One of the most famous poems preserved in Old Norse is the ‘Words of the high one’, or Hávamál. The title could also be read, using a more obscure meaning of its first part, as ‘Words of the one-eyed one’. Either way, the reference is clearly to Odin. The poem is 164 stanzas long, making it by far the longest in the Poetic Edda.
Not Written by One Poet?
It’s unlikely that it was all originally composed by one poet from the first stanza to the last. Each stanza of the first half is a short, pithy, individual proverb, each on its own theme. These could easily have originated and been passed on independently of one another.
The sentiments of these proverbs in the first half of Hávamál are similar to some parts of Proverbs in the Bible, and even more so to the cynical, world-weary tone of Ecclesiastes. A couple of stanzas will show the feel of the whole:
A stupid man
and an undisciplined one
laughs at everything.
He hasn’t learned
a lesson that would do him good:
he himself isn’t flawless.
Don’t speak even three words
with a man worse than you.
Often the better man will lose
when a worse man fights him.
The Wisdom of Hávamál
These proverbs emphasize practical virtues critical to the Norse and many other ancient societies, such as hospitality and courage. But in addition to these expected virtues, Hávamál is particularly concerned with moderation, a virtue one might not expect given the stereotypes we often have about impulsive Vikings in today’s culture.
Particularly, Odin is concerned to warn us to be moderate in drinking:
There is not as much good
as men claim there is
in alcohol for one’s well-being.
A man knows less
as he drinks more,
and loses more and more of his wisdom.
It is hard to believe that Hávamál could reflect the established, typical mores of its time. Rather, it reflects the kind of wisdom held by the old, bitter, and experienced all around the world, who fail generation by generation to transmit it to younger generations in time for it to do them any good.
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So, Why is Odin Attributed?
Of course, if the advice in these stanzas is not quite typically ‘Viking’, it is not altogether typical of the characterization of Odin either. But consider the way that today, wise-sounding, or at least eloquent, quotes get shared more respectfully on social media if they are attributed to someone with authority, or even better, to someone with authority who also has attributes that suggest wisdom.
And the easiest way to suggest wisdom is age. The dispensers of wisdom in our films and literature are not callow youths, but wrinkled graybeards. And although Odin might not be the very oldest living being, he’s a member of the first few generations of living beings.
Wisdom is also often expensive, with the scars of a long life reflecting hard lessons learned. Odin has certainly suffered for his own wisdom. Mimir demanded Odin’s eye as the price for a drink from his well that grants wisdom. And Odin hung from a tree for nine nights, apparently dying in the process, to learn the wisdom of the runes.
So it is not surprising that the proverbs collected in the first half of Hávamál came to be attributed to Odin, whatever their exact individual origins. In other cultures in other times and places, other appropriate wisdom figures would have been found—a Solomon, a Confucius, an Obi-Wan Kenobi. Each of them, like Odin, is pictured as a mature or older man with hard experience that shows on his face.
Odin’s Advice on Love
Now following these stanzas about general wisdom, Odin turns in Hávamál to the subject of love and distrust—which are tightly interwoven. Odin recommends in no uncertain terms that men ought not to trust women:
No man should trust
the words of a girl,
nor anything a woman says.
Women’s hearts are molded
on a wobbly wheel.
Faithlessness is planted at their core.
But he is fair-minded about it and has the same advice for women regarding men:
I’ll speak plainly now,
since I know both men and women:
men lie to women.
We speak most eloquently
when we tell the biggest lies,
and seduce even wise women with lies.
Then Odin briefly relates two stories of his own adventures in love. The first is the story of how he seduced Gunnloth and acquired the mead of poetry, Othrerir. Odin’s second story is about how he failed to seduce another woman whose name is not given. As always with the dream logic of myths, we have to accept each story more or less on its own terms, with whatever arbitrary restrictions on the action that the narrative needs.
Common Questions about Odin’s Advice in Hávamál
Odin advises that it should be done in moderation and that as a man drink more, he knows less, and loses more of his wisdom. This advice is in Hávamál, which has been written by older generations trying to transmit wisdom to younger generations.
One reason is that when someone who is an authority or has power suggests something it’s easier to accept. To know that the advice in Hávamál is from Odin suggests that it comes from someone with much wisdom who’s also old and experienced.
In Hávamál, Odin tells us of a story where he was successful in seducing a woman and another in which he failed. Odin’s advice to women is to be wary of men who will lie while speaking eloquently and his advice to men is that they should not trust a girl.