View Full Version : Ch 5: THE CONCEPTION OF THE SOUL

Haerfest Leah
March 18th, 2007, 11:30 PM
Yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?
Job, Authorised Version.

The problem of the nature of man’s inner self is one that seems to have had great interest for the Norse writers. The emphasis and value placed on personality and the individual throughout the prose sagas, and the widespread interest in the powers which certain per-sons could obtain by sorcery over the minds of others perhaps tended to give the question a practical interest which ideas of the future life never possessed. Moreover the dramatic possibilities of abnormal states of mind—madness, trance, dreams, hallucinations and so on— were bound to occur to such creative artists as the Norse saga-writers proved themselves to be. It would seem as though the problem as to what part of man gives him consciousness and individuality had been answered somehow to the satisfaction of the Norse mind in heathen times, for in the literature we can discern traces of vivid conceptions of man’s inner self; strikingly different from later Christian teaching. It is difficult however to trace out this conception sufficiently clearly to receive any impression of a consistent whole, since as usual we are limited to isolated fragments here and there, often misunderstood and imperfectly remembered.

It will be necessary to approach the subject from a number of different starting-points in order to discover whether there is any trace of a conception of the ‘soul’ comparable to that of later times. The connection between man and the animal world as brought out in the sagas is one that is very relevant to our subject, and this emerges first in the idea of shape-changing, and secondly in the conception of an invisible animal form accompanying the human one. Then it is impossible to study this animal form in Norse literature without being led on to discuss the guardian spirit in human form also, and the connection between this and divine beings independent of man. The meanings of the different terms fylgja, hamingja, dís and so on must each be examined in some detail, in order to see what bearing the ideas behind them may have on the Norse conception of the soul. One particular aspect of this subject which is an essential corollary to the study of the future life and the cult of the dead is that of the survival of the personality after death; so that it will be necessary to pass on to the question, first, of the belief in rebirth which is found in the literature, and secondly, to that of human survival as a whole. This will give a convenient opportunity for a survey of the evidence so far, and the conclusions reached in this study of Norse eschatology.

Haerfest Leah
March 18th, 2007, 11:31 PM

The practice of shape-changing is one that enters a good deal into the sagas, as indeed into most literature which deals with magic at all. A very cursory examination of the activities of witches and wizards in this direction will make it clear that we have more than one type of shape-changing involved. In Snorri’s description of the magic powers of Othin,1 we can see one distinction made. After Snorri has explained how differently Othin appears to his friends and his enemies, he goes on:

…It so happened that he knew those arts by which he could change his appearance and his shape in whatever way he chose.

Then a little later he continues:

…Othin could change himself; his body then lay as if sleeping or dead, but he became a bird or a wild beast, a fish or a dragon, and journeyed in the twinkling of an eye to far-off lands, on his own errands or those of other men.

Here we have on the one hand the power to disguise the outward appearance, so that spectators are deceived, and on the other the capacity to lie as if in a trance, while some part of the consciousness leaves the body and travels vast distances in animal shape to do its owner’s errands. The sjónhverfing or practice of ‘deceiving the eyes’, akin to hypnotic suggestion, need not concern us here; the other form of shape-changing however, for which there is no specific name given in the literature, is one that is very relevant to a dis-cussion on the soul. There are some striking accounts of it, perhaps the most interesting~ of which is found in the Fornaldar Sögur, in the Saga Hjálmðérs ok Ölvérs (XX).
Here the foster-brothers Hjálmðér and Ölvér are fleeing from

1 Ynglinga Saga, VII.

King Hundingr, an unpleasant monarch with supernatural powers; and with them are Hörðr, a prince with some knowledge of magic, and King Hundingr’s daughter Hervör. King Hundingr pursues their ship in the form of a walrus:

…A little while after, they saw a great walrus making for them, angry and frightful to behold. ‘There’, said Hörðr, ‘is a creature very ill-disposed towards me, that I may not look upon. . . you must not name my name while he is here, for if you do I shall die.’ And he lay down in the hold, and they covered him with clothes. Then they saw a sword-fish (?) dart out from under their ship, and make for the walrus at great speed, and he attacked him straightway; the two moved out into deep water. Soon after they saw dart out from under Hervör’s ship a fair and shapely porpoise; she turned immediately on the walrus and there was a fierce combat....

For a while the walrus gets the better of it, until Hjálmðér calls upon two women who have promised to help him and they arrive in the form of vultures and join in the combat, with the result that the walrus is finally defeated:

…and the vultures flew off very exhausted, so that blood ran down from under every feather, and they flew slowly and low. Then Hjálmðér went to where Hörðr lay, and saw that he was wet. ‘Is the walrus dead now?’ asked Hörðr. Hjálmðér said he had disappeared ‘and I have lost my sword and Ölvér his knife’. [They had joined in the fight when the walrus drew near the ship.] ‘Here are both of them,’ said Hörðr, ‘and now that King Hundingr is put to death, we have achieved a good deal.’ They thanked him for saving their lives and helping them out of such deadly peril as had threatened them. ‘Go to Hervör,’ answered Hörðr, ‘for she will soon need your help.’ So Hjálmðér leaped up on to her ship. She lay unconscious and very weak. Hjálmðér dropped some wine into her mouth, and she soon recovered.

Here the state of trance in which the body remains while the conscious mind is elsewhere is vividly described in the case of Hörðr and Hervör, who are clearly represented as taking on the shapes of fish and porpoise while their bodies remain on board ship. The physical weakness after such an effort, and the necessity not to mention the name of the person concerned as long as the trance continued, are points which are noticeable elsewhere. They recur, for instance, in the story of the three Lapps in Vatnsdæla Saga (XII) who are employed by Ingimundr to go to Iceland for him and discover what has become of his lost image of Freyr. This they do for him, but their bodies never leave Norway meanwhile. They ask to be shut up in a hut while none name their names, for three days. Then Ingimundr is allowed to visit them, and finds they are able to describe minutely the part of Iceland they have visited and to tell him the position of the image; he himself verifies this description later on. They emphasise how difficult it has been to do this: ‘it has been a hard task for your servants, and much labour have we had.’

In this example there is no indication given that the spirits of the Lapps, while absent from their bodies, took on animal shapes. Another story from one of the Fornaldar Sögur, Friðþjófs Saga (VI), describes a similar experience. Here two witches remain on an ‘incantation platform’ (seiðhjallr) while at the same time they are able to appear on the sea a great distance away, riding on a whale. They do this in order to wreck the hero’s ship, but he succeeds in breaking the backs of them both, and at the instant he does so, we learn later in the saga, the witches fall from their platform in the middle of their spell-working and break their backs.

There are other examples of shape-changing in the sagas which seem to belong to the same category. In the Íslendinga Sögur we have the incident of Þuríðr Drikinn in Þorskfirðinga Saga who lies down at night on a bed set up at the door and says that ‘very little can come without her knowing about it’. When a rival witch, Kerling, leads a party of men to attack the house, she is met outside by a great boar, which leaps at her, ‘and at the same moment up sprang Þuríðr Drikinn. . . saying there was an attack on the house’ (XVII). Another clear example is the well-known story of Böðvarr Bjarki in Hrólfs Saga Kraka (L) who goes out to fight as a great bear in the battle against Skuld. The bear does havoc amongst King Hrólfr’s enemies, but Hjalti misses Böðvarr in the battle and goes to his tent to find him sitting there motionless. He accuses him of cowardice, and at last Böðvarr gets up reluctantly, saying he could help the king the more by remaining as he is, and goes to fight; by this time the bear has disappeared.1 When the witch Þórdís assumes the shape of a walrus in Kormáks Saga, and is only recognisable by her eyes (XVIII); when in Egils Saga the hero is infuriated by a swallow twittering at the window while he tries to compose a poem, and ‘some shape-changer’ is said to be responsible, presumably the malicious queen

1 Compare with this the incident in Hrólfs Saga Gautrekssonar (XX), which appears to have been originally a story of the same kind. Here the man who does not fight sits in the high-seat, muttering and covering his face (F.A.S. III, p. 98).

(LIX); and when Harald Gormson dispatches a messenger to Iceland in the shape of a whale to spy out the land, it seems probable that the change here is the same kind of transformation, though full details are not given. The difference between this form of shape-changing and the sjónhverrfing is shown by a story in Þorskfirðingaa Saga (X), when Askmaðr and his wife escape from a burning house in the forms of a pig and a sow, and the pig is brought down by a burning brand, leaving Askmaðr himself visible, dead on the spot. Here it is the body itself which is disguised in animal shape, instead of being in a trance while the spirit is elsewhere, so that there is only one death to describe, not two as in the case of the witches in Friðþjófs Saga.

This distinction is not, of course, confined to Norse sources, and in his article on Lycanthropy in Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics J. M. MacCulloch has collected examples of beliefs in shape-changing from all over the world and has noticed the two types which he defines by the terms ‘wer-animal’ —that is transformation of the man himself as in the case of Askmaðr above—and ‘external soul’. The latter type he finds rare in comparison with the former, and in his examples there is nothing which bears so close a resemblance to those in Norse literature as do some of the accounts of shamanism in North Europe and Asia.

In Holmberg’s account of Finno-Ugric Mythology,1 for instance, he records the belief among the Lapps that the soul of the shaman can leave his body and act as ‘a tutelary spirit’; he says too that it can be used against his enemies, and quotes a statement of Kildal to the effect that two shamans will fight against one another in the form of reindeer bulls, until ‘the shamans owning the “reindeer” become as tired and exhausted as their “reindeer” . We may here recall an instance of shape-changing given in Landnámabók, when two neighbours who disagree over grazing rights are reported to have been seen by a man with the gift of second sight fighting in the forms of a bear and a bull, and ‘in the morning both of them were tired out’.2 The idea of the spirits of the shamans fighting in animal form is also found in Siberia. Miss Czaplickal3 notices that this is a familiar conception:

…A typical case is that of a contest between a Samoyed and a Yakut shaman, continued for years, in which the scene of strife was transferred first from the earth to the sky and then to the water and below it.

1 U. Holmberg, Mythology of all Races: Finno-Ugric, Siberian (Boston, 1927),
XVIII, p. 284 1.
2 Lndn. v, 5.
3 My Siberian Year (London, 1916), p. 212.

Again we can parallel this from Norse sources. In the Saga Sturlaugs Starfsama (XII) a young man who has been taught magic has a contest with a Finn:

…They set on each other, and fought fiercely, so swiftly that they could not be followed with the eye; but neither of them managed to wound the other. When men looked again they had disappeared, but two dogs were in their place and bit at each other furiously; and when they least expected it, the dogs vanished too, and they heard a noise going on up in the air; they looked up and saw two eagles flying there and each tore out the other’s feathers with claws and beak so that blood fell to the earth. The end of it was that one fell dead to the ground, but the other flew away, and they did not know which it was.

The spirit of the shaman, says Holmberg,1 is called sueje (originally ‘shadow) among the Scandinavian Lapps. This is believed to take on the shape of various animals, and in particular reindeer, fish, bird or snake, at will. These animals are the means by which a shaman succeeds in winning back the souls of the dead from the Underworld. Among the Siberian tribes too he tells us that the special bird-costume worn by the shaman is said to be his ‘shadow’ or shape in which the spirit travels.2 Holmberg is of the opinion that this costume originally represented his soul animal. It is very important not to rouse the shaman from his trance by touching him,3 just as in the Norse accounts there are warnings against uttering the names of those whose spirits have left their bodies. The Chronicon Norwegiae4 contains a story which is very like some of the Norse instances. A shaman who was seeking to rescue the soul of a woman who had died suddenly dropped dead himself, with a terrible wound in the stomach. A second shaman was more successful, and recalled the woman back to life, and she then related how the spirit of the first shaman in the shape of a whale was pierced by an enemy with a sharp weapon while he was crossing a lake, and the results of the blow were seen by those present on the shaman’s own body.

In spite of close resemblances, however, the essential function of the spirit ‘sent out’ by the shaman, to get into contact with the souls of the dead and possibly to recall them to life, is missing in the saga evidence. Has the real significance of the journey of the soul been forgotten in the Norse traditions, or is this a later conception which

1 Holmberg, op. cit. p. 285.
2 Ibid. p. 519.
3 Ibid. pp. 291, 292.
4 Munch, Smybolae ad Hist. antiq. rerum Norvegicarum (Christiania, 1850), Chron. Norveg. pp. 4-5.

has come in from Asia and become connected with the conception of the soul in animal form? This is a question to which we must return later in the section on the Journey to the Laud of the Dead. For the present it is sufficient to notice that the idea of the ‘spirit’ or ‘external soul’ leaving the body, either in human or animal form, to travel vast distances or to fight the spirits of others in similar form, is one that occurs frequently in Norse tradition. Many more such stories have probably been misunderstood by later writers and converted into ‘shape-changing’ stories of the more crude and childish type. A good example of the Norse tendency to convert such stories as these into concrete form is seen in the ravens of Othin. As described by Snorri they seem solid enough, but when we remember their names, Huginn and Muninn, or ‘Thought’ and ‘Memory’, given in the Edda poem, it seems evident that here we have a symbolic description of the sending out of the spirit through the universe, corresponding to the account of Othin given in the Ynglinga Saga. This example suggests the possibility of similar conceptions in Norse thought now lost because we have no longer the key which would open the symbolism of the mythology to us.

Haerfest Leah
March 18th, 2007, 11:32 PM

There are several instances in the sagas where we find the conception of an animal form closely connected with an individual which is visible to others in dreams, and, to those who have the power of second sight, in waking life also. One of the most vivid descriptions comes from the Þáttr Þorsteins Uxafóts in the Flateyjarbók:1

It happened one day that Porsteinn came to Krossavík as he often did. The householder’s father, Geitir, sat on the dais and muttered into his cloak. Now when the boy entered the hall, he came in with a great rush, as children usually do. He slipped on the floor of the hall, and when Geitir saw this, he burst out laughing.. . .The boy went up to Geitir and said: ‘Why did it seem funny to you when I fell just now?’ Geitir answered: ‘Because in truth I could see what you did not.’ ‘What was that?’ asked Þorsteinn. ‘I will tell you. When you came into the hail a white bear-cub followed you, and ran along the floor in front of you. Now when he saw me, he stood still; but you were going rather fast, and you fell over him— and it is my belief that you are not the son of Krum and Þorgunna, but must be of greater family.’

1 Flateyjarbók: Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar, I, 205, p. 252.

Here we have the attendant animal pictured as sufficiently solid to trip the boy up—characteristic of the vivid and concrete character of Norse narrative. Geitir, the man with powers of second sight, is able to see the animal which is invisible to ordinary men. He is also able to deduce from the fact that Þorsteinn is accompanied by a white bear that he is of better parentage than was generally thought. The bear then is a symbol of high birth, and the animal who attends a human being has come to have a partly symbolic function. The other instance of an animal form seen in waking life is found in Njáls Saga:

It happened one day that Njáll and Þórðr were out of doors. A he-goat used to walk round the yard, and no one was allowed to drive it away. Suddenly Þórðr spoke: ‘That is a queer thing’, said he. ‘What do you see that you think queer?’ asked Njáll. ‘It seems to me that the goat lies here in the hollow and is all covered with blood.’ Njáll said that there was no goat there nor anything else. ‘What is it then?’ said Þórðr. ‘You must be a “fey” man’, said Njáll, ‘and have seen your fylgja, so take care of yourself.’ ‘That will be no help to me’, replied Þórðr, ‘if things are doomed for me (XLI).

From this story we get the impression that the life of the animal form depends on the life of the man it accompanies—or possibly this should be put in the reverse order and we should say that the human life is dependent on the well-being of the animal fylgja, just as when the animal form in the shape-changing stories we have examined is mortally injured the human body must perish also.

It is usually in dreams that the animal fylgja is visible. In a number of cases a person is represented by a particular animal; in Njáls Saga (XXIII) Höskuldr has a dream in which a white bear stands for Gunnarr, which tells him that the latter is approaching the house; in Ljósvetninga Saga (XXI) Guðmundr is symbolised by a splendid ox, and the dream foretells his death; in Þorsteins Saga Vikingssonar (XII) Jökull, the leader of a hostile expedition, appears as a great bear, and two unpleasant wizards who have joined him as vixens. It is interesting to find that in the last case the fylgja of Ogautan the wizard is the same animal as that which Ogautan sends out to obtain information; for when he is tracking the heroes, he takes the shape of a little vixen. Here we have the unusual case of a female animal chosen to represent a man.

In all these cases, the animal form seems to depend on the character and the standing of the man in question, those of high birth and outstanding character being represented by dignified and noble animals. When the people concerned are unimportant, they are usually represented by animals which symbolise their activity at the time; an attacking party, for example, being almost invariably represented as wolves if they are not singled out individually. As Þorsteinn puts it in the passage alluded to above: ‘The number of wolves I saw must be the number of men with them, for they must have wolfish intentions towards us.’ In such cases the wolves seem symbolic merely in the way that the hood and the ring in Guðrún’s dreams in Laxdæla Saga (XXXIII) are symbolic; the conception of the particular animal form that is attached to an individual, however, seems to be closely akin to the animal form in the shape-changing examples we have studied. Like it, the fylgja can apparently wage battle with that of another man; in Ljósvetninga Saga Finn the wizard attributes the misfortunes of Eyjólfr to the fact that the fylgjur of their enemies are more powerful than those of his own party (XXX); it is not certain from the context here that the animal form is referred to, since the word is not always used with the same meaning, as we shall see later, though on the other hand the animal form accompanying a man is never described by any other term.

The distinction between the animal fylgja and the animal form assumed by the spirit of the shape-changer lies of course in the fact that in the second case the animal form is only active while the body of the owner lies in a state of unconsciousness; it is informed, ap-parently, by the whole conscious mind of the human owner. The fylgja however is the active, invisible companion which attends the owner in his waking state; it would usually appear, in spite of its name, to precede him. As in dreams, so those with the gift of second sight can in waking hours tell of the approach of outstanding people by the fylgjur that go before them; in a story in Haralds Saga when an old woman with second sight is told by her foster-son that no strangers have arrived that day, she replies:

I did not expect you would lie to me, for I recognise the fylgjur of Auðun illskáld your kinsman here, and they arrived early in the day.1

Similarly the coming of Olaf Tryggvason is known to those with second sight, because of the bright fylgjur before him.2 The fact that here and elsewhere the word is used, in the plural does not seem to

1 Fornmanna Sögur (Copenhagen, 1825), III, p.71: Saga Skálda Haralds Konungs Hárfagra.
2 Ibid. Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar, I, LVII, p. 96.

alter the conception; we are still dealing with something which precedes a man, to announce his coming and to tell those who have the power to see it what kind of person he is. The Norse evidence gives us no ground for assuming that it is the fylgja which can be dismissed by its owner while he is unconscious to carry out various errands for him. It is quite likely that one conception has influenced the other, and that later the two ideas tended to become confused. The fylgja however seems to be a conception akin not so much to the soul as to the shadowy double or ‘fetch’ which is a widespread belief in various European countries, and which has continued into modern times. The idea of a double in human form is not found in Norse literature; the nearest to it is the story of the mysterious woman with large eyes who encountered Guðríðr in Greenland, and told her her name was Guðríðr too.1 If we are to look for evidence for a conception of the soul in Norse literature, it is, I think, to the animal or human form endued with the spirit of the owner and not to the fylgja that we must turn.

Haerfest Leah
March 18th, 2007, 11:33 PM

The word fylgja is clearly used very loosely in Norse literature. In Hallfreðar Saga we find it attached to a new conception, that of a guardian spirit in the form of a woman, called the fylgjukona:2

…They saw a woman walking after the ship; she was tall and clad in a coat of mail; she walked over the waves as if she were on land. Hallfreðr gazed at her, and saw she was his fylgjukona. ‘I declare all between me and thee at an end’, he said. ‘Will you receive me, Þorvaldr?’ she asked. He said he would not. Then Hallfreðr the younger said ‘I will receive you’. After this she vanished. Then Hallfreðr said ‘To you, my son, will I give the sword, the king’s gift; but the other treasures you shall lay beside me in my coffin, if I die here in the ship’ (XI).

This spirit, unlike the animal fylgja, lives on after the death of the man whom she has attended, and must then pass on to someone else. How far young Hallfreðr’s acceptance of her is free choice on his part, or due to the fact that she is intimately bound up with the fortunes of one particular family, is not quite clear, but at least it does

1 Grænlendinga Saga, VII.
2 This idea could be easily reconciled with Christian teaching. This is shown from the story in Njáls Saga when Hallr consents to be baptized on condition that St Michael will become his fylgjuengill (c).

appear that she is not necessarily attached to a man from birth, as the fylgja seems to be. In Vatnsdæla Saga1 we read that the woman ‘who had attended him and his family’ (er fylgt hafðii peim frændum) came to Þorsteinn in a dream and warned him not to leave. In Völsunga Saga, Signý is warned against her approaching marriage by her kynfylgja (IV). Þorsteinn, the son of Síðu-Hallr,2 is also visited in a dream by three women, who warn him that his thrall is plotting his death. They come to him three times, and the third time they are weeping. One of them asks: ‘Where shall we turn after your day, Þorsteinn?’ and he replies: ‘To my son Magnus.’ ‘We may not abide there long’, she answers, and utters a verse in which she prophesies his son’s death also.

In another story of this kind, in Víga-Glúms Saga, we find that the word hamingja is used:

It is told that one night Glúmr had a dream. He thought he was standing outside the house, and looking towards the firth. He thought he saw a woman walking across the country, and coming towards Þverá. She was so huge that her shoulders touched the mountains on each side. He thought he went out of the homestead to meet her, and asked her to his house. And after that he awoke. All thought this dream strange, but he said ‘This is a great and remarkable dream, and I would read it thus: Vigfúss my grandfather must be dead, and the woman who was higher than the mountains as she walked must be his hamingja, for he was nearly always above other men in honour; his hamingja now must be seeking an abode where I am’ (IX).

In all these passages we have a picture of a supernatural woman guardian, attached to one particular family, who at the death of the man she attends passes on to one of his descendants. The woman in Hallfreðar Saga seems, as Miss Phillpotts points out,3 to bring ill-luck to the man she follows, while she in Víga-Glúms Saga on the other hand brings honour and distinction with her. In both cases the hamingja is described as a huge woman in armour (Glúmr so speaks of her in a verse) and it would seem as if here we have some connection with the Valkyrie conception which was discussed in chapter III. The resemblance is more marked when we remember that in the Helgi poems the Valkyrie is said to be reborn, and to attend the second

1 Vatnsdæla Saga, XXXVI.
2 Draumr Þorsteins Síðu-Hallssonar: published together with Þorsteins Saga Síðu-Hallssonar, Ásmundarson, p. 25.
3 Camb. Med. Hist. mm, p. 486.

Helgi, presumably a descendant, as she did the first, and that on the day she comes to him for the first time she gives him a name.1 There is no doubt that the word hamingja in the sagas is often used also with the abstract meaning of ‘luck’, and is believed to pass with the name of someone who has once possessed it. In Vatnsdæla Saga we find this idea expressed: ‘...The boy shall be called Ingimundr after his mother’s father, and I hope for luck (hamingja) for him on account of the name’ (VII). Again in Finnboga Saga a dying man begs his son to call a child after him: ‘he said he was sure that hamingja would follow’ (XXXVI).

These instances will have to be discussed further when we are concerned with the subject of rebirth, as the relationship between the conception of hamingja being passed on with a name to a descendant and that of the soul of the dead being reborn in that descendant is an important one. The hamingja was not invariably connected with a name in the sagas; Glúmr claims to have obtained that of his grandfather Vigfúss, and in the Fornaldar Sögur the dead king Hreggviðr who comes out of his howe and meets his son-in-law tells him he wishes to ‘turn towards you all the valour and the hamingja which formerly followed me’.2

The hamingja of a man may be proved by his success in battle. In Vatnsdæla Saga Ketill tells his son that he intends to teach him the laws of warriors-’you are now at an age to prove what hamingja will be granted to you’(II). ‘Now it is hamingja which will decide’ (mun nu hamingja ráða) exclaims Gestr before a battle in Bárðarr Saga (XVI), and King Harald Harðraði undertakes to attack a serpent because he says he has the best trust in his luck (gæfa) and hamingja.3 The hamingja is not something which depends on personal courage, however; Þórir says of one man in Þorskfirðinga Saga that ‘he has shown himself possessed of more valour than hamingja’ (XVI); while Grettir and his brother are said by a witch to be ‘brave but without hamingja’ (Grettis Saga, LXXVIIIl).

The hamingja of a man, which can pass on to someone else when he is dead, can also apparently be lent during his lifetime, if it is sufficiently powerful. King Mottull of Finmark, in Flateyjarbók, offers to let his hamingja go with Þórir against King Olaf, ‘and my mind tells me’, he says, ‘that in the end you will be victorious over

1 Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, II.
2 Göngu-Hrólfs Saga, XXXII.
3 Fornmanna Sögur, VI: Haralds Saga Harðráða, XIII, p. 165.

him’.1 The hamingja of the great kings of Norway was of tremendous power; it could be supplied to their warriors going out on dangerous enterprises as though it were something concrete they could carry with them. In the Fornmanna Sögur2 we are told that when King Harald was angry with his poets and was sending them on an expedition which would probably mean their deaths, they went before him on their departure to salute him, and begged that he would ‘grant his hamingja for their journey’ (leggja sina hamingja á ferð þessa). ‘Although the king was angry’, we are told, ‘he did as they asked.’ Similarly Olaf Tryggvason is told by some of his men who are leaving on a difficult quest:3 ‘It is certain that this will not be managed easily unless your hamingja helps us’, while Olaf the Holy tells one of his followers on another such occasion:4 ‘It will help this journey if you go with them, for your hamingja has been well proved’ and goes on to promise on his own behalf: Know for certain that I will grant my hamingja to you, and to all the party.’ He helped other followers of his in the same way, for elsewhere5 we read: ‘They had unfavourable weather, so that they lost many men; but because they had a large force and the king’s hamingja, all was well.’

It is said even of a Christian, Bishop Jón, for a long time men will profit by his hamingja;’6 and in late Christian times the word was still used, according to Vigfusson, to mean ‘luck’ or ‘providence’. In the sagas it is sometimes a power which can prevail against magic; in the Flateyjarbók, for instance, Menglöð wonders whether the trollskap of the giant ‘Brusi or the hamingja of Ormr will prevail.7 Brynhildr, we may notice, is deceived by the change of shapes between Sigurðr& and Gunnarr because, she says later, her hamingja was veiled.8

As used in the sagas then, the hamingja stands for an abstract conception, that of something belonging to an outstanding person which is partly a matter of character and partly of personality, and partly something more than either—that strange quality of ‘luck’ or luck-lessness’ which attaches itself to certain individuals more than others.

1 Flateyjarbók, in; Óláfs Saga Helga; Viðbætir, p. 245.
2 Fornmanna Sögur, in: Saga Skálda Haralds Konungs Hárfagra, II, p. 69.
3 Flateyjarbók: Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar, I, 113, p. 145.
4 I-Heimskringla: Óláfs Saga Helga, LXIX.
5 Fornmanna Sögur, Iv: Óláfs Saga Helga, XIII, p. 66.
6 Jóns Saga, Backup Sögur I (Copenhagen, 1858), XVI, p. 229.
7 Flateyjarbók: Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar: Þáttr Orms Stórolfssonar, I, 417, p. 529.
8 Völsunga Saga, XXIX.

It is something which can be handed on after death, and it usually remains within one family; it is usually connected with the name, so that if a child is called after a father or grandfather it is hoped he will inherit it automatically. Now in one case we get a personification of hamingja as a gigantic woman in armour, and in several other pas-sages, although the term is not used, it seems as though we are dealing with the same conception. The difficulty is to decide whether here we have something which has arisen from the abstract term hamingja and is a literary personification of it, or whether the ab-stract term is something which has come into being because of an older belief in a supernatural guardian woman attached to certain families, who later became identified with the hamingja or luck of the individual. In either case it is, I think, clear that there is a close connection between the supernatural woman and the guardian Valkyrie discussed earlier.

At this point it is necessary to take into consideration the fact that another term is frequently used for a supernatural guardian woman, that is dís. The word is usually found in the plural. In the story of the death of Þiðrandi, told so graphically in the Flateyjarbók,1 Pórir speaks of nine women in black clothes who ride down upon Þiðrandi with drawn swords as the dísir of Hallr’s family, who are angry, he says, because they realise that he and his kin are about to adopt Christianity and break off connections with them. The white dísir who try unsuccessfully to defend Þiðrandi are, he suggests, the d(sir of the new faith, who prove less efficient than their rivals. Þorhallr also refers to the women in black as the fylgjur of Hallr’s family (CCXV). In Njáls Saga (XLVI) there is a reference to this story, and here again it is said to be the dísir who slew Þiðrandi. Another reference to dísir comes in the Fornaldar Sögur in two verses of poetry in Hálfs Saga (XV). In the first of these Utsteinn claims that his dísir will help him in battle, but his opponent replies:

Dead must be
All your dísir;
Luck is gone, I say,
From Hálfr’s warriors.
I dreamed this morning
That our powers
Vanquished yours
When they met together.

1 Flateyjarbók: Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar, I, 335, p. 419 f.

Again in a dream of Ásmundr in Ásmundr Saga Kappabana armed women appear to him before a combat, tell him they are his spádísir and promise to help him (VIII). The dísir, like the hamingja, can apparently be borrowed, since in Þorsteins Saga Víkingssonar (XXII) Sindri the dwarf bids farewell to Þorsteinn and promises that his own dísir shall follow and protect him.

In these instances we have the conception of a guardian spirit, usually armed, who will support those with whom she is connected in battle, and in general bring them ‘luck’—something which has no essential difference from that of the guardian woman hamingja we have already dealt with, except that in these cases we have a number of women and not one alone. The evidence certainly seems to suggest that the guardian Valkyries, the guardian hamingjur of the family and the guardian dísir are one and the same conception. Moreover in the story of Þiðrandi we get the same dualism—the dark and bright women battling over the hero—which we noticed before in some of the Valkyrie stories,1 only given a Christian setting. The connection with the future life, which we noticed also, comes out again in the verse spoken by Glaumvör when she describes the dream betokening her husband’s death in Atlamál:

I dreamed dead women came here in the night;
They were poorly clad; they were seeking you;
They bade you swiftly come to their benches;
Thy dísir, I deem, were parted from thee (v. 25).

In the Völsunga Saga this is paraphrased: ‘Then I thought dead women came in here; they were gloomy, and they chose you for husband; it may be that it was your dísir’ (XXXV).
In this picture we have a very close parallel to the dream-women of Gísli. The invitation to the benches in their hall and the word ‘husband’ introduced into Völsunga Saga are ideas which we found there also. It seems very probable that we are throughout dealing with one conception, and that these huge supernatural women who give help and support to certain men in life, and welcome them to their abodes as husbands after death, are the same, whether they bear the name of fylgjukona, valkyrja, hamingja or dís. It seems possible that in this conception, which is so widespread in Norse literature, we have memories of a definite cult. We know from the evidence of the sagas that there were cults connected with supernatural women.

1 See p. 72 above.

There is one connected with Halogaland, and practised by Jarl Hákon, where a supernatural being acts as guardian to the man who worships her; she appears to aid him in battle, and shoots arrows at his enemies, accompanied by at least one other similar being; and the Jarl is on one occasion called her husband.1 This being is Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr; and the similarity of her worship as described in the sagas with that of those supernatural women who occur so frequently suggests the possibility of a cult lingering on in Halogaland after it had been displaced elsewhere by worship of the gods. There seems according to our literary sources however to have been some connection between this and the gods, for it enters into the picture of a future life in the halls of Othin, while in some places worship of the dísir is recorded as if it accompanied. that of the gods. In Víga-Glúms Saga2 sacrifice to the dísir is said to have been made at the beginning of winter at Vors, the residence of Vigfúss, at which Glúmr was present. Miss Phillpotts dates this at about 950. King Eric and Queen Gunnhildr are said in Egils Saga (XLIII) to attend a feast at Atley, where there was sacrifice to the dísir, and this also was in the autumn; the exact dating of events in Egils Saga is a controversial subject, but this can safely be placed in the first quarter of the tenth century. Another account of a sacrifice to the dísir is found in the Fornaldar Sögur in Friðþjófs Saga (IX). Here the hail of the dísir is said to be inside the enclosure at ‘Balder’s Meadows’, and the kings Hálfdan and Helgi hold a sacrifice there on their return. The account of the sacrifice is a puzzling one. The kings are said to be sacrificing to the dísir as they sit drinking, and their wives meanwhile are said to sit by the fire and warm the figures of the gods. These wives do not come into the saga elsewhere, and one wonders if there can be any connection between the so-called wife of Helgi, whom Friðþjófr drags across the room in an attempt to pull off the gold ring from her arm, and Þorgerðr—Helgi’s bride, as she is usually called—whose image in Jarl Hákon’s temple is distinguished by just such a ring. The account certainly reads more like an attempt to despoil an image than to rob a woman. Another reference to the hail of the dís (here the singular is used) comes from Ynglinga Saga (XXIX), where Snorri tells us that King Aðils met his death as he rode round the hail while he was at the sacrifice. In Hervarar Saga (VII) the wife of King

1 Flateyjarbók: Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar, 1, 114f., 154f., 173f., 326f.; also Njáls Saga, LXXXVIII.
2 Víga-Glúms Saga, VI.

Harald is said to slay herself in the hail of the dísir after her husband has been killed in battle; while in the paper manuscript of the same saga used by Rafn there is another reference to dísir blót (I), the sacrifice this time being done out of doors by night, and consisting of a ceremony in which the hörgr is reddened with blood—reminding us of the reddening of the howe in sacrifice to the elves in Kormáks Saga.1 It is interesting to compare this with what Olsen has to say about the meaning of hörgr in Norwegian place-names.2 He came to the conclusion that the word represents an early type of sanctuary, smaller than the public temple, the hof (p. 284). However he points out that originally the word must have denoted something still more primitive, since the same word hörgr also denotes a heap of stones at the summit of a mountain, so that it seems as if it must have meant at one time an altar built of loose stones. He suggests that Snorri’s remark in Gylfaginning, to the effect that a hörgr was provided for the goddesses, may have been based on the fact that women were concerned with an old phallic cult (pp. 287-296). Another possibility however might be that these shrines were connected with women because they primarily belonged to the worship of the dísir, as the passage above suggests. It may be significant in this connection to notice that Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr is called on at least one occasion Hörgabrúðr.3

With the other company of supernatural women, the nornir, we are not at present concerned. They seem, in their connection with fate and the future, to stand a little apart from the guardian spirits we have been studying. All these terms for supernatural women, however, are liable to be freely interchanged.

It can be seen now that the evidence for the fylgja and the hamingja in Norse literature does not help us very much to find a conception of the soul. It has been necessary to examine the ideas behind them fairly closely, however, in view of the way in which the animal and the woman fylgja are often confused.4 It is necessary too to discover how many different conceptions seem to be involved, and whether any of them correspond to the idea of a ‘soul’. We have discerned

1 See p. 111 above.
2 M. Olsen, Farms and Fanes in Ancient Norway (trans. Gleditsch, Oslo, 1928).
3 Flateyjarbók, 1, 173, p. 213. For different versions of her name, see G. Storm, Om Thorgerða Helgabrud’, Ark.ƒ.n.F. 1885.
4 As for example in the section on supernatural beings in Scandinavian Archaeology by Falk (trans. Gordon, Oxford, 1937), p. 408 f.

two separate conceptions; one is that of the animal fylgja, which might be translated ‘fetch’; it accompanies a human being through life, can be seen by others in dreams or in waking hours if they have the gift of second sight; and the life of the owner depends on its well-being. The animal shape in question varies according to the character and standing of the man it accompanies, and there is no idea of it ever surviving after death or passing on to someone else. The other conception, as we have seen, is that of a supernatural woman guardian, who attends an individual until death, and survives him; after his death he is able to enter her abodes, and she then attaches herself to another, often in the same family. She is frequently attended by a company of similar women, generally three or nine in number. She seems to be looked on as the wife of the man to whom she has joined herself. One of the terms used to describe such a guardian is also used generally to mean luck , and is regarded as a most important element in the make-up of the individual.
Neither of these conceptions can be held to be that of the soul in man. Both, it is true, are linked up closely with the question of individuality; they are to a certain extent attempts to explain that elusive quality which divides one man from his fellows. But they cannot be looked on as conceptions of the soul, since in neither of the cases concerned are we dealing with any part of man’s conscious being; he can move, think and feel independently of his fylgja or hamingja, closely linked up with his character or fate though they may be. In the case of the second conception, moreover, the evidence suggests that we are dealing here with memories of an actual cult rather than with early attempts at spiritual analysis.

Haerfest Leah
March 18th, 2007, 11:34 PM

The evidence connected with the hamingja leads us on to what must be an essential part of any study of a belief in survival—that of rebirth. In the chapter on the Cult of the Dead one of the most interesting pieces of evidence was the story of Olaf Geirstaðaálfr and the worship of him in his barrow after death. Flateyjarbók gives a sequel to this story which concerns us here.1 Olaf is said to appear in a dream to a man called Hrani, and to beg him to break into his howe. He tells him that he is to carry away the gold ring from the man whom he will find sitting on a stool inside, and the knife and belt that he wears. Part of the directions he receives are puzzling; he is to cut off

1 Flateyjarbók: Óláfs Saga Helga, II, 7, p. 7.

the head of the draugr, and ‘all depends’, he is told, ‘on whether you put the head straight on the neck’. There is apparently to be a struggle with the howe-dweller, but of this we are not told in detail. What is more individual and interesting about the tale is that Hrani is to make off secretly with the ring, belt and sword, and is to go to Ásta, the wife of Harald the Greenlander, whom he will find awaiting the birth of her child:

… Then you must ask to go and speak with her, saying that it is quite likely that she will be eased thereby. You must ask to decide the name if a boy is born. Then you must put the belt round her. I think it is very probable that there will be a rapid change in her condition. She will give birth to a child, and it will be a boy, both big and thriving. You shall have him named Olaf. I give to him also the ring and the sword Besing....

The son born to Queen Ásta is, of course, King Olaf the Holy. Much later in his saga we learn that Olaf, after he had become king,

rode with his bodyguard past the howe of Olaf Geirstaðaálfr. ‘Tell me, lord’ [says one of his men], ‘were you buried here?’ The king replied to him: ‘My soul has never had two bodies; it cannot have them, either now or on the Resurrection Day; if I spoke otherwise there would be no common truth or honesty in me.’ Then the man said: ‘They say that when you came to this place before you spoke so, and said “We have been here before also”.’ ‘I have never said this’, said the king, ‘and never will I say it.’ And the king was much moved, and clapped spurs to his horse immediately, and fled from the place as swiftly as he might (II, 106, p. 135).

Here the belief in rebirth seems to be clearly expressed, all the more convincingly because of the Christian king’s determined denial of it later on. Again it will be noticed that the name is important, and with the name it would seem that some part of the dead man enters into the child. The connection with the howe-dweller is of significance also.
There are references to rebirth in the Helgi poems. The lovers Helgi and Sváva are said in the prose note at the end of Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar to be born again, while at the close of Helgakviða Hundingsbana II there is a reference to a similar tradition about the later Helgi:

It was believed according to ancient lore (í forneskju) that folk were reborn; but this is now said to be old women’s lying tales. Helgi and Sigrún are said to have been reborn; he was then called Helgi Haddingjaskati, and she Kara Hálfdanardóttir, as is related in Káruljóð; and she was a Valkyrie.

This poem, unfortunately, has been lost; but in the Helgi poems which remain the connection between the valkyries and rebirth has already been made. The most significant passage, perhaps, is that where the second Helgi is said at the beginning of Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar II to receive a name while he sits on a mound. The prose note explains: ‘He was tall and handsome; he was very silent, and no name could be found for him (festiz við hann).’ The poem then tells how his name was given to him by the Valkyrie Sváva, as she rode by in a company of nine maidens. Here then we find a close connection between sitting on a howe and rebirth. It is perhaps not insignificant, in view of this connection, to find that when in the Sigurðarkviða hin Skamma Brynhildr is proposing to burn herself with Sigurðr, Högni exclaims wearily:

Delay her not longer from dying,
That born again she may never be. (V. 46.)

We gained the impression in the first chapter that cremation in general—and particularly such cases of suttee as that of Brynhildr—indicated a belief in departure to another world, as opposed to howe burial, where the spirit lingered in the grave. It is natural that rebirth should be connected with the latter practice.

One allusion to rebirth from the Fornaldar Sögur may be noticed, because it is connected with the hero Starkaðr, and is referred to in a poem of his quoted in Gautreks Saga. He alludes to a belief, quoted against him by his enemies, that marks can be seen on his body which were left on his grandfather, a giant of the same name, after his struggles with Thor:

They think they see
Upon me too
The mark of the giant,
The eight arms,
When Hlórriði
Tore them off
From Hergrímr’s slayer,
North of the cliff (VII).1

1 Sjá þykjast þeir er Hlórriði
á sjálfum mér fyrir hamar norðan
jötun kuml, Hergrímsbana
átta handa, höndum rændi.
(The story goes that Starkaðr I was an eight-armed giant, slain by Thor.)

There is an allusion of the same kind in one version of Þórðar Saga hræðu. In the Upphaf sögu (from Vatnshyrnu) we are told concerning the birth of Þórðr:1

Afterwards Helga gave birth to a boy, who was sprinkled with water and given a name, and he had to be called (skyldi heita) Þórðr after his father. It could be seen on the boy that he had a scar on his left arm, in the place where his father had been wounded. He took straightway the surname which his father had had, and was called Þórðr hræða.

Throughout the sagas many other examples can be found where the giving of the name of the dead to a child is emphasised. Two of these have already been mentioned because of the reference to the hamingja which they contain.2 Of the others, one of the most striking is from the story of Þorstein Uxafótr in the Flateyjarbók.3 This tells how the hero visits a barrow and helps the barrow-dweller to overcome his rival. When they part, the man from the howe tells Þorstein of the coming of Christianity, which, he says,

is much better for those who can take it, but it will go the harder for those whose destinies it may not be, those who are such as I; for we brothers are earth-dwellers. I should deem it a great favour if you could bring my name under baptism, if it should be granted you to have a son.

Here again the connection between the dweller in the howe and the birth of a child to whom the name of the dead is to be handed on is emphasised. In Vatnsdæla Saga a dying man, Jökull, begs the man who has slain him ‘not to let my name pass away (niðri liggja) . . . if a son be granted to you or to your son’ (III). Similarly Þórólfr in Svarfdæla Saga begs his brother to hand on his name to a son of his:

…I think my name has not long been upheld, and now it must pass out of use like withered grass.. . I will that if a son be given to you you will have him called Þórólfr, and all the luck (heillir) ‘which I have had I will give to him (IV).

Again Finnbogi in Finnboga Saga (IX) begs his friend to accept his name while he lies dying, for then, he says, ‘I know that my name will be known while the earth is inhabited’. Karl, too, in Svarfdæla

1 Þórðar Saga hræðu (ed. Ásmundarson, Reykjavik, 1900), p. VIII. The complete version of the saga merely tells us that when the baby was born during the funeral feast for his father ‘the housewife wished him to be called Þórðr; she said she thought he would be a great man if they got the name back again’ (m).
2 See p. 132 above.
3 Flateyjarbók: Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar, 1, 206, p. 255.

Saga (XXVI) demands that his wife, who is expecting a child, shall give his name to it if, as he fears, he dies first. An interesting point to be noticed in Hallfreðar Saga (IX) is that after the conversion of Hallfreðr’s heathen wife the boy born to them is called Hallfreðr the younger, while his father is still alive.
The custom of naming children after dead kinsmen is certainly very widespread in the Íslendinga Sögur. In particular the custom of choosing the name of the grandfather on either the father’s or the mother’s side is very frequent indeed. Taking an example at random from the saga of Víga-Glúms, we find the following:


or from Egils Saga:


It is not only the grandparents from whom the name is taken. In a valuable study of the evidence for the giving of names in the Icelandic Sagas (Altisländische Namenwahl, Palaestra, 176, Leipzig, 1931), Keil has provided us with full statistics of this practice of naming after the dead.1 He shows that while naming after the grandparents is the most frequent custom, the name may also be taken from a great-uncle, uncle, nephew, cousin, or a father who has died before his child is named. The same practice is followed in the naming of girls, only in this case we have not the same amount of information from the genealogies. Sometimes it is the nickname, or part of it, which is handed down. Keil’s evidence shows that it is almost invariably a dead relative whose name is chosen, and particularly one who has recently died. He has only four examples of the name of the living being passed on to children.2 One is that of Hallfreðr, noticed above;

1 Keil, op. cit. p. z6 f.
2 Ibid. p. 70 1.

another Harald Hárfagr, who named a son after him in his old age;1 it seems likely that this forms a parallel case to that of Finnbogi, the third example, who passed on his name with the sense of his own approaching death heavy upon him. The only other example is that of a son of Hálfdan the Black, said to have been named after Harald Gullskeggr.2 We are told very little about this, but Harald Gullskeggr certainly names his foster-son in his old age, with the intention of letting him succeed to his kingdom, since he gives the realm into the hands of the little boy when he becomes too infirm to rule himself.

The case of Finnbogi appears to be the only one in which the name is not taken from within the family of the newborn child, although there are instances of naming after dead foster-parents. Apparently the name might be changed if it did not seem to suit the child, or at least this is implied by a passage in Gísla Saga (XVIII) telling how Snorri the Priest received his name:

He was first called Þorgrimr after his father, but when he grew up they found him difficult in disposition and unruly, so his name was changed and he was called Snorri.

The name Snorri appears to be derived from snerra, a shock or onslaught; however the departure from the usual custom, that of adding the new name on to the original as a nickname, is puzzling; Keil suggests that the little boy was called after a son of his foster-father, whose name was Snorri too.3
The idea that this widespread custom of naming after the dead was directly connected with a belief in transmigration of souls, the spirit of the dead being reborn in the living when the name was used again for a newborn child, was first put forward in detail by Storm, in an article on ‘Transmigration of Souls and the Custom of Naming after the Dead’ published in 1893.4 He came to the conclusion that while in the Migration period it was common to find the name of the child beginning with the same letter as that of the parent (alliteration) or containing part of the parent’s name (variation), the practice of taking the whole name of a dead relative came in among the Visigoths and Burgundians on the borders of Gaul in the fifth century, and was fully established in Scandinavia by the end of the eighth

1 Heimskringla: Haralds Saga Hárfagra, XLII.
2 Ibid. Hálfdans Saga Svarta, III.
3 Keil, op. cit. p. 94.
4 ‘Vore Forfædres Tro paa Sjælvandring og deres Opkaldelsessystem’, Ark.f.n.F. 1893,p. 119f.

century. His assumption that this custom was direct evidence for a belief in the transferring of the spirit of the dead to his descendant was generally accepted by scholars until Keil produced his new and exhaustive study on the subject.1
Keil’s work certainly shows that the system of variation and alliteration continued in Iceland side by side with that of naming after the dead, so that it is incorrect to say that one has replaced the other. Examples of each from the sagas are about equal in number; the practices are absolutely contemporary; and there are plenty of examples of both being used within the same family, although it is roughly true to say that most families incline to one custom rather than the other. Keil further argues that the evidence from Northern Europe gives no support to Storm’s theory that the principle of naming after the dead is a later one. A second point made by Keil is that it is incorrect to equate rebirth with transmigration of souls (sjælvandring), as Storm has done. If by transmigration we are to understand the Eastern doctrine of the continual progress of the soul through many bodies, not necessarily human ones, then it is true to say that there is no evidence to support its existence in Norse literature, and perhaps the term has been used too carelessly by previous writers. But for a belief in rebirth of some kind there is a good deal of evidence, as we have seen, that cannot be ignored. Finally Keil asserts that the principle of naming after the dead is based on nothing more than pride of birth, and a desire to establish the newborn baby firmly within the family, mingled with that of winning for it the good luck associated with certain names among its dead kinsmen; that, in fact, it is no more than a chance alternative to the variation principle in choosing a name for a child.

This explanation does not appear to be altogether satisfactory. If this were indeed the case, why do we find such reluctance throughout to pass on the name of a living man or woman, since this would offer the closest parallel to the variation system? The argument that this would cause confusion and loss of identity can hardly be urged, since Keil has given examples of the same name being used more than once in the family.2 Moreover the close and significant connection between the child and the dead man in his grave-mound or the man at point of death cannot be ignored. Even were such passages due to later editing of the sagas, we are left with the origin of such a tradition to explain away. A passage like that quoted above about

1 Keil, op. cit. p. 97 f.
2 Ibid. p. 105.

Olaf the Holy is hardly likely to be the invention of a Christian editor, intent on establishing the saintliness of his hero.

It is on the whole doubtful whether we are entitled to assume that the introduction of the custom of naming after the dead—even could we determine with any real accuracy the date of its entry into the North—was really the result of a new belief about the soul. On this point there is a brief but illuminating article by Flom, in Modern Language Notes (XXII, 1917, p. 7 f.), to which Keil does not refer. Flom confines himself to the genealogies of the Teutonic kings in the Migration period and earlier. He shows how the custom in choosing names seems to be to seek first for alliteration, then alliterative variation, and then gradually what he calls ‘pure variation’—the repetition of either the first theme of the father’s name (Heorogar-Heoromund), or the second (Genserich-Hunerich). When in the first part of the sixth century the practice of repeating either the primary theme of the name or the secondary one in alternative generations can be clearly discerned, then it is only to be expected that before long the two themes will be brought together, and repetition of the whole name in alternate generations result. This is in fact the case, and such a gradual development of the principle of repetition certainly does not support the idea that it was introduced among the Teutonic peoples as a direct result of new beliefs about the soul after death. Horn suggests that a belief in rebirth existed early, and attached itself to name-giving long before repetition came in; he reminds us, moreover, of a point that has been neglected in the various arguments about the repetition of names, that it might be thought that a part of the name was in itself sufficient to ensure the ‘return’ of the first owner; in view of this idea, which he illustrates from Jewish teaching, it is possible that variation may not be as distinct from repetition Storm thought.

This theory of the origin of the custom of repetition in name-giving in the North seems to be by far the most convincing which has yet been presented. It would seem, then, a mistake to insist that the practice in Scandinavia was consistently based on a belief in the birth of the souls of dead ancestors into the living world again, in the persons of their descendants. But the fact that the custom of naming almost exclusively after the dead is so widespread in Iceland from the time of the settlement onwards, and undoubtedly went on in Norway for a considerable time before this, is of importance in confirming the impression made by certain passages which were examined at the beginning of this Section, in which there is a very close connection between the dead and the newly-born. It is suggestive, also, to find that similar practices among the Lapps up to very recent times are undoubtedly connected with a belief in the rebirth of the dead within the family. Unwerth1 quotes from various authorities to the effect that they were accustomed, in the case of children seriously ill or unable to thrive, to name them afresh, because they believed that in such a case some dead ancestor must be angered because his name had not been given. It is interesting to compare with this the instance of the changing of the name of Snorri the Priest referred to above,2 although this stands alone, and can hardly be urged as a complete parallel without further knowledge of the circumstances.

Storm suggests that the practice of naming after the dead reached the Teutonic peoples from Gaul. Certainly the idea of rebirth was known in Celtic literature; Meyer3 has collected a large number of stories alluding to it from Welsh and Irish sources, and adds to these allusions from Latin writers to the belief in rebirth among the Celts.

In looking back over our evidence for rebirth in Norse literature, the chief points which seem to deserve emphasis are the connection with the burial mound and the importance of the name. In the previous chapter we saw how the practice of sitting on a mound seemed to owe something to the notion of inheritance, and it seemed possible that some kind of conception of rebirth is behind this. The evidence in this chapter helps to confirm this, when in several cases we find the burial mound playing an important part in the idea of the dead being reborn into the world. We remember that in one account of a sacred howe it was stated that silver was carried into it whenever a man died or a man was born.4 Such a conception as this which we have been studying presupposes that a part of man is immortal and survives the death of the body; and this idea is now found to be closely linked with the practice of inhumation. The emphasis on the name as confirming this link between living and dead has evidently some connection with the stories of shape-changing, when the calling of the name of the man lying in a trance could apparently summon back his spirit.

1 Unwerth, ‘Untcrsuchungen ü. Totenkult und Ódinnverehrug bei Nordgermanen und Lappen’ ( Weinhold, Germ. Abhand. 37, 1911), p. 37.
2 Sec p. 143 above.
3 K. Meyer, Voyage of Bran, n, pp. 1-92, 107—I 19.
4 See p. 104 above.

Haerfest Leah
March 18th, 2007, 11:35 PM

A survey of the eschatological side of Norse literature renders one thing at least clear—that the Norse mind, in the literature as we have it, does not readily turn to develop imaginative and spiritual conceptions of the life after death. Perhaps it is the reality of the present life, and its importance in the eyes of the creators of that literature which served to keep them from indulging in elaborate and enthusiastic speculation about the future one. The world of the gods is drawn for us here in clear, sure strokes, but of the place of man in that larger world very little has been said directly, and our evidence has had to be collected in fragments and scattered references here and there. Another reason however besides absorption in the present and in the world of action probably lies behind this, and that is the Norse passion for turning the abstract and the symbolic into the actual and the concrete. Symbolism in Norse hands is so well done that it ceases to be symbolism, and becomes a vivid and convincing picture which is sufficient in itself, and is accepted accordingly by the editors. So at least we may suspect, remembering the instance of the ravens of Othin; it is probable that there is much evidence of a similar sort which is hidden from us for want of the necessary information to reveal its meaning.

At the beginning of this study we saw that the practice of cremation, linked up as it seemed to be with the belief in another life after death, implies some kind of conception of an indestructible something which survives the destruction of the body. Of the nature of what is indestructible we are given no indication, yet the elaborate symbolic ceremony at a cremation recorded from the Volga in the tenth century seems to suggest that at that time the doctrine of the soul’s survival had been developed to a considerable extent. The other section of evidence which implies a definite conception of the soul as something separate from the body, without which life cannot exist, is that found in the conception of a certain type of shape-changing in which, while the body lies motionless, the consciousness can by au act of will be expelled from it to do the bidding of its owner elsewhere, sometimes traversing great distances, sometimes searching for information, sometimes battling with other disembodied spirits like itself. This is a conception which is capable of deep spiritual development and interpretation; how far it entered into Norse thought it is difficult to say, and it may, of course, have merely come into Scandinavia from outside, with its richer possibilities left unexplored. At least its presence in the literature precludes the notion that the idea of the spirit as distinct from the body never enters Norse thought. In view of some of the mantic conceptions which we find in the literature, I think it probable that these possibilities were explored to a considerable extent, but for this we must wait until a later chapter.

There is certainly a great reluctance in the literature we have been examining to disassociate the personality from the body. The conception of the ‘ghost’ in Norse literature is a good example of this. We have seen that in the cases where the dead return to visit—and usually to trouble—the living it is never the disembodied spirit but always the animated corpse which is described. The creatures who leave their grave-mounds and cause damage wherever they go, who can usually only be overcome by physical force, and who are brought to an end when the body is destroyed, are the direct ancestors of the vampire rather than the ghost of later belief. Yet they differ from the vampire in that they have not lost their former personality and become wholly and hideously inhuman. The characteristics of Þórólfr Bægifótr,1 of Hrappr, of Þorgunna, have not changed; they are only, as it were, intensified on the other side of the grave. Even personal relationships are unchanged; þórólfr is still forced to respect his son Arnkell, and will do no harm to those in his company or leave hi~ new grave on the headland as long as his son is alive. Here we certainly have the idea of the personality surviving death, but only, as far as we can tell, as long as the body itself survives. It is true that a different picture is given in the story of the foster-brothers in the Egils Saga oh Ásmundr.2 Here the dead man becomes as inhuman as the most bloodthirsty of vampires, and there is no remnant of his former affection for his foster-brother. In view of the marked lack of fear of the dead which we find as a whole however, it is unnecessary, I think, to attribute the continued personality of the dead to the interest in character shown throughout the Íslendinga Sögur, and to argue that here the Fornaldar Sögur have preserved the truer picture.

Also connected with the interment of the body in the earth we have another kind of survival, and here it is that of the soul rather than of the personality. The conception of rebirth combines, as it were, the idea of the indestructible soul and the close connection of this with the body after death. The soul can be freed from the body if summoned by the name—that ever-potent factor in tales of shape-changing—to enter the body of a new-born child, or, in some cases, of a grown man who has changed or added to his name. The well-established custom of naming after the dead, and the traditions connected with the custom of sitting on a burial mound, give some indication of the possible range and familiarity of this conception. The possibility that the continued animation of the restless draugr is caused because the soul cannot be freed until it is reborn into the world is one at least worth suggesting as a conception behind the numerous stories of the dead that must be quelled by the living, because it seems to be implied in the story of the birth of Olaf the Holy. Here the draugr in the grave of the first Olaf has to be overcome and beheaded and despoiled of its treasures before the spirit of the first Olaf can enter into the second, and Olaf the Holy be born; and it is the desire of the first Olaf, the dead man, that all this should take place. I think it is probable that in the draugar who figure so prominently in the literature we have another instance of an originally mystical conception which has become simplified and popularised by being interpreted in a concrete way, partly because of a real inability to comprehend the original, and partly because of the increased possibilities for story-telling in the popularised versions.

The idea of the survival of the souls of the dead in another world is one that is implied rather than directly described in our evidence, but the implications occur so persistently that the conception must originally have been one of considerable importance. The idea of such survival clings to the stories of cremation and suttee; it appears in particular to be connected with Othin, and is indicated in the perplexing development of the Valhöll conception as a realm of the gods which has survived in the literature. The idea of a journey to a land of the dead is probably of importance also for the doctrine of the disembodied soul, but this we shall have to examine further in the closing chapters. The life lived in the hills after death, as represented in the sagas, appears almost as concrete as the notion of the dead bodies walking out of their grave-mounds, and there is nothing to contradict the idea that it is the animated corpse which leaves the mound or emerges dripping wet from the sea that has destroyed it to enter the open hillside. However we have learnt to distrust the obvious and concrete picture of the future life which Norse literature appears on the surface to present, and the conception behind this belief is likely to prove more complicated and interesting on further investigation.

The idea has been put forward by Frazer and others that the conception of the disembodied soul first originated through dreams, when the image of a person, and in particular of someone who has died, seen in sleep can give rise to the idea that the soul can leave the body and continue to exist after death. Although dreams are very frequently introduced into Norse literature, however, the idea of the spirit of the dead appearing to the living in sleep is almost unknown there, and when it does occur it appears to be inseparably linked up with Christian ideas. The sagas indeed afford an interesting example of how a different interpretation can be put upon such dreams from that assumed by Frazer. On several occasions when characters in the sagas are visited in dreams by the dead, the saga-teller informs us that on waking they were able to catch sight of their visitors as they went away. In Þorsteins Saga Síðu-Hallssonar the hero is visited in this way by his dead mother. She gives him good advice, and as he awakes ‘he thought he caught a glimpse of her as she went away’ (V). Similarly in Þorskfirðinga Saga when Agnarr, the dead man from the howe, visits Þorir in a dream: ‘Ketilbjörn was awake and had heard all the talk, and saw too where Agnarr went’ (III). The dead poet who visits Hallbjörn and gives him the gift of skaldship in the Flateyjarbók (p. 108 above) is also seen by the shepherd as he wakes: ‘Then he vanished back into the howe, and it shut again; and Hallbjörn awoke and thought he caught a glimpse of his shoulders.’ These figures of the dead who enter the dreams of the living are, in fact, as substantial as it is possible to make them.

In reviewing our evidence then, we find that the idea of the disembodied soul is not foreign to Norse literature, but that there is a curious reluctance to state its existence directly, and it tends to be hidden behind other conceptions and is not consequently always easy to perceive. In order to discover more about the Norse view of the soul and its destiny after death, it seems that it will be necessary to leave the evidence relating to the future life amid the soul, which in itself is inconclusive, and to study the ideas about the relationship between the living and the dead which are discernible in the literature.

1 For saga references to these ghosts see p. 93 above.
2 See p. 55 above.