The soul and afterlife - Recon Heathen stylee
Here's something that's been buzzing around in my head a fair bit recently thanks to reading stuff by a certain Bil Linzie. The concept of non-dualism and the probability that the concept of soul (in the sense that contemporary culture be it secular or Heathen understands it) has absolutely bugger all to do with the actual Heathen worldview pre-conversion.
What do I mean by non-dualism in this sense? Well I'll leave it to Simek to explain because he does a much better job than me in his Dictionary of Northern European Mythology
'Detailed investigations since the beginning of the 20th Century have led to the insight that it is extremely unlikely, at least for the late heathen period, that the North-European peoples had a dualistic belief i.e distinct division between the decomposing body of the dead person and the further existence of his soul. The extant sources suggest that the concept was rather that of the 'living corpse' which lived on the gravemound. Although the saga literature(written 200-500 years after Christianization) is otherwise extremely unreliable for Heathen beliefs, these sources do show unanimity, particularly with regard to these concepts, so widely divergent from Christian thought. Admittedly they may be strongly influenced by the folklore of Mediaeval Iceland. Nevertheless, we may assume that the concept does indeed reflect Heathen beliefs.'
Now this sounds pretty horrendous, right?
Especially when you compare it with the other ideas about a Heathen afterlife flying around that are mostly all filled with more hope than the idea of going to rot in the earth with your ancestors(if it's a family mound) and gravegoods.
Then there's the question of just where does the Draugr come in? Well, it's obvious that not every corpse will become a Draugr and then there's always the Hamr to consider...but more about that further down.
According to Eric Christiansen there are 7 possiblities for the dead Heathen
1.Living with the Gods -a concept not seen until the 10th century and thought to have been brought in as a poetic device.
2. Valhalla -believed to have originally referred to as an actual physical place - a mountain where the dead were interred.
3. Hel -no kennings for Hel as a goddess of the land of the dead until the 10th and 11th centuries - definitely conversion era. However as Lindow points out in his Handbook of Northern Mythology "The place Hel (or the noun hel) originally probably just meant 'grave.'". Simek agrees with this saying that the word Hel was used for hundreds of years to refer to the gravemound.
4. Under the sea (with Ran)
5. An earthly land of the dead.
6 With the poor over the stream.
7. Reincarnation - There are some mentions of reincarnation in the Lay of Helgi Hundingsbani however there are no more in an entire corpus of literature. Also one has to consider the possible leakage of early Christian reincarnation belief into Northern European belief. The concept of 'Aftrborinn' would be the nearest thing in North European culture to reincarnation. Aftrborinn is the passing on of traits, qualities and in some cases duties to your offspring.
Out of all of the possibilities listed above, neither Christiansen or Simek are convinced that the Heathen worldview in pre-Christian times in terms of death went beyond the concepts of Hel or the gravemound.
Another thing that's pretty prevelent in modern Heathenry is the concept of the soul complex with its 9 soul parts. I'm yet to find any evidence or any mentions in any of the original sources that back up the idea that this concept is any older than 30 or so years.
Maybe you're wondering how someone with Seidhr leanings could buy into this...after all, I've sat mounds, I've had countless run ins with the dead and dealings with landvaettir and I have a habit of disappearing off through the worlds(or at least projecting my hamr or dreaming my way).
If anything a non-dualist belief clears up some of the confusion - it's also sort of reassuring in that you will always get back to your body because it cannot be separated from you. What is really going about would be your Hamr (skin) that you're projecting. I also don't see why the dead cannot project their Hamr in this way - as long as they're strong enough....maybe that's why ghosts are reported to fade over time? This kind of clears a lot of stuff up.
I'm having one of the most exciting headblags of my life....can you tell???