Words from the Hávamál

As I spend time researching ancient myths and stories, I am often reminded that we need to interpret the stories with consideration for the culture in which the myths were recorded.

Title page of a manuscript of the Prose Edda, showing Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology
Title page of a manuscript of the Prose Edda, showing Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology

For the last few months, I have subscribed to  Huginn’s Heathen Hof‘s “Daily Hávamál” email. In this mailing, we get a verse of the Hávamál in both the original language, Old Norse, and in modern English.  Each verse is also interpreted with respect to today’s Western world.

In many cases, the Hávamál provides wisdom that is easily translated to today. For example, stanza 118 warns the reader about the danger of “malicious words,” while other stanzas talk about not speaking with idiots (don’t feed the trolls!). Yet, there are other verses that seem to indicate that all women are evil, or otherwise malicious.

How do we interpret these verses then? We have to look at the culture in which they were written down.  The source of the Hávamál – The Eddas – were written down by a Christian man.  While Snorri seemed interested in preserving the myths of Iceland, it would have been incredibly difficult for him to remove all of the Christian influences for the late 12th and early 13th centuries when he lived.

We also do not know for certain how women and other groups were treated in the culture in which the stories are set. We can make the best interpretations of the information that we have, but we’re just making interpretations.  Primary sources that are objective are nearly impossible to find.

So, how do we work with texts such as the Hávamál? We do as they do over at Huginn’s Heathen Hof – we re-interpret.  We try to understand what the underlying story or lesson is behind the words and see how that applies to our modern life.

How do you interpret the ancient stories and myths?

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