I taught the poem Hávamál (Sayings of the High One–English titles from Larrington’s translation) in my Norse Mythology course today. I hadn’t taught it much previously, because it’s such a tangle for beginning students, but there is some pretty interesting stuff in there. It is the second poem in Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, right after Völuspá (The Seeress’ Prophecy). Hávamál itself shows some orthographic differences from the rest of the Codex Regius manuscript which suggest that it was copied into Poetic Edda from a pre-existing manuscript–it is itself a mini-collection of eddic poetry, with the guiding themes of Odin and Wisdom. Does any of it go all the way back to the Viking Age? Scholars disagree about the ages of different parts of it, but I think it is reasonable enough to say that there are some echoes of pagan material in there–but it is written down long after the conversion, so any claims about pagan belief which are derived from this poem must be taken with a grain of salt.
Scholars divide the poem up into different parts. David Evans gives the following division for his edition of the poem: The Gnomic Poem, Odin’s encounter with “Billing’s maiden”, his encounter with Gunnlöð (a shorter version of the acquisition of the mead of poetry), Loddfáfnismál, the Rúnatal and Ljóðatal. The Gnomic poem feels a bit like the book of Proverbs for Vikings–look more closely, and you see that much of the advice is aimed at the solitary guest or traveler, more appropriate for the wannabe Odinic wanderer than for the typical hero of a family saga. In fact, a guest seems to show up in the second stanza–is this Odin? The “High One” in question is presumably Odin (it is an Odinic name, anyway). The poem stands out from the other Odinic wisdom poems though–there is no flood of mythological knowledge, and no build up to a revelation of the guest’s identity. That said, it is clearly Odin who is involved in the encounters with Billing’s girl and Gunnlöð– “Lover” is also an Odinic name. The Gnomic poem is unusual for didactic literature in that it does not use the imperative mood–this is remedied in Loddfáfnismál, however, as the speaker exhorts Mr. Loddfáfnir to behave properly. The Rúnatal is particularly fascinating as the story of Odin’s acquisition of the knowledge of runes, hanging on a tree (apparently the World Tree, whose name, “Yggdrasil”, means “Odin’s Steed”) for nine days, stabbed with a spear and dedicated to himself (stabbing someone with a spear was apparently a way of dedicating someone to Odin, whose chief weapon was the spear). We also see him visiting his maternal grandfather, a giant, from whom he learns magic songs (the giants, even if they are the villains of the mythology, are associated with cthonic knowledge). After this, we get the Ljóðatal, a list of magical songs or chants (only a list of those Odin knows, not the spells themselves–sorry…), many of them apotropaic (blunting other peoples weapons, etc), but some particularly Odinic–for example, getting a hanged man to speak (Odin was the god of the hanged–which is why is sacrificed himself to himself by hanging. Or maybe that’s why he’s the god of the hanged…)
In any case, all this is just to give me an excuse to post this picture I drew for class, inspired by the name of the first section of Hávamál: The Gnomic Poem.
Prints, mugs, etc available on DeviantArt.