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Fairy tales and saga are keenly interested in every day themes of human existence and so it is not surprising that death and mortality figure prominently in these stories. Humans have probably always had a powerful urge to explain what happens after death and many of the earliest myths do just that. Many ancient traditions describe death as a physical journey or crossing to the afterlife. A complex geography of the netherworld was created with the dead traveling to either Britannia, Jutland or Scandinavia. The idea of a soul living on after the body has died is ancient. But in the early Middle Ages a type of story was introduced whose sole purpose was to provide proof of the afterlife. Based on accounts of near-death experiences, a new genre of story arose, sometimes referred to as medieval vision literature. After reading these early near-death narratives, some striking similarities with earlier pagan traditions are evident. Notions of death in fairy tales and saga seem to blend heathen folk beliefs and Christian attitudes. These stories provide us with a picture of both enduring and changing beliefs about death and the afterlife.
The Edda describes a bridge over which the souls of the dead must tread. This bridge is thatched or covered in bright gold and it trembles and groans underfoot as the dead cross over. There is a bridge leading down into Hel as well as one leading upward into the realm of the gods (for more about these themes, see the link in this website concerning the Rainbow or Bifrost). According to Jacob Grimm, the ancients believed that a person had three souls, two were tied to the body and were lost at death but the third survived. Abandoning its decaying body, this soul proceeded on to the afterlife. Death does not kill in ancient traditions, but rather, is a messenger that announces the end of life and accompanies the soul to its new realm. Souls were both received and drawn to Wuotan, Frouwa, Ran and Hel, water spirits, angels, elves and the devil. Dying warriors were taken to the abode of the gods but descriptions of this place are few. Some accounts mention that it glitters with precious gems, gold and silver; others that the roof is made from tilted spears. Often, the dead had to arrange their own passage and cross a body of water, as described in Crossing to Remagen (see below for full text). In other tales, the dead joined a huge throng, processing a great distance on foot (Gratzug). The living were crucial to the well-being of the dead in that they supplied the departed loved one with the clothing, equipment, money or even boat to make the difficult journey. The sound of dead souls disembarking from the shallop in Crossing to Remagen is reminiscent of the footfalls heard when the dead crossed the rainbow in the Edda. That a specific or unusual sound should be equated with death is also a core element in modern near-death experiences (or NED). According to R. Moody in Life after Life, noise or sound is often the first sensory impression of a near-death experience.
In the story of Adalbert the Compatriot (full text below), we find many of the key elements of a modern day near-death experience. According to Dr. Carol Zaleski in Medieval Otherworld Journeys, near death experiences were essential to the early church for proving the existence of life after death and the soul’s immortality. In his Dialogues, Gregory the Great uses near-death experiences to underscore the veracity of church teachings: the afterlife is a real construct, you will be punished for your sins, masses and good works on behalf of the dead are important and each person is called to live a more holy life. (To find out more, read the full web article by Dr. Zaleski Medieval Otherworld Journeys).
As described in many modern accounts of near-death, Adalbert the Compatriot seems to grasp immediately that he is dead. His first experience is described as moving through the air being guided by angels. He is aware of a tunnel or shaft in the center of the earth and he meets spiritual beings who accompany him on his journey. He is given a life review and confronted with the deeds of his life time. He reaches a physical boundary defined by a stinking river and must cross a bridge to enter into the heavenly realm. A guardian angel or messenger of death appears as guide and plays an authoritative role in Adalbert’s new existence. He determines that Adalbert must return to the realm of the living. Adalbert is terrified and does not wish to return. A similar reluctance is often mentioned by survivors of near-death experiences. And like modern-day accounts of near-death, Adalbert’s ordeal transforms him and causes him to make profound changes in his life.
By contrast, the Swiss folktale Path to Paradise is not concerned with proving the notion of an afterlife. Rather, the narrative reads more like a service manual outlining the different stages of death. Unlike a typical near-death experience, the narrator does not seem to know exactly when he dies. But his soul, or something like it, continues to exist even after he has relinquished his body. In this story the Rhone River seems to represent a natural boundary of sorts and crossing it might be understood as a metaphor for dying. The tinsmith's initial guide in the afterlife is a frightening figure with green, bulging frog-eyes but later in the narrative, angelic beings appear. This tale includes elements that are common in many traditions concerning death: attraction to a distant light; the aerial bridge; a crossing; a wild and raging sea/body of water; ultimate calm and serenity in death; a beautiful and joyous garden of paradise; distinct sounds; and perhaps most interestingly, sensory perception including smelling fragances and tasting food. The sensations of eating and smelling described in this tale might suggest that the tinsmith has experienced a physical resurrection. And like Adalbert, there is a sorting out of souls into those deserving and not deserving paradise. Similar to the Grimm’s fairy tale The Shroud, death does not sever the attachment between the dead and their loved ones. The tinsmith wonders how his family is faring and whether they will ever be rejoined in paradise. An ongoing concern of the dead for the living might have provided comfort to the audience of these tales. But The Shroud also includes an ancient pagan notion that likens death to sleep. Only when survivors abandon their grief and release the dead, can their sleep be peaceful The child also carries a candle and like the candles on a birthday cake, fire and light are often used as metaphors for a human being’s life force.
In fairy tales and saga we see changing views about the responsibility of the living toward the dead: instead of conferring practical utensils that will be needed in the afterworld, survivors in medieval literature are encouraged to say masses and perform good works here on earth. And in later tales the living are instructed that the best thing for a survivor is to more or less get on with life. This may have something to do with changing attitudes toward death: from physical journey to spiritual transformation.