Notes: Hávamál

16 Jun 2020

The Hávamál is advice from the Icelandic codex, attributed to Odin as the “Song of the High One”.

In modern urban warfare, pie-ing1 involves sectioning off the dead (space unoccupied by objects or walls) space in every room and corridor to clear it of possible threats. The Norse had something similar, advising travelers to check every room thoroughly before they entered.

“At every door-way,
ere one enters,
one should spy round,
one should pry round
for uncertain is the witting
that there be no foeman sitting,
within, before one on the floor”

The Havamal suggests that gifting travelers is a norm to be followed, but it is nonetheless up to the traveler to be careful and canny about his behavior. The traveler is a guest, and a guest is at the mercy of his host. Wit is praised as a virtue- wit will find you friends.

The first step in an OODA loop is to observe, and for the Norse it was no different:
“Let the wary stranger who seeks refreshment
keep silent with sharpened hearing;
with his ears let him listen, and look with his eyes;
thus each wise man spies out the way.”

Self-reliance is praised2- a man who wins status for himself is happy (or secure). A man who relies on others to win status for him is uneasy (or insecure). Intelligence/awareness (wit) is shown as an ally of the poor, and is suggested to provide more use than wealth itself. It is for this reason that alcohol is denigrated- a man who drinks has less of his wit.

Stay with silence, until you have to speak the right word.3

Those who wander most (breadth of experience) can tell when someone is wise. Fools consume more than they can process. Insomnia is a sign of a lack of wisdom, sleeping well is a sign of wisdom. Proper questions and answers are a mark of wisdom. When people are not proved (without skin in the game)4, they seem wise. A guest is only welcome for a time. Stay past that time and you will be unwelcome.

Your own house is best, no matter how tiny. Be prepared to fight everywhere (see: self-reliance).

Everyone likes gifts. Those who give and keep on giving have the longest relationships. If you don’t trust someone, laugh with them, bring them cheer, but do not share your thoughts with them. “Man is the joy of man”. Live free enough to keep giving abundantly, and don’t feed your grief.

Watch out if you find yourself becoming too wise. If you know too much of many things, you won’t be happy. Humans are formed by talking to other humans, and they become opaque through isolation. Careful what you say in public. Everything dies but memory. Wealth or a woman’s love multiplies stupidities.

Silence is best.

Praise things after you’ve experienced them, not before or during- praise a wife when she’s dead, and a weapon after it’s used in combat.

“work a ship for its gliding, a shield for its shelter,
a sword for its striking, a maid for her kiss;

The speech of a maiden should no man trust
nor the words which a woman says;
for their hearts were shaped on a whirling wheel
and falsehood fixed in their breasts.”

For a woman’s love, use soft words and wealth. Don’t blame anything on anyone you love. Love makes intelligent men stupid. Love is the worst sickness for the wise. Women are fickle, know the part you’re playing when you try to wife one up. It is important to note that when Odin went after Billing’s daughter, he failed to seduce her, while when he went after the mead of poetry, he seduced Gunloth. When his purpose was clear (and was not primarily seduction of a woman), he was successful. When he made his purpose a woman, he was not successful.

Don’t show those you don’t trust your pain. Friendship is when you can share your whole mind with another5. No one is so good that they don’t have things about them you dislike, and no one is so bad that they can’t be useful to someone. Share your wealth, or people will want to destroy you.

Odin hung on a tree for many nights- this strikes me as an example of a Dark Night of the Soul, or a desert period in mysticism.

It is better to ask for too little than to offer to give too much.

🎼 This was written while listening to Heilung.


Mako asked,

the only part I didnt get is ‘It is better to ask for too little than to offer to give too much’. Why are these things being compared. Interested in ‘don’t show your pain to people you don’t trust’. I think it is rarely the case that they could exploit you for seeing it. But it does make them uncomfortable. Why is it.

I replied,

Asking too much=letting others step up to take responsibility for themselves. Asking too little=not expecting others to have lots of agency. Often people are most upset at the people they think have the most agency (Colin addresses this in explaining how expectations relate to love). Not expecting others to have agency saves you from expectations that are more likely to be unmet. When everything is offered, you hand people things on a plate with a silver spoon, which may lead them to undervalue the way.

An underlying model for me in interpreting all of this is prestige-based social learning, which follows the general virtue-advice in various cultures that is basically ‘do your own thing, if it follows the Way, others will follow without realizing they’re following’. It typically makes them uncomfortable because they also contain the pain, such that your pain forces them to confront their own pain. As soon as this happens, if they are ‘weak’, they will shift the blame for the pain on you or on their preferred outgroup.

So they may not exploit your pain, but it may hinder you from better exploiting them, since pain will put them on the defensive- the funny thing about the Norse pantheon is that even though we remember Loki as the trickster, almost all of them are tricksters in some way, and Odin is a big trickster himself- so the advice here is ABF, always be flanking. If you don’t trigger their pain, you leave some moves open to you that would otherwise be closed to you.

  1. See anything about Military Operations in Urban Terrain. A quick primer is also here

  2. Whoever sang this song first would likely agree with much of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance

  3. You might see parallels in Daoism and Sufism

  4. Compare with: ‘A bet is a tax on bullshit’ (as well as my ‘A fight is a tax on bullshit’), Taleb’s popularization of ‘skin in the game’, and Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’

  5. Brainfucking, if you prefer.