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View Full Version : Ch 4: THE CULT OF THE DEAD



Haerfest Leah
March 18th, 2007, 11:37 PM
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest.
T. S. ELIOT, East Coker.

The evidence in Norse literature for a cult of the dead is concerned with burial in the earth and not with cremation. It is important to notice, also, that most of it is drawn, not from the Íslendinga Sögur, but from the Fornaldar Sögur, the sagas of the kings in the Heimskringla, Fornmanna Sögur and Flateyjarbók, and the Edda poems. On the whole, these are the sources connected with Norway and Sweden rather than with Iceland, and it is of course on the mainland rather than in a relatively new colony that we should expect to find evidence for ancestor worship and a cult of the dead, though memories of such a cult might be carried by settlers into Iceland. For such a subject as this, we can hardly expect the evidence to be full, clear and conclusive. Between the practices inspired by a belief in the nearness and power of the dead and those of the Christian religion at the times when the sagas of the kings were being committed to writing by monks and scholars, there is the same gulf in time and culture as rendered the heathen conceptions of the future life so obscure in the literature; while this belief in particular is one with which Christian writers could have little sympathy. But such evidence as can be found is of importance for our study, since it serves to indicate the way in which the conception of life continuing in the grave-mound developed in Scandinavia in heathen times, and so adds to our knowledge of the Norse attitude to the future life and to the relationship between the living and time dead.

Haerfest Leah
March 18th, 2007, 11:38 PM
WORSHIP OF THE DEAD AND OF THE GRAVE-MOUND

Direct statements recording the worship of men after death are naturally not very plentiful. However they do exist. One version of Landnámabók1 tells us that sacrifices were made to a man called Grímr (grandfather of a certain Þórólfr Smjor and great-great-grandfather of one of the early Icelandic settlers) ‘on account of his popularity,2 and he was called Kamban’.
Professor Chadwick3 compares with this a statement made by Adam of Brermen about the Swedes, who, he says, make gods out of men and worship them (colunt et deos ex hominibus) ; it seems as though Adam must be thinking of the worship of men after death, since he instances the story of the deification of a king Ericus told in the Life of St Anskar. There are also mentions of family cults among the Prussians, which may be of the same kind as these Swedish ones; and it is indeed possible that some cult on the lines of those of the dead ancestors in the mountains is meant. However as it stands the brief comment from Landnámabók does little but arouse our curiosity. Then there is the well-known passage from the Hálfdanar Saga Svarta in Heimskringla (IX), telling of the burial of King Hálfdan:

His reign had been more fortunate in the seasons and crops than those of all other kings. So much trust was placed in him that, when they learned he was dead and his body carried to Hringaríki to be buried, there came influential men from Raumaríki and Vestfold and Heiðmörk, all begging to have the body and to bury it in their own district; for they thought it would ensure prosperous seasons if they could obtain it. So it was decided that they should divide the body between four places; the head was laid in a howe at Stein in Hringaríki, and each man bore home a part of the body and laid it in howe; these howes are called ‘the howes of Hálfdan’.

It is possible that this passage owes something to antiquarian speculation and the desire to find an explanation of the number of burial places bearing the name of one king; but in any case the direct con-

1 Hauksbók, chapter 19.
2 fyrir þockasæld. Vigfusson translates this by ‘popularity’, but sæll is the word commonly used of the early saints—’ blessed’—and seems to have the idea of beneficence, and even the power of giving good fortune; the quality is probably much the same as that ascribed to the body of King Hálfdan in the passage quoted below.
3 Chadwick, Origin of English Nation (Cambridge, 1907), p. 321.

nection made between the body of the dead man1 and the fertility of the earth is significant; so also is the additional remark found in the account in Flateyjarbók: ‘And many people sacrificed and believed in them until it was forbidden by his kinsmen’ (1, 456).

A more convincing piece of evidence for the worship of the dead however is found elsewhere in Flateyjarbók, in the story of Olaf Geirstaðaálfr.2 This Olaf, it may be noticed, is the brother of Hálfdan the Black. King Olaf has a dream which foretells a terrible plague, and his own death from it. He directs his people therefore to build a great howe on a headland, into which every important man shall carry half mark of silver. Into this howe, he tells them, he himself will be carried when he dies:

…And I give this warning to you all: there must be no following the example of those who sacrifice to dead men in whom they put their trust while they were alive, because I do not believe that the dead have any power to help.

He goes on to explain, rather ponderously, the results of such an evil practice; and here we evidently have the Christian compiler perplexed and worried by traces of inexplicable heathen thought, for he informs them that those who have been irreproachable characters in life turn into fiends, and in that shape can give help (!) or do harm. He then continues:

…I am much afraid that a famine will come in the land after we are laid in howe. And thereupon sacrifices will be made to us, and we shall be turned into trolls; and it will be through no fault of ours....

This fear of the king was justified, for when the next famine came ‘they resorted to the plan of sacrificing to King Olaf for plenty, and they called him Geirstaðaálfr’.

Seen through the somewhat unsympathetic eyes of a later writer though it is, this story does, I think, establish an active cult of the dead in Scandinavia beyond question. The very fact that as it stands it is so illogical and so obviously misunderstood makes it the convincing. ‘We shall return to this interesting character Olaf when discussing the question of elves and rebirth.

1 Cf. tradition about heroes among post-Homeric Greeks, who held that ‘possession of the corporeal remains of the hero secured the possession of the her, himself’, even if only ‘single parts of the body’. Rhode. Psyche (trans. Hillis. 1925), p. 115 f. and note on p. 144.
2 Flateyjarbók: Óláfs Saga Helga, II, 5, p. 6 f.

Two other allusions which seem to deserve mention here, but which have been discussed more fully elsewhere,1 are first, the statement in Hervarar Saga (I) that King Guðmundr was worshipped by men after death and called their god, and that in Bárðr Saga Snæfellsás (VI) to the effect that when Bárðr, who is represented at the opening of the saga as an ordinary settler in Iceland, disappeared, men believed that he had vanished into the mountains and accordingly ‘had him for their god to whom they made their vows’ (heitgúð). It will be remembered that the sagas and Landnámabók contain the tradition that the dead pass into the mountains. The stories of Guðmundr and Bárðr open up questions which are too complex to be discussed here; it only suffices to quote them as additional indication that the worship of men after death was a notion by no means unfamiliar to the Norse mind. Finally, it is interesting to note that in Saxo some kind of cult of the dead seems to be connected with Uppsala; since when the wife of a certain Halfdanus bore him no children he inquired of the oracle there, and was told that he ‘must make atonement to the shades of his brother if he would raise up children’.2 Here once more we see that birth is closely connected with the dead. This Hálfdan is the father of the famous Haraldr Hilditönn, the ardent worshipper of Othin who fell in battle before King Hringr, and Saxo attributes the fulfilment of the oracle’s promise to Othin.

In many cases worship is stated to be given not specifically to a dead man, as in the instances above, hut to a burial mound. It has been shown that the howe plays an important part in the worship of Hálfdan the Black and Olaf Geirstaðaálfr, so that Flateyjarbók indeed goes so far as to say ‘men sacrificed and believed in them’—that is in the howes of Hálfdan.3 Another story which shows the transition from the worship of a howe-dweller to that of the howe itself is that of Freyr. In Ynglinga Saga (X) we read that Freyr was buried secretly in a great howe, while the Swedes were told he lived; and they continued to pay tax money to him, pouring in gold, silver and copper through three openings in the howe. Flateyjarbók, as usual, gives us a more detailed account, in the Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar;4 Olaf tells the people of Þrandheinm, without unfortunately troubling

1 H. R. Ellis, ‘Fostering by Giants in Saga Literature’, Medium Ævum, June 1945, p. 701.
2 Saxo, VII, 247, p. 296.
3 See p. 100 above.
4 Flateyjarbók: Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar, 1, 322, p. 403.

to state his authority, that Freyr was a king in Sweden who was buried in a mighty howe, to whom, because no living man would consent to share his dwelling-place, two wooden men were given for his amusement. To comfort him further, the Swedes made a door and two windows in the howe, and poured in gold, silver and copper, and continued to do so for three years. After this they realised that he must be dead, but continued to sacrifice to him and called hums a god. It might be mentioned in passing that in Grímnismál (5) we have Freyr described as lord of Álfheim,1 while Saxo consistently connects his worship with Uppsala.2 It is interesting to note that the cult of the howe connected with Freyr, like the cult of cremation connected with Othin, is consistently placed in Sweden.

This is not the only case in which we find silver and treasure in general connected with a burial mound. In the Fornmanna Sögur we have an episode in the Saga Óláfs ens Helga (XXXVI)—omitted by Snorri, who disliked such fantastic tales in his histories—in which the practices of the people of Karlsám are described. In one version we read that Olaf and his men:

went up inland and carried away much treasure from a sacrificial mound (blóthaugr). There had been a had storm, and the turf had been stripped off time howe, leaving silver lying exposed; and they got a good deal of wealth from it.

In the other version 3 we are told in addition:

He commanded them to break into a sacrificial mound of these heathen folk; it is so called because whenever they made a great sacrifice for the season or for prosperity they had all to go to this howe and sacrifice… and they carried much treasure there and laid it in the howe before they went away.

The compiler connects this practice with the worship of a mermaid and a sacred boar, to whom he says the sacrifices were made. The basic idea behind such a custom is clearly however similar to that in the story of Freyr we have just quoted, and we can, I think, dismiss the mermaid as superfluous, although the fact that the boar is closely

1 Álfheim Frey gófu í árdága tívar at tannféi.
2 III, 74, p. 90.
3 Fornmanna Sögur: Óláfs Saga Helga, Appendix A, p. 164 (Copenhagen, 1825— 1837).

connected with Freyr1 should perhaps make us hesitate before we banish him and his sacred herd from the tale. The allusion to the ‘seasons and prosperity’ is interesting, because it echoes the phrase in the incidents of Hálfdan and of Freyr himself, who after death were associated with just these blessings.

The word ár, which I have translated ‘plenty’ or ‘season’ according to the context, is again connected with the worship of a howe in the Fornaldar Sögur, in Ketils Saga Hængs (V). Here we are introduced in a puzzling and rather irrelevant episode to a king called Framarr, who, we are told, ‘worshipped Ár-haugr; no snow ever settled on it’. His son Boðmóðr lived near the ‘howe of plenty’ and on the eve of Yule ‘Framarr and all the people of the land sacrificed to it for plenty’. Here we are also told that Framarr was a worshipper of Othin.

To return however to the silver which was offered to certain of these howes, to Freyr’s howe, that of Karlsám and that of Olaf Geirstaðaálfr, we find a further allusion to this practice in the Örvar-Odds Saga, where it is attributed to the Bjarmians, a curious race of which strange things are related. Oddr is told:

…A howe stands beside the river Vina. It is made of two things, silver and earth; a double handful of silver is carried into it for every man who goes out of the world, and likewise when he comes into the world; and the same amount of earth. You will have done something the Bjarmians will mind more than anything else if you go to the howe and carry away the treasure from inside it (IV).

This practice of the Bjarmians is borne out by the detailed account of the journey of Karli and Þórir Hundr to Bjarmaland, given in the Heimskringla, in the Saga Óláfs ens Helga (CXXXIII). Again the place mentioned is close to the river Vina. Þórir urges his companions to risk an expedition inland, for he says:

…It was the custom in that country when a rich man died that such of his possessions as were moveable should be divided between the rich man and his heirs; he should have a half or a third or rather less; this wealth should be taken out into the woods and sometimes put into howes and covered with earth; amid sometimes houses were built to hold it.

They attempt to carry off some of this wealth, and reach a high fence which surrounds a howe ‘in which’, explains Pórir, ‘gold and silver

1 For connection between Freyr and the boar, see Chadwick, Origin of English Nation, p. 249.

are mixed together’. They take much treasure from it, although this is found to be mixed with earth. The howe is evidently near the shrine of the god of the Bjarmians (Jómali), for some confusion is caused and the adventurers are nearly caught because Karli insists on stealing the god’s necklace. This rational and business-like tale of Snorri’s can hardly be interpreted otherwise than as evidence for a cult of the dead on a large scale continuing in Bjarmaland until a fairly late date, and continuing alongside worship of the gods, though of what god the Jómali1 in the story represents Snorri gives no indication here.

In the Prose Edda however there is a connection between the offerings made to a burial mound and a particular deity, though the passage where it occurs is vague and puzzling:

That king who is called Helgi, after whom Halogaland is named, was the father of Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr; they were both worshipped with sacrifice, and a mound was reared for Helgi, one layer being of gold and silver—that was the sacrificial wealth—and the other of earth and stones
(Skáldskaparmál, XLII).

Here then we have that most tantalising of goddesses, Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr, who received such devoted worship from Jarl Hákon, associated with the cult of the dead, and this is in accordance with the fact that she alludes to the draugr Sóti as her ‘brother’ in Hreiðarr Saga (VIII).

Haerfest Leah
March 18th, 2007, 11:39 PM
THE CUSTOM OF SITTING ON A HOWE

It is necessary at this point to consider the numerous allusions to the custom of sitting on a howe which we find in the sagas and poems, and which are perhaps more varied in their nature than Olrik admitted in his article ‘At sidde paa Hoj’ in the Danske Studier for the year 1909.

In this article he argues that all the examples except the story of Þorleifr Spaki in Hallfreðar Saga reveal the custom of sitting on a mound to be restricted to kings in their official capacity. He refuses to include allusions to shepherds who sit on a howe, since this, he argues, can be given a purely rational interpretation and the shepherd sits higher than his flock in order to watch over it. He suggests that this practice of the king is dependent on the conception of his person as sacred and something to be kept inaccessible, a belief derived from

1 Finnish word for ‘god’. A recent survey of information about the Bjarmians is The Terfuinas and Beormas of Ohthere, A. S. C. Ross(Leeds Monographs vii, 1940).

the priestly origin of the kingship in Scandinavia, and connected with the custom of prophesying from a high platform which we find in accounts of the völva (seeress). Without attempting to disprove Olrik’s main thesis—the peaceful and mantic origin of the kingship in early times—I would suggest that the fact that it was undoubtedly a burial mound on which the king chose to sit deserves greater emphasis. It will be worth while, I think, to examine the evidence for the custom in some detail.

Olrik in his article refers to the passage in Saxo where Hotherus is said to have made it his custom to give out decrees to the people from the top of a high hill;1 to the story of King Hrollaugr, who rolled himself down from the king’s seat on top of the mound as a symbol of his vassalage to Harald Hárfagr; 2 to the dog-king Eysteinn imposed on the Thronds, that ‘sat on a howe like a king’; 3 and to a fourteenth-century Icelandic tale, ‘The I)ream of Stjærne-Oddr’, in which a place is prepared on a howe for the king to sit on a stool. These, he points out, show that it is from a mound that the king displays his power. The description of Þrymr, king of the giants, sitting on a mound in Jotunheim,4 of King Rerir who receives Frigg’s apple while sitting on a howe,5 and time incident of King Gautrekr who dies his hawk from the mound of his queen in Gautreks Saga6 are also quoted; but the statement in the last passage that the king sat on the howe out of sorrow for his queen’s death is dismissed by him as an imaginary reason introduced to explain so widespread a custom.

This passage does not, however, stand alone; we may also notice that in Hjálmðérs Saga ok Ölvérs we are told that Hjálmðér’s father Yngi ‘had his throne placed on the howe of the queen; there he sat night and day enduring sorrow and grief for her loss’ (II). Again in Göngu-Hrólfs Saga, though there is no idea of excessive grief, we read:

. . .Jarl Þorgnýr had loved his queen dearly, and her howe was near the palace. The jarl often sat there in fine weather, or when he held conferences or had games played before him (V),

and further on in the saga the Jan is said to be watching sports one day in autumn from his queen’s howe (X). While it is fairly certain

1 Saxo, III, 76, p. 91.
2 Heimskringla: Haralds Saga Hárfagra, VIII.
3 Ibid. Hákons Saga Goða, xii.
4 Þrymskviða, 5.
5 Völsunga Saga, II.
6 Gautreks Saga, VIII.

that the idea of King Gautrekr’s and King Yngi’s grief is something supplied by the saga-teller to explain a prevalent custom—for indeed hunting and sports hardly accord with inconsolable sorrow—the tradition as we have it in the third extract that the Jarl or King made a practice of sitting on the burial mound of his queen, either in private or for public sports, deserves further consideration.

We may notice that it is not always the queen’s howe on which the king is said to sit, but that it may also be the howe of his father, the former king. In Friðþjófs Saga the hero finds the two brother kings, Helgi and Hálfdan, sitting on the mound of their father, King Beli (II). Even more significant are passages in which the practice is directly connected with succession. In Flateyjarbók we read of a boy of twelve, Björn, the son of a king Olaf, who was brought up by his father’s brother, Eric, after his father had been slain. Eric had no intention of letting his young nephew take over his father’s kingdom, and Björn makes his first protest in a peculiar way:

When Björn was twelve years old, he sat on the howe of his father and did not come to table with the king. Then for the first time he claimed the kingdom. This was repeated the following spring and the third.
(Flateyjarbók: Óláfs Saga Helga, II, 9, p. 70).

Another example of a dispossessed heir who considered he had full claim to half his father’s kingdom is found in the poem on Tue Battle of time Got/is and Huns1 from Hervarars Saga, when Gizurr, foster-father of Heiðrekr, remarks of the illegitimate son Hlöðr:

‘While the prince (Angantýr) divided the inheritance, the base-born son sat on the howe’ (v. 13).

In view of these passages, there may be special significance in two allusions which Olrik dismisses rather summarily. Is it accidental that the apple sent by Frigg, the eating of which by his queen brings them a child, drops into the king’s lap while he sits on a howe?2 And again, that it is while sitting on a howe that the young Helgi, for whom no name can be found, receives one at last?3 The importance attributed to the choosing of the right name is closely connected with rebirth, as we shall see later.

It is perhaps worth noticing that two pieces of evidence for a similar custom connected with inheritance outside Scandinavia are found in the Book of Llandaff:4 In two separate records of grants of

1 Kershaw, Anglo-Saxon and Norse Poems (Cambridge, 1922), p. 152.
2 Völsunga Saga, II.
3 See p. 140 below.
4 For these references I am indebted to Professor Chadwick.

land made over to the church by Welsh kings, it is there recorded that the king in question chose to make his gift while he either sat or lay upon a tomb, in one case that of his father and in the other his grandfather. King Gurcant did so sedens super sepulchrum patris sui et pro anima illius,1 and King Morcant similarly super sepulchrum Mourici regis jacentis coram idoneis testibus.2 This seems to indicate that the same custom lingered on in Wales into Christian times, and that here too the sitting on the tomb of the former ruler is closely connected with the possession of the kingdom, so that the ceremony has to be repeated if part of the land is given up. It will be remembered that the Norse king who gave up his realm to Harald Hárfagr sat on top of a mound and then ‘rolled himself down’ from it.3

But while the idea of succession is one that seems apparent in examining the evidence for this practice, the idea of inspiration which Olrik emphasises is certainly present too; only I would suggest, and intend to give more reasons for doing so in chapter VI, that here the connection with the dead is at least as important as the connection with a high place. Nor do I see any reason why the evidence restricts us entirely to kings, though the fact that the practice is so widely prevalent among them is undoubtedly of importance in considering the origin of the kingship. There is a story in Flateyjarbók from the Þáttr Þorleifs Jarlaskálds4 that is perhaps relevant here. A shepherd named Hallbjörn used to make it his habit to sit on the howe of the poet Þorleifr, and sometimes lie would sleep on it at night: ‘It often occurred to him that he would like to make a poem in praise of the howe-dweller, and recite it whenever he lay on the howe.’ But since he had no skill as a poet, he did not get very far with his attempts. One night, after an unavailing struggle at poetic composition, he fell asleep, and dreamed that the howe opened, and a man of great size stepped out and climbed up beside him. He thanked Hallbjörn for his efforts on his behalf, and told him that he should not find poetry hard to compose any longer: ‘Now I will recite a verse to you, and if you learn the verse by heart, and can say it when you wake, you will become a great poet.’ We are told that Hallbjörn woke up, and thought he caught sight of his visitor disappearing into the howe. He remembered the verse, and found no more difficulty

1 Liber Landavensis ( W. J. Rhys. Llandovery, 1840), p. 156.
2 Ibid. p. 41.
3 Heimskringla: Háralds Saga Hárfagra, VIII.
4 Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar, I, 174, p. 214.

in composing his poem, and subsequently, as Þorleifr had promised, he became a great poet. This story forms a striking contrast with Bede’s tale of Caedmon;1 now the gift of poetry, still thought of as something bestowed on the fortunate from outside, comes not from a dweller in heaven, but from a dweller in the earth. Viewed from this angle, it seems altogether natural that in Hallfreðar Saga (VI) we should find Þorleifr Spaki, renowned for his wisdom, sitting on a mound.

It is perhaps worth noticing at this point that several of the Irish stories contain allusions to sitting on an eminence of some kind, occasionally specified as a mound, as a means of entering into communication with the supernatural world. For instance, Muircertach is said to be sitting alone on his hunting mound when the supernatural woman Sin appears beside him.2 It is while he is on Mur Tea in Tara that Cormac is joined by a warrior from the Land of Promise,3 while his father Art is sitting on Ben Etair, bewailing his dead wife—here the likeness to the Norse accounts may be noticed—when a woman from the Land of Promise joins him;4 and all who journey to and fro from that land throughout the story, it may be noticed, begin by going to Ben Etair. It is on the hill of Usnech, also, that Art’s brother Connla is sitting with his father when a woman from the Land of the Living, who is said at the same time to dwell in a fairy mound, arrives to summon him to Mag Mell.5 From Wales, also, we have the tale of Pwyll Prince of Dyved, from the Mabinogion,6 in which there is mention of a mound on which whosoever sits must either receive blows or behold a wonder; and it is while sitting on this mound that the king perceives his future wife, Rhiannon. It seems likely that these allusions point to a Celtic variant of the Norse traditions we have been studying. An eighteenth-century antiquary, writing on ‘The Ancient Topography of Ireland’,7 also refers to ‘the cairns and tumuli’ where ‘those slept who consulted the manes of their ancestors who were supposed to inform them either by dreams

1 Historia Ecciesiastica Genus Anglorum (Plummer, Oxford, 2896), IV, 22, p. 259.
2 The Death of Muircertach Mac Erca, translated by T. P. Cross and C. H. Slover from the Otia Merseiana (Ancient Irish Tales, Chicago, 1935), p. 518.
3 Ibid. Cormac’s Adventures in the Land of Promise, p. 503.
4 Ibid. Adventures of Art Son of Court, p. 492.
5 Ibid Adventures of Connla the Fair, p 488.
6 Loth, Les Mabinogion (Paris, 1913), 1, pp. 92-97.
7 Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis, Vol. 3, XI: The Ancient Topography of Ireland, W. Beauford, p. 395.

or visions of circumstances relative to the future events of their life’, although unfortunately he does not say where he obtained this information.

The two allusions in Norse which I find most difficult to comprehend, and which are ignored by Olrik, come from the Edda. When Skírnir arrives at the palace of Gerðr,1 there is a ‘shepherd watchman’ sitting on a howe outside. The verse which he speaks is incomplete, but it is a threatening one, defying Skírnir to reach Gerðr through the wall of fire which protects her. He seems to be the ‘loathsome giant’ to whom Skírnir referred before he began his journey, with whom he was to compete in wisdom, and in that case we are faced with the question of the exact connection between him and the other sinister figure in Völuspá (41), again a ‘herdsman of the giantess’, who sits on a mound and strikes his harp, exulting in the ruin of the worlds of gods and men. These figures will be further discussed in the chapter on The Journey to the Land of the Dead, when it will be seen that there are a number of parallels to them elsewhere. Again, are we to attach any deep significance to Ketill’s action in sitting through a wintry storm on the sacred howe of King Framarr, and interpret it as an attempt to tap a rival source of power, or is it merely a typical gesture, like that made by the brothers in Vatnsdæla Saga (XXXIV), of a man who will not be kept back from a duel by such a trifle as bad weather? It is impossible to answer these questions without more information than we at present possess about the significance of this custom.

It is worth noticing, however, that there is archaeological corroboration for the practice of sitting on a howe. A number of Swedish howes of the Migration period are not rounded at the top but flattened to give them an appearance of platforms. This is true for instance of ‘Ingjald’s howe’ at Husby, and of the howes called after Ottar and Thor at Old Uppsala. The platform tops of the two first sloped slightly downwards, like a stage at a theatre. Lindqvist, who has commented on this feature in his article on Ynglingättens Gravskick,2 believes that in some cases stones were set on the tops of the howes, and suggests that these may have been used for seats; he also notes the fact that in many cases howes in Scandinavia and Scandinavian colonies were situated on the sites of the local assemblies or Things, and that flattened howes are among these, although they are not confined to Thing-places. It seems clear from the evidence that

1 Skírnismál, II.
2 Fornvännen, 1921, p. 92 f.

the flat tops of these howes were intended for some public ceremony; for when the howe was particularly high and steep, as in the case of ‘Frey’; howe’ at Old Uppsala, there was no flat place on top, but one at the foot of the howe of about the same size; and sometimes this is marked by a ship formed of stones.

This evidence, taken in conjunction with that given in the literature, is significant, for it shows us that the practice of sitting on a howe was almost certainly known in the Migration period in Sweden. .‘ Ingjald’s howe’ is thought to belong to the seventh century, and some of the other cases are probably of still earlier date. The exact nature of the ceremonies connected with these howes is unknown, although we have obtained certain indications from the literature; but it is clear in any case that the cult of the dead must have been of importance, and that the howe played its part in ceremonies in some cases held in the place of local assembly. It also seems that time practice is not, as might have been expected, confined necessarily to inhumation burials; in the cases mentioned at Old Uppsala amid Husby the howes held burnt remains. We do not know whether the custom originated with cremation or inhumation graves; certainly from the rich literary traditions it would seem that it was at one time familiar in Norway, and connected there with burial of the dead. The fact that ship-forms in stone are found associated with certain of these howes is extremely interesting, although its significance is not clear from the limited evidence we possess.

Haerfest Leah
March 18th, 2007, 11:40 PM
ELVES AND LAND-SPIRITS

It is increasingly apparent that it is impossible to consider this subject of the cult of the dead as an isolated one, so closely is it linked up with other Norse beliefs. It seems necessary, for instance, to touch the subject of elves, since without it the survey would be obviously incomplete; but we shall have to return to this in greater detail when discussing the evidence for a belief in rebirth.
In Scandinavian folklore, particularly Swedish, elves are connected with mounds. Such a belief is also found in the sagas, since iii one passage in Kormáks Saga (XXII) a witch, Þórdís, directs a man who desires to be healed from a serious wound to go to

a mound (hóll) not far from here, in which dwell elves; take the bull which Kormákr slew, amid redden the outside of the hill with bull’s blood, and make the elves a feast with the flesh; amid you will he healed.

The tempting assumption to be made from this is that the elves are the dwellers in the grave-mound; although hóll actually is an ambiguous word and may signify only a natural hillock. The argument for the grave-mound is strengthened by the story of Olaf Geirstaðaálfr, since we are told that it was only after the king was laid in howe and sacrifices were made to him for plenty that the name álfr was given to him. Unfortunately the rest of our evidence does not carry us any further.1 There is an allusion to álfa-blót in Heimskringla, when Sigvat the poet is refused admittance to a farm in Sweden because the farmer’s wife declares they are holding a sacrifice to the elves; and he comments on this in one of his verses.2 There is the association of Freyr with Álfheim in the Edda. In the Fornaldar Sögur (Hrólfs Saga Kraka, XLVIII) we find elves and norns mentioned together as the supporters of the witch Skuld against King Hrólfr ‘so that mortals could avail nothing against such a company’.

The chief difficulty with regard to the elves is to decide how accurately the term is used in these passages, in, for example, Hrólfs Saga Kraka, where Skuld herself is said to be the child of an elf-woman who visits King Helgi by night (XV). The use of the word in the Fornaldar Sögur is evidently different from that in the Edda poems, where continually the elves seem to be regarded as equivalent to the Æsir; in Lokasenna3 for instance, where the gods are represented as drinking together in the hail of Ægir, an appeal is made three times to ‘Æsir and elves who are here within’. In Skírnismál4 the messenger of Freyr is asked whether he is of the ~sir, the Vanir or the elves; and it would seem on the whole that the affinities of these mysterious creatures are with the gods of Ásgarðr rather than with giants or dwarfs, just as the Vanir, although clearly of different race, are represented as mingling freely with the gods.

As for the inhabitant of the grave-mound, the usual word for him is draugr—that is, the animated corpse which dwells within the howe, brooding over its treasures and occasionally leaving it to trouble the world of men; and there seems to be no example of such a creature

1 Mogk (Grundr. Germ. Philologie, Paul, III, II, p. 287) suggests that the passage about the holy mountain in Eyrbyggja Saga (IV), where we are told that no álfrekr (excrement) was allowed to defile it, is evidence for the dead dwelling within the mountain being equated with the elves. This however seems doubtful, and probably the use of that particular word is mere coincidence.
2 Sec p. 114 below.
3 Lokasenna, 2, 13, 30 cf. Grímnismál!, 4 Þrymskviða, 7, 8 ; Skírnismál, 7.
4 Skírnismál, 17, 18.

being described as an elf. On the other hand, it may be remembered that Olaf Geirstaðaálfr did not merely remain in his howe in this way; he is represented as being born again into the world of the living as Olaf the Holy, so that possibly we should seek the meaning of his name in the belief that he was reborn; in that case the connection of elves with mounds may depend on the connection of mounds—that is, howes—with rebirth; this is a subject to be discussed further in the following chapter.

The position is further complicated by the fact that in the Viking Age there was a district in Scandinavia called Álfheim. It lay in the extreme south-east of Norway, between the rivers Gota and Glommen, just below the Oslo Fjord, and now belongs mainly to Sweden. Snorri1 records the struggles of Hálfdan the Black and Harald Hárfagr with King Gandálfr of Álfheim and his sons, which did not end finally until Harald slew Gandálfr in battle. The account given by Snorri contains no allusions to supernatural powers of any kind possessed by Gandálfr and his men. By the time of the Fornaldar Sögur however Álfheim has become a country on the border-line of mythology, as when for example we are told in Þorsteins Saga Vikingssonar (I):

Álfr the Old.. . ruled over the kingdom which lies between two rivers; these took their names from him, and each was called elfr; the one called Gautelfr [i.e. the Gota] ran to the south, by the land of the king of the Gauta, and divided the land from Gautland; the other was called Raumaríki [i.e. the Glommen] and lay to the north, and was called after King Raum; the kingdom there was called Raumaríki. The land over which King Álfr ruled was called Álfheim, and the people who sprang from him were all of elfin race; they were fairer than all other peoples except the rísir.

In this passage the saga-teller is trying to fit together place-names and mythology; and a land called Álfheim lying between the rivers Gautelfr and Raumelfr was obviously just the place in which to put his elves. This however does not help us to discover any more about the nature of these puzzling beings, and only shows how easily misunderstandings and additional complications could spring up in the interpretation of old beliefs and traditions.

To return again to the vexed subject of elf-worship: the most valuable and definite evidence about the elves seems to be their association with Freyr. In the passage in Óláfs Saga Helga referred to

1 Heimskringla: Hálfdans Saga Svarta, 1, iv; Haralds Saga Hárfagra, I, II.

above we have evidence for their worship in Sweden during the early part of the eleventh century; Sigvat the Skald recorded his visit to a farm where álfa-blót was said to be in progress while on an errand for Olaf the Holy:

Go thou in no further,
Base wretch’, the lady said;
‘I fear the wrath of Othin,
For we are heathen people.’
That unattractive lady,
Who drove me from her dwelling,
Curtly, like a wolf, declared she
Held elf-sacrifice within.1

Is the connection between Othin and the elves here to be taken seriously? It may merely be used by the Christian poet as typical of the heathenism to which he was now opposed; it is also possible to interpret the phrase in such a way as to see worship of the elves (and Freyr) in opposition to that of Othin.

The connection with Freyr, however, suggested in Grímnismál might also help to explain the references to elves and howes. What we know of Freyr’s cult suggests associations with both fertility and the dead, and it is perhaps significant that the evidence for the meaning of the cup-markings on rocks, traditionally associated with elves in Sweden, points in the same directions. These marks are found together with the rock-engravings discussed earlier, and also on tombs from the time of the Stone Age to the Iron Age. In Sweden offerings have been made by pouring milk and other drink-offerings into them up to recent times. Are these originally intended for the dead, or for the earth? The question has been discussed by Hammerstedt, and later by Almgren.2 The former believes that when the markings are away from graves the offerings must be intended for the earth, and Almgren, after an extensive review of the evidence, also decides in favour of a fertility cult rather than a cult of the dead. He is influenced by the fact that recent researches on

1 Ibid. Óláfs Saga Helga, XCI:
Gakkat inn, kvað ekkja, rýgr kvazk inni eiga
armi drengr, in lengra; óþekk, sús mér hmekði,
hræðumk ek við Oðins álfa-blót, sem ulfi
(crum heiðnir vér) reiði; ótvín ór bœ sínum.
(Ed. F. Jónsson, Heimskringla, Copenhagen, 1911, p. 254.)
2 Almgren, Nordische Felszeichnungens als religiöse Urkunaden, p. 237 t.

similar markings in Palestine seem to establish clearly that they were originally associated with the earth, though afterwards extended to include the dead within the earth, and also that the cup-markings have a resemblance to certain Indian cult-symbols representing generation and fertility. He suggests that while such markings— found in Sweden in close connection with the sun-wheel—were in early times associated with the worship of the sun and the cult of fertility in nature, they were afterwards introduced into the grave and perhaps signify the rebirth of the dead.

It is interesting to find that Almgren, working quite independently on cup-markings in the Bronze Age and later, comes to conclusions very similar to those suggested by literary evidence about the cult of Freyr, with whom the elves are associated. Both Freyr and the elves are also connected with the sun, it may be noticed; Freyr is said in Gylfaginning (XXIV) to control ‘rain, sunshine and the fruitfulness of the earth’, while the sun is several times called álfröðlull, ‘glory of the elves’,1 and in Alvíssmál (16) they are said to name it fagrahvél, ‘fair wheel’. This last is particularly interesting in view of the connection between the cup-marking and the sun-wheel mentioned by Almgren. If Almgren is right, the association of the elves with fertility is the essential one, and it is through their relation with fertility cults that they have allied themselves with the dead; this alliance, however, clearly goes back very far in time, and by the period with which we are chiefly concerned, that of heathenism a mere century or two before the coming of Christianity, it must have been an accomplished fact. The suggestion made much earlier in this chapter, that it is rebirth out of the grave rather than existence within the grave on which the emphasis should be placed, is if anything strengthened by the work of scholars like Almgren, working on signs of religion in Scandinavia much earlier than this; but as yet the evidence is insufficient to declare on this with certainty.

There is, I think, no doubt that the conception of elves in the literature has been influenced by ideas about another class of supernatural beings, which I group under the general heading of ‘land-spirits’. Various attempts have been made by earlier scholars to convert these creatures into ‘ancestral spirits’, but this tendency has lately fallen into disrepute, and, as we shall see, the literature does not really provide very much ground for doing so. One of the most vivid accounts of a solitary spirit of this kind comes from the story of

1 E.g. Vafþrúðnismál, 47; Skírnismál, 4.

Þorvaldr enn Víðförli.1 Þorvaldr’s father is unable to accept the Christian bishop’s teaching, good though his credentials are, because, he says, he has a spámaðr of his own already. (The word is used for someone with powers of second sight.) Kóðran says:

. . . He tells me many things beforehand that are to happen in the future; he guards my cattle, and gives me warning of what I must do and what I ought to beware of; and so I have much faith in him, and I have worshipped him for a long time. But you he mistrusts greatly, and also your spámaðr…‘Where does he live?’ asked Þorvaldr [who had been brought tip away from home]. ‘He dwells here,’ replied Kóðran, ‘not far from my house, in a big and splendid stone.’ Þorvaldr asked how long he had dwelt there. Kóðran said for a long time.

Þorvaldr and the bishop, of course, disapprove of this; and holy water is dropped on the stone, with lamentable results to the spámaðr. He appears to Kóðran in a dream, in accordance apparently with his usual custom, but now, ‘shivering as if in terror’, he reproaches him bitterly:

You have done ill in bringing these men here, who plot against you in that they seek to drive me away from my dwelling—for they have poured boiling water over my house, and my children suffer no little pain from the burning drops that run in through the roof; and though this does not hurt me much, it is hard indeed to hear the wail of little children, as they cry out from the burning.

Þorvaldr and the bishop, however, continue their campaign, and next night the spámaðr appears a second time; he is now in a miserable cloak of skin, and again protests against the treatment he is receiving. The third night the spirit—rather unfairly described as ‘malicious’— appears for the last time. The bishop, he says, has ‘spoilt his home, poured boiling water over him, soaked his clothes and torn them and made them useless’, so that he and his children are forced to leave.

This story gives us no grounds for classifying the spámaðr as an ancestor spirit, it is of course possible that this was the origin of such a conception, but we should need more evidence before we could conclude as much. The story must be taken together with certain others. in the Flateyjarbók,2 for instance, we get a rather similar picture of the spirits fleeing before the approach of Christianity,

1 Þáttr Þorvalds ens Víðförla (Altnordische Saga—Bibliotek, XI), chapter 2, p. 65 cf Kristnisagta, II.
2 Flateyjarbók: Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar, I, 335, p. 421 f.

when Þorhallr, a man of second sight, sees many hills opening and every living creature getting his baggage ready, both great and small, and making it a day for moving. Reading the story in the light of the one immediately before it, that of the slaying of Þiðrendi the impression given is that the protective spirits of the new faith have come in advance of it, even though it has not yet been preached, and that before their superior might the spirits of the old religion are forced to flee—strikingly like Milton’s vision in the Nativity Ode. It is with such protective spirits that we must rank the land-spirits, who haunt mountain, river, tree and valley. There is a tale in the Óláfs Saga Helga1 of one such spirit haunting a mountain pasture high up above the scree on a hillside, and far from any human habitation. The expulsion of this creature bears a close resemblance to that of the spámaðr from his stone:

At mid-night… there was a hideous cry outside the milking-pen, and a voice spoke: ‘The prayers of King Olaf so burn me’, said the creature, ‘that no longer can I abide in my home, and now I must flee.’

It will be remembered that Landnámabók 2 records the statement at the beginning of the heathen laws that men must not sail to land with grinning and gaping figureheads on their ships, but must remove them while some distance from Iceland, so that the land-spirits may not be frightened by them. The idea of the land-spirits as protective beings, whose friendship is a valuable one, is brought out again by the little incident in Landnámabók, of the lucky man called Björn who was assisted by the land-spirits so that his herds increased and he prospered greatly:

. . .Men with the gift of second-sight watched all the land-spirits following Hafr-Björn to the Þing, and Þorsteinn and Þórðr (his brothers) hunting and fishing (IV, 12, p. 194).

The best revenge Egill can take on King Eric and Queen Guunhildr is to set up a horse’s head on a pole, so “...at the spirits of the land, he says, may be driven astray, and will in turn drive the king and queen out of the country.3 Finally we have the story in Heimskringla4 of how King Harald Gormson of Denmark, after a quarrel with the men of Iceland, sends a man to their country in the shape of a whale to act as a spy for him. The whale swims round the south-west corner of

1 Heimskringla: Óláfs Saga Helga, CLXXIX.
2 Lndn. IV, 7’ p. 183.
3 Egils Saga, LVII.
4 Heimskringla: Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar, XXXIII.

Iceland and up the north coast: ‘He saw that all the mountains and hillocks (hólar) were full of land-spirits, some great and some small.’ These spirits come down to the shore and bar his way whenever he tries to come inland up one of the fjords, taking sometimes the form of serpents, sometimes of adders or toads; once a bull and once a bird intercepts him, and finally he is encountered by an enormous cliff-giant, at which his nerve fails him and he returns to Harald.

One would hardly expect Iceland, a colony founded only a short time before, to be equipped with ancestor spirits in as extensive a number as is indicated by this story. In the same way one might instance the story of one of the early settlers in Iceland, who, according to Landnámabók,1 began practically as soon as he arrived to sacrifice to a waterfall. On the other hand one cannot demand too much logic from traditions of beliefs preserved so long after Christianity had entered the North. The points that stand out from the references to land-spirits which we possess in the literature are, first, their close identification with the world of nature; secondly, their association with particular localities, and, to a lesser degree, with certain people living in these localities; and thirdly, the marked hostility between them and the preachers of Christianity. The idea of fertility is obviously of importance throughout, for since they are linked to the earth, its fruitfulness must be to a large extent attributed to them, and the passage in Landnámabók where the friendship of the land-spirits results in good luck in hunting and fishing and rearing animals for the family which they take under their protection is significant. If they are associated with the dead in the earth, it is likely to be through this idea of fertility, which, as we have seen, was connected also with the dead in the grave; this also must prove the link between them and the elves. In Ynglinga Saga (VII) the spirits in mountains and stones are placed alongside those within the howe, and Othin is said to have power over all alike. But the link between the spirits of the earth which help to render it fruitful and the spirits of the dead must, as we have seen, go back very far in time, so that we can hardly expect that in the late heathen period it will remain clear-cut and distinct in the minds of the saga-tellers. These land-spirits, it may be noticed, seem to belong to the world of popular belief rather than to the world of imaginative mythology. They are not mentioned in the Edda or discussed by Snorri, and have, as far as we can tell, no entry into the world of the gods. In this they are distinct

1 Lndn. v, j, p. 207.

from the dyes; probably later conceptions of these, and the position they occupy in folklore, are largely due to confusion with land spirits. The enmity expressed on the part of the Church is probably due to the fact that these popular beliefs about spirits controlling the fertility of the soil and the health of human beings proved harder to eradicate than all the mythological concepts of the heathen gods; we find the same story in converted Anglo-Saxon England, in the threatening list of penalties for those who ‘bring gifts to any spring or stone or tree’ or ‘worship springs or stones or wooden trees of any kind’, which it was thought necessary to repeat in the Penitentials and Laws up to the time of Cnut.1

Haerfest Leah
March 18th, 2007, 11:41 PM
CONCLUSION

The evidence for a cult of the dead in Norse literature, although at first sight scanty, proves on closer examination to be rich in suggestion and not inconsistent. Even though we are dealing only with memories, misunderstood by later compilers of the sagas as we have them, enough remains to demand our attention. It is clear that the cult of the dead was no mere vague sense of their influence over fertility in the natural world; in the evidence for sitting on the howe, for worship of the howe in Bjarmaland, and in traditions connected with certain of the early kings of Scandinavia, we find signs of a definite cult, and of organised rites associated with the worship of the dead in the earth.

The practice of sitting on the howe seems, as far as one can tell from the sketchy nature of the information and from the corroborating evidence of archaeology, to go back into the Migration period, hut to continue into the Viking Age; and it has left unmistakable marks on the literature. The indications are that the significance of this custom was bound up partly with ideas about mantic inspiration from the dead, and partly with ideas about rebirth. We have not yet followed tip these lines of thought in detail, but they should become clearer as we proceed. It would seem from the marked interest shown in the howe-worship of Bjarmaland as though the cult continued there late in the heathen period, after Christian kings ruled in Norway.

We can see that there are deities concerned with this cult, but it is difficult to determine their exact relationship with it. It would be enlightening to discover the identity of the god of the Bjarmians, whose image, wearing the great necklace, stood near to the sacred howe. In Sweden we have seen reason to believe that Freyr, with whom the elves are associated, was of great importance, owing to the connection with howes, and with fertility in the natural and the human world; one is even tempted to suggest that the Vanir as a whole may have had specially strong links with this cult, which carries the conception of fertility in nature into the world of the dead also. Were indeed the elves themselves originally the Vanir, although later they forsook their high calling and became little creatures of the earth, akin to the land-spirits of popular belief? But a great deal more evidence is necessary before such a suggestion can be accepted seriously.

Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr, the strange goddess worshipped by Jan Hákon in the north of Norway, is also likely to be of importance because of her close association with howes; but of her we know sufficient only to perplex us. Lastly Othin must not be forgotten, since not only is he connected with cremation of the dead, but also in several passages with the dead in the earth. But it is clearly necessary to examine the evidence for the belief in rebirth before attempting any further conclusions.

1 E.g. 13. Thorpe, ‘Ancient Laws and Institutes of England’, Poenitentiale Egberti, Arch. Ebor. II, 22, p. 371; Liebermann, ‘Die Gesetze der Anglsachsen’, I, Cnut, II, 5, p. 312.