The Words of Odin the High One

Proverbs and sayings dating from the Viking Age,
borne down through the centuries by the Poetic Edda.

(Written in Old Norse sometime before AD900.)

1. Each saying is first given plain English wording by author Joyce Holt (...her own translation, based on a modern Norwegian version of the Hávamál)

2. Then in bold comes an English rendering that features rhyme and alliteration -- composed in the same style as the original Edda's poetic form,

3. The third rendering, whenever there is one, is Holt's poetic rewording as found in her novel

Come browse through the wisdom of a bygone age!
Heed the sayings of the generous yet stern,
warm-hearted, iron-fisted folk of the Viking Age.


If you open the door of an unfamiliar house, you should be wary, you should be watchful, for it's uncertain to know if enemies all sit lurking therein.

At every doorway,
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.

When entering
an unknown hall,
be watchful, be wary;
whether friends
or foes there wait
is never known beforehand.

(appears in Chapter 18 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI )


Generous host-folk! a guest is come, where shall he sit? There by the door he waits reluctantly, if he has an important errand.

Hail, ye Givers!
a guest is come;
say! where shall he sit within?
Much pressed is he
who fain on the hearth
would seek for warmth and weal.


Fire needs he who comes in, and is cold in the knees; food and clothing can the man need who comes from a journey over the mountains.

He hath need of fire
who now is come,
numbed with cold to the knee;
food and clothing
the wanderer craves
who has fared o'er the rimy fell.

The traveler needs
shelter for the night
when faring over winter fjells.
Food he needs,
and fire to warm
legs numbed to the knee.

appears in Chapter 28 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


Water and towel and friendly word needs a man before dinner; a hospitable mood he will like to meet, conversation and silence in turn.

He craves for water,
who comes for refreshment,
drying and friendly bidding,
marks of good will,
fair fame if 'tis won,
and welcome once and again.

Water and towel
and friendly words
craves one who comes from a journey...

appears in Chapter 18 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


Wits are needed by him who travels widely; at home life is easy; ridiculed will all be who know nothing and come among wise folk.

He hath need of his wits
who wanders wide,
aught simple will serve at home;
but a gazing-stock
is the fool who sits
mid the wise, and nothing knows.

Pity the witless
who sits with the wise,
reaping scorn for his foolish remarks.
Better for the simple
to stay at home
where no one will notice his folly.

appears in Chapter 31 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


One should never boast about his own abilities, rather go watchful with his wits; when one wise and reticent comes to the estate, it seldom goes badly for him.

Let no man glory
in the greatness of his mind,
but rather keep watch o'er his wits.
Cautious and silent
let him enter a dwelling;
to the heedful comes seldom harm,
for none can find
a more faithful friend
than the wealth of mother wit.


The wary guest, coming on a visit, sits with curious senses; ears listen, eyes watch, thus the wise guards himself well.

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.

When seeking shelter
at a stranger's hall,
watch warily on every hand.
Ears a-listening,
eyes following all,
and thus learn the lay of the land.

appears in Chapter 3 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


Happy is he who gets to hear free praise and tender words; troubled is he when another's opinion lies [hidden] in a closed breast.

Happy is he
who wins for himself
fair fame and kindly words;
but uneasy is that
which a man doth own
while it lies in another's breast.


Happy is he who has in himself praise and wisdom here in the world; evil counsel can often come out of another's breast.

Happy is he
who hath in himself
praise and wisdom in life;
for oft doth a man
ill counsel get
when 'tis born in another's breast.


No one has a better burden to bear than much human wit; in foreign places it is better than gold; wit is the comfort of the poor man.

A better burden
can no man bear
on the way than his mother wit;
'tis the refuge of the poor,
and richer it seems
than wealth in a world untried.


No one has a better burden to bear than much human wit; no one has a worse burden upon the road than he who has drunk too much.

A better burden
can no man bear
on the way than his mother wit:
and no worse provision
can he carry with him
than too deep a draught of ale.


Ale is not so good for you as people say; the more one drinks, the less can he steer his meager wits.

Less good than they say
for the sons of men
is the drinking oft of ale:
for the more they drink,
the less can they think
and keep a watch o'er their wits.


Reticent and thoughtful should a prince's son be, and weapon-bold; glad and friendly shall each man live clear until the day of death.

Silent and thoughtful
and bold in strife
the prince's bairn should be.
Joyous and generous
let each man show him
until he shall suffer death.

A prince's son
should ponder long,
then speak with sparing words.
warm of heart
while he walks this earth.


Wisdom, mettle,
might and wit
suit a prince's son;
warm of heart
till his days are done.

appears in Chapter 13 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


A cowardly man believes he shall live forever, if only he guards himself from going to battle; but old age gives him no peace, even if he is spared the spear.

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 fool gapes and mumbles stupidly where he sits as guest at a feast; as soon as he gets the first gulp in, out go all his wits.

A fool will gape
when he goes to a friend,
and mumble only, or mope;
but pass him the ale cup
and all in a moment
the mind of that man is shown.


Wide about should one travel among folk before he can know surely what is hidden in the mind of those who know to master their senses.

He knows alone
who has wandered wide,
and far has fared on the way,
what manner of mind
a man doth own
who is wise of head and heart.

One should travel
wide about
and learn the ways of the world.
Shrewd is he
who hides his thoughts,
and masters his manners among men.

appears in Chapter 14 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


You should empty the mead cup, but be moderate with drink, speak what is needed or keep quiet; no one will call it bad manners if you go early to bed.

Keep not the mead cup
but drink thy measure;
speak needful words or none:
none shall upbraid thee
for lack of breeding
if soon thou seek'st thy rest.


A greedy man, if he lacks wisdom, falls to ruin; often the belly brings a man to scorn, if he is among wise folk.

A greedy man,
if he be not mindful,
eats to his own life's hurt:
oft the belly of the fool
will bring him to scorn
when he seeks the circle of the wise.

Where gluttony rules,
ruin follows.
A man should master his belly.
A greedy fool
gains ill fame;
the wise will scoff and scorn.

appears in Chapter 25 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


The cattle know when they are expected home, then they leave pasture for the farmyard; but the unwise man never realizes the limits of his stomach.

Herds know the hour
of their going home
and turn them again from the grass;
but never is found
a foolish man
who knows the measure of his maw.


The miserable man, who is troublesome and nasty, he always blames and laughs at others; he ought to know, but he doesn't, that he is not free of flaws.

The miserable man
and evil minded
makes of all things mockery,
and knows not that
which he best should know,
that he is not free from faults.


The unwise man lies awake all night, and thinks about many things; then he is weary when day comes, and all is in disorder as before.

The unwise man
is awake all night,
and ponders everything over;
when morning comes
he is weary in mind,
and all is a burden as ever.

Foolish to worry
awake all night,
troubling over your trials.
Rising weary,
worn for naught,
burdens no less bitter.

appears in Chapter 4 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


The unwise man believes all who smile are his friends; he doesn't know that behind friendly words the wise can hide deceit.

The unwise man
weens all who smile
and flatter him are his friends,
nor notes how oft
they speak him ill
when he sits in the circle of the wise.


The unwise man believes all who smile must be his good friends; he soon finds when he goes to assembly that few will support his cause.

The unwise man
weens all who smile
and flatter him are his friends;
but when he shall come
into court he shall find
there are few to defend his cause.

Treacherous footing,
to trust a smile.
A false friend often flatters.
Should trial come,
away he shies,
Leaves you adrift when most it matters.


Treacherous to trust a smile.
Not all who flatter will fly to your aid.

appears in Chapter 5 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


The unwise man believes he understands everything that creeps into his corner; but answers to questions he can never find if people try to plumb his depths. (cross-examine him?)

The unwise man
thinks all to know,
while he sits in a sheltered nook;
but he knows not one thing,
what he shall answer,
if men shall put him to proof.


The unwise man among other folk -- for him it is safest to stay silent, no one knows that he knows nothing, if he reins in his tongue.

For the unwise man
'tis best to be mute
when he come amid the crowd,
for none is aware
of his lack of wit
if he wastes not too many words;
for he who lacks wit
shall never learn
though his words flow ne'er so fast.


He thinks he is wise who can gather news and spread it to others; the sons of men never manage to keep his tongue between his teeth.

Wise he is deemed
who can question well,
and also answer back:
the sons of men
can no secret make
of the tidings told in their midst.

Gathering news,
spreading gossip,
so witty and wise you think yourself.
Why do folk
always fail
to mind their meddlesome tongues?

appears in Chapter 9 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


The word to the man who never shuts up, but stands often upon unsafe ground: the hasty-speaking tongue which lacks bridling often reaps misfortune.

Too many
unstable words are spoken
by him who ne'er holds his peace;
the hasty tongue
sings its own mishap
if it be not bridled in.


A man who might be a guest in the household, spare him mocking glances; he thinks he is wise, he who avoids questions, sits dry-skinned and keeps silent.

Let no man be held
as a laughing-stock,
though he come as guest for a meal:
wise enough seem many
while they sit dry-skinned
and are not put to proof.


He thinks he is wise when he gets up and leaves, the guest who has mocked another guest; sat and grinned and understood not the wrath which grew around him.

A guest thinks him witty
who mocks at a guest
and runs from his wrath away;
but none can be sure
who jests at a meal
that he makes not fun among foes.


Friends are many and well reconciled, until they meet together as guests at a feast; thus will it be always and forever: guests quarrel with guests.

Oft, though their hearts
lean towards one another,
friends are divided at table;
ever the source
of strife 'twill be,
that guest will anger guest.


Most often take yourself an early meal, if you're not going to a guest-gathering; one shall not sit [at the table] gluttonous and greedy, never saying a word.

A man should take always
his meals betimes
unless he visit a friend,
or he sits and mopes,
and half famished seems,
and can ask or answer nought.


Roundabout is it to an unfaithful friend even if he lives by the neighborhood road; but to a true friend leads a short road, even if he is far off the path.

Long is the route
to a false friend leading,
e'en if he dwell on the way:
but though far off fared,
to a faithful friend
straight are the roads and short.

Though a dear one
dwells far away,
heart-strings shrink the distance.
The path that leads
to a lout nearby
through distaste proves impassible.

in an early draft, appeared in Chapter 55 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI

but got edited out...


Take farewell, do not be visiting forever at the same place; it can easily happen one becomes tired of the dear one if he neglects to leave.

A guest must depart
again on his way,
nor stay in the same place ever;
if he bide too long
on another's bench
the loved one soon becomes loathed.

Stay too long
at one steading
and your welcome swiftly wanes.
Take farewell
before your hosts
come to rue your day of arrival.

appears in Chapter 55 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


A little house is better than none; home is where man rules; with two goats and a patched-roofed hall, one needs never to beg.

One's own house is best,
though small it may be;
each man is master at home;
though he have but two goats
and a bark-thatched hut
'tis better than craving a boon.

Better a humble
house than none.
A hut is as good as a hall.
With a pair of goats,
and a well-patched roof,
one needs not go begging at all.

appears in Chapter 2 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


A little house is better than none; home is where man rules; the heart bleeds in the breast of him who must beg food for every meal.

One's own house is best,
though small it may be,
each man is master at home;
with a bleeding heart
will he beg, who must,
his meat at every meal.


No one should go a single step from their weapons while out in the fields; for it's uncertain to know upon the road one travels when there will become a question about [a need for] a spear.

Let a man never stir
on his road a step
without his weapons of war;
for unsure is the knowing
when need shall arise
of a spear on the way without.

Never walk
away from home,
without axe and sword in hand.
You can't feel a battle
in your bones
or foresee a fight.

[not Holt's wording]

appears in Chapter 27 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


So generous a man I never met that he did not desire [appreciate] a gift, or so generous with his wealth that he did not like to receive reward.

I found none so noble
or free with his food,
who was not gladdened with a gift,
nor one who gave
of his gifts such store
but he loved reward, could he win it.


The goods which one himself has gotten, ought one use to his own benefit; often the enemy gains that which one saved [meant] for a friend; much goes worse than expected.

Let no man stint him
and suffer need
of the wealth he has won in life;
oft is saved for a foe
what was meant for a friend,
and much goes worse than one weens.

Of your own goods
you should make use;
reap reward of your labors.
Foes may steal
what's saved for friends;
fine plans often go foul.

appears in Chapter 49 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


Clothes and weapons are gifts for friends, thus friendship becomes visible; it prospers the longest, if luck is good, when friends exchange gifts.

With raiment and arms
shall friends gladden each other,
so has one proved oneself;
for friends last longest,
if fate be fair
who give and give again.


For your friend you should be a friend and return gift for gifts; but if one laughs at you, laugh right back, repay him lies for deceit.

To his friend a man
should bear him as friend,
and gift for gift bestow,
laughter for laughter
let him exchange,
but leasing pay for a lie.


For your friend you should be a friend, for him and his friends, but for an enemy's friends no one should anytime be a friend.

To his friend a man
should bear him as friend,
to him and a friend of his;
but let him beware
that he be not the friend
of one who is friend to his foe.


Hear, if you have a friend and think well of him, and if you will have benefit of the friend, share your mind with him and send him gifts, seek him out often.

Hast thou a friend
whom thou trustest well,
from whom thou cravest good?
Share thy mind with him,
gifts exchange with him,
fare to find him oft.


If you have another, whom you do not trust, and wish to associate with him in spite of all, you should speak fair but think false, repay him lies for deceit.

But hast thou one
whom thou trustest ill
yet from whom thou cravest good?
Thou shalt speak him fair,
but falsely think,
and leasing pay for a lie.


And further about those whom you do not trust: if you see deceit in his mind, you shall smile happily at him, but hide your thoughts, let a gift repay his gift.

Yet further of him
whom thou trusted ill,
and whose mind thou dost misdoubt;
thou shalt laugh with him
but withhold thy thought,
for gift with like gift should be paid.

Best to be wary
of one you mistrust
when you see deceit in his mind.
Humor him with speech,
but hide your thoughts.
Repay craftiness with cunning.

appears in Chapters 40 and 46 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


I was once young and walked lonely, then I strayed from the road; I felt rich when I found another; man is the joy of man.

Young was I once,
I walked alone,
and bewildered seemed in the way;
then I found me another
and rich I thought me,
for man is the joy of man.

I lost my way
and wandered lonely,
friendless and fraught with fear.
Another joined me,
to my great joy.
Fellowship is the truest treasure.

appears in Chapter 20 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


Generous and brave men live the best, seldom engendering sorrow; but the cowardly wretch believes that all is dangerous, the stingy dreads gifts.

Most blest is he
who lives free and bold
and nurses never a grief,
for the fearful man
is dismayed by aught,
and the mean one mourns over giving.

Honor calls
for courage and giving.
The brave and the generous live best.
The coward forever
cringes in fear;
the stingy gets no joy from gifts-giving.

appears in Chapter 44 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


I gave clothes to two (slaves / scarecrows?) out in the green fields; they stood there like fine folk when they got themselves clothing, wretched is the clothes-less man.

My garments once
I gave in the field
to two land-marks made as men;
heroes they seemed
when once they were clothed;
'tis the naked who suffer shame!

[concept mentioned: ] She felt like a finely-garbed scarecrow propped in the field at someone else's whim.

appears in Chapter 28 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


The young pine withers upon the miserable croft, stripped of bark and bare; thus is the man who lacks friendship, how shall he live long?

The pine tree wastes
which is perched on the hill,
nor bark nor needles shelter it;
such is the man
whom none doth love;
for what should he longer live?

Woe, the meadow's master:
mighty, tall, soon fallen
when winter winds batter.
Wit calls for roots knit well.
Weaklings seeking shelter,
side by side, toes entwined,
outlast their master's life,
leaning all together.

appears in Chapter 22 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


Friendship flames for five days like a fire, between unfaithful friends; but the sixth day it is all quenched, and out goes all friendship.

Fiercer than fire
among ill friends
for five days love will burn;
but anon 'tis quenched,
when the sixth day comes,
and all friendship soon is spoiled.


One should not always give big gifts; often one gets thanks for small; with half a loaf of bread and a half emptied mug I gained good feelings.

Not great things alone
must one give to another,
praise oft is earned for nought;
with half a loaf
and a tilted bowl
I have found me many a friend.

Small gifts often win great praise. [only a fragment]

appears in Chapter 13 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


A little flood, a little ebb; the mind of man is small; all are not equally wise, among all are there various kinds.

Little the sand
if little the seas,
little are minds of men,
for ne'er in the world
were all equally wise,
'tis shared by the fools and the sage.

Rough, the billows;
rolling, the waves.
Like the seas are men's minds.
Wise folk for crests,
cretins for troughs;
ever uneven, the seascape of man.

appears in Chapter 34 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


Moderately wise a man ought to be, not all too wise; the fairest life lives the man who knows moderately much.

Wise in measure
let each man be;
but let him not wax too wise;
for never the happiest
of men is he
who knows much of many things.


Moderately wise a man ought to be, not all too wise; sorrowless is the heart seldom in the breast of him who is all too wise.

Wise in measure
should each man be;
but let him not wax too wise;
seldom a heart
will sing with joy
if the owner be all too wise.


Moderately wise a man ought to be, not all too wise; in advance no one should know his own future, that gives only sorrow in the mind.

Wise in measure
should each man be,
but ne'er let him wax too wise:
who looks not forward
to learn his fate
unburdened heart will bear.

Middling wise
a man should be,
not all knowing.
To see beforehand
one's full fate
makes too heavy a burden to bear.

appears in Chapter 36 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


A brand is burned and burns a brand, flame kindles from flames; in fellowship with men, a man wins knowledge, people-shy men become foolish.

Brand kindles from brand
until it be burned,
spark is kindled from spark,
man unfolds him
by speech with man,
but grows over-secret through silence.


Up in the early morning and out must he go who wants to steal life and riches; the reclining wolf seldom gets a haunch, or the sleeping man, conquest.

He must rise betimes
who fain of another
or life or wealth would win;
scarce falls the prey
to sleeping wolves,
or to slumberers victory in strife.

Rise early, to prosper... [only a fragment]

appears in Chapter 5 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


Up in the early morning and out must he go who has few folk in employment; one loses much with morning sleep, the quick is halfway rich.

He must rise betimes
who hath few to serve him,
and see to his work himself;
who sleeps at morning
is hindered much,
to the keen is wealth half-won.


Dry logs and roof-bark strips, of these can a man set his goal, upon this wood which perhaps would supply a half year or a whole.

Of dry logs saved
and roof-bark stored
a man can know the measure,
of fire-wood too
which should last him out
quarter and half years to come.


Washed and fed should a man ride to assembly, even if the clothes are worn; don't be ashamed of your shoes or breeches and not about the horse, if never so wretched.

Fed and washed
should one ride to court
though in garments none too new;
thou shalt not shame thee
for shoes or breeks,
nor yet for a sorry steed.


Over the old ocean an eagle comes to sea, hungrily searching; thus is the man among many people, where few will support his cause.

Like an eagle swooping
over old ocean,
snatching after his prey,
so comes a man
into court who finds
there are few to defend his cause.

Standing amidst
a throng of men
where no one heeds your need:
A fate as hopeless
as a hungry eagle
swooping over an empty sea.

appears in Chapter 20 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


He who wants to be considered wise, should exchange news with others; one shall know, but not two, if three know, then all the world knows.

Each man who is wise
and would wise be called
must ask and answer aright.
Let one know thy secret,
but never a second, --
if three, a thousand shall know.


A man who has wits ought only to use his power with moderation; among moderate men he soon notices that no one is boldest of all.

A wise counselled man
will be mild in bearing
and use his might in measure,
lest when he come
his fierce foes among
he find others fiercer than he.


All too early I came often on visit, and sometimes too late; the ale was drunken, or not brewed; the obnoxious guest seldom meets the joint. [coincides with mealtime]

At many a feast
I was far too late,
and much too soon at some;
drunk was the ale
or yet unserved:
never hits he the joint who is hated.

All too often
too early I came
and other times too tardy.
The ale was all drunk
or not yet drawn.
My welcome frays, I fear.

appears in Chapter 49 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


They bid me home both here and there if I managed without eating, or hung two hams at the home of the faithful friend where I had eaten only one.

Here and there to a home
I had haply been asked
had I needed no meat at my meals,
or were two hams left hanging
in the house of that friend
where I had partaken of one.


Best for the children of men is fire and the sight of the sun, one's health, if one only has it, and to live without fault.

Most dear is fire
to the sons of men,
most sweet the sight of the sun;
good is health
if one can but keep it,
and to live a life without shame.

Fairest of all
are flames in the hearth,
the sweet sight of the sun,
health and vigor,
song and verse,
and leading a life of honor.

appears in Chapters 7 and 54 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


One is not altogether wretched even if the health is poor, some have joy in their sons, some in friends, some in riches, some in work well done.

Not reft of all
is he who is ill,
for some are blest in their bairns,
some in their kin
and some in their wealth,
and some in working well.


To live is better than to be lifeless, if one has a life one can easily get cattle; I saw fire rage in the rich man's estate, and death waited at the door.

More blest are the living
than the lifeless,
'tis the living who come by the cow;
I saw the hearth-fire burn
in the rich man's hall
and himself lying dead at the door.


Lame can ride a horse, the handless can herd cattle, the deaf can fight and prevail; it's better to be blind than burned; a corpse is of little benefit.

The lame can ride horse,
the handless drive cattle,
the deaf one can fight and prevail,
'tis happier for the blind
than for him on the bale-fire,
but no man hath care for a corpse

If lame, take to horseback.
If handless, to herding.
If deaf, to dueling and swordplay.
If blind, to the bellows.
Better a fate
than idle useless death.

appears in Chapter 7 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


He who knows nothing doesn't know that gold drives many crazy; one is solidly rich, another is poor; don't lay it to his shame.

He that learns nought
will never know
how one is the fool of another,
for if one be rich
another is poor
and for that should bear no blame.


It's good to have a son even if he is born late, of a man who is failing; stone monuments seldom stand by the road if not set up by a son for his father.

Best have a son
though he be late born
and before him the father be dead:
seldom are stones
on the wayside raised
save by kinsmen to kinsmen.


Cattle die, friends die, one himself dies in the same manner; but the word's splendor shall never die in glorious reputation.

Cattle die
and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never,
I ween, will die, --
fair fame of one who has earned.


...If you are planning a long journey, ensure you have enough food.

...should thou long to fare
over fell and firth,
provide thee well with food.

Making ready
for a long march
far over fjell and fjord,
well supply
pack and satchel
with food for your faring.

appears in Chapter 30 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI


...Find a good man to have as a friend, nurture the relationship, and you will have someone to help you for life.

...be never the first
with friend of thine
to break the bond of fellowship;
care shall gnaw thy heart
if thou canst not tell
all thy mind to another.

The greatest treasure
is a trusted friend.
Let nothing fray that fellowship.
The heart will ache,
empty and hollow,
when friendship's bonds are broken.

appears in Chapter 36 of TROLL AND TRYLLERI