Wyrd Designs: The Havamal ~ Offerings to the Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors and Vaettir

For most followers of the Northern Tradition upon learning about this path they read the myths about the Gods, and many tend to also study the Havamal. The Havamal is one of many sagas found in the Poetic Edda, and many of the stanzas are known as being a depository of advice as it applies to wanderers and guests when they travel abroad; it talks about what is proper behavior beyond one’s own homestead, and cautions the traveler to be wary so that he might eventually return to home having suffered no mischief or misfortune.

The Havamal is divided into sections:

  • Gestaþattrguidelines for the traveller, and the guest as it applies to hospitality
  • Women – romantic love and the nature of women; it also tells the story of how Odin seduces a giantess to obtain the mead of poetry
  • Loddfafnismal – morals, ethics, code of conduct
  • Runatal – relays the story of Odin learning the runes
  • Ljodatal – references a series of ‘charms’ or ‘spells’ while only one is explicitly connected to the runes, many believe since this follows the Runatal, that all the charms speak of spells one can use with the runes.

But a trend that has been alarming me of late, is that some are taking the Havamal as guidelines on how to religiously honor the Gods, the Ancestors, and the Vaettir.  The Havamal was NEVER intended to be used as a religious guideline on how to HONOR these numinous beings. One of the stanzas in particular being misused derives from the Havamal’s Runatal:

“Better ask for too little than offer too much,
like the gift should be the boon;
better not to send than to overspend.”

Continued —>

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  • Matt Gerlach

    I agree with you that it is inappropriate to use “It is better to give too little than to give too much.” as an invitation to be lax and skimpy with offerings to the spirits, but I do not agree with you that we should look at the interactions we have with the spirits as not being the same as the interactions we have with “people.” The idea that any amount of sacrifice we give to the spirits is a pittance compared to what they “deserve” and that we mere humans couldn’t hope to give them enough seems to me more at home in a Catholic church and sounds dreadfully self-deprecating.

    I believe the piece of advice was given (among other things) to show that hospitality is not merely wanton generosity, generosity to the point of self-deprecation, but rather true hospitality considers both the needs of the guest and the host, and is equally fair to both parties.

    There is a lot of wisdom to be found in pondering that particular piece of advice in relation to our relationship with the Gods and spirits, and it seems odd to me to merely brush it off as, “Oh, that was supposed to only refer to ‘people’ and the Gods and spirits aren’t really ‘people.'”

    However, I do not mean to offend.

  • @Matt: i like your comment that true hospitality takes into account the needs of guest and host alike. That is true. With re. to gifting Gods and spirits, I do not believe that is hospitality, as much as respect and in some cases, devotion. The “it is better not to give” stanza occurs in the Havamal in specific reference to the runes. This family of spirits ….well, i believe this phrase is a caution about the ongoing balance of power that must be maintained *with the rune spirits*. No where does it imply that this is the way to behave with the Gods and ancestors.

    I think we as Heathens do our selves a disservice by dismissing devotion and respect as Christian or Wiccan. These things are not. The idea that we can never given too much to the Gods and ancestors is one that I believe, our ancestors would have well understood.

    While this (clearly from your writing) is not the case with you, I have seen far too many Heathens use this particular stanza to avoid inconvenience and that, to me, is the utmost disrespect.

    to say that gifting the Gods and ancestors appropriately is “generosity” is, I think, dangerous phrasing. It implies that we are doing Them a favor by our gifting and that is dangerously close to arrogance and disrespect.

    I think it’s high time within the Northern Tradition that respect for the Gods and ancestors was given its due. To my mind, we’re a long way from seeing that happening.

  • Matt Gerlach


    Thank you for your comments. I am a member of ADF, where we tend to frame the act of public worship in very hospitality-oriented language. We invite the Gods and spirits into our ritual space the same way we would invite honored guests into our homes, and I guess you are correct that framing our relationship with them in those terms falls dangerously close to considering ourselves their equals, or believing we can be “generous” in our giving towards them. I will have to steel myself against that possibility in the future.

    What I guess I was trying to say before is that, at least for me, the passage “it is better to give too little than too much” when I first read it years ago sent my brain in the direction of “When I’m giving to the Gods, if I’m getting a ‘not good enough’ vibe I shouldn’t just give more, I should stop and think about what I’m actually doing and why. Am I giving what the Gods want? Am I trying to give the Gods a lot now because I’m feeling guilty for not worshiping often enough?”

    If I had been reading the Havamal that first time and someone said to me, “Oh, that part doesn’t have anything to do with the Gods.” there’s a very good chance that wisdom that I personally gained from that particular passage would have never been found. I guess that is just part the nature of teaching though; if we teach someone what a particular passage means it no longer gets to speak for itself.

  • Hi Matt,
    thank you for clarifying. I can understand where you’re coming from in using the language of hospitality (and truly, our language is so poor when it comes to discussing spiritual experiences that I think we have to do the best we can and one can do worse than using the language of hospitality as a goal).

    I really love your interpretation of that Havamal passage. I think that it is very wise and I wish that more people interpreted it so mindfully. What I generally have seen instead, is that passage used to avoid focusing on the Gods or ancestors, to avoid giving anything but a pittance, to avoid mindful devotion. That is what I protest against. If more people looked at it thoughtfully and drew from it the lessons that you have drawn, I think heathenry would be in a far better place.

    thank you for posting. You’ve given me food for thought.