(BN 8) Carlsen, Christian: Visions of the Afterlife in Old Norse Literature
Over the past few decades, scholarship within the field of Old Norse studies has increasingly recognised the influence of Christian thought and art in shaping the distinctive cultural heritage of this region.
The formative impact of these impulses on native literature should not be underestimated. Scriptural texts, homiletic writings, saints’ lives, and theological treatises found their way to Iceland and Norway at an early stage following the political conversion of these countries around 1000 AD. Examples of these major branches of Latin literature survive in translation among the earliest written documents from Western Scandinavia, datable to around 1200. Visionary accounts of the Christian hereafter represent one further distinct Latin genre which has left substantial early traces in Northern codices. This genre’s evolution in Western Scandinavian literature forms the object of investigation here.
Medieval afterlife visions are worthy of special critical consideration for a number of reasons. Enjoying as it did considerable popularity, the genre represents a distinctive and important cultural phenomenon in medieval Europe. The fact that this genre travelled widely, while at the same time maintaining a relatively tight set of core conventions, makes it possible to trace developments within the tradition over time and across geographical space. Beyond these formal characteristics, this particular branch of literature also deserves attention because it engages with several of the most challenging and notorious questions of medieval civilisation: What happens to the human soul after death? How does a person’s earthly behaviour affect his or her fate in the otherworld? What is this otherworld like?
The answers sought, and given in response, to these questions are not always uniform. They reflect the prevailing literary tastes and motifs, patterns of thought, values and ethics of the cultural settings in which they were articulated. The potential of the narratives to shed light on the culture and mentality surrounding their composition and use governs my analyses in the five main chapters of this book. To offer a context for the main discussion, the introductory chapter outlines the genre’s historical connections with Western Scandinavia, and defines a primary corpus to be considered in the subsequent chapters. Chapter 2 is concerned with the different generic and narrative contexts in the Old Norse literary corpus into which characteristics of the Latin genre have been integrated. The literary motif of the otherworld journey and some key symbols attached to it are examined in chapters 3 and 4, with special attention to their local variations and implications. The final main chapter considers depictions of otherworldly punishment and reward, focusing in particular on the contemporary social and ethical ideals encoded in them.