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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Drawing upon anthropology, linguistics, and psychology, Claude Levi-
Strauss 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.

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.
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.
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
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.
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. (
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.
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.
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
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 better-
known 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
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 one-
eyed 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.
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)
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)
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)
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 arms-
fellows, 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)
A kenning is a compound metaphor describing, through a mental process of association, one thing instead of
another. (Gavriliu: 2003, p. 11)
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)
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. (
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?
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.
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.

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 Anglo-
Saxons 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.
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