7/17/2013

2.5 Other Heathen Afterlife Concepts

As much as it is clear that death into the gravemound is a common link from far back at early stages still identifiable as Germanic heathenry all the way up to the current era, it is also clear that during the late heathen era, a point in history when the heathen worldview was maximally confronted with that of Christianity, heathen spiritual concepts became very complex. It is in the 10th century skaldic poetry, in particular the Eiríksmál, that we get our first glimpse of Valhalla. Over the next 250 years, Valhalla would continue to develop at the hands of Christian writers and composers utilizing heathen elements until we are presented with Snorri's final version in the Gylfiginning. Neopagans and other romantics have written much regarding Snorri's 'true' rationale for writing his trilogy, but romanticism aside, Snorri was a Christian and was most likely trained in the art of writing by Christian clerics being born, raised and educated almost 250 years after the official Conversion of Iceland. Judging by the number of texts about heathenry written in medieval Iceland, the period which also gave birth to Snorri, there was a renewed interest in the heathen past, but there is no indication from the texts of this period that there was any attempt to revitalize heathenry. Like the poets Byron, Wordsworth and Tennyson, the medieval Icelandic writers and composers were applying heathen elements in the way of romanticists as a metaphor of the Christian worldview. What Snorri preserved then was not the elements of ancient heathenry but rather the elements of syncretism mixed with the elements of a medieval romantic era. Snorri's concept of Valhalla was built on top of a concept which was started in the 10th century.

"The poetic image of the warrior's paradise given in Grímnismál derives , although not in all details, without a doubt from folkbelief, but nonetheless several elements can be found already in 9th and 10th century skaldic poetry: in Þórbjörn Hornklofi's Hrafnmál (the shield-covered hall), in Eyvind's Hákonarmál and in the Eiríksmál. . .
The origin of the concept is by no means older than the name: in the beginning there was the battlefield strewn with corpses, from which the demons of death (valkyries) led the fallen heroes to a god of the dead; the description of this place, whether as a place in a mountain, or else a heavenly drinking hall, only came secondarily."

Snorri, the cleric-warrior, then, had plenty of material to build his concept of Valhalla from.

The Conversion of the Germanic north was essentially complete by the time of the the Saga writers. Regardless of what romanticists wish to believe, the bulk of Conversion, i.e. more thatn 85% of the population was most likely converted within a single generation. Pressures such as threats of or , in some cases, very real applications of economic sanctions, violence coming from outside a given community, life in close proximity to Christians in some cases 'outsiders' but in many cases 'insiders' many of whom had been Christianized for several generations already, broader access to money and human resources to continue expansion through colonization into the North Atlantic archipelagos and Greenland provided constant pressure on the heathen to convert. Between 980 CE and 1050 CE there were 'power grabs' by Christian kings throughout the entire Scandinavian region most of whom were trying to centralize power by bringing all the individual local regions under a single united banner, the banner of the the Church. Previously such united power moves and efforts to centralize power were not practical because under heathenry the individual localities remained cult centers, autonomous, and loyal, primarily to local leaders who were themselves bound tightly to the community cult-many of these being little more than overgrown extended families.

Many Romanticists would like to believe that there was a conspiracy of sorts by Christians, but the truth seems to be that the Conversion of the Germanic north seems to have been as much fueled from inside forces as it was from outside forces, fed both by the Church and other recent converts. The process is called a 'push-pull process' and can be described in this manner:

"Anthony, 1997, discusses theories of prehistoric migration in detail. In order for significant movements of people to take place there are four pre-conditions: a 'push' factor, or reason to move; a 'pull' factor, or a belief that the reason to move does not apply elsewhere; information flows, in order to select a destination where the 'pull' factor applies; transportation costs, which must not out- weigh the 'pull' factor. In the Anglo-Saxon case, where Old English appears to have replaced the previous British language(s), he notes 'In the absence of states, it is not likely that a small group of immigrants could bring about a substantial language shift merely by attacking, defeating and enslaving the indegenes (witness the Normans in England and the Celts in Galatia). Those who shift to a new language must see a clear advantage in doing so, and must have enough contact with the speakers of the target language so that they can learn that language."'

A standard part of romanticism-the modern variety is believing or using as a premise, the idea of 'good guy' vs. 'bad guy.' In migration, although migration tales typically side one way or another, there is no 'good guy'; according to Anthony, et al. it is a two-way street, a deal, a game of 'give and take.' Heathen England was not conquered by Christians heathen England accepted Christianity to a point where Christian opinion outweighed the heathen. Christian aggression played a role, most certainly, but heathens very likely believed they could hold out against the changing worldview being shoved at them (this has often been belief of the 'to be converted' and has been most documented among members of the various tribes of the USA, Central America, South America and African), and had there not been some kind of 'pay-off' for the newly converted, there would not have been a Christian Conversion of Iceland in 1000 CE or Norway in 1014 CE.

This process has been played out 1000s of times over the past millennium and the mechanisms are fairly well known. 'Conversion,' for romantics (which includes many neo-pagans in this day and age) is held to have been done at spear-point, through threats of violence, real violence, hangings, burnings at the stake a noble culture being slowly conquered by an invading force. The fact is that most 'conversion efforts' probably more resembled the throwing of an open bag of Fritos into the middle of a prairie dog town and allowing the inhabitants to bring discord upon themselves than any of the tales of the 'nobly conquered who practiced their religion in secret caves and glens at night' concocted by romantics. Christianity comes out as the uniting force or philosophy, the controllers of the calm after the storm. The worldview of the region is forever changed and always comes out the same:
  1. Christianity replaces the fundamental root of the worldview.
  2. Because the Christian worldview is not borne of a region, i.e. is not bound to the land, it can pick up and absorb local 'flavorings' with little loss.
As a consequence, one can still read folklore which resembles the heathen past, that of dwarves and elves, and the Wild Hunt, but these are now laid onto top of the Christian of the Christian worldview. The previously heathen elements now serve to explain, clarify and support the Christian worldview which has now replaced the local heathen philosophy as the very foundation of how the world is perceived. One need only to look at Native American belief, Voudoun, Santería, or the ayahuasca cults of South America to see Catholicism flavored with heathen elements.

In this same manner, we see the development, then, of Valhalla into the warrior's paradise, a process which is not reflected in the the archaeological record. Valhalla appears to be poetic product of the Age of Syncretism, the period of time when local Christian leaders were deciding which indigenous flavorings were acceptable and which were not. The gods of Asgarð were acceptable so long as they fell under the True God:

Adown cometh to the doom of the world 
the great godhead which governs all.
 

Comes the darksome dragon flying 
Nidðögg, upward from the Níða Fells; 
he bears in his pinions as the plains he o'erflies, 
naked corpses: now he will sink (from Hollander, p.13.)

Ragnarök viewed in this manner truly becomes "The Fates of the Gods" at the point when Christianity is replacing the older underlying worldview. The oldest poem in the collection now known as the Elder Edda is by linguistic evidence dated to the late 10th century with later interpolations added by copyists over the next four centuries.    On the one hand, through creative reading one can mentally 'recreate' a religious worldview which never really existed, at least according to the archaeological record, and in conjunction with social processes concurrent to the composition of the Völuspá Valhalla, then, becomes a glorious concept of a noble culture comparable to the Christian concept of Heaven; on the other, one can take into consideration all that was happening at the time and treat this oldest of the Old Norse mythological poems as the product of the time of conversion. One can completely ignore the parallels between Paul's Revelations and the Völuspá and surmise that they are but coincidence, or one can deny coincidence and look at the skill and complexity with which the composer sought to broaden his audience base by appealing to both Christians and heathens. The romantics lean towards the former, the reconstructionists to the latter.

Two other destinations listed by Simek in his list above is that of Hel and Rán. Hel, as a destination after death appears to be old heathen and is mentioned in both Anglo-Saxon and Gothic writings. Hel as a goddess, daughter of Lokí, is not mentioned until immediately prior to the the Age of Conversion and is surmised by Turville-Petre, Simek, Christiansen, et al. to be little more than a poetic anthropomorphization of the place. The origin of the concept appears to have been Germanic but the concept is so similar to other Indo-European concepts of an Otherworld that Christiansen suspects with good rationale that later descriptions are not of purely native genesis.

"A goddess called Hel appears in Egill's verse, but above ground; much later, in Völuspá (st. 43), she has a high hall underground and 'a sooty cock' to waken the dead. In Balder's Dreams she has a watchdog, with a blood-stained chest, who barks at Óðínn; but by that time the concept had been much overlaid by the Christian inferus, or Hades or Orcus, and continued to be embellished with macabre details and geography appropriate to a place of punishment:    rivers of ice and fire, perilous bridges, impaled bodies, snake-houses, foul smells. All that is too close to Irish and Anglo- Saxon versions to be purely of native growth. . . .

Like Valhalla, Hel seems to have been greatly affected by the development of poetry over time, and by intercultural experiences of the poets.

That Hel is an old concept among the Norse is not doubted, even though later detailed descriptions of the place must be drawn into question. Hel, as a word, is related to the IG root *kel- which carries the sense of 'covered,' 'hidden,' 'underground.'

"The Germanic origins of the English hall appear to lie in the Iron Age where it was customary for each settlement to have a large structure, presumed to have been used as a communal meeting (Volkshalle) among the dwellings of a single, dominant family in the settlement.The role of the most successful, leading farmer gradually merged with that of political leader, and the hall became the private stage for public acts carried out by this chieftain. The leader then began to act for the other members of teh group, and could take decisions on its behalf and provide leadership."
"The word heall 'hall' is based on the same root *kel- as helm and hel 'Hell'; the idea is of covering and concealment. The Latin word cella 'cell, room' is based on this root also."

Valhalla has already been discussed above, and the 'hall' plays a central role in the overall development of Valhalla through the early medieval period in Iceland. In addition to this, researchers have long noted that the Germanic sense of the Afterlife, particularly that which takes place in the gravemound, is a shadowy representation or extension of life above ground. The concept of 'hall' as a central meeting place for the community becomes mirrored by Hel being the central meeting place of the community of the dead. Given the Germanic tendency to concieve of life below ground as being a reflection of life above, it may very well be that as family estates grew and pulled together as communities/ villages for improved economic stability and increased defensibility, the conception of the Afterlife grew at a similiar pace to encompass the sense of community/ hall. In other words from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, the Afterlife expanded from the family gravemound to a communal Hel. Viewed this way, Valhalla then becomes 'the Hel of the slain.'

'The nets of Rán,' i.e. the drowned whose corpse has not been recovered, as an Afterlife concept appears to be no older than the concept of Hel. One consistency noted by archaeologists and supported well in the later literature was the importance of the body being placed into the ground. There is a certain feeling of finality and also of security that comes with knowing that a body has been properly placed in its ancestral resting place. The fear of 'the dead walking' was fairly pervasive throughout the entire realm of Germanic heathenry not only because of the malicious mischievousness often caused by the draugr, "the animated corpse commonly translated as 'ghost,"' but the family was also not able to venerate the walking dead in exchange for luck and protection for the home.

Matters are often confusing regarding a drowning where the corpse has not been recovered even in modern times. Families wait. The 'unknowingness' results in families' waiting, searching, and occasionally organizing community wide search parties. Additionally, because of the unpredicatability of currents, the corpse can show up hundreds of miles from where the drowning occurred, and may take months to find. Egill Skallagrimson's son was caught in the nets of Rán, but his body was eventually recovered and placed safely into the ground. Given the increases in long distance sailing throughout the Viking Era, losing a relative to the nets of Rán must have been a common fear, and this was exacerbated by the idea that bodies needed to be properly interred to keep them from walking and to keep the luck flowing back into the family farmstead.

As the number of the battle-dead lost on foreign soil increased later in the Viking Age, a fear similar to that of losing a relative to the nets of Rán must have also occurred. There are many records of these battle-dead being cremated on the field after the battle. This may have been the impetus for battle-poetry which was so common to the Germanic societies of both the northern and western branches. As with the idea behind proper interrment, witnessing and reporting of a good death on the field of battle may have served to allay the unease of 'not knowing.' Cremation which survived among many of the warrior bands long after it was abandoned by families and communities may have, at least partially, been a way for a warrior band 'to compress' the bodies in a socially acceptable way so that they could be more easily brought back home. Additionally, the idea of dying in battle on foreign soil without the comfort of being returned to the family gravemound may have spurred the late heathen development of Valhalla, 'the Hel of the slain,' allowing the dead a burial 'with a purpose,' i.e. that of feasting among the substitute family the comitatus, in Valhalla so that the need to 'walk' after death was lessened.

One other late developing concept indigenous to the Germanic heathens of Scandinavia was that of Niflhel, 'the Strand of Corpses.' This concept and its description all show distinct signs of Christian influence, but this influence was picked up by either Germanic heathens or more probably early Germanic Christians and was developed in accordance to Germanic social structure of Iceland. A person in an Icelandic properly found guilty of a crime against the community in which he lived could be subject to an official 'shunning' by the community. The price of his wergild could be removed so that his death at the hands of another would result in no fine and would not be judged as a crime. The concept of Nifhel while clearly an imitation of the tortures of Hell espoused by early Christians reflects the Icelandic socio-legal structure well enough to have dovetailed into the pre-existing beliefs in gravemound-Hel. The newly dead would be denied entrance into the folds of the familial or community dead and would be forced to suffer banishment to the 'wilderness' of the Afterlife, Niflheim or Niflhel (literally, 'mist-home' or 'misty-hel') in direct opposition to the 'comforts' of Hel or the gravemound most often depicted in folktales as being endless feasting (in the gravemound 'which was raised up on four red pillars'). There is no evidence to suggest that Niflhel was generated out of the original heathen worldview but most properly belongs to the Era of Syncretism.

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