Hávamál (English pronunciation: /ˈhɑːvəmɑːl/ hah-və-mahl; “sayings of the high one”) is a combination of different poems from the Vikings age that presents advice for living, proper conduct and wisdom. It consists of a total of 165 stanzas, which then is split into five different sections that each offers tips on certain topics.
Stanzas 1 – 80 are known as the Gestaþáttr, or Hávamál proper, a collection of proverbs and gnomic wisdom. I chose to look at stanza 77, which I later found out is the most famous section of the Gestaþáttr.
we ourselves also die;
but I know one thing
that never dies —
judgement on each one dead.
In other words: Everything is going die — cows, our family, even ourselves — but one thing is never going to die: how other people remember us after our deaths.
This quote is particularly interesting, given that the Vikings are known for their military, mercantile and demographic expansion in the early medieval history of Scandinavia. But while the Vikings are most often portrayed as a ferocious and lawless group of people who gained wealth and power by looting and pillaging its neighbours, the Icelandic Sagas depict a much more sophisticated culture: these Scandinavians were very organized in their social structuring, and had a firm set of values and cultural traditions that emphasized the importance of hospitality and being a gracious guest.
Still, the quote claims that it doesn’t matter how much money, power or wealth we have while we are alive, because once we die, those properties will eventually fall into the hands of others, never again to be our own. As we, and everyone around us, constantly seek these temporal factors of happiness in our lives, it becomes very easy to forget that our physical being and our physical assets are ephemeral. And indeed, a look at any historical figure proves this point: does Genghis Khan still own half of Asia? Heck, we’re not even 100% sure what he looks like. But we’ll always remember him as a ruthless invader with a reputation for fearlessly expanded his control, who killed all in his path, who created history’s largest empire.
And in our 21st century, when the media is permeated with news of corruption, wars over land, cattle, people and money, we especially need to remember this quote. When we’ve all passed away, when our descendants think back to this century, to us, what will we be remembered as? Will we be the century of innovation, the creators of marvelous technology, or will we be the century of destruction, the group that exploited Earth’s resources? Will you and I be the ones who helped lend a hand to our fellow humans and will forever bring smiles to faces, or the ones who stepped on others to reach ‘success’ and will forever be remembered as such?