7/15/2013

2.2 The Heathen view of 'Soul'

Early attempts to convert heathens seem to have initially 'sparked the Viking Age.' These pre-Viking Age communities demonstrated a mind set or a world- view which seems at times to have stood in direct contrast to Christianity and at other times was simply different. In the present day, the common heathen mindset regarding the ownership of 'soul' is simply 'different' than what Christians are teaching as doctrine at the beginning of the third millennium of the common era.

Rudolf Simek and others have pointed out that much of modern heathenry has utilized the Elder Edda for its most basic foundation. Furthermore, this set of poems dating mainly from after the time of Conversion has been used as the standard for interpreting material from the the corpus of sagas as well as archeological evidence. The problem with this approach lies in the fact that the eddaic poetry was composed more as political commentary than poetry to preserve history helping to spread Christianity while at the same time serving to undermine the strength of heathenry through poetic rhetoric. For example, the Völuspá, a poem which outlines Norse cosmology from the creation of Middle-Earth through the end-times is comprised of approximately 65 stanzas. Most researchers agree that in all probability the first 27 stanzas represent heathen thought prior to the Conversion. At stanza 28, however, the seeress begins to provide the listener, in this case, Óðínn, with her views for the future which she received while "sitting out." What follows is a monologue which combines obvious Christian references with classical poetic images with the end result being the almost total annihilation of the northern Germanic pantheon along with their creations. Those who survive are stripped of power and are placed in a position of subordination to the "great godhead" who will sit in Judgment, settle all strife and rule over the unified world always. The classical poetic and the Christian overtones cannot be overlooked for it is these which provide the modern researcher insight into the composer's actual intent. The dating of the poem coincides with a period of time when political pressure to convert to Christianity was coming out of Norway to the point where Icelanders were blocked from entering seaports unless baptised. Politically, the move was towards Christianity and the Völuspá reflects this. Much of modern heathenry, then, is based Viking Age Christian religio-political propaganda. Few modern heathen groups have made any attempt to place the poetry into historical perspective, and, as a consequence, the soul-lore of modern heathenry has been based largely on how Christians at the time of the Conversion saw heathens and their worldview rather than on historical evidence.

Early Christian doctrine taught that everything including the human soul emminated from God and that true salvation was to be achieved through 1) conscious acknowledgement of the fact that God owned the soul by promising to give the soul back to God through a series of Sacraments, and 2) acting in a manner which indicated that God was the Supreme owner by imitating the selfless acts first demonstrated by the son of God, Jesus, who came to earth to teach man how to behave appropriately according to this doctrine. It was very improbable that such a doctrine made any kind of sense to the average heathen of the time, though.

"Detailed investigations since the beginning of the 20th century have led to the insight that it is extremely unlikely, at least for the late heathen period, that the north Germanic peoples had a dualistic belief, i.e. a distinct division between the decomposing body of the dead person and the further existence of his soul.    The extant sources suggest that the concept rather was that of the 'living corpse' which lived on the gravemound. Although the saga literature (written 200-500 years after Christianization) is otherwise extremely unreliable for heathen beliefs, these sources do show unanimity, par-ticularly with regard to these concepts, so widely divergent from Christian thought. Admittedly, they may be strongly influenced by the folklore of Medieval Iceland. Nevertheless, we may assume that the concept does indeed reflect heathen beliefs."

The heathen first hearing about the doctrine of dualism must have thought the Christian leaders/ teachers to be very confused perhaps even mad. For the heathen, as evidenced in both literature and burial practice as well as philology, the soul was the animating force of the body and could not therefore be separated from the body. The dead were interred in almost all cases, usually with grave goods. Although cremation was a fairly common practice off and on (its practice seems to have varied according to the dominant local cult), the bones and ashes were still buried in the earth, preferably the family gravemound. The origins of cremation among the northern Germanic peoples are a mystery and theories as to origin of the practice are many and all are purely speculative. In the later Viking Age, burning was a common heathen method for immobilizing a revenant, i.e. a dead man whose 'soul' was still powerful enough that the dead man was leaving the grave, usually at night, and was molesting the community. Cremation, then could have been viewed as a preventative measure-the soul remained with the immobile bones and ashes. Cremation was also very common among warriors and their cult practices and may have been initially viewed as an effcient way to compress a corpse so that it could be easily transported to the familial gravemound. In any case, every attempt was made to inter the body/ soul in the family grave.

Souls roaming without their bodies was a common concept was not unknown. The phenomenon shows up in dreams during sleep, and in the practice of seið as described in the Ynglinga Saga.

"Óthin could shift his appearance. When he did so, his body would lie there as if he were asleep or dead; but he, himself, in an instant, in the shape of a bird or animal, a fish or a serpent, went to distant countries on his or other men's errands."

The above would seem to contradict the results reported by Simek; however, since the soul is never truly separated from the body of Óthin, it does not represent a contradiction but rather confirms the apparent heathen idea that a soul's true home is the body of the individual. In fact, there numerous instances of apparitions (usually in animal form, but sometimes human especially in later folklore) which are never really separated from the bodies of either the living or the dead. Although these tales represent quaint distractions from the idea that the soul was intimately and inextricably connected to the body, a belief in the concept of dualism as taught during this modern era is not necessary to explain them, nor does there appear to be any inconsistency with Simek, Schreuer, Neckel, and Klare's findings.

Although such soul concepts may seem rather strange to the average Westerner in the year 2005, the fact is that a body/ soul complex is very common in the world where indigenous peoples retain their aboriginal worldviews. The concept of non-dualism ('the body is the soul') is very tenacious and does not seem to have disappeared easily on the one hand, and, on the other, where Christianity has moved into an area dominated by an indigenous worldview resulting in a syncretistic belief system such as among South and North American or African tribes, the non-dualistic concept, i.e. that of the soul inextricably bound to the corpse, seems to have continued on rather comfortably, side-by-side with the afterlife concepts of the new religion. This also appears to have been the case in northern Europe continuing on even into the German/ Scandinavian settled areas of the rural USA until well into this past century.

Research has provided us with fairly concrete evidence that the the Germanic heathen of the Viking Age did not hold to a belief in dualism, a concept which filtered into the north rather slowly and which has taken almost an entire millennium to take hold especially in the rural areas. To be able to discuss the Germanic heathen's concepts of life after death, the meaning of death, and exactly how the Germanic heathen saw the interplay between life and death fitting into their overall view of the universe, it is advantageous to drop the concept of dualism. Using the foreign concept to explain life after death is, in essence, using Christianity or New Age spiritual philosophy as the standard for explanation. In other words, explaining how heathenry appears through the eyes of the Christian. Such has already been done since the time of the saga writers and offers the modern reconstructionist absolutely no insight to the Germanic heathen's worldview.

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