Thursday, August 18, 2005

Wisdom from the Hovamal

The Hovamal, (or Hávamál) is a collection of Norse poems from around the ninth century. Also called "The Words of the High One", they are supposed to be a set of rules or advice, set down by Odin, covering everything from surviving one's enemies to the etiquitte of being a guest. It reads like a combination of advice from Sun Tzu's Art of War, Benjamin Franklin's Farmer's Almanac, and even a little Worst Case Scenario Handbook.

I've read excerpts from it in various books I've read on Norse Mythology and the Icelandic Sagas, but I've yet to find a single english translation which conveys both the time-neutral wisdom and the artistic turn-of-phrase I think the work merits.

In any case, it is hard to miss the teutonic sensabilities that must have been shaped by lives far harsher than any of us can imagine. I'll leave you with a few of my favorite passages, as translated by various authors:
To a false friend the footpath winds,
Though his house be on the Highway.
To a sure friend there is a shortcut,
Though he live a long way off.
A wayfarer should not walk unarmed,
But have his weapons to hand:
He knows not when he will need a spear,
Or what menace meet on the road.
Praise no day 'til evening;
no wife 'til on her pyre;
no sword 'til tested;
no maid 'til bedded;
no ice 'til crossed;
no ale 'til drunk.
More to come at some further point. For extra credit, there are a few references on the Web, although I don't think that any single one has the best overall set of translations, at least not as good as those I've got in some hardcopy books: Havamal with parallel Icelandic, Swedish, and English, The Ragweed Forge, and Woden's Harrow.

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