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Ten Old Norse Proverbs: Wisdom from the Hávamál

Just like today, people in the Middle Ages were fond of giving advice. These works ranged from Mirror for Princes, which was aimed at royalty, to more popular pieces such as the Maxims of King Aldfrith of Northumbria. Even the Norse culture had their own version of an advice book, which purportedly came from the God Odin.

The Hávamál (Sayings of the High One) is part of the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems that survive in a 13th century manuscript. The various verses found in the Hávamál were collected from different sources, and some date back to the 10th century. They are presented as being words of wisdom by Odin, who according to Norse mythology was the Allfather of the gods and ruler of Asgard.

In its 164 stanzas, you can find advice being given about proper ways to show hospitality, being generous, how to be wise, how to deal with women, and ethics. The final sections talk about runes and charms. Here are ten proverbs from the Hávamál:

1. About his intelligence no man should be boastful, rather cautious of mind; when a wise and silent man comes to a homestead blame seldom befalls the wary; for no more dependable friend can a man every get than a store of common sense.

2. The cowardly man thinks he’ll live for ever, if he keeps away from fighting; but old age won’t grant him a truce even is spears spare him.

3. The unwise man is awake all night,
and ponders everything over;
when morning comes he is weary in mind,
and all is a burden as ever.

4. A guest must depart again on his way,
nor stay in the same place ever;
if he bide too long on another’s bench
the loved one soon becomes loathed.

5. Praise day at even, a wife when dead,
a weapon when tried, a maid when married,
ice when ’tis crossed, and ale when ’tis drunk.

6. Never reproach another for his love:
It happens often enough
That beauty ensnares with desire the wise
While the foolish remain unmoved.

7. Affection is mutual when men can open
All their heart to each other:
He whose words are always fair
Is untrue and not to be trusted.

8. Let none put faith in the first sown fruit
nor yet in his son too soon;
whim rules the child, and weather the field,
each is open to chance.

9. If aware that another is wicked, say so:
Make no truce or treaty with foes.

10. All the doorways, before one enters, should be looked around, should be spied out; it can’t be known for certain where enemies are sitting in the hall ahead.

havamalThere are several translations of the entire text of the Hávamál – you can find them here, here, here and here.

See also

‘How Can His Word Be Trusted?’: Speaker and Authority in Old Norse Wisdom Poetry

Translating the Poetic Edda into English

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