Hávamál

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Hávamál ("Sayings of the high one") is presented as a single poem in the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems from the Viking age. The poem, itself a combination of different poems, is largely gnomic, presenting advice for living, proper conduct and wisdom.

The verses are attributed to Odin, much like the biblical Book of Wisdom is attributed to Solomon. The implicit attribution to Odin facilitated the accretion of various mythological material also dealing with Odin.[1]

For the most part composed in the metre Ljóðaháttr, a metre associated with wisdom verse, Hávamál is both practical and metaphysical in content. Following the gnomic "Hávamál proper" follows the Rúnatal, an account of how Odin won the runes, and the Ljóðatal, a list of magic chants or spells.[2]

Contents

Textual history

The only surviving source for Hávamál is the 13th century Codex Regius. The part dealing with ethical conduct (the Gestaþáttr) was traditionally identified as the oldest portion of the poem by scholarship in the 19th and early 20th century. Bellows (1936) identifies as the core of the poem a "collection of proverbs and wise counsels" which dates to "a very early time", but which, by the nature of oral tradition, never had a fixed form or extent. Von See (1981) identifies direct influence of the Disticha Catonis on the Gestaþáttr, suggesting that also this part is a product of the high medieval period and casting doubt on the "unadulterated Germanic character" of the poem claimed by earlier commentators.[3]

To the gnomic core of the poem, other fragments and poems dealing with wisdom and proverbs accreted over time. A discussion of authorship or date for the individual parts would be futile, since almost every line or stanza could have been added, altered or removed at will at any time before the poem was written down in the 13th century. Individual verses or stanzas nevertheless certainly date to as early as the 10th, or even the 9th century. Thus, the line deyr fé, deyja frændr ("cattle die, kinsmen die") found in verses 76 and 77 of the Gestaþáttr can be shown to date to the 10th century, as it also occurs in the Hákonarmál by Eyvindr skáldaspillir.

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