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Representations of the Pagan Afterlife in Medieval Scandinavian Literature

Representations of the Pagan Afterlife in Medieval Scandinavian Literature

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"Representations of the Pagan Afterlife in Medieval Scandinavian Literature" by Christopher Abram for PhD Dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2003
"Representations of the Pagan Afterlife in Medieval Scandinavian Literature" by Christopher Abram for PhD Dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2003

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01/11/2013

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Representations of the Pagan Afterlifein Medieval Scandinavian Literature
 
Christopher Abram
 Robinson College
 This dissertation is submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Cambridge
14 February, 2003
 
Representations of the Pagan Afterlife in Medieval Scandinavian Literature
Christopher Abram
Summary
 The corpus of texts surviving from medieval Scandinavia which contain, or purport to contain,pre-Christian myths, vestiges of a pagan belief-system, is quite large. As in all religions, the fate
of the ‘soul’ after death is shown to be of primary concern to pagan Scandinavians. My 
dissertation is concerned with the way in which the afterlife, in its various forms, is presented inextant literary texts: not as an exercise in religious history, but in an attempt to find out whatliterary use was made by authors of different periods and genres of the two main Scandinavianrealms of the dead, Valh
o,˛
ll and Hel.
I first address the question of the nature of Hel which, according to Snorri Sturluson’s
thirteenth-century mythography, was the name both of an underworld home of the dead, and a
goddess who presided over that realm. Snorri’s sour
ces diverge in this matter, however: I show how skaldic poets only ever refer to Hel the goddess, while the poems of the
Poetic Edda 
,although ambivalent in a few instances, regard Hel as a place within the mythological cosmos.Both poetic genres use references to Hel primarily as circumlocutions for death or the act of 
dying. Snorri’s description of Hel is shown to be a conscious harmonization of the attitudes
evinced by the two poetic genres.
Snorri’s conception of the mythological cosmos is very structu
ral, and based upon pairedoppositions; the dichotomy of Hel and Valh
o,˛
ll is one of the most important of these structures.I show how modern structuralist interpretations of Norse mythology are only supported by 
Snorra Edda 
, before examining ho
 w eddic and skaldic poets’ attitudes towards the Hel/Valho,˛
llcomplex vary, and suggest that in many cases this apparent inconsistency is a result of changing literary taste and social attitudes, and that no single religious belief about the afterlife may bediscerned behind the extant texts. As well as fitting Hel and Valh
o,˛ll into his model of the mythology’s structure, Snorri
also situates an important narrative
 – 
 
Hermóðr’s ride in search of Baldr – 
in Hel. The motifspresent in this narrative, are, I argue, more closely related to Christian vision literature than to
any ‘native’ sources; I compare Snorri’s approach in this regard to that of Saxo Grammaticus, theDanish historian whose Latin work often overlaps with Snorri’s mytho
graphy.
 
Preface
It is a pleasant duty to thank first of all the Arts and Humanities Research Board, who fundedthis PhD. I am also grateful to the Isaac Newton Trust, the H. M. Chadwick Fund, and toRobinson College, all of whom provided additional financial support. For over seven years (notall of them during the writing of this PhD!), Robinson has been my home, as well as my  workplace, and I thank the fellows, staff, and students of the College for providing such asupportive and stimulating environment for my studies.My principal academic debt is to my supervisors, Rosalind Love and Andy Orchard. Tom
Hall, Richard North, and Judy Quinn were also generous with their help. Jonathan Grove’s
assistance with proofreading was invaluable.Many friends have taken an interest in this project; some have taken none at all. To both
groups I am equally grateful, and so I’d like to thank: Katherine Borthwick, Alex Brocklehurst,
 Jon Coe, Paul Corthorn, Richard Dance, Katherine Didriksen, Annemarie Falktoft, GavinHaslam, Karl Jackson, Adrian Joyce, Jon Marsden, Jamie Mitchell, Jim Rose, Rebecca Rushforth,
Manish Sharma, Flora Spiegel, Stew Sage, Renée Trilling, Al Vining, and Ed Wynn.
 
 Without Emily Thornbury’s moral support, willing assistance, and steadfast friend
ship(to say nothing of her ethical guidance), this dissertation might well never have seen the light of day.My profoundest debt, now as always, is to my parents, to whom this work is dedicated with love. This dissertation is the result of my own work and includes nothing which is theoutcome of work done in collaboration except where specifically indicated in thetext. This dissertation does not exceed the regulation length, including footnotes,references and appendices but excluding the bibliography.

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