HOTW #004

Today’s excerpt will focus on the concept of legacy, fame, and reputation:

75. Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die,
fair fame of one who has earned.

76. Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die,
the doom on each one dead.

It is interesting to note this excerpt is present in a similar form in another text called the Hákonarmál – a poem by the 10th century Norwegian skald (poet) Eyvindr skáldaspillir. The poem depicts the fall of the King Haakon the Good at the Battle of Fitjar and his reception in Valhalla. The passage is as thus:

“Deyr fé,
deyja frænder
eyðisk land ok láð.
Síz Hákon fór
með heiðin goð,
mǫrg es þjóð of þéuð.”

“Cattle die,
kinsmen die,
land and sea are destroyed.
Since Hákon left
with heathen gods
many people are oppressed.”

While the convention has been to attribute originality of the stanzas to the Hákonarmál, there is the possibility that the Hávamál may have first had this phrase, or that the Hákonarmál and the Hávamál both drew from the same, third-party source. This is difficult to assuage, primarily because the only surviving copy of the Hávamál is the one contained in the Codex Regius, which does not tell us much about the origins of each individual phrase and their dates.

In the context of the Hávamál, these verses refer to the immortality of legacy. The first two lines of each stanza – “Cattle die and kinsmen die, // thyself too soon must die” – refer to the inevitability of death with all mortal things. Here, cattle refers not only specifically to livestock, but individual wealth, as much of wealth was reflected in the number of certain cattle you could purchase, or already owned. This is evident in the rune “Fehu” and its meanings (illustrated below):

Image Source: Runesecrets

The rune initially meant “cattle”, but over time began to represent “wealth, money, fee”, which shows us just how important cattle was as a measure of wealth in Germanic society. [1]

People were not exempt from death and the eventual fade into obscurity either. This is evident in “…kinsmen die, // thyself too soon must die.” which serves as a grim reminder that nobody is immortal.

Wealth and your physical being was considered fleeting. The only way to preserve some semblance of immortality was therefore, through your deeds, whether they be positive or negative. Fame, or notoriety, was achieved through sometimes extreme methods, as is evident in other literature.

Behaviors were considered on a scale of drengskapr (honor) to níðr (shame). The actions of a drengr would be emulated and praised, while the actions of a níðingr would be avoided and reviled.

Some traits of drengskapr include bravery, nobility, magnanimity, a sense of fair play, respect for others, the strength to do what is right, a sense of honor, and self-control.

On the other hand, some traits of níðr would include cowardice, treachery, shameful acts such as killing defenseless people, and breaking one’s oath. A níðingr would essentially be treated as an outcast of society. [2]

The emphasis on character and reputation may have been what caused hypersensitivity to any insults or feelings of dishonor. Such dishonor could usually only be corrected by death, which lead to a great many duels. Some examples of dueling methods include einvígi, or single-combat duels, or the holmgang (hólmganga) which sometimes took place on deserted islands so as to reduce the possibility of interference, and prevent duelers from running away.

A law from 13th-century Sweden dictates the rules for a holmgang:

“If someone speaks insults to another man, they shall meet where three roads meet. If he who has spoken comes and not the insulted one, then he shall be as he’s been called: no right to swear oaths, no right to bear witness, may it concern man or woman.

If the insulted one comes and not he who has spoken, then he shall cry “Niðingr!” three times and make a mark in the ground, and he is worse who spoke what he dared not keep.

Now both meet fully armed: if the insulted one falls, the compensation is half a weregild; if he who has spoken falls, insults are the worst, the tongue the head’s bane, he shall lie in a field of no compensation.”

– Hednalagen, or Pagan Law, 13th Century Sweden

Very strict rules were laid out and observed in order to preserve a “just” duel. This reflects the severity of insulting one’s honor, and the often deadly consequences that followed.

Yours in service,
Lady Mathilde Huldsdotter, AoA


[1] “Viking Pets and Domesticated Animals.” Viking Answer Lady. Web.

[2] Short, William R. “Hurtswic: Honor, Dueling, and Drengskapr in the Viking Age.” Hurstwic. Web.