Dr Hilda Ellis Davidson, who died in January 2006, had for many decades been a distinguished scholar in the field of Scandinavian mythology and religion, whose books reached a wide readership and whose enthusiasm for her subject was an inspiration to many-myself included. Time and again, over the years, one would hear Hilda gleefully discussing some new archaeological discovery or theory with the cry, “It’s so exciting!” And when she described it, it certainly was.
Hilda obtained a First Class Honours degree at Newnham College, Cambridge, in English, Archaeology and Anthropology, after which she studied pagan Scandinavian religion for her doctorate. This resulted in her first book in 1943 (under her maiden name of Hilda Ellis), The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. Although an early and imperfect work, it already showed what was to be characteristic of her approach, the use of written and archaeological evidence of different periods to cast light upon each other. This was a bold innovation, at any rate in British academia, where Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic were at that time taught purely as literary and linguistic subjects. It was met with disapproval in some quarters. But Hilda continued to work in this method, combining material from a wide range of sources in her numerous books on various aspects of Germanic paganism, including The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England (1962), Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (1964), Pagan Scandinavia (1967) and, with Peter Gelling, The Chariot of the Sun (1969). She also contributed many more specialised papers to various journals, usually drawing on her knowledge of myth, legend and folklore to interpret some archaeological find.
In her more recent books, including Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe (1988), Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe (1993), and Roles of the Northern Goddesses (1998), she explored a wider field, describing themes and beliefs that were common to both Celtic and Germanic cultures. Her awareness of this cultural link was reflected in her presence at the Nordic-Celtic-Baltic Legend Symposiums in Ireland and Copenhagen in the 1990s, although ill-health prevented her attending the one in Reykjavik in 2005. Another interest was in the history of folklore scholarship itself, which led to her editing with Carmen Blacker a collection of essays by various contributors on Women and Tradition: A Neglected Group of Folklorists (2000).
Her earlier academic posts were in London University, first as a lecturer at Royal Holloway College (1939-44) and then at Birkbeck College. In the 1970s she returned to Cambridge as Lecturer in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Lucy Cavendish College, of which she was Vice-President from 1975 to 1980.
Hilda had joined The Folklore Society in 1949, and was elected onto its Council (now the Committee) in 1956, at a time when it was predominantly elderly and undeniably stagnant. Her memories of those days can be read in her witty yet warm-hearted account, “Changes in the Folklore Society, 1949-1986” (Folklore 98 : 123-30). Joining forces with other forward-looking members, notably Katharine Briggs and Stewart Sanderson, Hilda played an important part in the struggle towards modernisation, which culminated in 1967 when Katharine Briggs became President and Venetia Newall Secretary. In the fruitful and energetic years that followed, Hilda took on the role of Publications Officer, supervising the newly formed Mistletoe Books series, and editing or co-editing the papers that resulted from various Folklore Society conferences. She was also active in organising the conferences themselves. She served as President in the years 1974-6, and the Society prospered under her leadership.
Her deep friendship and admiration for Katharine Briggs led her to write a valuable biography of her in 1988. She was also a founder-member of the Katharine Briggs Dining Club, a part-social and part-academic organisation. Here too she organised meetings and conferences, and edited the resulting collections of papers, usually in collaboration with either Carmen Blacker or Anna Chaudhri. Appropriately, the last of her editorial projects was A Companion to the Fairy Tale (with Anna Chaudhri) in 2003.
A clear and lively speaker, she was much in demand. I vividly recall a lecture of hers at Bedford College (London) in 1950 on Anglo-Saxon pattern-welded swords and on Nordic legends about swords and smithying. George Monger recalls her “stimulating and riveting presentation” on “The Horse in Folklore,” given at a folklore summer school at Keele University in 1970. Such personal memories could easily be multiplied. For many years she ran the Cambridge Folklore Group, which met monthly at her home during the university terms, and where guest speakers enjoyed wonderful hospitality from herself and her husband Richard. Throughout all her activities, she was always encouraging and helpful to anyone who showed an interest in folklore.
Source: Folklore 117 (August 2006): 215-216
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.