The Life & Works of Hilda Ellis Davidson by Sandra Billington (1996)


The Concept of the Goddess

Hilda Ellis Davidson is one of those rare scholars whom one finds it hard, sometimes, to believe can really exist. Her publications include the very full commentary to The History of the Danes: Saxo Grammticus (1979-80); The Road to Hel (1943; reprinted 1968); Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (1964); Pagan Scandinavia (1967); Scandinavian Mythology (1969); The Viking Road to Byzantium (1976); Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe (1988) and The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe (1993). These erudite and readable books have helped extend popular as well as scholarly interest in the fields of Norse, Germanic and British myth and folklore, with translations into Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch and Japanese. Indefatigable in her own work, Hilda is equally energetic in the support of other good work, wherever she comes across it: sometimes gathering up valuable and neglected papers to find them a publisher, sometimes advising a promising student on their approach to research. For many a young scholar Hilda has been, if not quite a goddess, then at least a fairy godmother. As Jacqueline Simpson, the current President of the Folklore Society, has said, Hilda’s first great gift is enthusiasm which communicates itself to all who work with her.

Her second great gift is in combining different fields of study, bridging gaps between the disciplines of archaeology, literature, folklore and history. Two fine examples of this can be found in her presidential addresses to the Folklore Society in 1975 and 1976: ‘Folklore and Literature’ and ‘Folklore and History’, which are touchstones for rigorous scholasticism within interdisciplinary material. They warn against any distorting tunnel-vision which selects only what fits one’s own argument, or a reductive, motif-collecting attitude to the subject in which the mythology appears. Further, there are the equal dangers of pursuit of an ‘archetype’ figure or tale. Instead, these papers remind us, it is essential to acknowledge a variety of possibilities and complications: the fluidity of myths, and their interplay with changing situations or contexts, are a part of their longevity.

Hilda’s association with the Folklore Society has been long and distinguished: from 1949 to 1986, serving on the Council (later Committee) from 1956 to 1986. The shifts and conflicts of these times have been captured in her article ‘Changes in the Folklore Society, 1949-1986’, in Folklore (1987). Vividly appreciative of the work of others, this paper does not of course consider the important role Hilda herself played, first in rescuing folklore studies from an eccentric postwar image, typified by a would-be magician and ladies in ‘large and depressing hats’ (Davidson 1987:124), and later in maintaining against the pressures of modern bureaucracy, ‘the pursuit of truth in the company of friends’ (ibid.: 129).

Katherine Briggs

It was during the 1960s that Hilda and others, notably Katherine Briggs and Venetia Newall, began to counter the indiscipline of the postwar years with papers to the Society which punctured ‘false assumptions’ (ibid.: 127). Some, taken up by the media, helped over the next ten years to raise the profile of the Folklore Society to a level nearer to that of its continental equivalents and without the outside financial help which many of those receive; the Society’s journal, Folklore, began to publish serious, investigative papers on British and international subjects. Underpinning the change was the ‘palace revolution’ between 1967 and 1970 (ibid.: 127), led by Katherine Briggs as President, with the support of Hilda and others. Real power at the time was held by the Society’s Treasurer; two Presidents had already resigned on discovering the illusory nature of their title, with the result that ‘the Presidential Office had assumed something of the menace of the Dangerous Quest in the fairytale; few were bold enough to accept it’ (Davidson 1986: 144), and the Folklore Society itself appeared to be without any future; but Katherine Brigg’s combination of dignity, determination and personal resources restored the balance. Under her presidency it became possible to rewrite the Society’s constitution under democratic and convivial conditions. Hilda’s own period as President was from 1973 to 1976, following on from that of Stewart Sanderson. In these four years she not only sustained the period of efficient teamwork but also enlarged the range of the Society’s contacts through, for example, overseas speakers at Society meetings. Despite the financial problems of the mid-1970s, members look back on it as a highly successful time: Folklore continued uninterrupted, and publication of the Mistletoe Series, begun in 1974 with Hilda as general editor, continues until 1984. British folklore had become a subject which one could at last call a discipline, open to both academics and amateurs, but with a demand for the scrupulous criteria outlined above. One high point was the Centenary Conference of the Folklore Society held at Royal Holloway College in 1978, when British scholars hosted a highly successful international meeting to explore areas of worldwide interest in the 20th century (see Newall 1980). Much of this purposeful reorientation of the Society in the second half of this century has been due to Hilda’s abilities both to conceptualize and to grapple with the practical details necessary for ideas to be carried out. There can be few people with such a gift for negotiating setbacks so skillfully that in retrospect they look like springboards to achievement.

The early 1970s also saw the burgeoning of Lucy Cavendish College, in Cambridge, from a dining club for postgraduate women members of the University who were not fellows of other colleges, to college status, able to tutor mature women students as undergraduates. Hilda joined the College in 1969 as a Calouste Gulbenkian Research Fellow, and in 1971 was appointed a College Lecturer. She was elected a Fellow in 1974, and made Vice-President between 1975 and 1980.

The women students coming into the College from 1972 needed to adjust to a new way of life, often combining family commitments with, for the first time, the possibility of seeing themselves as career women. Hilda’s experience in just such a combination, and her warm sensible advice, were an invaluable support for many overcoming difficulties of such a change. Her enthusiasm for all areas of academic work made it seem that much more accessible to the newcomer and, as Vice-President at a time of growth in numbers, and before burdens of administration weighed the post down, she infected the whole College with her enthusiasm. Particularly valuable was her gift of perceiving specific needs of individual students, which was never lost among more general responsibilities. The gift of a bibliography of key works brought many a student’s objectives that much closer.

When Katherine Briggs died in 1980, Hilda’s first concern was that her contribution to the growth of British folklore studies was not forgotten. Despite the demands of her own writing, she travelled through Britain collecting papers and recollections from family, friends and colleagues, and in 1986 published an inspiring biography of her. In 1984 Hilda’s tireless spirit of enquiry had received just recognition in the award of the Coote Lake Medal for Folklore Research – an award only occasionally bestowed – and in 1989 Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe appropriately won the Katherine Briggs Prize, endowed in 1982.

Since 1985 Hilda has been an Honorary  Member of the Folklore Society; but retirement from its Committee has not meant inactivity. The Katherine Briggs Club, founded by her in January 1987 has developed into another flourishing academic enterprise. The beginnings of 1987 were already encouraging, with fifteen dining and seventeen corresponding members who wanted a convivial forum for discussion, untrammelled by distractions of committee meetings or a proliferation of paperwork. The use of Katherine Briggs’ name is to keep alive what she stood for: the pursuit of truth in the company of friends, which is also very much a part of Hilda’s own instinct, and she still maintains the Club’s convener, keeping in touch with existing members and inviting new ones. Meetings are held twice yearly in London, the focal point being lectures by members on the many aspects of folklore Katherine was herself involved in. subjects have ranged from flower symbolism in German literature to the consecration ceremony of the Japanese emperor, from connections between dragons and saffron to funerary practices in the 19th century. Corresponding members are now widely scattered from the USA to Finland, Sweden and Japan. Total membership stands at 53, and since 1989 biennial day-conferences have given birth to three publications: the Seer in Celtic and Other Traditions (Edinburgh, 1989) and Boundaries and Thresholds (Stroud, 1993), both edited by Hilda. This present third volume, dedicated to her, has a title which itself is an appropriate tribute to Hilda’s contribution to the subjects of mythology and folklore.

Throughout her life, academic work has sharply coexisted with a full family life and participation in local church affairs: a comprehensive list of Hilda’s titles includes those of churchwarden and bellringer; while a further Cambridge branch of the Folklore Society has thriven under her care since the mid-1970s. Nor has academic study blunted her general interest in people: with her intellectual curiosity and generosity, and talents of the practical combined with the imaginative, not to mention astuteness without cunning, Hilda Ellis Davidson is the living proof that for a woman to be successful as an academic she does not have to sacrifice other aspects of her identity.

Sandra Billington,

Glasgow, 1996

Source: The Concept of the Goddess, Preface, pp. xi-xiv (1996) Routledge.

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