STANZA 1 OF THE HAVAMAL
Auden and Taylor:
The man who stands at a strange threshold,
Should be cautious before he cross it,
Glance this way and that:
Who knows beforehand what foes may sit
Awaiting him in the hall?
Within the gates | ere a man shall go,
(Full warily let him watch,)
Full long let him look about him;
For little he knows | where a foe may lurk,
And sit in the seats within.
Bellow's Note: This stanza is quoted by Snorri, the second line being omitted in most of the Prose Edda manuscripts.
At every door-way,
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
Watch out and check all gates before faring forth.
One should spy around,
one should pry around.
Hard to know what foe
sits before you in the next room.
Have they eyes about thee when thou enterest
be wary alway, be watchful alway,
for one never knoweth when need will be
to meet hidden foe in the hall.
At every doorway what you have to do
is look around you
and look out;
never forget: no matter where you are
you might find a foe.
1. All door-ways,
before going forward,
should be looked to;
for difficult it is to know
where foes may sit
within a dwelling.
DISCUSSION AND ANALYSIS OF STANZA 1
In a fairly straight-forward way, this stanza is telling us to be cautious when entering a hall or building. It warns us to look this way and that before entering, because you never quite know what dangers might be waiting for you in there (in the form of foe or foes).
The stanza suggests we live in a somewhat dangerous world, and that being cautious and truly considering those dangers is well worth your time. For me, the stanza applies to more then just entering strange doorways. Anytime you are encountering a situation or people that are outside your trusted inner circle, you should keep you eyes open to the possibilities that a "foe" may be nearby. Even an unseen or unrecognized foe among people you are meeting and encountering.
In very simple terms, the stanza is telling us not to be a naive moron stumbling unknowingly into trouble. Be aware of the dangers and keep your eyes open for them. It is certainly a warning to "look before you leap."
In a modern context, the stanza works in a literal sense. When you attend a party, a social gathering, or an event with lots of people...you should be aware of who is present, who is in the room, who is near you, etc. Is there someone there you don't want to be around, or don't want to have any contact with? Is there someone you don't know yet who is drinking too much, visibly angry, or looking like they might cause trouble? What is the tone or mood of the room or environment? Is this a safe place for you to be, or do you need to take precautions to make sure you are safe?
In a less literal sense, when you are entering into a new effort, a business venture, a new job, or any other new situation...what are the hidden dangers? Have you really thought about it with your eyes wide open to the possible problems and pitfalls? Is everyone involved trustworthy, and do they all have your best interests at heart? Are they fair and honorable? Have you left yourself unnecessarily vunerable?
One point I've heard made, is that there seems to be a presumption that the doorway will be entered. It is not a warning to not enter new doorways. It is not a warning to pick and choose which doorways you do decide to enter. It simply warns to be aware of the dangers before you make that step through the gate.
Another point I've heard made focuses in very closely on the people in the room you are entering. Do they seem to be friends but aren't? Do they smile to your face and say kind words, but then turn against you when you aren't there with them? For some, this stanza points out the difficulty of knowing who is your friend and who is your foe. And this can certainly be a difficulty in life.
It is interesting that this is the first verse of the Havamal, because it is the "doorway" into the Havamal in a sense.
For me, Chisholm's translation of this stanza seems to read the clearest and is the one that is easiest to understand.