Odin speaks again
Hávamál book presents Viking proverbs
M. Michael Brady
The Hávamál is a Viking Age poem with a prominent pedigree. It is from the pre-Christian era, as connoted by its title: Hávamál literally means “Sayings of the High One,” or Odin, the Norse All-father God.
It is a long poem of 164 stanzas that divides into five parts, of which the first is “Gestaþáttir” (guest’s section), a set of 80 terse proverbs and statements of gnomic wisdom, the most quoted part, generally known as the Hávamál Proper.
It is the second of 29 poetic works of an Icelandic codex written on vellum leaves in the late 13th century. It was called the Codex Regius (Latin for “Royal Book”), because in 1662 Brynjólfur Sveinsson, the Bishop of Skálholt (then one of Iceland’s two Episcopal seats), presented it to King Frederick II of Denmark, who then ruled Norway, of which Iceland was a dependency.
For some 200 years thereafter, the Codex Regius was studied principally by scholars drawn to Nordic mythology. Then, in the 1930s, J.R.R. Tolkein, a professor at the University of Oxford, lectured on the Codex Regius. That led to his writing stories that captured the drama of Nordic mythology and later became The Lord of the Rings. Today, the Codex Regius is heard as well as read. In the 2016 documentary film on volcanoes, Into the Inferno, director Werner Herzog read aloud two stanzas of the “Völuspá” (Prophecy of the Völva), the first of the 29 works of the Codex Regius.
After studying the Hávamál, in 2013 Viking Martial Arts expert Tyr Neilsen felt it should be made available to a wider audience. Many books of Hávamál Proper translated into English were available, but none could replicate its historical delivery as a performance. So he teamed up with photojournalist Bente Wemundstad to compile a book that would be a modern reflection of how Hávamál was presented in the Viking Age.
They knew that through the years, presentations of Hávamál had mixed romantic traditions of the day with Viking artifacts and costumes. So instead of the wings or horns on helmets and Wagnerian women with long braids that conveyed the aura in Victorian England, they chose black leather and fur garments and some chainmail, closer to historical Viking garb. There were discrepancies among the texts of the published editions of the Hávamál Proper, so Neilsen and Wemundstad went to Iceland to study the original 13th-century Codex Regius at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík. The result is a new, wide-scope view of Hávamál in text and color scenes, with ancillary anecdotes to set the backdrop, between stanzas 1 and 80:
You can never be sure
Who is inside
When searching for
Answers in the runes
Which were created by the gods
And written by Odin
It is best to reflect
Over the meaning
The book: Hávamál, The Sayings of Odin by Tyr Neilsen and Bente Wemundstad, published by Nova Forlag in 2014 is, at this writing, available in the U.S. as an e-book from Amazon.com and iBooks.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.