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Representations of the Pagan Afterlife in Medieval Scandinavian Literature

By Christopher Abram

PhD Dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2003

Abstract: The corpus of texts surviving from medieval Scandinavia which contain, or purport to contain, pre-Christian myths, vestiges of a pagan belief-system, is quite large. As in all religions, the fate of the ‘soul’ after death is shown to be of primary concern to pagan Scandinavians. My dissertation is concerned with the way in which the afterlife, in its various forms, is presented in extant literary texts: not as an exercise in religious history, but in an attempt to find out what literary use was made by authors of different periods and genres of the two main Scandinavian realms of the dead, Valholl and Hel.

I first address the question of the nature of Hel which, according to Snorri Sturluson’s thirteenth-century mythography, was the name both of an underworld home of the dead, and a goddess who presided over that realm. Snorri’s sources diverge in this matter, however: I show how skaldic poets only ever refer to Hel the goddess, while the poems of the Poetic Edda, although ambivalent in a few instances, regard Hel as a place within the mythological cosmos. Both poetic genres use references to Hel primarily as circumlocutions for death or the act of dying. Snorri’s description of Hel is shown to be a conscious harmonization of the attitudes evinced by the two poetic genres.

Snorri’s conception of the mythological cosmos is very structural, and based upon paired oppositions; the dichotomy of Hel and Valho˛ll is one of the most important of these structures. I show how modern structuralist interpretations of Norse mythology are only supported by Snorra Edda, before examining how eddic and skaldic poets’ attitudes towards the Hel/Valholl complex vary, and suggest that in many cases this apparent inconsistency is a result of changing literary taste and social attitudes, and that no single religious belief about the afterlife may be discerned behind the extant texts.

As well as fitting Hel and Valholl into his model of the mythology’s structure, Snorri also situates an important narrative – Hermóðr’s ride in search of Baldr – in Hel. The motifs present in this narrative, are, I argue, more closely related to Christian vision literature than to any ‘native’ sources; I compare Snorri’s approach in this regard to that of Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish historian whose Latin work often overlaps with Snorri’s mythography.

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