Sigma Tau Delta at JMU

“Dead Men Do No Deeds”: Attitudes Towards Life and Death in the Old Norse Hávamál and the Old English Maxims

The Maxims and Hávamál are both examples of medieval wisdom literature, which provide practical life advice. The Icelandic Hávamál is found most completely in the Codex Regius, a compilation of works written down by an unknown editor in the late thirteenth century. It contains both Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, of which the 164 stanzas of Hávamál are part. While presented in the Codex as one poem, it is believed that Hávamál is a combination of six separate poem fragments that were grouped together when the Codex Regius was written. The prose Maxims are found in the Exeter Book, a collection of Christian works written in Old English by an anonymous compiler, most likely a monk. It was written around the second half of the tenth century, but given to the Exeter Cathedral by Leofric, first bishop of Exeter, around 1050. The date of each work’s original composition is unclear, as they would have likely been handed down orally for generations before the compilers, in each case probably a monk, recorded them in writing. Though both poems address how to live a good life, Maxims and Hávamál also consider how living a good life will impact what happens to an individual after his death. Due to the difference in levels of Christianization by the compilers of each, the compilers emphasized different ideas of the relation of life to death and ultimately, the purpose of life.

Among Hávamál’s many and varied stanzas (about caution, speech and silence, generosity, and friendship) is this particularly pointed discussion:

Better to live than to be lifeless:

the living can hope for a cow.

While the wealthy man sat warm by his fire,

a dead man lay outside the door. (The Sayings of the High One 20)

The stanza clearly establishes that life is preferable to death. While one is alive, even if one is poor, one’s needs might be met. One can “hope for a cow.” One can enjoy the pleasures of living, such as the warmth of a fire on a cold night. Death, however, arrests the hope of wealth and the enjoyment of warmth. It is better to live without wealth and comfort and have the hope of them than to die, after which such options are gone. This is the first of a number of verses that speak to a fundamental belief in the value of life. The verses address the value of living even if one suffers disability and they speaks specifically to the value of one’s reputation which lives on after death. There is no notion of an afterlife as a modern Westerner would conceive of it: stories of the god Odin are present (23-26, 31-34), but there is no instance in Hávamál of a human going to reside with the gods after death.  Thus, it is not an afterlife which is valued, but the afterlife of a man’s deeds, and if one is alive, he can still perform deeds regardless of disability.

The lame ride horseback, the handless drive herds,

The deaf may be dauntless in battle;

Better to be blind than burned on a pyre,

Dead men do no deeds. (20)

Disabilities are seen in Hávamál as something that can and should be overcome.  A lame person can ride a horse, retaining mobility, self-reliance, and agency. The maimed can work for their livelihood regardless of their physical limitations, as in the case of the one who is handless who can still drive herds. The deaf, who lack only their hearing, can perform valiantly in battle, earning renown and perhaps treasure. Even the blind, who would be unable to ride, work the field, or go into battle, are in a better position than the dead, who are “burned on a pyre” (20). A dead man can do nothing, but even the blind may earn a reputation for wisdom or become a poet, which require no eyes, but a sound mind and working tongue.

This passage highlights the importance of deeds, which can only be performed in life. There is always the opportunity to gain glory in some way, despite whatever physical imitations a person might have, showing that a physical disability does not affect a person’s worth or ability to do deeds through which he can earn renown. The only ones described in the stanza as unable to “do deeds” are the dead. The stanza reinforces the point that life is preferable to death, because it is still possible to act while one is alive, regardless of physical condition or personal circumstances.

It is vitally important to be able to exercise agency and “do deeds,” because a person’s actions are all that remain of them after death. Nowhere in Hávamál does the composer speak of life after death; instead, he emphasizes that it is the memory of an individual’s deeds that remain as a testament to his life, passed down through stories. It is said:

Cattle die, kinsmen die,

One day you will die yourself;

I know one thing that never dies—

The dead man’s reputation. (21)

It is not the soul that is recognized as the only thing that will survive when cattle, kinsman, and the individual die, as is the case in Christianized Old English wisdom poetry, but the reputation that the dead person leaves behind on earth. The point is further supported in the lines, “words of praise will not perish/ when a man wins fair fame” (21). Thus, it is necessary to do deeds that will win renown while one is alive to ensure that their reputation will pass down through the subsequent generations and grant a kind of eternal life. In this way, even though life is superior to death, it is important to prepare for death. Deeds are not just about actions, but also about legacy. One’s progeny will not only carry the memory of the actions their father has done, but also his very name. The child may retain the father’s property as well in land and goods that indicate the status of the departed and contribute to the status of subsequent descendants. It is those later kinsmen that will remember the deeds their forefathers did and continue to tell stories of them after their death.

Because of this, the best way to prepare for death, after one ensures that one remains active and maintains a good reputation, is to leave descendants behind to remember them:

Though to be born when you are buried,

It’s better to have a son;

You don’t see many memorial stones

Except those set by kinsmen. (20)

Since the only sort of life after death mentioned in Hávamál is the life that one has in the memories of others, it is of course important that someone remember you. Leaving behind descendants is important not only to carry on the family name, but to carry on the memory of their dead ancestors and make sure that they are not forgotten. This vision is one that speaks to a kind of shared memory that is extended through family and friends. What one does in life thus matters above all things because “death” in this view is the end of memory. The memory can continue indefinitely if one has done deeds and has progeny to remember those deeds.

Overall, the wisdom presented in Hávamál suggests a worldview centered around life and the living, with a great tolerance of disability. Life is considered superior to death regardless of whether or not one has the best quality of life. It is better to live in poverty than not to live at all, because as long as one is living there is hope to improve one’s station in life, and it is still possible to enjoy simple pleasures such as the warmth of a fire (20). Even when preparing for death, it is life on earth that is emphasized, rather than life after death. To prepare for death is to earn a good enough reputation to be remembered by those who are still living, and by producing heirs who will remember an individual and their deeds after they have passed away. Any sort of life after death for an individual soul is never mentioned, suggesting that it is what one does with one’s life that is valued, rather than any system of belief.

There is a lack of strong Christian influence in the view of life and death expressed in Hávamál, even though Iceland officially converted to Christianity several hundred years before the Codex Regius was written. The fact that Hávamál’s passages about death do not reflect more Christian themes suggests that the composer was either not Christian, (or not Christianized to the point of acknowledging a Christian afterlife), or perhaps had an interest in preserving the old pagan beliefs of the composer’s ancestors untinged by Christian theology.

The prose Maxims found in the Exeter Book date from approximately the second half of the tenth century, around three hundred years earlier than it is thought Hávamál was written down. They, too, deal with practical themes such as generosity, the roles of men and women, the nature of kings, preparation, how to live morally, and of course, life and death. The view of death presented in Maxims is one of impending loss that must be kept ever present in the mind. The first mention of death in Maxims is “mortal man must needs die and every day take steps with regard to his severance from the world” (Maxims I 346). Death is natural and unavoidable, but the phrase “severance from the world”suggests boundaries between the living and the dead as well as loss of worldly comforts to which one has become attached. One must “every day take steps” to prepare for such a loss. Like Hávamál, Maxims acknowledges the natural order – all men die. It also indicates that the focus of life must be the preparation for death, though Maxims states outright that death must always be on the livings’ minds to prepare for it. Whereas there is a clear preference for life shown in Hávamál, Maxims encourages a greater acceptance of death through this outright call for daily contemplation and preparation. Life, then, is not shown as preferable or inferior to death, but is considered preparatory to it. The emphasis on death and what comes after in Maxims means that preparing for death is important, not in terms of what remains of an individual on earth, but for the individua’s experience of the afterlife.

The difference in the method of preparation is highlighted by Maxims composer’s view of how adversity in life should be handled. In the case of a disability such as blindness, it is said that “the Ruler ordained for him this torment: he can grant him relief, the dealing of his head’s jewels, if he knows the heart to be pure” (347). Presumably it was believed that God could literally grant sight to the blind, as Jesus does in the Bible, so the best way to deal with a physical disability is to maintain a pure heart in hopes that God will grant a cure; one gives up individual agency in favor of trust in God. This is a major difference from Hávamál, which presents the view of disabilities as mere limitations on certain activities and not hinderances to life, emphasizing the importance of personal agency in spite of these limitations. The passage of Maxims can also be viewed metaphorically, though: one who lacks understanding is often thought of as “blind,” and so God’s ability to grant understanding to one who previously lacked it can be seen as granting sight to the blind. A physical disability can then be thought of in several different ways: on one hand, it serves as a fine metaphor for a theological lesson, while on the other, if it is literal, the solution the Old English wisdom poetry gives is to have a “pure heart” and to put one’s difficulties in God’s hands in hopes of healing (347). The method for handling a disability advised is rooted in the Christian belief in an omnipotent God who is the ultimate source of aid, rather than in the belief that one must do whatever one can while alive in order to be remembered after death. This also leaves room in Maxims for an expression of hope for positive change not present in Hávamál, in which one accepts the lot they have been given and must make the best of it.

Because the Christianized Old English Maxims clearly show the importance of putting faith in God’s power rather than in the individual will, the manner of preparation for death becomes somewhat different. The composer of Maxims says, “Foolhardy is the man who does not know his Lord, so often does death come unpremeditated. Wise men will guard their souls: they will maintain their righteousness with rectitude” (346-347). Actions during life are still seen as important, since one must maintain righteousness to go to heaven upon death, but it is not necessary to do especially memorable or valiant deeds that will earn a place in stories that keep their memory alive. What matters, then, as it does not in Hávamál, is that deeds must be directed toward belief in God. The key to preparation for death espoused in Maxims is a combination of faith in the power of God, which results in a reduced emphasis on personal agency, and deeds centered around that faith.

The deeds that are considered important are not always as active as the ones lauded in Hávamál. Among the deeds praised in Maxims are generosity (350), justice, righteousness, problem-solving without violence (346), self-control over anger, and courage in convictions (347). These deeds are based more on living the Christian values found in the Bible, and thus demonstrating faith in God through the way one lives one’s life. More traditionally pagan deeds also come up throughout, and perhaps show where the old pagan wisdom mixed with the newer, Christianized ideals of how to live. Along with advice to be courageous in convictions, one must also be courageous in battle (347), and a nobleman must be concerned with “war-making” and maintaining his reputation (Maxims II 513). Both seem to harken back to the same roots as Hávamál, with its emphasis on reputation. Such observations only form a minor part of Maxims, though, and most deeds are centered in ideals of how Christian faith should be shown.

Unlike the writer of Hávamál, the Maxims composer is solidly Christian and espouses in these wisdom verses a Christian theology. Since the Christian God is so present in the world view expressed in Maxims, it makes sense that there would be mention of a life for an individual soul, rather than just the memory of an individual, after death. Life after death is explicitly mentioned in Maxims, as it is not in Hávamál:

The ordaining Lord alone knows to where the soul will subsequently depart and all those spirits who depart into God’s presence after their death-day, and await the judgement in the Father’s embrace. The shape of the future is so obscure and unknowable; the Lord alone knows it, the redeeming Father. No one returns here below the heavens who might tell people for certain what it is like, that creation of the Lord, the habitations of his victorious people where he himself abides. (Maxims 2 515)

What matters here is not the comfort and opportunity of life but the anxiety of the future, of the unknown. Though the composer of Maxims presents the final resting place of the soul as “obscure and unknowable” (515), it is also called the “habitations of his victorious people where [God] himself abides” (515). It must then be conceived of as an actual location where the souls go, if they are able to live there, and thus the reader is presented with a firm concept of life after death not present in Hávamál. The vision of the afterlife show in Hávamál must lie in the known realm of earth, in the form of memories and stories. Because the more Christianized Maxims composer can imagine a life for the individual, however mysterious, after death, the same emphasis is not placed on having offspring who will carry on one’s legacy. It is through faith in the goodness of a “redeeming Father” that the composer can conceive of the unknowable as a positive enough to call the inhabitants of heaven “victorious people” (515).

Death can also be considered positive in relation to life because of trust in God. In the same section where death is first mentioned, the composer says, “New-born complements when disease first takes away; thus there are just as many of the human race in the world, nor would there be a limit to the progeny upon earth if he did not diminish it who established the universe” (Maxims I 346). Death is established as something that is, in fact, positive in its own way: it prevents overpopulation, and each death is made up for by the life of a newborn child. It is God, the one “who established the universe,” that brings about death in order to maintain the balance on earth, and therefore death is nothing to be feared because it is God’s will.

While both Hávamál and Maxims focus on the goal of life in preparation for death, each suggests a different method of preparation. In Maxims, it is vital to prepare for the judgement of God in hopes of gaining entrance to heaven. This is done through righteous deeds that show faith in God and through faith itself, focusing on God’s will rather than the strength of the individual. Hávamál, which demonstrates no belief in life after death, has a world-view much more rooted in the earthly. Preparation for death must include valiant deeds and reproduction so that there will be offspring to remember the dead. While both focus on deeds of a sort, the Christianized Maxims indicate that the goal in life is to live well in order to go to heaven upon death, while in Hávamál, the goal is to live memorably, so that one’s legacy survives on earth.

It is important to note that while Hávamál contains more traditional pagan wisdom, it was written some three hundred years after the more Christianized Maxims. This could be due to the fact that England began converting to Christianity around the beginning of the seventh century, while Iceland did not convert, and even then more in name than spirit, until the end of tenth century. Both the pagan views expressed in Hávamál and the Christianized view shown in Maxims may have played a role in the differences between the two societies, and perhaps in how each viewed the other. Maxims emphasizes Christian morality and the appropriate behavior for expressing it, while Hávamál favors individual glory and memorability. Anglo-Saxon culture may then have been considered contemptable by the medieval Icelanders, to whom the turn-the-other-cheek mentality would have been equated with a forfeiture of status, power, and reputation. Icelandic culture, reciprocally, may have seemed vain and excessively violent to the Christian Anglo-Saxons, whose idea of the ideal way to live prefers self-control and temperance to violence used to gains status.


Works Cited

“The Exeter Book.” Anglo Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley. London; Tuttle, 1991. 201-202.

“Maxims I.” Anglo Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley. London; Tuttle, 1991. 344-350.

“Maxims II.” Anglo Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley. London; Tuttle, 1991. 512-515.

“The Sayings of the High One.” Poems of the Elder Edda. Trans. Patricia Terry, University of Pennsylvania Press; 1990. 11-35.

This paper was presented by the author on April 14, 2018, at James Madison University as a part of Sigma Tau Delta's Undergraduate Conference. 

“Oh, Great, We’ve been Walking in Circles”: Mark Renton’s Failure to Escape Society in Trainspotting

“And for My Next Trick…”: The Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Narrative Structure in As I Lay Dying