morning comes, finds all will seem just as wretched.

Who doesn't know the restless and often seemingly endless woe of a sleepless night? Those who suffer insomnia feel not only the dull ache of isolation but the fatigue that never seems to end. The ceaseless ache of depression saps energy and hope. There seems to be a bit of blame associated with the idea, juxtaposed with the 'unwise man' verses below, but there is a slight difference in the word choice. Nonetheless, the verse suggests that in this case it's more that one allows stress to take the form of sleeplessness. We know insomnia is more complex than that now.

Ósnotr maðr
hyggr sér alla vera
viðhlæjendr vini;
hittki hann fiðr,
þótt þeir um hann fár lesi,
ef hann með snotrum sitr.

The unwise man thinks all who mock to be his friends; yet he finds fault-finding, although they speak evil of him when he sits with wiser men.

Discernment is highly prized in these verses: the ósnotr maðr is a frequent target and the embodiment of all one ought not to do. Know what people say of you; when does teasing turn to insult? Listen to the wise: do they speak well of you? Have you earned their praise?

Ósnotr maðr
hyggr sér alla vera
viðhlæjendr vini;
þá þat finnr,
er at þingi kemr,
at hann á formælendr fáa.

The unwise man thinks all who mock to be his friends; yet he finds that when he comes to the Thing, there are few spokesmen for him. 

The foolish man pays no attention to the regard with which he his held. The one place that matters most is at the Thing, the local system of government. Iceland prides itself on being one of the oldest democracies; the largest portion of the population came from Norway when Harald Fairhair sought to unite the country under his sole rule. Not surprisingly, they agreed to share power in Iceland, giving each region its own authority and agreeing to a set of laws. The lawspeaker had to keep all the laws in memory and recite one third of them each year at the All-Thing, or national assembly, to verify that he knew them by heart. Honestly, it was exactly a democracy: men (and some women) with more wealth and power wielded more influence (see the sagas for lots of evidence, for example Hrafnkel's saga). Forging connections with wise and powerful people proves essential for Icelanders

Ósnotr maðr
þykkisk allt vita,
ef hann á sér í vá veru;
hittki hann veit,
hvat hann skal við kveða,
ef hans freista firar.

The unwise man thinks himself to know all, if he has a corner to sit in; he knows when he meets those who shall call upon him, if people test him.

In the internet age, we know all too well those who would set themselves up as experts without challenge. When quizzed by the wise, their ignorance is soon revealed. We all would do well to be aware of the limits of our knowledge. You never know when you'll run into someone who knows far more about a subject than you. Best to avoid senseless boasting, but that's where wisdom begins.

Hávamál text via Heimskringla.

See the previous verses.


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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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