The Havamal, the longest poem in the Poetic Edda, is made up of a number of parts, undoubtedly composed by various writers at various times. Since the general subject is Odin's wisdom, the parts go together fairly well, though each part loses a bit of its power and originality by being reduced to a part. One of the sections which has always attracted considerable interest and debate is that part which deals with the runes, and so I have drawn it out of its context so that it can be better seen on its own terms. As a poem by itself it is quite effective. It is made up of two sections. The second, and longer sometimes called the Ljothhatal, is a list of runic charms. The first eight stanzas form a mostly appropriate and effective introduction to the charms. However, there is no reason to believe that these stanzas were written to serve this purpose, or that they are even all of one piece, and so the result of this exercise is something short of returning the material to its original form.
In this translation I have attempted to be as clear and accurate as I can, to avoid rearranging the material in the stanzas for the sake of the verse, to avoid adding adjectives for the sake of the alliteration, and other words to explain matter in the text the reader might find difficult, and to keep the number of syllables in each line to a minimum. No doubt some will be able to find shortcomings on all of these grounds. I have also followed the meter, ljodahattr, as closely as possible. The material included here consists of stanzas 138-164 in Hollander's translation of the Havamal. Finally, I apologize for the fact that my site-builder does not allow for accent codes.
ODIN'S RUNE SONG
1. Hung I was on the windswept tree;
Nine full nights I hung,
Pierced by a spear, a pledge to the god,
To Odin, myself to myself,
On that tree which none can know the source
From whence its root has run.
2. None gave me bread, none brought a horn.
Then low to earth I looked.
I caught up the runes, roaring I took them,
And, fainting, back I fell.
3. Nine mighty lays I learned from the son
Of Bolthorn, Bestla's father,
And a draught I had of the holy mead
Poured out of Odreir.
Stanza 1. Hollander suggests that the last two lines of this stanza were importend from Fjolsvinnsmal. If so, they would have to be a late addition indeed, since that poem is considered one of the very latest of the Eddaic poems.
Stanza 2. Horn = drinking horn
Stanza 3. Bolthorn--Odin's Jotun grandfather.
Odreir--mead of poetry or, in this case, the cauldron that holds the mead.
4. Then fruitful I grew, and greatly to thrive,
In wisdom began to wax.
A single word to a second word led,
A single poem a second found.
5. Runes will you find, and fateful staves,
Very potent staves, very powerful staves,
Staves the great gods made,
Stained by the mighty sage,
And graved by the speaker of gods.
6. For gods by Odin, for elves by Dainn,
Dvalin for dwarves,
Alsvid for Jotuns, and I
Carved some for the sons of men.
Stanza 5. Staves--rune staves--slips of wood with runes carved on them.
Stanza 6. This stanza is incomplete. "Sons of men" is an interpolation, but the direction of the stanza makes this reading almost inevitable.
7. Do you know how to write? Do you know how to read? Stanza 7. Since this ritual formula, if that's what
Do you know how to tint? Do you know how to try? it is, is in Malahattr it was probably not originally
Do you know how to ask? Do you know how to offer? with this passage. Slaughter--butcher/sacrifice.-
Do you know how to send? Do you know how to slaughter? Our ancestors often combined the two.
8. Better don't ask than offer too much;
A gift demands a gift.
Better send none than slay too many;
So Odin graved in the age ere man,
When he arose, when he came home.
9. These songs I know, unknown to wives
Of kings, or to mankind.
Help is the first, and help it will
In sickness, sorrow, or strife.
10. A second I know that sons of men
Who long to be leeches need.
11. A third I know; if need there be
To fetter a foeman's limbs.
Blunt I make the blades of my foe,
The bite of sword and staff.
Stanza 8. Odin--actually "Thund," a rare alternate name for Odin. I made the substitution for the sake of clarity, and because I didn't have a proper alliteration, and so played the metrical wild card option of stressing contrasting vowels instead of identical consonants.
Stanza 9. "Wives of kings." The poet is thinking of those
king's wives who are "Wise Women" with magical
knowledge, such as Grimhild in Volsunga Saga.
Stanza 10. Obviously part of this stanza is missing.
Hollander supplies appropriate lines from Sigdrifumal, but that is taking a great deal of liberty with the text.
Stanza l4. "Rune-cut." Runes are meant, but not stated in the ON. Here I've broken two rules by adding material for the alliteration, and for the sake of explanation. I needed the alliteration and the reader needed the information, and one word did both. It was too great a temptation to pass up.
12. A fourth I know; if fetters men lay
Fast upon my feet,
When the words I chant, I'll walk away.
Fetters will spring from my feet,
Bindings burst from my hands.
13. A fifth I know; if a foeman's shaft
Is fired against the folk,
However fast, its flight I stop,
If ever my eye can see it.
14. A sixth I know; if seeking ill,
One sends a rune-cut root,
Whatever malice he meant for me,
On him the harm will fall.
15. A seventh I know; if I see a hall
Above the bench-mates burning,
No matter how strong, I stop the blaze.
I know the song to sing.
16. An eighth I know, useful to all,
Needful for men to know.
If warfare erupts 'twixt warriors' sons,
I quickly quench their rage.
17. A ninth I know. If need I find
To secure my ship from harm,
I calm the wind when waves run high,
And put the sea to sleep.
18. A tenth as well; if witches I see
At play up in the air,
I work it so their way they lose,
Their hamas they lose, their homes can't find.
Stanza 10. "hama"--form, shape, skin. The witches are made too confused to resume their true forms or to return to their starting point.
19. An eleventh I know, need I to lead
Lifelong friends to a fight.
'Neath shield I sing, and safe they go,
Fare to the fight,
Fare from the fight,
Fare safe on every side.
20. A twelfth I know; if a tree should hold
A man in a halter hanged,
I can so cut and color the runes
That the man will walk with me,
The man will talk with me.
21. A thirteenth I know; if I take up water,
And on a young thane throw it,
He will not fall to foes in strife,
Nor sink beneath the sword.
Stanza 19. "'Neath'--I apologize for this. I try to avoid archaic forms, but they can be tempting when they exactly fit the rhythm or alliteration. At least I don't make a virtue of them like Bellows and Hollander do.
22. A fourteenth I know; if I need to count,
For men, the glorious gods,
Aesir and Alfar, all these I can name.
None of the foolish know this.
23. A fifteenth I know, that sang Theodrerir
The dwarf at Dellings' doors--
Sang strength to the Aesir, to the Alfar, gain, Wise words to Hroptatyr.
24. A sixteenth I know; if a subtle maid
I want for love or lust,
I o'erwhelm the mind of the white-armed girl,
And her thoughts entirely turn.
25. A seventeenth I know, that seldom will wish A maiden to avoid me . . .
Stanza 23. Theodrerir--otherwise unknown.
Hroptatyr--another name for Odin, but better known than Thund.
Stanza 24. "White-armed." This is a common descriptive phrase in Greek poetry as well, probably because the typical woman's garment showed very little other bare skin.
Stanza 25. TheON text connects these lines to a Loddfafnir stanza which obviously doesn't belong. Hollander adds two lines to these, then makes the Loddfafnir stanza a stanza by itself, but that is rather a stret ch.
26. An eighteenth I know that I never will tell To maid, or any man's wife,
Other than her I hold in my arms,
Or else my sister is.
27. Surest are secrets shared with no one,
But now my spells are sung.
Stanza 26. The ON has the lines given here as stanza 27 in the middle of stanza 26, where they spoil both the form and the meaning. Bellows leaves them in place, but sets them off with dashes, which helps very little. Hollander recasts the whole stanza. That helps the logic and readability, but reduces the passage from translation to paraphrase. Bray moves them to the end, which helps a little. No arrangement seem particularly satisfactory. I have here set them apart and made them a conclusion to the whole poem, since the stanza that follows it seems to me more properly a conclusion to the whole Havamal.
Here is an alternate ending to the poem, using all the material I have moved or left out.
24. A seventeenth I know, that seldom will wish
A maiden to avoid me.
All these song, Lodfafnir, though
Long you have lacked them,
Were useful to you if understood,
Useful to know,
Useful to have.
25. An eighteenth I know, that I never will tell
To maid, or any man's wife--
Surest are secrets shared with no one,
But now my songs are sung--
Other than her I hold in my arms,
Or else my sister is.
26. Now the High One's songs are sung in the hall,
Needful for men to know,
Usless for Jotuns to know.
Hail to he who speaks, Hail to he who knows.
Luck to those who learn.
Hail to those who hear.
All the surviving Medieval rune poems.
Modern rune poems by various hands.
A page about the god, Odin.
A continuation of Odin I, with the full text of the Havamal.
The home page for all my Norse material.
As with medicine and finance, it is always good to get a second opinion. Therefore, I have added Henry Adams Bellows' translation of the same passage. Personally, I think mine is both more literal and uses more correct poetic form, but decide for yourself.
Odin's Rune Poem
Henry Adams Bellows
I ween that I hung on the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, and offered I was
To Othin, myself to myself,
On the tree that none may ever know
what root beneath it runs.
None made me happy with loaf or horn,
And there below I looked;
I took up the runes, shrieking I took them,
And forthwith back I fell.
Nine mighty songs I got from the son
Of Bolthorn, Bestla's father;
And a drink I got of the goodly mead
Poured out from Othrorir.
Then began I to thrive, and wisdom to get,
I grtew and well I was;
Each word led me on to another word,
Each deed to another deed.
Runes shalt thou find, and fateful signs,
That the king of singers colored,
And the mighty gods have made;
Full strong the signs, full mighty the signs
That the ruler of gods doth write.
Othin for the gods, Dain for the elves,
And Dvalin for the dwarfs,
Alsvith for giants and all mankind,
And some myself I wrote.
Knowst how one shall write, knowest how one shall rede?
Knowest how one shall tint, knowest how one makes trial?
Knowest how one shall ask, knowest how one shall offer?
Knowest how one shall send, knowest how one shall sacrifice?
Better no prayer than too big an offering,
By thy getting measure thy gift;
Better is none than too big a sacrifice,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So Thund of old wrote ere man's race began,
Where he rose on high when home he came.
The songs I know that king's wives know not,
Nor men that are sons of men;
The first is called helf, and help it can bring thee
In sorrow and pain and sickness.
A second I know, that men shall need
Who leechcraft long to use;
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .
A thrd I know, if great is my need
Of fetters to hold my foe;
Blunt do I make mine enemy's blade,
Nor bites his sword or staff.
A fourth I know, if men shall fasten
Bonds on my bended legs;
So great is the charm that forth I may go,
The fetters spring from my feet,
Broken the bonds from my hands.
A fifth I know, if I see from afar
An arrow fly 'gainst the folk;
If flies not so swift that I stop it not,
If ever my eye behold it.
A sixth I know, if harm one seeks
With a sapling's roots to send me;
The hero himself wo wreaks his hate
Shall taste the ill ere I.
A seventh I know, if I see in flames
The hall o'er my comrades' heads;
It burns not so wide that I will not quench it,
I know that song to sing.
An eighth I know, that is to all
Of greatest good to learn;
When hatred grows among heroes' sons,
I soon can set it right.
A ninth I know, if need there comes
To shelter my ship on the flood;
The wind I calm upon the waves,
And the sea I put to sleep.
A tenth I know, what time I see
House-riders flying on high;
So can I work that wildly they go,
Showing their true shapes,
Hence to their own homes.
An eleventh I know, if needs I must lead
To the fight my long-loved friends;
I sing in the shields, and in strength they go
Whole to the field of fight,
Whole from the field of fight,
And whole they come thence home.
A twelfth I know, if high in a tree
I see a hanged man swing;
So do I write and color the runes
That forth he fares,
And to me talks.
A thirteenth I know, if a thane full young
With water I sprinkle well;
He shall not fall, though he fares mid the host,
Nor sink beneath the swords.
A fourteenth I know, if fain I would name
To men the mighty gods;
All know I well of the gods and elves,--
Few be the fools know this.
A fifteenth I know, that before the doors
Of Delling sang Thjorthrorir the dwarf;
Might he sang for the gods, and glory for elves,
And wisdom for Hroptatyr wise.
A sixteenth I know, if I seek delight
To win from a maiden wise;
The mind I turn of the white-armed maid,
And thus change all her thoughts.
A seventeenth I know, so that seldom shall go
A maiden young from me;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .
Long these songs thou shalt, Loddfafnir,
Seek in vain to sing;
Yet good it were if thou mightest get them,
Well, if thou wouldst them learn,
Help, if thou hadst them.
An eighteenth I know, that ne'er will I tell
To maiden or wife of man,--
The best is what none but one's self doth know,
So comes then end of the songs,--
Save only to her in whose arms I lie,
Or who else my sister is.
The usual last stanza that ends this passage as well as the Havamal as a whole Bellows, for some esoteric reason, has moved it to a point before this section. There it is numbered as stanza thirty-eight.