Book Review: The Road to Hel by H.R. Ellis Davidson

Road to Hel

The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature is the first major book written by Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson, one of the twentieth century’s foremost scholars of Viking Age Scandinavian religion.

For having been originally published in 1943, it’s still remarkably current. For someone who keeps up with the latest scholarly work in the field, there are several scattered statements that will provoke a raised eyebrow and a chuckle, and her overview of the major archaeological finds that bear on the topic in the first chapter is thoroughly dated, both in terms of information and interpretation. Nevertheless, The Road to Hel provides a wealth of evidence for Viking Age views on death, the afterlife, and the relations between the dead and the living. Most of this evidence, as well as the broad outlines of Ellis Davidson’s interpretations of it, would be more or less accepted by current scholars.

Throughout all of her works, Ellis Davidson tended to favor reporting the evidence and discussing the theories of others in relation to it rather than advancing her own original theories. She was one of the great masters of this cautious, conservative approach, using it to provide relatively uncontroversial overviews of important topics that have stood the test of time and served a wider audience than more ambitious and specialized works in the field generally have.

The Road to Hel deals with Viking Age perceptions of what happened to a person after death, as well as the continuing interactions between the dead and the living. The latter were comprised of things like funerary customs, ancestor worship, occasional destruction of the corpses of those of the dead who proved to be unruly and wreaked havoc on the living, visionary journeys to the land of the dead, and necromancy.

Along the way, the book also contains extensive discussions of the ancient Norse conception of the “soul” or the parts that comprise a person; magic; the overlap between dead ancestors and other kinds of beings such as elves, land spirits, Valkyries, the elusive dísir, and others; and cross-cultural comparisons between Norse views and practices and those of neighboring peoples such as the Finns and Sámi.

The Road to Hel remains one of the foremost studies of Viking Age conceptions of death and the afterlife, and is therefore essential reading for anyone interested in that topic. Its use of material from a wide range of disciplines helped to establish some of the dominant methodologies in the current study of the Viking Age, and the book is therefore interesting on historical grounds as well.

With the aforementioned qualifiers in mind, I can recommend The Road to Hel quite highly.

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