“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”[i]
To those already well versed in Anglo-Saxon Heathendom, the passage quoted above should ring familiar. Penned circa 731 CE by the famed Northumbrian monk and historian, Béde, it preserves a tradition, just over a century old by the time of its recording, concerning the conversion of King Éadwine of Northumbria to Christianity. In the year 627 CE, a missionary from a far off foreign land, known now as Paulinus, set foot upon English soil. In being welcomed as a guest at Éadwine’s court, Paulinus was permitted to share his “good news,” which — after railing against the ancestral gods and belief of the Anglo-Saxons — consisted of a new doctrine, hereto known only through rumor, of a new god from the desert, who promised a very different sort of afterlife.
Attributed to one of Éadwine’s counselors (witan) and presented as rede given to the king to persuade him to convert, the aforementioned passage is the only preserved depiction of the afterlife that is ascribed, wrongly or not, to an ancient Anglo-Saxon Heathen. As such it ought to be of some significance in contemporary Anglo-Saxon Heathendom, though the weight of its worth is, understandably, called into question.
It is tempting to dismiss this entire passage as mere religious propaganda. And surely it was. If Éadwine’s witan admonished him to adopt the practice of this new foreign cult, it was hardly because it presented a more complete understanding of the hereafter. With the official conversion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE and then in 496 CE the conversion of the Franks, the most powerful of the Germanic tribes, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was politically inevitable.
That said, t’would be a dire mistake to discredit the worth of Béde’s account entirely simply because it served a Christian purpose. As a historian Béde was one of those amazing individuals who readily admitted his prejudices, earnestly sought to cite primary sources, and reported only as much as he might have had evidence to believe. Truthfully, his reckoning of history represents a standard often sought after, though seldom achieved, even by modern historians.
Furthermore, it is worth reminding contemporary Anglo-Saxon Heathens that, were it not for Béde’s reckoning, we would know far less of the ancient Anglo-Saxon Heathen belief than we do. The goddesses Hréðe and Éostre would be unknown to us, as would the holy tides of Módraniht and Blótmónaþ. So much of what now forms our thew, our practice, is indebted to the rightful reckoning of Béde.
To return to the text cited above, one might ask, if this passage was part and parcel to the religious propaganda of its day, then what worth might it hold to Anglo-Saxon Heathens today? For one, I would put forth that the depiction of the soul as a sparrow, or bird, is entirely Heathen in origin. And secondly, that the notion that the Heathen afterlife is “unknown” is only a misinterpretation of what the ancient Anglo-Saxon Heathens truly believed – that the afterlife was “hidden.”
This first point is hardly the foremost, though to those contemporary Heathens who have studied ancient soul-lore, it may prove to be the most insightful. Béde’s depiction of the heathen soul as a sparrow, or at least as a bird, has historical and cultural corroboration. Writing no later than 796 CE, Paul the Deacon, historian of the Langobards, afforded posterity this insight into the soul:
If a Lombard died in battle or was killed in some other way, his relatives would erect a pole over his grave. At the top of the pole they fixed a wooden dove facing the place of the beloved’s death. That is how they indicated the resting places of their dead.[ii]
Here we see a nigh identical depiction: the soul envisioned as a bird in flight. When the Roman historian, Tacitus, penned his history of the Germanic tribes in 98 CE, the Angles and the Lombards were neighbors by a span of mere miles. Yet centuries later, when one had fared far north across the sea to occupy Britannia and the other had fared far to the south to hold Italy, it would seem that their soul-lore still bore a marked semblance.
A Norse parallel, admittedly less obvious that the Lombardic tradition, may be found a few centuries later in the writings of the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus. In Saxo’s account the hero Hading is visited at húsel or perhaps even symbel by a woman, herself most likely the goddess who bore him to the “underworld.” A strange tale in and of itself, within it is an even more curious account of a blóted cock cast over Hel’s wall:
First they penetrated a smoky veil of darkness, then walked along a path worn away by long ages of travelers, and glimpsed persons in rich robes and nobles dressed in purple; passing these by, they eventually came upon a sunny region, which produce . . . vegetation . . . . Having advanced further, they stumbled on a river of blue-black water. . . . They crossed it by a bridge . . . . Moving on, they found barring their way a wall, difficult to approach and surmount. The woman tried to leap over it, but to no avail. . . . She thereupon wrung off the head of a cock which she happened to be carrying and threw it over the enclosing barrier; immediately the bird, resurrected, gave proof by a loud crow that it had truly recovered its breathing.[iii]
The river, the bridge, even the gated-wall which must be leapt (or cast) over are all details found in the Prose Edda’s account of Hermóð’s ride to Hel.[iv] Yet the cock, rendered lifeless in this world but crowing in the thereafter, is a detail unattested to by Snorri. Indeed, were it not for the churchmen Bede and Paul the Deacon, we might not know what to make of this oddity. Like the sparrow in its flight through the hall of this life, the cock is cast into the unknown. Outside of the secure walls of the hall and over the walls of Hel, the bird-soul’s doom is unseen, though through the rouning of priests and the craft of scóps, its caw-call-crowing can be heard. Thus, it would seem quite possible that the soul-bird metaphor attributed to Éadwine’s wita, while appropriated for Christian propaganda, did indeed reflect an older, genuine Heathen tradition.[v]
With the historicity of the Béde’s soul-bird metaphor attested to both religiously and culturally, consideration should be given to the most problematic portion of this passage. The wita’s rede to the king that “. . . of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing” would seem to infer an agnosticism regarding the hereafter. Yet from what we know of Norse mythology, the elder heathen suffered from no lack of cunning regarding the thereafter.
As afore-alluded, it is this author’s belief that Béde merely misunderstood an important aspect of Heathen belief, the hiddenness of the hereafter. For even to the Norse, who recorded so much lore pertaining to the afterlife, the thereafter was known in detail only to poets, wizards, and shamans. To the folk, the afterlife was ultimately a hidden thing, hinted of in folklore, outside the mundane experience of everyday life, yet through rites and rituals hereafter discussed, still very much linked to the luck of the living.
Perhaps one of the greatest concerns new contemporary Heathens have when first rediscovering the Old Belief is that they will somehow be separated from their Christian parents, grandparents, and other relatives in the afterlife. Alas, this too is nothing more than the hurtful result of a propaganda war that the New Religion waged upon the Old Belief.
To those not already familiar with Heathen Belief, it may come as quite a shock to learn that the words “god,” “soul,” “heaven,” and “hell” are all of Heathen origin. Those who doubt this need only consult a reliable dictionary. They were already part of the ancient English vernacular when monks and missionaries appropriated them to translate the Christian scriptures into Anglo-Saxon. And, it is with this in mind, that we must now turn our attention to the second feature of Béde’s account.
Hell (OE Hel), though used to gloss the Latin infernus and Hebrew gehenna in Christian texts, originally meant something quite different than the fiery realm described in the New Testament as the final abode for all nonbelievers. As defined in the supplement to Bosworth-Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, the Old English Hel was a feminine word that meant “a hidden spot, a shelter.” Indeed, the Old English verb helan meant “to conceal, hide, cover.” In Norse mythology Hel was both the underworld, the dwelling place of those who have died of old age or illness, and the goddess/giantess who rules over that realm.
To the Heathen Hel is a world hidden from our own – an underworld that is both hereafter and thereafter. We know from Norse lore that the howe, the burial mound, was intimately connected to Hel. The howe was a place where one could go and “sit out” overnight – to receive dreams and direction from one’s ancestors buried within. Indeed, in some accounts, at Yule and at other liminal holy-times, those laid to “rest” within the mounds can be heard – feasting, singing, and enjoying the fellowship of the kinsmen within – as if Hel itself were a great drinking hall for the dead. Perhaps this is why when our ancestors laid their kinsmen into these hills that they included grave gifts of jewelry, swords, harps, drinking horns, and food. What this means to us is that the howe is, itself, a gateway to Hel – and that Hel is the “hidden place” where we go after this life has passed to join our kinsmen.
Two questions oft asked by those newly come to Heathendom are “What of my ancestors who were Christian?” and “Will I be separated from them in the hereafter?” After so many centuries of Christian monopoly on religious thought, such are understandable questions to ask. When contemplating conversion, King Radbod of Frisia asked Bishop Wulfram what fate befell the souls of his Heathen ancestors. To this, Wulfram replied
Make no mistake, famous prince, the chosen are with God. But your ancestors, the leaders of the Frisian folk, who departed without the sacrament of baptism, definitely received the sentence of damnation. But whoever will believe and be baptized will enjoy eternal joy with Christ.[vi]
On the cusp of receiving baptism, so much so that he was already present before the baptismal font, Radbod recoiled at Wulfram’s response. As recorded in the Life of Wulfram,
King Radbod heard this as he was walking toward the [baptismal] font. But as he neared the font, he stepped back. He said the he could not leave the company of his ancestors, the Frisian leaders, to reside in that celestial kingdom with a puny pack of paupers.
As a matter of Christian orthodoxy, Wulfram was right. Yet, the orthodoxy of the New Religion does not change the timeless truth of the Old Belief. We Heathens hold that Hel is what it is – the hidden, the “hallowed hollow hill” where we rejoin our kinsmen in the afterlife. There is no difference of religious opinion or belief which can alter that wyrd, not even a wit. Even the most pious Christian, who has dedicated his or her entire life to the service of the Middle Eastern god, will find his or herself among their Heathen fore-elders in the ancient, ancestral hall of Hel. Among the dead, Christ has no power to divide.[vii]
In closing, to return to Béde’s rendering of Éadwine’s wita’s rede once more, ‘tis imperative to understand that, whilst our ancestors understood the hereafter to be hidden, they still held to beliefs pertaining to the power of the dead. The dead, though hidden and out of sight, were by no means out of mind, nor were the living out of their reach. Those laid within the howe were said to be able to look out over the land and to bring luck, healing, and good harvests to those who dwelled yet upon Middle Earth. According to The Penitential of Theodore (circa 668-690, England), grain was burned to the dead for the health of the living. Likewise, in the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, the corpse of King Harold Godwinson was buried beneath a runestone and upon a cliff that he, in death, might protect the English coast.[viii] Thus, whereas Christ has no power to divide among the dead, death breaks no bonds sworn to or born to among the living. The fidelity and fealty wrought by words or works in this life carries through to the next. ‘Tis a reciprocal relationship, that between the quick and the dead. The worship given to one is remembered and returned by the other. Though out of sight, neither is forgotten.
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People: With Bede’s Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert’s Letter on the Death of Bede. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.
Chisholm, James, trans. Grove and Gallows: Greek and Latin Sources for Germanic Heathenism. Smithville: Runa-Raven Press, 2002.
Línléah, Þórbeorht. Of Ghosts and Godpoles. Richmond: Heathengyld Books, 2014.
Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the Danes Books I-IX. Translated by Peter Fisher. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1996.
Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Translated by Jean I. Young. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954.
[i] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People: With Bede’s Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert’s Letter on the Death of Bede, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), 129.
[ii] Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards V, 34, in Grove and Gallows: Greek and Latin Sources for Germanic Heathenism, trans. James Chisholm (Smithville: Runa-Raven Press, 2002), 59.
[iii] Saxo Grammaticus, The History of the Danes Books I-IX, trans. Peter Fisher (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1996) 30-31.
[iv] Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954), 83.
[v] This author would suggest that the symbolism of various eagles, ravens, and other birdlike creatures found to adorn Germanic grave goods perhaps be reconsidered in light of the bird-soul imagery.
[vi] Life of Wulfram, in Grove and Gallows, 61.
[vii] A reference to Matthew 10:34-37, where Jesus claimed to have come as a sword to divide kindsmen and turn them against one another.
[viii] Þórbeorht Línléah, Of Ghosts and Godpoles, (Richmond: Heathengyld Books, 2014), 87-117.