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, 48-51

More in my continuing series on this rich Viking source: be sure to catch up on the other stanzas.


Mildir, fræknir
menn bazt lifa,
sjaldan sút ala;
en ósnjallr maðr
uggir hotvetna,
sýtir æ glöggr við gjöfum.


The generous, bold men have the best lives, seldom do they foster suffering; but the unwise man fears everything, anxious when stingy with gifts.


Generosity of spirit goes beyond gifts: an oft repeated refrain in Norse culture. While we may look at the idea of gift-giving as a cynical ploy to gather friends, consider how much more gifts mean when life is closer to the bone -- and survival requires the help of others. The harsh northern world requires true friends indeed, for they may spell the difference between surviving and perishing.


Váðir mínar
gaf ek velli at
tveim trémönnum;
rekkar þat þóttusk,
er þeir rift höfðu;
neiss er nökkviðr halr.


I gave my clothes in the wide field to two stick men; warriors they thought themselves who had those clothes; disgraced the naked man.

Evans (see below) has copious notes on this stanza: the word 'trémaðr' "always appears to have a cultic or magical connection" and gives results from the sagas and the accounts of Ibn Fadlan. Imagine a sort of scaled-down Wicker Man (although there's a more complicated and fascinating sort of robot made from one (with a dead man inside!) in Þorliefs  Þáttur  Jarskálds (ch 7). A singular version of the 'clothes make the man' meme.


Hrörnar þöll,
sú er stendr þorpi á,
hlýr-at henni börkr né barr;
svá er maðr,
sá er manngi ann.
Hvat skal hann lengi lifa?


A fir withers, when it stands within the farm, with neither bark nor needles to protect it; so is the man whom no one loves. How long a life will he have?

This stanza gets a long note and discussion, too clarifying various attempts to put the fir on a field or hill. It brings out the difficulties of translation nicely, for the general sense of things are often clear many of the details take more effort to understand. As Evans concludes, "where they waste away is in the neighbourhood of human buildings...its roots nibbled by animals." It's a wonderful metaphor to see friends at the strong protective bark and the aromatic and pointy needles. To have them stripped away is to be exposed indeed. None can live in the cold north without warmth.


Eldi heitari
brennr með illum vinum
friðr fimm daga,
en þá sloknar,
er inn sétti kemr,
ok versnar allr vinskapr.


Hotter than fire among false friends affection burns five days, but then it slakes when the sixth one comes, and all friendship evaporates.

The length of time is typical in Old Norwegian laws, Evans tells us, as it was the span of a week in the pre-Christian era. Affection lasts but a short while among those who aren't in it for the long haul, but it ends at the first test or the mere expiration of a week. Old friends are the truest friends, the verses suggest.


Read other verses.


Original Norse text via Heimskringla.

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


Read White Rabbit, my slightly supernatural crime novel.

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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.


  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard Tuesday, 29 April 2014

    So beautiful, powerful.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Monday, 05 May 2014

    Merci, ma cherie.

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