The Other Road to Hel

Okay, so I was actually the second person to use ‘The Road to Hel’ as a title. It really wasn’t fair, because H.R. Ellis published her book in 1943, before I was even born. However, I haven’t allowed my personal feelings to affect the following review in any way whatsoever…:)

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

As the author of the only other book titled The Road to Hel (on Amazon, at least) I felt compelled to review this one. I was already familiar with the author from her Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, which outlines many parallels between old Norse and old Celtic religion. Although she was not a Heathen, her love of the Norse lore is evident, and she was as sympathetic to Norse religion as someone whose focus is primarily academic can be. She understood, for example, that for anyone who was devoted to a particular god, he was not a ‘fertility deity’ or a ‘war deity’, but simply the lord and friend who they asked for help in all areas of life.

That said, I was disappointed with this book in some ways. The impression I took away is that there were only three things, in the pre-Christian North, to look forward to after death: 1) becoming a draugar, an (usually) evil animated corpse; 2) lying in the ground forever getting rained and snowed on; or, if you happened to be a seeress when you were alive, 3) lying in the ground getting rained and snowed on until somebody calls you up to pick your brain. The picture is, in other words, a bit on the bleak side. There are just a couple of mentions of people expecting to be with the gods and goddesses after death–notably Egil’s daughter saying that she will “sup with Freya”. Even Valholl gets short shrift, as the author relates Odin’s realm back to stories of an everlasting battle of dead warriors going on beneath the earth–more animated corpses, basically.

Part of this is no doubt due to the scarcity of non-Christianized Norse texts, and part might be because this was the author’s first book. Later on I think she might have cast her net a bit more widely, and spent more time with Celtic and other European sources to help interpret the scanty source material. For instance, I think of the many Irish stories where people who recently died were seen among the fairies (which makes me remember reading about a Norse warrior whose relatives see Freyr welcoming him to a feast set inside his grave mound–not sure where I got this, and it isn’t mentioned in The Road to Hel).

Other parts of the book are more fun–specifically the accounts of ‘sending forth the fetch’ and the section on valkryies, hamingja and disir. The fetch-sending part is pretty much a universal belief that is probably the source of the stories about werewolves, were-hares, and were-whatevers that you can find in all cultures all over the world. (It does make me wonder, if the spirit can leave the body during life, doesn’t it seem logical it would go some place else after death rather than hanging in the grave mound?)

As for the disir et al, I think the author’s academic bias shows in her conclusion that all these “supernatural women” are likely the same. For an analogy, consider what future scholars might conclude from the few fragmentary writings left by our own culture, in a future where dogs and cats have become extinct. I can see them looking at the evidence–here were two mythical creatures, both furred, both valued for companionship and for hunting vermin–and concluding that there was really only one supernatural animal being described, worshipped by a unified cult until things became confused as the culture disintegrated.

Despite these shortcomings, The Road to Hel is a valuable book to have as a guide, so one can follow her references and do one’s own research about the vision of the dead and their world(s) in the Norse lays and sagas. Also, here and there the author has some interesting insights–such as comparing the trance of a living seeress to the death from which the volva of the Voluspa is grumpily awakened–that prefigure her later, and in my opinion better, work.

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