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, 40-43

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Here are a few more stanzas in my ongoing project examining the verses of Hávamál, the medieval Norse gnomic verses of wisdom and advice, copied down in Iceland centuries ago.


Féar síns,
er fengit hefr,
skyli-t maðr þörf þola;
oft sparir leiðum,
þats hefr ljúfum hugat;
margt gengr verr en varir.


When he has gained wealth enough, a man ought not suffer a need for more. Oft saved for the hated what was meant for the loved; many things go worse than expected.


Excessive greed is a bad thing--worse, a disruptive thing--in any society. But how much is 'excessive'? Several of the famous Egil Skallagrim's verses rail against the greed of others. He hid his great treasure at the end of his life because he was denied the chance to put his mad prank into action:
'I mean to take with me to the Thing [assembly] two chests that king Athelstan gave me, each of which is full of English silver. I mean to have these chests carried to the Hill of Laws just when it is most crowded. Then I mean to [fling into the crowd] the silver, and I shall be surprised if all share it fairly between them. Kicks, I fancy, there will be and blows; nay, it may end in a general fight of all the assembled Thing.'


Vápnum ok váðum
skulu vinir gleðjask;
þat er á sjalfum sýnst;
viðrgefendr ok endrgefendr
erusk lengst vinir,
ef þat bíðr at verða vel.


With weapons and clothing shall friends cheer each other, as they see upon themselves. Repayer and gift-giver will long be friends, if all endures thus well.


Friends who exchange gifts regularly will long remain true. It's not hard to find a suitable gift for your viking friend: weapons are always welcome and clothing -- especially of fine embroidery, warm wool or exotic cloths from distant lands are always a great idea.


Vin sínum
skal maðr vinr vera
ok gjalda gjöf við gjöf;
hlátr við hlátri
skyli hölðar taka
en lausung við lygi.


To his friend should a man be a friend and give a gift for a gift. Laughter with laughter shall he exchange with a man, but deception with a lie.


Just as the verse turns suddenly in the last line, friendship can sour once lies are told or deception practiced. Despite the enmity between their wives, Njal and Gunnar are able to maintain the bonds of their friendship by being always frank with one another even when deaths occur and they're thrust into awkward events.


Vin sínum
skal maðr vinr vera,
þeim ok þess vin;
en óvinar síns
skyli engi maðr
vinar vinr vera.


To his friend should a man be a true friend--with him and with his friend. But with his enemy shall no man a friend of a friend be.

The strength of clan relationships is the bedrock of the family sagas. To be an enemy to one person is to be the enemy of their family and close friends as well. Gunnar survived as long as he did because Njal remained his staunch friend as did his sons and son in law. In the Laxdæla Saga, Guðrún's brother ignites the flame of enmity in the simmering ambiance of mistrust by stealing then discarding Kjartan's sword. After that, everything unravels and many bloody deaths ensue.


Original Norse text via Heimskringla.

Scholarly edition consulted: Hávamál, ed. David A. H. Evans (Viking Society for Northern Research, 1987).


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.


  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard Friday, 24 January 2014

    Everything I need to know about life I learned from the Hávamál. More, more! Thanks, Laity.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Friday, 24 January 2014

    You are most kind.

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

    Well thought perspective, thank you. Inspires me to go through the archives and read your other entries.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Saturday, 25 January 2014


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