Hávamál is one of the most important documents from Viking Age Scandinavia, and is well described as the Wisdom of the North. This collection of ancient sayings attributed to Odin, is to Scandinavian culture as the Tao is to China, the Vedas to India and the Iliad to Greece.
Hávamál means "the high one’s speech", or Odin's speech, and Hávamál is a collection of wisdom and guidlines for living, written as a poem and attributed to the Norse God Odin. Hávamál is both practical and supernatural in content, and expresses highly valued ideals such as wisdom, friendship, morality, caution, courage, and commonsense.
No one knows who wrote the Hávamál manuscript, or if it originated in Norway or Iceland, but Odin’s advice for living is believed to be based on a source from around the 9th century, and reference to Hávamál is found in the 10th century Hákonarmál by Eyvindr skáldaspillir.
Hávamál is the most famous poem from the Elder Edda manuscript, (also called the Poetic Edda), written around the year 1270. The Elder Edda consists of 32 poems in all, written on 45 pages of vellum, or calfskin parchment. The Elder Edda manuscript is beautifully made and stunning to look at, with ornate letters and decorated capitals to each paragraph.
The term Edda was originally the name for Snorri Sturlason's book on poetry from around 1220, and the word Edda is believed to be related to the word meaning grandmother, which means stories from grandma's time, a derivation of óðr, which means writing. Together with Snorri's Edda, the Elder Edda is the most important surviving source on Norse mythology and heroic legends.
In the first part of the Elder Edda, there are three poems by Odin as protagonist, of which the first is Hávamál. Hávamál is presented as a single poem in the Elder Edda, but its 164 verses make Hávamál the longest of all edda poems. Hávamál itself consist of at least five independent parts:
Verses 1-80 are known as Gestaþáttr, Hávamál guidelines for living, or the ‘Hávamál proper’.
Verses 81-102 are about women, love and Odin.
Verses 103-110 are about how Odin got the mead of poetry.
Verses 111-138 are called Loddfáfnismál, a collection of gnomic verses similar to Gestaþáttr.
Verses 139-146 are called Rúnatal, an account of how Odin won the runes.
Verses 147-165 are called Ljóðatal, which is a collection of spells.
Although the Elder Edda was written in the 13th century, we know nothing about its whereabouts until it was found in Iceland in 1643 by the Icelandic bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson. In 1662, almost 20 years after it was found, the Bishop sent the manuscript to Denmark as a gift to King Frederik III of Denmark and Norway. The manuscript was named Codex Regius, or Konungsbók (King’s Book) in Icelandic, and was incorporated in the Danish Royal Library's Manuscript Collection.
In 1971 the Elder Edda manuscript was transported back to Iceland by ship, accompanied by a military escort, and is now kept in the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. The only surviving source for Hávamál is contained within the Elder Edda, and this priceless document is considered one of Iceland's most prized possessions.
Hávamál is a reflection of its time, and the poems are as tough and resilient as the Vikings themselves. Hávamál’s insight remains timeless and as relevant today as it was in the Viking Age. It has been handed down from generation to generation, and there is still much wisdom and inspiration to find here, inherited from our powerful ancestors.