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, 52-56

Here are a few further stanzas in the gnomic poem of Viking wisdom, translated from the medieval Norse with a commentary on significance and context. Read the other entries in this ongoing project here. Read the original Old Norse poem here.


52. Mikit eitt

skal-a manni gefa;

oft kaupir sér í litlu lof,

með halfum hleif

ok með höllu keri

fekk ek mér félaga.

A man should not give a great [reward] only; he can often buy praise for himself with little. With half a loaf and with a tilted cup, I have got myself a comrade.  

The cynical world of subsistence-level survival comes through clearly in this verse. While hospitality should always reveal a free hand as an indication of wealth, travelers need to be thoughtful with their resources. In dire straights a small gift carries greater weight. Sharing what you have in a moment of need may be enough to cement a bond. Note how 'lof' again has a nigh on monetary value. For an ephemeral quality its relative rank. To have a praise-worthy name that many recognise is the ideal. 


53. Lítilla sanda

lítilla sæva

lítil eru geð guma;

því allir menn

urðu-t jafnspakir;

half er öld hvar.

Little a sand grain [even in] a little sea; little are the minds of men. Thus all men are not equally wise, [maybe] half of all humans. 

 The commentaries on this stanza in Evans' edition go on for a few pages: safe to say most scholars believe the verse to have been corrupted. The general sense however remains clear: even in a small lake or sea, a grain of sand is a tiny thing. All men are not wise, some are like a grain of sand in comparison to the wisest. An acknowledge of reality, surely. In consideration of the following stanzas, however, brains may not be everything.

54. Meðalsnotr

skyli manna hverr;

æva til snotr sé;

þeim er fyrða

fegrst at lifa,

er vel margt vitu.


Middling-wise should each man be; never get too wise. Those men live fairest among those who don't know much well. 

The Norse version of 'ignorance is bliss' or just an observation about the danger of knowing too much. From the earliest versions of Pandora's story we've been conscious of the sorrows that knowledge brings. Often we protect childhood as a time when we can still enjoy the happy innocence that comes before knowledge (never mind that ignorance often causes as much fear). Yet like so much of Norse wisdom -- and indeed most gnomic advice -- the middle ground, neither too much nor too little seems the best path to follow.


55. Meðalsnotr

skyli manna hverr,

æva til snotr sé;

því at snotrs manns hjarta

verðr sjaldan glatt,

ef sá er alsnotr, er á.


Middling-wise should each man be; never get too wise. Because a wise man's heart seldom grows glad, if he who has it is all-wise.

The wise are unhappy, the poem suggests. Knowledge comes with the price. To be wise is to see too much of the sorrow of the world.

 56. Meðalsnotr

skyli manna hverr,

æva til snotr sé;

örlög sín

viti engi fyrir,

þeim er sorgalausastr sefi.


Middling-wise should each man be; never get too wise. No one should know his destiny before; he is most free from sorrow in his mind.

The chief reason for that sorrow perhaps is seeing the end of things, especially one's own life. The knowledge of one's own mortality is seldom a reason to cheer. Even to know a glorious career is to glimpse also its end. The sobering effect of the far-seeing comes from what lies on the horizon, inevitable and irrevocable.


Hávamál text via Heimskringla.

See the previous verses discussed.



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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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