Representations of the Pagan Afterlife in Medieval Scandinavian Literature

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Representations of the Pagan Afterlife

in Medieval Scandinavian Literature

Christopher Abram

Robinson College

This dissertation is submitted for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

in the University of Cambridge

14 February, 2003

Representations of the Pagan Afterlife in Medieval Scandinavian Literature

Christopher Abram


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, Valhll 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 Valhll 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/Valhll 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 Valhll 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.


It is a pleasant duty to thank first of all the Arts and Humanities Research Board, who funded this PhD. I am also grateful to the Isaac Newton Trust, the H. M. Chadwick Fund, and to Robinson College, all of whom provided additional financial support. For over seven years (not all of them during the writing of this PhD!), Robinson has been my home, as well as my workplace, and I thank the fellows, staff, and students of the College for providing such a supportive and stimulating environment for my studies.

My principal academic debt is to my supervisors, Rosalind Love and Andy Orchard. Tom Hall, Richard North, and Judy Quinn were also generous with their help. Jonathan Grove’s assistance with proofreading was invaluable.

Many friends have taken an interest in this project; some have taken none at all. To both groups I am equally grateful, and so I’d like to thank: Katherine Borthwick, Alex Brocklehurst, Jon Coe, Paul Corthorn, Richard Dance, Katherine Didriksen, Annemarie Falktoft, Gavin Haslam, Karl Jackson, Adrian Joyce, Jon Marsden, Jamie Mitchell, Jim Rose, Rebecca Rushforth, Manish Sharma, Flora Spiegel, Stew Sage, Renée Trilling, Al Vining, and Ed Wynn.

Without Emily Thornbury’s moral support, willing assistance, and steadfast friendship (to say nothing of her ethical guidance), this dissertation might well never have seen the light of day.

My profoundest debt, now as always, is to my parents, to whom this work is dedicated with love.
This dissertation is the result of my own work and includes nothing which is the outcome of work done in collaboration except where specifically indicated in the text.
This dissertation does not exceed the regulation length, including footnotes, references and appendices but excluding the bibliography.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. The Dualistic Nature of Hel

  3. The Hel/Valhll Dichotomy I:

Valhll as Óðinnic Warrior Paradise

  1. The Hel/Valhll Dichotomy II:

Who Goes Where?

  1. The Imaginary Landscape of Hel in Snorra Edda and Medieval Vision Literature

  2. Saxo Grammaticus in the Underworld

  3. Conclusion

  4. Bibliography


Act. Phil. Scand.

Acta Philologica Scandinavica


Copenhagen, Arnamagnaean Institute


Arkiv för nordisk filologi


Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina



Early English Text Society

original series


Erzählungsbände zum Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde


Guðni Jónsson, ed., Fornaldar sögur Norðurlanda (4 vols.)


Frühmittelalterliche Studien

Gest. Dan.

Olrik and Ræder, ed., Saxonis Gesta Danorum (2 vols.)


Bjarni Aðalbjarnarson, ed., Heimskringla


Íslenzk Fornrit


Jakob Benediktsson and Magnús Már Lárusson, ed., Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder fra vikingetid til reformationstid, 22 vols.

Medium Ævum

Med. Scan.

Mediaeval Scandinavia



Poet. Lat.


Monumenta Germaniae Historica


Poetae Latini medii aevi

Scriptores Rerum Merovingicarum


Neckel, ed., Edda


Neuphilologische Mitteilungen


Pulsiano, et al., ed., Medieval Scandinavia: an Encyclopedia


Skandinavistische Arbeiten


Saga-Book of the Viking Society


A I and II

B I and II

Finnur Jónsson, ed., Den norsk-islensk skjaldedigtning

tekst efter håndskrifterne

rettet tekst


Faulkes, ed., Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Gylfaginning


Faulkes, ed., Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Skáldskaparmál


Faulkes, ed., Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Háttatal


Scandinavian Studies


Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum

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