Old Norse Proverbs: Quotes from the Hávamál

OdinHávamál or Sayings of the High One is part of the Elder Edda also known as Poetic Edda. The high one is Odin, and thus all the sayings of this Eddaic poem are attributed to the Allfather. In the original Old Norse the verses are composed in the meter called Ljóðaháttr, which in the Viking Age was associated with wisdom poetry. Practical advice and deep insights as for what it means to be human and live in this world make this little book a gem of the Norse literature. I admire it and today I would like to share with you a few of my favourite quotations from it.

A farm of your own is better, even if small. Everyone’s someone at home. Though he has two goats and a coarsely roofed house, that is better than begging (36).

Bú er betra,
þótt lítit sé,
halr er heima hverr;
þótt tvær geitr eigi
ok taugreftan sal,
þat er þó betra en bæn.

Where you recognise evil, speak out against it, and give no truces to your enemies (127).

Hvars þú böl kannt,
kveð þú þér bölvi at
ok gef-at þínum fjándum frið.

Thou should never sleep in the arms of a sorceress, lest she lock thy limbs (113).

Fjölkunnigri konu
skal-at-tu í faðmi sofa,
svá at hon lyki þik liðum.

From his weapons on the open road, no man should step one pace away (38).

Vápnum sínum
skal-a maðr velli á
feti ganga framar

Many a good girl when you know her better is fickle of heart towards men (102).

Mörg er góð mær,
ef görva kannar,
hugbrigð við hali

Praise day at even, a wife when dead, a weapon when tried, a maid when married, ice when ’tis crossed, and ale when ’tis drunk (81).

At kveldi skal dag leyfa,
konu, er brennd er,
mæki, er reyndr er,
mey, er gefin er,
ís, er yfir kemr,
öl, er drukkit er.

Even three words of quarrelling you shouldn’t have with an inferior (125).

Þrimr orðum senna
skal-at-tu þér við verra mann.

The foolish man thinks he will live forever if he keeps away from fighting; but old age won’t grant him a truce, even if the spears do (16).

Ósnjallr maðr
hyggsk munu ey lifa,
ef hann við víg varask;
en elli gefr
hánum engi frið,
þótt hánum geirar gefi.

Cattle die, kinsmen die; the self must also die. I know one thing which never dies: the reputation of each dead man (77).

Deyr fé,
deyja frændr,
deyr sjalfr it sama,
ek veit einn,
at aldrei deyr:
dómr um dauðan hvern.

Note that the Old Norse texts are given in normalized modern Icelandic orthography.

Photo: Odin figurine, Historical Museum in Oslo, Norway. Courtesy Mararie. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence.

15 comments… add one
  • Jono

    Hi there,
    Been reading through the hávamál, and 53 caught my attention, but I keep seeing different translations. Some say ‘of small sands, of small seas, small minds and made’ whilst I’ve also seen ‘little a sand-grain, little a dew drop, little the minds of men. I was wondering if you could shine a little light perhaps on what the true translation is in your eyes? Thanks, Jono.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Jono. Here is the passage in Old Norse:

      Lítilla sanda
      lítilla sæva
      lítil eru geð guma

      It says, literally:

      of small sands
      of small seas
      small are the minds of men

  • Victor A

    I was wondering if you could help me, Im looking for a Hávamál copy in old norse, the problem is that in the best case scenario I often find a ” ö ” somewhere, so thats not old norse just as it says on your article, I was thinking that you might have a file or something that you could email me or just post a link in reply, to give you some better context Im looking for the stanza 48 and particularly for its beggining, “the lives of the brave and noble are better, sorrows they seldom feed” this kind of archaic structure is in my opinion very interesting and “cool” as I could say, my intente is to take the fragment above and tattoo it Im still not sure if I do this just beside a Vegvisir and/or aegishjalmur or if I put it separately, but the thing is that I want to get it into Young futhark long branch or Elder futhark, can u give some advice too about that? Elder futhark looks like its someting more pure, raw, would give some style if together with a vegvisir or aegishjalmur, although it was not used by vikings (a culture that I personally love and Always had great interest), but the Young futhark despite being used by the vikings is so small if compared to Elder futhark, It would be cool if together with the symbols I said before too. haha the struggle is real.

    thank you for your time

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Victor. Here is Hávamál in Old Norse orthography. It reproduces the text of the Codex Regius with its archaic spelling. It has c instead of k, i instead of j, in certain word forms o instead of u etc. Also note that some words differ from the standard text of the Elder Edda reproduced in modern editions. If you want to have an Old Norse text in runes, you have to use the Younger Futhark, that’s what I always say. Elder Futhark not only looks terribly anachronistic with Old Norse, it also simply does not have runes for several Old Norse vowels. After all, the Younger Futhark appeared as a reaction to the emergence of new sounds for which there were no runes in the elder set of runes.

  • James

    Hi Allan,

    What about runes that express generalized concepts, surely this could be translated with some faithful adherence to futhark. For example

    Man Warrior Poet. Love Adventure Gold. Honor Respect Integrity

    With something like this, is it possible to back translate, and carry the spirit and integrity of the runes?

    With respect,


    • Viking Rune

      Hello James. Younger Fuhark runes are basically an alphabet. They are to stand for sounds, not whole concepts.

  • allan

    I would greatly appreciate your two senses or six;

    The first Hávamál is so relevant to my families life, here in Northern Jutland, on our farm.

    We have a large stone in the center of the farm and i would like to hammer out in this rock, such to define:

    “Bú er betra,
    þótt lítit sé,
    halr er heima hverr;
    þótt tvær geitr eigi
    ok taugreftan sal,
    þat er þó betra en bæn.”

    After reading quite a few of your posts, i arrive to respect your knowledge in “skandinavian linguistics”. The information you share and your interpretations, feel so instinctively correct to me. Unlike much else i have read.

    Long story short:
    If you existed when these Hávamál were first given to us and you were to carve that above phrase in stone, so that a passing dani, were to understand the significance ……hvordan ville Du så gøre det?

    På forhånd Tak!

    – allan olsen

    • allan

      p.s. i know it is an extensive request. It will be honored, by hours of hand carving in stone. … on a side note, wheres the donate button ? Tak!

      • Viking Rune

        Hello Allan. The task would require a lot of time and effort, so I am not sure I would be able to help. However, I plan to write a guide on how to approach writing Old Norse with runes, so let us keep in touch.

        • allan

          Indeed, i have doven into the research and i must say, i have begun to understand the difficulties of the question i ask. By this, i have also begun to understand your posts and replys to other questions.

          In fact, i now believe it simply isnt possible, to be sure of the result.

          After contemplating about this much, i am beginning to think, the best way to resolve this inscription, would be hammering the proverbs in Todays Danish using runes phonetically.
          But then, would this even be understandable by another rune-reader ?

          It is indeed , very complicated.

        • allan

          …. i think i will stick to your guide.

          Thank You For Your Time Viking Rune!

          • Viking Rune

            • allan

              I am not going to start getting all spiritually cynical about this,
              but; just 2 weeks ago, i was standing with my hammer and pike (it took me while to make them), ready to start carving. Then the thought hit me: “allan, you are about to chisel into your farms most sacred stone, runes that you are not even sure about” …so i stopped. I figured; I would go to some more viking markets and meets and eventually Odin would send me a sign.

              Then a question asked back in 2014, as a matter of fact a huge question asked back in 2014, is suddenly responded.

              How do I put this?

              I would simply have to say ” Perfekt ” absolutely wonderful, full of wonder and Perfekt.

              Victor : Tak fra mit Hjærte og Sjæl … I will read them again and again and I will start carving.

              May Odin shine Your Path.

              Feel Welcome in North Jutland should your travels bring You here!

  • William Kerker

    Very Cool

    • Viking Rune

      To be sure, William!

Leave a Comment