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The Death Myth in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Literature

The Death Myth in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Literature

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Published by cristinadr
an essay for the scientific session at the Faculty of Letters (Romanian-English)
an essay for the scientific session at the Faculty of Letters (Romanian-English)

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Published by: cristinadr on Dec 14, 2009
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Culture. Myth-Mythology. Archetype In order to analyze and compare the Celtic and the Anglo-Saxon cultures, it was necessary for me to explain the terms culture, myth, mythology and archetype. Culture may be defined as the abstract values, beliefs, and perceptions of the world--i.e. a world view--that shape, and are reflected in, a people’s behavior. Culture encompasses all that is human-made, learned and transmitted, especially through language, rather than what is inherited biologically. People are not born with a culture; they learn culture through the process of enculturation. To take root and survive, a culture must satisfy the basic needs of people who live by its rules, develop means to ensure its transmission and continuity across generations, and provide an orderly existence for members of the society. (http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/CoursePack/culture.htm) Mythology can be defined as a body of interconnected myths, or stories, told by a specific cultural group to explain the world consistent with a people’s experience of the world in which they live. Plato was the first to have used the term, but to him mythology meant only the telling of a story which featured legendary characters. (Cotterell: 2002, p. 10) The word myth comes from ancient Greek, meaning story or plot, and was applied to stories sacred and secular, invented and true. Myths often begin as sacred stories that offer supernatural explanations for the creation of the world and humanity, as well as for death, judgment, and the afterlife. A mythology or belief system often concerns supernatural beings or powers of a culture, provides a rationale for a culture’s religion and practices, and reflects how people relate to each other in everyday life. Some theorists consider that folklore and mythology can not be separated. They classify myths as folk tales which have been transformed by poets so as they would comprise religious elements. Myths are sometimes based on less sacred events, having mundane matters as basis. (Cotterell: 2002, p. 10) We can classify myths into: ritual myths (they explain the performance of a certain religious practices or patterns and associated with temples or centers of worship); origin myths (describe the beginnings of a custom, name or object); cult myths (they are often seen as explanations for elaborate festivals

that magnify the power of the deity); prestige myths (they are usually associated with a divinely chosen hero, city, or people); eschatological myths (these are stories which describe catastrophic ends to the present world order of the writers; they extend beyond any potential historical scope, and thus can only be described in mythic terms). Some myths fit in more than one category. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mythology) Myths and mythology express a culture’s worldview, that is, a people’s conceptions and assumptions about humankind’s place in nature and the universe, and the limits and workings of the natural and spiritual world. Today, in common usage, non-believers are often too quick to dismiss other cultures' religious and sacred stories as mythology and myth. But serious cross-cultural study requires that we resist this dismissive impulse, and understand that what we might call myth can be another culture's religious belief. (http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/CoursePack/culture.htm) Cross-cultural comparisons of the world’s myths have uncovered striking similarities in themes, structures, images, and characters. For a better understanding of the phenomenon, myth critics approach myth, as well as language, as a way of responding to the world and creating a worldview. They describe myth as non-intellectual, primal, emotion-laden, experiential, and imagistic. They suggest that literature and oral arts tap into a universal human mythic consciousness and reveal the dynamics that have given meaning and intelligibility to our world. (http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/CoursePack/culture.htm) An allegorical interpretation of the similarities between myths states that at one time they were invented by wise men to point out a truth, but after long periods myths were taken literally because the allegorical meaning was forgotten. Some theorists suggest that what seems absurd in myth is the result of people forgetting or distorting the meanings of words. Religious scholar Mircea Eliade contended that myths are recited for the purpose of ritually recreating the beginning of time when all things were initiated so one can return to the original, successful creative act. Those who characterize the ordinary as profane and secular, view myths as a form of sacred speech, and implicitly as particular manifestations of a universal religious sensibility. (http://www.bartleby.com/65/my/mytholog.html) Archetypes are also related to the field of mythology; they can be defined as a set of universal and elemental mental forms or patterns, e.g. recurring narrative plots, patterns of action, character types, images, found in a wide variety of the world’s literary and oral traditions, myths, dreams, and ritualized modes of social behavior. The archetype of archetypes has been identified as the death-rebirth theme, connected with the cycle of seasons and the organic cycle of human life and death. Other archetypes include sacrifice of the king, gods who die to be reborn, the journey into hell, the ascent to heaven, the scapegoat, the earth goddess, the search for the father, the fatal woman, the wise old man, the divine child, the cross, the quest. Such archetypes express a mythic conception of human life. As such, they cannot be understood by

intellectual, rational, or logical methods or procedures; rather, archetypes are the stuff of dreams, the unconscious, ceremony, trance, and ritual. (http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/CoursePack/culture.htm) Drawing upon anthropology, linguistics, and psychology, Claude LeviStrauss suggested that the meaning of myths lies not in their content, but in the structure of relationships that myths reveal. Myths work to mediate among life’s extremes (e.g., life-death, agriculture-warfare), allowing humans to overcome life’s contradictions. (http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/CoursePack/culture.htm) Representations of Death in Various Cultures and Religions Death and rebirth are two major themes that are recurrent in cultures all around the world. Since I took specific interest in the death myth, first of all I will exemplify it by means of presenting some religions and cultures and how death myth is represented within those cultures. The ancient Greeks believed that the dead were ushered to the Underworld, ruled by the god Hades, and had to pay a few coins to the ferryman Charon to cross the River Styx, and enter the afterlife. In fact, this belief was so deeply held that the Greeks buried their dead with a coin or coins in their mouths, to afford the fee to Hades. Once in the Underworld, the dead were judged to be good or evil. The good ascended to the Elysian Fields, or Elysium, a place of paradise. The evil descended to fiery Tartarus, where they were punished eternally, or in some cases sentenced to repent for long periods before being deemed worthy to enter Elysium. The Greeks also believed in reincarnation, with the judges at the gates of Hades deciding the next incarnation of each soul. Buddhism appeared in the sixth century BC, growing out of Hinduism. It postulated a series of graded paradises, each more beautiful and sensual than its predecessor. Ascent through these dimensions is dependent on individual virtue and meditation. Yet in both religions the desire was not for ultimate and personal pleasure, but for a release from the bondage of personality. This pure spiritual state is referred to as Nirvana. A soul may dwell in the levels of paradise for eons, but ultimately it must leave to continue its pilgrimage. Though a soul may spend ages in the various paradises, it must eventually return in reincarnation. (Filoramo: 2003, pp. 306-307) The Egyptian beliefs in afterlife and practices regarding the dead are immensely complex and difficult to understand. A great deal of the Egyptians’ beliefs in the afterlife revolved around the pharaoh they worshipped. The belief was that the Pharaoh was the personal representative of the Sun God Ra, and his followers were assured everlasting life in the afterworld if his body was preserved for eternity through embalming. The embalming of every body was a solemn and sacred ritual for the Egyptians, with priests of Anubis (god of the dead) donning a death mask to perform their deathly duties. Many bodies were

buried with personal effects and riches cherished in life, so that the souls could take them with them to the afterlife. (Filoramo: 2003, p. 41) It was not until the second century BC that the Hebrews formulated a belief in judgment after death. The earliest Hebrew beliefs were quite grim; upon death the soul was reduced to nothing but a shade, an insignificant wisp of psychic energy, which descended into Sheol, a dreary pit beneath the Earth. The good and the evil both ended up in Sheol in these early beliefs. Eventually a conceptual change took place. No one knows what brought about this change, but now a belief in resurrection and judgment of the dead became part of the Hebrew mythos. The idea gained support in Jewish literature, which included detailed descriptions of judgment by Yahweh (Jehovah). It was believed that there would be a Day of Yahweh, when God would punish the oppressors of the Jewish people. This was gradually transformed into the concept of the Last Judgment, and these refined beliefs were later incorporated by Christianity, along with the topology of Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/8871/afterlife.html) The afterlife of Islam involved a paradise for good-doers and a hellish punishment for evildoers. After the dead were buried and the mourners departed, two angels, Munkar and Nakeer, were believed to visit the spirits of the departed for judgment and interrogate them about the Islam. If they answered correctly, they proceed to paradise, if they didn’t they were sent to hell. There was also belief in a day of resurrection for all such souls, when the dead were to face God and be judged directly. (Filoramo: 2003, p. 224-225) Shinto, the native Japanese religion, is concerned with the veneration of nature and with ancestor worship; it does not have saints according to the standards of ethical perfection or of exceptionally meritorious performance. In Shinto afterlife beliefs, every person, upon death, becomes a supernatural being called a kami. The kami continues to have influence in the world of the living. Those who were good in life become beneficial kamis, while those who were evil in life become destructive kamis. The Shinto also believed in reincarnation through various living beings, sometimes in lesser animals, other times in the unborn babies within the womb. (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/8871/afterlife.html) Christians argue that a benevolent God would hardly have given us life merely for it to end after a relatively short period of time with the demise of the physical body. The Christian doctrine taught that the human soul created by God was immortal. Once placed within the physical shell, the two were then inextricably linked until death, when the soul left the body. Jesus himself promised eternal life and spoke of a last judgment day, when the good would receive eternal happiness and the sinners, perpetual pain and misery in the fires of Hell. At the Second Coming of Christ, the decomposed bodies of everyone who had ever lived would be reconstituted and their souls returned to them for the Final Judgment.


Representations of the Death Myth in the Celtic World Before I will begin to talk about the death myth in the Celtic Culture, I will try to establish a historical background of the population we know as the Celts. The first records about the Celtic populations were made in the 6th century BC. The Greek historian Herodotus mentions that around the year 500 BC they had already spread over the entire Alpine Europe, in areas immediately to the north, in central France and in parts of Spain. The Celts were not a homogenous people; the different tribes often fought each other. What made the historians consider them a people was the fact that they were related closely by language and culture. They were a people of warriors and farmers and led their lives in close connection with nature. The Celts from different regions had an alphabet of their own, called Ogham. Later, the Brithonic Celts adopted the Latin alphabet, after came in contact with the Romans and their cultures intermingled. (Filoramo: 2003, pp.79-80) The Celts believed in life after death, but this life was more like their earthly life. The Otherworld was a place parallel to the world of the living, into which mortals could easily stumble (the entrances were cave openings or mounds). The Celtic Otherworld, or Land of the Dead, was also considered to be the home of fairies and other mythological creatures that often came to the land of the living to cause mischief, or to help the mortals. Besides from the Otherworlds that were easily reachable by humans, there were also the otherworldly islands. These were lands of peace and eternal life. In Irish legends, these islands were ruled by Manannan mac Lír, a descendant of the sea; they were called Emhain Ablach, Mag Findargat, Mag Reín, Mag Mell, Emne, Ildathach, Tír na mBean (the Land of Women), Tír fo Thonn (the Land Beneath the Wave), Tír Tairnigir (the Land of Promise), Tír na nóg (the Land of Youth), Hy Breasil/ Hy-Brazil/ Hi Brasil (the Best of Places), and many other names. These Otherworld islands were hard to reach. Mortals would get there only if invited by one of Manannan’s daughters, and they were never allowed to leave. They were also granted eternal youth and spent their lives feasting. Tír na nóg (the Land of the Young) was the most important Irish Otherworld. This became the home of the Tuatha Dé Danann after they were defeated by Milesians. It was located on an island far to the west of Ireland and it could be reached only by a voyage full of hardships or through an invitation from one of its inhabitants. In Tír na nóg there was no sickness or death, only eternal youth and beauty. It can be compared to the Greek Elysium Fields or the Norse Valhalla. In Welsh mythology, the Otherworld was called Annwn or Annwfn (under-world, un-world), the land of souls that had departed the material world. It was considered to be inhabited by fairy folk, demons or deities. It was not comparable to Christian Heaven, nor to Hell. Annwn was ruled by Arawn, the Lord of the Dead (later known as Gwynn ap Nudd), and it could be reached only by the dead. However, some legends said that Annwn could be entered by

those still living if they would find its door (located at the mouth of the Severn, near Lundy Island, or on Glastonbury Tor1). The legend says that Arawn was accompanied by his white hounds with red ears (Cwn Annwn or the Hounds of Annwn), while riding the skies in autumn, winter and early spring. They hunted down the Otherworld spirits and chased them back into Annwn. Later, these legends were altered and Arawn was pictured as the leader of the Wild Hunt, capturing human souls and bringing them to Annwn. Also in Welsh mythology, Avalon was an island where one would go when approaching death. It was the home of Afallach, an Underworld God. The Isle of Avalon was mostly identified with Glastonbury, because the Glastonbury Tor was called Ynys Witrin (the Isle of Glass) or Caer Widyr (the Fort of Glass), just like the names designating the Celtic Otherworld. The Isle of Avalon will gain importance in later legends surrounding the figure of King Arthur2. The Celtic literature, a term applied to the mythology and folklore of the ancient and medieval Gaullist and Celtic cultures, is abundant with symbolic stories abut heroes’ deaths or about mortals who enter the Otherworlds. The best record of the rich Celtic mythological tradition is contained in the four cycles drawn up by twelfth century Christian scribes. They have been called by modern scholars the Mythological Cycle (the stories of the first inhabitants of Ireland), the Ulster / Ultonian / Red Branch Cycle (tales about the Irish king Conchobar mac Nessa and his nephew, Chúculainn), the Fenian / Fianna / Ossianic Cycle (stories about the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhail), and the Kings (Historical) Cycle. Besides these major cycles, there are many miscellaneous tales and legends which are hard to fit into any historical framework. They are called immrama (sea voyages to the Otherworld), echtrae (voyages to the Land of the Dead), catha (battles), tana (cattle raids), fessa (fiests) airgine (slaughters) etc. (http://www.geocities.com/~huathe/mythology.html) For a better understanding of how the death myth was illustrated in Celtic mythology, I have chosen two mythological tales, namely The Voyage of Bran and the story of King Arthur. Immram Brain Since what we know as Immram Brain was translated into modern English as the Voyage of Bran, I will have to explain the term immrama and provide some information about the piece called Immram Brain. An immram is

Glastonbury, a small town about 125 miles or 220 km west of London, is full of myth and legend. A prominent site in Glastonbury is the Glastonbury Tor (tor means rocky hill or peak). A Celtic legend says that the hill is hollow and that the top guards the entrance to the Underworld, as well as being the home of the Lord of the Underworld, Gwyn ap Nudd. (http://www.crystalinks.com/glastonburytor.html) 23 King Arthur is an important figure in the mythology of Great Britain, where he appears as the ideal of kingship in both war and peace. He is the central character in the cycle of legends known as the Matter of Britain. (Cotterell: 2002, p. 140)


a story about a mortal’s voyage to the Otherworld; what distinguishes immrama from echtrae, another type of tales that describe trips to the Otherworld, is the fact that in the former the accent is on the voyage and in the latter the accent is on the otherworldly destination. The Voyage of Bran is the story of a mortal who makes a journey to the Otherworld. It is one of the oldest tales in Irish literature. It is believed that the narrative was first compiled in the 7th century. However, the present work is preserved in two extant works: the Book of the Dun Cow (early 11th century) and the Book of Leinster (mid-12th century). The Voyage of Bran is the story of Bran, an Irish nobleman, who followed the advice of a beautiful and mysterious woman and went in search of Emaim Ablach (the Isle of Women). The island she described was so beautiful and magnificent that everybody on it experienced eternal happiness; on that island there was only one season and the weather was always sunny, and still there was enough water and an endless supply of food. The people who reached the island would never grow old, nor die, they would not know grief, nor sorrow. On their way to Emaim Ablach, Bran and his men met a man in a chariot drawn by a golden horse, and he told them he was Manannán mac Lir, the sea god. He also spoke of Emaim Ablach and told Bran that he should reach there by sunset. During their voyage, Bran and his men encountered the Isle of Joy. One of the crew members went on the island to see why all its inhabitants were laughing in delight, but he begun to laugh just like the islanders and was unable to return to the ship. (Kernbach: 1995, p. 92) After Bran and his men finally reached the island, they lived happily together with the women of Emaim Ablach for a number of years. One day one of the crew members felt homesick and Bran told the Queen that he and his men wanted to leave. The Queen warned them that if they went back to Ireland, they were not to set foot on dry land. On their return, Bran and his men stayed aboard the ships. When Bran told a local who he was, the man said that he only heard of a man called Bran from an ancient legend. One of Bran’s men ignored the Queen’s warning but when he stepped out of the boat he was immediately reduced to ashes. Bran spoke of their adventures and the locals recorded the story. Then they sailed away never to be heard of again. (Kernbach: 1995, p. 92) This story and other similar ones, such as the Voyage of Mael Duin, the Voyage of St. Brendan, the Voyage of O'Curra or the story of Pwyll, are all accounts of trips to the Otherworld. Although the woman does not tell Bran that her island is not usually inhabited by the living, the characteristics of Emaim Ablach are those of Paradise. The fact that the men are immortal as long as they remain on their boats suggests that once they had set foot on sacred land, they gained the secret of immortality. They were to loose it only if they touched the dirt (the gesture signified the contact with the profane). The sea god Manannán mac Lir in Irish mythology was considered the god of the Otherwoldly islands or Hy Breasil. The Queen is probably a fairy that dwells in the Otherworld. The sea is the element which separates the Otherworld from the land of the living. It

may be the water of life of the dark water of death. On his return to his own world Bran realizes that time is merciless although he had been in a place where time stood still. The Isle of Joy is yet another Otherworld where there is no sorrow, only joy and laughter. The Death of King Arthur King Arthur was the main character of the Arthurian legends. The name of Arthurian Legends was given to a group of tales written in several languages, all built around the legendary figure of a certain King Arthur of the Britons (the Brithonic Celts), and also around his kingdom and his knights. The story of Arthur is one of the most enduring in recorded history. It first appeared in the 5th or 6th century AD and took its basic form between the 12th and 15th centuries; it continues as a popular subject in modern times. In the legend, Arthur is the son of king Uther Pendragon and queen Igraine. Arthur proves to be worthy of the throne and builds up a kingdom where there was only peace and harmony (Camelot). Arthur’s conquests are successful because of his marvelous sword, first called Caliburn and later known as Excalibur (he received this sword from a hand that emerged from a lake). His reign has a flourishing period, during which he marries Guinevere and founds the institution of the Round Table, a fellowship of knights. But perfection is shattered by the love affair between Guinevere, Arthur’s queen, and Lancelot, his bravest knight. Things get even worse when Arthur is attacked by his illegitimate son, Mordred, born from Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his own sister, Morgause (or Morgan). Condemned to death, Guinevere is saved by Lancelot at the last moment and both are forced to flee to France in order to escape Arthur’s wrath. Mordred claims Arthur’s throne and fights him at Camlann. In the end of the battle, only Arthur, Mordred and Sir Bedivere remain. Arthur kills Mordred, but is seriously wounded. (http://www.mikekemble.com/misc/kingarthur.html) After the battle, Arthur askes Sir Bedivere to throw Excalibur into a lake, but his knight is blinded by greed and at first tries to keep the sword. Arthur realizes he was betrayed and orders him to throw the sword in the lake, in order for the spirit of the lake to appear. She comes in a boat filled with women and takes him to Avalon, where his wounds were to be healed. The legends say that he would return in the hour of Britain's greatest need. Arthur’s ultimate fate remains uncertain. (http://www.mikekemble.com/misc/kingarthur.html) Arthur’s kingdom died not because of the evil from outside, but because of Arthur and the knights’ own sins. Lust, greed, envy eventually led to the fall of a world which seemed perfect. Arthur’s image as the king who would return from his sleep to rule once again has become an emblem of the British people. His voyage to Avalon (or the Island of Apples) is also a trip to the Otherworlds, since Avalon has all the characteristics of a Paradise. A proof that the Celts believed in an Otherworld which was close to the world of the living is the fact that Arthur’s

death was not considered permanent and his return was awaited. This belief also proves that the Celts always had faith in the victory of the good over evil. Representations of the Death Myth in the Anglo-Saxon World After having talked about the illustrations of the death myth in the Celtic culture, I will follow the same pattern in what the Anglo-Saxon culture is concerned, and I will start by establishing a historical background. We know that the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain from southern Scandinavia, the Netherlands and northern Germany, thus the Anglo-Saxon mythology was originally the same as the Germanic mythology and the betterknown version of Norse mythology. Information would have been orally transmitted between tribes by the Anglo-Saxon traveling scops. Germanic mythology was bloody and pessimistic. Most of the gods were cruel and the only way for a mortal to gain their favor was through heroic deeds. That is way the Germanic peoples believed that the only honorable death was on the battlefield. We are also aware of the fact that the Germanic people had two main principles that ruled their lives: fate (Wyrd) and fame. The first principle said that the human being can not escape fate; fate was seen most times as cruel and merciless. The second rule was that the only honorable way to die, one that would preserve the memory, was a death on the battlefield; that is why a warrior’s greatest wish was to die on the battlefield. In order to understand the Anglo-Saxon ways of life, religion and culture, we need to know more about the Anglo-Saxon mythology. In the following lines, I will try to enumerate some of the most important Anglo-Saxon gods and myths, and explain how they influenced the life of this people. The Anglo-Saxon Gods The ancient Germanic pantheon was made up of two divine families: the Vones (Norse Vanir) which were water spirits and the Osses (Norse Aesir), identifiable with the gods. These groups were not homogenous, nor in opposition, although they were distinct. They were celebrated together, as a consequence of the peace between them, although peace was attained after a long war. The Vanir were represented by Njördhr and his children, Freyr and Freya. Njördhr was a deity of fertility and of the sea, a patron of fishermen and sailors, while Freya and Freyr were patrons of physical pleasure, fertility and peace. (Eliade: 1999, p. 327) The highest in rank among the Aesir were the gods Tiw / Norse Tyr, Wóden / Norse Odhin and Þunor / Norse Thor. Other Aesir were the gods Balder / Norse Baldr (the son of Odhin), Fríge / Norse Frigg (the wife of Odhin), and Loki, the foster-brother of Odhin. (Kernbach: 1995, p. 669)

Odhin (Odin, Odhinn, Voden, Wóden, Wotan, Wuotan) was the oneeyed god of fighting, witchcraft, inspiration and death, the oldest of all the gods. Odhin ruled in Valhalla, the hall of the dead. Valhalla was full of Einherjar, the souls of dead warriors. Odhin needed these souls in order to defend his kingdom at the end of the gods (Ragnarök). The souls of dead warriors were brought to Valhalla by the Valkyries, goddesses of battle which came from Vana (Cotterell: 2003, p. 165). Some legends say they were twelve, others say that they were many more. The Valkyries were not only warriors, but they also had to serve the food and drink at the gods’ table. (Kernbach: 1995, p. 669). The Germanic creation myth, as well as the apocalyptical myth of Ragnarök, was based on the idea of sacrifice. The approach was pessimistic. The creation myth was based on the sacrifice of Ymir, an anthropomorphic creature. After Ymir was killed by Odhin and his brothers Vili and Ve, its body was used to create the world. The Ragnarök myth (an apocalyptical vision of the end of the world of gods) was announced by Fimbulwinter (Fimbulwetr)1. Ragnarök also started with a sacrifice: the death of Baldr, Odhin and Frigg’s son. Baldr was a kind and gentle god, and his mother tried to make him invulnerable. By the power of Frigg, all the living and non-living things swore never to harm Baldr, except for the mistletoe (Frigg considered it too small and powerless to harm her son). Loki, the evil-minded god, made an arrow out of the mistletoe and tricked Hödhr, Baldr’s brother, to throw it at him. Baldr was killed, and this announced the end of the gods (Eliade: 1999, p. 331). After Baldr died, the gods tied Loki up, but it was too late. Fenrir the wolf, a progeny of Loki, swallowed the sun and ate the moon. Jörmungandr2, Fenrir’s brother, made the depths of the Earth boil and caused great floods. All evil forces gathered on Vigrid field. Even Yggdrasil3, the cosmic tree, started to crumble. In the battle, Thor killed Jörmungandr, but died from its venom. Odhin was defeated and eaten by Fenrir. One of Odhin’s sons, Vidar, killed the wolf but died afterwards. Loki and Heimdall4 fought and killed one another. Surtr, a fire god (some legends say Surtr is another embodiment of Loki), started the cosmic fire and destroyed everything; the Earth fell into the Ocean and the Sky fell down. After this disaster, a new Earth5 was reborn. The new land was green and fertile and they

Fimbulwinter is three successive winters where snow comes in from all directions, without any intervening summer. During this time, there will be innumerable wars and brothers will kill brothers. (Kernbach: 1995, p. 198) 2 Jörmungandr / Yörmungandr, alternately referred to as the Midgard Serpent or World Serpent, is a sea serpent of the Norse mythology, the middle child of Loki and the giantess Angrboða. (Kernbach: 1995, p. 678) 3 Yggdrasil, the cosmic ash, was another representation of the Cosmic Tree, which stood in the center of the world and connected the Sky, the Earth and the Inferno. Yggdrasil had branches that spread above the Earth and three roots: the first would stretch as far as the Land of the Giants, to the Fountain of Wisdom (Mimir); the second root’s end was in the foggy Nifleheimr, near the Well of Hvergelmir (the Roaring Caouldron), and near Niddhoggr, the dragon, who constantly chewed on it; the third root stood up in the sky, and below it was the sacred Well of Urdr, the gods’ judgment place. (Cotterell:2002, p. 181) 4 Heimdall was one of the Aesir in Norse mythology. He was the guardian of the gods and had to blow his horn if danger approached Asguard, the kingdom of the Aesir. (Kernbach: 1995, pp. 527-528) 5 Some theorists suspect that the last part of the Ragnarök myth, concerning the rebirth of the Earth, was added in a latter period by the Scandinavians. (Eliade: 1999, p. 334)


became the home of all the sons of the dead gods (Baldr and Hödhr, the sons of Odhin). (Eliade: 1999, p. 333-334) When I tried to demonstrate how the death myth was illustrated in Celtic literature, I had to choose and comment upon some old Celtic legends. Next, I will provide some samples of Anglo-Saxon literature and comment upon them in order to prove that they also reflect a cultural dimension. The Anglo-Saxon texts I have chosen are Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon. The Epic of Beowulf Beowulf is the only surviving epic in an ancient Germanic language. It was found in the Cotton collection and consisted of 3182 alliterative lines. Beowulf was composed in the 8th century AD (around the year 720) and is one of the longest poems in Old English. It is considered the only native English heroic epic, and one of the finest productions of the Dark Ages of Europe (Oltean, Dunăreanu: 1977, p. 2). The poem presents a clear picture of a heroic age and society, but more than that, Beowulf is a philosophical work of great depth. It is the story of the Geatish1 hero Beowulf who is victorious in destroying a monster that threatened Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, and his castle, Heoroth. Back in his country, the hero becomes king and ruled wisely until his kingdom is threatened by a dragon. Beowulf slays the dragon but dies from the wounds. The Epic of Beowulf both opens and ends with a funeral. In-between, a lyrical poem is imbedded (it is known as the Lay of the Last Survivor and it is impressive because of its literary devices and elegiac tone). The beginning of the poem describes the funeral of Scyld Scefing, a chieftain of the Scyldings (Danes). A flash back tells us the story of Scyld Scefing, who came to the land of the Danes many years ago, when he was just a child, and became king after having proved his wisdom and skills. The lines 26 to 52 describe how the dead king was carried to the sea by his sworn armsfellows, as he himself had asked how the body was laid in a boat with a ringed neck, together with war accoutrement, bills and byrnies, treasures and trappings, and then given to the flood. This fragment is abundant in kennings2 (God is called his Master, Scyld Scefing is named Ward of the Scyldings, beloved folk-founder, dealer of wound gold etc.) and alliterations3 (A mound of treasures/ from far countries was fetched aboard her […]; A boat with a ringed neck rode in the haven […] ). (Oltean, Dunăreanu: 1977, p. 21)

Earlier scholarship identified the Geats with the Jutes (whose name in Old English was Eotan), who came either from Jutland or from the country east of the Lower Rhine. Modern opinion more strongly favors their being the Gautar, who seem to have lived in what is now southern Sweden. It is also possible that they are the Getae, believed in late classical and medieval times to inhabit southern Scandinavia, a land as remote and forbidding as Scythia, thought to have been their original home. (The Oxford Anthology of English Literature Vol. I, 1973, p. 22) 2 A kenning is a compound metaphor describing, through a mental process of association, one thing instead of another. (Gavriliu: 2003, p. 11) 3 Alliteration is a stylistic device, or literary technique, in which successive words (more strictly, stressed syllables) begin with the same consonant sound or letter.


This sample gives a glimpse of how burials were organized in those times. We can notice the solemn character of the assembly leading the king to his burial place, and also the importance of the sea in the Danish culture. The fact that God is mentioned instead of one of the Germanic gods proves either that Christianity was already adopted at that time by the Danes, either that the scribe who wrote the manuscript added Christian elements, because the poem is abundant with pagan elements: the dead are cremated on pyres or laid on ships and given to the sea; human conduct is directed by omens; idols are also worshipped; the themes of wyrd and of bloody vengeance occur. (Gavriliu: 2000, p. 9) After Beowulf becomes king of the Geats, his kingdom flourishes. He rules wisely for fifty years, until one of the Geats steals some jewels from a treasure. The poet suddenly cuts off the narrative and projects the action hundreds of years before, introducing the character of the Last Survivor of the people who have gathered the thesaurus. (Gavriliu: 2003, p. 18) The Lay of the Last Survivor (lines 2231-2266) is the lyrical discourse of the treasure guardian. This knight is the last of his fellowship and remembers the old times, when all his comrades stood aside him. The knights were all guardians of their king’s treasure but they died one by one and now this last survivor also awaited his end. This passage is impressive because it is a meditation on the futility of fortune and fame and on the passing of time. We can identify the ubi sunt1 motif (Who shall polish this plated vessel? / This cup was dear. The company is elsewhere) and the vanitas vanitatum2 motif (Hold, ground, the gold of earls! Men could not.) The last survivor morns his king and friends and painfully remembers the times when king’s hall was full of joy (There’s no joy from harp-play, / glee wood’s gladness, no good hawk / swings through hall now, no swift horse / tramps at threshold. The threat came: / falling has felled a flowering kingdom), and he thinks of his companions as being only asleep (the Anglo-Saxons saw death as a deep sleep). This fragment also makes use of alliteration (In another age an unknown man / brows bent, brought and hid here / the beloved hoard) and kennings (the king is called the keeper of rings). (Gavriliu: 2003, pp. 18-20) After the poet presents the story of the last survivor, he continues with the story of Beowulf and describes how the dragon sets out to destroy the kingdom, and how Beowulf slays the creature. In the end of the poem, Beowulf dies from the wounds, after all his companions, except for Wiglaf, desert him. Before dying, he asks Wiglaf to see that his body is burned on a sumptuous funeral pyre erected at the coastal headland (the site will be known as Beowulf’s Barrow). Soon the other companions return to the barrow and Wiglaf vents his anger at them. He tells them that they will now lead a shameful life and that it would have been better if they had died. (Gavriliu: 2000, p. 7)

Ubi Sunt (literally where are...) is a phrase taken from the Latin Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerent?, meaning Where are those who were before us? The ubi sunt motif consists in the invocation of people, places or things that were once flourishing and now are gone. (Gavriliu: 2003, pp. 18-20) 2 The vanitas vanitatum motif is a meditation on transience and on the futility of all that is material.


His funeral is just as sumptuous as Scyld Scefing’s funeral from the beginning of the poem. Treasure plays an important part in the poem. Many lines are spent on the description of treasure, the appearance and history of swords, armour and neck-rings. Beowulf in his dying moments wishes to see the hoard he has won for his people. The prominent role of treasure in Beowulf is not the symbol of avarice; it only shows that treasure and status were closely related in the heroic society, and that the value of a man's arms and armour was an indication of his value as a warrior. The fact that the Geats buried the treasure was often taken as a sign of their despair. We can indeed believe that the Geats looked forward to the destruction of their race, and this is why they buried the treasure: to keep anyone else from gaining hold of it. But burying treasure with the dead was a pagan custom, a way to honour the dead, and the Geats may have felt it was simply the only proper thing to do. There was another reason for the Geats to bury the treasure. If treasure was an indication of glory won in battle, it meant that the Geats had no claim to the treasure-hoard won by Beowulf. Wiglaf played a decisive role in the fight with the dragon, but he did not claim the honour for himself. This shows that in the Danish society honour was praised and there was no greater honour than to die in battle, serving your king and your people. (http://www.ethesis.net/beowulf/beowulf.htm) An interesting question about this poem is why the author gave it such a dark ending. Beowulf was a great hero, but the dragon still defeated him. Defeat does not seem to be very heroic. However, this question should not be asked only of Beowulf. Why did the man who wrote the Battle of Maldon choose a battle in which his hero lost his life, and half his army ran away? (http://www.ethesis.net/beowulf/beowulf.htm) The tragic ending of Beowulf does not imply that Beowulf was not an ideal hero and a perfect king. He did everything to defend his people, and burying Beowulf with the treasure which he died for was the ultimate way to honour him, and would not have seemed useless or ironic to the Geats. Beowulf leaves his kingdom in the hands of an inexperienced but promising kinsman, who lives, and will probably die, by the same ideals as Beowulf did. (http://www.ethesis.net/beowulf/beowulf.htm) Beowulf is a tragedy, a gigantic elegy for its hero; within the poem, the moments of glory serve only to emphasize the completeness and inevitability of his end. It is a tragedy of the human predicament, more narrowly, of the warrior's situation (the Germanic hero's fulfillment was not reached by victory alone, but by courage in all circumstances, most of all when the odds were stacked against him and he had to die; a glorious death was the only fitting close to a glorious life). (The Oxford Anthology of English Literature Vol. I, 1973, p. 27)

The Battle of Maldon

In what this poem is concerned, my interest lays mainly on the ending, as I believe it speaks much about the Anglo-Saxon view upon death. The historical battle of Maldon (991AD) took place on the shores of the River Blackwater in Essex. There was a heroic stand by the Anglo-Saxons against the Viking invasion which ended in utter defeat for Brithnoth1 and his men. The battle's progress is related in a famous Anglo-Saxon poem, only part of which survives. The original manuscript, which was found in the Cotton library, was destroyed in a fire in 1731. What was left of it was a translation from 1724, without its beginning and ending (the original manuscript was already damaged). (The Oxford Anthology of English Literature Vol. I, 1973, p. 105) The poem is famous for its defending of the Anglo-Saxon ideals: Brythnoth and his men chose to die while defending their territories in stead of handing them over to the Vikings. There is a strong element of heroic pride in his action, and the poet emphasizes this dimension. The Battle of Maldon is the most richly compact and striking poem in Anglo-Saxon literature, about the heroic ideal of the Germanic peoples and its implications: the acceptance by the lesser nobility of the obligation of service to the lord, whose responsibility it was to provide the materials of combat, generous gifts of clothing, ornament and property, entertainment and protection, in return for unflinching service in peace and war. (The Oxford Anthology of English Literature Vol. I, 1973, p. 106) The poem contains the conversation between Brythnoth and the Viking spokesman. When the Viking demands that Brithnoth’s tribe should send them rings, bracelets and other gifts as tribute, so as the Vikings would no longer attack them, Brithnoth’s dignified answer is: In this fight the heathen shall fall. / It would be a shame for your trouble / if you should with our silver away to ship / without fight offered. (Gavriliu: 2003, pp. 26-27) Brithnoth, just like Beowulf, is ready to die an honorable death alongside his people, rather than bare the shame of paying tribute to the Vikings. His duty before his lord is greater than any fear of death. This is yet another illustration of the Anglo-Saxons’ principle that a warrior is bound to die on the battlefield in order to be remembered and praised. If Brithnoth and his men would have accepted to be humiliated by paying tribute to the Vikings, their lives would have been saved, but this would have also brought them the resent of their lord and maybe even the resent of their own families. Surrender without fighting was unbearable to the Anglo-Saxon military code; in the beginning of the poem we learn that the Saxons had sent their horses away, which meant they had no intention of retreat. (Gavriliu: 2003, p. 28) Conclusions: Comparing the Celtic and the Anglo-Saxon Views on Death; Representations of the Death Myth

Byrhtnoth was an Anglo-Saxon name, composed of the words beorht (bright) and noth (courage). It was the name of the leader of the Anglo-Saxon defense force in the Battle of Maldon in 991. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byrhtnoth)


By analyzing the two cultures we can find many differences and only few correspondences in what representations of the death myth is concerned. As stated before, all cultures are in some way related in ideology. In what the death myth is concerned, in all polytheistic cultures one god (or even more) is considered patron or king over the souls of the dead; also, each culture speaks of one or more places, be they physical or spiritual, where the souls of the dead would go after having completed their cycle of physical life; in all cultures there are myths about mortals stumbling or purposely entering one of these otherworlds, which are either places of pleasures, such as Paradises, either Infernos, meant for the souls of sinners or for the souls of those who did not die a proper death. If we consider these aspects, we can tell that the Celtic views on death and afterlife are far from the Anglo-Saxon ones. The Celts were warriors and farmers in the same time. Their life was under the sign of fertility and correspondence with nature. That is why many of the Celtic death gods were also patrons of vegetation, animals and prosperity. Arawn is probably the most popular Celtic god of the Underworld (or Otherworld). He is a Welsh deity and is best known from the series of Welsh mythological tales entitled Mabinogion. In one of these tales, Arawn switches places with a mortal, Pwyll, and lets him rule Annwn (the Land of the Dead for a year (Cotterell: 2002, p. 171). This story is somewhat similar to the myth of Demeter and Persephone1, from the Greek mythology. Other death deities from the Celtic mythology were the Welsh King of Fairies Gwyn Ap Nuad, the Welsh/Anglo-Celtic god Llud, the Celtic god Barinthus / Belenus (a charioteer to the residents of the Otherworld, such as the Greek boatman Charon), Morrigan, the Pan-Celtic Queen of Phantoms or Demons etc. If we carefully analyze the Celtic Otherworlds, we will discover that they were parallel to the lands of the living; one way for a mortal to visit an otherworld was by stumbling into one of its entrances, such as caves or mounds (another way to get there was by invitation from a fairy or an Otherworld king). The Otherworld was sometimes a remote island that could be reached by mortals only by invitation from a queen or a king of the island. These features of the Celtic culture show that the Celtic death myths were not grim, nor sad, because this people saw death as a return to nature. That is why the Celtic Otherworlds are populated with fairies and are described as places of eternal youth and pleasure. On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon (Germanic, Norse and Scandinavian) view of death was pessimistic by definition. The Anglo-Saxon

Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, was kidnapped and taken to the Underworld by Hades, the Greek god of death. Persephone became Hades’ wife and was allowed to return to the land of the living only for six months of the year, while she would stay in the Underworld for the other six. Demeter was the goddess of fertility and prosperity, so the myth was translated as a succession of two seasons: a cold season, when Persephone was in the Underworld, and Demeter would no longer let the soil be fertile, and a warm season, when the joy of seeing her daughter made Demeter fill the earth with fruit. (Mitru: 2004, pp. 202-204)


society, as it was proved, was based on the king – thane2 relationship, which consisted in the king’s duty to rule bravely and defend his people in battle, and the thane’s duty to serve his lord and defend his people. On the battlefield one would be honored if he would die holding his sword, in stead of fleeing, which was considered dishonorable. Besides, there was also the belief that the soul of a brave warrior, after death, would feast in Valhalla, the Hall of Gods. The pessimistic character of the Anglo-Saxon society can also be noticed in the creation and the apocalypse myths (both begin with sacrifice, and implicitly death). In fact this polytheistic religion was so grim that it preached even the end of the gods (who in other cultures are considered immortal). We know that the Celts were also warriors, but their legends lack the pessimistic tone. The only story close to an Anglo-Saxon myth is the story of Arthur, which can clearly be compared to the legend of Beowulf (both myths involve the figure of a great leader, who possesses supernatural strength and weapons; both stories end with the betrayal and the death of the hero; both heroes die because of the greed and lust for power that take over their people), but the legend of Arthur says that he is not really dead, that he would return to defend his people. I have seen in this the optimistic way of thinking of the Celts, who would have hope even in the darkest times. The Celts and the Anglo-Saxons were two ancient peoples who existed in the same historical period, and they actually shared a territory (the British islands) or even more, and also some religious and mythological beliefs. On the other hand, what I tried to prove was that two peoples that were so close to each other and may have even influenced one another were in a way very different. The Celts and the Anglo-Saxons did not have the same social, material and spiritual values, and the differences were well accentuated through literature and other artistic manifestations.


A thane was a professional warrior, a member of the tribal group gathered around a king, whom he followed loyally in return to material favors. (Gavriliu: 2003, p. 8)


1. Cotterell, Arthur, Dicţionar de mitologie, traducere de Elena I. Burlacu,

Univers Enciclopedic, Bucuresti, 2002; 2. Eliade, Mircea, Istoria credinţelor şi ideilor religioase, traducere şi postfaţă de Cezar Baltag, Editura Ştiinţifică / Univers Enciclopedic, Bucureşti 1999; 3. Filoramo, Giovanni; Massenzio, Marcello; Raveri, Massimo; Scarpi, Paolo, Manual de istorie a religiilor, Humanitas, Bucuresti, 2003; 4. Gavriliu, Eugenia, English Literature through Texts - From AngloSaxons to Early Modern, Naţional, 2003; 5. Gavriliu, Eugenia, Lectures in English Literature (1), Universitatea Dunărea de Jos, Galaţi, 2000; 6. Kernbach, Victor, Dicţionar de mitologie generală. Mituri. Divinităţi. Religii, Albatros, Bucureşti, 1995; 7. Mitru, Alexandru, Legendele Olimpului, Vox, Bucureşti, 2004 ; 8. Oltean, Ştefan; Dunăreanu, Lucian, Poezia engleză veche. Comentarii şi selecţiuni, Universitatea Babeş-Bolyai, Cluj-Napoca, 1977; 9. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, volume I, Oxford Univesity Press, London, 1973. 10. Gavriliu, Eugenia, British History and Civilisation, Galati, Ed. Fundatiei Universitare "Dunãrea de Jos", 2002, 172 p. Internet Sources:
1. http://www.bartleby.com/65/my/mytholog.html 2. http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/CoursePack/culture.htm 3. http://www.crystalinks.com/glastonburytor.html

4. http://www.ethesis.net/beowulf/beowulf.htm
5. http://www.geocities.com/Athens/8871/afterlife.html 6. http://www.geocities.com/~huathe/mythology.html

7. http://www.mikekemble.com/misc/kingarthur.html 8. http://www.netreach.net/~nhojem/jung.htm) 9. http://www.pantheon.org/articles/c/cwn_annwn.html
10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mythology


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