Sæla and Insincerity in Hávamál

How to Interpret Stanzas 8 and 9 in Gestaþáttur

  • Elmar Geir Unnsteinsson


Many scholars have assumed that stanzas 8 and 9 in Hávamál, the so-called sæluvísur, carry significant information about the poem’s ethical message. The history of their interpretation has, however, not so far been afforded due attention. On the surface the sæluvísur may appear quite easy to understand; nevertheless, it has often been pointed out that conventional interpretations are riddled with paradox. In this article I take a few illustrative examples from this history and contest a few unconventional interpretations, especially those of Ivar Lindquist and Guðmundur Finnbogason. I also put forward a new interpretation. This interpretation relies on a system of concepts – especially the distinction beween action and state, and between agent and patient – which puts the logical form of the two stanzas in a new light. According to this revised interpretation, stanza 8 tells us that being sæll (happy) requires praise from others, even if the praise is duplicitous. Basically, we should only try to change what others say about us, not what they really believe, because the latter is too difficult. Stanza 9, on the other hand, tells us that to be sæll one must be able to trust one’s own judgement, because the advice given by others can be evil or dangerous. Finally, I argue that this interpretation should make us question the common idea that the ethical message in Hávamál is akin to virtue ethics. More likely, the poem affirms ethical egoism and tries to identify ways to experience pleasure or enjoyment in an unfair world. The meaning of the word sæla or sæll, in and of itself, does not provide a reason to read anything else into the original text.