The Underworld and the Afterlife

By Mark David

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Death, if it was to be feared, was captured in legend and such legends were a very real part of the collective existence of the Norse people. This is not just a voyage into myth, into the past or history, but also one within our own global modern culture.
In the writing of my fiction, I’ve been increasingly drawn to the entire concept of ‘a Nordic death’. Death and the afterlife really sparked my imagination. Wanting to know more about places I had never heard of before I wanted something very different than a Christian, Jewish or Islamic view of the world. For the Norse and the Vikings, the concept of the afterlife was very close to life as much as life was always close to death. Much that is written here has arisen from source material gathered over the years, part of my quest to write ‘The Lord Of The Rings in the real world’, to envisage and realize a hard-boiled world as anything from fantasy.
In this first volume, The Underworld and the Afterlife, I examine the key myths: legends like the living undead, the Draugar, the destinations in the afterlife. I weave threads linking sagas to beliefs, eye witness reports to legends, covering Scandinavian, Northern Germanic and Anglo-Saxon Norse sources, amidst the backdrop of Viking and pre-Viking folk superstition.
In Viking times, burial sites of ancestor worship often featured the device of the boat carrying the dead to the halls of Valhalla. Of this we can only speculate, since the sagas that have come down to us, mostly from Icelandic sources, are only fragmentary. Scholars do not have any answers to the question whether the dead would remain for some time in the grave and later depart for the realm of the dead, what the purpose of the grave goods was, or if ‘the ship in the barrow’ was to transport the deceased to the realm of the dead.
With these legends in mind, I have spent a lot of time working on ideas that somehow, juxtaposes a ‘discovery of truth and morality’ with older, darker deeds. At times, it has felt as if the past has been brought to life, reborn out of the ragged bedrock and black lakes of the middle-Swedish lands. Places where belief and identity could be dragged into the light of a modern day revealing the past – not so much as ‘tales’ – but as a reawakening of age-old customs. Such customs are revealed through the brutality of people who remain hidden, leaving the deeds to speak for themselves, and the beliefs that lay behind them.
The simple truth is, the Norse people were driven by their beliefs, they conditioned what they thought and what they did. For the Norse, the concept of the afterlife was a very real part of the lives of people for whom superstition was a way of life. For example, in the Landnámbók, the tradition is described where the dead pass into the mountains. This was a world that had fostered places and creatures within landscapes that were the embodiment of the seasons, of darkness – and light, of cold and isolation. Nothing is more apt for conveying the mythical power of the ancestor as the grave, often described as an abode for the dead, and a source for the rites of old and the Scandinavian tradition of putting out food and beer on the mound has survived into modern times.
This tradition in particular is a reminder of just how ancestor worship draws powerful ties to legend and belief, both so common during the days of the Vikings and back farther in time, to the legends and cult of the Ancestor from the Dark Ages, as told by such heralds of old as the Danish scribe Saxo Grammaticus. The tales are many, and in many of the tales, if the dead were taken care of, they would in return protect the homestead and its people, as well as provide for its fertility. If not, they would return and take the bodies of the living as the living undead. In the following chapters I will look at these and many more aspects of the living, the dead, the underworld and the afterlife.

Introduction to Chapters

1 The Two Hels

For the ancient Scandinavians, death was part of life: In many ways, it was a society based on a system of belief concerning the dead and the gods who ruled the realms between which man passed in life and death. 

2 Mist and Darkness

The ancestor worship of the Norse had at its core that part of the soul stays in the underworld, representing the person in spiritual form, becoming an ancestor. 

3 The Draugar

In early Viking age, many people needed to seek refuge in safer havens, preferring to make the journey across the North Sea instead of remaining uncertainty in the wake of blood feuds and a fight for the right to live a free and independent life. 

4 The Saga of Hromound Gripsson

Hrómundar saga Gripssonar

The saga of Romund Gripsson is a saga legend from Iceland, the original of which has been lost. Content has been preserved in the Hrómundr Gripsson, known as the Griplur, composed in the first half of the 14th century. In this saga, we meet the draug in more detail than any other saga. 

5 Warrior, Fire & Barrow

Mounds and stones are fitting symbols of the lasting presence of the deceased’s life and memory. There are many different stories cited as the historical origin of this tradition. 

6 Sacrifice & Death Rites

Yggdrasil is the name of the The Tree of Life, or World Tree in Nordic Mythology. In stanza 137 of the poem Hávamál, Odin describes how he once sacrificed himself to himself by hanging on a tree. This chapter looks at rites in myth, legend and reality.

7 Destinations for the Dead

Not all warriors go to Valhalla.

8 Mystical Locations

Visiting the places of the dead. Why are tombs so fascinating? This chapter explores locations like Helgafell ‘holy mountain’ that create resonance. 

9 Beliefs of the Norse

Ancestor worship was an element in pre-Christian Scandinavian culture. The ancestors were of great importance for the self-image of the family and people believed that they were still able to influence the life of their descendants from the land of the dead. 

10 The Saga of the Ere-Dwellers

Thorolf Most-Beard Comes Out To Iceland, And Sets Up House.



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