The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature by Hilda Roderick Ellis (1943)

Road to Hel (original)Originally published in 1943, this book was written using a variety of evidence from archaeology and literature concerning Norse funeral customs to reconstruct their conception of future life, the soul of man, the cult of the dead, and the journey to the land of the dead. The text is notable as one of the first comprehensive treatments of these areas, showing how knowledge could be forwarded by correlation of the evidence from various academic fields. This book will be of value to anyone with an interest in Norse history, archaeology and literature.

Reviewed Work: The road to Hel, a study of the conception of the dead in Old Norse literature by Hilda Roderick Ellis

  • Gwyn Jones
  • Lee M. Hollander
  • N.E.M. Boyce
  • G. Turville-Petre

Review by: Gwyn Jones, Medium Ævum, Vol. 13 (1944), pp. 65-67

Gwyn Jones (Welsh author)
Gwyn Jones (Welsh author)

Dr Ellis’s book is a welcome addition to recent attempts to bring Old Norse studies in this country into line with the most authoritative native opinion. In one field we are already reaping the benefits of the researches of the íslenzk Fornrit school led by Professor Nordal (I mention in particular publications since 1937 by Mr Turville-Petre and the late Professor E. V. Gordon); these have radically affected the literary, historical, and textual study of the Islendinga Sögur; but it remains true that no student without a powerful apparatus of modern northern European languages can be confident that he is abreast of scholarship in Iceland and continental Scandinavia. The fault is not entirely ours; the important monographs of the Studia Islandica series ( íslenzk Fradi ), for example, with their summaries in English, French, or German, appeared in such painfully limited editions from Reykjavik and Copenhagen that it hardly needed the war to make them unobtainable. The remedy is twofold: translation into English of the most important native contributions to Old Norse studies, and the preparation of books that offer a conspectus of the present state of knowledge in chosen sections of this big subject. It is to this second much-needed group that The road to Hel belongs. It would be misleading to give the impression that there is no original work in it, but it is valuable above all for the diligence with which it collects evidence and the impartiality with which it examines the findings of scholars like Almgren, Lindqvist, Storm, and Olrik.

While complete in itself, the present work seems from Miss Ellis’s hints to be preparatory to a further study of mantic practice and ceremonial in Norse literature which shall embrace ‘the whole subject of Norse witchcraft’. Her chapter headings will convey more clearly than paraphrase the scope of what is so far attempted: i Funeral Customs, The Evidence of Archaeology; ii Funeral Customs, The Evidence of Literature; iii The Conception of the Future Life; iv The Cult of the Dead; v The Conception of the Soul; vi Necromancy; vii The Journey to the Land of the Dead. Each of these chapters is closed by a brief summary, and there is a general Conclusion to the volume – a concession to the reader which will be appreciated by those aware of the inconsistencies and obscurities that abound in this subject. Her findings, briefly, are these. There is evidence of two distinct conceptions of life after death. There was belief in an existence shared with Óðinn (on the whole an aristocratic belief, and marked by the practice of cremation). There was also belief in a continued existence inside the howe, connected with Freyr and fertility rites, with rebirth and mantic inspiration. The conception of Valhöll has grown with and from both these beliefs, but without reconciling them. Literary and archaeological evidence points to south-eastern Sweden as the region from which belief in cremation and life with Óðinn, and later belief in life in the howe, spread first to Norway and then to Iceland, but a precise chronology or geography is impossible. A main confusion is that much of the material now displayed or hinted at by the old poetry was but imperfectly understood by the skalds themselves, and much of it was deliberately reshaped for artistic purposes. Again, there is evidence in Old Norse literature of a cult connected with supernatural guardian women, valkyries, hamingjur, dísir, and the pages in which Miss Ellis brings a reasonable degree of coherence into the confusion of this cult are perhaps the most acute in her book. Last come Miss Ellis’s own notions of the mantic significance of all this evidence – a deeper significance than has yet been recognized. ‘The grave-mound we have seen to be regarded as the place of mantic inspiration; and it seems possible also that the emphasis on the help and wisdom to be won from the world of the dead by the seeker who knows the way is based on a belief in the nearness and potency of the other world, prevalent in Scandinavia in pre-Christian times.’ She urges a fresh examination of the relevant literature, and believes the mythological poems may become more comprehensible if they are interpreted as symbols of an inner spiritual significance.

There seems no reason to dissent from these deductions, and we may wish Miss Ellis luck in her further researches. The reviewer unhappily shows no Russian and therefore it is only after apology he speculates whether Russian scholars, and particularly in the last twenty years, may  not have done much work on various aspects of this subject, contiguous as it is to many of their interests. The following are observations on points of detail. (1) p. 40. I am not convinced that the action of Ásmundr’s thrall can properly be called a sacrifice. In any case here or on page 52 one may compare the action of Ingimundr’s sworn-brothers when they learn of his slaying ( Vatnsdœla Saga cap. 23; and see Sveinsson’s note in the íslenzk Fornrit edition). (2) The giantess who came to launch Baldr’s ship rode on a wolf, reið vargi, not on a horse; hestr should be translated ‘steed’ here. (3) Snorri’s source for his description of Helveg was certainly a verse one, as the alliteration of two sentences in particular shews. (4) pp. 122 ff. The phenomenon of berserksgangr should be borne in mind here. It would seem to have affinities with shape-changing, despite the rationalizing explanations offered by some of the sagamen. A number of misprints in the spellings of proper names and some inaccurate titles of sagas in the glossary (which is not complete) are minor blemishes. The volume lacks a bibliography, and in general there is no indication of the editions of texts.

Gwyn Jones

Review by: Lee M. Hollander, Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 19, No. 1 (FEBRUARY, 1946), pp. 37-39

As Miss Ellis is aware, there was no synthesis or systematization of beliefs in the welter and tangle of the myths of Old Norse antiquity. So it is surely no fault of hers if a clear-cut picture of Old Germanic notions about death and the hereafter does not emerge from her competent and diligent, though somewhat pedestrian, examination of all pertinent passages in the literature. To be quite candid, the sum of all that can be adduced, and in the best interpretation we can put on it, reveals mighty little of the brooding of deeper natures on the mystery of life and death, of the passionate quest for the universal and divine which signalizes so much of the literature of the Semites. On the contrary – with the possible exception of Voluspa suspected of Christian influences- there is exhibited, rather, a fairly shallow insouciance about all such matters, and not a trace of the Faustian nature, of the deep realization of the everlasting antagonism between Apollo and Dionysos, that has inspired so much of the literature of the North in these latter times. Now, this writer is the last to doubt that deeper thoughts did exist in the minds of many wise men that lived in the pre-Christian era – only, we must not look for them in the literature of the upper classes. And as for the true religion of the many, books like Birkeli’s on the High Seat1 and on the Cult of Ancestors2 have taught us that it was not the worship of the gods of Asgarth, mostly intent on their own amours, but the reverent, intimate, pervasive cult of the departed, of the progenitors, which gave solidarity to the family and a deeper meaning to life – the same simple-hearted faith which gave satisfaction to the Greeks and Romans and still gives it to the Chinese and Japanese in our times. It is simply not  believable that the strong and sober intellect of the Old Icelanders really put faith in survival after death in mountains and tumuli – even though stories to that effect abound.

It is quite another matter that such stories may go back to early realities of life and are in themselves consistent. Here, the author has wisely sought the help of archeology to gain a sure footing for the evidence of funeral customs; but the amount of safe correlation with the beliefs held as to the abode of the dead is disappointingly meager. Graves, barrows, and funeral mounds of course tell us what was done with the bodies of the departed, but precious little about what people really believed. As to the conceptions of Valholl and of Hel as the abodes of the departed, they are for the most part poetic fancies, ill-defined. Nor is the Road to Hel, the journey by ship to a land of the dead, etc., any less nebulous – notwithstanding frequent and promising allusions, such as the helskôr of the Gisla saga.

As already stated, this negative result of her quest is not the author’s fault, though her perspective seems very short indeed in that she makes little attempt to discriminate between the various chronological layers of her evidence and rather uncritically accepts every little scrap of it from the Edda, the Family Sagas, and the fornaldarsçgur, as though these did not represent the miscellaneous leavings from well-nigh a thousand years!

For another matter, her disregard of much that has been written in this field is disturbing, at least to this writer. There is nothing to show that she knows, or has benefited from, such investigations as those of Birkeli mentioned above, and those of Mogk on Human Sacrifice, DeVries on the Alfablôt, Gould on the Second Death, Strömbäck on Sejd, Olrik on At sidde paa Hoj, Schütte on Dansk Hedenskab, Kummer on Midgards Untergang, to mention only a few that come to mind. It is very well for a powerful and original thinker like Grönbech – whose books are not mentioned either, by the way – to disregard the labors and conclusions of predecessors and to hew a fresh approach to problems. In all other cases an orderly bibliography is like the surgeon’s case of scalpels, chisels, and scissors: indispen sable, and not a vanity.

To sum up, this is a useful and competent, but not a critical and constructive, collection of the data in Old Norse literature on the conception of the other world.

Lee M. Hollander, University of Texas

  1. 1 Dei gamìe ondvege i religionshistorisk belysning, 1932 (cf. JEGPh., 1935, pp. 600-601).
  2. 2 Fedrekult i Norge, 193

Review by: N. E. M. Boyce, Man, Vol. 44 (Jul. – Aug., 1944), pp. 102-103

The sub-title of The Road to Hel is ‘ A study of the conception of the dead in Old Norse literature.’ In the course of her book the author has amassed a great deal of evidence, chiefly drawn from Old Norse sagas, which prove the richness and complexity of this subject. She traces in detail two main and apparently incompatible conceptions; that of Valholl, which envisages an after-life in some abode of the gods; and that of life lived on within the grave-mound. The first conception appears to be linked with the rite of cremation, the second with that of inhumation; but Miss Ellis, who gives a brief summary of the archaeological evidence for burial customs, points out the impossibility of making as yet any precise equation between rites and beliefs. Ship funerals, for example, appear to be connected with both rites and possibly with both beliefs. From the literary evidence the author concludes it to be possible that Valholl was part of a more embracing conception, a part which has survived for us only because of its potentialities as a poetic theme. It seems to her probable that this conception ‘ was never very widespread in Scandinavia, but that it was a ‘vigorous, perhaps fanatical belief within a restricted circle.’ Yet she points out that there may prove to be closer links than have been suspected between the conception of Valhöll and the more popular grave-mound belief. Valhöll itself, ‘Hall of the Slain,’ thatched with spears, has features in common with certain burial mounds described in sagas; and the author indicates the possibilities of extremely interesting connexions between the Valkyries of Valhöll and the Dísir, mysterious supernatural beings usually associated with burial mounds.

Miss Ellis goes on to show that the conception of an after life within the ‘Howe’ or burial-mound is in itself by no means simple. At its most straightforward, the conception appears to be that of the ‘ Howe’ as the house of the dead man, a close counterpart to his former home. The corpse was usually furnished with treasure and goods, over which it was envisaged as keeping guard. *Human sacrifice seems occasionally to have been entailed, and the author cites a curious case from Iceland, towards the close of the ninth century, in which a dead man was heard demanding in song that the servant killed and buried with him should be removed, because there was too little room for both in the mound. Yet in spite of such crude materialism, there appear to have been some more subtle and elusive beliefs linked with burial mounds. In some cases there developed Apparently a cult of the dead, a deification of the deceased merging into a cult of the barrow itself. There also appears to have been some as yet ill-defined belief in rebirth, which was linked with the burial-mound; and Miss Ellis suggests that possibly a second death, a more complete annihilation, was thought to await barrow-dwellers who failed after a period of time to be reborn-a death out of the grave (hel) into a deeper annihilation (niflhel).

‘ Hel’ itself is a conception which it is difficult to define. As the author points out, the word may stand for death, the grave, a personified goddess or a shadowy underworld. In this last sense it is used vaguely, and Miss Ellis thinks it may have a subtle mantic meaning rather than represent a piece of straightforward cosmography. If this were so, the journey along ‘ Helveg ‘ (the road to Hel) which is described with curious consistency in several stories, mythological and heroic, might be a symbolic spiritual journey, such as forms part of shamanistic ritual. Miss Ellis finds much that is of interest in this connexion in the Norse conception of the soul (which is in itself very complex, with its various aspects of ‘shape ‘ changing,’ guardian spirits, animal counterparts or ‘fylgja,’ and apparently some belief in rebirth); and also in necromancy, showing the relationship between the living and the dead. Interesting parallel evidence is cited of Lappish and Tartar beliefs; just as earlier the author illustrates Norse ship-funerals from Polynesian customs. Such parallel anthropological evidence is, however, used only sparingly and critically by Miss Ellis, although she states her conviction of its value for studies of this kind.

The scope of Miss Ellis’s work is wide, and it is inevitable that, when so much is touched on, there should be little time for detailed research. The author claims in this ‘ preliminary study’ to do no more than sift and arrange available evidence and ‘ to clear the ground for further investigation.’ She has made full and discerning use of texts as they stand, without entering into a study of their relative historical or intrinsic value. The evidence collected from them is of great interest, and is clearly arranged and expounded with lucidity. The deductions suggested are often original and stimulating, although they must remain hypothetical until more detailed research is carried out to prove or disprove them-research in which it is to be hoped the author will herself take a leading part.


Review by: G. Turville-Petre, Folklore, Vol. 55, No. 2 (Jun., 1944), pp. 79-81

THIS is an ambitious book. The publishers state that it ” shows how knowledge can be forwarded by correlation of the evidence from archaeology, history, and literature “. The author claims that it is ” an introduction, to clear the ground for further investigation ” (p. 3.). Unfortunately the book does not fulfil the promises of the publishers’ announcement and of the first pages of its text.

Chapter I (pp. 7-29) is called Funeral Customs: the Evidence of Archaeology. In it the author gives a short account of the Sutton Hoo ship and of some of the better-known grave-finds of Scandinavia.

In the rest of the book the author deals mainly with the evidence of literature. Large quantities of material are gathered from Old Norse texts and summarized with lengthy comment. The traditions of Lapps, Tartars, Polynesians and of other nations are also considered. In some instances it seems that the author gives prominence to these foreign sources at the expense of the native Scandinavian ones. Unlike the Pacific and Asiatic sources, the Icelandic folk-stories, in which tradition is particularly strong, receive but a passing reference in this book (p. 168).

In spite of omissions, Miss Ellis is, on the whole, too inclusive in her choice of material, and she shows little discrimination in judging it. This sometimes makes her book appear formless and undisciplined. Under the heading Necromancy (pp. 157-8) she retells the well-known story Volsaþáttr. This story relates how some peasants in Norway pickled the generative organ of a horse and worshipped it. Miss Ellis finds this story ” delightfully humorous “. It certainly contains several points of interest, but the author does not show that it has much to do with necromancy.

Here and there Miss Ellis appears to be somewhat rash and un critical in her conclusions. About the year 1015, or some years later, the venerable Christian Flosi Þórðarson sailed from Norway for Iceland, but his ship was lost on the voyage (Njáls Saga Ch. CLIX). Flosi’s friends had warned him that his ship was not fit for sea, but he told them it was good enough for an old man, who had not long to live (œrit gott gomlum ok feigum). In this story Miss Ellis sees the “confused echo” of a ship funeral (p. 44).

In Ch. V Miss Ellis discusses the conception of the soul and of other spiritual or half-spiritual beings. In her treatment of these difficult problems she shows the same ambition and self-reliance as she does in the rest of the book. “The meanings of the different terms fylgja, hamingjur, dís  and so on ” she writes ” must each be examined in some detail “. Her examination of the use of these terms is neither detailed, systematic nor accurate. Some of the most prevalent associations both of the hamingja and fylgja are overlooked. In the popular beliefs of Iceland, as in those of other countries, the fylgja (attendant spirit) is closely associated with the afterbirth (and the caul) of a child, which the Ice landers also call by the name fylgja. This fact is altogether overlooked by Miss Ellis, although it was recognized by J. Grimm, K. Maurer, J. de Vries, and by most scholars who have seriously studied the Norse conception of the attendant spirit in the last hundred years. Partly because of this intimate association between the guardian spirit and the afterbirth, H. Falk and other scholars believe that the two nominal synonyms, fylgja, are really one word, and that they are derived from fulga (covering, skin). If this is so the association between fylgja (attendant spirit) and the verb fylgja (to accompany) must arise from popular etymology. The semantic development of the noun fylgia, in that case, resembles that of hamingja and hamr, which seem also to have passed through many of the gradual variations from the concrete ” skin ” to the abstract ” fate “. But Miss Ellis does not discuss the etymology of hamingja or of fylgja. Instead she assumes that fylgja (attendant spirit) must be derived from the verb fylgja (to accompany). She evidently thinks that this verb means ” to follow ” in the English sense, and is surprised to find that the guardian spirit generally walks in front instead of behind its human companion (p. 129). It is indicative of Miss Ellis’s methods that, between pp. 121 and 134, where she discusses the words hamingja and fylgja, the only learned works to which she refers are: Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, the Cambridge Medieval History, U. Holmberg: Mythology of all Races, Finno-Ugric, Siberian and M. A. Czaplicka: My Siberian Year. This implies that the specialized literature on the fylgja and hamingja is ignored.

Ch. VII is called The journey to the Land of the Dead. It is a bewildering chapter, and contains much material which seems irrelevant. The author does not confine her attention to mythical journeys whose declared object is the world of the dead, but almost any mysterious journey is considered suitable for the chapter. Even the stories of the waking and courtship of Brynhildr and Sigrdrifa, which every student knows, are retold at length (pp. 180-4), chiefly, it seems, because Sigurðr passes through a wall of fire, or shields, to reach them. Perhaps the reader may be excused if he grows weary, as he follows the author through this Völundarhús, and wonders where she is leading him.

In style this book is confused and difficult to follow, and many of the references are wrong. A cursory glance at the Road to Hel reveals that Icelandic proper names and words are often given in corrupt form. A considerable proportion of these corruptions are such that meanings are obscured and elementary grammatical rules are broken. The fall of the gods (ragna-rok, sometimes ragna-rokkr ” dusk of the gods “) is called Ragnarrokr throughout. Trójumanna Saga (the Tale of the  of Troy) is called Trojonararsaga (p. 75), Stjornu-Oddi is called Stjaerne Oddr, which is half Danish (p. 106). The genitive of bœarmagn (or bœarmagn) appears as bcearmagnis throughout. Errors like these may not be important, but, since they are so many, they inevitably shake the reader’s confidence in the author’s knowledge of Old Icelandic. The passages, which the author selects for translation, are few, and seldom difficult. Nevertheless, Miss Ellis makes a number of elementary mistakes. (Menn) sau at ernir tveir flugust a, which means ” they saw two eagles attack each other “, is rendered: ” they . . . saw two eagles flying there ” (p. 126). The adverb ütan is translated vaguely ” across ” in an instance where it clearly means ” from the coast ” (p. 13 I). The common noun ütiseta is apparently thought to be a verb, and used in its oblique form to make an English sentence : ” those who ütisetu . . . ” (p. 168).

Miss Ellis claims that her book: ” points the way to roads along which investigation may go on ” (p. 201). In reality, her work suffers chiefly because she neglects the researches of other scholars. She ignores much of the major work on her subject. J. de Vries’s Altger manische Religionsgeschichte, the most authoritative work on Germanic heathendom published in recent years, is not mentioned at all in her index. It is, moreover, plain that she has made little use of the comprehensive bibliography, which forms part of de Vries’s work. H. Klare’s die Toten in der altnordischen Literatur (Act Philologica Scandinavica, 1933, PP. 1-56) is mentioned on p. 163, where it is dismissed with a carping footnote, which noticeably misrepresents Klare’s methods. It is possible that Miss Ellis was not aware that the study of Old Norse literature and religion had reached a comparatively high standard in Scandinavia, Germany and Holland. There may be many excuses for the author, but it is difficult to see why the Press should have seen fit to publish this book in its present state. Originally this book formed part of a thesis accepted for the degree of Ph.D. in the University of Cambridge.



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