View Full Version : Conclusion

Haerfest Leah
March 18th, 2007, 11:16 PM
It now remains to review briefly the main points of significance which can be discerned in the course of this study.

First, the evidence for a belief in survival after death appears to fall into two outstanding divisions. There is on the one hand the conception of an existence after death in the realm of the gods. Connected with this we find the practice of cremation, of suttee and certain kinds of sacrifice; the god Othin seems to be of great importance; and one side of the Valhöll conception is dependent upon it. The impression left by the literature is that entry into the realms of the gods was to some extent at least a matter of aristocratic privilege; that it was kings and rulers and high-born men who took an interest in Othin and whom he, as the leader of the gods, delighted to honour, and that for the people in general this realm of the gods had little real interest or significance. Contrasted with this on the other hand, we find the conception of a continued existence within the grave-mound itself; there is evidence for a cult of the dead developing out of this, with emphasis on fertility beliefs, rebirth and mantic inspiration; and one side of the Valhöll conception, that of the everlasting battle, appears to be bound up with it too. Freyr and the elves have some part to play here, but there are certain links with Othin also. We thus have two separate conceptions which have left traces in the literature; there can be survival either through a life lived with the gods after the end of the life on earth, or through rebirth out of the grave. An additional problem arising out of the evidence is the nature of the belief in a life lived in the hills after death, which appears to have been a family cult of some kind.

Secondly, the evidence studied in the course of this investigation leaves us with the impression of some kind of cult connected with supernatural guardian women, who give help to certain men through life and are destined to receive them in their abodes after death. They have become linked with the idea of Valhöll, and have influenced the peculiarly Norse notions of the hamingja and dís. They appear also to be connected with the belief in rebirth, and with the motif of the supernatural wooing which forms part of the evidence for the journey to the land of the dead. The information which we possess about one local cult, that of Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr in Halogaland, is relevant here.

Thirdly, the impression given by the evidence which deals with the relationship between the world of the dead and that of the living is that behind the stories and allusions dealing with the raising of the dead and with strange adventures in a supernatural world there may be a deeper significance than has been hitherto recognised. The grave-mound we have seen to be regarded as the place of mantic inspiration; and it seems possible also that the emphasis on the help and wisdom to be won from the world of the dead by the seeker who knows the way is based on a belief in the nearness and potency of the other world, prevalent in Scandinavia in pre-Christian times. There is evidence in the literature, and certain archaeological indications to bear it out, that there was at one time a definite cult connected with the dead and with the grave-mound. Certain cryptic stories preserved in the literature and certain of the mythological poems may become more comprehensible if they are interpreted as expressions of the inward and spiritual significance behind the outward and visible symbolism which the saga evidence has preserved for us.

As to any attempt to give to these concepts a definite historic setting in time or a geographical foothold in certain regions of the North, this cannot be satisfactorily achieved without much further work on rather different lines. The evidence which has been collected is not wanting in suggestion for this. The archaeological data surveyed at the beginning served to show the long and complex ancestry behind such practices as cremation, ship-funeral and howe-burial in Scandinavia. They served also, in conjunction with the literary evidence, to point the way to Sweden and particularly to south-eastern Sweden as the region from which the cult of cremation and sacrifice connected with Othin, and later the cult of the dead in the howe associated with Freyr, entered Scandinavia. Elaborate cremation ceremonies took place in the royal graves in Uppsala in the Migration period, and they were still continuing in Swedish settlements in Russia as late as the tenth century. Already in the Migration period the howe was of importance, and rich inhumation ceremonies on a vast scale were going on in Norway in the Viking Age. The cults of both Othin and Freyr evidently travelled westwards, and were carried by way of Norway, a chaotic mixture by now of divergent beliefs, recollections and literary traditions, out with the early settlers to Iceland. It is necessary then to increase our knowledge of the early kings of Sweden if we are to discover more about the range and nature of the cults in which the Swedish royal families took part.

The earliest literary sources to which we can turn for information about religious beliefs in the heathen period are the works of the skaldic poets. Such skaldic verse as is accessible shows clearly that at the time of Harald Hárfagr ideas about Othin and the future life, about the dísir and the valkyries and the various denizens of Ásgarðr, were familiar property to the poets at the king’s court and to those who gained a reputation in Iceland in the early years of the Settlement. More detailed investigation of the work of the skaldic poets, about which all too little is known, would probably do much to elucidate the religious conceptions extant in the ninth and tenth centuries in Scandinavia, and would also be likely to give much needed information as to the origin of many of the most puzzling religious and mythological traditions, which have entered the literature as a result of mistaken attempts at interpretation by writers like Snorri and Saxo of the work of the skalds.

The traces of outside influence on Norse thought which have become noticeable in the course of this study indicate yet another direction for future investigation. There is a striking parallel to be observed between the accounts of shamanistic ideas about the soul, recorded from Northern Europe and Asia, and the conception of the journeying of the spirit outside the body which plays an important part in Norse literature, and is undoubtedly significant in connection with the widespread interest in Norse heathen thought in the journey of the living into the realm of the dead. Further close resemblances in Norse heathenism to the beliefs and practices of North-eastern Europe and Asia are evident when the nature of witchcraft in the literature is investigated in detail, as I hope to prove at some future date. One important road for such influences might be south-westwards from the lands of the Lapps; another that north-westwards from the Norse settlements in Russia. We know that there was considerable movement along both in the heathen period, and more accurate knowledge about this might be of great value. Finally there are influences from the opposite direction to be considered, from the lands ‘west over sea’, and particularly those Celtic lands in the western ocean which had still preserved something of their own peculiar culture up to the time when the Viking invaders reached them. We have seen how from time to time parallels from early Welsh or Irish literature help to throw light on little understood details in Norse mantic practice, and further investigation on these lines might prove valuable.

The chief claim which can be made for such an introductory study as this is that it points the way to roads along which investigation may go on, and ends with suggestions rather than conclusions. I have been primarily concerned with answering the questions raised at the outset, namely how far pre-Christian ideas about life after death are discernible in Old Worse literature, and how consistent a shape they take there. Among the most impressive of these ideas would place the conception of the disembodied soul, and the emphasis on the relationship between the world of the living and that of the dead. This is far more important and significant than any notion of a more or less concrete realm of the dead which can be discerned in the literature, whether for warriors or kings or for the common folk. The agreement between certain of the Edda poems and ideas and practices recorded in the prose literature is also suggestive and illuminating for our better understanding of the obscurities of Norse mythology.

In dealing with Scandinavian ideas about the dead I have touched on the fringe of an immense subject, that of the development of religious thought in the north of Europe in the period before the advancing sea of Christianity and the heritage of the Ancient World engulfed Scandinavia, a period when the road to Asia still lay open, and when the heathen culture of the West had not yet been overwhelmed. The religion of that vexed and vigorous age, when men’s thoughts about the other world and the practices in which their priests and seers took part were constantly changing, is likely, from what traces we can discern of it in the literature, to merit not only our interest but our respect also. The rich and powerful literature of Old Scandinavia which has preserved memories of it for us has many treasures not yet yielded up, and not the least among these are the utterances of the poets and prophets of a heathen faith on the relationship between the familiar world and the realm of the spirit.