Letters from an Eccentric Uncle: A Naturalistic Pagan Reads the Havamal by Renee Lehnen

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.

This straightforward advice to avoid over-staying a welcome appears in verse 35 of the Havamal as translated from Icelandic to English by Olive Bray in 1908. The Poetic Edda, which includes the Havamal, was written from oral sources in Iceland, probably in the 13th century. The Havamal, or “Words from the High One”, purports to guide mortals with the teachings of Odin, a major god in Germanic and Norse mythology. It’s northern Europe’s contribution to the collective wisdom of humanity and, though a relative youngster, it offers counsel alongside the I Ching, the Vedas, the Pali Canon, the Old Testament, classical Greek gnomic poetry, and other ancient texts. 

In Bray’s translation, the Havamal has 165 verses including Odin’s proverbs, the story of how Odin acquired the mead of poetry; more gnomic verses in which Odin addresses a man, perhaps an itinerant juggler or singer, named “Loddfafnir”, Odin’s account of how he obtained knowledge of the runes, and Odin’s songs or charms. Other translations differ in minor ways. However, all the translations I have read are beautiful and surprisingly relevant today.  

An ancient instruction book for life that is familiar to most readers is the Bible. In my humble Pagan opinion, the Havamal is a more practical lifestyle guide for modern times than that weighty tome. Releasing our grip on reality, let us suppose Odin is advising us through poetic proverbs in verses 1 to 80 and his admonitions to Loddfafnir in verses 111 to 138 of the Havamal. What do we find? Well, to me, reading these passages is like reading letters from an eccentric, kindly old uncle to his beloved nieces and nephews.

Odin begins with a warning. As translated by Bray:

At every door-way,
Before 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.

The meaning is familiar to Scouts the world over: Be prepared! Few among us enter a room with Odin’s heightened caution, and we’d appear paranoid if we did, but in the twenty-first century, we should show up to work and social gatherings with awareness. In other words, assess your environment.

The next verses deal with being generous hosts and appreciative guests. This is sensible, interpersonal self-help. Odin tells us to be social, but to not run our mouths. Bring a modest gift for the host. Enjoy a toast, but don’t get drunk. Verses 11 and 12 could be printed on T shirts for Frosh Week:

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.

Less good than they say for the sons of men
Is the drinking often of ale:
For the more they drink, the less can they think
And keep a watch over their wits.

In verse 21, Odin tackles a modern obsession, diet:

Herds know the hour of their going home
And turn them again from the grass;
But never is found a foolish man
Who knows the measure of his maw.

I suppose he’s right. I’m duller than a milk cow when I graze too long at the salad bar. 

After covering social graces, Odin’s proverbs range from the importance of hard work to the value of family and friends. He advises self-reliance over dependence, simplicity over ostentation, generosity over stinginess, and reserved honesty over gossip. He recommends travel to broaden one’s perspective, but also pride in home-ownership, however humble. Since I tend to dawdle on social media, I have two proverbs hanging over my computer as reminders that I shouldn’t squander time or engage with internet trolls. They are verses 58 and 112:

He must rise betimes who fain of another
Or life or wealth would win;
Scarce falls the prey to sleeping wolves,
Or to slumberers victory in strife.

I counsel you, Stray-Singer, accept my counsels,
They will be your boon if you obey them,
They will work your weal if you win them:
Never in speech with a foolish knave
Should you waste a single word.

The language of the Havamal is sexist, but I’m willing to meet Odin where he dwells, in pre-Christian, northern Europe. A nimble reader can substitute female or male pronouns to personalize the spirit of the words. As agony aunt, Odin recommends taking risks, but he also cautions that love can be cruel and entanglements with married people are imprudent. People with Tinder accounts might find some dating hints in the Havamal such as verse 130: 

Would you win joy of a gentle maiden,
And lure to whispering of love,
Make fair promise, and let it be fast, –
None will scorn their weal who can win it.

Odin has his tender side in love and other matters of the heart. And lest anyone believe that battle-scarred Odin didn’t hold human life as precious, I end this discussion with verse 71:

The lame can ride rose, the handless drive cattle,
The deaf one can fight and prevail,
It is happier for the blind than for him on the bale-fire,
But no man has care for a corpse.

This is a humanist observation. Odin sees death as oblivion, but life as filled with potential. Legs weak? Ride a horse or an electric bike. Lost your arm? Use your other one. Can’t hear? Won’t you be the brave one when the battle is noisy. Can’t see? At least you’re alive!  

For fun, I presented the Havamal as if literally written by Odin. However, there were probably scores of mortal aunts and uncles contributing to the Havamal and the Poetic Edda over the centuries before a medieval writer on a cold, volcanic island committed their words to parchment. I chose to quote Olive Bray’s version of the Havamal. Other translations are equally gripping including those of Benjamin Thorpe, Henry A. Bellows, and Lee Hollander. There are even versions adapted to the language of cowboys and New Yorkers on You-tube. 

A thousand years of Christianity separate Uncle Odin and us. The minds behind the words could not have imagined lost luggage or traffic jams or office parties, yet there is comfort and inspiration in the Havamal. To me, Odin’s poetry is the collective voice of the wise elders of pre-Christian, Pagan northern Europe. Through the Havamal and the Poetic Edda, Pagan teachings stand shoulder to shoulder with the literature of other ancient religions and philosophies.

About the Author: Renee Lehnen

ReneeLRenee Lehnen is a registered nurse and nature lover. She has a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and a master’s degree in social history. She lives and works in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.


One Comment on “Letters from an Eccentric Uncle: A Naturalistic Pagan Reads the Havamal by Renee Lehnen

  1. Pingback: Letters from an Eccentric Uncle: A Naturalistic Pagan Reads the Havamal by Renee Lehnen — Humanistic Paganism | Thesseli

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