The importance of the remains of the dead, their treatment, their burial, the tending of graves and honouring of one’s dead kinsfolk and heroes. It was an important aspect of the elder Germanic beliefs; with enough parallels in both the beliefs of their fellow Indo-European cultures and the associated archaeological record, to nail it down as a very ancient, very significant, and very enduring thing.
But was Hell simply the grave and grave mound? Was the soul truly and irrevocably bound to it’s remains? Was there in fact no Germanic “afterworld”, beyond life in the grave-mound, as more than one well informed person has proposed? And indeed if the remains of one’s ancestors were lost and/or forgotten so to were their souls to the kindred?
Well, I like this perspective. It’s something that began to dawn on me a couple of decades ago after reading Gronbech’s “Culture of the Teutons”; in which he drew a parallel between the cosmology of the Eddas and the physical realities of a tribe’s surroundings. And there is a lot in elder Germanic lore that certainly points in this direction.
However, while this understanding is a very good foundation — rightly shifting our attention, energy and emphasis away from the otherworld and on to this world, away from the goldstar we will get in some otherworld and on to the legacy we leave for the benefit of our community and descendants that remain in this world after we have departed, ie. world accepting — it nevertheless presents certain inconsistencies with other aspects of both Germanic and Indo-European lore; which, from subtle indications of language and elder figures of speech to ship-burials are suggestive of both a journey, and hence a destination, following death … undertaken from within the gravemound it would “certainly seem”.
For all of that, I still find that the Eddas, paint too detailed and too certain of a picture about such things. Who knows what lies ahead in that great journey taken after death? The dead … of which none of us are at this moment. As with the nature of the Tivar, I tend to dislike sharp and certain definitions of things a person doesn’t really know anything more-or-less about than anyone else. Certainly we have a sense of “life after death” … a sense that is of course the strongest in the presence of the bones of our ancestors, but if the ancient Greeks are any testament, a mound is a mound is a mound, each as the other a gate to Hades apparently, whether or not their ancestors or heroes were actually buried in “that” particular mound or worshiped at many different mounds in different localities. But no, certitude was never a promise or pretense of elder Germanicism, which was always happy to own it’s sense of things while happily letting those things be whatever they actually are apart from their sense of them. As can be gleaned in the following passage from Bede’s History of the English Nation, the elder culture knew how to honour to *mystery*,
“The present life man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the hall wherein you sit at supper in winter amid your officers and ministers, with a good fire in the midst whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and immediately out another, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry weather. But after a short space of fair weather he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he has emerged. So this life of man appears for a short while. But of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”
And in the poem Beowulf as it pertains to the death, funeral and otherworldly fate of Scyld Sceafing,
“Men do not know
truth be told, neither counselors
nor heroes under heaven, who unshipped that cargo.”
And in Book I of the Gesta Danorum,
“she drew him with her underground, and vanished… <snip> … purposed that he should pay a visit in the flesh to the regions whither he must go when he died. So they first pierced through a certain dark misty cloud, and then advancing along a path that was worn away with long thoroughfaring… <snip> … Going further, they came on a swift and tumbling river of leaden waters, whirling down on its rapid current divers sorts of missiles, and likewise made passable by a bridge… <snip> … Then a wall hard to approach and to climb blocked their further advance. The woman tried to leap it, but in vain, being unable to do so even with her slender wrinkled body; then she wrung off the head of a cock which she chanced to be taking down with her, and flung it beyond the barrier of the walls; and forthwith the bird came to life again, and testified by a loud crow to recovery of its breathing.
Did our ancestors believe in life after death? Certainly. But certitude about such things as no man can be certain about is not a selling point of the elder beliefs. As ever, truth is more about questions and less about answers. Beware the man who is certain about things no man could possibly be … for within him grow the seeds of evil.