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Hávamál 144-45 and Dronke

Veitztu hvé rista skal?

Veiztu hvé raða skal?

Veiztu hvé fá skal?

Veitztu hvé freista skal?

Veiztu hvé biðia skal?

Veiztu hvé blóta skal?

Veiztu hvé senda skal?

Veiztu hvé sóa skal?


Betra er óbeðit

en sé ofblótit–

ey sér til gildis giǫf.

Betra er ósent

en sé ofsóit.

Svá Þundr um reist

fyr þióða rǫk,

þar hann upp um reis,

er hann aptr of kom.

(Hávamál 144-45)


I have the new third volume of Ursula Dronke’s edition of the Elder Edda sitting here beside me. Sadly, she has not assembled for Hávamál anything like the tremendous edifice of notes and analytical material that she did for Vǫluspá. There is no commentary on verse 145, that great crux of heathen praxis, at all.  She regards 144 as “a roundup of ritual obligations.” That makes it still odder that she did not talk about the contrast with 145. If the questions in 144 carry the weight of “You must do this,” then why is 145 saying quite directly, “Better not . . . “?  She seems to have been fired more by seeing echoes of Xianity: in the windswept tree passage (138, Veit ek, at ek hekk . . . , “I know that I was hanging . . .”) she sees “the pathos of the abandoned Christ” in Við hleifi mik sældo | né við hornigi, “They did not hearten me with a loaf | or a horn of ale.” That makes her no good judge of sacrifice; she’s thinking gratuitously of a very different one. Also, where before she had a gift for threading her way through the labyrinth of scholarly viewpoints, highlighting and linking those that her own scholarship told her were worth attention . . . now she has just decided Hávamál “gather[s] together the high moments of pagan and Christian tradition” and that Óðinn pierces himself with Gungnir both because in the Gospel according to John Jesus got poked with a spear to make sure he was dead and because Folke Ström says a spear dedicates someone to Óðinn. The latter is of course not only basic heathenry needing no scholarly citation, it’s in the text: ok gefinn Óðni, | siálfr siálfom mér, “and given to Óðinn | — myself to myself.” And the former a wild-eyed piece of craziness, which the Dream of the Rood and the Ruthwell Cross do nothing whatsoever to support.


With that major reservation noted, here’s her translation of the “list of obligations.”

“Do you know how one must carve them?

Do you know how one must construe them?

Do you know how one must tint them?

Do you know how one must test them?

Do you know how one must supplicate?

Do you know how one must sacrifice?

Do you know how one must send off the soul?

Do you know how one must stop up the breath?”

This is basically accurate. Skal does not mean “how you are going to, ” it does indeed mean “how you must” do each thing. Clearer and better than the more familiar Hollander translation: “Know’st how to write . . . ?” And she rightly links the last item, sóa, to A-S swógan, “suffocate,” while Hollander has “sacrifice” there and the synonym “offer” where she has “sacrifice.” Scholarship has decided that there must have been a ritual method of slaughter using suffocation. I’m not so sure – blood was needed for reddening the harrow, quite apart from its putative use in divination using hlautteinar – but the word in that half-line seems to denote stopping breathing. Rendering biðia as “supplicate” sounds wrong – heathens don’t beg – but that’s the word the Xians used for “pray” and so is always going to be problematic in its connotations. I would probably use the simplest possible word: “ask.” That’s what she has used for the opening of verse 145: “Better to have asked for nothing.” And that’s what Hollander has for biðia – but he has confusingly used “supplicate” for senda. He sees the first four half-lines as being about runes, the other four about blóting and addressing the gods. That has a certain logic with verse 145 about to come along – which is all about blóting and addressing the gods. So presumably he’s thinking “send a message.” That’s also closer to the attested meanings of the verb than her “send off the soul”; she’s assuming “the soul” is unstated because she has this notion that the verse is about the entire span of religious obligations in heathenry. But quite apart from the fact that “send off” is idiomatic English, but senda just means “send” – and where is one sending the soul to? –  it’s used for throwing spears, but the word “spear” is somewhere in the passage for clarity; and it’s used with “message” implied, as we can write in somewhat archaic English, “Send to him that . . .” – but I don’t know of any attestations where what is sent is simply left for the guessing. Her theory is leading her by the nose here. On freista, I’m more sympathetic: Hollander has “understand,” which just echoes the meaning of ráða (her “construe,” his “read”) – he’s wimped out and given a synonym of what he already said, as he often does. She’s correctly noted that it basically means “test” – both in the basic meaning of “make an attempt” and in the Xian religious meaning of “tempt.”


But what does “test” mean with reference to the runes? Her note sums up the “obligations” as follows: “to cultivate runes to link men with the occult world; to supplicate and sacrifice (to the gods): to dispatch the dead with the right ritual.” So she apparently thinks sóa, as well as senda, refers to the human dead. Surely “send” the blóted animal is a plausible reading, and “suffocate” more obviously relates to an animal than a human? The obligation to use runes is problematic – especially as an obligatory link to “the occult world.” I think she’s been listening to too many wiccans. And there are eighteen uses of runes coming very soon in the last section that render her view of the purpose of runes very simplistic. “It’s all the occult” doesn’t fit this poem well. But I remain unsure what she thinks the test involves. Instead of spelling out which lines are on which “obligation,” she has expounded on how the dead were “sent” to a destination – notably in ship burials, which she for some reason thinks were “always metaphorical.” I do not see why the existence of ship burials on dry land means there were never actual flaming ships sent out over the water. (Nor do I see the point as adequate support for senda meaning “send off the dead” anyhow.)


In her introduction to the poem, she speaks of different voices interrupting each other. That’s the way Hávamál sounds to many of us, especially with the third-person references to Óðinn by many different names, like the one to Þundr in verse 145. She describes verse 144 thus: “Another voice brusquely interrogates: ‘Can you perform the eight ceremonies of your creed, the secret writing, the wishing prayer, the muffled sacrifice . . .?'” “Brusque interrogation” is indeed how it must have struck many a modern heathen, because sadly, what we have most clearly lost is the ceremonial how-tos. Indeed, do we know how we must blót? No. We can only try. And piece together the clues we have (and hope we are not emphasizing stuff some Xian was wrong about) and hope the gods let us know what works and what doesn’t. Actually there is a heartening piece of evidence that there was no one correct way to offer to the gods among the ancient heathens: Jonas of Bobbio’s Vita Columbani mentions Alemanni doing a beer-blót to Wodan (Vadono); they had for the purpose a vas . . . magnum, quod vulgo “cupam” vocant, . . . cerevisia plenum – a “large vessel . . . which they call in the vulgar tongue a cupa, . . .  full of beer.” But notice that she refers there to “the eight ceremonies of your creed.” This is even clearer than “roundup of ritual obligations”; she has in mind an analogue to Xian sacraments. In that case, where is marriage? and confirmation/coming of age? and baptism/name-giving, which is mentioned in Hávamál itself? One might also expect a theoretical list of heathen sacraments to include inheritance. Instead she has related the first four to the runes – that doesn’t accord well with the eight lines representing eight distinct ceremonies, and makes the list even more obviously not a complete set of religious obligations (if such existed). Her theory has run away with her.


Also, her translation of 144 doesn’t match up well with her translation of 145, which is:

Better to have asked for nothing

than sacrificed excessively–

always a gift expects to be paid for.

Better no souls escorted

than too many lives smothered.

Þundr-Óðinn carved that

before the close of men’s history,

at the place where he rose up,

when he returned.

Here, she uses “asked for” where before she used “supplicated” – confusing, but also in this verse it is connected to sacrifice; so the two cannot be distinct ceremonies/obligations. Worse, in translating and explicating 144, she saw senda as referring to (metaphorically, in her view) sending off the dead to the afterlife, and sóa as also related to funeral ritual; she says it “also relates to a type of sacrificial killing of  animals by smothering.” Note that “also.” In the introduction to the poem, she attributes 145 to a different voice from 144, one that “fear[s] excess”, and paraphrases the fourth and fifth halflines thus: “Better no soul escorted to the otherworld, than that humans should be killed to accompany it.” She refers in the notes to Ibn Fadlan’s account of the funeral among the Rus, which includes the killing of the slave girl. (But she does not explicitly mention that killing there; just the use of ships.) So apparently in her translation of sóa in 144 she was thinking of human sacrifice to accompany a dead person as a heathen obligation – and in 145 she sees the speaker recoiling against this waste. This is extremely tenuously supported. It makes far more sense to relate sóa to animal sacrifice – to blót – because there are no contextual clues for taking senda in that odd meaning of “send off to the afterlife.” That comes from her assumption that 144 is a set of distinct heathen obligations. And 144 and 145 are both clearly talking about sacrifice; in both cases it is less of a stretch to see a continuation of the same idea.


That’s the root of her interpretation of the problem verse, 145: she sees Óðinn as having learned from hanging on the tree a “humane knowledge,” “a kind of mercy, a moderation in judgement.” All of which is of course unsupported in the text. The name Þundr takes us nowhere useful so far as I know: it’s the name of Óðinn that mysteriously seems etymologically connected to the word for “thunder,” but how that connects here . . . I got nuthin’. However, we do know it refers to Óðinn, and we have been told why he hung on the tree: to seize the runes. That verse is 138. The runes in relation to other forms of magic precede it; matters of the runes follow it; what follows 144-45 is the recitation of charms or chants (galdrs – the poem refers to them as lióð, songs or as Dronke renders the word, lays). There is nothing about learning mercy, although of course manifold benefits to people as well as means of attack are mentioned. And is it in character for Óðinn to have learned mercy from his ordeal? Not judging by most of his names . . . and not with any support in lore that I can think of, although this poem does contain his regrets at how he has treated women.


Also she’s either sidestepped or overlooked the crux of the problem in 145: what we are being warned against. With Xian virtues in mind, she plumps for the most popular interpretation: “Better to have asked for nothing | than sacrificed excessively–” is, for example,  Hollander’s “‘Tis better unasked | than offered overmuch.” (Hollander gives up and simply repeats this where she has “Better no souls escorted | than too many lives smothered.” Clearly he, like me, sees the sending and the killing as also referring to blót and asking.) The prefix of– does usually mean “too much.” However, it can also be an alternate of um (usually printed as a separate word; the manuscripts do not reliably distinguish prefixes from separate words), and in fact both um reist and of blótit in 145 are cited as examples under that header in the first edition of Cleasby-Vigfusson. The meaning of this “enclitic particle”? Unstated. In the more usual form um, it is simply omitted in translations. If we omit it here, we get: “Better not to have asked | than to have blóted . . . Better not to have sent | than to have sacrificed [a beast].” Better not to have asked the gods at all for a favor than to have followed it up with a sacrifice”? That’s a plausible alternate reading that fits the line I omitted: ey sér til gildis giǫf (usually translated, “a gift asks for a gift”). In Hyndluljóð, Freyja is not at all upset at Ottar for having made his harrow like glass with blood of sacrificed oxen:

Hǫrg hann mér gerði
hlaðinn steinum,
– nú er grjót þat
at gleri orðit; –
rauð hann í nýju
nauta blóði;
æ trúði Óttarr
á ásynjur.

(Hollander is particularly recherché in his wording here, so here’s Bellows’ version:

“For me a shrine | of stones he made,–
And now to glass | the rock has grown;–
Oft with the blood | of beasts was it red;
In the goddesses ever | did Ottar trust.”

Ottar blóted a lot, and she approves. What he didn’t do is ask for something and then follow it up with a blót. So I suggest that “It would be better not to ask than to ask and follow it up with a blót, because the gift in a blót makes it a demand for a gift in return” is a possible interpretation.


Or maybe she’s right. There is after all a passage explicitly urging moderation in Hávamál – the one advocating being “middling wise” (meðalsnotr; translated that way by both Dronke and Hollander; and repeated three times). Odd though that seems coming from Óðinn, who gives not his eye teeth but his eye for wisdom. And hangs himself and runs himself through for nine nights for wisdom. And wanders the worlds for wisdom. And studies seiðr (and gives Freyja half the slain with first pick, possibly in exchange for that knowledge). And who knows what-all else he does for wisdom! That passage says that the reason to be middling wise is because otherwise you will know the awful things that are coming. But still, he repeats it three times. And one could legitimately say that any sacrifice is a gift – that’s simply what it is.


Dronke doesn’t help the issue by translating the “gift” line obscurely. Literally, “Always a gift looks for a payment.” (And Hollander has “gain.”) But gildi can also mean “honor,” “tribute,” a “guild” and a “banquet” (related meanings). I’ve written about the word before, drawing on her own analysis of Vǫluspá 23. So “a gift looks for a gift back” (reciprocal honoring) lurks behind the wording just as much as “A gift exacts a tax.”


Which interpretation one prefers comes down to theology: do you see the gods as wanting us to blót – but not to use it as a way to get them to answer prayers? Or do you see them as having a problem only if the blóts – of which prayers are normal parts – are too frequent? I prefer the former. I think the notion of asking is natural in Xianity, but not so much in heathenry. Ottar didn’t ask, he just trusted and blóted.


It’s also a theological issue whether you see the Hávamál passage as a blend of Xianity and heathenry, as Dronke does. The second half of 145, Þundr etching these runes after he returned to life, gives her some support if the hanging on the windswept tree is seen as a deliberate analogy to Jesus hanging on the cross. And thinking that way, you expect heathenry to have sacraments and lists of obligations. But for me that requires a tin ear for heathenry and serious ignoring of the context within the poem, which is runes and sacrifice (Óðinn gives/sacrifices himself to himself), and in which these two verses are set together for a reason. I think she’s lost her nose.

Posted in Forn Seðr.

2 Responses

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  1. Noil says

    Having observations and information written by outsiders will always result in misinformation and misunderstanding. At best most modern scholars can sit in their soft cushioned chairs in their nice well stocked office and day dream about what it was like then with their own preconceived notions, prejudices and influences clouding their views and judgement. This is clearly the case with Dronke, who has taken about 30 years to make it this far. One would have thought that in such a time-span that she could have constructed solid scholarship; instead what I see is the works of someone who is very tired and rushed to get the work out of the way.

    Suffocation was used on humans; in terms of the manner; generally humans were hung or left to drown in a bog, in either case the cause of death is asphyxiation. For animals the “suffocation” if it occurred was likely accidental; there is a belief within farming you never eat an animal that has suffocated; in part it is because the muscles tense up making the meat tough and if the animal is not immediately bled it can poison the meat.

    The holding of breath / control of breath is generally done by the person doing the sacrifice, by controlling ones breathing you can control the speed of your heart this allows you to deliver a single death blow without screwing it up because your arm trembled due to your breathing and heart beating. Striking between the beats of the heart ensures no tremble at the last moment before executing the delivery of the blow. This practice is still done in modern military by elite troops such as snipers.

    As to the meanings of the passages; like all of the lore it is subjective to tampering by the Christian scribes. I think it is best to ask of the Gods and Goddesses only in great times of needs so great that your own might and will can not over come, nor the use of runes can overcome the obstacle presented to you. It is then and only then that a request should be made. Often enough a man’s / woman’s luck will see them through a scrape; if need be great the runes can see a person through. But should odds be overwhelming and all else has failed then the Gods and Goddesses aid should be sought.

    I am not much in to blind faith; and I think it is a mistake to assume that Ottar was just going about blindly offering. Give an offering with out expectation as a sign of respect yes, but to blindly follow and hoping that the Gods and Goddesses hear you is a Christian mindset. The signs are all around us with the interaction of the Gods and Goddesses, all one needs to do is open their eyes and ears and look and listen and turn off the distractions in our daily life and then you will see and hear and will give nothing to blind faith for you will no longer be blind or deaf.

  2. Marion says

    I don’t think Ottar was being praised for having blind faith – it was troth. He trusted the goddesses to be right. But the passage is a good corrective to the notion that a blót always means praying/asking.

    Good point about the stopping of breath, and about not eating asphyxiated meat – that confirms it then, both bits refer to killing the animal for blót, even though blót as a word is related to blood and sóa is not.

    Dronke . . . was the best we had, as far as I know. She herself made the point in class that when you study a “mythology” you have to hone a fine feeling for it, because that’s ultimately the basis on which you decide which interpretation is better. (Compare Dumézil. Huge amounts of knowledge about many, many related cultures – but no real sense for any of them. Just the determination to make pretty patterns. He also kept changing his mind – but most of it’s concealed by the French tradition of reissuing books with tremendous changes but only a new date, not a new edition number.) But Volume 2 was already less sure in touch than Volume 1. That’s why I started writing about Völuspá – because I was finding myself disagreeing. And as I say, on this evidence she’s lost her insight, her sense of what fits. Too much mucking about with Celtic stuff. Too much influence from her husband’s interests. Damned shame.

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