A turf house at Skeljastaðakirkja, Iceland

The Norse Mythology Travel Guide!

The Havamal, one of the many poems that make up what we now collectively call the Poetic, or Elder, Edda, is something of a heathen guide to ethics and the good life. The translation of the poem’s name, Havamal, works out to something like “sayings of the high one,” a reference to Odin, so it’s giving the listener (these poems were recited orally) direct advice on how to live a good life.

The first major section of Havamal runs 79 stanzas long, and is typically referred to as the Gestaþáttr, or “guest’s section”. It’s not just about being a good guest, or how to treat a guest, though. It’s about how to be a good person. But there are several stanzas that are really explicitly about the interaction between guests and hosts. And this advice sounds a lot like it’s trying to tell you how to survive in life in any circumstance. Be prepared for traps and tricks. Don’t trust people without reason. Treat people generously, even as you keep them at a distance, until you trust them. Stuff like that.

Here are the first fourteen stanzas of Havamal, which really begin the guest/host discussion. I’m using the translation from Olive Bray this time. Here’s a link to the Bellows translation I’ve used most frequently; you might also compare Auden & Taylor, another popular translation.

Wisdom for Wanderers and Counsel to Guests

1.
At every door-way,
ere one enters,
one should spy round,
one should pry round
for uncertain is the witting
that there be no foeman sitting,
within, before one on the floor

2.
Hail, ye Givers! a guest is come;
say! where shall he sit within?
Much pressed is he who fain on the hearth
would seek for warmth and weal.

3.
He hath need of fire, who now is come,
numbed with cold to the knee;
food and clothing the wanderer craves
who has fared o’er the rimy fell.

4.
He craves for water, who comes for refreshment,
drying and friendly bidding,
marks of good will, fair fame if ’tis won,
and welcome once and again.

5.
He hath need of his wits who wanders wide,
aught simple will serve at home;
but a gazing-stock is the fool who sits
mid the wise, and nothing knows.

6.
Let no man glory in the greatness of his mind,
but rather keep watch o’er his wits.
Cautious and silent let him enter a dwelling;
to the heedful comes seldom harm,
for none can find a more faithful friend
than the wealth of mother wit.

7.
Let the wary stranger who seeks refreshment
keep silent with sharpened hearing;
with his ears let him listen, and look with his eyes;
thus each wise man spies out the way.

8.
Happy is he who wins for himself
fair fame and kindly words;
but uneasy is that which a man doth own
while it lies in another’s breast.

9.
Happy is he who hath in himself
praise and wisdom in life;
for oft doth a man ill counsel get
when ’tis born in another’s breast.

10.
A better burden can no man bear
on the way than his mother wit;
’tis the refuge of the poor, and richer it seems
than wealth in a world untried.

11.
A better burden can no man bear
on the way than his mother wit:
and no worse provision can he carry with him
than too deep a draught of ale.

12.
Less good than they say for the sons of men
is the drinking oft of ale:
for the more they drink, the less can they think
and keep a watch o’er their wits.

13.
A bird of Unmindfulness flutters o’er ale feasts,
wiling away men’s wits:
with the feathers of that fowl I was fettered once
in the garths of Gunnlos below.

14.
Drunk was I then, I was over drunk
in that crafty Jötun’s court.
But best is an ale feast when man is able
to call back his wits at once.

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