The Layman’s Havamal (Verse 1)

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Havamal Verse 1

“At all doors, before you go forth,

Take your time to look about,

To nose your way in.

For you never know when a foe

Might sit in the seats before you.”


This, the gateway into the Havamal, warns us to be wary before we pass through a gateway. Wise counsel. The world is full of danger and enemies who would work their malice upon you if given a chance. Collectively speaking, we’ve probably never been as safe as we are now in the modern age of police, forensics, street cameras, gun control laws, general political stability, the relative infrequency of wars, and the general trend towards peace which seems to pervade modern Western societies. Sure, violence still happens, but I’d be willing to bet that it happens a lot less than it did during, for example, the feudal societies of the Middle Ages or the brutal migratory upheaval of the Bronze Age.


We live now in a time of relative peace, relative safety, relative goodwill to our fellow man. But relative safety is not absolute safety. It’s only more or less safe than something comparable. So although it’s generally not fatal for us to let our guard down when we go on a journey or meet new people, that doesn’t mean we should be complacent. The world’s still a turbulent and dangerous place, and it’s occupied by unstable and dangerous people. Some of those people will take advantage of us if it’s necessary and the opportunity arises. Some of them will actively seek to bring us down for no apparent reason at all. So watch out and pay attention to the people you meet. They’re dangerous, even the ones who don’t look like it. Perhaps especially the ones who don’t look like it.


Unfortunately, walking down any street or stepping onto any form of public transport will yield countless examples of people who do not heed the advice given in this verse. How many people do we see every day who go about their business in densely populated areas, surrounded by other people, other predators, with their headphones in their ears and their smartphones in their hands, heads hung low to stare at their feet or entranced by the dull blue light of their screens? They might as well be walking through life with their eyes shut and their fingers in their ears. Any physically capable man would only need the advantage of surprise over these people to harm them grievously and take whatever they carry, no matter how competent that person might be when in an alert state. Even a person with a gun and the ability to use it can be caught off guard and defeated by surprise.


This complacency and ignorance of our surroundings is a modern tendency that arises from the comforts of contemporary life. We are relatively safe, in general, and probably a little naive, so we feel safe enough to ignore people most of the time. Most of the time that isn’t a problem. Until it is. It only takes one time, one moment of distraction, for some predator to destroy us. So take the time, a long time if possible, to scan your surroundings and the people in your path. You never know when one of those people might take advantage of you.


This is good advice in all areas of life. But it’s especially good advice when you undertake a journey, embark on an adventure, do something or go somewhere you’ve never been before, especially if you’re with someone you’ve never met before. In other words, it’s good advice at a gateway.


A gateway is a portal that allows one to pass through a boundary or a barrier. The purpose of a barrier is to separate the inside from the outside, the familiar from the strange, Us from Them. We must build walls, metaphorically and literally, to separate the things we want to keep in from the things we want to keep out. This is how we order our environment. We divide the desirable from the undesirable by building walls. Even paradise had a wall. Those who dwell beyond the wall may or may not be our enemies, but they cannot be wholly trusted until they have proven their alliance to those inside the wall. They may be amicable and friendly to us, but this does not mean that they have our best interests at heart. As such, situations where those inside the wall meet with those from outside are fraught with tension and the potential for betrayal. Do not enter such situations naively, but rather keep your wits about you. You may be ridiculed for being paranoid or mistrustful, but better that than to be the victim of treachery because of your own folly.


Never offer your enemies the advantage of catching you off guard, whether you are walking down a street, sitting in a meeting, or entering a building. The feeling of security you might feel is entirely illusory, and the world is full of those who would seek to take advantage of your distraction. As the saying goes, “There are no victims, only volunteers.” Do not volunteer to be caught off guard. But do not give in to fear and paranoia either. This verse doesn’t tell us to be ever doubtful, fearful, isolationist, on our guard. Instead, it tells us to watch, be aware, and take the time to look and think, to analyze, to use your head.


At the intersection between you and The Other, make your preparations beforehand, plan your course, anticipate any dangers, then walk boldly through the gateway. Expect to be surprised, for it is practically assured, but prepare yourself in such a manner that you are capable of operating effectively even when caught off your guard.


Watch out and be ready.

The Boats Go Down To The Hungry Sea

The boats go down to the hungry sea
And I, aloft on some high hill, cry out,
But soft, so as not to wake the thrushes.
For in the meadows and the bushes 
I’ve sung out and I’ve roared,
As the boats go down to the hungry sea
And the men cast out from shore,
While the women drive them onward 
With their hankies and their jests
And the children question softly
As the sun sinks in the west.
Then I call, but oh so softly  
So as not to wake the thrushes.
For the God I’ve followed blindly 
Is asleep beneath the bushes.
And the dead sun will return 
Some other violet day, 
But the boats have gone to the hungry sea 
And the men have gone astray.
And whatever follows after,
Whether victory or woe,
Will be just another chapter
In a story long since told.
But the men who braved the seas 
Will no more play a part,
And the only ones remaining,
The ones who wouldn’t start. 
Then I, upon my hilltop,
Will cry aloud no more,
And the crabs will claim the flotsam 
That bobs against the shore.
White tides will keep on rolling.
New suns will fly above.
‘Til the seas once more grow hungry 
For boats and men and blood. 


I’ve been thinking recently about the theme of sacrifice.


When things are good, when we feel comfortable, we rarely have to think about willingly giving up the things we care about.


But in times of hardship, we must give up what we care about now in exchange for the things we’ll care about in future. Mankind is a genius in that respect. We know that the future exists, and we know that what we do right now has the power to affect that future. Other animals haven’t figured that out just yet. This gives us a significant advantage over other animals when it comes to times of crisis.


In a crisis, you’ll know the right thing to do because it will be the thing you least want to do, or the thing you must sacrifice will be the thing you most want to keep. This is our animal instinct speaking up and telling us to take care of right now, to think about our immediate desires and gratify our impulses immediately.


But we possess a higher instinct that tells us to weigh up our options and consider if we might be better off delaying gratification in the present to potentially receive a greater reward in the future.


This is the nature of sacrifice, and it rarely makes us happy. But despite our aversion to sacrifice, it is entirely essential to human survival and progress. In war, we send our sons to the slaughter. They may not return, and if they do return, they return changed, possibly unrecognizable. At home, parents must sacrifice their selfish desires and ambitions, and all their spare time and resources too, for the sake of their children’s potential prosperity. And they must do this with no expectation of their children appreciating or repaying their devotion. During times of mental despair and doubt, we must send what is best, strongest, and most capable in us down into the depths to battle our demons. Frequently the agents we send on these missions do not return, or they return utterly changed. This is the risk we take whenever we interact with the world. We must gamble at high stakes for the chance to create a better future.


Many have remarked upon this fact of life and found it to be sad. But not me.


I think there’s great glory in going out into death and danger for the sake of the ones we care about. I think those called to make great sacrifices in times of trial are blessed by the Fates with an opportunity to show real courage and fortitude, though I’m sure they don’t feel that way themselves at the time.


I often put myself into their shoes and wonder how I would react. How would I rationalize my way out of it? How would I justify cowardice? What would it take to make me leave everything I care about and give myself over to some noble cause? How much, exactly, am I prepared to give up? As a father with dependants who count on me, how much do I have a right to give up?


I don’t have the answers to all those questions, and the few answers I do have I ain’t sharing.


But I think it’s essential that we ask these questions of ourselves so that we’ve got some of the groundwork done before we’re ever faced with the decision to sacrifice our selfish desires in service to others.


When we sacrifice, we serve some greater purpose than our ego and urges. To be of service is a high and noble calling. To serve our families, our communities, our people, our nation. There are all kinds of ways we can make ourselves of service to a great and worthy cause. But to be of service, we must first be fit for service. We must first make sacrifices for our own sake to become the type of person who could be useful to others at need.


This is why I always say that the right thing to do is improve yourself, then improve your family, then your people, then the world.


But always start with yourself.


These are the thoughts that went through my mind when I wrote this poem. It came to me over the course of about 20 minutes while I was driving. It sprung up as I thought of a verse from Havamal that begins: “The eagle comes to the ancient sea.”


It was the rhythm of that line that inspired the first line of this poem, and from there, connections were made and images appeared which gave birth to the poem you see here. While I drove, I composed it in my head and recorded it into my phone. It came in one flow, and I didn’t change a word after I recorded it.


It ain’t the world’s best poem, but something in it speaks to me.


I don’t know what it all means. Much of it is a mystery to me. But that’s because it isn’t really mine. It came through me from somewhere else, someplace no man has traveled.


That’s what it’s like to be a writer, sometimes. You think you’re creating something clever and vital, but it isn’t really you. It comes from somewhere else entirely, through you. You could call it divine inspiration, and indeed many writers have done so for thousands of years.


But you’ve got to give these things up. They don’t belong to you.


Once you’ve created something, you give it to the world and let the world do as it will with it. It’s the same for your poems, your stories, your children, your work, your health, your mind, and your identity. Everything you have will be taken from you in time, so make the best use of what you’ve got while you can.


Because one day, you’ll have to give it all back to the world. So you’d probably be better off giving things back right now, while you’ve got a choice in the matter.


Ask yourself what vision you’d wish to make manifest in the future, what would you change about the world if you had the power to do so. Then ask yourself what you need to do to make it happen. Then give up everything that doesn’t serve your purpose.


You can start small with this process before making any dramatic changes to your life. You could start by giving up social media, or coffee, or beer, or pointless relationships. A small sacrifice, not very dramatic in the grand scheme of things, but an excellent place to start.


Why don’t you start letting go of little things today and see what you can do without them?


Exercise your capacity to sacrifice for the greater good so that you can make those grand selfless offerings to the future when you get the call.