The Problem With the Hávamál

Heathenry doesn’t have a list of commandments. There are no rules telling us how to conduct ourselves. There aren’t even any encompassing authorities to dictate such things. It can be tempting to look for a convenient list to memorise and then abide by. Hell, the Odinic Rite created the Nine Noble Virtues as a moral crutch to make up for the lack of Commandments, and the Ásatrú Folk Assembly modified them to make them more useful to their ends. While most of them can be virtues in some lights, it’s far too simplistic a list to adhere to, especially without context. The Hávamál, so often quoted like a Heathen 10 Commandments like the NNV are, has its own set of problems. Let me try and explain why we should be treating the Hávamál like an historical source, which is exactly what it is, instead of like an incontrovertible doctrine.

I often see the Hávamál quoted as being the “word of Odin”. While it’s true that ‘Hávamál’ translates to something like ‘Sayings of the High One’, the High One being Odin, who’s to say that Odin actually said these things, and that someone recorded them, and passed it all on unadulterated? Why think these words come from Odin? Surely if Odin was going to tell members of mankind anything, it would have more to do with divine ecstasy and wisdom than rules about not getting too drunk (Bellows translation, 12) or always carrying a weapon (38). I don’t know any Heathens who really believe that Odin really said these things (theological questions aside), and yet I still see people toting Hávamál quotations like they’re the incontrovertible law of the earth.

The Hávamál is actually a collection of stanzas written down in the 13th century. That’s it. Some guy sat down and wrote down some poetry. Doubtless most if not all of it was passed on before that through various oral traditions. And you know what oral traditions are like. They change over time depending on who’s giving them and when. People change details. People forget details. People add in new details. Over time, a bunch of folk lessons, culture, and common sense took on the form of an oral tradition, and these poems were written down by some guy in the 13th century. Hardly the word of Odin. It’s called Sayings of the High One because hey, Odin is a pretty wise guy, and it’s a nice-sounding title, not because he dropped by and shared all this advice over a horn.

It should be getting clear why the Hávamál is not some golden standard for human conduct. Like other literary records, it provides a window into the culture of the time in which it occurred. Context, of course, is everything. The Hávamál talks about always carrying a weapon with you (38), and not overstaying your welcome (35), and not drinking too much (12), and not judging the safety of ice until you’ve crossed it (81). These are important things for the time (a lot still relevant today, but more on that later). However it also talks about how unfaithful and untrustworthy women are (84, 90, 102). This could also certainly be chalked up to its time, but might say more about the author of the stanza and the oral traditions that were going around at the time about Odin and his female conquests. Of course you also have the mythological sections of the Hávamál, which talk about Odin’s quest to earn the runes, and the rune-charms. These sections add to our mythological knowledge, of course, while also providing information about the people who passed them down.

These are historical records. I cannot stress that enough. The Hávamál tells us about the people who lived in the 13th century and the oral traditions that came before them, exactly as Adam of Bremen’s account tells us about the rites at Uppsala, or ibn Fadlan’s account tells us about Rus traders. What do we do with our sources? We analyse the shit out of them. We take into account their authors’ biases and motives. We don’t cleave to their word without consideration. We remove ourselves and examine them from a distance.

That’s not to say that we can’t have an emotional or spiritual connection to the sources. It just means that we have to do our work first in understanding what the nature of the sources is, and why it is that way. We can’t just accept things at face value. The Hávamál, exactly like any other text, must be analysed to some degree. Just because it bills itself as a “Handbook to Morality” doesn’t mean that we should treat it that way. It’s a product of its time. If we can extract bits of it and make them useful, wonderful. We’re doing our jobs as Heathens then. But we can’t just swallow it whole and regurgitate antiquated advice from several centuries ago. We need to use our brains. Because unfortunately, a lot of the time our rich lore gets distilled into the Nine Noble Virtues, and people start shouting the Hávamál at each other because it’s easier than actually sitting down and having a discussion or deciding for ourselves what we think good advice is.

Once we’ve fully understood (or even have just an inkling of) the nature and drawbacks of our sources, we can begin to work with them. We’re going to throw away (or modify) the parts that are irrelevant to us as modern humans. Some of this advice is just strange. We’re going to ignore the bullshit sexist advice on women. We’re going to abstract the advice about it being better to have a pair of goats and a crappy roof than having to beg (36), and apply it instead to having a small mortgaged house as opposed to living on the street. It’s easy enough to think metaphorically and apply a lot of this advice to a modern context, if it’s good advice. The bad advice, we might as well just throw away, because it’s bad advice. You’re not a hypocrite for taking the good and leaving the bad. You’re being smart.

I’ll be honest, there’s a lot of common sense and good advice in the Hávamál. Hey, I’ll probably have you-know-which stanzas read at my funeral. But, and I stress this here, if you’re going to look to the Hávamál for guidance, do this: read a stanza, turn over the words in your head and your heart, decide for yourself whether they make sense to you, try them out, and then maybe decide if they’re worth keeping. Don’t just accept them without thinking. That never did anybody any good. Think for yourself. You’re smart enough. You owe it to yourself. And you’ll sure as hell make better choices if you’re thinking about it.

What I’m trying to say is this: the Hávamál has issues. Be aware of this and don’t just accept it as a flawless standard. Extract guidelines based on their own merit.

And, heck, the Hávamál is not the only place to look for guidance, but I’ll talk more about extracting “Heathen values” from other sources in another post.