History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

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Meditations on Hávamál, 35-39

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

Ganga skal,
skal-a gestr vera
ey í einum stað;
ljúfr verðr leiðr,
ef lengi sitr
annars fletjum á.

Go shall the guest
and not stay long in one place;
the loved one becomes loathed
if he sits too long

on another's bench.

The important thing about hospitality -- that measure of a man or a woman and their home -- is the assumption that such largesse will not be taxed or taken for granted. Long visits were a big part of the wealthy in Iceland, but they had to be planned for and stocks set by. Unexpected guests were given good welcome, but part of the unspoken agreement is that a visitor would know when to move on.

Bú er betra,
þótt lítit sé,
halr er heima hverr;
þótt tvær geitr eigi
ok taugreftan sal,
þat er þó betra en bæn.

Home is better
though it be little
a free man is he at home;
though he owns but two goats
and roofed with willow thatch,
it's better than begging a boon.

Not surprisingly the independence of the viking life made one's own home a castle even if it were little more than a small house with simple furnishings and just enough livestock to support your needs. There's a certain pride in self-sufficiency that makes sense in the harsh northern climate. To be free and to have any spot to call your own was freedom enough.

Bú er betra,
þótt lítit sé,
halr er heima hverr;
blóðugt er hjarta,
þeim er biðja skal
sér í mál hvert matar.

Home is better,
though it tiny be,
a free man is he at home;
bloody is the heart of he
who must beg meat for every meal.

And a good thought is always worth repeating: to beg for food or to live off the kindness of others quickly becomes an untenable existence. For a culture accustomed to the warrior life, the image of the bleeding heart has a very real and lethal meaning. Begging isn't just a sign of desperation, it's seen as a kind of self-injury, too.

Vápnum sínum
skal-a maðr velli á
feti ganga framar,
því at óvíst er at vita,
nær verðr á vegum úti
geirs of þörf guma.

A man should never stir
one foot abroad
without his weapons,
for one cannot know for certain
where there arises on the way,
a man's need for a spear.

We live in a time where fearmongers try to make us think we are always in danger of something, though in the west we are safer overall than we have ever been (fear sells us a lot of useless products). It's always good to remember that death and violence were not just anxieties for the people in the north but a daily reality; if you escaped dangerous animals and desperate people, there was always the elements to put your existence in peril.

Fannk-a ek mildan mann
eða svá matar góðan,
at væri-t þiggja þegit,
eða síns féar
svági [glöggvan],
at leið sé laun, ef þægi.

I have not found a mild man
or one so generous with food
that accepting it was not a gift of promise,
or of his possessions so ungenerous
that he disliked repayment if he could get it.

Hospitality wasn't just a magnanimous gesture, but a debt of honour and a recognition that he who had abundance to give generously might be in need on another day. The harsh climate and the agrarian lifestyle made everyone vulnerable to shifts in weather as well as fate. Few would ever be foolish enough to turn down a gift simply because they were in plenty, though any tendency toward hoarding was looked upon with derision. Sufficiency was the aim, abundance a chance to share with valued friends.


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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.


  • Glenn
    Glenn Wednesday, 27 November 2013

    "Few would ever be foolish enough to turn down a gift simply because they were in plenty, though any tendency toward hoarding was looked upon with derision."

    This is actually not true.


  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Wednesday, 27 November 2013

    Thanks for the comment, but as the essay you link to underscores there were severe risks in transgressing the usual habits of reciprocity -- and doing do could easily lead to bloody feuds, as we see in the sagas.

  • Glenn
    Glenn Wednesday, 27 November 2013

    yes, that's the point...

    Your claim that "Few would ever be foolish enough to turn down a gift simply because they were in plenty..." goes against this. They in fact DID refuse, on numerous occasions and in some other cases...as evidenced by the article...were unable to.

    The "usual habits" as you call them were in fact anything but, there was as much thought and deliberation given to the concept of gift giving as there was to other forms of daily life.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Wednesday, 27 November 2013

    True -- but this verses give the general wisdom: real life always has nuance and decision making, as is the case in every culture. The point is that having plenty is not itself a reason to refuse a gift.

  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard Wednesday, 04 December 2013

    Beautifully rendered. I believe that it's hospitality that is the common denominator in world religion and world culture.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Thursday, 05 December 2013

    Many thanks.

  • Wendall Mountain Runner
    Wendall Mountain Runner Friday, 24 January 2014

    Happy your more recent post led me read your backlog.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Saturday, 25 January 2014

    I'm delighted to hear it!

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