The Nine Noble Virtues – too short-sighted!

This guest article by Damian Kirchdörfer was originally published in German and reflects mainly the contemporary discourse of the so-called “nine noble virtues” in the German-speaking world.

In today’s pagan scene there are many things that are sold to the unsuspecting newcomer as the “Old Way” or “Old Values”, even though they have actually little or nothing to do with the ways of the ancients. A shining example of this are the so-called “Nine Noble Virtues”. This compression of the 164 Hávamál verses into just nine words is simply incomplete and reflects a very limited and one-sided view of the values of our ancestors. If you take a closer look at the Hávamál, you will find much more than just nine “virtues” or advice in it. So how did this selection come about and who is behind it? Why have we tried to break down the 164 verses with their elaborate content into just nine words at all? And why should this single interpretation have universal validity?

Probably it’s the need for a moral compass, as one is accustomed to from Christianity, that drives people to such simplifications. A similarity of the “Nine Noble Virtues” to the “Ten Commandments” cannot be denied, but this “substitute” lacks credibility because of the actual formulations in the Hávamál. There are no rules like”you may not”,“you shall not” or”you must”. No forms of imperative can be seen. Rather, a wise man (god of wisdom) gives advice for many common situations in life. Everyone is free to follow the advice – There’s no punishment if you choose not to. The “Odinic Rite” of the 1970s is assumed to be the author of this construct, since there are no earlier records of it; only slightly modified versions after the initial release, for example by the folkish “Asatru Folk Assembly”.

The “Nine Noble Virtues” are thus merely a very modern interpretation of the Hávamál by people of the “Odinic Rite”, who have chosen those “virtues” that fit their ideology best. Virtues such as “courage” and “loyalty”, for example, have made it into the “noble Nine”, while values such as caution, goodness, respect and restraint, which play a prominent role in many more verses, are not even mentioned. Moreover, “honour” as a virtue cannot be derived directly from the Hávamál verses. One could at best say that the one who acts upon this wisdom in its entirety has honour.

For a better overview of the complexity of the Hávamál, I tried to extract a “virtue” (better: “wisdom”) from each verse. Some things will seem far-fetched to some, while others think that one virtue or another appears twice under a different name. But that is a problem that I also have with the so-called “Nine Noble Virtues”: It is ultimately a personal interpretation that does not necessarily have to correspond to my reading nor does it have to have universal validity. I am not a heathen to have others spoon-feed me philosophical treasures like the Hávamál. The Odinic Rite establishes “independence” as one of the virtues and thus relieves others of an independent interpretation of the Hávamál. A contradiction in terms.

The following compilation is therefore only my subjective processing and interpretation and thus inevitably a generalization, which should clarify however, how multifaceted the Hávamál actually is. Ultimately, the wisdoms must always be viewed in the context of their respective verses. I have not derived any virtues from the verses 138 to 163, for they contain Odin’s Rúnatal and a collection of charms (or more precisely: their announcements). The last verse 164 however, was it worth to me to write it out in full.

Wisdoms from the Hávamál – “The Sayings of the High One”

Virtues Verse Count
Mindfulness 1,7 2
Hospitality 2,3,4,67,135 5
Wit 5,107,128 3
Cautiousness 6,24,25,100-102,131 7
Integrity 8,77 2
Self-reliance 9,126 2
Frugalness 10 1
Soberness 11,12,13,14 4
Reticence 15,62,65,80 4
Courage 16,48,106 3
Moderation 17,63,112,125 4
Knowledge of Human Nature 18,133 2
Temperance 19,20,21 3
Judiciousness 22,90 2
Prudence 23 1
Modesty 26,78,79 3
Eloquence 27,28,29,104 4
Benevolence 30 1
Respectfulness 31,75,115,132,134 5
Amity 32,119,120,121 4
Chastity 33 1
Loyalty 34,43,72 3
Gratitude 35,105,108 3
Independence 36,37,113,114 4
Willingness 38,74 2
Graciousness 39,49,52,127,136 5
Thoughtfulness 40 1
Generosity 41,92 2
Reciprocality 42 1
Trust 44,110 2
Suspiciousness 45,84-90,117,118,
Retribution 46 1
Sociability 47 1
Kindness 50,66,94 3
Truthfulness 51,68,130 3
Sympathy 53,73,93,96,97,111 6
Inquisitiveness 54,55,56,57 4
Industriousness 58,59,60 3
Self-confidence 61,64,95 3
Contentedness 69,70,71,83 4
Reputation 76 1
Leniency 81,109 2
Punctuality 82,98 2
Confidence 99 1
Righteousness 103 1
Forehandedness 116 1
Purposefulness 129 1
Appreciation of Nature 137 1

The final verse 164 (Auden/Taylor translation):

The Wise One has spoken words in the hall,
Needful for men to know,
Unneedful for trolls to know:
Hail to the speaker,
Hail to the knower,
Joy to him who has understood,
Delight to those who have listened.

I make no claim to universality or completeness.

Damian Kirchdörfer