7/16/2013

2.4 The Heathen Concept Death into the Gravemound

While Simek in Religion und Mythologie der Germanen lists only four after death destinations
  1. the gravemound, 
  2. Hel, 
  3. Valhalla, and 
  4. with Rán,

Eric Christiansen in his The Norsemen in the Viking Age lists 'seven lives beyond death, or at least byond the tomb:
  1. living with with the Gods, 
  2. Valhalla, 
  3. Hel, 
  4. under the sea,
  5. an earthly land of the dead, 
  6. with the poor, over the stream, and 
  7. reincarnation.
Neither historian seems convinced, however, that anything but the gravemound has any real practical application in heathenry from the Bronze up to well into the Viking Age and there is suggestion that among early Christians, the gravemound was considered to be the resting place of the soul/ corpse combination, there to lie in state until after the final battle of John's Revelations, when Jehovah would allow the souls to be released into heaven. Bo Gräsland suggests that during the first millennium there existed only two primary beliefs: that in the soul being bound to the corpse in the grave, and that which was influenced by Christianity, Islam, but also the shamanistic beliefs of the Finns-Balts-Sami. The former seems to have been held by the northern Germanic heathen until the the late Viking Age in the Scandinavian north. It should be noted the Finno- Baltic border-zones of Scandinavia were also highly affected by the shamanistic practices of their neighbors. The large amount of variation in funerary practice in conjuction with the shifts in the practice over time would certainly suggest the the northern Germanic heathen was open to variations regarding getting the corpse safely into the ground but beyond that there is little indication that their Afterlife concepts were also so affected. There is a fair degree of consistency from the time of the Bronze Age up to the point of Conversion in terms of how the grave was outfitted for the dead. Among those harboring a shamanistic worldview, where the soul was either free to wander the wilderness or was transferred to a point near home as a type of guardian, the body was left to be disposed of out in nature and grave goods found in these graves is very sparse. Christiansen lines the diversity issue out:

"After death lay another future to provide for. Some spent their all on it; according to Wulfstan, in the OE Orosius, there were Balts among whom the dead man's possesions went entirely on drinking and games at the wake over a month or two; any left over were divided into prizes to be won by strangers in a horse race and the clothes and the weapons were created with the body, which had been 'ripening' meanwhile. This was not the way among the Norse, where sometimes rich deposits of worldly wealth were included both with the buried and the the burnt over this whole period, in patterns which vary greatly between graves, dates and districts. The rites of burial within Scandinavia were not recorded by Wulfstan or anyone else, and can only be reconstructed in part by archaeologists; but if their remains reflect concepts of death and life after death, it seems that there are many different opinions on the subject. This diversity appears in the later written sources, and inspired a memorable book by Hilda Ellis Davidson nearly sixty years ago; since The Road to Hel was 'A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse literature' there is no need to go into those sources here. Archaeology has confirmed the impression that rites varies, but their meaning in terms of life after death need not have reflected the variations closely; some may have been seen as better ways of getting to the same goal as the others."
 
Rudolph Simek goes a little bit further in trying to define the actual process of moving from heathen concepts to what he calls the the 'religion of the late Viking Age.'

"The oldest conception of the Land of the Dead was most certainly the extension and continuation of in the grave, in particular, within the gravemound itself, and the representation as described above [in the text] is above all closely related to the legends of the dead kings under the mountain who lie in wait for their reawakening. In medieval Icelandic literature, scenes are depicted where the dead are feasting together in their gravemounds (Gisla saga 11, Eyrbyggia saga 11, Njáls saga 14). Whether the the tales of giants living and feasting within the mountain also belongs to this rather common folk-motif has been debated in which the diverse set of mountain and hill dwellers of the low mythology (elves, guardian spirits, and dwarves in all their various forms and from all spiritual worldviews relates back to this veneration of ancestors. Here also belongs the isolated incidences of offerings laid out for the dead. True that Þorvalds Þáttr víðförla is a relatively young text, but it shows well in which manner the relationship between the living and the dead could be perceived even well into Iceland's medieval period."
 
Simek goes on to describe that which can be found sprinkled throughout Snorri's Heimskringla as well, i.e. how people reach an agreement with the buried dead that in exchange for offerings the dead in turn lend their luck and care to the farms of those leaving the offerings. The manner is very different than the typical approach of the Christian to their God in that this heathen form of spirituality differed very little from any other kind of business deal.

The underlying logic of such offerings described in Simek, Grönbech, and Pentikäinen is relatively simple:
 
Like any other business deal between families or between family members, the head of the household wishing to make the deal appraoches the gravemound offers the deal and defines the conditions. Depending upon the conditions of the deal, either the 'payment,' i.e. the offering, or the 'job results' could come first. So long as each party holds up its end of the bargain, the deal is maintained.
In the case of the dead being a non-family member (such as a king, jarl, or dead neighbor), the deal remains conditional and may be broken off by either party; the case of the dead being a family member is somewhat more complex because the frith of the family must be maintained.
There is literary evidence that social protocol does not change while addressing the dead since the social rank at the time of death also has not declined.
 
Spirituality for the heathen was inextricable from the overall worldview, and as a consequence we have no evidence that 'any ceremony' in the sense of a Catholic Mass was performed while making the offerings, but significant evidence exists that social formalities regarding the ranks of the parties involved in the deal were strictly observed.
 
Such private offerings to ancestors and venerated leaders are well documented from the earliest descriptions of the Germanic heathen of all branches until well into the medieval period. The practice seems to have disappeared from the lives of those living in cities during the medieval period much more quickly that from those living in the more rural areas. This is understandable, however, when one considers that cities tend to foster a homogenized, mixed culture whereas the rural areas tend to remain conservatively monocultured.
 
This section starts out, though, discussing various realms of the dead and they must not be neglected for they make up much of what is commonly accepted by the general population regarding the Viking Age. Most children in the USA above the age of 10 yrs. have at least been exposed to the idea that 'heaven for the Norse viking' was Valhalla. On the other hand, few adults in spite of their educational level realize what the process of conversion entails in spite of the fact that most of the American Indian tribes between the Mississippi River and the western slopes of of the North American Rockies are still undergoing conversion as well as the indigenous cultures of Canada, Central and South Americas. Additionally, most white middle and upper class adults of the USA have a very poor understanding of worldview and the persistance of one's native worldview even after being exposed to various other cultures/ worldviews.

Depending on the group being asked, some will say that the Conversion was quick and brutal ("In 999 CE, Iceland was heathen, and in 1000 CE, it was Christian" or "St. Óláf baptized over 5000 people in the river on one day before killing many of them at spear point!") or that it was fairly quick but pockets of pagans held on to the 'Old Religion' practicing in secret hidden from the prying eyes of the Inquisition and the civil courts. From what is known of the the Conversion in the north the process was very slow, lasting well over 700 yrs. There was some brutality, of course, particularly with the Conversion of Norway, but for the most part religious conversion really represented changes in how regions were politically managed, i.e. new laws which reflected the Christian worldview were passed, and how one perceived the worldview, i.e. birth/ death, the meaning and purpose of life, the definition of society and social relationship etc. Most of the actual Conversion was slow, and for the most part, peaceful.
 
The process of conversion from one worldview to another in the case of northern Europe lasted over 35 generations and involved removing bits of the old heathen worldview by replacing it with another similar function or event. This process creates what is known as a syncretism, a hybrid religion combining seamlessly the old and the new. We know this to be part of the overall process because there are, in fact, many syncretisms alive and well within the borders of the USA. These would include Voudoun, Santería, Condomblé, Lacumba, the Native American Church, Rastifarianism many of the indigenous religions of the American Indian Reservations and Pueblos. There are literally hundreds of syncretisms all around the world some of them combining Christianity with the indigenous, some with Islam and the indigenous and others with Buddhism and the indigenous. For most of the 700 years of conversion in northern Europe, the indigenous Germanic religion existed as a syncretism, and this includes the period of time when the oldest skaldic and eddaic were recorded. The apparent 'Christian flavor' in many of the poems and sagas are really a by-product of syncretism. Simek presents this information in his Religion und Mythologie der Germanen:
 
"In general it is apparent that in the late heathen period there was no single concept of life after death. The diversely defined Realms of the Dead are the product of a culture which was attempting to integrate very different and independent concepts [of an Afterlife] from a variety of sources in a type of syncretismin which not only Christian but also perhaps Baltic, Slavic, and Celtic elements all flowed together. Because of existential area of human persuit, in the long run, it may have been possible for Christianity to offer a much clearer, integrated and more hopeful answer to the heathens of the northern countries.
 
In spite of all the variations in Afterlife concepts, there is a common thread which appears to run from the earliest events which can be classified as belonging to a distinct Germanic culture through the 20th century at least in many rural areas of continental Europe on through to the Americas which is that the dead were viewed by Germanic heathens and Christians alike to live in the grave. The heathen draugr of the medieval Norse sagaic literature changes very little over centuries of folk-tales and, perhaps by coincidence, dovetails nicely with the Christian idea that the soul remains with the body until Armageddon when it will be raised up to the Christian Heaven to be judged by Jehovah and his son, Jesus. It was ideas such as this concept of the Afterlife which most likely served as a bridge over the gap between heathenry and the new religion of Christianity which allowed for the development of dual-religionism, or syncretism. Of all the elements of heathenry which survived the Conversion of northern Europe, death into the gravemound seems to have been most tenacious, and because it was acceptable to many Christians of the period, it was completely impossible to eradicate.

On the other hand, it is the concept which resembles our modern concepts of an Afterlife in the least. Even Christians of teh late Viking Age and early medieval period who were able at least to comprehend death into the gravemound envisioned 'something beyond the grave,' a placement resulting from some judgment of one's deeds which would subsequently result in some kind of residence for the rest of eternity. This need, then, was most likely provided by Christians themselves. Archaeological finds provide no indication whatsoever that heathens prepared the body for anything but life in the gravemound or perhaps a more communal version such as is described as Hel or Helheim. Heathens feeling the need, then, provided themselves with several other Afterlife concepts which begin to appear in the last 100 years before the Conversion to Christianity.

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