2.6 The Heathen View of Reincarnation

Initially, we would have said that the concept of 'reincarnation' was a modern addition brought by neo-pagans, and, indeed, the modern interpretation of reincarnation (often modifed to 'reincarnation within the family line' as offered by Jordsvín above) is often held by those coming from 'neo-pagan/ alternative religionist' arena. However, that is not the end of the topic: these positions, true to the nature of the modern heathen, come with arguments based firmly in the lore of the Norse. A letter by a modern heathen to us in response to 'a rant' against reincarnation reveals the lore-based questions:

Saturday */*/2003 1:59:23pm
Name: A. G.
E-Mail: *@*.net Homepage
Referred By: Just Surfed In
Comments: Reincarnation in the Lore:

"Hogni was the name of a king whose daugher was Sigrun. She became a valkyrie and rode through the air and over the sea. SHE WAS SVAVA BORN AGAIN." Poetic Eddas, Helgakvitha 2 in Hollander, Bellows, and in Thorpe translates as "regenerated" instead of "born again". With what limited lore we have just this one mention in the Lore is good enough for me to know that our ancestors believed in a form of Reincarnation. Its pretty cut and dry, short, sweet, and to the point.

I love your rants however.
A. G. Lore Speaker * * Kindred, *

In our response, we pointed out that the Helgi Tales were but one instance of individuals being 'born again.' We also brought up the famous passage where Óláf, in St. Ólaf's Saga, was asked by an assistant 'if he had been buried in Óláf's Mound.'    His response was that he had never lived before. Both sets of examples are commonly used as arguments for an earlier heathen concept of 'reincarnation.'

It is important, first, to sort out the actual topics:

  1. The point which people are attempting to support is, of course, reincarnation as it is commonly viewed in modern, western culture, that is the metempsychosis of the personality, the ego, from one lifetime to the next. The idea generally involves the individual retaining some memories of a past life which may be remembered either over time or with some help such as through hypnosis or some crisis event which brings the past memories to the fore. The overall concept borrowed from the occidental is related to a concept that the individual will continue to reincarnate until a state of perfection is reached.
  2. One set of supports for the idea that reincarnation was part of the heathen worldview at one time is the Helgi, Svava and/ or Sigurðr set. This set supports the idea of 'aftrborinn,' qualities, characteristics, or duties passed on from generation to generation.
  3. The Óláf set, not mentioned in the letter above, are related to the early Christian idea that high born people such as saints or saintly men/ women could be reborn completely as in the modern concept.
The modern set, i.e. #1 above, has already been discussed, but set #2 which is most generally used to support a modern heathen idea that reincarnation was accepted by the ancient heathen needs further clarification. 'Aftrborinn' or 'endrborinn' is not necessarily complicated although it might be somewhat of a curiosity even today. The idea has never been lost or diluted down although the phrasing is different. In its simplest form, it is traits or characteristics passed down through a family. Requoting Flowers, then:

"Fundamentally, the phrase of the Norse Sigurðr saga* describes a process of aptrburðr* in which the innate powers of Sigmundr are 'reborn' in his post-humous son. This is evident in the relevant texts where we find that Sigurðr is able to ingest the venemous blood of Fáfnir after we have learned that only Sigmundr, and none of his sons, could perform this feat without harm. Thematically, similar myths (Víðarr and Váli) and saga figures (Þórðr, Kolbeinn Túmason, etc.) provide important analogs to this process. A wide range of cultural evidence, e.g. the Norse belief in rebirth and/ or transference of entities (hamingjur, fylgjur, etc.) which carry certain powers from generation to generation, naming practices connected with this belief, and the importance of rites of passage in fulfilling this transference also support this view."
Sigurðr was born with the same ability as his father to suffer no ill effects from the worm's venom. If we look at a common modern reversal of this such as an inability to properly digest milk or an allergy to eggs, for example, we see nothing unusual. In this modern times, we phrase it thusly: "John inherited the allergy from his father." There is absolutely nothing mysterious about this; in fact, it is quite normal. By extension, we also have the common phrases:
  1. He has is mother's smile. 
  2. She has her mother's sense of humor. 
  3. He has his grandfather's laugh. 
  4. She has her aunt's dislike for the cold, etc.
A curiosity even in these modern times, but certainly nothing unusual, and we don't even treat the phenomenon as anything mysterious or spiritual for the most part. It may, however, be a good enough reason to name a child after his 'giver.' This can be regarded as a form of reincarnation, but such a process is unnecessary to explain the event. That is the point: reincarnation is not a necessary explanation.
It should also be remembered that Iceland was a feuding society, and in a feud, as it is commonly understood even in 20th century America, one family never gives in to the other; it is a matter of honor. The families (rather than the individuals) are sworn enemies and, as in the famous feud of the Hatfield's and the McCoy's, families are expected to continue the fight until the exact reason can no longer be remembered. In the heroic poem, Helgi Hundingsbana, we encounter a similar situation where the feud is inherited by the young Helgi to continue the fight against the Hundings. Viewed in this way, translating the word 'aptrborinn' as inherited or passed on to, the concept becomes no more mysterious than allergies that are handed down from generation to generation. In these examples, we can see that we have not lost anything spiritual or some mystery of the ancients, but rather that we in this modern age accept the curiosities much in the same manner that the ancients did as a matter of fact. There is simply no need to resort to a concept as complex as reincarnation. A swift application of Occam's Razor suggests that the idea that something can be passed from one generation to the next. 'Aptrborinn' or 'endrborinn' continues to be poorly translated as 'reborn' or 'rebirth' when the more appropriate understanding of the word is the properly formed adverbial descriptor 'inherited.'

The is an interesting interlude in the earliest of eddic poems, the Völuspá, involving a female character known as Gullveig.

There was, however, a true form of reincarnation understood by those living during the conversion era, however, but this does not come from Germanic heathenry, but rather from Christianity.

"The tales of Olaf, the elf of Geirstað, a long dead king who hands on regalia (through a 3rd party) to the future St. Olave has been interpreted by Heinrichs as a repudiation of pagan ideas of reincarnation; the old Olaf asks that his corpse be beheaded in the grave-mound, presumedly to free his soul and let it enter the newborn Olave, who dismisses the idea as a popular misconception when he grows up. It is not clear what lies behind this ; a Christian apologist, ca. 1200, editing a story about a saint so that he can both be a reborn king and a witness to the truth that such a rebirth is impossible? A strong, local tradition legitimizing Olave's rule in a way that distinguishes him from other kings, rather than invoking a commonly-held belief? A revelation about how kingship was once viewed in Norway? In any case, the anecdote as it survives is post-conversion by a long way."
In the saga, of course, the pre-sainted Óláf writes the whole thing off as nothing but old folk-tales. Where things become interesting is in discovering exactly whose folk-tales they were:

"It is a fact that some Christian sects and writers accepted reincarnation as an enhancement to the teachings of Christ. Origen, one of the heralded Fathers of the Church and described by Saint Gregory as "the Prince of Christian learning in the third century," wrote: "Every soul comes into this world strengthened by the victories and weakened by the defeats of its previous life."
So if reincarnation was an idea in currency with early Christians, why have all traces of it disappeared from the Christian religion we know today?
By the early fourth century, strong Christian factions were vying with each other for influence and power, while at the same time the Roman Empire was beginning to fall apart. In A.D. 325, in a move to renew the unity of the empire, the absolute dictator Emperor Constantine convened the leaders of the feuding Christian factions at the Council of Nicaea. He offered to throw his imperial power behind the Christians if they would settle their differences and agree on a single creed. Decisions made at this first council set the foundation for the Roman Catholic Church. (Soon after, the books of the Bible were fixed too.) For the sake of unity, all beliefs that conflicted with the new creed were banished; in the process the factions and writings that supported reincarnation were thrown out.

Then, with the applause and support of the Christian leaders, Constantine moved to eliminate competing religions, and to make his personal grip on the Empire even more absolute. The result of the marriage between church and imperial state was a new Church made in the image of the autocratic Roman Empire. This is why, according to some historians, the Church exalts unquestioned central authority, imposes a singular dogmatic creed on its followers, and works so hard to stamp out divergent ideas. This is important, because reincarnation fell outside the offcial creed.
Apparently some Christians continued to believe in reincarnation even after the Council of Nicaea, because in A.D. 553 the Church found the need to single out reincarnation and condemn it explicitly. At the Second Council of Constantinople the concept of reincarnation, bundled together with other ideas under the term "pre-existence of the soul", was decreed to be a crime worthy of excommunication and damnation ("anathema"):
If anyone assert the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema."
The folk-tales were an error on the side of the Christian writing the text. There is absolutely nothing to indicate that the folk-tale stemmed from Germanic heathenry, and, in fact, there is enough circumstantial evidence, as pointed out in the quote by Christiansen above, that Christians were still attempting with marginal success to purge their religion of certain beliefs believed by the members of the Nicean Council to be inconsistant with the Bible's teachings. There certainly is enough evidence in the Bible that certain personages could and would be born again including Jesus himself, but as Christiansen states "there is no evidence whatever of such a belief in the viking age."

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