Ancestor veneration is a practice that nearly all pagan peoples, past and present, have shared, and the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples were certainly no exception. The dead remained in their community’s collective memory long after their passing, and were believed to confer blessings upon the land and the people they left behind. This may have been especially so if they were properly revered by their descendants.[1]

In Old Norse literature, the most frequent gift of the ancestors is the fertility of the land, which, it hardly needs to be pointed out, corresponds very well to the ecological role of a decaying body – providing nourishment for other, living members of the ecological community. The hamingja (“luck”), one of the semi-autonomous parts of the self in the Norse worldview, is often said to have been passed on to a descendant. He or she is thereby granted the ancestor’s propensity for success. Sitting on a burial mound in order to receive creative inspiration or an answer to a burning question is another commonly noted practice.[2] In addition to these specific customs, the ancestors are petitioned for help in all areas of life.[3]

It may have been that those who had brought particular prosperity to their people during life were held to also be able to grant particular prosperity to their people after they had died and become an ancestor. Take, for example, the case of King Halfdan, renowned for the benignity of the climate and the success of the crops that the Scandinavians enjoyed throughout his reign. Upon his death, representatives from the districts over which he had presided congregated to request the internment of his body in their home district, so as to ensure the continuation of their recent good fortunes. The king’s body was eventually divided among the eager diplomats.[4]

Cemeteries were often located at the edges of a farmstead or village. Their placement there served as a representation of the claim the living inhabitants felt they had on the land they worked. The living could point – literally – to their ancestors having lived in and worked the same land.[5]

Ancestors, Elves, and Land Spirits

Intriguingly, the line that separates human ancestors, elves, and land spirits (Old Norse landvættir) in Old Norse literature is quite blurry. While it would be straining the evidence to suggest that the three categories are ultimately synonymous, it would be in blatant contradiction of the evidence to suggest that they’re cleanly separate groups. The ancient Germanic conception must lie somewhere in the middle, although precisely where is impossible to say – due, as with so many other areas of our knowledge of this worldview, to the sparseness of the primary sources.

Land spirits and elves occupied much the same role as the ancestors in the religious customs of the pre-Christian northern Europeans. They were propitiated in much the same way and held influence over many of the same aspects of the lives of humans. Even the dwelling-places of these types of beings overlapped; elves were traditionally associated with the burial mounds and chambers of the human dead, and would commonly receive sacrifices at these places. Perhaps the most striking example of this connection comes from The Saga of Olaf the Holy, one of the first Christian kings of Norway. In this saga, Olaf and a servant ride past the burial mound of the king’s ancestor and namesake, who is now called by the name of Ólaf Geirstaðaálfr – literally “Olaf, the Elf of Geirstad,” a title that clearly implies the currently elfin state of the king’s forefather. The same passage also insinuates that King Olaf is the reincarnation of the deceased Olaf,[6] presumably through the hamingja. Part of the elder Olaf seems to have become an elf, while another part has been passed on to Olaf the younger.

The Continuing Presence of the Dead

Today, we tend to think of the dead as either ceasing to exist as anything besides a chunk of inert matter to be stuffed with formaldehyde so as to delay its reintegration into the land, or as an incorporeal, floaty thing sufficiently removed from the tangible world as to have no influence upon it or relationship with it at all. For the ancient northern Europeans, however, the dead continued to reside amongst their human and ecological community in some capacity, and had the power to bless those who blessed them.

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[1] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 99-120.

[2] Ibid. p. 105-111.

[3] Ibid. p. 99-120.

[4] Snorri Sturluson. Hálfdanar Saga Svarta 9. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.

[5] Fallgren, Jan-Henrik. 2012. “Farm and Village in the Viking Age.” In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 73.

[6] Óláfs Saga Helga. In Flateyjarbók.

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