Log in

No account? Create an account


So over on the Asatru Studies ML, there was someone pretty new to Asatru who had lots of questions about interpretations in the Havamal. They were a bit caught up in "why does this translator use this word, and the others are using these words... I don't see a connection. The problem of course is that translations are never perfect. It is impossible to fully translate from one language into another, from one culture into another, through the passage of times and different beliefs. Colloquilial expressions are different, sometimes one language may have nuances of words not present in the other. Even the syntax and structure of a sentence is different from one language to the other. In English we usually have a noun as a subject of our sentence first, then the verb. But in some languages the 'noun' or subject of the sentence can appear after the verb. This can impact translations. If you try to traslate line for line it may not make sense, and instead you have to translate the entire section of text instead.

Sometimes the syntax even in the same language can vary by regional influences. As Americans we don't think of this overly much, but I add lots of extra things to my sentences "I will go to the store shortly" becomes "I will be heading on out to the store here in a few" because we Southerners have a tendency to slow down and draw out our sentences. I don't just say thanks, or even thank you, I say thank you so much when the waiter refills my glass of water at the restauraunt, or even like the character of Brenda in TNT's The Closer, I sometimes say "thank you, thank you so much." All of these things impact translations, not to mention things such as the intent of the translator: Are they trying to keey some semblance of rhythmic or poetic devices in the original source to give the translation a bit of it's flavor? Have they dropped awkward phrases or antiquated languge to instead update to a more common modern vernacular? Sometimes of course preconceived notions or personal biases can influence a translator's choice of words.

This means that ultimately each translation is at best a re-telling of the original text. Short of learning the language of the ancient source material, the best course of action is to try not to be caught up in semantics, but to look at the big picture and the context, as usually that will steer you true. But of course that can sometimes be hard to do. And there are times when trnalstions 'color' in ways that may not be obvious outside of looking at the original source.

These are all important things to understand before reading any of the lore, let alone trying to decipher them. What follows is some discussion about specific stanzas of the Havamal, and my othoughts upon them in relation to one of the members of the ML's questions.

Havamal 16

The Question: "Would someone out there please explain to me the TRUE meaning of Havamal 16?" The person asking was stumbling across different seeming translations using words like cowardly, sluggard, unwise and was getting confused, which prompted a follow-up question in the discussion: " If I’m lazy as in thought and action, does that make me a coward?

Ósnjallr maðr
hyggsk munu ey lifa
ef hann við víg varask
en elli gefr
honum engi frið
þótt honum geirar gefi

The unwise man thinks that ay he will live,
if from fighting he flees;
but the ails and aches of old age dog him
though spears have spared him

Olive Bray:
A coward believes he will ever live
if he keep him safe from strife:
but old age leaves him not long in peace
though spears may spare his life.

The sluggard believes | he shall live forever,
If the fight he faces not;
But age shall not grant him | the gift of peace,
Though spears may spare his life.

Auden & Taylor:
The coward believes he will live forever
If he holds back in the battle,
But in old age he shall have no peace
Though spears have spared his limbs

A cowardly man
thinks he will ever live,
if warfare he avoids;
but old age will
give him no peace,
though spears may spare him.

Someone else was kind enough to already provide a direct translation of the words you have in question: "Ósnjallr maðr - Maðr is man, but I can't find "Ósnjallr" itself in a dictionary. However, I found one similar in Zoega's:úsnjallr, a. unskilled, unwise;"

What's this stanza trying to tell me with words like: unwise, cowardly, unexperienced, sluggard seemingly used in the same place in varying translations? I don't think in this case it matters what particular word it is, as they're all part of the bigger picture here of that stanza. So let's look at it in context.

I think the stanza is being pretty clear that: fleeing from battle may mean you live to an older age, but you will be plagued in your old age--both with physical ailments, and also there is an insinuation of guilt/shame plaguing you as well. And in that sense this holds true for a sluggard man, an unwise man, and a cowardly man.

In addition to the stanza having obviously a meaning of one shouldn't flee from a battle, this can also encompass other expressions of thought like: don't shirk your responsibilities, face what comes your way, try to live a life without regrets, the things worth living for are worth dying for, age isn't everything, etc. Yes these are modern cliches, but the reason why they are modern cliches is because these phrases are based in proverbs. And what are proverbs but words of wisdom?

Havamal 127

Old Norse: (skipped the repeated first lines)
hvars þú böl kannt
kveðu þat bölvi at
ok gefat þínum fjándum frið

I rede thee, Loddfafnir! | and hear thou my rede,--
Profit thou hast if thou hearest,
Great thy gain if thou learnest:
If evil thou knowest, | as evil proclaim it,
And make no friendship with foes.

Thorpe: (#129 here)
I counsel thee, etc.
Wherever of injury thou knowest,
regard that injury as thy own;
and give to thy foes no peace.

Auden/Taylor: (skips the first lines)
If aware that another is wicked, say so:
Make no truce or treaty with foes.

The Question: How do I use evil and gain and harm as the same thing? (In other words, how do these words appear as interchangeable in the translations?)

Because they're not.:)

"gain" in the context of this stanza is refering to knowledge, i.e. should you learn of knowledge, should you acquire knowledge etc. "evil" or "harm" refers to the type of knowledge the stanza is talking about, or knowledge that is about evil or harmful acts, words, things, people, or deeds.

Or in other words the stanza is about the fact that you must stand up and do what is right/act accordingly should you learn of something that is evil/harmful/criminal in nature. The implication is that not only is this right action, but failure to stand up for it makes you complicit in the act as well, and tarnishes your reputation. By failing to do anything you become that evil/hurtful/harmful/injurous/criminal thing/act.

And that regardless of the cost to you, so long as you live and breathe you must never ignore such things. You must make no oath to them. While the stanza doesn't speak of oaths and oath-breaking, I think in terms of the culture this would be understood. There's a special place in hel reserved for those who break oaths, those who are criminals, those who are indeed evil men. Helping them even by being passive, ignoring the problem, being complacent, means you have aligned yourself with them and are also now guilty of their crimes.

So some real world applications (at least as I see the stanza):

Should you learn that your neighbor is sexually molesting his 5 year old, you should speak up and/or act by doing what you can to prevent this evil, criminal, harmful behavior. So contact the authorities.

Let's say you end up witnessing a murder of an innocent person. You have an ethical obligation to testify, even if by doing so you put your own life in jeopardy because the witness may have the mob connections to have you killed. So you must do what is right to not allow an evil act to go by unpunished.

Historical example: During World War II after the Nazis took over control of Denmark, the Danish people learned what would become of their fellow Jewish countrymen. The Nazis were planning on seizing the roughly 8000 or so Jews in the country and ship them off to concentration camps and death. People in the Danish government learned of it, and through networks of friends and neighbors, fellow coworkers and fellows students, just Danes of all walks of life, they began acting. They warned their fellow countrymen. Some informed rabbis who then spread the word to their congregations, others personal knew someone who was Jewish and warned them directly, still others just picked up the phone book and started calling people who had Jewish sounding names to warn them. But warning them, wasn't simply enough. They yet felt compelled to do more. The Danes managed to get almost all of the 8000 jews to Sweden, by whatever boat they could find (rowboats, kayaks, fishing vessels, commercial boats) while avoiding detection by the Nazi's. The Gestapo did catch some, others died in the attempt to flee the country. But the fact that this wide community of Danes communally came together to save their fellow countrymen despite potentially fatal risk to themselves... is an example of people learning/gaining knowledge of a harmful thing about to transpire, and who did not allow it to happen. Those few Danes who assisted the Nazi efforts are in the tomes of history, simply collaborators forever linked as being an accessory to the [attempted] murder of not only fellow Danes, but fellow human beings.

I find that the stanza is very much in line I think with the modern quote/proverb that gets used alot: "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."


That's why back when I studied the Havamal the 1st time I had at least two English translations, the original text and two ON Dictionaries. I also after Meditated on that stanza, trying to get the Core Concept It was trying to say.Truth is, most didn't need to much since they tended to be very Practical to someone Raised in an old-fashioned military family. Most of the Core cultural bits hadn't been as eroded away as the general population of Americans. Probably why so many ___Brats and Servicefolk end up as Heathens as opposed to other alt-rels....